Were I a knife aficionado, (of the pen knife, rather than the Crocodile Dundee variety), then I could not have picked a better place to locate myself in France than where I am now, near the town of Nontron.
Because as it turns out, Nontron is home to France’s original folding knife creators, a cutlery making tradition which dates all the way back to 1653.
I’m not exactly a knife aficionado, but sharp pointy objects kindle the inner cave man in me, plus I’m on a roll with seeing traditional French stuff of late, so a visit to the Nontron knife centre, along with a wander around the town streets with my camera, was long overdue.
Nontron is a very pretty French town, although that does seem to be the rule rather than the exception, as explorations of both Brantome and Perigueux have revealed. It is perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the valley of the river Bandiat, and is dotted with churches, bits of castle, crumbly old beam laden properties and a number of rather splendid looking viaducts.
These were all observed carefully. However, the main aim of the day was to find out more about the Nontron knife, and to do that we had to go to the knife centre in town. Of the 39 knife manufacturers active in the region three hundred years ago, this is the sole survivor, and is where today over 65,000 Nontron knives are manufactured annually.
This is a working factory rather than a museum, and it’s a working factory for fairly dangerous pointy things, so there isn’t much getting opportunity for getting up close and personal. Rather, there is a sort of knife makers zoo in operation.
The building, which is free to visit, is on two levels, with the workers busily creating knives on the lower level, and you, the happy watching public, safely ensconced behind thick glass on the level above, able to gaze down at the whole operation.
It’s fascinating stuff, watching these knives being put together by skilled craftsman and naturally it is all accompanied by information panels that tell you a great deal about the process and history of knife making.
From time to time the knife crafters will look up from their work and give you a smile and a nod, making you feel that perhaps you are the ones on display, sent to entertain. Whichever way round it is, it’s a fun experience. And did I mention it’s free to boot?
Nontron also holds an an annual knife festival (who needs bulls eh), where people come from all over the world to peer at shiny pointy things. You don’t hold the title of French knife capital for nothing!
The knife makers go a bit bonkers for this festival, with all kinds of twists on the traditional folding knife being created for display, from the much-larger-than-you-could-fit-in-your-pocket version, right down to the so-small-it-is-made-out-of-a-cherry-stone version. I guess making 65,000 knives a year under the close inspection of the travelling public means that you want to break out of the mould every once in a while.
Beyond knives, as mentioned above, Nontron is lovely for a wander. There is the Jardin des arts, overlooking the Bandiat valley, which combines landscaped garden with artistic creations and a marvellous view of the town. There is the centre for arts and crafts, which displays, you guessed it, both traditional and modern arts and crafts from the region and France as a whole. This being France, there is also a local weekly market, held every Saturday.
And if you’re all crafted out after that, well, as with any French town, there is no shortage of excellent places to stop and grab something to eat or drink! Which was how we finished our tour.
If you’re visiting Nontron, then I can highly recommend a visit to the knife museum, which is open pretty much year round. And for more information about Nontron and attractions in the area, head to the town’s own website, nontron.fr. Enjoy!