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.