As you approach Rochefort on the west coast of France, a sign tells you that 'You are entering Rochefort, seventeenth-century new town'. Quentin Blake, the children's illustrator, laughs every time he passes it. Yes, he says, it is quite true: the town is laid out on a grid principle and was built at the same time as French naval shipbuilding developed on the banks of the River Charente. Many of the original structures are still standing, including his favourite, the Corderie Royale (below), the naval ropewalk - a single-storey stone building, 374m long, similar in function to the rope shed at Chatham but very different in appearance.
Until 10 years ago it was in ruins and parts of the river bank were inaccessible. 'Rochefort itself is on a higher level, 'says Blake, 'so you can look down onto the Corderie, beautifully restored and sensitively adapted.' It houses an ornithological society, a nautical book shop, an art gallery and, in the centre, the Rochefort library where Blake has entertained children.
Blake also enjoys visiting another, very modern, library further up the coast at La Rochelle: the Mediatheque. 'The glass front looks onto the channel and the inner harbour of La Rochelle and what you're conscious of is not so much the architecture as the luminous space.You know you're going into a library, and it's a library where the books are taken seriously, but you are also supposed to enjoy yourself - the spaces tell you that.'