Saturday, December 07, 2019

Wayfaring update

Really pushing myself to finish the draft of Wayfaring in Little Britain before the end of the year. I have one more field trip around Christmas and then a scramble to write up the final chapter in some coherent fashion. Otherwise all that's left, which I'm working on now, is text about imaginary and symbolic journeys, so important in Breton culture, and the idea of the landscape imbued with legend and metaphor should lead nicely into my actual journeys. It's a strange feeling to see this elusive book finally looking like a manuscript after three years of stop/start, illness and frustrations. I am grateful to all those who ask me rather nervously from time to time about progress. It's not quite as I envisaged at first, but the narrative shape that has developed organically seems a good one, true to experience and representative of all I have left to say on the history and landscape of Brittany. Next year, back to fiction!

Thursday, November 07, 2019


About to cross the bridge and enter the round doorway of the Prefecture
Eighteen months after becoming a French citizen, I finally got to have a ceremony to celebrate the event. Last year I was not invited even though some of these ritual affairs were held and reported in the press. The Prefecture at Quimper failed to answer any of my messages. When I went there to ask directly why I had been overlooked, I was basically told to go and queue up with the foreigners awaiting visas, cartes de sejour, etc., which I declined to do on the grounds I was already a citizen. It seeemed like a matter of principle at the time, in the face of rude dismissiveness from the 'Welcome' staff.
After mulling for a long time over whether this really mattered and deciding it did, finally I wrote to Président Macron - this is easy to do through the Elysée Palace website - and asked for his help. His office replied to me within a week and soon after, lo and behold, I received a letter from Quimper assuring me I would be on the list for the next ceremony. It is a pity that it takes the Président of the Republic to make an administrator in Quimper do their job correctly and politely.
So it happened this week, a grand official occasion, admirably presided over by Aurelien Adam, the new Directeur de Cabinet du Préfet, who was excellent in every way. I was quite moved by his words and the sense of significance he managed to convey. I even had a few personal words with him later on as we both left the building at the same time. There were many people there, more than 150 including those receiving the official decree of citizenship and their family and friends. I really enjoyed seeing some of the palatial rooms of the Prefecture, and singing the Marseillais with a large group of many nationalities of all ages, united by our Frenchness. The only time I heard a language other than French was when two British people saw fit to speak loudly in English just before the ceremony began. I edged as far away from them as I could get.
Monsieur le maire me soutient
I was delighted that the mayor of my commune, Benoit Michel, took the trouble to come all the way to Quimper to support me and share a celebratory drink afterwards. It really added something to the day. At last I have my decree and various texts of edifying Republican values to ponder. Despite having had an ID card and a French passport for a long time, the process now feels complete and I really do feel French. And I say both Vive La France and Vive La Bretagne.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Twelve today

On the beach at Pentrez this birthday morning - Tex in good form.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

St Gildas

I have been around the Gulf of Morbihan on the trail of St Gildas. It's the first time of seeing the wonderful 11th century abbey church at St-Gildas-de-Rhuys since a large-scale restoration project. (You could say the original was a bit of a renovation job after the earliest abbey was destroyed by the Vikings in the early 10th century.) It certainly looks cleaner, positively glowing under the autumn sunshine.
Inside, the Romanesque apse and ambulatory are remarkable survivals, although the so-called tomb of the saint is just an unmarked lump of stone with a bland modern statue. The tombstones of Breton nobility around the walls of the nave are more substantial. This part of the church was restored after the bell-tower fell onto it in the mid 17th century.
From the coast just below the village there are views across to the islands of Houat and Hoedic. Gildas initially made landfall on Houat when arriving in Armorica, and returned there for his final years after running the new abbey on the mainland. After another day around Quiberon I was all set to get out there and see the valley setting of his former chapel, but some serious weather intervened and all boats were cancelled. Another trip then....

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Taking stock

Menhir de Champ Dolent, Dol-de-Bretagne
After my annual long visit to Combourg, where I have been based to complete a chapter called the Devil's trajectory around Dol-de-Bretagne, it's time to take stock of the year's work and my progress along a very decided path for 2019. I arrived home to find author's copies of my little saints' guide  waiting - one objective achieved and a pleasing result of a great deal of effort. Much of the research was done for another saints' project last year, but trying to sift a mass of material for meaningful synopsis is not easy, and to convey complex issues in compact form is a veritable skill. Introduction to the Breton Saints forms a third volume in the series that began with guides to Huelgoat and the Monts d'Arrée, a format that has been much appreciated by very many people. There may well be a fourth topic in 2020, given the success so far.
As to the main purpose of my year, the completion of Wayfaring in Little Britain, the journey is far from finished, although I have made significant progress lately. This is the third year of trying: thwarted by serous illness for the last two, I am finding the physical demands of travel, walking and research extremely hard to cope with, but am determined to finish the manuscript by the end of the year, even though the last bit of route coverage is not scheduled until December 26th! With the encouragement of the few readers who have glimpsed the content of this elusive book, this theme of hard-won achievement has crept into the text - quite a change for me to write personally, but it perhaps it is time to be honest about the demands of walking and searching against a backdrop of pain and difficulty. Most people writing about history in the context of landscape are serious walkers covering 30-odd kilometres a day without too much trouble. That has never been the case for me, but I hope there is equal merit in a book constructed around hardship, where a day's walking for a healthier person may turn into two or even three for me on occasion and where considerably more logistical planning is needed.
St Samson's mitre, Mont Dol
I hope it can be done. The themes of journeys and different types of walking from neolithic ritual through Roman roads to saints' stories and medieval pilgrimage are fundamental to the discovery of Brittany's landscape and history. It will be a final summary of all my painstaking work in this field over many years, as next year is to be devoted to something rather different...
Start of the Devil's trajectory on Mont Dol

Monday, September 09, 2019


Alignements du Moulin
I have been in Ille-et-Vilaine, revisting the exceptional megalithic site at St-Just, which will figure in my new book Wayfaring in Little Britain. Here a walking trail leads out along the Landes de Cojoux with alignments, standing-stones, tumuli and graves all around for more than two kilometres. The site has been tamed and organised since my last visit to a lonely open plateau which then had little restriction for movement among the stones. It was also a forlorn sight at that time, just days after a major moorland fire had left the scars of burning everywhere, vegetation reduced to ashes and acridity filling the air. Now in late summer there was plenty of plant colour and clean quartz to gleam in the hot sun.
Le Tribunal
The monuments that I return to again and again are the Alignements du Moulin and the so-called Tribunal, the latter mooted as a stone age calendar, but named for its appearance of a row of judges and the accused. The 12 menhirs of the alignment, made of schist and organised east/west, are like people in their individual shapes, character and relative placings - a family photo covering the generations. Funerary remains found on excavation date to about 4700BC: the standing-stones came later. The function of the stones themselves or their role within the overall structuring of the whole complex is impossible to say. They appear to be on course to meet at a point with the line of chubbier quartz stones to the north. A further north/south line is suggested by a few remaining small stones.
What is so extraordinary about this site is the constant unfolding of remains, the accumulation of death, here, there and everywhere around the main path which forges across the open centre of the plateau. The loftiness of the location was obviously significant, and its dramatic end, abruptly above the valley of the river Canut and the Etang du Val.
Chateau Bu
On reaching the pinnacle at the Chateau Bu, with its neolithic burial in lateral chambers and later Bronze Age graves and guardian pillars, it is hard to imagine anything better, but huge complexes of inter-related monuments like the Croix St Pierre arrangements await. The place, even over its significant length, has a clearer sense of unity than Carnac, for example, and is to me much more compelling. The main practical advantage is that there are rarely other people to share the scene outside weekends and holidays. This sense of aloneness amidst serial funerary architecture from nearly seven thousand years ago offers a powerful experience and it was a strangely emotional one this time.
After a few days away, I made a slow journey back, stopping off to see if the megalithic site at Monteneuf in Morbihan had changed much over the years. It has, whether for the better or not is hard to say.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Roman site

Yesterday I was in Locuon, looking at the Roman (and probably earlier) quarry which provided stone not only for the locality, but for the new town established at Carhaix, 27km away, in the 1st century AD. A Roman road from Vannes passed near the site, facilitating transport of stone blocks, and excavations of this track found parts had been paved in the same material. The sheer rock faces are like living walls, ferns burgeoning in the damp green light of the pits. The whole site has a subterranean feel as the trees close in overhead creating a sensation of being underneath a porous layer. Soft and crumbly to the touch, Locuon granite is a light grey/white in hue and smooth in texture, giving it almost the appearance of marble.

The approach is down a monumental staircase, thanks to the sacralisation of the site, with a chapel, Madonna in a niche on the quarry wall, fontaine and lavoir on a lower level. The current chapel is 17th century and shows off the potential of the building stone, but there were certainly earlier versions, as a line of probable roof support holes in the cliff behind indicates. This granite wall also includes a carved face and cross motif. Facing the statue of the Virgin Mary is the headless statue of a pagan goddess, fixed to the bottom of the staircase parapet.
Descending to a lower level of the quarry, a spring pours out of a sculpted surround in the rock and the water is carried via a slate enclosed channel to the washing basin. Here is the first of a group of contemporary art pieces, a rather dog-like curled wolf on a platform raised above the water. Pushing further into the dells of the quarry, there are rocks incised with criss-cross pattern and, more impressively, a 'boulder' held in the thin branches of a tree. This was actually made in situ by Yuhsin U Chang, from wool over a wooden frame.
After a lengthy site inspection, I set off for a few kilometres on the former Roman road.