Friday, January 01, 2021

Happy New Year

Most beautiful start to the year as I crossed this exuberant river over slippery stones in early sunshine. So 2021 begins in a happy place...

Monday, December 21, 2020

Winter wishes

Yule is here again. The wheel turns still. Despite the fears, limitations and frustrations of 2020, it has been a productive one for me. Not only at last a French edition of the Nantes-Brest Canal guide, but Wayfaring in Brittany finally published after three years in the making and, most recently, The Stolen Saint, my first novel in many years, coming out in paperback and in a digital version. This was started in March during confinement and finished at the end of September. I say all this to remind myself of achievement and to show that even against monetary hardship, depression and surrounded by a pandemic, we can reach deep into our creativity as a resource to fight back against the darkness. Those who know me know how I love winter, but it has been tough to tap into even that source energy this year and the struggle is not yet won. But Yule brings change inevitably and it is up to us to respond as best we can. The solstice marking light's slow return journey is both a trigger and a challenge. We can count on that, if nothing else. 

I wish all my lovely readers the brightest of times in the most demanding of circumstances. I am very thankful for your support and encouragement to continue into a surprisingly uncertain future. Bon courage to you all.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Vikings in Brittany (Part 1)

Replica Viking boat at Pont l'Abbé

Here in Brittany the image of the Vikings has undergone what has become a familiar sea-change, from bloodthirsty sadists to high-spirited entrepreneurs. What is certain, however, is that they insinuated themselves into the Breton/Frankish power struggles like a ragged cross stitch for a hundred years, often acting in temporary alliance with one side or the other. The initial hit-and-run marauding in search of booty and adventure became over time a more complex mixture of power and land seeking. Most important of all for the development of Brittany, there is no doubt that their activities between 840 and 940 had highly significant consequences for Breton identity, language and culture, striking at the very time that Brittany the political entity was in formation.

In the 830s, Nominoë, a Breton count initially acting as representative of the emperor of the Franks to keep the peace, had begun what seem to be deliberate attempts to unify Bretons against the Franks and establish distinct spheres of political and religious control. After Charles the Bald inherited the western part of the Frankish empire from Louis Le Pieux, he was soon on a collision course with Nominoë and fighting in the disputed lands of the Marches of Brittany was fairly constant, with the Bretons pressing as far east as Le Mans.

Nantes cathedral today (before recent fire)

In June 843, the Viking attack on Nantes was an explosive shock, coming nearly fifty years after the first raids further south on Noirmoutier. The fleet of 67 ships were from Norway, possibly having followed the northern route around Britain via the Shetlands and Irish sea to access the Loire estuary. Whether by luck or insider information, it took place on the feast of St Jean, as the bishop Gunhardt was celebrating mass in the cathedral. According to a later (religious) source, he was pronouncing the eucharistic prayer ‘sursum corda’ (lift up your hearts), giving a ritualistic tinge in Catholic tradition to his brutal murder at the altar. The 11th century Chronicle of Nantes gorily describes the slaughter of the congregation that ensued.

Gunhardt slaughtered at the altar

After this crippling assault, the Vikings departed with their booty. It was to be ten years before Nantes suffered a repetition, but the struggle with these ruthlessly mobile new intruders, consisting of different groups acting both jointly and independently, was only just beginning in Brittany. The Annales de Saint-Bertin record three battles fought by Nominoë against the Vikings in the year 847. The upshot was not the clear-cut victory he had hoped for and the negotiations that followed ended in the first Breton payment of danegeld to speed the Vikings’ departure. But this secured only the briefest lull in hostilities and the true scale of the threat could not yet be measured. TO BE CONTINUED....


Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Publication Day

It's here at last! THE STOLEN SAINT comes out today with a low-key launch on December 5&6 at The Bookshop in Huelgoat, 2.30-4.30pm both days. Covid precautions and masks essential. Thanks to all those lovely readers who have already ordered the book online ( - hope it will be an enjoyable experience for everyone. I might even start the second in the series now...

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Early Tourism

In the early 20th century, organised tourism really got underway in Brittany. In Huelgoat, this was when the main hotels (Hotel d'Angleterre and Hotel de France) were built to cater for increasing visitor numbers. The central Hotel de France also made the investment of constructing an annexe of small appartments (above) overlooking the famous rocks in 1904 to provide self-catering accommodation for cyclists and fishermen. This rather unprepossessing building - social housing today - symbolised the shifting balance for the economy between industry and tourism. The granite Chaos which provided the main attraction in its forest setting was gradually being destroyed for building stone, and the Touring Club of France added its voice to a storm of protests that led to the preservation of this natural wonder as a resource for visitors rather than a practical exploitation. Quarrying stopped and holidays in the beautiful outdoors burgeoned. Cook's Travellers Handbook for railway holidays in the 1930 edition refers to its reputation as the 'Fontainebleau of Brittany' and describes the Roche tremblante as 'the finest rocking-stone in Brittany'.
Fishing and painting had long brought foreigners to the area, but there were also new pursuits. The dramatic scenery attracted many practitioners of early photography, which was rapidly gaining in popularity. One hotel included a dark-room in its advertising as a positive plus. The phrase 'English spoken' was another common boast in competitive publicity for rival accommodation providers, reflecting a lucrative market that had started back in the 19th century. English visitors passing through in 1880 said the hilly sylvan town on its lake reminded them of Switzerland, and that a 'taciturn landlord' urged them to stay for the fine fishing opportunities, showing them a well-filled visitors' book. 

After the First World War there was a further boom in travel and tourism in Brittany and a resurgence of cultural festivals. From 1921 Huelgoat celebrated
Fêtes bretonnes with traditional music and dancing in local costumes, which raised the profile of the town for outsiders in search of that quinessential Breton heritage. The poster above shows the celebration of a Pardon in Huelgoat used as advertising by the French national railway, encouraging travellers in search of the folkloric and picturesque. Ultimate sign of being 'on the map' - the town's first tourist office opened in 1923 to respond to the growing demands of French and foreign visitors.

Friday, November 06, 2020


THE STOLEN SAINT, my novel set in Brittany, is now available for pre-order (publication date December 1st). Here's the direct link to order:    
Thanks for all the interest already shown in this new venture. It's really appreciated in these very hard times.