Monday, October 12, 2020

Autumn


Today was the first really autumnal day of the year, with a mist stretching over the lake and town early this morning. I went out in search of seasonal colour in the forest this afternoon and found it before the rain set in. My novel is all finished now so I have time to reignite the landscape connection that inspires all my work. 

I can't believe someone asked me this morning 'What's next?' Rest, rest, rest. I will have had three books out this year in December. Surely that's enough by any author's standards. But there is a great void now after the intense work of the last six months. I began The Stolen Saint in March during the confinement and actually managed to work consistently through the summer which is usually a non-productive time for me. Still, it was lovely to walk today without the sense of pressure and need to hurry back to the keyboard. And the forest was magical.




Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Stolen Saint


September seems to have disappeared in a frenzy of writing, finishing the first draft of The Stolen Saint and then knuckling down to the much harder graft of the second, resolving any issues of chronology and continuity. The simple day to day calendar coherence has been amazingly hard - I don't remember any of this sort of problem in my first two novels, although that was rather a long time ago and perhaps I just ignored such things in those days. There are two visits to a market by main characters and in the first it is established that the day is Thursday. All the narrative fits around that, except that the second visit was written as if it was a Monday, with lots of knock-on effects that are difficult to resolve. That is one tiny example of the myriad of complexities I've been struggling with. My calculator has been much in play for dates of births, marriages and deaths, from 1917 onwards, rationalising the ages of characters in relation to others. It has not been easy with four generations to contend with and some of the most important characters long dead.

So what is the book about? There is a main character and her progress in coming to live in a village in Brittany is the basic storyline. She is Breton by birth, but has been living in London, and most of the characters are Breton or French or both, with a few British exceptions. There is a strong historical side with Breton culture and popular traditions underpinning the 'plot', such as it is, which concerns two rival saints from the Dark Ages. However, this is a novel about people and place primarily, even if magic and mystery going back to the neolithic sneak in. To sum up, it's a hymn to Brittany, like all my books.

Out in December, it will make the perfect Christmas present......

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sunday walk

St Jean fontaine
Taking advantage of what may be the last of the good weather for a while, I walked in the Monts d'Arrée today above Commana. The fontaine of St Jean and its little lavoir has been very lovingly restored by a local association. It stands alone beside a track, the accompanying chapel long since destroyed, with a young oak tree to shade the rough schist slab that has been thoughtfully placed to serve as a picnic table. A menhir-like stone stands beside this. We had a wonderful lunch-stop here, although for some reason the dog flatly refused to drink the spring water, which looked very fresh and clear. He is not usually so scrupulous and was to regret it as the day got hotter and hotter, and our walk turned out to be quite different from what I'd planned.
Mougau Bihan
Moving on to Mougau Bihan, I wanted some new photos of the large neolithic alley-grave, but the whole place was overrun by camping-cars, picnickers and sun-bathers, so after one quick shot, decided to give it a miss. Just opposite is the entrance to the Korrigan Trail, a 2 kilometre circuit across the marshlands in the valley and lower slopes of the high hills. This route is all I had intended to do, given the temperature and the fact it was a big day in the Tour de France and I didn't want to miss anything exciting. But the trail was closed, not only by rough barriers, but a tractor parked in the narrow entrance (that has been recently created) to prevent any access.
Croaz Melar
Thwarted on two counts, we continued along the road for nearly a kilometre to join one of the main paths up onto the hills, and climbed steadily (endlessly, it seemed) in full sun, until I took advantage of a narrow off-shoot path I'd never used before, but calculated must come out somewhere near the main summit path which follows the crests of the Monts d'Arrée. Eventually we reached the junction of several different routes which I know well. Nearby Croaz Mélar was a very cool spot for a long rest. The cross marks the spot where young Mélar's severed head chose to jump back onto the body after a dispute between two teritories over his relics. Here on the border, he opted for the north, and the reconstituted body was carried back to Lanmeur where an extraordinary crypt still contains his statue.After reflecting on this gruesome tale - and I leave out the earlier hacking off of his hand and foot by his uncle - and working out some details of new developments in my novel to be written later today, we retraced our steps slowly and wearily downhill.
Homeward bound

Friday, August 28, 2020

Abbaye de Boquen

In a busy writing month I have at last found time to get out and make a visit to the Abbaye de Boquen in Cotes d'Armor. This Cistercian foundation was built in 1137, five years after the Abbaye du Relec in Finistère, both daughter-houses of the monastery at Bégard. They have evolved rather differently, however, despite many basic similarities. Boquen went through the same phases of early development and commendatory rule (from the 1490s to the Revolution) before dissolution in 1790. But it is in the 20th century that its unique fate emerged.

After lying in ruins for many years, the site was bought in 1934 by Alexis Presse, former abbot of the abbey of Tamié (and a most remarakble man), with the help of members of his family. He performed the immense task of restoring the ancient building and creating a community dedicated to the purer original principles of the Order. He also celebrated mass in Breton as well as Latin. This enjoyed considerable success until it was time for Dom Alexis to hand over the reins. He chose badly, as Bernard Besret, taking charge at the age of 29, soon determined to broaden the brief of the abbey to invite in all kinds of religious influences, to the chagrin of traditionalists and eventually the Catholic powers that be who removed him from office.
Mill house
West door
Today the site is run by the ecumenical Communauté du Chemin neuf. The majority of the abbey structures are off limit to casual visitors, being reserved for the community and guests at their events. An old mill houses a permanent exhibition about the history of the abbey and from there a sylvan track leads on round through the trees to approach the west face of church itself directly. Inside the simplicity of the original is maintained, particularly evident in the transept. Before the high altar is the tombstone which is said to mark the grave of Gilles de Bretagne, brother of Duke François I, who was murdered in 1450 at the nearby Chateau de Hunaudaye after political intrigues with the English.

The large cloister area is bounded by heavily restored buildings housing the modern community, with the two remaining sections of covered passage glassed in. Only the fragmentary remains of the chapter house with its evocative carvings give any sense of the distant past in this strangely uninspiring contemporary manifestation of an ancient site of worship. A cavernous chapel of Saint Bruno can also be seen.The rather remote setting on the edge of the forest of Boquen, with streams around the abbey walls, is a more potent reminder of original Cistercian ideals. The Abbaye du Relec, by contrast, has preserved less and offers much more to those in search of spiritual atmosphere, where a real sense of the labour of the monks and their partnership with nature is still in evidence.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Chateau de Hac

The unusual Chateau de Hac dates mainly from the mid 15th century, when it was created primarily as a 'pleasure palace' for the Hingant family, in choice hunting territory, probably on the site of an earlier lodge. Use of the local limestone contrasts with more common granite defensive strongholds and lends a refined elegance to the façade. Little was known of this family beforehand, and the building was also designed to show off the fruits of their remarkable rise to power and prominence, thanks to a lucrative marriage by Jean Hingant with Guyonne de Bintin. This brought him into the sphere of mighty Breton noble houses like the Montauban and Coëtquen families. (The latter, by the way, have interesting connections with the legendary figure of Lancelot.)
But this 'Seigneur de Hac' was a tricky customer, involved in many a court case and all kinds of unsavoury behaviour like seizing rights from a senile old man and other crooked deals. He needed to keep a careful eye on security of his person and one striking piece of furniture in the chateau shows this preoccupation. An ancient oak cupboard inscribed with PAX and a cross was designed as a depository for weapons when guests entered the house. This practice also re-enforced the sense of his own importance that the stylish façade of the chateau conveyed immediately to any visitors.
Undoubted abilities as a wheeler-dealer, and perhaps the very fact that he was not himself of the highest lineage, brought him into ducal spheres after staunch military service. Jean V chose to appoint this comparative outsider as chamberlain in 1438. He eventually fell from favour for his part in the affair of Gilles de Bretagne. This prince of Brittany was brother to duke François I, but eventually taken into custody after constant and blatant intrigues with the English. He was smothered when in captivity at the chateau of La Hardouinaye, whilst under the overall care of Jean Hingant. Royal agents arrived at the Chateau de Hac in 1450 to arrest its master, but Hingant was already on the run with his son, Eustache and many dramatic brushes with the law were to follow in the next few years. He died some time between 1459 and 1465.
The chateau visit (guided only) gives a good idea of social and economic niceties of the period, with contrasting use of rooms on different levels for the general public or wealthy and important connections and a large private apartment complete with side chapel. As well as the usual grand fireplaces, there are some interesting features, including stolen stained glass windows with a good story and a beautiful old corner cupboard which totally conceals the entrance to a modern lift. But the emphasis on the very well-presented tour is on the contemporary context of the chateau and the rise and fall of the Hingant family. Small gardens laid out on a parterre formula are a pretty addition, in the absence of a park.
The area around the villages of Le Quiou and Tréfumel where the chateau is situated was once at the bottom of a sea linking what would be the Channel and the Atlantic in the Miocene period about 15 million years ago. This separated the ‘Ile d’Armorique’ (later western Brittany) from the eastern part and later mainland France. These warm, shallow (40m at most) waters harboured all kinds of marine creatures – sting-rays, the huge megalodon, a prehistoric shark, and snub-nosed seacows – and created an accumulation of shell sand, called le falun. This sedimentary layer has yielded a myriad of fossils, and in the modern era the more solid masses of falun were quarried and the light, malleable limestone called pierre de jauge used in local architecture for ornamentation. It is easy to spot in the villages of the area, and remains of lime working can still be seen in Le Quiou.

The Maison Nature des Faluns in Tréfumel is well worth a visit, and there are extensive remains of a Roman villa near the Green Way in Le Quiou, with open access.
         











Sunday, July 12, 2020

Book-signing

Book-signing last Friday for Wayfaring in Brittany and the new French edition of the Nantes-Brest Canal guide. Met some lovely people!

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Newsletter

I've started a newsletter, largely with the aim of engaging more directly and personally with readers and answering questions I am asked about my life or writing. It will also be about Brittany, of course, as all my work whether fiction or non-fiction is centred on the history, legends and landscape of this remarkable place. Regular short features like Speaking of places, In the hut and a question box will combine with quirky facts around my writing and daily life. The new novel I am currently engaged on will also figure largely, as the (fictional) Breton village where it is set evolves.
Anyone who would like to be on the mailing list to receive about 10 issues a year of this emailed PDF document, can contact me at mewes@orange.fr or on Twitter @brittanyexpert  Your details will only be used for this purpose.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Le Canal de Nantes à Brest - French guide now out

It's out! French version of my very popular Nantes-Brest canal guide, which is now in a fourth edition in English. Every inch of the 361 km mapped, accommodation, shops, refreshments, all updated this year. The introduction has a history of the canal and there is also much practical information about locks, nearby sights along the way and details of connected walking/cycling circuits along the entire length.
Le guide indispensable à vélo ou à pied! www.reddogbooks.com


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Bretons: Mai Le Manac'h, Lady Mond



This is an extraordinary ‘rags to riches’ story. Mai Le Manac’h, daughter of the miller at Prat Guéguen in Belle-Ile-en-Terre, rose through an unconventional life to become Lady Mond, wife of the ‘nickel king’ millionaire Robert Mond. From a simple Breton childhood she came to enjoy enormous wealth and glamorous lifestyle, but she remained inextricably linked with Brittany and her roots.
She was born in 1869, leaving home as a teenager to seek her fortune first in St Brieuc and then in Paris. Here she entered the bohemian world of Montmartre, and this part of her life is little documented, but on record in 1893 is a charge of indecent exposure for showing herself naked in a restaurant.
She moved to London after starting a relationship with fruit and vegetable merchant Simon Gugenheim. They married in 1897 but the union was short-lived as he died of TB three years later. Mai now moved freely in wealthy circles, and met her next love at the Savoy Hotel. Becoming the mistress of the Infant of Spain, Antoine d’Orleans, fixed her place in high society, although it could never lead to a permanent tie. She returned to Brittany now and again, buying a house in Belle-Isle-en-terre.
Chateau de Coat-an-Noz
In 1910 she met rich industrialist Robert Mond, and this relationship was to last. They wed in 1922 and he was knighted by George V in 1932. As Lady Mond, Mai remained closely bound to her Breton origins. The couple established their home at the international resort of Dinard, at the mouth of the Rance, in the Chateau du Bec, which became known as 'Castel Mond'. They funded the first lifeboat for the town in 1924.
For Mai’s 60th birthday, however, her husband bought her the chateau on the edge of the Wood of the Night (Coat-an-Noz)at LocEnvel, near Belle-Isle. Many famous people were entertained here before the war, as Lady Mond was a patron of Breton culture. Contests of the gouren or Breton wrestling were also held as this sport was always of great interest to her. Until very recently this chateau could be seen in semi-ruined state, the palatial interior covered with graffiti. It is now being renovated and off-limits.
Widowed in 1938, Lady Mond was imprisoned in Guingamp for a while during the occupation, and the chateau seized by the Germans. Afterwards she decided to build a smaller chateau on the site of her father’s former mill in Belle-Isle-en-Terre. When this on completion was found to be too near the road, she had it knocked down and rebuilt ten metres back... Her generosity had already funded many public buildings there – the post office, town hall, village hall and police station.
She died in 1949 and was buried in a special mausoleum shared with her husband at Locmaria before her remains were later removed to England.
Mond mausoleum


Friday, June 12, 2020

The bridge that has lost its name.....

Pont Guern
When I first came to the area of Huelgoat forest two decades ago, I discovered many small treasures in addition to the much vaunted sites like the so-called Grotte d'Artus and Camp d'Artus, and the Mare aux sangliers. One of these was the little footbridge over the upper reaches of the 'stream with no name' on the boundary of the commune of Berrien. The Pont Guern is a simple slab construction of unknown date, engraved with a cross. Some call it the Pont Guen or White Bridge, an echo of the well-known Pont Rouge in another part of the forest. It sits in an idyllic spot where dragonflies sport and a kingfisher flashes by from time to time. This was the only crossing north of the Mare aux sangliers when I arrived, so an important part of walking circuits around the forest. It was clearly signed from the rough forest parking above the valley off the main road between Huelgoat and Berrien. This unassuming bridge formed part of the childhood memories of old people who played here about a hundred years ago today, and it was certainly not new in those days, so at the very latest it is a 19th century creation, but quite possibly very much older.
Later, in my time here, a wooden passerelle was built between the Pont Guern and the Mare aux sangliers, offering more opportunities for criss-crossing the little river. To reach the Pont Guern from this new feature, an additional wooden walkway ran along the left bank, inches from the water, which runs fast and strong in any rainy season, and the path then leads through woods just above the flow to reach a little boggy meadow by the old slab bridge.
So far so good. An old crossing point and a modern construction, connected by a pretty path. Two places to move from one side of the stream to the other in possibly the most beautiful valley of the entire forest. Today, not so good, as the wooden passerelle has usurped the name and identity of the ancient slab bridge in an astonishing slap in the face to history and the importance of place-names.
The first sign of this historical corruption came quite a while ago with the appearance of a sign post on the main path above the passerelle, marking the Pont Guern at 150m down the linking path. This was obviously a mistake as the distance to the real bridge from that point is more like 400m. It would be by no means the first time that casual miscalculations of distance appeared in the name of tourism around here. But worse was to follow later. There has been a drive to put up information boards (mostly awful) and new signage in the forest, which is notoriously badly managed in that way. I spend a lot of time each year helping lost visitors. One of the characteristics of forest is that it is disorientating terrain - people unskilled in navigation and with no sense of direction need clear maps and clear signs, neither of which have been available (except in my own guidebook, mapped with GPS).
Modern footbridge with false name plaque
Metal plaques went up on the wooden passerelle naming it 'Pont Guern'. Almost immediately someone (not me) scribbled 'non' over these travesties of signs. I went to the mairie and was told to contact the Communauté de Comunes at Loqueffret. I wrote to them via their website and got no reply whatsoever. Twice. I later spoke briefly to the mayor of Huelgoat who expressed a passing interest but has had rather a lot on his mind lately, with coronavirus and elections. Perhaps this is not the moment to start a crusade on behalf of a tiny piece of heritage. But how is it possible for tourism to change history? For people who don't know the forest to make decisions about its documentation? I am amazed that there should be so little pride in local heritage that such an error can stand. I fear that increasingly such things don't matter. Who cares? I do and I hope I'm not the only one.

POSTSCRIPT to this in the light of responses on Twitter today. Maps of the area made for this year's tourist season mark the new crossing Pont Guern and leave the old bridge off altogether, now denying its very existence.
UPDATE 30/06/20  My meeting with mayor of Huelgoat to ask for some answers cancelled without explanation or apology.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Today's the day

I didn't know when I set out on the first kilometres of the Tro Breiz pilgrimage in January 2017, with the intention of writing a book about the journey, that many things physical and emotional would intervene and a very different book would emerge more than three years later. It has been a struggle, but the achievement is there, despite a heart attack, a bereavement and many other obstacles along the way. Bitter-sweet day now to relive all that and finally offer the book to the world, with my very best wishes. www.reddogbooks.com/w.htm 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Coming very soon...

There have been some delays, not surprisingly with current working conditions, at the printing stage, but the book should soon be ready. News about launch also in the pipeline. Thanks to all those who've enquired about this. I know that the many lovely British and French fans of Spirit of Place kind enough to want to continue following my work have had a long three year wait, but it's nearly over now. At the very least I hope people will enjoy the 'triumph over adversity' aspect that accounts for the long delay in finishing this book. I can still hardly believe I made it to the end.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Nantes-Brest Canal guide - 4th edition

Very pleased to announce that the 4th edition of my Nantes-Brest Canal guide is available now. There will also be a new French edition for the first time on release shortly. The enduring popularity of this guide shows how important the canal is as a leisure resource, although the balance between walking and cycling has definitely swung towards the latter. It always saddens me to see cyclists whizzing along to make their daily kilometre target and not noticing all kinds of wildlife and natural treats along the way. The guide includes all the accommodation information needed to plan a trip, as well as showing restaurants and cafés or where provisions can be purchased within easy reach of the towpath. All this has been checked and updated for this new version and the route itself verified on the ground.
Every inch of the towpath is carefully mapped, with detail of locks and crossing points, direction of flow and distances. Places of interest on and around the canal are given on the relevant pages and there is a long introduction describing the origins and development of this extraordinary engineering feat. We have Napoleon to thank for the go-head for this incredibly expensive and labour-intensive project, with work carried out in fits and starts over twenty-odd years from 1806. The heyday of the canal was in the last years of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th. Burgeoning railways and, after WWI, lorry transport were invincible rivals for this slow form of transport and decline was long and sad, although a few barges operated right up until 1977 when the last load of sand was deposited at Saint-Congard in Morbihan.
Many people do not realise that that the vast majority of the 365km length of the canal consists of beautiful, wide, windy, free-flowing river with few locks, and it is only the connecting sections between river valleys that are the straight narrower channels often associated with the word 'canal'. There is nothing monotonous about a walk or ride across the very diverse territory from Loire-Atlantique to Finistere. The introduction to this guide gives an idea of the changing landscape and atmosphere right across historic Brittany. Better note before planning a trip that the canal actually starts just over 20km north of Nantes and ends nowhere near Brest....

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Simple things will save us


A walking meditation: this little route gives me hope

I start at the bridge, watching the water, thinking of now and all it is. Yellow is the colour, the colour of sickliness and fear, but here bright in granitic sand lining the stream bed, the gleam of mallows in the April sun. First thought: clarity and flow. Quick movements of nature while we slow down, a reminder of true rhythm.
The first path is through a small wood. I move into green. How this colour flows differently into the leaves of spring, the freshness of new beech spurts, the acid of moss, the deep vibrance of new grasses. Still the darkness of winter in holly and ivy. I have lost my closest person to the coronavirus, my grief is still green and new. It can only grow.

At the top of the path, I choose the right fork into the tiniest of valleys, down steeply in shade to a minute trickle of water, up steeply into dappled light. My knees feel the gradient, adding to the stiff joints of mourning. This small interlude is of everyday and the mundane, a beaten earth path, the basic ups and downs of life moving us between beauty and disappoinment, between heartache and love, these necessary intervals of heightened emotion and extra demands. My heart beats faster on the up. Breath is another sort of up and down. We are forced to relook our now.
Now the way is very narrow between banks. I think of confinement, a negative connotation, and then of boundaries, not so bad. Here the path divides a field just ploughed and a tangle of wild scrub. The tame and untamed, the contrasts of lockdown where we long for mad outstepping, and the needs of growing food through disciplined work and management of time. Both are essentials in their way. The making of land calls it. I long for the uncontrolled, but my need for rage is gently diminished, as I tread through.
At the end, I stop. A beautiful oak is getting ready to bloom, on a gilded spread of celandines. The next throw of the path is obscured around a sharp bend. This is a pause before new knowledge. My grief is soft and settling in the stillness. Things are happening quietly around and within. A bird reminds me of melody. An encouragement of song, that stirs my tired heart. Half life is on fire, the other half is burnt and gone.
Around the corner, the sense of more up is daunting. We imagine sunken ways downwards. I have the sensation that I have shrunken within these banks. Trees are huge sometimes. But I feel escorted, a ribbon of bluebells at my ankles. There is always path as long as we can walk. Here I am just the little brown thing waiting to green.
Second pause. Everything so far has been immediate. From this point suddenly I can glimpse across the valley the houses at the top of town, and my mind surges out. What is yellow and green in the world right now, what are the boundaries to be faced, the vistas cut off, the friendly access denied? If compassion were contagious. Any path can lead anywhere because our minds are beyond restriction.
Back to now and here. Ahead is a tunnel of foliage stretching uphill to where it will end at a little road, and just before that the rock that is my marker, my goal. I am feeling the rock from a distance through a fug of horse smell and the wasted effort of recently severed tree trunks. The rock is still, waiting for me. I can finish with the touch of a friend.
Meditation is over. I turn back, and at once the dog runs up for his treat, part of it all again.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Two weeks in lockdown

Day 9
Here in rural Brittany people are calm and daily life is orderly, with no shortages or panic buying, and most people observing a distance from others. The lake path and waterside parks have been forbidden to all of us trying to exercise and walk our dogs. There has been no edict issued about the forest, and as I live on the edge, I have made short excursions out and back, keeping to the regulations of remaining within one kilometre of home. A few days ago I was stopped by the police a few metres from my house and asked to produce the form of attestation. I only had the old one and with the wrong date, but was let off with a warning to print out a new form every day. Honestly and surprisingly, I don't enjoy the dog-walk, feeling it a daily pressure and stress without solidly clear guidance of where one can go.
Mentally I am starting to struggle a little. Unable to concentrate well and lacking any urgent current project, it is hard to structure the day and I fritter away time, unsettled and frustrated with myself. So far I have baked a lot and watched the 1967 version of the Forsyte Saga. I do some basic stretching exercises and a short Tai Chi routine every day but my body feels torpid and full of aching joints. My arthritic hand is much worse and gives constant pain, making writing difficult, even if I could muster the concentration. The easy flow of creativity has completely departed from my life under these conditions.
Day 13
I have made a cogent effort to use my time better, at least to complete a few basic tasks every day and then not worry if nothing else is achieved. I've expanded Tai Chi and bodywork meditations to an hour and devoted the same amount of time to my new novel, so it grows at least by a few paragraphs a day. My spiritual practice remains strong since my retreat last month, which was in fact good training for the current situation. This moderate level of activity is enough for me, but the steady routine has actually made me much less anxious and more able to get things done generally. I need medication soon and am hesitating between asking someone younger and fitter than me to get it or go myself. I have not set foot in the town or any shop since this started and feel reluctant to cross that line and take the risk. My immunity is low and keeping away from people seems an imperative. On the other hand, I obviously don't want anyone else to suffer on my account. On dog walks I rarely see another person and no-one at close quarters. The healing hush of the forest is powerful at a time like this, when atmosphere is heightened by our fears and sensitivity to the unusual flow of energy that prevails in this strange suspended framework of changed life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Bretons: Vefa de Saint-Pierre

This extraordinary woman was born in 1872 in the Goëlo region of Brittany, although she is most closely associated with Spezet and the Montagnes Noires in Finistère for her later activities.
As a child she wanted to dress like a boy and harboured ambitions of running away to sea. Hunting was a real passion from an early age and throughout her life, guns were never far away.
At 18 she joined a nunnery, perhaps a surprising choice for one of such decidedly strong and individual character, but it did mean she got to go on her first significant journey, a mission to the Equator in 1899. This fuelled the thirst for long-distance travel which was to be another theme of her life, with a visit to America and Canada in 1906. By this time she had left the religious order definitively without taking orders or being thought suitable to take them by her superiors. She met President Roosevelt and spent a lot of time delightedly hunting caribou.
Back in Brittany in 1908 she bought the Manoir de Menez Kamm near Spézet which was to be her beloved home for many years. It was situated in prime hunting territory and she was soon well-known for fearless pursuit of the local wild boar. She learnt Breton and became an ardent (and militant) advocate of Breton history and culture, hoping for the kind of revolution in Brittany that Ireland had seen. She gave money and moral support to many Breton nationalist projects and local organisations, and was closely involved with Gorsedd bardic community. In 1930 she was given the bardic name Brug ar Menez Du (Heather of the Black Mountain).
She had a very lively intelligence, bent on constant learning throughout her life, whether languages, geography, natural sciences or theology, remaining a devout and committed Catholic. She also wrote poetry, although always very modest about her talents. A round-the-world trip in the 1920s gave her the chance to write about her travels and encounters for magazines and papers, as she visited Australia for an international Christian conference.
After the war, her beloved home was used as a centre of Breton culture, as she provided free bed and board for many writers and musicians. As old age loomed, she herself was increasingly based in Saint-Brieuc, until her death there in 1967. Claire Arlaux's engrossing biography tells the whole story of an exceptional and remarkable figure in 20th century Breton history, giving a new perspective on pre-war nationalism and subsequent cultural development.


Saturday, February 29, 2020

On the other side of silence

I have just finished a five-day silent 'retreat', staying at home and only walking where I knew I'd see no-one. Neighbours were primed to ignore me if necessary, but in fact I saw no-one for the duration. My purpose was to explore the thing itself, to think through a few issues, to renew my spiritual practice with meditation and study, and to relax deeply. The only concern was my very loving dog who is used to constant verbal communication with me and who is highly vocal himself. On a few occasions when he seemed really perturbed or frustrated by the silence, I whispered in his ear. Otherwise he soon responded swiftly to a single hand-clap or whistle. In the house I maintained silence - no radio, TV, internet or music. There was plenty of weather to listen to as it turned out, and I walked through storms on the moors and in the forests, finishing yesterday with a meditation in the pouring rain at my favourite personal outdoor space, on the rocks beside a turbulent river.
On the first day, my energies and thoughts were a bit scattered as I broke customary patterns of computer use, using the time to make notes on the first question on my list for consideration, about one aspect of my life that needs decisions. I also revisited my personal values list and thought carefully about their relevance to the choices I must make. On my two walks I kept very much in the moment - no emails to think about or anticipate - and struck up acquaintance with two trees of powerful character that I have passed a hundred times before without looking or listening attentively. This was something precious in the way of connection that repeated as the week went on.
I also read a lot - Greek myths, a book on extending paganism beyond the superficial - meditated and used various methods of divination on the question of the day. I was very tired at the end of this first day, but had concentrated throughout almost effortlessly, as all distraction was off the table.
Too much happened to detail each day of the 'retreat' and some of it was far too intimate and extraordinary to write on a public blog, but moments of spiritual intensity and meaningful communication were not lacking. I read a powerful book about ritual and an academic history of paganism. I wrote the preface of my new novel and conceived an ambitious new writing project that would change the whole focus of my work if it turns out well. I made a couple of decisions that have been difficult to resolve in recent months and felt all my thinking clear and sharp from the second day. Some personal issues simply resolved themselves in the course of the week without special attention.
There was no problem whatsoever with the silence, no desire to break it or to communicate with any of my human connections. I slept long hours and by the last day my body was just about catching up with everything and relaxing in the space and silence that filled the house in a resounding way. I recommend the practice to anyone seeking clarity or peaceful development and would love to hear the experiences of others.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Bretons: Theophile-Malo Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne

Starting this series of articles on interesting and not so well-known figures in Breton history with a soldier and scholar, who has left at least one important legacy in assigning the names dolmen and menhir to megalithic structures. Along with his friend Jacques Le Brigant, he was one of the first to be called a  'celtomane', reflecting passionate zeal for all things Celtic, a phenomenon which grew from the late 18th century until a peak a hundred years later. Amateur archaeologists and researchers of this persuasion were especially concerned with the excavation of neolithic monuments, which were thought - by almost all - to be the products of the Celts and Druidic religion.
His life (1743-1800) is celebrated in Carhaix, his birth-place (unless it was nearby St Hernin), with a statue in his eponymous square. The tribute portrays scenes from his astonishing military career, where he was highly respected by his men and regarded as having a charmed life. But he was also an accomplished scholar, and rarely seen even on campaign without a book.
Théophile-Malo Corret grew up in the Chateau de Kergoat and was educated at the college of Quimper before joining the Mousquetaires du Roi. Later serving the Régiment d'Angoumois, he went on to fight in Spain against the English. In 1777 he added De la Tour d'Auvergne to his name after discovering a link with this famous noble family. He was unusual in refusing promotions and honours, such as the rank of colonel, and only accepting to be a captain in the grenadiers in 1792, when he fought in the Republican army after the French revolution.
His only surviving major work is the Origines Gauloises, published in 1792, which sets the Celts and the Breton language at the beginning of European civilisation. He formalised the use of menhir (or long stone in Breton) for a standing-stone (although peulven or upright stone is equally known in Brittany) and dolmen or stone table for a tomb. This refers to the basic structure of two uprights and a capstone of the simplest form, resembling a table in outline.
Musée de la Révolution française

After seeing service in the Savoy region and the Pyrenées, he intended spending his retirement in Carhaix but was captured by the English navy off Brest in 1794 and forced to spend several years in a pontoon prison ship on the south coast of England. During this period of captivity and subsequent residence in Paris, he worked on the ambitious project of producing a dictionary comparing 42 languages. This was never completed.
In 1797, after failing to use his influence to save Le Brigant's only son from military call-up, La Tour d'Auvergne  decided to volunteer in his place, and at the age of 54 was back in arms. In April 1800 Napoleon gave him the title Premier Grenadier de la République for acts of great bravery, but he was to die only two months later on the battlefield at Oberhausen in Bavaria. He is buried in the Pantheon.



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ile de Houat

Port St Gildas and the ferry
Finally made it to this little island today on my fourth attempt, after three boats cancelled because of bad weather. I was beginning to think it would never happen - at least in time to finish my book for deadline. This was the first landing place of St Gildas in the 6th century and later his retirement home after an illustrious foundation of the abbey which exists in more recent form at what is now St-Gildas-du-Rhuys on the mainland opposite. I needed this trip to complete my writing on the saint's wayfaring in my new book, a chapter also covering another island off the north coast of Brittany.
Today was beautifully clear and sunny, but the wind was cruel and made what should have been a great day's walking into a bit of an ordeal.
St Gildas on his death-bed
Direct reference to St Gildas is in the name of the port itself, a sacred spring on one of the many wonderful beaches and the church. This contains a large 19th century painting of the death of the saint, showing the devotions of his monks. There are also two statues of the saint, a ceremonial banner and the words of his canticles. I am a week too early for his special day. The fontaine has no statue and looks sadly neglected, with a dribble of water from the cliff finding its way out through supporting platform. It is also completely unsigned and not particularly easy to find without effort.
Sacred spring of St Gildas
That said, the tiny bourg is attractive, despite everything being firmly shut on this January day and no-one about. I was the only outsider on the boat over from Quiberon, the other fifteen or so being welcomed by family on arrival or carrying large cool boxes for some kind of shell-fish activity. On the return journey huge whole fish were stacked in iced crates on the passenger deck.
The scenery of the island is magnificent, with a coastal path of 17 km in entirety and no constructions outside the one village - with the exception of three forts from the 19th century, one at each end and one on the highest point of the island.
Mairie
Fort, now offering accommodation
I shall explore some of the interesting history of the island in my book and definitely return for more of the wild beauty of the landscape on another trip outside the winter months. It is only a 40 minute run on the ferry from Quiberon - weather permitting.