Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy New Year

I wish all readers of my books and all followers of this blog and my Twitter feed a very Happy New Year and many good things in 2018. I thank you for the support and the exchanges that make writing and all that goes into it worthwhile. Spirit of Place, my 2017 book, has been a success in both English and French editions, clearly from the reactions an articulation of perceptions and feelings about the landscape, and the Breton landscape in particular, precious to a remarkable range of people.
It's been a very tough year for me, dominated by illness and incapacity, so I hope for better energies and a stronger heart in the months to come. And I hope that Wayfaring in Little Britain will finally complete its troubled path into the real world in 2018... or 2019...., although as I try to remind myself regularly these days, its the journey that counts.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


I walked on the high heath at dusk on solstice day. It was damp and misty,but numinous winter light glowed bright across the land. One of moor's beauties is that secrecy need not be silent. My ritual is aloud: talk, laughter, even a bit of yelling. Feelings flow in this state of pure expansive freedom. And I feel the response all around, as the elements stir, and somewhere beyond the clouds the great sun sets, poised for renewal. I wander back to the car in darkness, comforted and connected.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Rennes - the city experience

Rennes is a city I find more and more alluring with each visit. It's been two years since I last spent regular time there and my short stay in the metropolis last week was a real tonic, full of stimulation and heady intake of luscious architecture. I had forgotten how essentially rural I have become.
It's not possible to understand a city from a guidebook: knowledge of history and architecture or even the best places to eat and visit can only take you so far. Any urban development is about shape and fluidity, the relationship between horizontal and vertical, space and structure. Walking without purpose is a fine way to start, taking the good with the bad, observing without judging. I wandered from the centre up to the Prefecture a few kilometres away without a map, moving slowly along residential streets and increasingly busy arterial roads. This was new territory for me as in the past I would take the metro or a bus out to the university area, but I felt a sudden sharp pang of recognition outside a perfectly ordinary chemist shop. This was unsettling until I later remembered a week in an appartment near the hospital with a sick friend many years ago. That was where I went to get her medicines. Cities store up emotional coinage in this way over a long period of time, perhaps more so than the countryside because urban experiences are more transactional.
Other ways of exploring towns can be based on fundamental units: a river, a cathedral, a high point. Anything with function has influenced its environment, and observation can be a satisfying way of coming to know the underlying harmonies and compromises of consciously developed space. Of course, history helps. In Rennes the abrupt change from the cathedral district, medieval finery in the form of narrow streets of glorious half-timbered houses with colourful carved decorative detail, to grandiose neo-classical public buildings and noble residences is unmissable. It is on too large a scale to envisage deliberate clearance and the disaster of a great fire (actually in 1720) is not hard to deduce.
But there is also a powerful punch of 20th century magic and post-war vivacity in Brittany's capital. The vibrant mosaics of Isidore Odorico (1893-1945) adorn St Georges swimming pool and a stunning appartment block in Avenue Janvier amongst other locations. Circling the centre like signposts to the future are beautiful high-rises, the work of architect Georges Maillols who arrived in 1947 to help rejuvenate the city. I have never felt a stronger emotional pull from a building than Les Horizons. It was love at first sight a long time ago, but our relationship has endured and matured.
That's the thing about Rennes - it's a city to observe and feel, a place to make the heart beat faster. Never mind the guidebook.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Seven Sacred Hills of Brittany

Menez Hom
The magical number of seven embraces sacred summits as it does founding saints in Brittany, but whilst the saints have their own cathedrals, the hill-tops, scattered throughout the region, are shared by mixed religious associations, pagan and Christian, ancient and more recent.
The westernmost is Menez Hom, end of the Montagnes noires chain, an elongated open hill offering views of the Atlantic and the Aulne basin. It is particularly popular with radio-activated aircraft buffs and hang-gliderists today, but early morning visits can still give a memorable solitary experience above the mist. A statue of a Gallo-Roman goddess, identified as Minerva/Brigit was discovered here by a farmer in 1913.
Mont St-Michel de Brasparts, topped by a tiny chapel, is an iconic image of inland Brittany, one of the high points of the Monts d’Arrée. This area of wild moorland landscape and rocky crags above marshes and the modern reservoir has ancient connections with worship of a pagan Sun god and in more modern times, Druid ceremonies during solstice celebrations. The legendary entrance to the Celtic underworld was said to be nearby in the peat-bogs.
Mene Bré, another summit with a chapel visible from afar, this time dedicated to the blind St Hervé, is in Côtes d’Armor, near Guingamp. It offers exceptional views, especially north and west across the Trégor. Here the famous council of powerful secular and religious figures is said to have gathered to excommunicate the tyrannical 6th century lord Conomor. The earliest chapel on the spot may have dated back to that time.
Menez Bré
Not far away lies Menez Bel-air (336m), one of the Monts du Mené, where any sense of atmosphere is marred by a large rather ugly mid 19th century chapel and an intrusive communications antenna. There are, however, great views from certain points of the rolling landscape of central Brittany. It was once a site of worship of Belenos, the Sun god, with Druid rituals of purification of cattle at the Beltane festival in May.
In Morbihan, the wooded hill-top of Mane Guen – of modest height at 155m - also has a small chapel of St Michel. The name means the White Mountain, thanks to a miracle in 1300 when it was lit by an intense white light for several days, and various other legends have added to its notoriety. One claims that the body of a dragon lies under the contours and the chapel was founded on its head. A granite boulder is rumoured to have been a pagan ritual sacrifice altar.
Mont Dol
In the Marches of Brittany, east of St Malo, lies Mont Dol, a small table-shaped protuberance rising from flat marshland. An exceptionally rich historical evolution has seen pagan Mithraic rites, evidenced by the discovery of two taurobolia, altars for the sacrifice of bulls with gratings to allow the blood to shower initiates waiting below. Today a tiny chapel to St Michel, who fought the Devil for sway here, stands on the highest point, and, rather too near it, a tower topped by a huge statue of the Virgin.
Visible in the distance from Mont Dol is the familiar World Heritage and pilgrimage site of Mont St Michel, once in Brittany but now by the vagaries of river Couesnon, fractionally over the border into Normandy. It has an imposing position just off-shore in a vast bay with one of furthest tide recoils in the world. Recent works have seen the causeway destroyed and a replacement bridge allowing tidal flow all around the island. Neolithic megaliths on this conical hill have disappeared to leave the stage for the spectacular abbey perched on the summit.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A devil of a route

Dol-de-Bretagne cathedral
My month in eastern
Brittany is nearly at an end and the first stage of research for my new book in these parts complete. One of the routes I'll be writing about follows an exceptional course through religious and cosmological affinities from the Neolithic to current times. Here are some hints at the potential of the material I'm pursuing.
From his perch on Mont Dol the Devil saw St Samson, an incomer from Wales and one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, busily constructing his cathedral at Dol-de-Bretagne two miles away. Furiously he tore up a huge stone and lobbed it at the offending structure, smashing one of the two towers. But the granite projectile bounced off its target and came to rest upright 3km away. It is better known today as the Menhir du Champ Dolent, a standing-stone of just over 9m in height, raised somewhere around 2500BC. It is solitary now, but actually stands in a straight line with two other large menhirs between the remarkable passage grave at Tressé in the forest of Mesnil and Mont St Michel, where once there were also neolithic monuments.
Menhir du Champ Dolent
Below the open plateau dominated by this enormous stone is the rural village of Carfantin and the fontaine of St Samson in an little enclave of verdure. He arrived in this spot from Great Britain via the river Guyoult, and after curing a local nobleman's daughter through exorcism, was given land here in an idyllic location for a first monastery. This spring might also have a significant connection with the Arthurian legend, but I digress...
Fontaine de Saint Samson
Continuing along the river valley, now managed in a series of lakes and ponds as a nature reserve and flood deterrent system, I am soon in the centre of Dol-de-Bretagne, a town of singular historical significance and resplendent architectural remains. The oldest house in Brittany (12th century) still stands in the main street, surrounded by colourful half-timbered buildings from later centuries. This Grande rue des Stuarts is a reminder that the Scottish dynasty started here, as Walter Fitzalan, from the local noble family, was appointed 'steward' in Scotland for King David 1st, a position that became hereditary. Although the chateau of Dol is long gone, a powerful stretch of ramparts looms over the flat marshland - somewhat more under cultivation today but still unmistakably a marais - that surrounds the city.
Oldest house in Brittany
The Gothic cathedral, rebuilt after destruction by King John in 1203, holds many secrets and oddities. Apart from the single tower, it has the only double well known on such a site: one shaft inside the cathedral, one just outside, the two joined by a flooded underground gallery. A magnificent 13th century window dominates the interior, and the ornate tomb (1507) of bishop Thomas James features a representation of the Holy Grail which is lit by a ray of sun on the summer solstice. It is not impossible that the Grail itself may once have lodged in Dol, but that's another story.
Leaving the town down steps from the ramparts, a little lane leads out north across the marsh, under the expressway and later the railway line, meandering through fields of maize and drainage channels lined by soft reeds and wetland flowers, all the way to Mont Dol, a table-shaped hill curiously rising ahead out of the ubiquitous flatness.

One of the seven sacred hills of Brittany, it has been occupied and exploited since the earliest times. Mammoths, rhinoceros and aurochs roamed here, pursued by men living in caves on the steep sides. A neolithic settlement once stood on the summit, not far from a later Roman temple to Mithras, complete with two special tables for bull sacrifice. There is also a little chapel to St Michel, for here he fought with Devil and threw him down into a deep chasm in one legend, leaving only the trace of his demonic buttocks and claws on a famous rock. In another, he tricked his greatest adversary into accepting Mont Dol in exchange for Mont St Michel, making him believe it to have a gleaning palace of glass, which turned out to be ice... No wonder the Devil was so furious when he saw St Samson building that damn cathedral just across the way.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Corseul - Roman remains

The dearth of large-scale Roman remains in Brittany makes for a patchy overview of this period of history on the Armorican peninsula and a limited impression of legacy. Corseul, however, offers both a wider sense of perspective and some fine individual details: the semblance of a street, the outline of a villa, a touching inscription, domestic finds. The town is referred to as Fanum Martis, the shrine of Mars, on the Tabula Peutingeriana (medieval version of an ancient map), although this may refer only to the related religious site nearby. The Roman foundation is from the time of Augustus, with significant Claudian growth and developments up to the 3rd century.
Corseul was the tribal capital of the Coriosolites, until dangerous times as the Empire broke up took them to Alet, near St Malo. The town was an opportunity for Gallic nobles to live the benefits of Roman rule, privately and commercially, as the area of Monterfil in the centre of the modern village shows. Here is preserved a stretch of Roman street, orientated east/west along the line of Roman roads entering and leaving the village. The lay-out, shaped to the sloping contour of the land, is edged by Tuscan colonnades and lined by the foundations of a basilica and shops on one side, with houses behind (including the hint of a hypocaust heating system), and a vast warehouse with a courtyard behind on the other. Originally most of the buildings would have been two-storeyed, as the helpful reconstruction drawings around the site indicate. Gutters line the street, with a large cistern for collecting rain water at the lower end. It is not hard to visual this thriving business centre in the early 1st century AD.
A smattering of column bases and half pillars are grouped together beside the mairie, including the so-called Jupiter column. Elsewhere in the village, a former school-house – standing on what was probably the ancient forum - holds a dedicated exhibition. This collection of finds contributes the fine brush-strokes to an image of life in the capital of the Coriosolites in the first three centuries AD. On the other side of the road, the villa of Clos Muton reveals its layout and evolution over time into a palaestra and bath-house.
Two inscriptions from the town record individuals, one a high-ranking religious official, the other revealing a more personal picture with a tombstone complete with faded Latin, now in the church. It was erected by the son (presumably a solider in the Roman army) of Silicia Namgidde, who followed him here – eximia pieta - from her home in Africa. She died aged 65 years.
Once visible from the town was the sanctuary of the Temple of Mars complex, on a hill-top 1.7km away. This was the religious ritual centre of the Coriosolites’ civitas. The lavish remains of the cella are impressive enough now, but once measured 22.5m in height, ensuring a dominant feature in a landscape criss-crossed by several Roman roads. The foundations of the main complex enclose an open internal sacred space of 5000²m surrounded by colonnades and all rooms needed for the paraphernalia of religious worship and festivities. A strong sense of ritual and processional activity still emerges from this elaborate sanctuary on its prominence. A footpath to the side of the cella leads directly towards the village of Corseul, visible in the distance after a hundred metres or so, and must have once been a straightish link, even if a more tortuous route is needed now to connect with the street remains of Monterfil.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wild scraps

I've been thinking and writing a bit lately about the development of my relationship with landscape since childhood. The following post consists of related scraps I sent in to the project Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a new work being created by a most interesting writer Clare Archibald (
 Mont St-Michel de Brasparts
My instinct for wild landscape and unbridled thought has always been at odds with a persistent childhood fear of the dark and an allied, equally instinctive concern for personal safety. I have always envied men their freedom of movement and the resulting luxury of unfettered reflection.

Early childhood encounters of wild brought the raw open landscape of the Brecon Beacons into my mental prospect, an eye-opening contrast to the manicured over-farmed environment where I lived. The (apparent) emptiness had a siren call for me, the lure of expanse and a powerful sense of freedom from physical restriction.

This has evolved over a life-time into deep-rooted emotional connection to heaths and moors, where wide views equate with security and my mind can fly out over the heather into unrelieved space. Solitude is essential to my true self and draws the stronger connection with nature that I need for replenishment. I like that no-one knows where I am and that my immediate relationship is only within the scope of my footsteps.  This to me is wild: immunity from control, an intimacy with my surroundings that frees mind and body. Here I can meet my inner wildness, sprawl or soar.

By contrast, in the forest where I now live I feel at a basic level of instinct uneasy with the shifting perspectives, narrow sightlines and plethora of tiny movements. You never know if you are alone. My body subconsciously acknowledges the potential for danger, and holds back other process. Phrases and words for my work come to me among the trees, boulders and hilly streams, but ideas and what I call long thoughts are elusive.

Perhaps I have cultivated my own wildness on a physical scale: the balance would shift in extreme landscapes of mountains and deserts where humans can only be outsiders and interlopers. Savage wilderness is a degree beyond wild and here the proportions scare me. Except for the sky, that ultimate wilderness, my black moor, lit by firefly stars, untouchable and beyond intimacy.
Monts d'Arrée

Friday, August 11, 2017


A.W.R.Thomas 1917-2010
My father was born on August 11th, 1917. Thinking of him deeply today with love and gratitude. We were estranged for the last few years of his life, but for one final meeting when one hour of connection dissolved all earlier issues. How lucky I was courageous enough to knock on his door that day. It was the last time I saw him, but he is in my heart every day, loved for his strengths and his weaknesses, held in sorrow for his struggles, and remembered in so many moments of my everyday life - all my interests and many of my beliefs derive from the time we shared and the things he taught me, all we discussed and read together and the many walks that bound me formatively to the landscape. Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Zealous walker: St Yves, patron saint of Brittany

Iconography of St Yves - Quimper cathedral
Yves Helory (c1250-1303) was canonized in 1347 after due process in which 225 witnesses testified to miracles achieved in his name. He is the male patron saint of Brittany, his historicity in marked contrast to his female counterpart Ste Anne, a figure from the Apocrypha. No visitor to Brittany's chapels can have failed to observe the iconic image of St Yves, a figure in the garb of an ecclesiatical judge, between a rich man and a poor man, his head usually inclined towards the latter. He had the reputation of favouring the underdog in legal disputes and siding with have-nots, which makes his role as patron saint of lawyers who come from all over the world to his pardon on May 19th each year in Tréguier, a curious one.
St Yves passionately devoted his life to the sick and those living in abject poverty. He gave away all his own possessions and opened the family manor house at Kermartin in Minihy-Tréguier to unfortunates. But it is his physical presence in the landscape of the Trégor that is most memorable. All his formal education in law and theology at Paris and Orleans, his aptitude in French and Latin, did nothing to separate the man from his home territory. As well as his duties at the cathedral of St Tugdual in Tréguier, he was rector of Trédrez and Louannec. Sometimes he preached in seven different churches on a Sunday, walking many miles between them. He was said to take little rest or food on these excursions, leaving in the early morning and returning home exhausted late at night. Certain rocks along the routes he walked are dubbed the bed or pillow of St Yves, emphasising his rejection of comfort and luxury whilst so many suffered hardships of penury.
'Pillow' of St Yves - Trédrez
The indefatigable walking was part of his method and his commitment to God. It was a way of interacting with the peasants in the fields or workers in the forests and travellers on the road (as two women attested after his death). He always stopped to speak and make contact with those he passed, seizing these opportunities to spread the word of God. By all accounts his actual sermons - no texts survive - were highly emotional, tears figuring alongside examples from the lives of saints.
Before the violent mayhem of the Wars of Succession that ravaged the greater part of Brittany from the mid 14th century, it was apparently possible to walk without fear along the paths of the Trégor. From Trédrez in the west to the area of Goelo and the Abbaye de Beauport in the east, many legends of association in the landscape have grown up around the journeys of St Yves and the powerful image of this slight figure walking his way into sainthood.
St Yves - Tréguier cathedral
To be continued...

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Tuchenn Gador

Took my first proper walk today, leaving early this morning to hike up the eastern approach to Tuchenn Gador before the sun drove away a light grey mist. The path mounts through a little cluster of conifers, several bare skeletons the destructive result of serving as roosts for the million starlings that perform their evening dances in a dark cloud over the hills here each autumn.
Once out onto the open heath, a wind invariably slices across from the north-west, rippling the molinia, or moor grass. A rough track rises steadily towards the first rock-outcrop, where I scramble up remarkably easily, as if my legs are acting from memory rather than my current weakness. On the plateau the views are superb: the reservoir gleaming silver, heather-purpled ridges, Mont St Michel de Brasparts with its iconic chapel on the summit.
A deep happiness fills my heart as I approach the rocks themselves, riven by shards of quartz that glisten as the first sun pushes out from the clouds. The formation is natural, an eroded carcase of this once great mountain chain. It resembles a craggy throne, hence the name 'Mound of the chair', although 18th century French map-makers made head nor tail of the Breton tuchenn and settled for Toussaines instead..........

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

New start

Home at last after weeks of recuperation in beautiful Roscoff, helped by wonderful people at the Maison St Luc facility. Now it is time to stop being an ill person and make a new start. I feel ambivalent about writing projects but it is probably too soon to take big decisions about significant changes. One thing I've been thinking about is how, for some of us, there is a remarkable sense of serenity to be had from wildness, whether of inner or outer landscape. What troubles others with a lack of definition or human control, calms me beyond anything else. The sight of the unusually green summer coating of the Monts d'Arrée softening their sharp edges smoothes my rumpled spirit. I know I can feel whole again in the embrace of those teeming spaces.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Lost month

My month of May passed in shock, sickness and the slow-motion of watching the self from another place. After collapsing in the forest when out with my dog – who incidentally probably saved my life by licking my face until I recovered consciousness - I was diagnosed with heart problems, taken into intensive care for an operation and eventually sent home for the beginning of a long recuperation which will include weeks in a special centre in Roscoff. I don't have the results of the latest tests yet, I don't have the strength to do more than stroll a few hundred metres with a companion, I no longer breathe easily and I can't face visitors. I don't work or drive, and cling obstinately to this shrunken world. Alongside this torpor, there is a strong element of unreality and separation, a sense of observing the struggles of someone else. To be inactive, fearful and mentally unfit is so alien to who I have always been. Now what, I wonder constantly. My personal landscape is destroyed.
Out of the many upheavals and changes that have ensued from one sunny Saturday afternoon, the worst is knowing that I will never again set off light-heartedly for a walk in the forest.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Beltane walk

I went out early this morning, into the sweet air and deep hush of the forest, broken only by  falls of water and the happiness of birds in their paradise. Rays weres already slanting through the branches, making wet moss shimmer on the bark. Huge granite boulders darkened by yesterday's deluge took on the colour of slate and perspired gently under the warmth of the sun. I smelt the fresh beech leaves and touched little ruddy curls of oak as yet unfolded, and knew I belonged.
It is a particular combination of the basic elements, earth, air, fire and water that turns a stroll into a walking meditation, drawing one into the frame, actual part of the picture and no longer an observer. How wonderful that this Beltane morning should be such a time
On reaching home I went into my study at once to write these few lines, primarily for my own souvenir of a reviving sabbat experience. And as I write now, chill rain is slicing across the window pane and the cathedral of trees opposite my house toss savagely in what must be tornado remnants. It's a different day. I am equally thankful for both.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Ile Grande - seeing things for what they are

I recently visited Ile Grande off the coast of Cotes d'Armor, although not really an island as joined by a bridge over the tiny separation from the mainland. It is very built-up in the centre, but the 7km coastpath offers a touch of wild landscape and great views, like the Ile Aval, Apple Island, the Breton Avalon. Ile Grande was once one of the most important sources of granite in Brittany and the largest coastal extraction site. The much-prized building stone was used from the 14th century onwards in works like the magnificent cathedral of Tréguier and, later, the famous viaduct of Morlaix. The heyday of quarrying was in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the island and the surrounding uninhabited islets were exploited by more than a hundred quarrymen. A modern sculpture honours the profession of stone-cutters.
When I walked from the harbour of St-Sauveur northwards, at low tide, I was soon presented with a gleaming stony promontory and slightly puzzled to see what appeared (without my glasses on) to be a ruined chapel, clearly outlined against the bright blue sky. Nowhere had I heard of or read about such remains on Ile Grande, but my immediate instinct was to walk out there to experience the remote spot that had once attracted holy men. My spirit of place hat still sits firmly on my head. It is of course a form of romanticism to be irresistibly attracted to long dead churches, abbeys and chapels, to feel the motivation of their founders in the landscape and align oneself with the simplistic concept of an isolated primitive life.
I did not have to walk far before before realizing that it was no chapel, and after clambering over rocks and then following the beach to reach the site, the remains were obviously dwellings of some kind - houses of quarry-workers was a reasonable assumption. I sat there for some time, thinking about my own reactions and whether I would have set off along the peninsula on a very hot day when I was already tired and keen to finish my excursion if I had seen or known that the ruins were housing. Is that too prosaic a purpose? Why should one be prompted by one assumption and not the other? The longer I stayed there the more I realised that the quarry-workers would have been far more in harmony with the landscape and known its every nuance rather better than a cell of monks fasting and praying away.
In fact later research revealed that the buildings were seaweed-gatherers cottages originally, then used as shelters during the main quarrying period and later converted into a youth hostel, which was destroyed by German target practice during WWII....

Monday, March 20, 2017

St Pol and a taurine stalker

I have been tracing the scenes of St Pol's journey in eastern Léon, looking at the landscape and likely changes over the intervening centuries. Indication in the earliest Vita has the saint moving by land possibly along former Roman roads towards his destination of what is today St-Pol-de-Léon, where his cathedral stands. There he arrived in the wooded valley of Gourveau, and struck the ground with his staff to produce the source which still feeds an enormous stone lavoir by the road leading down to Pempoul from the town centre.
He met a pig-man of the local lord who offered to conduct St-Pol to his master. First they arrived at the almost deserted oppidum which was to become his mainland settlement. Here he finds a wild pig with its young, swarms of bees, a bear and a rampant bull. The event has distinct echoes of Aeneas' arrival in Latium in Vergil's Aeneid, a work that was my constant companion for more than twenty years. In Book 7, Latinus tells of the omen of a swarm of bees in a special laurel tree, interpreted by the soothsayer as the arrival of strangers who will take over. In Book 8, Father Tiber gives Aeneas a sign that he has reached his destined place: he will find a huge sow and her litter of thirty beneath the oak trees. Wrmonoc, the monk at Landevennec abbey who wrote St Pol's first Vita in 884, must have been familiar with the classical text, and adopted its foundation symbolism. Pol's subsequent blessing of the boundaries (earth-and-ditch defences) with water and salt also has a distinctly pre-Christian tang.
St-Pol tamed the pig and domesticated the bees in hives. The savage inhabitants fared less well: the bear ran off and lost itself in a deep ravine, while Pol faced down the rampant bull. One can't help a sneaking suspicion that it was the same one he had remonstrated with at Lampaul-Ploudalmezeau, one who could not resist following his holy opponent across Léon for another ticking off. A taurine stalker is just another potent enhancement factor for the saint.
There is another tradition of St Pol, on the north coast of Finistère, perhaps indicating a separate journey at another time. But it does include his arrival at the Pointe de Beg Pol (the point of the point of Pol!) by the current Phare de Pontusval in a stone boat. When locals attempted to drag this item by oxen, the beasts stopped definitively on top of a nearby knoll and the stone remained there. Today the little chapel of St-Pol stands on the spot in a rather special setting among boulders.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

St Pol and the dragon

The iconography of St Pol (Sant Paol in Breton), one of the founding saints of Brittany, shows the saint with a dragon beneath his feet. The reference is to an event on the Ile de Batz, in the area where he came to settle permanently, witnessed today by the nearby mainland town of St-Pol-de-Léon with its cathedral commemorating St Pol as the first bishop in the early 6th century.

St Pol began his religious career in Wales, studying at the prestigious monastery of Llanwit Major. From a noble family, he was marked by his piety from an early age, although the evidence for his later life suggests the uneasy mixture of asceticism and missionary zeal not uncommon in the early Breton saints. After a sojourn with King Mark in Cornwall, where he was refused a bronze bell to take to his new land, St Pol sailed across the Channel to confront the pagan population of western Brittany with the steady truth of Christianity.

This focused purpose is suggested by his first landfall on Ouessant, a remote island in the Atlantic off the north-west shore of Brittany. Here there was a well-established pagan cult centre, a group of priestesses that St Pol is said to have forced from one end of the island to the other. A cross on the cliffs marked his first landfall, with a nearby stone bearing the imprint of his knees at prayer. The name of the only sizeable settlement on Ouessant today is Lampaul – the holy place of St Pol.

Further place-names reflect the saint’s traditional journey eastwards across what is now Léon, the northern part of Finistère: Lampaul-Plouarzel, Lampaul-Ploudalmezeau, the chapel of Prat-Paol, Lampaul-Guimiliau and finally St-Pol-de-Léon. Here St Pol is said to have had a positive interview with local count Withur (who may have been a relation), and received land on the Ile de Batz, just off Roscoff. Here he founded a monastery on the site of what later became a chapel to St-Anne, still visible in ruins on the island now.

The Ile de Batz was terrorised by a marauding dragon and the inhabitants approached St Pol for help. He is said to have called the beast out of its lair, placed his bishop’s stole around its neck, led it to the western edge of the island and commanded the dragon to hurl itself into the sea. It obeyed. The place today is called Toull ar Zarpant, Serpent’s Hole, and a striking rock formation marks the bay where this remarkable event took place.

In the village church, a medieval bishop’s stole is displayed in a glass case, echoing the most memorable feature of the story, a wild beast led like a tame dog to its death. The fabric has been tested and is very early, possibly 8th century, alas too late for St Pol himself who died near the end of the 6th century at the great age of 102.

He had wanted to continue a quiet monastic life on the Ile de Batz, but was tricked into becoming a bishop by Withur who sent him to Clovis in Paris with a note requesting his episcopal consecration. Thereafter he cleared more wild beasts from the Celtic site of Occismor and founded what later became the cathedral and town of St-Pol-de-Léon. Official life was not congenial to St Pol who made several thwarted attempts to retire to the Ile de Batz before he was finally allowed to live out the rest of his long life in peace there.

The dragon story overrides all other tales of St Pol’s miracle-working, such as healing the blind and commanding the sea to respect a boundary he had set, the powers that set him apart from other Christians in his group of settlers. It is surely the detail of that wild monster behaving like a family pet that sticks in the memory and makes the story curious. Another interesting detail, often overlooked, is that the saint took a companion with him for this feat, a certain knight from Cléder. The implication of a knight is of course a warrior with a sword, which sounds suspiciously like an insurance policy or back-up plan. Did St Pol want a witness? Or perhaps a muscle-man if things did not turn out to his advantage. Did the islanders turn out to watch a potentially thrilling contest or cower in their huts until the danger was past? An observed miracle and a reported one are markedly different things.

If the dragon, so vividly described in the Latin text of an early Vita of St Pol, written by Wrmonoc, a monk at Landévennec in 884, symbolized pagan religion, the worship of natural forces and elemental powers, it was perhaps apt that it met its end on the western shore, a direction associated with death and the Isles of the Blessed in Celtic mythology, here where the sea stretches emptily and endlessly into the far distance. The bay is crammed with rocks of all sizes today, dominated by the vaguely beast-shaped pile of giant stones at a point exposed fully at low tide. The sea of course has resurrective potential in pagan mythology, so the beast may not have been reluctant after all, and needed little bidding to opt not for destruction but regeneration, and a welcome release from the irritating goodness of Christian saints.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Dull and cold

Spent the weekend in St Brieuc and the environs. I fear I shall never like this dull town with its tortuous traffic arrangements, incohesive centre and claustrophobic streets, despite a scattering of handsome half-timbered houses. The cathedral, built with defence in mind, has a dour and forbidding exterior, hardly enlivened by the gloom inside, the unadorned walls punctuated by bishops' tombs. Certainly the building was badly used at the time of the Revolution, but the interior still seems inhabited by the miasma of an unholy trinity: defeat, loss and martyrdom.
The Bay of St Brieuc is an open relief after many attempts to leave the town are thwarted by poor signage and roadworks further confusing an already baffling one-way system. The tourist office had provided me with maps for my visit to the bay area. Unfortunately, these did not include minor roads so finesse of direction was tricky. It's a long time since I explored this area for the Footprint Brittany guidebook, but I had various goals in mind, thinking about the new book and old pathways. I drove along a road based on the Roman route towards Corseul, capital of the Coriosolites in Celtic times, before branching off along a beautiful curvy split route with trees on both sides and between the carriageways, to the small bourg of Hillion with its appealing Romanesque church,
I then walked the coast path beyond the look-out point at the Maison de le Baie. It's a weekend of high tides and this bay is famous for one of the longest recoils in the world, when the sea retreats for up to 7km. It was out for me, so there was plenty of bird-life on the exposed bed, including a flock of Tadornes de Belon. I'm fond of this chunky bird whose peculiar markings make it look unfinished, a work in progress.
Moving inland and onto the high ground in the commune of Yffiniac, I found the Fontaine des Sept Saints beside the little chapel of St Laurent, tucked unobtrusively into the hilside beside a huge racecourse. In this case it is seven healing saints, not the founding saints of Brittany, nor the sleeping saints of Vieux-Marché. It just goes to show the insecurity of the historical evidence for the Tro Breiz pilgrimage. References to the the Seven Saints exist in  various documents, but which seven is far from clear. Here it is Guenolé, Jacut, Lubin, Tugdual (Tudwal), Méen, Cadoc and Armel, each patron of their own speciality disease, from rabies to eczema.
Last stop was Ploufragan to search for three ill-signed neolithic monuments. After two, the bitter wind got the better of me and I headed home. The highlight of my weekend was without doubt having the swimming pool at the beautiful appartments where I stayed (Domitys Le Griffon d'Or in St Brieuc) all to myself on two occasions.