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
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 (clarearchibald.wordpress.com).
 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

Centenary

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...