Friday, August 11, 2017

Centenary

A.W.R.Thomas 1917-2010
My father was born on August 11th, 1917. Thinking of him deeply today with love and gratitude. We were estranged for the last few years of his life, but for one final meeting when one hour of connection dissolved all earlier issues. How lucky I was courageous enough to knock on his door that day. It was the last time I saw him, but he is in my heart every day, loved for his strengths and his weaknesses, held in sorrow for his struggles, and remembered in so many moments of my everyday life - all my interests and many of my beliefs derive from the time we shared and the things he taught me, all we discussed and read together and the many walks that bound me formatively to the landscape. Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Zealous walker: St Yves, patron saint of Brittany

Iconography of St Yves - Quimper cathedral
Yves Helory (c1250-1303) was canonized in 1347 after due process in which 225 witnesses testified to miracles achieved in his name. He is the male patron saint of Brittany, his historicity in marked contrast to his female counterpart Ste Anne, a figure from the Apocrypha. No visitor to Brittany's chapels can have failed to observe the iconic image of St Yves, a figure in the garb of an ecclesiatical judge, between a rich man and a poor man, his head usually inclined towards the latter. He had the reputation of favouring the underdog in legal disputes and siding with have-nots, which makes his role as patron saint of lawyers who come from all over the world to his pardon on May 19th each year in Tréguier, a curious one.
St Yves passionately devoted his life to the sick and those living in abject poverty. He gave away all his own possessions and opened the family manor house at Kermartin in Minihy-Tréguier to unfortunates. But it is his physical presence in the landscape of the Trégor that is most memorable. All his formal education in law and theology at Paris and Orleans, his aptitude in French and Latin, did nothing to separate the man from his home territory. As well as his duties at the cathedral of St Tugdual in Tréguier, he was rector of Trédrez and Louannec. Sometimes he preached in seven different churches on a Sunday, walking many miles between them. He was said to take little rest or food on these excursions, leaving in the early morning and returning home exhausted late at night. Certain rocks along the routes he walked are dubbed the bed or pillow of St Yves, emphasising his rejection of comfort and luxury whilst so many suffered hardships of penury.
'Pillow' of St Yves - Trédrez
The indefatigable walking was part of his method and his commitment to God. It was a way of interacting with the peasants in the fields or workers in the forests and travellers on the road (as two women attested after his death). He always stopped to speak and make contact with those he passed, seizing these opportunities to spread the word of God. By all accounts his actual sermons - no texts survive - were highly emotional, tears figuring alongside examples from the lives of saints.
Before the violent mayhem of the Wars of Succession that ravaged the greater part of Brittany from the mid 14th century, it was apparently possible to walk without fear along the paths of the Trégor. From Trédrez in the west to the area of Goelo and the Abbaye de Beauport in the east, many legends of association in the landscape have grown up around the journeys of St Yves and the powerful image of this slight figure walking his way into sainthood.
St Yves - Tréguier cathedral
To be continued...

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Tuchenn Gador

Took my first proper walk today, leaving early this morning to hike up the eastern approach to Tuchenn Gador before the sun drove away a light grey mist. The path mounts through a little cluster of conifers, several bare skeletons the destructive result of serving as roosts for the million starlings that perform their evening dances in a dark cloud over the hills here each autumn.
Once out onto the open heath, a wind invariably slices across from the north-west, rippling the molinia, or moor grass. A rough track rises steadily towards the first rock-outcrop, where I scramble up remarkably easily, as if my legs are acting from memory rather than my current weakness. On the plateau the views are superb: the reservoir gleaming silver, heather-purpled ridges, Mont St Michel de Brasparts with its iconic chapel on the summit.
A deep happiness fills my heart as I approach the rocks themselves, riven by shards of quartz that glisten as the first sun pushes out from the clouds. The formation is natural, an eroded carcase of this once great mountain chain. It resembles a craggy throne, hence the name 'Mound of the chair', although 18th century French map-makers made head nor tail of the Breton tuchenn and settled for Toussaines instead..........

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

New start

Home at last after weeks of recuperation in beautiful Roscoff, helped by wonderful people at the Maison St Luc facility. Now it is time to stop being an ill person and make a new start. I feel ambivalent about writing projects but it is probably too soon to take big decisions about significant changes. One thing I've been thinking about is how, for some of us, there is a remarkable sense of serenity to be had from wildness, whether of inner or outer landscape. What troubles others with a lack of definition or human control, calms me beyond anything else. The sight of the unusually green summer coating of the Monts d'Arrée softening their sharp edges smoothes my rumpled spirit. I know I can feel whole again in the embrace of those teeming spaces.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Lost month

My month of May passed in shock, sickness and the slow-motion of watching the self from another place. After collapsing in the forest when out with my dog – who incidentally probably saved my life by licking my face until I recovered consciousness - I was diagnosed with heart problems, taken into intensive care for an operation and eventually sent home for the beginning of a long recuperation which will include weeks in a special centre in Roscoff. I don't have the results of the latest tests yet, I don't have the strength to do more than stroll a few hundred metres with a companion, I no longer breathe easily and I can't face visitors. I don't work or drive, and cling obstinately to this shrunken world. Alongside this torpor, there is a strong element of unreality and separation, a sense of observing the struggles of someone else. To be inactive, fearful and mentally unfit is so alien to who I have always been. Now what, I wonder constantly. My personal landscape is destroyed.
Out of the many upheavals and changes that have ensued from one sunny Saturday afternoon, the worst is knowing that I will never again set off light-heartedly for a walk in the forest.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Beltane walk

I went out early this morning, into the sweet air and deep hush of the forest, broken only by  falls of water and the happiness of birds in their paradise. Rays weres already slanting through the branches, making wet moss shimmer on the bark. Huge granite boulders darkened by yesterday's deluge took on the colour of slate and perspired gently under the warmth of the sun. I smelt the fresh beech leaves and touched little ruddy curls of oak as yet unfolded, and knew I belonged.
It is a particular combination of the basic elements, earth, air, fire and water that turns a stroll into a walking meditation, drawing one into the frame, actual part of the picture and no longer an observer. How wonderful that this Beltane morning should be such a time
On reaching home I went into my study at once to write these few lines, primarily for my own souvenir of a reviving sabbat experience. And as I write now, chill rain is slicing across the window pane and the cathedral of trees opposite my house toss savagely in what must be tornado remnants. It's a different day. I am equally thankful for both.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Ile Grande - seeing things for what they are

I recently visited Ile Grande off the coast of Cotes d'Armor, although not really an island as joined by a bridge over the tiny separation from the mainland. It is very built-up in the centre, but the 7km coastpath offers a touch of wild landscape and great views, like the Ile Aval, Apple Island, the Breton Avalon. Ile Grande was once one of the most important sources of granite in Brittany and the largest coastal extraction site. The much-prized building stone was used from the 14th century onwards in works like the magnificent cathedral of Tréguier and, later, the famous viaduct of Morlaix. The heyday of quarrying was in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the island and the surrounding uninhabited islets were exploited by more than a hundred quarrymen. A modern sculpture honours the profession of stone-cutters.
When I walked from the harbour of St-Sauveur northwards, at low tide, I was soon presented with a gleaming stony promontory and slightly puzzled to see what appeared (without my glasses on) to be a ruined chapel, clearly outlined against the bright blue sky. Nowhere had I heard of or read about such remains on Ile Grande, but my immediate instinct was to walk out there to experience the remote spot that had once attracted holy men. My spirit of place hat still sits firmly on my head. It is of course a form of romanticism to be irresistibly attracted to long dead churches, abbeys and chapels, to feel the motivation of their founders in the landscape and align oneself with the simplistic concept of an isolated primitive life.
I did not have to walk far before before realizing that it was no chapel, and after clambering over rocks and then following the beach to reach the site, the remains were obviously dwellings of some kind - houses of quarry-workers was a reasonable assumption. I sat there for some time, thinking about my own reactions and whether I would have set off along the peninsula on a very hot day when I was already tired and keen to finish my excursion if I had seen or known that the ruins were housing. Is that too prosaic a purpose? Why should one be prompted by one assumption and not the other? The longer I stayed there the more I realised that the quarry-workers would have been far more in harmony with the landscape and known its every nuance rather better than a cell of monks fasting and praying away.
In fact later research revealed that the buildings were seaweed-gatherers cottages originally, then used as shelters during the main quarrying period and later converted into a youth hostel, which was destroyed by German target practice during WWII....