Wednesday, January 04, 2017

New book

My new book is out (in English) next week, with a launch at The Bookshop, Huelgoat, on the 14th and 15th January, 2.30-4pm. The French translation will have its first airing at the Salon du Livre, Le Cloitre St Thegonnec in February.

 This book looks at the character and personality of certain ‘little landscapes’ in western Brittany, considering what sets them apart from their surroundings. Some, like the extraordinary megalithic cairn at Barnenez are well-known, others like the Chaos de Mardoul are well off the beaten track. Emotional links with place are also explored, as well as general themes of relating to the environment and the possibility of seeing into nature beyond accepted notions of beauty and cultural filters. Topics include the nature of ruins, sacred geography and the sense of belonging to the land. ‘Place writing’ and personal connection combine to express some fundamentals of intimacy with landscape.

Eleven doorways, eleven passages and eleven burial chambers: a terrace of dead neighbours, a defunct community echoing the values and social continuity of its creators. It is also an abiding memorial, although those responsible could scarcely have anticipated the endurance of their project. The cairn of Barnenez changed the colour of the landscape.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


HAPPY NEW YEAR from St Pol de Léon to all friends and followers. My new book Spirit of Place in Finistère is out in English on January 14th, with French edition following in February. Thanks for all the support over the last year. Concentrating now on the Tro Breiz and a new fiction project.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Being outside

Being outside. Those words have defined my life for good and ill. They reflect my preference for place over people and the resulting separateness. As a child it was a physical longing, more than that, a necessity to be out of doors, away from the cage that family life often formed. The sense of liberation and free choice is intimately connected for me with open space, with air and sky. I have come to see my definition and sense of identity in a connection with landscape. Place before people, expansion before confinement. I don’t function well within physical limits.

Looking back, my life is speckled with moments of profound identification with my environment, and the course of my own career and development has been an irresistible, if wavy, line drawing me along the pathway of freedom and belonging. The journey began in Gloucestershire, found meaning in leaving that manicured terrain far behind, was inspired by the Brecon Beacons, and matured in the south Wales of my parental roots. It floundered in the relentless urbanity of London and revived in the relenting rurality of Somerset. There I began to understand the nature of spiritual pilgrimage and the value of landscape in life. My wayfaring has been equally fired by the Tatra mountains of southern Poland and the misty sweep of Exmoor,before being finally fixed in the granite of Brittany, where the moment of arrival was an awakening.
Here's to being outside in 2017...

Monday, December 12, 2016


Walking is our most natural pace. The moderate speed allows us to gain the greatest appreciation of what we pass. Early man needed to assess signs and sounds of danger and to spy out sources of food and water, all of which required a level of examination of the terrain he passed through that can only be achieved by pacing or striding. Jogging and running, cycling and horseback riding separate us from the detail of landscape by speed or height. By those methods we notice less: screeds of bluebells but not the first violets; a beautiful old stone wall but not the little heads of stoats peeping out of the cracks; a fish jumping from the river but not the tracks of otters on the bank. The detail needs time and deliberate searching by eye, and it’s the detail that raises the level of experience and a sense of connection with the other inhabitants of the earth as well as nature’s manifests.
The same is true of walking in an urban environment. We need our senses to be alert but also our movement to be slow enough to separate a blur of buildings or a flash of green space. Driving through a town in a car or riding a bike requires attention to be focused on the travel itself for safety. Stopping and starting may provide moments of observation but these are hardly leisured and the flow of traffic usually dictates the pace of passage. It’s possible to admire a street of medieval half-timbered houses, to get a sense of historic atmosphere through glimpses of architecture, but you have to walk to access the minutiae of decorative art. You also have to walk to appreciate fully the development of settlement patterns, the relationship between older and newer elements, the changing demands of society in an urban environment.
The complexity of landscape we have created can only be appreciated through the simplest of movements.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Association des Ecrivains bretons

Parish Close at St-Thegonnec
Today was the AGM of my writers' association in Brittany, held this year in Finistère and not too far from me at Luzec and St Thegonnec. The cultural centre at Luzec, founded and run by sociologist and writer Anne Guillou, was one of the first stimulating places I ever discovered in Brittany, offering historical lectures through the winter on Sunday afternoons, and outings in the summer. Anne herself has been something of an inspiration to me in following my own path, and given me good advice and help on various occasions over the years.
The AGM was run by our President, Michel Priziac, a tireless worker for the interests of writers and a prolific author himself, place-names and the historical associations of places being two of his specialities. He has done a great deal to promote the association and encourage writers to make the best of their talents in recent years. Other members of the committee also give their time freely to perform the many administrative and organizational tasks required to keep a large association not only ticking over, but constantly exploring new avenues of interest to members.
After lunch and more feedback on the year's events, prizes, awards, future plans, etc. we drove the short distance to St Thegonnec for a guided tour of the famous Parish Close. I bring many groups and individuals here myself, so it was rather enjoyable to visit without responsiblity and to benefit from Anne Guillou's exceptional local knowledge.
I could not stay for drinks with the mayor, kindly offered to the Association by the commune - or rather the new commune, as St Thegonnec has just amalgamated with Loc-Eguiner-St-Thegonnec. I came away once again with an invigorating sense of the extraordinary vitality of associations in Brittany and the passionate commitment to heritage and tradition so prevalent here, as well as the pleasure of meeting up once more with fellow-writer-friends.
Anne Guillou's guided tour

Sunday, October 16, 2016

TRO BREIZ – a last long walk


 I am thinking of walking the Tro Breiz next year. It would need to be in stages, as the entire route tops 600km and would definitely be my last long distance walk. Let’s see how my fitness stands at the end of 2016 before the big decision.
The Tro Breiz pilgrimage connects the seven cathedrals associated with the seven founding saints of Brittany: ‘founding' because they represented the initial wave of proselytising Christianity which took hold of Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries. Indeed this was the time when Brittany itself came into being in an embryonic state, as migrants from the British Isles arrived to start new lives, mingling their language with that of the indigenous population.

The name Brittany of course means 'little Britain'. Five of the seven saints were probably of Welsh origin, only two being natives of the Armorican peninsula (Amorica was the Roman name for NW France), perhaps sons of immigrant parents. The cathedrals later associated with the seven – and in order of the route I’ll maybe take - are St-Pol-de-Léon (St Pol), Tréguier (St Tugdual), St Brieuc (St Brieuc), St Malo (St Malo), Dol-de-Bretagne (St Samson), Vannes (St Patern) and Quimper (St Corentin).

There is evidence that this ‘Breton journey’ was a genuine medieval pilgrimage route, an undertaking of serious commitment to be achieved once in a lifetime to be that much more secure of a heavenly future. Although the actual paths are mostly lost, old Roman roads, still major highways in later periods, certainly formed important links: for example, we know that a pilgrim from Morlaix took the 'Roman road nearest the shore' on his way to Dol. Another Roman road connecting Vannes and Quimper must also have been part of the chain. There are many place-names containing references to pilgrims (although these may just as likely refer to those on the Compostela trail), such as Le Champ du Pèlerins and La Fontaine-aux-Pèlerins. Some see an allusion to the 'Green route of Hope'(= salvation, by completing this journey) in names like Le Chemin-Vert and Les-Croix-Vertes. The study of toponyms is so often not a conclusive investigation. Another approach to establishing the ancient ways involves looking at where pilgrims would have stayed along their route. Abbeys and establishments of the Knights of St-John, such as that at La Feuillée, made natural stopping-places for travellers anxious about security. And certain chapels and fontaines along routes between the great cathedrals are known to have been focal points for spiritual travellers on the Tro Breiz: for example, La Trinité near Melgven.
I have often written and publicly spoken about these saints, I know the seven cathedrals well and have walked many miles of the paths used for the contemporary version of the Tro Breiz, recreated by the hard work and dedication of an association based in St-Pol-de-Léon. But the idea of one last great big walk with ancient connections, full of modern logistics, drenched in beautiful Breton coast and country, doubtless spiritually uplifting even to an old animist like me is almost irresistible, despite the inevitable physical trial it will also provide. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Away and home

Coming home
I've been away in London for much of September, an enjoyably rich and emotionally satisying time which is already reduced in my mind to its essentials:  great food (in great amounts) and even greater friends. Nevertheless, the sight of the Breton coast in a glorious dawn over St Malo always raises the heartbeat as home grows closer and by the time the train rattles westward out of Rennes, I am mentally salivating in anticipation. Within an hour of reaching the longed-for destination, I am out in the forest, feeling a familiar blanket of peace and calm settle on my shoulders, smoothing out the last London frazzles, and bringing me back to the fulfilment of here and now.
Since then I have been working, and having fun, as a guide to American tour operator, Mindie Burgoyne, ( and her husband Dan. We have packed the last two days with visiting natural wonders in the forest, megaliths on the moors and elsewhere, and churches demonstrating the complexity of religion in Brittany, where paganism is never far from Christianity.
Enclos at Guimiiliau
Now I must get back work and finish my book on the Little Landscapes of Finistere before returning, after a ten year break, to fiction.