I have been tracing the scenes of St Pol's journey in eastern Léon, looking at the landscape and likely changes over the intervening centuries. Indication in the earliest Vita has the saint moving by land possibly along former Roman roads towards his destination of what is today St-Pol-de-Léon, where his cathedral stands. There he arrived in the wooded valley of Gourveau, and struck the ground with his staff to produce the source which still feeds an enormous stone lavoir by the road leading down to Pempoul from the town centre.
St-Pol tamed the pig and domesticated the bees in hives. The savage inhabitants fared less well: the bear ran off and lost itself in a deep ravine, while Pol faced down the rampant bull. One can't help a sneaking suspicion that it was the same one he had remonstrated with at Lampaul-Ploudalmezeau, one who could not resist following his holy opponent across Léon for another ticking off. A taurine stalker is just another potent enhancement factor for the saint.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Thursday, February 23, 2017
The iconography of St Pol (Sant Paol in Breton), one of the founding saints of
, shows the saint with a dragon
beneath his feet. The reference is to an event on the Ile de Batz, in the area
where he came to settle permanently, witnessed today by the nearby mainland town
of Brittany with its cathedral commemorating St
Pol as the first bishop in the early 6th century. St-Pol-de-Léon
St Pol began his religious career in
, studying at the prestigious
monastery of Llanwit Major. From a noble family, he was marked by his piety
from an early age, although the evidence for his later life suggests the uneasy
mixture of asceticism and missionary zeal not uncommon in the early Breton
saints. After a sojourn with King Mark in Wales , where he was refused a bronze bell
to take to his new land, St Pol sailed across the Channel to confront the pagan
population of western Cornwall with the steady truth of
This focused purpose is suggested by his first landfall on Ouessant, a remote island in the
Atlantic off the north-west . Here there was a well-established
pagan cult centre, a group of priestesses that St Pol is said to have forced
from one end of the island to the other. A cross on the cliffs marked his first
landfall, with a nearby stone bearing the imprint of his knees at prayer. The
name of the only sizeable settlement on Ouessant today is Lampaul – the holy
place of St Pol. shore of Brittany
Further place-names reflect the saint’s traditional journey eastwards across what is now Léon, the northern part of Finistère: Lampaul-Plouarzel, Lampaul-Ploudalmezeau, the chapel of Prat-Paol, Lampaul-Guimiliau and finally St-Pol-de-Léon. Here St Pol is said to have had a positive interview with local count Withur (who may have been a relation), and received land on the Ile de Batz, just off Roscoff. Here he founded a monastery on the site of what later became a chapel to St-Anne, still visible in ruins on the island now.
The Ile de Batz was terrorised by a marauding dragon and the inhabitants approached St Pol for help. He is said to have called the beast out of its lair, placed his bishop’s stole around its neck, led it to the western edge of the island and commanded the dragon to hurl itself into the sea. It obeyed. The place today is called Toull ar Zarpant, Serpent’s Hole, and a striking rock formation marks the bay where this remarkable event took place.
In the village church, a medieval bishop’s stole is displayed in a glass case, echoing the most memorable feature of the story, a wild beast led like a tame dog to its death. The fabric has been tested and is very early, possibly 8th century, alas too late for St Pol himself who died near the end of the 6th century at the great age of 102.
He had wanted to continue a quiet monastic life on the Ile de Batz, but was tricked into becoming a bishop by Withur who sent him to
in Clovis with a note requesting his episcopal
consecration. Thereafter he cleared more wild beasts from the Celtic site of
Occismor and founded what later became the cathedral and town of
St-Pol-de-Léon. Official life was not congenial to St Pol who made several
thwarted attempts to retire to the Ile de Batz before he was finally allowed to
live out the rest of his long life in peace there. Paris
The dragon story overrides all other tales of St Pol’s miracle-working, such as healing the blind and commanding the sea to respect a boundary he had set, the powers that set him apart from other Christians in his group of settlers. It is surely the detail of that wild monster behaving like a family pet that sticks in the memory and makes the story curious. Another interesting detail, often overlooked, is that the saint took a companion with him for this feat, a certain knight from Cléder. The implication of a knight is of course a warrior with a sword, which sounds suspiciously like an insurance policy or back-up plan. Did St Pol want a witness? Or perhaps a muscle-man if things did not turn out to his advantage. Did the islanders turn out to watch a potentially thrilling contest or cower in their huts until the danger was past? An observed miracle and a reported one are markedly different things.
If the dragon, so vividly described in the Latin text of an early Vita of St Pol, written by Wrmonoc, a monk at Landévennec in 884, symbolized pagan religion, the worship of natural forces and elemental powers, it was perhaps apt that it met its end on the western shore, a direction associated with death and the Isles of the Blessed in Celtic mythology, here where the sea stretches emptily and endlessly into the far distance. The bay is crammed with rocks of all sizes today, dominated by the vaguely beast-shaped pile of giant stones at a point exposed fully at low tide. The sea of course has resurrective potential in pagan mythology, so the beast may not have been reluctant after all, and needed little bidding to opt not for destruction but regeneration, and a welcome release from the irritating goodness of Christian saints.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Sunday, February 05, 2017
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
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
Friday, December 30, 2016
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...