Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Yule and 2014 to all my readers

Wishing everyone a very happy holiday break, with thanks for all the phenomenal support I've had from friends and readers during this year. Looking forward to 2014!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Quimper - new perspective

Made a quick dash to Quimper today in beautifully clear weather. Everyone knows about the unusual crooked nave of the cathedral, but a crooked spire too?  Who knew.
Came home in a violent storm.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pliny the Younger and Penmarc'h

This morning I've had the strange experience of baking Christmas biscuits in my Breton hovel whilst listening to Melvyn Bragg and his guests talking about Pliny the Younger. It brings back my decades of teaching ancient history and many relatively tedious hours of Pliny's letters in Latin. What made me glad to have come out of that world is the fact that eveything being said by scholars this morning was pretty much exactly what I was taught at university and what I went on to relay to my pupils. Pliny is inevitably something of a finite figure despite his prissy verbosity. How I prefer to be working now in the context of a living culture, attested by many thousands of individuals, alive and dead, and a range of source material to make any ancient historian weep.
Yesterday I was in very familiar territory in Pays Bigouden, renewing my close links with Penmarc'h and St-Guenolé on that unique flatly perilous coast on the south-west tip of Finistère. Highlight? The Phare Eckmuhl.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Parish closes

The Parish Closes, particularly those of north Finistère (like Guimiliau - pictured above), will of course feature in the new book. They are very special to me and I've enjoyed teaching a course on the subject, including practical visits, from time to time. No consideration of Breton culture could really ignore these supreme expressions of faith, community and artistic achievement. They also represent a period of great commercial prosperity, based on the cloth trade with England, when thousands of locals were involved in one or other of the many stages of process from growing the flax to selling the finished product.
The symbolism of death and resurrection and tales from the story of Christ predominate in the decoration, but there are plenty of oddities from a more pagan tradition including Green Men, monsters and bare-breasted women. What a lot those early saints had to put up with!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Sardines and surrealism

In Douarnenez today: one of my regular haunts and part of the Coast chapter of the new book. The prosperity brought by the prolific sardine harvest in such a vast, shallow bay was abruptly snatched away when stocks inexplicably failed in the early years of the 20th century. The hardship was brutal, as, when business resumed, were conditions in the factories, which led to one of the most notorious strikes of the inter-war years by women desperate to be paid a living wage for their gruelling efforts. An armed attack on the communist mayor was one of the strike-breakers' tactics.
On a contrasting note, the town has long attracted artists of many persuasions, drawn to the coastal scenes of everyday life and natural beauty. Englishman Kit Wood produced some of his last (and best) paintings here before his suicide in 1930. The church in Tréboul (see photo) was one of his subjects - in those days at the heart of a tiny village, today part of Douarnenez and home to the pleasure marina. Surrealist Yves Tanguy, whose mother was from nearby Locronan, not only painted many of his bizarre but compelling pictures here, but asked in his will that his ashes be scattered on the bay, far from his adopted home in the USA.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Winter is here

We've had an abrupt autumn in western Brittany, shortened by the Indian summer and dulled by the earlier lack of rain. Walked today along the Nantes-Brest canal near Chateaulin. The Aulne is grey and smooth in sharp, cold air without a breath of wind. Some trees are still green, other unleafed to skeletons without any transitory colour. Here and there along the Aulne valley there are splashes of orange, brown and gold, but that's a deceptive sideshow. Winter is here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Rennes again

I've been working in Rennes this week, looking especially at modern art and architecture. The photos above show the sculptural shadow-play of Alignement du XXI siècle by Aurelie Nemours at Beauregard.
Below, Georges Maillols' Horizons tower block (1970), is still a mesmorising spectacle from any angle, like its contemporary the Tour de l'Eperon by Louis Arretche.

I was also on the Odorico trail. This famous mosaicist and football fan has left his mark on many buildings in the city.
Great trip! Now time to write it all up...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Moor (and the language of landscape)

Out early this morning on the moor, after a night of torrential rain and storm-force winds. The sun did put in a short appearance but it's hard to enjoy our puny extremes of weather with images of the Philippines in mind. The top photo shows Tuchenn Gador, often marked Toussaints on maps as early French map-makers did not understand the Breton Tuchenn (a mound or prominent spot) and assumed a word that sounded like it - hence All Saints!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Writing about Rennes at the moment, mainly on the architerctural development of the city in line with its political fortunes and redevelopment after the great fire of 1720. It's interesting that few observers over the centuries seem to have anything positive to say about the regional capital. In 1788 Arthur Young was surprised by the people's affection and support for the exiled Parliament despite the huge gulf between the nobility and the poor, and terrible living conditions at the lower end of the social scale. A French visitor in 1636 had never seen so many rats and mice in his life, and everyone complained about the smell ...

Friday, November 01, 2013

Now we are six...

We still like playing on the beach...

We are still a young pup at heart...
And we like staying in hotels with this kind of view from our window...
And having HAM for breakfast ... just once a year.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Sunny visit to Concarneau today and very pleasant to experience the walled city without the usual summer crowds.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Merlin's tomb

Which of these do you think makes the best tomb for Merlin? You might like to bear in mind that he was supposedly trapped forever in a grotte. The top picture is so-called Merlin's Tomb from the forest of Paimpont, heavily marketed as the Brocéliande of Arthurian legend (for no very good reason). It is in fact the remains of a neolithic dolmen. There are no caves in that forest, so nothing can be made to fit in the way they've managed with the Valley of No Return (nice valley, shame it was once publicised somewhere else entirely until a factory was built there). The second photo shows a veritable grotto, tucked under the rim of Mont Dol near Dol-de-Bretagne. This area on the eastern edge of Brittany was once covered by a great forest. And wait a minute! Wasn't Brocéliande supposed to be near the sea and in the Marches de Bretagne?
Of course Brocéliande is a literary creation, first mentioned by Wace in the 12th century Roman de Rou. He was a Norman with Plantagenet patrons, just up the road from Dol and Combourg, once in that eastern forest. He said he visited the forest himself. And Geoffrey of Monmouth who started the whole Arthur saga in its recognisible form today may also have ties with Dol. But no-one could possible doubt all the hype surrounding the Arthurian forest of Paimpont - could they?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

All around the forest

Working on a short text about Cranou at the moment, so yesterday had a great day out and about the forest with friends. We had a very good lunch in Le Faou (haddock in crab sauce with puff pastry filled with sautéed leeks) before visiting one of my favourite churches in Finistere at Rumengol. Then we gave the dogs a good walk up and down the beautiful forest which once supplied wood for building ships for the French navy at Brest.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Peaceful walk

After an intense period of work glued to my office chair - except I am now working half the time standing up, which is fine if the computer is at exactly the right level - I really enjoyed lunch at L'Autre Rive today, followed by a long peaceful country walk with my good mate Jude. I'm working on the forest chapter of the book, so this kind of scenery was perfect, even if far from my featured forests.
Pleased to receive the new edition of Voyage (Brittany Ferries magazine) this morning, with my article on what to do in Brittany in winter featured. The suggestions are for visits and festivals, but it's not a bad time for a short break holiday or a few days walking, with careful choice of location. And my favourite season, but then, I'm a true child of winter.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Away again

I've had three days away, partly in Malestroit for a book fair and partly pursuing another river, this time the Oust. As much of its length forms part of the Nantes-Brest canal, the Oust and I are already pretty good friends, but I've enjoyed revisting some highlights - Montertelot, the lock at Beaumont where I was filmed for French TV years ago, the sweep round into sight of Josselin castle (above), etc.
I stayed in Malestroit with friends Jean and Adrian who have an excellent B&B ( in the centre of town and right on the towpath, so I could sleep to the sound of the Oust dashing over its weir opposite the house. Finished up today at the Bosméléac barrage and the upper reaches of the river towards the source near Haut-Corlay. What a lovely river it is, and what lovely people I've met in Malestroit at the very well-attended book fair. Michel Hidalgo, famous French footballer and former national team manager was the star, with people queuing all day to shake his hand and have their photos taken with him, fathers bringing sons and grandfathers their grandsons just to see a legend of the game ... great to watch all the reactions. Also Yves Arnal promoting his book La Caravane du Tour de France, a history of the publicity machine behind it all - his wife Isabelle was a delightful 'neighbour' for me (not to mention their very pretty little dog who entertained Tex during the day).

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


Really quite sad to be back from my month in eastern Brittany, not even roused by sights of misty/stormy Monts d'Arrée which welcomed my return. Only back a few hours and my beloved coffee machine is broken, internet problems causing frustration, rotting mouse corpse in my office causing terrible smell, taps dripping, same old traffic noise, etc. After weeks of silent working space in beautiful surroundings and lots of trips to interesting, lively places, stunning castles (Vitré pictured) all around and the chance for regular Rance walks with my dear friend Lesley, it all feels very flat today. As I left Combourg yesterday my lovely landlord Lionel handed me a bag of peaches, yes PEACHES, from the garden to remind me of that wonderful, serene (apart from Tex and the six cats scenario) space and all the kindness I received from all those who helped with my research.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dol and the rewriting of history

The gap between tourism and history gets ever wider. Dol-de-Bretagne now hands out tourist information stating prominently that Nominoe was crowned first king of Brittany at the cathedral here in the 9th century. There is even a recent statue of that great man wearing a crown opposite the cathedral entrance. Perhaps this is a response to falling visitor numbers; it is certainly a case of self-aggrandisement.
The 'evidence' for Nominoe's coronation comes a text from hundreds of years later, suddenly appearing at a time when the status of Dol cathedral was under threat and its challenge to the Metropolitan see of Tours was about to be put to rest. Contemporary documents do not use the title king, not even in the Cartulaire of Redon Abbey, an establishment he was instrumental in founding. It's all a bit like Glastonbury Abbey miraculously discovering the grave of King Arthur just when funds were short .... any legend in a storm.
Nominoe's actions regarding Breton bishops and episcopy of Dol in particular are complicated and difficult to interpret confidently - such is the fascination of the 9th century in Breton history. His son Erispoe certainly has the status of king, a reflection of his achievements against Charles the Bald,  but to claim definitively that such an event took place with Nominoe is a travesty, a triumph of competitive tourism over intelligent presentation of historical issues.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


What an amazing day to be cruising on the maritime section of the Rance!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Not a bad place to be buried

Spent a day around St-Malo today, including a visit to Chateaubriand's grave on the island of Grand Bé as the tide was low enough to give access. I've been thinking and writing so much about him in the context of Combourg - where he lived in formative teenage years and which remained the scene of his 'madeleine' moments, a touchstone of his identity, for the rest of his life. He was born in St-Malo, and his fame and significance managed to persuade the municipal council and the 'department of war' to whom the island belonged to agree to his request to buried in a spot where the only sound would be the wind and waves (and the piercing shrieks of lunch-hour school kids echoing across from the town beach).

Monday, September 16, 2013


Long walks today across the polders in the Baie de Mont St-Michel and I have the wind burn to prove it. Sun and showers coming and going all the time but constant blasts of up to 50mph with nothing on those flat lands to impede their force. I'm happy to look at the Mont itself from a distance for the moment and have no intention of revisiting until 2015 when it will have been returned to its natural island state. Destroying the causeway which has so disturbed the currents and tide of the bay and replacing it with a low passerelle will achieve this effect. Until that's done it's all a bit of a mess.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fabulous Fougères

High on the list of my all-time favourite places, Fougères has one of the best castles in Europe and inspired settings for novels by Victor Hugo and Balzac. The old town in the Nancon valley contrasts with the mainly 18th century High Town where there's a statue of the Marquis de le Rouerie, founder of the original Association bretonne in 1791 and key anti-Revolutionary figure. After lunch at Le P'tit Bouchon in rue Chateaubriand - Eric and Isabelle's welcome and cooking recommended - I had a pleasant afternoon in the adjoining beech forest, with 12th century cellars, megaliths and lots of good walking to enjoy.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Viking Camp

After a sunny walk along the Rance at Taden with my good friend (and nature expert) Lesley, I went further north in search of the 10th century Viking camp at St Suliac, lying greenly in the bed of the same river at low tide. It is best viewed from Mont Garrot, a spectacular viewpoint over the estuary in both directions, and of course the burial site of the giant Gargantua. They had to fold him in seven - it's not a very wide hill...

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


In Combourg on the eastern edge of Brittany, on Chateaubriand's literary trail. He grew up in the castle here.

"C'est dans les bois de Combourg que je suis devenu ce que je suis"

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nantes-Brest Canal

I never tire of the Nantes-Brest canal, despite writing two books about it and doing many talks, walks on the subject. My favourite part is the Aulne in Finistere, where I walked this morning. Hope one day I'll find the time to write a little guide Along the Aulne, because it is one of the loveliest rivers in Brittany.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Festival Fisel

At the Festival Fisel in Rostrenen yesterday to hear some music but mainly to see the dance competitions, underway after a long delay which the packed hall didn't even seem to notice. The danse fisel, product of this area, is one of many variations of the gavotte. The children's event was impressive partly for the incredibly crisp clean movement of the boys' back-flicks and their timing, but most of all for the assured future of Breton dancing into another generation.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day off

Went to Douarnenez for a relaxing day off. Still too warm for comfort, but we had a good meal on a shady terrace at La Trinquette, my usual lunch spot overlooking the fishing port (in photo). I had a scallop, bacon and tomato kebab with saffron sauce and my companion a fillet of lieu jaune in shellfish sauce, both followed by chocolate fondants. Then we walked right along the Plomarc'h in glorious greenery to see the extensive remains of a Roman garum (fish sauce) factory above the water. Next stop the famous Boat Museum hoping to see the exhibition of the Viking ship excavated on the Ile de Groix (a recent visit). Unfortunately another hot dog issue, so I had to stay outside with Tex in a shady spot, but was delighted to find bargain of the year in the shop: 100 prints by Mathurin Méheut, my favourite Breton artist, for 13.50 euros. As each one can be torn out and framed, this is fantastic value and a very satisfactory souvenir of a lovely day when for once I had nothing to do but enjoy ...

Saturday, August 17, 2013


No, not the football team I supported so fervently in my youth, but the real thing. I'm writing about wolves in the final section of my chapter on the Monts d'Arrée and made yet another visit to the Musée du Loup at Cloitre-St-Thégonnec this week. I do their book fair every year and an occasional walk from the village, so it's familiar territory. This time we walked in blazing sun right up onto the Landes de Cragou, a typical terrain of the Monts d'Arrée's distinctive landscape.
An unpleasing irony is that the wolf museum does not allow dogs in, so it was a fleeting look on a very hot afternoon. I just wanted to get a bit of the atmosphere of the days when wolves were common in Brittany and look again at some examples of the oral tradition. It was ill-advised to call a wolf a wolf in those days: Yann and Willy were apparently preferable modes of address. Hard to imagine the circumstances - it makes me think of Ogen Nash:  If called by a panther, don't anther.

Go away in the name of St Hervé if you are a wolf,
In the name of God if you are Satan.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Day out in Pays Bigouden

Pleased to take my friend Jeanne out for her birthday on a leisurely trip around Pays Bigouden. First we visited the Menhir of the Rights of Man, named after a ship wrecked here in the 18th century, with a commemorative inscription put up by Major Pippon from Jersey who was one of the survivors. Lunch at Pors Poulhan consisted of moules frites (J) and delicious fresh sardines (W), followed by a strange yet ultimately yummy concoction of chocolate and salted caramel. Time for a stroll along the coast at Penhors and a paddle for me and the dog. Beautiful day, all well with the world.