Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I worked with the Domaine de Trévarez again this year, translating texts for their new exhibitions, and made a visit yesterday with my friend Jeanne to see the artistic creations in the flesh and to enjoy the gardens - plenty of colour already in evidence - in superb spring weather.
We had a good walk all round and then tea and cake in the courtyard café area. Brought back memories of working for the National Trust at Stourhead.

Friday, April 11, 2014

AIKB trip

Pebble factory
Rochers at St-Guenolé
A pleasure as ever to give a tour for the AIKB today, this time in Pays Bigouden, the south-western tip of Brittany. We started at Tronoen with one of the earliest calvaires in the region, before a visit to the remains of the WWII factory where Germans ground down pebbles from the natural sea defences of the Baie d'Audierne to use in the building of their Atlantic Wall structures. We had a picnic lunch and stroll on the beach Porz Carn, opposite the pre-history museum's outdoor exhibits, before continuing to the Rochers de St-Guenolé, a noted danger spot on this flat coast subject to mighty waves at high tides. In 1870 the family of the Prefect of Finstère were washed away as they picnicked here. We weren't.
The lethal lower rocks all around the nearby Pointe de Penmarc'h featured in Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, and we finished up beside them at the magnificent Phare Eckmuhl, built at the end of the 19th century to mitigate the threats this treacherous coast poses to passing shipping. Lovely warm, sunny day to enjoy this unusual area, which features in the Coast chapter of my forthcoming book: Brittany, a cultural history.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lac St-Michel and the Yeun Elez

Yesterday I walked the 15km round Lac St-Michel for a GPS trace to ensure accurate maps for my Monts d'Arrée booklet, which is nearly finished. The drawback of this circuit was always a long stretch of tedious road-walking around the nuclear power-station at the Brennilis end, but this was re-worked last year to give scenic footpaths instead right by the lake and behind the barrage at Nestavel. I needed to check exactly how this all worked on the ground, and the route is indeed immeasurably improved.
The advantage of this circuit is the almost flat level of the whole thing, offering a long walk to those whose knees may not appreciate the usual very up and down Breton terrain. There are also great views of all the highest hills in Brittany, without the need to climb them. Crossing the Yeun Elez, often on wooden walkways, gives a close experience of the peaty tourbières characteristic of this area, in contrast with the upper heaths or landes. Here you are crossing the cradle of Breton legend as well as a distinctive landscape.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Talich quartet in Quimper

I first went to hear the original Talich quartet in London at the Wigmore Hall about 30 years ago. The dense power, lightness of touch and liquidity that were so impressive then were equally evident yesterday afternoon in Quimper, when the current line-up, including a member of the original family,  performed Schubert's Death and the Maiden and their speciality, Dvorak, (Quartet No.10) at the Theatre de Cornouaille. This was a Sunday 'chocolate concert' with hot chocolate to drink and handmade chocolates to sample before the show. And what a show it was. We were sitting in the balcony, a perfect vantage point for every bowing, facial expression and bald spot. It was magnificent, and a packed theatre would have sat for many more than the three encores we got. This morning I unearthed my recording of the Talich playing Dvorak quartets and quintettes and it is playing as I write. Moving, exciting and so evocative of my long love-affair with eastern Europe and time spent there.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Coming soon - my two new books

provisional cover
Thanks to all who have enquired about a follow-up to the much appreciated little tourist book I did on Huelgoat last year. In exactly the same format and to be published in separate English and French editions is 'The Monts d'Arrée.' Same kind of thing - sights including villages, nature trails and local museums, history, legends and walking maps, plus a glossary of Breton place-names. I am told it will be out in May.
On the other hand I don't have a firm publication date from Signal Books for 'Brittany: a cultural history,' but it is being edited at the moment and I've just seen the cover for the first time, so things are happening over there in Oxford.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A change of scene

Just spent a few days in eastern Brittany, part research, part pleasure of revisting some old much-loved haunts. On the way out stopped at Bécherel, the little town of books à la Hay-on-Wye, then continued into Ille-et-Vilaine to stay in the same fantastic accommodation as last September (thank you, Lionel and Maryne -, which is certainly the best such place I know of in Brittany. Five minutes away is the beautiful small town of Combourg with its chateau immortalised in the works of French writer Chateaubriand, who spent part of his childhood there. I am currently writing a text about both man and place, so it was great to be back walking the grounds where he famously 'created' the state of ennui in his teenage angst years.
The French friend I was with had not visited this area before so we did some sights, including the Menhir de Champ Dolent. I have been pretty underwhelmed by Dol-de-Bretagne's treatment of tourists and distortion of history on many previous visits, but yet another example can be seen at this famous menhir, one of the best known in Brittany and a feature of various TV films needing a bit of mysterious atmosphere. The new noticeboard is a jokey cartoon of the legendary origin of the menhir - no information whatsoever about the actual historical date and context of the stone, but only a silly story drawn in (dated) comic book style. What a pathetic service to offer visitors! Apparently no-one is capable of understanding or appreciating anything unless it is whimsical and trivial. Dol must be the dumbed-down capital of Brittany.
Otherwise we went to Cancale for my friend to eat those renowned local oysters but failed to see the sea despite lunching in a cliff-top restaurant at the Pointe du Grouin - a heavy mist lay over the NE corner of Brittany throughout the day and very little was visible. Went up Mont Dol to see the Devil's footprints anyway.
Statue of Chateaubriand below the chateau

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Tuchenn Gador

Out early onto the moors this morning in glorious weather, all around the summit of Tuchenn Gador. This is topped by a natural rock formation (not a megalith, although many climb all the way up in hope) of schist and quartzite, hence the sparkles in the surface. Thanks to the mishearing or misunderstanding or sheer carelessness of an 18th century French map-maker who neither knew nor cared about the Breton language, it is often marked Tousaines (All saints) on maps to this day. Tuchenn actually means an eminence or mound, sometimes a burial mound, so Tuchenn Gador (Kador) is the 'mound of the chair,' in the sense of throne-like rocks. The views are exceptional from the summit, taking in the crests all around Lac St-Michel and the widespread tourbières or peat-bogs.
There are many little cairns of stones along the paths to the top, gradually built up by modern walkers and pilgrims. Some want to mark their own passage, out of a sense of personal achievement or in the age-old way of men determined to mark the landscape with evidence of their ability to conquer it. The inspiration of the neolithic megaliths is all around in this part of Brittany. Others are honouring elemental deities and nature itself, for it is on the moor on such a day as today that one is forcefully aware of the interplay of earth, air, fire and water.