Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Death and the Devil

Still struggling with physical movement, but working 'normally' on new book The Legends of Brittany. This is organised thematically with chapters on saints, Dark Age semi-historical tales, Arthurian stories, women in legend, landscape, giants and dwarves, megaliths, etc.
Currently researching death and the devil, which, in Brittany, means an amusing combination. Both Ankou (Grim Reaper) and the Devil (Red Man) are almost appealing figures until the Church sticks its oar in, puts the fear of God into life and demonises the poor old devil. The fact he's clearly working hard to punish sinners surely makes him one of the good guys?
I particularly like this photo of the Devil from the calvaire at Plougonven. It's traditional to represent the scene of the Devil tempting Jesus in statuary on this type of monument, but conventionally he wears the concealing robes of a monk - cloven hooves, claws or horns just poking out to give the game away. Here the Devil seems to be dressed as a 17th century rector, thus contemporary with the time of erection. Was there by any chance a falling out between the priest and the sculptor? Hope so.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Thanks for good wishes

OK, I'm back. Bloodied and bowed, but back. Many thanks for all the emails, and comments here (Ancestral Celt and Michael Dodds). I was confined to the house all summer, and after three months still have walking/driving problems. I have also been unable to work, so under severe financial constraints. Had to cancel my first holiday in seven years - a few days on Belle-Ile - and lost the money I'd paid: don't know which of those two facts was harder to bear!
Sadly had to scrap the Brittany islands book I had signed up to do, but have begun work on The Legends of Brittany, which will be published next year some time. I am also going to add themed walks to the Brittany Expert site - individual routes with all the background, maps, etc. for sale very cheaply in PDF form.
What I really want to do is set up a continuation of the Cornish Saints' Way in Brittany. It's a great project, and themed distance walks are more and more popular, but will anyone in Brittany tourism be the least bit interested? I very much doubt it. Last time I contacted the Finistere Departmental Tourism board about a project they refused me a meeting. The Quimper CCI haven't even bothered to reply to a request to discuss my training course for tourist professionals who want to promote Brittany to anglophones.
Let's face it, I have nothing to offer, because they are doing it all so well already. NOT.

Monday, September 26, 2011


WM has been unable to work this summer due to serious illness, hence silence on this blog. She sends thanks to all who have enquired and emailed good wishes, and will resume writing asap. The scheduled book on Brittany's Islands for 2012 has had to be cancelled.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Breton Chant

I went to a concert of chant at one of my favourite places in Brittany, the Abbaye du Relec, on Saturday evening. It's an approriate setting for the genre, being a Cistercian foundation dating back to 1132. The church is austere and authentic, from the extensive damp patches of green mould to uncomfortable seating and lack of heating.
As is common in Brittany, there is no programme. One of the performers gives a short introduction here and there, but unless you are sitting near the front it's impossible to hear, as there are no microphones, so there is no immediate trigger as to context or subject matter. I also can't see anything in the first half, because the man singing the Breton chants is short and his guitarist is seated.
These things enhance the experience. All I am aware of is the music, the lone male voice echoing round the high nave, mimicked by the flight of a trapped bird swooping and soaring in the chancel behind him. The purity and simplicity of the timbre match the architecture even if God is not the musical inspiration. For one song he is joined by another man and the combination is electrifying, a familiar patterning from the traditional kan ha diskan (call and counter-call) of fest-noz music for dancing. My heart beats fast with extraordinary pleasure.

The second half begins with a female group from the Balkans, three tall, one short, all clad in costume and projecting powerful voices as they process down the nave smiling at members of the audience. On the stage they move and make dramatic gestures and facial movements, touching each other affectionately as they weave physical shapes to the rhythm of the songs. They are good, but for me the spell is completely broken. This is performance, knowing and calculated, where the first half was nothing but music.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Brittany Expert Guides

New town guides to Rennes and Quimper are now available from my Brittany Expert site (link opposite). Everything you need to prepare for a visit or just admire the wonders Brittany has to offer - lavishly illustrated and with a town centre map.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saint Anne of Brittany

There is a strong tradition that Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, was a native of the Armorican peninsula (before Brittany existed), coming from the area of Plonévez-Porzay in the Bay of Douarnenez. The famous folklorist Anatole Le Braz (b.1859) recorded the legend that she left the region as a widow and travelled to Judaea. There she married Joachim, father of Mary, but later returned to her native land, where a lesser story suggests Jesus and Peter came to visit.

In Christian tradition Anne is a minor figure of the Apocrypha. Her iconography in religious art shows a tall woman with veiled head, often teaching her young daughter Mary to read. In church of Lampaul-Guimiliau, a notable Parish Close in northern Finistere, an extraordinary decorative altar panel shows Anne resting in bed having just given birth to Mary, who is being washed by the midwife.

There may be a connection between Anne and the Celtic goddess Ana, and indeed she is honoured at the church of Commana by a magnificent 18th century baroque altarpiece. Here a statue of Anne is said to have been found in a stone trough, part of the same linguistic confusion that led to stories of saints arriving on Breton shores in stone boats, as in old Breton 'koum' is both a valley and a stone trough (and the Latin for little boat is 'cumba'). One glance at the local landscape gives the game away.

Anne is the female patron goddess of Brittany and widely venerated at shrines such as Ste-Anne d'Auray, the largest Catholic site in the region, honoured by a papal visit in the 1990s. It is documented how in 1623 a local peasant had a vision of the saint telling him where to dig up her staute and rebuild a former chapel. The bishop of Vannes believed the story and the shrine was constructed.

The photos all show images from Ste-Anne La Palud (Anne of the Marshes) on the Finistere coast where she is said to have landed on return from the Holy Land.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My new book

The Shape of Mist/Lambeaux de Brume is a short collection of stories and a couple of poems. The subtitle is Tales of the Monts d'Arrée: I've given a new take (decidedly décale) on traditional legends and added a few new ones of my own invention, such as Black Dog Blues and Korrigans in Crisis. The book is a dual language edition, with French translation by my favourite collaborator, Yves Marhic, whose sensitivity to language and nuance is remarkable.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Max Jacob

Max Jacob, born Quimper 1876, died at Drancy 1944. Poet, artist, human being.

For every act of crossing
There is a price -
From an obol to human sacrifice.
Simplicity or artifice:
Portrayed by harlequins,
Betrayed by holding on.

Paying what was owed,
Measured by a gold star,
In swoops from perch to perch
Uncertain hands grasping for the cold bar.
Above a dance of prayer
Performed by peasants
Along blurred lines.

To miss the net and fall like that,
Max Jacob, acrobat.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

At last - Brittany E-books!

After a great deal of hard work, not least by the webmaster, my remarkable value Brittany E-books are now available on These cover specifc topics or places in Brittany in depth, with lots of photos and suggestions for visits. Currently on offer are Megaliths, the Nantes-Brest Canal, Food and Drink, Walking in Brittany, History Essentials and Parish Closes. Those to come shortly include Rennes and Quimper town guides and the Monts d'Arrée. Many others planned. You can buy via PayPal without a Paypal account, cost £2.50 or 3€. All books are well-illustrated.
To get the flavour, download the FREE E-book Brittany Basics directly from the site. This gives a general overview of what Brittany has to offer. It can be used freely as a marketing tool by businesses and B&Bs. Links enable clients to buy specific topic books later. Comments and suggestions for future titles welcome. Please send the link to anyone you think might be interested:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another side of Rennes

I was in Rennes this week to give a guided tour. We covered the usual things - 19th century Italianate cathedral, medieval quarter, neo-classical public buildings and the famous Parliament building. All good, and remarkably quiet on the streets with the 60,000 students on vacation. In my own time I did a lot of walking to look at more modern aspects of Rennes' most interesting architectural range. Not nearly enough emphasis nor information is provided for tourists about this. I was just wondering how they managed to clean the windows at the Cité Judiciaire when the answer appeared rather startlingly. The Champs Libres is the 2006 cultural complex containing the library (glass), science museum (dome of planetarium) and ultra-modern Musée de Bretagne.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Best Brittany Experiences - Megaliths

To get the best out of any place, don't just do obvious things. If you're into megaliths, visit Carnac by all means, but for a sharper experience go to St-Just (top photo) afterwards, and then press on to Monteneuf to see how things were done in neolithic tmes. Take a boat to see the famous carvings on the Gavrinis tomb, but then examine other designs by stooping along the passage and squeezing into the chamber of the Pierres Plates (pictured above) on the Locmariaquer peninsula, or visiting the trio of graves at Mané Kerioned. These are all low-profile sites that give you a real sense of feeling - beyond mere looking. Worth a try?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Megalithic mania

The late 19th century megalithomania may be making a comeback. Last night on History of Ancient Britain, Neil Oliver announced, with evidence getting in the way rather less than his hair in windy Brittany, that the Carnac alignments were the work of Mesolithic hunters, who apparently needed to make some kind of inarticulate and yet highy meaningful statement about identity in the face of the new world of the neolithic hunky farmer type.
A rather vague Scandanavian academic from Nantes University accompanied Neil into the Table des Marchands (at Locmariaquer - quite a different site incidentally, which was not explained). I'm totally mystified why they were stooping low and then pressing themselves up against the chamber wall with torches inches from the rock carving when in fact the tomb is large, airy and lit by electricity these days. The decorative hook or crook shapes were pronounced to be mesolithic images and directly compared with a neolithic axe motif above. WTF???
All I can say is thanks Neil, for revealing this startling new perception for us wild backwoodsmen of the Armorican peninsula who have foolishly fallen into the trap of neolithic marketing spin and gone along with all that presumably fake radio-carbon dating and comparative site analysis. Thank goodness the veil of truth has been drawn back - and on a popular TV programme to boot. There's clever, as my father would have said.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

New World

Started my customary Sunday circuit round Mont St-Michel in the Monts d'Arrée today only to be confronted almost at once by a convoy of 4-track vehicles driving across the moor and then right up onto the chapel hill via a narrow walkers' path, flattening plants as they went. Very depressing sight in a regional park where vehicles are strictly forbidden, but the Parc Armorique seem to do nothing to prevent it. Decided to get right off the usual tracks to avoid the noise, smell and intrusion of ignorant motorists, and was rewarded by the discovery of a new world with a mysterious subterranean lake. On another track on the way back up to the parking area, had to get out of the way of five very loud motorised ATVs .... could the Monts d'Arrée be losing its raw charm? And why does no-one do anything about it?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The unacceptable face of Brittany tourism

Moncontour gets 0 stars from me for its tourist service. Clearly stated on their website that the office would be open Thursday 27 January, morning only, 10-12. I planned my day accordingly: it's a very long drive for me, so left early. On arrival, I found the same information graphically displayed on the actual door of the office. However, office closed. No explanation. What an appalling service!
The mairie expressed surprise that the TO office was open in winter at all: Moncontour is a very small place - is there no communication between these two vital sources of visitor information?
I was there to plan a group visit - bit of a joke, when they obviously don't care very much about visitors.
Luckily there are plenty of other places with a better attitude. I shall be awarding stars to all from now on.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Walking up a story

I only went out for a short walk to give the dog a run today and came back with a complete new story for my collection of legends and poems of the Monts d'Arrée, out in May. Korrigans in Crisis is an unusual tale of marketing, political correctness and goblins. With apologies to Monty Python and Father Ted.