Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Dull and cold

Spent the weekend in St Brieuc and the environs. I fear I shall never like this dull town with its tortuous traffic arrangements, incohesive centre and claustrophobic streets, despite a scattering of handsome half-timbered houses. The cathedral, built with defence in mind, has a dour and forbidding exterior, hardly enlivened by the gloom inside, the unadorned walls punctuated by bishops' tombs. Certainly the building was badly used at the time of the Revolution, but the interior still seems inhabited by the miasma of an unholy trinity: defeat, loss and martyrdom.
The Bay of St Brieuc is an open relief after many attempts to leave the town are thwarted by poor signage and roadworks further confusing an already baffling one-way system. The tourist office had provided me with maps for my visit to the bay area. Unfortunately, these did not include minor roads so finesse of direction was tricky. It's a long time since I explored this area for the Footprint Brittany guidebook, but I had various goals in mind, thinking about the new book and old pathways. I drove along a road based on the Roman route towards Corseul, capital of the Coriosolites in Celtic times, before branching off along a beautiful curvy split route with trees on both sides and between the carriageways, to the small bourg of Hillion with its appealing Romanesque church,
I then walked the coast path beyond the look-out point at the Maison de le Baie. It's a weekend of high tides and this bay is famous for one of the longest recoils in the world, when the sea retreats for up to 7km. It was out for me, so there was plenty of bird-life on the exposed bed, including a flock of Tadornes de Belon. I'm fond of this chunky bird whose peculiar markings make it look unfinished, a work in progress.
Moving inland and onto the high ground in the commune of Yffiniac, I found the Fontaine des Sept Saints beside the little chapel of St Laurent, tucked unobtrusively into the hilside beside a huge racecourse. In this case it is seven healing saints, not the founding saints of Brittany, nor the sleeping saints of Vieux-Marché. It just goes to show the insecurity of the historical evidence for the Tro Breiz pilgrimage. References to the the Seven Saints exist in  various documents, but which seven is far from clear. Here it is Guenolé, Jacut, Lubin, Tugdual (Tudwal), Méen, Cadoc and Armel, each patron of their own speciality disease, from rabies to eczema.
Last stop was Ploufragan to search for three ill-signed neolithic monuments. After two, the bitter wind got the better of me and I headed home. The highlight of my weekend was without doubt having the swimming pool at the beautiful appartments where I stayed (Domitys Le Griffon d'Or in St Brieuc) all to myself on two occasions.

Sunday, February 05, 2017


I wrote a long post at the end of January about what a frustrating month it had been and then could not get access to my blog to post it! February has begun with the same pattern of  set-backs and obstacles, although the weather has changed from the beautiful freezing sunny weather so perfect for walking to storms, hailstorms and persistent rain. I have spent a lot of time doing translation (Arthurian research by Christophe Deceneux) and waiting for translation pieces booked but never appearing and thus storing up further frustration for this month. I have been let down in a most dishonourable way by a contractor who was to do major work at my house (and I've been waiting five months for his services already. Still, my father always told me never to trust an Englishman ;-)).
Two articles have been written, two interviews given and a very successful launch of my new book enjoyed, but all I really want to do now is have clear time to get on with the next. Finally the French translation of Spirit of Place is done and at the printer, well in time for the February 19th launch, but getting it done has been a very rough ride.
Both my lap-tops are malfunctioning, the elder through exhaustion and the baby, initally my pride and joy, for no reason capable of analysis. It has been nothing but trouble from the set-up and I tend to do no more than leave it alone in its smart new case and make notes on scruffy bits of paper. Things can only get better. This week I am teaching a course about the Tro Breiz to lovely people in a lovely place and having a session with my lovely personal trainer, and maybe an island trip, so nothing to complain about at all... I am also incredibly pleased by and grateful for all the really wonderful comments on the new book. The theme has clearly struck many a personal echo.

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