Monday, July 23, 2018

Huelgoat: as real as legendary

The lake
The town tour I am offering this summer is something of an oddity. Huelgoat (= high forest in Breton) is famous for its glorious forest, massive granite boulders and the associated legends. The town itself is not distinguished by impressive architecture - far from it - and away from the lake, rocks and sylvan streams there is little a romantic could find to celebrate. But I've been taking people round the forest and telling the same old stories since 2004, so more than time for a change, and surely reality can be just as compelling if presented in a coherent way.
The reality of Huelgoat is a distinct economic and social history that has fashioned the town differently from its neighbours. The key to history is often geology, and here the exceptional granite flowerings (product of volcanic magma) and considerable silver-bearing lead deposits have both played their parts in development and prosperity. Mining was practised by the Celts and Romans here, and this underground wealth attracted the attention of the dukes of Brittany in the late 12th century when they bought large tracts of land from the spendthrift lords of Léon. The oldest building in Huelgoat is the central mill (now called Moulin du Chaos), built in 1339 on the orders of Jean III (and sadly recently turned into a shop). The forest also provided extensive hunting grounds for ducal sport, a medieval equivalent of 'leisure activity' for the wealthy, an issue that was to assume renewed significance much later in Huelgoat.
Moulin du Chaos
German engineers constructed the lake - much smaller in form than today - in the late 16th century to serve as a reserve for the mines which were situated several miles away in what is now the commune of Locmaria-Berrien. No lake road existed until the early 20th century: a simple track gave cattle, horses and washer-women access to the water's edge. In the 1770s, at the height of exploitation, the size was enlarged and a canal cut from it to travel all the way through the forest to the mine, taking water to drop onto a hydraulic wheel and drive the underground pumps that forced water out of the galleries and shafts. An earlier canal, taken directly from the river Argent (Silver River) near the Gouffre had not proved adequate for the mine's requirements.
Little but long, canal heading out to the mine
Unskilled labour at the mines was mostly local, although peasants also had to work their farms, with many foreign professionals (Germans, English) and French (after the Revolution). This great influx of outsiders led French to achieve a dominance over Breton here which was not the case in the surrounding areas. There was also much inter-marrying as some local family names indicate, deriving from other parts of France. There were some tensions, some early strikes, plenty of environmental damage and pollution and finally decline of supply as it became more and more dangerous to access deeper deposits even with more sopisticated machinery in the mid 19th century.
Once the mines declined, quarrying became the main local industry with Huelgoat granite in great demand as building material. Where the creperie in the forest now stands beside the world-famous Chaos was once the manager's house and centre of activities. It explains why there are expanses here without boulders and why lone stones like the Trembling Rock (which bears a line of chisel marks, ready to be spilt) and the Champignon (Mushroom) stand out in what was once a sea of shapes like the surviving Chaos. The wide tracks so handy for roaming tourists today were then necessary for bringing out the cut stone in carts.
Roche tremblante with line of chisel holes
But the latter part of the 19th century saw changes of attitude towards nature and the development of leisure interests for ordinary people. Writers and artists (like Sérusier, one of the Nabis) flocked to the picturesque forest, and hotels blossomed to satisfy new tourist demands. One advertised the town as the 'Fontainbleau breton' and even had a dark room for budding photographers. Flyers in English reflect the early attachment of the British for this lakeside town, already referred to as an 'English colony' in the 1880s. Walking and cycling became serious leisure pursuits throughout the social scale and the beauty of natural scenery began to be valued for its own sake.
As quarrying caused more and more destruction of the great rocks that were attracting visitors from far and wide, a campaign to save them was mounted by the Touring Club of France and supported by many famous figures from the world of culture. In 1903 the town finally bought up the forest area of Saoulec to preserve what is now the main lure for tourists, an astonishing valley crammed with boulders of every size and evocative shape.
I throw in a single legend (the sort I like with social and economic significance) to show willing. It is a pleasing irony that the origin of this Chaos is attributed to the giant Hok Bras or Gargantua who rained down these rocks on the town as retribution for being offered nothing but thin gruel by the inhabitants once he tasted the creamy porridge available further north in wealthy Léon. The rocks thus began as symbols of poverty and are now the basis of the town's wealth, such as it, almost entirely derived from tourism.
The Chaos
Finally, one unprepossessing building can be used to illustrate this shifting economic balance between tourism and industry. The Hotel de France, situated in the town centre, put up this annexe close to the Chaos in 1904, a block of small appartments to accommodate the hordes of visitors that descended on the town in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Not pretty, but telling: early tourist accommodation