Monday, March 20, 2017

St Pol and a taurine stalker

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.
He met a pig-man of the local lord who offered to conduct St-Pol to his master. First they arrived at the almost deserted oppidum which was to become his mainland settlement. Here he finds a wild pig with its young, swarms of bees, a bear and a rampant bull. The event has distinct echoes of Aeneas' arrival in Latium in Vergil's Aeneid, a work that was my constant companion for more than twenty years. In Book 7, Latinus tells of the omen of a swarm of bees in a special laurel tree, interpreted by the soothsayer as the arrival of strangers who will take over. In Book 8, Father Tiber gives Aeneas a sign that he has reached his destined place: he will find a huge sow and her litter of thirty beneath the oak trees. Wrmonoc, the monk at Landevennec abbey who wrote St Pol's first Vita in 884, must have been familiar with the classical text, and adopted its foundation symbolism. Pol's subsequent blessing of the boundaries (earth-and-ditch defences) with water and salt also has a distinctly pre-Christian tang.
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.
There is another tradition of St Pol, on the north coast of Finistère, perhaps indicating a separate journey at another time. But it does include his arrival at the Pointe de Beg Pol (the point of the point of Pol!) by the current Phare de Pontusval in a stone boat. When locals attempted to drag this item by oxen, the beasts stopped definitively on top of a nearby knoll and the stone remained there. Today the little chapel of St-Pol stands on the spot in a rather special setting among boulders.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

St Pol and the dragon

The iconography of St Pol (Sant Paol in Breton), one of the founding saints of Brittany, 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 St-Pol-de-Léon with its cathedral commemorating St Pol as the first bishop in the early 6th century.

St Pol began his religious career in Wales, 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 Cornwall, 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 Brittany with the steady truth of Christianity.

This focused purpose is suggested by his first landfall on Ouessant, a remote island in the Atlantic off the north-west shore of Brittany. 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.

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 Clovis in Paris 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.

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

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...