Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Downhill all the way

Very frustrating day checking out a walk for the new book: a walk that turned out to be useless. It looked good on paper, starting at a ruined church on the bank of a beautiful river, then climbing to a hill-top with long views. This was all fine, but the bit of road walking which followed turned out to be past not what looked on the map like small farms but in reality were enormous intensive complexes. Then a long section through a stream valley and extensive woods began and turned into a nightmare of confusing paths, flooded stream-beds and scrappy overgrown scrubland with no mature trees and no views whatsoever.
A strange and unpleasant sense of claustrophobia set in as hours passed in attempts to reconcile the two maps I had with what was on the ground and actually to get out of this dense part of the route to breathe freely again in the outside world. In desperation I made a long, very steep scramble up a hillside and finally got a limited view to orientate myself back to the start point, abandoning any hope of creating a circuit. Even with a good map and good directions there would always be elements of uncertainty and disorientation on this cursed route and that's not what people want when they buy a book to be sure of good walks. So a day is gone for nothing and another walking day has to be scheduled at a time when I'm already overstretched with commitments. But a friend reminds me it comes with the job and that it's the whole point: I must waste my time so others don't. OK then, but I'm not going to smile about it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Coastal unseens

Lesconil
Texts for my exhibition in October are moving along now, with Moor, Forest and River pretty much finished, and I'm starting to concentrate on a piece to be called Coastal Scenes. Fortuitously, I had planned to take a friend to the coast this week for her birthday treat, staying in a hotel just above the beach at the Baie des Trépassées in the far west. Our first day, after a visit to the allée couverte at Lesconil, we arrived in a thick Atlantic mist, the mass of surfers suddenly bursting into view on the shore as if from nowhere. We decided to walk the 3km to the Pointe du Raz along an undulating coast path, despite the lacks of views, the fact it was already 5 o'clock and that I was limping after quite a bad fall on rocks at the Moulin de Keriolet earlier in the afternoon. We could hardly see the water at all, and arriving at the huge, hideous statue of Our Lady on the point, had no visual sense whatever of being anywhere near the sea, whilst just below us churned one of the most dramatic and malevolent straits in Europe - an unusual perspective on the nature of coast.
Hotel
Day Two began in heavy rain but we made a slow start and arrived at the Pointe du Van to clearer, drier skies and were able to have a good walk, with views towards the Iron Age éperon barré of Castelmeur. This was followed by coffee in Audierne and a (for me, yet another) visit to Menez Dregan, where the paleolithic cave was still fully uncovered and much more visible than on my last trip a couple of weeks ago. We sat for a long time on a bench further down the coast just gazing at the sea before the long drive home. Although at no point was I consciously thinking about my text, I found myself quite unable to sleep last night, despite being physically exhausted, and several times had to leap out of bed and rush to my desk to make notes, a process that felt at the time not unlike rushing to the bathroom to be sick in the night.
Coastal seen

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Canal again

Several things have brought me back to the Nantes-Brest Canal lately, a construction I wrote two books and several articles about quite a few years ago and a territory that once so often mirrored my inner landscape. In clearing out some old CDs I found a copy of the French TV programme in which I appear tallking about the canal. French people sometimes recognise me from that production but I've never actually seen it before, so it was strange to watch my self of eight years ago, so familiar and yet so long gone.
More practically, I'm doing a feature on the canal in Finistère for the new walking book, and yesterday went out to rewalk one of my favourite circuits at Pont Coblant, which includes a 4km stretch of the beautiful Aulne river (a bit insulting to call it a canal here) in countryside far removed from roads and noise of any kind. The inland section goes over a hill to give great long views, particularly towards Karreg an Tan, the Fire Rock, which will also be in the book.
The canal does not start in Nantes, nor end in Brest, but its original military prupose was to link the two naval bases (and Lorient via the Blavet canal south from Pontivy) and provide a secure inland route at a time when Napoléon was frustrated by English naval supremacy and the resulting blockades of Breton ports. Most the 365km length is made up of beautiful rivers - the Oust, the Blavet and the Aulne being the most remarkable - with artifical sections cut and ladders of locks built to cross the hills between their valleys. It was only fully open long after Napoléon's time and became used mainly for the transport by barge of materials like stone, slate, wood and sand. The railway soon became quicker and more economical, with a better organised infrastructure of depots and loading facilities. Great leisure resource though the canal undoubtedly is these days it was always something of an economic white elephant.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A load of stones

At Menez Dregan today, doing a leisurely circular walk for the new book to take in the magnificent prehistoric site on top of the Pointe du Souc'h. I mention the point because a two-handled rounded pottery vase discovered here in the late 19th century gave the name vase du souc'h to that style of find. The various tombs discovered are the result of nine phases of development of the site during the Neolithic period. Recent reconstruction work has given an indication of the original cairn covering which enclosed the dolmens.
Just down the road is the enormous allée couverte of Pors Poulhan, a remarkable revival after the Germans blew it up in 1942 as an obstruction to their view of the coast. It was still possible to excavate in the mid 1980s and turn up weapons, tools and jewellery showing usage as a burial site from 6000BC onwards.
As if this wasn't enough, below the Pointe du Souc'h a paleolithic cave-dwelling from 465,000BC is today carefully protected by a coating of metal plates, its roof having long since collapsed. Here evidence of created hearths, the oldest in Europe, has been found. I was fortunate to be there today at the moment when a team of helmeted workers began uncovering the site, perhaps in preparation for events taking place this week as part of Rencontres Prehistoriques de Bretagne.
I first visited Menez Dregan many years ago alone, and again in 2007 with the departmental archaeologist Michel Le Goffic explaining the excavations in great detail. Since those times much has changed, from reconstruction work to a smart new visitor centre, large information panels and landscape gardening. There's not much left to the imagination these days and no room at all for any sense of awe. I certainly had that when it was just a load of stones on a headland. Maybe a question of can't see the stones for the words.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

River


St Mawes castle
I've been in Cornwall, thinking about rivers and enjoying some trips on the Fal, downriver from Truro and up river from Falmouth, the latter thanks to Alison and John and their little yellow boat. I wanted to see some of the territory from Philip Payton's Rising Ground on the spirit of place, but the book never really came alive for me as it seems more about people than place, apart from a few memorable straight descriptions. I think there is still a significant gap between landscape history and accessing a spirit of place.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Nantes, the siren city

Working in Nantes at the weekend, in sweltering heat. Managed to take a look at some of the Voyage art installations that I've missed in previous visits and as ever enjoyed the sheer blooming vitality of this ever-changing city. It is a place of the present, and light in atmosphere, despite a weighty and dubious historical heritage of wealth based on the slave trade. It would be very hard to be miserable in Nantes...
Wit and ideas, an irresistible combination, which makes walking the city streets a real experience and brings the urban landscape into a sharper focus than when it stands alone. There's an infinity more to Nantes than the famous big mechanical Elephant on the Ile de Nantes, perhaps the difference between tourism and enhancement.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Devil always in the detail

Recently spent a few days walking near the south coast of Finistere, checking routes for the new book. My first stop in a grey early morning was at the Roches du Diable near Locunolé. These rocks form a granite chaos in the bed of the Ellé through a low wooded gorge. After passing along the bank on a level with the spectacle, I followed a long circuit to arrive high up on the opposite bank looking down.
There is of course a legend. The Devil was jealous of the success of St Guenolé in converting the locals and determined to be rid of his rival. As the saint walked by the river in contemplation, rocks rained down on his head, but, by the grace of God, fell harmlessly into the water. A great hand to hand fight then ensued between the two adversaries and Guenolé hauled the Devil down into the river where to this day a bottomless hole lies beneath the waters.
So the landscape was claimed by the church, here as so often elsewhere. The legend does more than trumpet a moral victory over evil: it is a statement of power and possession, the superiority of God to the powers of nature once worshipped by man, an ever-lasting reminder before the eyes of the locals of the supposed might that backs up the earthly dominion of the church.