Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Landerneau - no

Disappointing visit to Landerneau for work today. Ten years ago I used to live in the vicinity and included a look around the town in Walking in Finistere. It was always busy, being a dormitory town for Brest whilst having plenty of light industry and commerce of its own, but a stimulating place with its estuary setting and truly glorious architecture. There is still an air of prosperity in the centre, which is full of individual shops, bars and restaurants. The Elorn estuary is still beautiful. The range of historical buildings is still pretty stunning.... But I couldn't wait to get away from intrusive loud 'music' blasted from public speakers every few metres, the littered streets (unusual in Brittany) with the wonderful cobbled bridge of old houses lost under a thick layer of fag ends, and the incredibly dangerous traffic with local drivers making tight corners in the one-way system by mounting the pavements at high speed, oblivious to adults, children and dogs. I had to wait several minutes to cross a narrow side-street against a constant stream of cars. In Brittany. There's an air of neglect about it all, and the shameful state of the Maison Duthoya (1667) seems emblematic of a loss of sense of the importance of heritage here.
All these things make for an unpleasant visit. Luckily a quick jog up to the top of the castle at Roche-Maurice soon restored my spirits. Until I saw all the information boards with the translation of donjon as 'dungeon'. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
La Roche-Maurice

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Happy Yule and all that

Wintry lake at Huelgoat
Wishing all my readers a very happy Yule and other festivities, with thanks for the many supportive and cheering letters/emails about books or articles you have enjoyed, and a special welcome to new readers in America following my contribution to the latest Now Write! volume. It's been a strangely up and down sort of year with a long delay between finishing Brittany - a cultural history in January and having to wait until November for publication, circumstances conspiring against the project conceived with artist Jill Jamieson, being nearly blind for half the year, two house moves in the last few months, etc. Lots of good things too, with friends from the UK visiting Brittany, Cornish idylls, some fun talks to associations and plenty of development in my own landscape work, which may well see the light of print in 2015. Not settled there yet, but on another front, I have agreed to write a new type of guide to Finistere in the next year.
I'm looking forward to these challenges, and hope you all have a happy and fulfilling New Year.

Monday, December 08, 2014

London blues

Lovely purple seats on an almost empty TGV
A quick seasonal visit to my nearest and dearest in London has been both an eye-opening and painful experience. Took National Express coach up from Portsmouth ferry port to Hammersmith to get a bus the last couple of miles. Slight problem - apparently buses don't accept money any more. What sort of world is it when cash is not allowed on public transport? I walked the whole way with all my luggage, thus aggravating tendonitis in my right arm that's been getting worse daily for some months now.
Yesterday, strolling to the local shop with a friend, I fell off the pavement, managing to wrench and skin my right knee and give my left elbow an equally savage cut and jolt. Multiple plasters were applied at said shop, where staff seemed alarmingly unfazed by the appearance of a customer dripping blood. The whole thing was quite a shock, and I wished later I had agreed to brandy in the reviving coffee supplied afterwards, because a 26 hour journey from London to Finistere involving two car trips, two coaches, one ferry, two trains and a taxi is not something I ever want to do again in that degree of pain and discomfort.
It's nice to be home :-)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Brittany - a cultural history

What is the new book about?  It's a personal reflection (affectionate but not uncritical) on Brittany's history and cultural development structured around elemental themes. Each theme takes four varied examples ranging all over Brittany. To illustrate: the chapter entitled SEA looks at a) threats from the sea over many centuries, b) legends connected with the sea, c) the adventurers of St Malo and d) the cod-fishers of Paimpol, the latter elevated to a bizarre super-hero status through popular literature. FOREST covers the history of the Foret de Fougères, the (fragile) association of the Foret de Paimpont with Arthurian tales, clog-making and the oral tradition in the Foret de Coatloc'h and manufactured claims of Druid blood sacrifice in the Foret de Cranou. Other chapters are STONE, MARCHES, LAND, COAST, RIVER, TOWN, MOOR and ISLAND.
The book tries to bring out the realities of Brittany - extraordinary enough in themselves - behind the clichés of touristic hype, with contemporary life featuring alongside the assessment of past highs and lows. It also intends to create a vivid physical sense of the land, sea and coast, which figure as major characters in the narrative. In common with the other studies in this series Landscapes of the Imagination, there is also an emphasis on culture, particularly the strong oral legacy of the Breton language.

Available now: published by Signal Books (www.signalbooks.co.uk)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Holiday weekend

November 1st is a public holiday here in France, and also my dog's birthday. We always celebrate with a trip to the coast - this year down south to the area around Le Guilvinec, where we stayed in an impeccable dog-friendly B&B (www.cap-ouest.com) and did a lot of coastal and estuary walking over two days. Saturday was as hot and blue-skied as July, and Sunday a typically moody autumn grey, so the best of all worlds for watching the water and getting that uplifting liminal feeling.
Plage de Squividan

Pointe de Men Meur
To the small extent that the weekend was purposeful beyond that, I did check out half a dozen neolithic sites for a new writing project, and revisited the Romanesque church of Loctudy.
Menhir de Léhan

Thursday, October 30, 2014

WWII Shelter in Brest

I recently visited the Abri Sadi-Carnot, a tunnel running for more than half a kilometre from the arsenal at the port to the centre of Brest, the only city in France to construct massive capacity shelters during WWII. This one was built between 1941 and 1942 as a refuge against allied air raids for the Germans and civilian population alike. The lower end is accessed directly from the Boulevard de la Marine, but 154 internal steps were needed to reach the exit at the other extreme, the end assigned to the local population. Despite successfully saving many lives during bombing raids aimed at the submarine base, it suffered the historic irony in September 1944 of causing hundreds of deaths thanks to a horrendous accident  - one waiting to happen considering the German practice of stocking munitions and petrol in their lower end of the shelter. The resulting fireball and asphixiating gases sped through the tunnel, leaving mounds of corpses on the staircases to witness a stampede for safety.
During the Cold War, the Abri Sadi Carnot was adapted to a nuclear shelter, the radiation-proof doors still in situ today.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ile Tristan

Today was one of the occasions when very low tides enable a crossing on foot to Ile Tristan, just off Douarnenez. The two and a half hour window allows plenty of time to explore the island, although only certain parts are accessible to the public - the Maison de Maitre and another large house used as a temporary cinema for the day, orchards and the exteriors of a 1930s chapel and a 19th century fort. As is often the case in Brittany, culture has priority over history: short films (fiction and documentary) were showing, there was an exhibition of photographs and various miserable-looking musicians were performing in selected spots. There was no information about the island's chequered past, and no sign on the island itself of occupation in the 16th century by one of the most intriguing characters of Breton history.
My own personal research interest is the bloodthirsty career of Guy Eder de la Fontenelle, a young nobleman who held the island from 1595, and used the Wars of Religion to spread mayhem throughout western Brittany, from his native Cotes d'Armor to this western edge of Finistere, where his most notorious achievements were the destruction of Penmarc'h - burning the population in the church and taking control of 300 ships in the port -  and the sacking of Pont Croix. He was pardoned for his crimes or acknowledged for his acts of war, depending on your point of view, and actually officially made governor of Ile Tristan at the end of the war. Accusations of intrigue with the Spaniards made this a short tenure, however, and he was executed in Paris at the ripe old age of 29.
His persona has lived on in the oral tradition, but aside from a short profile published in the 1920s, little serious and un-romantic work appears to have been done on the historical evidence of the life of this extraordinary, excessive personality. Sociopath or product of his times, able to get away with more than most in this far flung corner of France? I've made some effort to go further with research, with little result as yet. On the island today I wanted to get an idea of the strategic positions and the defensibility, as all efforts to dislodge La Fontenelle during his reign of terror proved fruitless. Not sure I made a lot of progress, but it's certainly true to say that the less I can find out about him, the more interesting he becomes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Eglise de St Trémeur
Carhaix presents something of a challenge for a guided tour. It's a town of exceptional pedigree, having been a major centre in Roman Brittany, a thriving focus for medieval commerce and the hub of transport networks in the 19th century, but with some sorry slumps in between. A Welsh visitor in the 1870s described it as 'a primitive place', and it was indeed forced into a depressing isolation by the re-arrangements of the Revolution which separated Carhaix from its natural territory of the Poher in central Brittany, leaving it a border town without administrative status on the eastern edge of Finistère. These days it is enjoying something of a revival, with a lively cultural scene and new economic initiatives to keep employment in the town.
The problem for a heritage tour is that whilst some arresting visual evidence of a significant past remains, these scattered nuggets are overwhelmed by the low-rise, dull white modern development that swamps the town even into the central areas. Some fine houses still stand in the rue Brieux and Place de la Mairie, odd traces of aqueduct linger in modern industrial areas and religious architecture offers a few beauties worth walking for, but getting around is generally not easy on the eye and physically constrained by cars everywhere and narrow pavements - many with cars parked on them to obstruct individuals, let alone a meandering group. Today I tried to devise a workable route and wasn't entirely satisifed, but will persevere. I'm going to give it a go with Brittany Walks next month, and the town will figure in a new book I'm probably going to do next year.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tour of the Marches of Brittany

Just back from taking a small group to eastern Brittany for a four day visit to some famous and a few secret places in the area. We stayed in my favourite gites at Combourg, where the chateau was a highlight of our tour, spent a day at Fougères including the fabulous castle and the beautiful beech forest there which contains some remarkable antiquities, and explored Vitré with its unusual chateau.
Then we went north for the cathedral at Dol-de-Bretagne and the oldest houses in Brittany in the rue des Stuarts. A nobleman from Dol was the original 'steward' (or management executive as we'd probably say today) in Scotland and so the founder of the Stuart dynasty. Final moments were on the top of Mont Dol, looking over the polders to Mont St Michel.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where there's life...

Gallo-Romano bridge
Two contrasting experiences this week. On a mission in Callac, I happened to find myself near the Gallo-Romano bridge, a potentially rather fine sight but reeking of neglect and insignificance in its present state. I would have thought this was something to be rather proud of anywhere, but especially in a commune not overly endowed with cultural interest. Some local people seem unaware of its existence and certainly not inclined to rate its survival high on the heritage ladder.
I visited the new Maison de la Mine in the small village of Locmaria Berrien on the last day of its summer opening. What admirable energy, goodwill and practical sense have seen the creation of this little museum by the association ASAM! The small but carefully crafted exhibition brings to life the social and economic history of the nearby lead/silver mine in the forest. The mine was once one of the largest in France and there are various visible remains on the ground which always arouse the curiosity of walkers and retired engineers. Now they can stroll or drive up to the village and find out everything about those somewhat sad remains - or better still, go to the exhibition first, in order to understand the context of what can be seen in situ. The guided visit to the display of artefacts, models and documents given by a volunteer when I was there was exceptionally good, and I hope all the immense work of the association will be rewarded with large visitor numbers next year.
I don't expect many will bother to seek out the Roman bridge or that a very small association will be formed to provide a context and assessment of its local importance. And yet money is poured into totally artificial and pretty spurious heritage like the Valley of the Saints, which garners greater publicity and interest than either the genuine article like the dying bridge or the totally laudable work of a dedicated group like ASAM who have breathed life into a real historical  project.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Not able to be out early this morning for the actual moment of Equinox, but today it is time to celebrate another turn of the year, and one which heralds my favourite half. Whilst others mourn summer, I happily anticipate the winter months. It's still warm and sunny here in western Brittany, although we had our share of electric storms last week. My rituals are usually simple things I do every day - walking, writing and cooking. There are red apples and still plenty of strawberries in my little adopted garden, so I make pies, crumbles and compotes for friends and freezer.
A walk in the forest concentrates the mind on the changing season and the sounds becoming more evident as fresh energies stir. The shallow rasp of my dog's breath contrasts with the slow, gentle in- and exhalations of the wind, and falling sap dries the rustle of browning leaves and brittle ferns. The post-deluge urgent clamour of water is now hushed to gossipy eddies along the rocky stream beds. Many of the footpaths are sporting wiggly stripes where their topcoat has been stripped by temporary torrents forcing their way downhill.
It's been a wonderful day, and best of all, I can actually see it. After nearly eight months of living in a blurred world, my vision is clear and balance restored, so I am well in tune with this equinox...

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Old slab bridge on the Queffleuth
We had a Brittany Walks event this week looking at the landscape of the Queffleuth valley near Pleyber-Christ. This beautiful little river - although capable of flooding the centre of Morlaix when aroused - features in the river chapter of my new book and has been thoroughly studied by the Association Au Fil du Queffleuth et de la Penzé. Riboul Potic is a labelled circuit of 2kms, extended through woodland on the other side of the D769 to give a 5.5km route. Information boards (in French, but well-illustrated) offer a good idea of the radical changes to the appearance of the terrain over the last 150 years with the loss of small parcels of land and destruction of hedged boundaries  on one side to facilitate larger-scale agriculture, and the intensive tree-cover of today on the other where farming the heights became un-economical in the late 19th century.
The water-quality of the Queffleuth is high, making it a habitat for otters, trout and salmon, just as it once made the river good for paper-production and the site of many mills. The most interesting feature on the circuit is perhaps the irrigation system once used to keep the Prat ar Gaor (Goats' meadow) well-watered even in times of drought. A mini-barrage and valve system were constructed to feed a bief - a supply channel similar on a smaller scale to the bief de partage of the Nantes-Brest Canal - cut straight to enclose the land and connect the two ends of a wide bend in the main river course. From this trenches were cut across the meadow in the 'fish-bone style' with a central spine and many off-shoots, taking moisture to almost all parts of the pasture land. This skeleton outline is still just visible on the ground.
Apart from historical and natural interest, it's a pretty route, well worth a gentle afternoon stroll. Park in the lay-by just off the D769 at Le Pléen (turning to Pleyber-Christ) and follow well-placed and (for once) consistent green waymarks.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cornish interlude

I've been in Cornwall for a few days, staying in Falmouth with my good friends Alison and John, who live on the marina. We visited St Michael's Mount and Boscastle, and I was privileged to tag along on one of Alison's tours of the Tregothnan estate, the only place in England growing quantities of tea from the camellia sinensis. As ever it was inspiring to spend time with a real artist and be reminded about the positive sides of creativity, which I hope will be awaiting me post eye-operation.

Friday, September 05, 2014


Currently working on a text about French writer and homme extraordinaire François-René de Chateaubriand, whose formative years at the Chateau de Combourg as described in his memoirs have become synonymous with the birth of Romanticism. Escaping the cold hauteur of his daunting father, the teenager spent many lonely hours roaming the surrounding woods or gazing at storms from his room at the top of a tower far removed from the other inhabitants of the castle. He invented an ideal female companion, a  fantasy bordering on the obsessive, which was to lead him into trouble with women in later life. His energies lurched between racing around the grounds to physically expunge the gloomy strictures of family life in the sombre castle, and struggling with the fateful grip of ennui to the extent that he toyed with suicide.
For the moment, I'm working on his later time in England and the almost laughable contrast between the first stay during the Revolution, when he was - literally- a writer starving in a garret in Holborn, and his return in 1822 as French ambassador to the glittering parties and empty social whirl of the Portland Place embassy. This contrast in fortunes is a typical example of the ups and downs of a remarkable individual in a tumultuous era. Despite direct participation in France's most turbulent period of history, something in Chateaubriand's own nature, set hard by the stones of Combourg, seemed to keep him emotionally strolling on the bank rather than plunged in the river of events.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Time to get back to work

Since I moved recently the weather has been grey and/or wet, so it was good to wake to sunshine and blue sky today on the last day of summer. Went to walk in the forest at Huelgoat and saw many autumnal signs, not least of which was the large number of people mushrooming. Fancy overlooking these beautiful specimens...
Far fewer cars with foreign or out-of-department number-plates about, shops back to lunch-time closure, restaurant hours soon to be curtailed - it's time to get back to work. What a relief!

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Summer is over on the moors and heathland that make up the landes of the Monts d'Arrée, highest hills in Brittany. Together with the sharp crests of schist/quartzite and the peat-bogs (tourbières) these provide the distinctive shapes and colours of the area, which far from being an unrelieved wasteland has a full palette of colours changing with the season. Molinia or moor-grass dominates by its quantity: lush green in recent months, now browning and finally to turn to shades of biscuit tinted lemon in the low winter sun. There is some sort of heather in bloom most of the year, punctuated by stabs of yellow from gorse or broom. Anatole Le Braz, the great Breton writer and recorder of oral traditions, called the amalgamated smells of the landes 'the scent of Brittany.' Or perhaps 'essence' would be a better word.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Saints' Shore Way

Yesterday took my friend Jeanne out for a day on the Baie de Morlaix coast, an area covered in the Saints' Shore Way book I researched and wrote early last year for the Morlaix and Lannion tourist boards. We had a windy picnic at St Samson and walked past the imposing Pierre Double (with the island fortress of the Chateau du Taureau ever-present in the background). Brief visits to Le Guerzit and Le Diben followed by a drink at Terenez completed our very leisurely trip, with no rain despite dire forecasts.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Out and about

I've been out and about a lot lately with friends (including Welsh travel writer Victoria Trott - victoriatrott.com) over here to enjoy all the many pleasures Brittany has to offer. Douarnenez, Locronan, Huelgoat, the Abers, Ile Vierge and the Monts d'Arrée have all figured on the tours, with several sessions in Quimper as well. My impression is that there are far fewer visitors around this year at the hot spots but more people than usual in the interior, walking and cycling. Festivals are at their height, with the customary Breton triple of music/dance/food pulling in crowds everywhere.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Visitors to the wild west

Céline, Greg, Beverley and Daragh
Delighted today to give a tour for some special visitors to the Monts d'Arrée, and make the acquaintance of journalists Beverley Morrison, Daragh Reddin and Greg Ward, and their escorts Lionel and Céline. Great for Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales to meet together on the Breton summit. I hope they all liked what they saw in the wild west: this little known area has such potential for original experience of a different sort of Brittany. Just wish there had been more time to talk aside from 'business'...they were all such lovely people.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On the top

The moors take on a new and uncharacteristically tender appearance in summer, green hues punctuated by colour bursts from gorse, heather, broom and this year the greatest profusion of orchids I've ever seen. Here is the highest spot in Brittany, the rock to the right of the mast, on a beautiful morning.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The allure of Nantes

Nantes Cathedral
Working in Nantes this week, with temperatures in the city centre up to 32° as I caught the train home yesterday. Altogether a scorching interlude and not really conducive to rushing about checking things out, but there were some great moments, like being shown round the fabulous new OKKO hotel and being upgraded to a spacious appartment at Park&Suites where I was staying.
The usual fun and festive atmosphere prevailed around the city, with new works of art and exhibitions everywhere - a creative vacuum in Nantes is unimaginable.
Even the chateau and cathedral are constantly re-inventing themselves with new expansion into old spaces, like the crypts beneath the latter, which are not only beautiful in themselves but made functional by a stylishly simple exhibition about the chequered development of the church ever since the Vikings destroyed an early version in 843.
All this seduction is almost irrestible. Maybe I will do that book about the city after all...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Playing games - the Chateau de Landal

I have been in Combourg for a few days and on my way back stopped off at the Chateau de Landal which has come up with a creative way of raising money for restoration. The entry fee pays for a roof tile which you can sign and illustrate, thus forging a permanent personal link with the chateau and its progress towards new life. The whole place - courtyard, towers and basement rooms - is devoted to games, mostly of the simple, traditional variety, but pretty addictive and endlessly fun for kids and competitive adults. I spent a long time throwing stuffed socks at these medieval heads. For a surcharge you can even get locked in a room and try to solve clues to get out - I didn't risk it on this occasion. They also offer gourmet picnics. Great family visit - highly recommended.  www.chateaudelandal.com

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Le Guilvinec

Pavé de merlu followed by a café gourmand at the Poisson d'Avril in Le Guilvinec on a boiling summer's day in Pays Bigouden.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

New website

After a lot of work in recent weeks my new website is finally up and running. An overhaul was long overdue, so I decided on radical change to make a better showcase for all aspects of my work. Please have a look! www.wendymewes.com

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Theatre in Morlaix

Went to the theatre in Morlaix today to see a friend perform in Gogol's The Nose. It's many years since I saw a play here and the theatre has had a complete refit to restore its Italianate splendour. It's also a very long time since I saw this particular play in London, and I liked it rather better in this masked version staged by Pascal Péron. Great experience all round. Congratulations, Jeanne!