Monday, September 09, 2019

Megaliths

Alignements du Moulin
I have been in Ille-et-Vilaine, revisting the exceptional megalithic site at St-Just, which will figure in my new book Wayfaring in Little Britain. Here a walking trail leads out along the Landes de Cojoux with alignments, standing-stones, tumuli and graves all around for more than two kilometres. The site has been tamed and organised since my last visit to a lonely open plateau which then had little restriction for movement among the stones. It was also a forlorn sight at that time, just days after a major moorland fire had left the scars of burning everywhere, vegetation reduced to ashes and acridity filling the air. Now in late summer there was plenty of plant colour and clean quartz to gleam in the hot sun.
Le Tribunal
The monuments that I return to again and again are the Alignements du Moulin and the so-called Tribunal, the latter mooted as a stone age calendar, but named for its appearance of a row of judges and the accused. The 12 menhirs of the alignment, made of schist and organised east/west, are like people in their individual shapes, character and relative placings - a family photo covering the generations. Funerary remains found on excavation date to about 4700BC: the standing-stones came later. The function of the stones themselves or their role within the overall structuring of the whole complex is impossible to say. They appear to be on course to meet at a point with the line of chubbier quartz stones to the north. A further north/south line is suggested by a few remaining small stones.
What is so extraordinary about this site is the constant unfolding of remains, the accumulation of death, here, there and everywhere around the main path which forges across the open centre of the plateau. The loftiness of the location was obviously significant, and its dramatic end, abruptly above the valley of the river Canut and the Etang du Val.
Chateau Bu
On reaching the pinnacle at the Chateau Bu, with its neolithic burial in lateral chambers and later Bronze Age graves and guardian pillars, it is hard to imagine anything better, but huge complexes of inter-related monuments like the Croix St Pierre arrangements await. The place, even over its significant length, has a clearer sense of unity than Carnac, for example, and is to me much more compelling. The main practical advantage is that there are rarely other people to share the scene outside weekends and holidays. This sense of aloneness amidst serial funerary architecture from nearly seven thousand years ago offers a powerful experience and it was a strangely emotional one this time.
After a few days away, I made a slow journey back, stopping off to see if the megalithic site at Monteneuf in Morbihan had changed much over the years. It has, whether for the better or not is hard to say.
Monteneuf

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Roman site

Yesterday I was in Locuon, looking at the Roman (and probably earlier) quarry which provided stone not only for the locality, but for the new town established at Carhaix, 27km away, in the 1st century AD. A Roman road from Vannes passed near the site, facilitating transport of stone blocks, and excavations of this track found parts had been paved in the same material. The sheer rock faces are like living walls, ferns burgeoning in the damp green light of the pits. The whole site has a subterranean feel as the trees close in overhead creating a sensation of being underneath a porous layer. Soft and crumbly to the touch, Locuon granite is a light grey/white in hue and smooth in texture, giving it almost the appearance of marble.

The approach is down a monumental staircase, thanks to the sacralisation of the site, with a chapel, Madonna in a niche on the quarry wall, fontaine and lavoir on a lower level. The current chapel is 17th century and shows off the potential of the building stone, but there were certainly earlier versions, as a line of probable roof support holes in the cliff behind indicates. This granite wall also includes a carved face and cross motif. Facing the statue of the Virgin Mary is the headless statue of a pagan goddess, fixed to the bottom of the staircase parapet.
Descending to a lower level of the quarry, a spring pours out of a sculpted surround in the rock and the water is carried via a slate enclosed channel to the washing basin. Here is the first of a group of contemporary art pieces, a rather dog-like curled wolf on a platform raised above the water. Pushing further into the dells of the quarry, there are rocks incised with criss-cross pattern and, more impressively, a 'boulder' held in the thin branches of a tree. This was actually made in situ by Yuhsin U Chang, from wool over a wooden frame.
After a lengthy site inspection, I set off for a few kilometres on the former Roman road.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Saints

St Thélo
It's been a real struggle to finish the little Breton saints' guide on time, but I've never missed a deadline yet and I really need to focus now on Wayfaring in Little Britain, which calls me daily for thought and attention. There will still be editing changes on the saints to incorporate, I'm sure, but the basic text is finished and another day should see photo selection wrapped up. Luckily the cover photo almost chose itself and I'm happy that this short introduction to an enormous subject will fit well in what is almost a series, alongside the Huelgoat and Monts d'Arrée slim volumes. What's important is that they have sold in their thousands and that people really like the format and content.
A few walking trips coming up for Roman and megalithic chapters of WILB. Time to get out of my writing hut and onto the road...

Monday, July 22, 2019

Worth its weight in gold

Artichoke harvest
Léon, the northern area of Finistere is best known further afield for its ferry port at Roscoff, but no traveller heading south off the boat can have failed to notice the ubiquitous fields of artichokes, onions and cauliflowers. It is a prime growing area, part of what has long been called the Golden Belt of Brittany's agricultural harvests. Brittany Ferries itself was started in the 1970s to take the produce to Cornish markets. Breton artichokes were once flown on Concorde to the US.
The legend of Saint Goulven is at the heart of this idea of fecundity and its concomitant prosperity. His mother was about to give birth to him as soon as they arrived on the coast of Armorica, near where the bourg of Goulven is today. His father went on a desperate search for water, finally falling to his knees and praying for God's help. On returning to his wife, he found a newly born son and a newly flowing spring of freshwater. The land in Brittany provides. The elaborate Renaissance fontaine of St Goulven now marks the spot. Pilgrims later came for healing, particularly of fever. A stone sarcophagus in the wall by the statue is called the bed or tomb of the saint. Here sufferers immersed themselves and prayed for cures.
Sarcophagus in lefthand wall

Although much later a bishop of Léon, Goulven was a quiet and serious young man, who soon dedicated himself to prayer and preaching. He lived apart from society with a single follower. One day he had the impulse to send his friend Maden to a neighbour asking for a gift. After a short reflection, the neighbour hefted a clod of earth into the fold of Maden's tunic and sent him back. Maden found his load heavier and heavier as he struggled to return. Goulven came out of his hut to meet him and discovered that the earth had turned into a lump of gold. So we learn that the riches of Léon lie in its soil, and that Goulven was worthy of a miracle and destined for sainthood.
Earth turned to gold

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sacred walking - the Grande Tromenie

Tomb of Saint Ronan
I am very interested in sacred walking at the moment as recent posts indicate, although my new book is about different types of routes and not limited to religious themes.The Grande Tromenie takes place every six years at Locronan, with an annual shorter version. The name means journey (tro) around a monastic territory (minihi), and, according to tradition, the route follows the path of a sacred circuit undertaken regularly by Saint Ronan around what was already established by the Dark Ages as a Celtic nemeton, or outdoor temple. A trail linking rocks and megalithic remains, commonly called Druidic stones in the 19th century, may have been linked to fertility rites. This aspect has persisted in popular perception, and maybe conception, right up to the present day.
Countryside around Locronan, context of the trail
When Ronan established his settlement here (later Locronan, the sacred place of Ronan), it was after an initial bruising encounter with feisty Breton women on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez, who resented him interfering in their nefarious wrecking activities by shining a great light on the shoreline. Arriving in the interior where the welcoming anonymity of the Bois de Nevet (once Nemet = nemeton) sheltered him, Ronan was soon drawn into the public spotlight again, incurring the unbounded hostility of a woman named Keben. She wanted to destroy the reputation and influence of the monk and accused him of murdering her daughter, but Ronan was able to prove Keben herself was the culprit. Later, after the saint's death, she insulted the funeral procession and struck off a horn of one of the oxen leading the funeral cart. This story is to explain the name of Plas ar Horn, beside the memorial chapel of 1912, one of the 12 stations of the Tromenie route, and an earlier ritual site.
Keben uses a washing paddle to de-horn the ox
The festival attracts many thousands of followers for the procession, which wends through the countryside over 12 kilometres, including paths on private land only open for this event - a good chance for new perspectives in all senses. This relationship with the landscape is my interest in this case. The way is cleared of foliage and long grass, and marked out with 12 stations, each representing an individual saint with a granite cross and a little hut containing a statue, brought in from chapels in the area to honour Ronan and be honoured by the faithful in their turn.
One notable feature is Gazeg vaen, a rock also known as the Chair of Ronan, where the saint is said to have sat and looked out over the waters of the bay (no longer visible from the spot). The stone is the survivor of  a megalithic group, and has been (for how long?) the focus of a fertility ritual for women, who lay full length or rubbed their belly against the surface to increase their chances of conceiving a child.
Postcard of woman sitting on the "chaise de Ronan"
The rock today
The grand procession is on Sunday 14th July, but the route remains open to walkers for one week after that date, and I'll be on it at a quieter time. (Walked on Tuesday 16th and some photos added above).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Morlaix's unique style

9 Grand'Rue
I am currently writing about Morlaix in the context of roads and pathways for my new book, which has reminded me of all kinds of negatives about this beautiful historical town, so here let's focus on something more alluring. The town has a unique architectural form, the maison pondalez, narrow, half-timbered, high-storeyed houses, offering an unparalleled glimpse into the 16th century life of the city. Often likened to lantern houses, they did not in fact originally have roof level light-sources, with windows serving both front and back rooms alone. The great central well, rising the full height of the house, had a monumental fireplace and would have been lit with sconces. The name pondalez is of uncertain derivation, the traditional 'pont' + 'aller' in reference to a single turning staircase with wooden 'bridges' to both sides on each level, is now largely rejected in favour of the nothing in particular. Wood carving is a feature of the exterior with saints and angels dignifying the façade, and the interior where ornate single piece stair-posts rise to an enormous height. The jettied storeys have rooms on each level with small-paned casement windows seemingly only feet away from their opposite neighbours across the tiny cobbled streets of the old walled city, sacked by English raiders in 1522.
Most interesting of all is the raison d'etre of these exceptional buildings. They were the fine residences of nobles turned merchants, officially surrendering the swords that symbolised their status in order to cash in on the highly lucrative cloth trade with England. The quality fabric créées was purchased in the shop-fronts of these Morlaix houses (with a fold-down counter on ground level) and shipped from the river port 200m away. Often younger sons of the Breton petite noblesse had few prospects in terms of family inheritance and stood to make fortunes in commerce, but they still wanted the trappings of the manor houses in the narrow confines of a medieval town - hence the narrow frontage and great height of these splendid residences, and the quality of craftsmanship in their construction and decoration.
Two of these houses can be visited today. The so-called House of the Duchess Anne in the market square Place Allende and 9 Grand'Rue. The latter would be my choice as more atmospheric and clearly presented. Just the thing for getting in the spirit of the town and imagining that attack in 1522. A maid in this very street had the measure of the English: she opened a trap-door in the hall and the first few pillagers fell into the cellar and drowned. Their less stupid comrades chased the maid up and up the stairs until she was forced to throw herself from the top window. That piece of anecdotal history takes on quite another dimension when mounting the levels of this maison pondalez.
So-called Maison de la Duchesse Anne

Thursday, June 06, 2019

'New' website

Combourg - chateau and park
My website www.wendymewes.com has had a complete overhaul and now features recent and other work. It will be updated regularly with new writing. Please have a look - non-spam flavoured feedback is welcome.