Thursday, October 30, 2014

WWII Shelter in Brest

I recently visited the Abri Sadi-Carnot, a tunnel running for more than half a kilometre from the arsenal at the port to the centre of Brest, the only city in France to construct massive capacity shelters during WWII. This one was built between 1941 and 1942 as a refuge against allied air raids for the Germans and civilian population alike. The lower end is accessed directly from the Boulevard de la Marine, but 154 internal steps were needed to reach the exit at the other extreme, the end assigned to the local population. Despite successfully saving many lives during bombing raids aimed at the submarine base, it suffered the historic irony in September 1944 of causing hundreds of deaths thanks to a horrendous accident  - one waiting to happen considering the German practice of stocking munitions and petrol in their lower end of the shelter. The resulting fireball and asphixiating gases sped through the tunnel, leaving mounds of corpses on the staircases to witness a stampede for safety.
During the Cold War, the Abri Sadi Carnot was adapted to a nuclear shelter, the radiation-proof doors still in situ today.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ile Tristan


Today was one of the occasions when very low tides enable a crossing on foot to Ile Tristan, just off Douarnenez. The two and a half hour window allows plenty of time to explore the island, although only certain parts are accessible to the public - the Maison de Maitre and another large house used as a temporary cinema for the day, orchards and the exteriors of a 1930s chapel and a 19th century fort. As is often the case in Brittany, culture has priority over history: short films (fiction and documentary) were showing, there was an exhibition of photographs and various miserable-looking musicians were performing in selected spots. There was no information about the island's chequered past, and no sign on the island itself of occupation in the 16th century by one of the most intriguing characters of Breton history.
My own personal research interest is the bloodthirsty career of Guy Eder de la Fontenelle, a young nobleman who held the island from 1595, and used the Wars of Religion to spread mayhem throughout western Brittany, from his native Cotes d'Armor to this western edge of Finistere, where his most notorious achievements were the destruction of Penmarc'h - burning the population in the church and taking control of 300 ships in the port -  and the sacking of Pont Croix. He was pardoned for his crimes or acknowledged for his acts of war, depending on your point of view, and actually officially made governor of Ile Tristan at the end of the war. Accusations of intrigue with the Spaniards made this a short tenure, however, and he was executed in Paris at the ripe old age of 29.
His persona has lived on in the oral tradition, but aside from a short profile published in the 1920s, little serious and un-romantic work appears to have been done on the historical evidence of the life of this extraordinary, excessive personality. Sociopath or product of his times, able to get away with more than most in this far flung corner of France? I've made some effort to go further with research, with little result as yet. On the island today I wanted to get an idea of the strategic positions and the defensibility, as all efforts to dislodge La Fontenelle during his reign of terror proved fruitless. Not sure I made a lot of progress, but it's certainly true to say that the less I can find out about him, the more interesting he becomes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Carhaix

Eglise de St Trémeur
Carhaix presents something of a challenge for a guided tour. It's a town of exceptional pedigree, having been a major centre in Roman Brittany, a thriving focus for medieval commerce and the hub of transport networks in the 19th century, but with some sorry slumps in between. A Welsh visitor in the 1870s described it as 'a primitive place', and it was indeed forced into a depressing isolation by the re-arrangements of the Revolution which separated Carhaix from its natural territory of the Poher in central Brittany, leaving it a border town without administrative status on the eastern edge of Finistère. These days it is enjoying something of a revival, with a lively cultural scene and new economic initiatives to keep employment in the town.
The problem for a heritage tour is that whilst some arresting visual evidence of a significant past remains, these scattered nuggets are overwhelmed by the low-rise, dull white modern development that swamps the town even into the central areas. Some fine houses still stand in the rue Brieux and Place de la Mairie, odd traces of aqueduct linger in modern industrial areas and religious architecture offers a few beauties worth walking for, but getting around is generally not easy on the eye and physically constrained by cars everywhere and narrow pavements - many with cars parked on them to obstruct individuals, let alone a meandering group. Today I tried to devise a workable route and wasn't entirely satisifed, but will persevere. I'm going to give it a go with Brittany Walks next month, and the town will figure in a new book I'm probably going to do next year.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tour of the Marches of Brittany

Fougères
Just back from taking a small group to eastern Brittany for a four day visit to some famous and a few secret places in the area. We stayed in my favourite gites at Combourg, where the chateau was a highlight of our tour, spent a day at Fougères including the fabulous castle and the beautiful beech forest there which contains some remarkable antiquities, and explored Vitré with its unusual chateau.
Vitré
Then we went north for the cathedral at Dol-de-Bretagne and the oldest houses in Brittany in the rue des Stuarts. A nobleman from Dol was the original 'steward' (or management executive as we'd probably say today) in Scotland and so the founder of the Stuart dynasty. Final moments were on the top of Mont Dol, looking over the polders to Mont St Michel.
Dol-de-Bretagne

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where there's life...

Gallo-Romano bridge
Two contrasting experiences this week. On a mission in Callac, I happened to find myself near the Gallo-Romano bridge, a potentially rather fine sight but reeking of neglect and insignificance in its present state. I would have thought this was something to be rather proud of anywhere, but especially in a commune not overly endowed with cultural interest. Some local people seem unaware of its existence and certainly not inclined to rate its survival high on the heritage ladder.
I visited the new Maison de la Mine in the small village of Locmaria Berrien on the last day of its summer opening. What admirable energy, goodwill and practical sense have seen the creation of this little museum by the association ASAM! The small but carefully crafted exhibition brings to life the social and economic history of the nearby lead/silver mine in the forest. The mine was once one of the largest in France and there are various visible remains on the ground which always arouse the curiosity of walkers and retired engineers. Now they can stroll or drive up to the village and find out everything about those somewhat sad remains - or better still, go to the exhibition first, in order to understand the context of what can be seen in situ. The guided visit to the display of artefacts, models and documents given by a volunteer when I was there was exceptionally good, and I hope all the immense work of the association will be rewarded with large visitor numbers next year.
I don't expect many will bother to seek out the Roman bridge or that a very small association will be formed to provide a context and assessment of its local importance. And yet money is poured into totally artificial and pretty spurious heritage like the Valley of the Saints, which garners greater publicity and interest than either the genuine article like the dying bridge or the totally laudable work of a dedicated group like ASAM who have breathed life into a real historical  project.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Equinox

Not able to be out early this morning for the actual moment of Equinox, but today it is time to celebrate another turn of the year, and one which heralds my favourite half. Whilst others mourn summer, I happily anticipate the winter months. It's still warm and sunny here in western Brittany, although we had our share of electric storms last week. My rituals are usually simple things I do every day - walking, writing and cooking. There are red apples and still plenty of strawberries in my little adopted garden, so I make pies, crumbles and compotes for friends and freezer.
A walk in the forest concentrates the mind on the changing season and the sounds becoming more evident as fresh energies stir. The shallow rasp of my dog's breath contrasts with the slow, gentle in- and exhalations of the wind, and falling sap dries the rustle of browning leaves and brittle ferns. The post-deluge urgent clamour of water is now hushed to gossipy eddies along the rocky stream beds. Many of the footpaths are sporting wiggly stripes where their topcoat has been stripped by temporary torrents forcing their way downhill.
It's been a wonderful day, and best of all, I can actually see it. After nearly eight months of living in a blurred world, my vision is clear and balance restored, so I am well in tune with this equinox...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Queffleuth

Old slab bridge on the Queffleuth
We had a Brittany Walks event this week looking at the landscape of the Queffleuth valley near Pleyber-Christ. This beautiful little river - although capable of flooding the centre of Morlaix when aroused - features in the river chapter of my new book and has been thoroughly studied by the Association Au Fil du Queffleuth et de la Penzé. Riboul Potic is a labelled circuit of 2kms, extended through woodland on the other side of the D769 to give a 5.5km route. Information boards (in French, but well-illustrated) offer a good idea of the radical changes to the appearance of the terrain over the last 150 years with the loss of small parcels of land and destruction of hedged boundaries  on one side to facilitate larger-scale agriculture, and the intensive tree-cover of today on the other where farming the heights became un-economical in the late 19th century.
The water-quality of the Queffleuth is high, making it a habitat for otters, trout and salmon, just as it once made the river good for paper-production and the site of many mills. The most interesting feature on the circuit is perhaps the irrigation system once used to keep the Prat ar Gaor (Goats' meadow) well-watered even in times of drought. A mini-barrage and valve system were constructed to feed a bief - a supply channel similar on a smaller scale to the bief de partage of the Nantes-Brest Canal - cut straight to enclose the land and connect the two ends of a wide bend in the main river course. From this trenches were cut across the meadow in the 'fish-bone style' with a central spine and many off-shoots, taking moisture to almost all parts of the pasture land. This skeleton outline is still just visible on the ground.
Apart from historical and natural interest, it's a pretty route, well worth a gentle afternoon stroll. Park in the lay-by just off the D769 at Le Pléen (turning to Pleyber-Christ) and follow well-placed and (for once) consistent green waymarks.