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.