Saturday, December 15, 2018

Place and positive solitude

Putting aside the brief lapse of that last post, I return to my main theme: the power of place and its role in positive solitude. It took a large part of my life to learn this, but a naturally solitary person has to replace the mechanisms by which the socially active reinforce their own sense of identity and well-being. For them, this comes mainly from feedback from others and the operation of family networks. Outside such structures an individual generates self-assessment and works through the evaluation of experience in different ways.
It is perfectly possible for an internal 'conversation' to satisfy both these processes; a constructive, friendly dialogue with myself establishes what I got or failed to get from a film, an art exhibition, a concert, for example. I don't need another or other perspectives - mine own are usually diverse - delivered in the moment, verbally by a companion. I absolutely prefer to look and think and reflect quietly. Sometimes if puzzled by my reactions or curious about some actual facet of the production, I might later go on online to reviews or personal opinions on review sites. Certainly the experience of culture is different with a companion: I have rarely felt it to be better, assuming I am not looking for a learning experience from someone with specific knowledge.

In what one might call the larger issues of existence, I have come to realise over many years of getting to know the landscape of Brittany, that place can also take the role of companion and provide the feedback and stimulus essential for quality of life for those who prefer to live in positive solitude. Being alone in nature can act as a veritable celebration of the solitary. It provides me with replenishment and fulfilment. Why?

Because outside in the forest, on the moor, beside the sea, under the night sky, I am connnected with a much older, wider network than any social group I have ever reluctantly joined. There is something deeply freeing about a relationship that is spiritually profound, but without demands, on-going, without the pressing urgency - whether something is urgent or not - that characterises much human communication.
 You get to know a place much as a person: the first encounter is tramelled by self-consciousness, but losing that through the familiarity of shared time and space, you go beyond the curtain, to a powerful sense of the minutiae of connection in every aspect of the natural world. It is also the framework in which I can best see myself as a functioning living thing, with a place, a context, a layered existence of my own. This is my feedback, my family, my network. It is strong and subtle, liberating and binding. It is always there, in this place or that, here or there, now or tomorrow.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Finding our natural place

Recent events have taken their toll on the equilibrium of many people on both sides of the Channel. My own is further threatened by separation from the natural world, as illness continues to prevent me from spending sufficient time in places that have always acted as harmonising forces. I am like the child on a first bike without stablisers, wobbling and fearful. My spirit is heavy, full of big emotions that rest crammed into small enclosed spaces. The coast is too far away, the moors too difficult, the constant rain no longer liberating, just sadly wet. Everything is narrower and I make a virtue of wasting time, idly rolling in the muck of news, the offensive slough of politics. Helpless in the face of endless greed and cowardice beyond comprehension.
I am no longer staunch or bright or quick myself. But I do love winter. Maybe that's the lesson, to remember why.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Thinking about ruin(s) came out of my last book on the Spirit of Place. This also emerged.

We played in that old ruin,
Mark, Sylvie, Dev and I,
Threading childhood dreams
Through something broken:                                        
Truncated walls, a single arch,
Lost purpose, masquerading as romance.

I led because I talked the best.
The others took direction,
Indifferent or desiring, 
Through laughter cracked by cruelty
Wrapped in nature’s greening stance.
We grew up and unfurled.
Mark dreamt, Dev dared,
I wound up in my words,
Flirting with truth and Sylvie
More fragile than her beauty.
Nothing was settled, we only
Played for time, revolving  
In that other ruined structure    
Called the world.

Our hopes were vague,
All focused on survival,
Far too hung up to grieve
The missed stop of arrival.

Fast forward on to now -
Mark lost, Dev dead
On London streets and Afghan sand,
Sylvie, adrift in drunken dactyls,
Twice deserted (only once by me).
I still have my stories, my dissolving dream.

Thread end, dead end, back
To that eternal present
Beneath the mouldering arch,
For failure not my own,
Where grey and green rewind:
I am still living in the left behind.
Nature at least does not discriminate
Between what is and some more pristine state.
The ruin carries on, the teller tells,
Each prospering their shadow-selves.

© Wendy Mewes

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hell and healing

After three weeks of hell - total incapacity, insufferable pain, hospital in Rennes - I decided to turn to more traditional methods of healing yesterday. One of the chapters in my new book on the Breton saints is on this very theme, so some pratical research combined with the personal search for relief from pain that is preventing me from working, even reading or spending more than a few minutes on the computer, seemed a pragmatic idea. A kind friend took me to the place.
St Maudez is a specialist in skin diseases, eczema especially, but this fontaine is also associated with the cure of shingles. It sits beside a large, plain chapel in the countryside near Plouyé, with plenty of outside covered space indicating continued use for festivals and a pardon. There are two statues, one unusually incorporated in the steep-curved roof, and three basins, one shaped liked a four-leaved clover.
I made an offering and said my piece, then scooped water onto my burning face. Strangely after a couple of minutes there was a complete lull in the pain and a sudden flow of relief went through my whole body, so worn down after weeks of intense suffering. Then it was back, throbbing and stabbing around my eye and cheek-bone. For the moment, I have nothing more to say to St Maudez.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Saints preserve us

Making cow"s eyes - St Herbot
Summer has been slow, sad and full of difficulties, but I have to say that working on the new book about Breton saints has revived my tenderness for this bunch of introverted loners and misogynistic misfits. The tension between what they mostly wanted - isolated contemplation and spiritual struggle in the throes of landscape - and what became expected of them in terms of community leadership, man management and political nous (or maybe nowse) was nothing if not challenging. Some - St Pol, for example - rose above it all and maintained a lofty saintliness that was proof against the worst excesses of wordliness: others, like St Ronan, fought every battle with asperity and, one is tempted to think, the relish of a waspish personality. His namesake, the philosopher Ernest Renan, says he was more a spirit of the earth than a saint: 'son caractère était violent  et un peu bizarre'. St Herbot just gave it all up and settled down in a quiet spot away from people to commune more comfortably with cattle.
But their legacy is immense, and the particular nature of Breton faith that cherished them so is equally endearing. I am currently reading Anatole Le Braz's Au pays des pardons in which he describes (or rather tells how it was described to him) the pardon of St Servais when the faithful of Cornouaille and the faithful of Vannes turned up ready for a brawl, comported themselves as teams and fought for the privilege of hoisting the sacred banner of the saint, whilst the little statue of Servais was smashed to smithereens under the blows of staves and had to be replaced each year. The wounded were taken home on carts, bleeding and groaning.
Pardon of St Eloi - a more orderly affair

Monday, July 23, 2018

Huelgoat: as real as legendary

The lake
The town tour I am offering this summer is something of an oddity. Huelgoat (= high forest in Breton) is famous for its glorious forest, massive granite boulders and the associated legends. The town itself is not distinguished by impressive architecture - far from it - and away from the lake, rocks and sylvan streams there is little a romantic could find to celebrate. But I've been taking people round the forest and telling the same old stories since 2004, so more than time for a change, and surely reality can be just as compelling if presented in a coherent way.
The reality of Huelgoat is a distinct economic and social history that has fashioned the town differently from its neighbours. The key to history is often geology, and here the exceptional granite flowerings (product of volcanic magma) and considerable silver-bearing lead deposits have both played their parts in development and prosperity. Mining was practised by the Celts and Romans here, and this underground wealth attracted the attention of the dukes of Brittany in the late 12th century when they bought large tracts of land from the spendthrift lords of Léon. The oldest building in Huelgoat is the central mill (now called Moulin du Chaos), built in 1339 on the orders of Jean III (and sadly recently turned into a shop). The forest also provided extensive hunting grounds for ducal sport, a medieval equivalent of 'leisure activity' for the wealthy, an issue that was to assume renewed significance much later in Huelgoat.
Moulin du Chaos
German engineers constructed the lake - much smaller in form than today - in the late 16th century to serve as a reserve for the mines which were situated several miles away in what is now the commune of Locmaria-Berrien. No lake road existed until the early 20th century: a simple track gave cattle, horses and washer-women access to the water's edge. In the 1770s, at the height of exploitation, the size was enlarged and a canal cut from it to travel all the way through the forest to the mine, taking water to drop onto a hydraulic wheel and drive the underground pumps that forced water out of the galleries and shafts. An earlier canal, taken directly from the river Argent (Silver River) near the Gouffre had not proved adequate for the mine's requirements.
Little but long, canal heading out to the mine
Unskilled labour at the mines was mostly local, although peasants also had to work their farms, with many foreign professionals (Germans, English) and French (after the Revolution). This great influx of outsiders led French to achieve a dominance over Breton here which was not the case in the surrounding areas. There was also much inter-marrying as some local family names indicate, deriving from other parts of France. There were some tensions, some early strikes, plenty of environmental damage and pollution and finally decline of supply as it became more and more dangerous to access deeper deposits even with more sopisticated machinery in the mid 19th century.
Once the mines declined, quarrying became the main local industry with Huelgoat granite in great demand as building material. Where the creperie in the forest now stands beside the world-famous Chaos was once the manager's house and centre of activities. It explains why there are expanses here without boulders and why lone stones like the Trembling Rock (which bears a line of chisel marks, ready to be spilt) and the Champignon (Mushroom) stand out in what was once a sea of shapes like the surviving Chaos. The wide tracks so handy for roaming tourists today were then necessary for bringing out the cut stone in carts.
Roche tremblante with line of chisel holes
But the latter part of the 19th century saw changes of attitude towards nature and the development of leisure interests for ordinary people. Writers and artists (like Sérusier, one of the Nabis) flocked to the picturesque forest, and hotels blossomed to satisfy new tourist demands. One advertised the town as the 'Fontainbleau breton' and even had a dark room for budding photographers. Flyers in English reflect the early attachment of the British for this lakeside town, already referred to as an 'English colony' in the 1880s. Walking and cycling became serious leisure pursuits throughout the social scale and the beauty of natural scenery began to be valued for its own sake.
As quarrying caused more and more destruction of the great rocks that were attracting visitors from far and wide, a campaign to save them was mounted by the Touring Club of France and supported by many famous figures from the world of culture. In 1903 the town finally bought up the forest area of Saoulec to preserve what is now the main lure for tourists, an astonishing valley crammed with boulders of every size and evocative shape.
I throw in a single legend (the sort I like with social and economic significance) to show willing. It is a pleasing irony that the origin of this Chaos is attributed to the giant Hok Bras or Gargantua who rained down these rocks on the town as retribution for being offered nothing but thin gruel by the inhabitants once he tasted the creamy porridge available further north in wealthy Léon. The rocks thus began as symbols of poverty and are now the basis of the town's wealth, such as it, almost entirely derived from tourism.
The Chaos
Finally, one unprepossessing building can be used to illustrate this shifting economic balance between tourism and industry. The Hotel de France, situated in the town centre, put up this annexe close to the Chaos in 1904, a block of small appartments to accommodate the hordes of visitors that descended on the town in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Not pretty, but telling: early tourist accommodation

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Dol-de-Bretagne: crowded glory

Dol-de-Bretagne is a small place with a dense, chewy history. Situated in a curve of the river Guyoult, as its name (dol = meander) indicates, the town occupies a rise above the marais de Dol, the so-called ‘black marshes’ stretching across to the Bay of Mont St-Michel.
Saint Samson, of Welsh origin and one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, arrived in the 6th century, following the course of the river inland, and made an initial settlement at Carfantin, still marked by his sacred fontaine. He was then said to be responsible for the earliest ‘cathedral’ on the current site in the high town.

This was replaced in the 9th century, at a time when the see of Dol became a cause-celébre of religious and political history in Brittany, but this version was destroyed by Viking raids in 1014. The Romanesque cathedral that followed was burnt down by King John’s troops in 1203. John was surprisingly remorseful and contributed to the reconstruction, but the second tower of the Gothic version was never completed.
The cathedral has a unique feature in its double well, with shafts inside and outside the walls, connected way below ground level by a passage which can be flooded or pumped empty. Another unusual point of interest is the Renaissance tomb of Bishop Thomas James, a surprisingly grandiose feature in the fairly sombre interior. This monument is exquisite in decorative quality, but worth visiting above all on the summer solstice when a shaft of sunlight spotlights the Holy Grail at midday.

A sense of the medieval fortified town once solidly defended and aligned east/west between two entrance points can be derived from a walk along the restored northern ramparts with views out across the marshes to the mysterious Mont Dol, but walls to the south and east were destroyed as industrial quarters developed. The arrival of the train in 1864 led to the creation of new roads, including a wide tree-lined avenue connecting the station to the centre.
The most ostensible glory of Dol lies in the bright parade of ancient houses along Grand rue des Stuarts and Rue Lejamptel, including the oldest house in Brittany, Les petits palets, a Romanesque stone beauty from the 11th century, and numerous half-timbered medieval façades, including porch houses.
The Stuart connection stems from a local nobleman Walter Fitzalan, made overall steward of Scotland by King David in the 12th century. His descendants eventually held the Scottish throne.

Dol’s size belies its significance in the history of Brittany, symbol of an embryonic Breton state in the 9th century, and focus of a resulting religious wrangle with Rome that lasted three centuries. Nominoë was the first leader to attempt a serious grouping of Bretons to counter the weighty threat of the Franks, repelling them in a skirmish near Ballon in 845. His political vision for a unified Breton identity was backed by religious moves to replace the Metropolitan episcopal authority of Tours, in Frankish control, with an archbishop at Dol-de-Bretagne, the latter to hold sway over the other Breton  bishops. A whole succession of popes sought to undo this unilateral decision, but the machinations rumbled on with claims and counter-claims on both sides until 1199 when a definitive decision was made against Dol, and the Breton church returned to the papal fold.

Dol is still determined to secure special status, with the assertion that Nominoë himself was crowned first king of Brittany in the cathedral. It is certain that his son Erispoe took this title but little evidence for his father’s regal rank. It is perhaps surprising that those perversely determined to draw clear and specific conclusions from the complex and shadowy history of the 9th century should be so keen for the political founder of Brittany, a description that could reasonably be assigned to Nominoë, to bear the tainted title ‘rex’in a land where submission to authority has rarely been considered a virtue.