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 caf├ęs 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.