Sunday, October 16, 2016

TRO BREIZ – a last long walk


 I am thinking of walking the Tro Breiz next year. It would need to be in stages, as the entire route tops 600km and would definitely be my last long distance walk. Let’s see how my fitness stands at the end of 2016 before the big decision.
The Tro Breiz pilgrimage connects the seven cathedrals associated with the seven founding saints of Brittany: ‘founding' because they represented the initial wave of proselytising Christianity which took hold of Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries. Indeed this was the time when Brittany itself came into being in an embryonic state, as migrants from the British Isles arrived to start new lives, mingling their language with that of the indigenous population.

The name Brittany of course means 'little Britain'. Five of the seven saints were probably of Welsh origin, only two being natives of the Armorican peninsula (Amorica was the Roman name for NW France), perhaps sons of immigrant parents. The cathedrals later associated with the seven – and in order of the route I’ll maybe take - are St-Pol-de-Léon (St Pol), Tréguier (St Tugdual), St Brieuc (St Brieuc), St Malo (St Malo), Dol-de-Bretagne (St Samson), Vannes (St Patern) and Quimper (St Corentin).

There is evidence that this ‘Breton journey’ was a genuine medieval pilgrimage route, an undertaking of serious commitment to be achieved once in a lifetime to be that much more secure of a heavenly future. Although the actual paths are mostly lost, old Roman roads, still major highways in later periods, certainly formed important links: for example, we know that a pilgrim from Morlaix took the 'Roman road nearest the shore' on his way to Dol. Another Roman road connecting Vannes and Quimper must also have been part of the chain. There are many place-names containing references to pilgrims (although these may just as likely refer to those on the Compostela trail), such as Le Champ du Pèlerins and La Fontaine-aux-Pèlerins. Some see an allusion to the 'Green route of Hope'(= salvation, by completing this journey) in names like Le Chemin-Vert and Les-Croix-Vertes. The study of toponyms is so often not a conclusive investigation. Another approach to establishing the ancient ways involves looking at where pilgrims would have stayed along their route. Abbeys and establishments of the Knights of St-John, such as that at La Feuillée, made natural stopping-places for travellers anxious about security. And certain chapels and fontaines along routes between the great cathedrals are known to have been focal points for spiritual travellers on the Tro Breiz: for example, La Trinité near Melgven.
I have often written and publicly spoken about these saints, I know the seven cathedrals well and have walked many miles of the paths used for the contemporary version of the Tro Breiz, recreated by the hard work and dedication of an association based in St-Pol-de-Léon. But the idea of one last great big walk with ancient connections, full of modern logistics, drenched in beautiful Breton coast and country, doubtless spiritually uplifting even to an old animist like me is almost irresistible, despite the inevitable physical trial it will also provide. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Away and home

Coming home
I've been away in London for much of September, an enjoyably rich and emotionally satisying time which is already reduced in my mind to its essentials:  great food (in great amounts) and even greater friends. Nevertheless, the sight of the Breton coast in a glorious dawn over St Malo always raises the heartbeat as home grows closer and by the time the train rattles westward out of Rennes, I am mentally salivating in anticipation. Within an hour of reaching the longed-for destination, I am out in the forest, feeling a familiar blanket of peace and calm settle on my shoulders, smoothing out the last London frazzles, and bringing me back to the fulfilment of here and now.
Since then I have been working, and having fun, as a guide to American tour operator, Mindie Burgoyne, ( and her husband Dan. We have packed the last two days with visiting natural wonders in the forest, megaliths on the moors and elsewhere, and churches demonstrating the complexity of religion in Brittany, where paganism is never far from Christianity.
Enclos at Guimiiliau
Now I must get back work and finish my book on the Little Landscapes of Finistere before returning, after a ten year break, to fiction.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Chaos of Mardoul

Water’s words to stone here are alternately loving and savage, caresses turn violent, stroking becomes a slap. In wild weather it is a seething insistence of water. All that rock can do is hold to itself, edges rounded to ease the onslaught and survive the longest time under a constant assault that is both smooth and brutal. It’s an unequal contest in the end. The river can spread to mount its challenge: the rocks have no more movement in them. In dancing steps the water constantly changes direction, twisting, turning, preening round its static partner, forming shapes and ritual traces, like little tripping thoughts of happy times. As water tires of obstacle, there’s the trumpet of torrent and torment, a surge of force. Under an angry wind, white-topped waves rage down the valley. In gentler times, with little explosions of foam like a series of sneezes, it glides as clear as glass down a shelf of rock. The old war between rock and water is a lost cause for the remnants of another earth. The river will have its way, hard or easy.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Out and about, getting somewhere

I've been on two trips recently to spend more time in places that will figure in the new book. Firstly down south, among the black rocks of St Guenolé, initially given cultural reference by Chaucer in The Franklin's Tale, when Dorigen paces the coast at Penmarc'h, fearful for her husband's safe return to such a treacherous shore. It's a dangerous spot, with many fatalities to this day as foolish spectators of the high tides edge out to risk their lives for more dramatic photos. In fact the flat shelving of dark rock, completely hidden when the tide is up, is somehow more frightening and sinister than the gigantic stone pinnacles with iron railings to cling onto in the hope of avoiding being swept away by a freak wave. This was, in fact, the fate of the Prefect of Finistere's family as they enjoyed a leisurely picnic in 1870. Several of the bodies were never recovered.

This week I was in north-west Finistère, watching the estuary tides on the Aber Wrac'h for my chapter on Pont Krac'h, the Devil's Bridge. There was also time to hop over to Landunvez for some coastal reflections around the chapel of St-Samson, the scene that figured on the cover of my cultural history of Brittany, and one which will also appear in the new book.
At last I feel I'm getting somewhere in terms of completing this work. Delighted to say that Lynette Hardwick, an illustrious illustrator, will provide line drawings for my text, so we have also been working on those, and the page lay-outs - and the French version is also underway. Now all I have to do is finish the text....

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Short extract, work in progress

I have been busy with non-work related stuff lately, including a very pleasant interlude manning an art gallery in Goarec last week for a friend's exhibition. Now we have a heatwave and I struggle as ever to achieve much in such atmosphere, but I'm determined to finish with the landscape book in the next few months and move on to completely different writing projects. So, getting back into the mood...

 The landscape is a sponge for emotions, the great soakaway of human experience. We bring our woes and stresses to nature and lay them down at the feet of the sea or on a lonely mountain top or beside a quiet forest pool. Often we seek nature’s company simply because it demands and expects nothing from us, giving temporary release from inner burdens or the opportunity to ponder issues in the comfortable airy freedom of the outdoors. The search for peace and quiet is a strong factor in our need for landscape, balm for the human individual who is so rarely physically alone and in silence in modern life. We also respond deeply to the expansion of our vitality into open space and the basic practice of walking, man’s most natural pace, which puts us back into a lost rhythmic relationship with the detail of landscape. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mindlessness inflicted on rocks

The defacing of stones by mindless graffiti is not a recent phenomenon but I have become mightily aware of it since living in an area famous for its granite boulders of remarkable size and shape. Apart from a few minor examples which are fairly unobtrusive unless up close to the rock-face, there has been surprisingly little of this most brash kind of damage up until now.
Two recent glaring instances, however, have made me re-evaluate my own reactions. The first appeared a while ago, high up on a steep hillside above one of the main roads out of town. The tree cover has been felled, leaving an open expanse of boulders, dead wood, scrubby growth and churned earth. One of the stones, a pleasingly rounded mass of grey granite has been given two eyes and a smile, courtesy of black paint. And it made me smile the first time I passed, like a sudden revelation of a grinning entity long hidden by forest growth. This anthropomorphism of rock did not make me think of defacement and hooliganism at all, but initially as something rather amusing, the sort of landmark that people driving in and out of the town would enjoy. It is after all the rocks that give this place its life and identity. And people relate more easily to the sort of facile humanization shown here than the apparent in-animation of a mass of stone. I regret this reaction on reflection and attribute it to the fact that the rock is simple and ordinary, un-moulded by dramatic erosion.
The second example has made me angry. A famous rock, mid-stream in the river and hollowed out by natural erosion of granite to resemble a mini-cave or seating-place, has acquired the incised initials DD, writ large above the opening. The main tourist path passes here and the rock itself is easily accessible from the far bank across other stones, so it has become an obvious spot for photos of children or adults sitting inside the rock or filming of atmospheric sequences. I once saw a korrigan (local gnome of spirited character) seated inside the stone as the camera rolled for a Breton themed short or perhaps a tourist trailer. That is harmless fun and in its way does honour to the natural qualities of this environment. The ensemble of river and rock under a canopy of trees pierced by shafts of light is a conjunction of elementals that speaks powerfully to something inside us and defines the spirit of this particular place.
The rock will long outlast the cretin and the letters will weather away, but the imposition of humankind – the engraving of initials is a statement of facile human power over nature – degrades this landmark, as well as the perpetrator him or herself. It is not the work of a child but an ‘adult’. It is not the work a moment but considerable effort.
The fact that I care more about this than the other reflects the important of context in our relationship to particular landscapes. The smiley face is in essence no more acceptable to lovers of natural landscape than the initials, but it reveals at least benign intention rather than an egotistical assertion. The latter instance seems so much more intrusive by its deliberate spoiling of a significant spot for locals and visitors alike, a rock whose whole incredibly long history is mapped in its unique shape, its situation where the combination of elements stands together to create a powerfully numinous experience for those who are open to it.