Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Walking the wild coast

On Boxing Day I took my last trip for the new book, a walk down the wild coast of the Quiberon peninsula. Thin wintry sun alternated with grey skies, high winds lashed constantly, hard to stand against at times, and whipped the sea into a foaming, surging mass in the small bays. The cliffs are of modest height, which enhances a sense of engagement with the watery assault, as spume flies high over the rocks and little snowballs of foam splatter all around.
The pinchpoint of the promontory is only 22m wide, enough to carry the main road and a railway that joined Quiberon to Auray from the 1880s. Until the 11th century the Presqu'ile was a real island, but widespread deforestation led to the sanding up of a narrow spit or tombolo to join the mainland. The landmark Fort de Penthiévre was built in the mid 18th century after English raids on Quiberon, but it played a better known role in the disaster of 1795, when briefly held by royalist emigrées who had landed near Carnac but then been forced back onto the peninsula by the Republican army.
From the little fishing village of Portivy, I cross the Plage du Fozo and then fight the wind up onto Beg en Aod, an Iron Age eperon barré possibly attacked by Caesar before his naval victory over the Vénètes in 56BC. The next headland, Pointe de Percho is dominated by the ruins of a corps de garde. This coast is all about attack and defence, in both natural and human history. Contrasts are everywhere: the famous arch of Port Blanc, eroded by wind and water, stands near a pair of neolithic graves dramatically poised by the hand of man on the cliff-edge.
Further down the coast a stele commemorates the sad fate of two members of the rescue squad who tried to save a reckless photographer who had been swept into the sea. Michel Ponin and André Robet lost their lives, whilst the object of their sacrifice survived. This afternoon I see quite a few idiots posing for selfies on the very edge of the cliffs above turbulent waters. They probably go home exhilarated, whilst I stagger on down towards Quiberon through a succession of fine megaliths, weary and bleary eyed under the unhelpful slaps of that relentless wind...
But I've done it. What I set out to achieve in 2019 is accomplished. I've completed a demanding schedule of research trips. Held tight to desk work when my health prevented travel. Finished the first draft of the manuscript before the end of December 31st. All is well. Happy New Year everyone.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Manoir des Indes

Manoir des Indes
The spirit of adventure and exploration is strong in Breton history, where the sea is an almost maternal element for so many. From Chateaubriand's North American adventures to the discovery of islands in the south Indian Ocean by Kerguelen, the global imprint of Breton individuality on the map of Imperial France is still a source of celebration in contemporary Brittany.
I spent a night to celebrate my birthday this Christmas at the 4* Manoir des Indes, set in a large park, beside Quimper's western ring-road. This manor house was built by René Madec, a son of Quimper from lowly origins, who joined the navy at the age of 11 and later arrived in India on a boat of the Compagnie des Indes. He fought the English under the command of Dupleix (who is also honoured in Quimper, giving his name to one of the quays). Through mercenary activity in the many wars in India, Madec rose to the status of nabob and a fabulous fortune in his own right. He was at the siege of Pondichery in 1778 with 6000 men.
Returning to Brittany the following year, Madec was ennobled by Louis XV. The town house where he settled in Quimper is marked today by a plaque from the local pottery showing him in full Indian dress, and he was a familiar sight on horseback along the banks of the Odet. He also bought up land on the outskirts of the town in Pluguffan and Penhars, building the lavish house now converted into a hotel on the site of a former manoir, whose chapel can still be seen.
rue René Madec, Quimper
At the hotel the theme of oriental luxury is pursued in furniture and decor, with the rooms given names evocative of maritime adventure. Mine (Kerguelen) had an enormous low wooden bed, a rugged A-frame and the sliding bathroom door echoed the screen partitions of warmer climes. The bedrooms are accessed off an open landing surrounding the glass-roofed atrium where breakfast - of exceptional quality - is served. In the basement a spa has been created, with treatment rooms, a sauna and, of most interest to me, the beautiful pool/jacuzzi, under the old stone arches of the original cellars.
Cellar pool
The story of René Madec's rise to greatness is told in a booklet in each room. On his final return to Quimper, he did not live long to enjoy all his acquired wealth with his young wife, dying in 1784 after injuries sustained by a fall from his horse. I cannot fault the hotel (except that I personally prefer a Relais du Silence to dispense with piped music), but the addition here of historical pedigree and local colour made it an exceptional stay; one I intend to repeat.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


Solstice greetings to all my readers and best wishes for 2020. I was at Mardoul very early this morning to find the Elez in greater flood than I've ever seen: all paths and bridges inaccessible. I left home under the moon and stars, saw the light come up over the dashing water, stood through a rainstorm and drove home with the sun. It was wonderful, a time of real reflection on the turning of the year and great hopes for all the new things coming in the next one. I have achieved all I set out to do in the good but tough passage of 2019: now is the time for change, a call I feel strongly in mind, body and heart. Looking forward to it and sending positive thoughts and thanks to everyone.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Wayfaring update

Really pushing myself to finish the draft of Wayfaring in Little Britain before the end of the year. I have one more field trip around Christmas and then a scramble to write up the final chapter in some coherent fashion. Otherwise all that's left, which I'm working on now, is text about imaginary and symbolic journeys, so important in Breton culture, and the idea of the landscape imbued with legend and metaphor should lead nicely into my actual journeys. It's a strange feeling to see this elusive book finally looking like a manuscript after three years of stop/start, illness and frustrations. I am grateful to all those who ask me rather nervously from time to time about progress. It's not quite as I envisaged at first, but the narrative shape that has developed organically seems a good one, true to experience and representative of all I have left to say on the history and landscape of Brittany. Next year, back to fiction!

Thursday, November 07, 2019


About to cross the bridge and enter the round doorway of the Prefecture
Eighteen months after becoming a French citizen, I finally got to have a ceremony to celebrate the event. Last year I was not invited even though some of these ritual affairs were held and reported in the press. The Prefecture at Quimper failed to answer any of my messages. When I went there to ask directly why I had been overlooked, I was basically told to go and queue up with the foreigners awaiting visas, cartes de sejour, etc., which I declined to do on the grounds I was already a citizen. It seeemed like a matter of principle at the time, in the face of rude dismissiveness from the 'Welcome' staff.
After mulling for a long time over whether this really mattered and deciding it did, finally I wrote to Président Macron - this is easy to do through the Elysée Palace website - and asked for his help. His office replied to me within a week and soon after, lo and behold, I received a letter from Quimper assuring me I would be on the list for the next ceremony. It is a pity that it takes the Président of the Republic to make an administrator in Quimper do their job correctly and politely.
So it happened this week, a grand official occasion, admirably presided over by Aurelien Adam, the new Directeur de Cabinet du Préfet, who was excellent in every way. I was quite moved by his words and the sense of significance he managed to convey. I even had a few personal words with him later on as we both left the building at the same time. There were many people there, more than 150 including those receiving the official decree of citizenship and their family and friends. I really enjoyed seeing some of the palatial rooms of the Prefecture, and singing the Marseillais with a large group of many nationalities of all ages, united by our Frenchness. The only time I heard a language other than French was when two British people saw fit to speak loudly in English just before the ceremony began. I edged as far away from them as I could get.
Monsieur le maire me soutient
I was delighted that the mayor of my commune, Benoit Michel, took the trouble to come all the way to Quimper to support me and share a celebratory drink afterwards. It really added something to the day. At last I have my decree and various texts of edifying Republican values to ponder. Despite having had an ID card and a French passport for a long time, the process now feels complete and I really do feel French. And I say both Vive La France and Vive La Bretagne.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Twelve today

On the beach at Pentrez this birthday morning - Tex in good form.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

St Gildas

I have been around the Gulf of Morbihan on the trail of St Gildas. It's the first time of seeing the wonderful 11th century abbey church at St-Gildas-de-Rhuys since a large-scale restoration project. (You could say the original was a bit of a renovation job after the earliest abbey was destroyed by the Vikings in the early 10th century.) It certainly looks cleaner, positively glowing under the autumn sunshine.
Inside, the Romanesque apse and ambulatory are remarkable survivals, although the so-called tomb of the saint is just an unmarked lump of stone with a bland modern statue. The tombstones of Breton nobility around the walls of the nave are more substantial. This part of the church was restored after the bell-tower fell onto it in the mid 17th century.
From the coast just below the village there are views across to the islands of Houat and Hoedic. Gildas initially made landfall on Houat when arriving in Armorica, and returned there for his final years after running the new abbey on the mainland. After another day around Quiberon I was all set to get out there and see the valley setting of his former chapel, but some serious weather intervened and all boats were cancelled. Another trip then....

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Taking stock

Menhir de Champ Dolent, Dol-de-Bretagne
After my annual long visit to Combourg, where I have been based to complete a chapter called the Devil's trajectory around Dol-de-Bretagne, it's time to take stock of the year's work and my progress along a very decided path for 2019. I arrived home to find author's copies of my little saints' guide  waiting - one objective achieved and a pleasing result of a great deal of effort. Much of the research was done for another saints' project last year, but trying to sift a mass of material for meaningful synopsis is not easy, and to convey complex issues in compact form is a veritable skill. Introduction to the Breton Saints forms a third volume in the series that began with guides to Huelgoat and the Monts d'Arrée, a format that has been much appreciated by very many people. There may well be a fourth topic in 2020, given the success so far.
As to the main purpose of my year, the completion of Wayfaring in Little Britain, the journey is far from finished, although I have made significant progress lately. This is the third year of trying: thwarted by serous illness for the last two, I am finding the physical demands of travel, walking and research extremely hard to cope with, but am determined to finish the manuscript by the end of the year, even though the last bit of route coverage is not scheduled until December 26th! With the encouragement of the few readers who have glimpsed the content of this elusive book, this theme of hard-won achievement has crept into the text - quite a change for me to write personally, but it perhaps it is time to be honest about the demands of walking and searching against a backdrop of pain and difficulty. Most people writing about history in the context of landscape are serious walkers covering 30-odd kilometres a day without too much trouble. That has never been the case for me, but I hope there is equal merit in a book constructed around hardship, where a day's walking for a healthier person may turn into two or even three for me on occasion and where considerably more logistical planning is needed.
St Samson's mitre, Mont Dol
I hope it can be done. The themes of journeys and different types of walking from neolithic ritual through Roman roads to saints' stories and medieval pilgrimage are fundamental to the discovery of Brittany's landscape and history. It will be a final summary of all my painstaking work in this field over many years, as next year is to be devoted to something rather different...
Start of the Devil's trajectory on Mont Dol

Monday, September 09, 2019


Alignements du Moulin
I have been in Ille-et-Vilaine, revisting the exceptional megalithic site at St-Just, which will figure in my new book Wayfaring in Little Britain. Here a walking trail leads out along the Landes de Cojoux with alignments, standing-stones, tumuli and graves all around for more than two kilometres. The site has been tamed and organised since my last visit to a lonely open plateau which then had little restriction for movement among the stones. It was also a forlorn sight at that time, just days after a major moorland fire had left the scars of burning everywhere, vegetation reduced to ashes and acridity filling the air. Now in late summer there was plenty of plant colour and clean quartz to gleam in the hot sun.
Le Tribunal
The monuments that I return to again and again are the Alignements du Moulin and the so-called Tribunal, the latter mooted as a stone age calendar, but named for its appearance of a row of judges and the accused. The 12 menhirs of the alignment, made of schist and organised east/west, are like people in their individual shapes, character and relative placings - a family photo covering the generations. Funerary remains found on excavation date to about 4700BC: the standing-stones came later. The function of the stones themselves or their role within the overall structuring of the whole complex is impossible to say. They appear to be on course to meet at a point with the line of chubbier quartz stones to the north. A further north/south line is suggested by a few remaining small stones.
What is so extraordinary about this site is the constant unfolding of remains, the accumulation of death, here, there and everywhere around the main path which forges across the open centre of the plateau. The loftiness of the location was obviously significant, and its dramatic end, abruptly above the valley of the river Canut and the Etang du Val.
Chateau Bu
On reaching the pinnacle at the Chateau Bu, with its neolithic burial in lateral chambers and later Bronze Age graves and guardian pillars, it is hard to imagine anything better, but huge complexes of inter-related monuments like the Croix St Pierre arrangements await. The place, even over its significant length, has a clearer sense of unity than Carnac, for example, and is to me much more compelling. The main practical advantage is that there are rarely other people to share the scene outside weekends and holidays. This sense of aloneness amidst serial funerary architecture from nearly seven thousand years ago offers a powerful experience and it was a strangely emotional one this time.
After a few days away, I made a slow journey back, stopping off to see if the megalithic site at Monteneuf in Morbihan had changed much over the years. It has, whether for the better or not is hard to say.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Roman site

Yesterday I was in Locuon, looking at the Roman (and probably earlier) quarry which provided stone not only for the locality, but for the new town established at Carhaix, 27km away, in the 1st century AD. A Roman road from Vannes passed near the site, facilitating transport of stone blocks, and excavations of this track found parts had been paved in the same material. The sheer rock faces are like living walls, ferns burgeoning in the damp green light of the pits. The whole site has a subterranean feel as the trees close in overhead creating a sensation of being underneath a porous layer. Soft and crumbly to the touch, Locuon granite is a light grey/white in hue and smooth in texture, giving it almost the appearance of marble.

The approach is down a monumental staircase, thanks to the sacralisation of the site, with a chapel, Madonna in a niche on the quarry wall, fontaine and lavoir on a lower level. The current chapel is 17th century and shows off the potential of the building stone, but there were certainly earlier versions, as a line of probable roof support holes in the cliff behind indicates. This granite wall also includes a carved face and cross motif. Facing the statue of the Virgin Mary is the headless statue of a pagan goddess, fixed to the bottom of the staircase parapet.
Descending to a lower level of the quarry, a spring pours out of a sculpted surround in the rock and the water is carried via a slate enclosed channel to the washing basin. Here is the first of a group of contemporary art pieces, a rather dog-like curled wolf on a platform raised above the water. Pushing further into the dells of the quarry, there are rocks incised with criss-cross pattern and, more impressively, a 'boulder' held in the thin branches of a tree. This was actually made in situ by Yuhsin U Chang, from wool over a wooden frame.
After a lengthy site inspection, I set off for a few kilometres on the former Roman road.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


St Thélo
It's been a real struggle to finish the little Breton saints' guide on time, but I've never missed a deadline yet and I really need to focus now on Wayfaring in Little Britain, which calls me daily for thought and attention. There will still be editing changes on the saints to incorporate, I'm sure, but the basic text is finished and another day should see photo selection wrapped up. Luckily the cover photo almost chose itself and I'm happy that this short introduction to an enormous subject will fit well in what is almost a series, alongside the Huelgoat and Monts d'Arrée slim volumes. What's important is that they have sold in their thousands and that people really like the format and content.
A few walking trips coming up for Roman and megalithic chapters of WILB. Time to get out of my writing hut and onto the road...

Monday, July 22, 2019

Worth its weight in gold

Artichoke harvest
Léon, the northern area of Finistere is best known further afield for its ferry port at Roscoff, but no traveller heading south off the boat can have failed to notice the ubiquitous fields of artichokes, onions and cauliflowers. It is a prime growing area, part of what has long been called the Golden Belt of Brittany's agricultural harvests. Brittany Ferries itself was started in the 1970s to take the produce to Cornish markets. Breton artichokes were once flown on Concorde to the US.
The legend of Saint Goulven is at the heart of this idea of fecundity and its concomitant prosperity. His mother was about to give birth to him as soon as they arrived on the coast of Armorica, near where the bourg of Goulven is today. His father went on a desperate search for water, finally falling to his knees and praying for God's help. On returning to his wife, he found a newly born son and a newly flowing spring of freshwater. The land in Brittany provides. The elaborate Renaissance fontaine of St Goulven now marks the spot. Pilgrims later came for healing, particularly of fever. A stone sarcophagus in the wall by the statue is called the bed or tomb of the saint. Here sufferers immersed themselves and prayed for cures.
Sarcophagus in lefthand wall

Although much later a bishop of Léon, Goulven was a quiet and serious young man, who soon dedicated himself to prayer and preaching. He lived apart from society with a single follower. One day he had the impulse to send his friend Maden to a neighbour asking for a gift. After a short reflection, the neighbour hefted a clod of earth into the fold of Maden's tunic and sent him back. Maden found his load heavier and heavier as he struggled to return. Goulven came out of his hut to meet him and discovered that the earth had turned into a lump of gold. So we learn that the riches of Léon lie in its soil, and that Goulven was worthy of a miracle and destined for sainthood.
Earth turned to gold

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sacred walking - the Grande Tromenie

Tomb of Saint Ronan
I am very interested in sacred walking at the moment as recent posts indicate, although my new book is about different types of routes and not limited to religious themes.The Grande Tromenie takes place every six years at Locronan, with an annual shorter version. The name means journey (tro) around a monastic territory (minihi), and, according to tradition, the route follows the path of a sacred circuit undertaken regularly by Saint Ronan around what was already established by the Dark Ages as a Celtic nemeton, or outdoor temple. A trail linking rocks and megalithic remains, commonly called Druidic stones in the 19th century, may have been linked to fertility rites. This aspect has persisted in popular perception, and maybe conception, right up to the present day.
Countryside around Locronan, context of the trail
When Ronan established his settlement here (later Locronan, the sacred place of Ronan), it was after an initial bruising encounter with feisty Breton women on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez, who resented him interfering in their nefarious wrecking activities by shining a great light on the shoreline. Arriving in the interior where the welcoming anonymity of the Bois de Nevet (once Nemet = nemeton) sheltered him, Ronan was soon drawn into the public spotlight again, incurring the unbounded hostility of a woman named Keben. She wanted to destroy the reputation and influence of the monk and accused him of murdering her daughter, but Ronan was able to prove Keben herself was the culprit. Later, after the saint's death, she insulted the funeral procession and struck off a horn of one of the oxen leading the funeral cart. This story is to explain the name of Plas ar Horn, beside the memorial chapel of 1912, one of the 12 stations of the Tromenie route, and an earlier ritual site.
Keben uses a washing paddle to de-horn the ox
The festival attracts many thousands of followers for the procession, which wends through the countryside over 12 kilometres, including paths on private land only open for this event - a good chance for new perspectives in all senses. This relationship with the landscape is my interest in this case. The way is cleared of foliage and long grass, and marked out with 12 stations, each representing an individual saint with a granite cross and a little hut containing a statue, brought in from chapels in the area to honour Ronan and be honoured by the faithful in their turn.
One notable feature is Gazeg vaen, a rock also known as the Chair of Ronan, where the saint is said to have sat and looked out over the waters of the bay (no longer visible from the spot). The stone is the survivor of  a megalithic group, and has been (for how long?) the focus of a fertility ritual for women, who lay full length or rubbed their belly against the surface to increase their chances of conceiving a child.
Postcard of woman sitting on the "chaise de Ronan"
The rock today
The grand procession is on Sunday 14th July, but the route remains open to walkers for one week after that date, and I'll be on it at a quieter time. (Walked on Tuesday 16th and some photos added above).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Morlaix's unique style

9 Grand'Rue
I am currently writing about Morlaix in the context of roads and pathways for my new book, which has reminded me of all kinds of negatives about this beautiful historical town, so here let's focus on something more alluring. The town has a unique architectural form, the maison pondalez, narrow, half-timbered, high-storeyed houses, offering an unparalleled glimpse into the 16th century life of the city. Often likened to lantern houses, they did not in fact originally have roof level light-sources, with windows serving both front and back rooms alone. The great central well, rising the full height of the house, had a monumental fireplace and would have been lit with sconces. The name pondalez is of uncertain derivation, the traditional 'pont' + 'aller' in reference to a single turning staircase with wooden 'bridges' to both sides on each level, is now largely rejected in favour of the nothing in particular. Wood carving is a feature of the exterior with saints and angels dignifying the façade, and the interior where ornate single piece stair-posts rise to an enormous height. The jettied storeys have rooms on each level with small-paned casement windows seemingly only feet away from their opposite neighbours across the tiny cobbled streets of the old walled city, sacked by English raiders in 1522.
Most interesting of all is the raison d'etre of these exceptional buildings. They were the fine residences of nobles turned merchants, officially surrendering the swords that symbolised their status in order to cash in on the highly lucrative cloth trade with England. The quality fabric créées was purchased in the shop-fronts of these Morlaix houses (with a fold-down counter on ground level) and shipped from the river port 200m away. Often younger sons of the Breton petite noblesse had few prospects in terms of family inheritance and stood to make fortunes in commerce, but they still wanted the trappings of the manor houses in the narrow confines of a medieval town - hence the narrow frontage and great height of these splendid residences, and the quality of craftsmanship in their construction and decoration.
Two of these houses can be visited today. The so-called House of the Duchess Anne in the market square Place Allende and 9 Grand'Rue. The latter would be my choice as more atmospheric and clearly presented. Just the thing for getting in the spirit of the town and imagining that attack in 1522. A maid in this very street had the measure of the English: she opened a trap-door in the hall and the first few pillagers fell into the cellar and drowned. Their less stupid comrades chased the maid up and up the stairs until she was forced to throw herself from the top window. That piece of anecdotal history takes on quite another dimension when mounting the levels of this maison pondalez.
So-called Maison de la Duchesse Anne

Thursday, June 06, 2019

'New' website

Combourg - chateau and park
My website www.wendymewes.com has had a complete overhaul and now features recent and other work. It will be updated regularly with new writing. Please have a look - non-spam flavoured feedback is welcome.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Ile St Gildas

Ile St Gildas
I spent the weekend on the north coast in Cotes d'Armor for the pardon on the little private island of Saint Gildas, who is one of several Breton saint patrons of horses. The unusual aspect of this event is that the island is only accessible on foot at the lowest tide and that it is only open for public access on this one day a year. A procession of people and horses make their way out from Coz Castel in Bugélès, following the curving line of an old causeway constructed in the days when the islands in this chain were all exploited and regularly inhabited. In places there is no more than a vague track and care is needed all along the slippy sliding path over sand, mud, rocks and seaweed.
I set off before the official start time, leaving crowds gathered on the shore to await tractor transport or to walk along with the horses on their way to a bishop's blessing on the island. Even so there was already a long line of men, women and children picking a precarious route across the strand. Footwear varied from wellingtons and walking boots to open sandals and bare feet. Many old hands carried a shoe-bag with a change for arrival. It was certainly a dirty business and required a degree of concentration that left little time for observing the off-shore scenery. Fortunately the intense heat of Saturday had evaporated and the breeze was fresh once away from the shore and walking where there would normally be sea. One wide channel remained and I waded across up to my knees through the gentle current.
Behind in the distance I could make out the main body of participants on the move. The first horses, a fine pair of chestnut mares, passed me shortly before I reached the causeway up onto the island. Paddocks and paths had been newly mown for the occasion, scenting the air with the summery smell of cut grass. There were already many there but I had the chance to visit the tiny chapel of St Gildas and even smaller oratory of St Roch in their stone enclosure before the crowds arrived. A makeshift altar was set in the open air under a white canopy and lines of chairs awaited the pilgrims for mass.

While they filled up, I wandered about watching the horses, now lining a large fenced area beside the food and drink stalls, and locating the eccentric toilets in a former bread-oven.
After mass the bishop of St Brieuc and Tréguier and his acolytes processed the short distance to the paddock, mounted a special platform and blessed baskets of bread which he then fed to each horse to ensure its good health and good behaviour during the coming year.
There were 75 animals,so I decided to set off back whilst the route was fairly clear and enjoy the journey which was my (work) purpose in coming, able to take it slower on return. There was about an hour left before the tide began to fill the channel, but I met an elderly Breton woman with bright blue eyes and bright yellow wellingtons, making her slow way to the island. She said she was afraid of slipping, but clearly determined to reach the site even though the ceremonies were almost over and tractors lining up to bring the faithful home. Gradually fading snatches of canticles accompanied me on my return.