Friday, December 30, 2016

Being outside

Being outside. Those words have defined my life for good and ill. They reflect my preference for place over people and the resulting separateness. As a child it was a physical longing, more than that, a necessity to be out of doors, away from the cage that family life often formed. The sense of liberation and free choice is intimately connected for me with open space, with air and sky. I have come to see my definition and sense of identity in a connection with landscape. Place before people, expansion before confinement. I don’t function well within physical limits.

Looking back, my life is speckled with moments of profound identification with my environment, and the course of my own career and development has been an irresistible, if wavy, line drawing me along the pathway of freedom and belonging. The journey began in Gloucestershire, found meaning in leaving that manicured terrain far behind, was inspired by the Brecon Beacons, and matured in the south Wales of my parental roots. It floundered in the relentless urbanity of London and revived in the relenting rurality of Somerset. There I began to understand the nature of spiritual pilgrimage and the value of landscape in life. My wayfaring has been equally fired by the Tatra mountains of southern Poland and the misty sweep of Exmoor,before being finally fixed in the granite of Brittany, where the moment of arrival was an awakening.
Here's to being outside in 2017...

Monday, December 12, 2016


Walking is our most natural pace. The moderate speed allows us to gain the greatest appreciation of what we pass. Early man needed to assess signs and sounds of danger and to spy out sources of food and water, all of which required a level of examination of the terrain he passed through that can only be achieved by pacing or striding. Jogging and running, cycling and horseback riding separate us from the detail of landscape by speed or height. By those methods we notice less: screeds of bluebells but not the first violets; a beautiful old stone wall but not the little heads of stoats peeping out of the cracks; a fish jumping from the river but not the tracks of otters on the bank. The detail needs time and deliberate searching by eye, and it’s the detail that raises the level of experience and a sense of connection with the other inhabitants of the earth as well as nature’s manifests.
The same is true of walking in an urban environment. We need our senses to be alert but also our movement to be slow enough to separate a blur of buildings or a flash of green space. Driving through a town in a car or riding a bike requires attention to be focused on the travel itself for safety. Stopping and starting may provide moments of observation but these are hardly leisured and the flow of traffic usually dictates the pace of passage. It’s possible to admire a street of medieval half-timbered houses, to get a sense of historic atmosphere through glimpses of architecture, but you have to walk to access the minutiae of decorative art. You also have to walk to appreciate fully the development of settlement patterns, the relationship between older and newer elements, the changing demands of society in an urban environment.
The complexity of landscape we have created can only be appreciated through the simplest of movements.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Association des Ecrivains bretons

Parish Close at St-Thegonnec
Today was the AGM of my writers' association in Brittany, held this year in Finistère and not too far from me at Luzec and St Thegonnec. The cultural centre at Luzec, founded and run by sociologist and writer Anne Guillou, was one of the first stimulating places I ever discovered in Brittany, offering historical lectures through the winter on Sunday afternoons, and outings in the summer. Anne herself has been something of an inspiration to me in following my own path, and given me good advice and help on various occasions over the years.
The AGM was run by our President, Michel Priziac, a tireless worker for the interests of writers and a prolific author himself, place-names and the historical associations of places being two of his specialities. He has done a great deal to promote the association and encourage writers to make the best of their talents in recent years. Other members of the committee also give their time freely to perform the many administrative and organizational tasks required to keep a large association not only ticking over, but constantly exploring new avenues of interest to members.
After lunch and more feedback on the year's events, prizes, awards, future plans, etc. we drove the short distance to St Thegonnec for a guided tour of the famous Parish Close. I bring many groups and individuals here myself, so it was rather enjoyable to visit without responsiblity and to benefit from Anne Guillou's exceptional local knowledge.
I could not stay for drinks with the mayor, kindly offered to the Association by the commune - or rather the new commune, as St Thegonnec has just amalgamated with Loc-Eguiner-St-Thegonnec. I came away once again with an invigorating sense of the extraordinary vitality of associations in Brittany and the passionate commitment to heritage and tradition so prevalent here, as well as the pleasure of meeting up once more with fellow-writer-friends.
Anne Guillou's guided tour

Sunday, October 16, 2016

TRO BREIZ – a last long walk


 I am thinking of walking the Tro Breiz next year. It would need to be in stages, as the entire route tops 600km and would definitely be my last long distance walk. Let’s see how my fitness stands at the end of 2016 before the big decision.
The Tro Breiz pilgrimage connects the seven cathedrals associated with the seven founding saints of Brittany: ‘founding' because they represented the initial wave of proselytising Christianity which took hold of Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries. Indeed this was the time when Brittany itself came into being in an embryonic state, as migrants from the British Isles arrived to start new lives, mingling their language with that of the indigenous population.

The name Brittany of course means 'little Britain'. Five of the seven saints were probably of Welsh origin, only two being natives of the Armorican peninsula (Amorica was the Roman name for NW France), perhaps sons of immigrant parents. The cathedrals later associated with the seven – and in order of the route I’ll maybe take - are St-Pol-de-Léon (St Pol), Tréguier (St Tugdual), St Brieuc (St Brieuc), St Malo (St Malo), Dol-de-Bretagne (St Samson), Vannes (St Patern) and Quimper (St Corentin).

There is evidence that this ‘Breton journey’ was a genuine medieval pilgrimage route, an undertaking of serious commitment to be achieved once in a lifetime to be that much more secure of a heavenly future. Although the actual paths are mostly lost, old Roman roads, still major highways in later periods, certainly formed important links: for example, we know that a pilgrim from Morlaix took the 'Roman road nearest the shore' on his way to Dol. Another Roman road connecting Vannes and Quimper must also have been part of the chain. There are many place-names containing references to pilgrims (although these may just as likely refer to those on the Compostela trail), such as Le Champ du Pèlerins and La Fontaine-aux-Pèlerins. Some see an allusion to the 'Green route of Hope'(= salvation, by completing this journey) in names like Le Chemin-Vert and Les-Croix-Vertes. The study of toponyms is so often not a conclusive investigation. Another approach to establishing the ancient ways involves looking at where pilgrims would have stayed along their route. Abbeys and establishments of the Knights of St-John, such as that at La Feuillée, made natural stopping-places for travellers anxious about security. And certain chapels and fontaines along routes between the great cathedrals are known to have been focal points for spiritual travellers on the Tro Breiz: for example, La Trinité near Melgven.
I have often written and publicly spoken about these saints, I know the seven cathedrals well and have walked many miles of the paths used for the contemporary version of the Tro Breiz, recreated by the hard work and dedication of an association based in St-Pol-de-Léon. But the idea of one last great big walk with ancient connections, full of modern logistics, drenched in beautiful Breton coast and country, doubtless spiritually uplifting even to an old animist like me is almost irresistible, despite the inevitable physical trial it will also provide. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Away and home

Coming home
I've been away in London for much of September, an enjoyably rich and emotionally satisying time which is already reduced in my mind to its essentials:  great food (in great amounts) and even greater friends. Nevertheless, the sight of the Breton coast in a glorious dawn over St Malo always raises the heartbeat as home grows closer and by the time the train rattles westward out of Rennes, I am mentally salivating in anticipation. Within an hour of reaching the longed-for destination, I am out in the forest, feeling a familiar blanket of peace and calm settle on my shoulders, smoothing out the last London frazzles, and bringing me back to the fulfilment of here and now.
Since then I have been working, and having fun, as a guide to American tour operator, Mindie Burgoyne, ( and her husband Dan. We have packed the last two days with visiting natural wonders in the forest, megaliths on the moors and elsewhere, and churches demonstrating the complexity of religion in Brittany, where paganism is never far from Christianity.
Enclos at Guimiiliau
Now I must get back work and finish my book on the Little Landscapes of Finistere before returning, after a ten year break, to fiction.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Chaos of Mardoul

Water’s words to stone here are alternately loving and savage, caresses turn violent, stroking becomes a slap. In wild weather it is a seething insistence of water. All that rock can do is hold to itself, edges rounded to ease the onslaught and survive the longest time under a constant assault that is both smooth and brutal. It’s an unequal contest in the end. The river can spread to mount its challenge: the rocks have no more movement in them. In dancing steps the water constantly changes direction, twisting, turning, preening round its static partner, forming shapes and ritual traces, like little tripping thoughts of happy times. As water tires of obstacle, there’s the trumpet of torrent and torment, a surge of force. Under an angry wind, white-topped waves rage down the valley. In gentler times, with little explosions of foam like a series of sneezes, it glides as clear as glass down a shelf of rock. The old war between rock and water is a lost cause for the remnants of another earth. The river will have its way, hard or easy.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Out and about, getting somewhere

I've been on two trips recently to spend more time in places that will figure in the new book. Firstly down south, among the black rocks of St Guenolé, initially given cultural reference by Chaucer in The Franklin's Tale, when Dorigen paces the coast at Penmarc'h, fearful for her husband's safe return to such a treacherous shore. It's a dangerous spot, with many fatalities to this day as foolish spectators of the high tides edge out to risk their lives for more dramatic photos. In fact the flat shelving of dark rock, completely hidden when the tide is up, is somehow more frightening and sinister than the gigantic stone pinnacles with iron railings to cling onto in the hope of avoiding being swept away by a freak wave. This was, in fact, the fate of the Prefect of Finistere's family as they enjoyed a leisurely picnic in 1870. Several of the bodies were never recovered.

This week I was in north-west Finistère, watching the estuary tides on the Aber Wrac'h for my chapter on Pont Krac'h, the Devil's Bridge. There was also time to hop over to Landunvez for some coastal reflections around the chapel of St-Samson, the scene that figured on the cover of my cultural history of Brittany, and one which will also appear in the new book.
At last I feel I'm getting somewhere in terms of completing this work. Delighted to say that Lynette Hardwick, an illustrious illustrator, will provide line drawings for my text, so we have also been working on those, and the page lay-outs - and the French version is also underway. Now all I have to do is finish the text....

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Short extract, work in progress

I have been busy with non-work related stuff lately, including a very pleasant interlude manning an art gallery in Goarec last week for a friend's exhibition. Now we have a heatwave and I struggle as ever to achieve much in such atmosphere, but I'm determined to finish with the landscape book in the next few months and move on to completely different writing projects. So, getting back into the mood...

 The landscape is a sponge for emotions, the great soakaway of human experience. We bring our woes and stresses to nature and lay them down at the feet of the sea or on a lonely mountain top or beside a quiet forest pool. Often we seek nature’s company simply because it demands and expects nothing from us, giving temporary release from inner burdens or the opportunity to ponder issues in the comfortable airy freedom of the outdoors. The search for peace and quiet is a strong factor in our need for landscape, balm for the human individual who is so rarely physically alone and in silence in modern life. We also respond deeply to the expansion of our vitality into open space and the basic practice of walking, man’s most natural pace, which puts us back into a lost rhythmic relationship with the detail of landscape. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mindlessness inflicted on rocks

The defacing of stones by mindless graffiti is not a recent phenomenon but I have become mightily aware of it since living in an area famous for its granite boulders of remarkable size and shape. Apart from a few minor examples which are fairly unobtrusive unless up close to the rock-face, there has been surprisingly little of this most brash kind of damage up until now.
Two recent glaring instances, however, have made me re-evaluate my own reactions. The first appeared a while ago, high up on a steep hillside above one of the main roads out of town. The tree cover has been felled, leaving an open expanse of boulders, dead wood, scrubby growth and churned earth. One of the stones, a pleasingly rounded mass of grey granite has been given two eyes and a smile, courtesy of black paint. And it made me smile the first time I passed, like a sudden revelation of a grinning entity long hidden by forest growth. This anthropomorphism of rock did not make me think of defacement and hooliganism at all, but initially as something rather amusing, the sort of landmark that people driving in and out of the town would enjoy. It is after all the rocks that give this place its life and identity. And people relate more easily to the sort of facile humanization shown here than the apparent in-animation of a mass of stone. I regret this reaction on reflection and attribute it to the fact that the rock is simple and ordinary, un-moulded by dramatic erosion.
The second example has made me angry. A famous rock, mid-stream in the river and hollowed out by natural erosion of granite to resemble a mini-cave or seating-place, has acquired the incised initials DD, writ large above the opening. The main tourist path passes here and the rock itself is easily accessible from the far bank across other stones, so it has become an obvious spot for photos of children or adults sitting inside the rock or filming of atmospheric sequences. I once saw a korrigan (local gnome of spirited character) seated inside the stone as the camera rolled for a Breton themed short or perhaps a tourist trailer. That is harmless fun and in its way does honour to the natural qualities of this environment. The ensemble of river and rock under a canopy of trees pierced by shafts of light is a conjunction of elementals that speaks powerfully to something inside us and defines the spirit of this particular place.
The rock will long outlast the cretin and the letters will weather away, but the imposition of humankind – the engraving of initials is a statement of facile human power over nature – degrades this landmark, as well as the perpetrator him or herself. It is not the work of a child but an ‘adult’. It is not the work a moment but considerable effort.
The fact that I care more about this than the other reflects the important of context in our relationship to particular landscapes. The smiley face is in essence no more acceptable to lovers of natural landscape than the initials, but it reveals at least benign intention rather than an egotistical assertion. The latter instance seems so much more intrusive by its deliberate spoiling of a significant spot for locals and visitors alike, a rock whose whole incredibly long history is mapped in its unique shape, its situation where the combination of elements stands together to create a powerfully numinous experience for those who are open to it.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The art of landscape

In the May Greenwood
I have a television for the first time in nearly two years. The first thing I watched was on a subject close to my heart and the object of my own current work: landscape. James Fox’s Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature examined the work of contemporary artists who create their work within the living context of landscape – Andy Goldsworthy being the best known example featured. He was attempting to build a vertical wall within a hollow tree-trunk. There were also David Nash’s extraordinary Ash Dome and Julie Brook’s inexplicably emotional fire stacks. I was less taken with the careful construction of artistic frameworks shown in the latter part of the programme, not because they were not memorable, but somehow far further removed from the nature they were openly manipulating.
It all made me reflect as bitterly as usual on the totally unnatural walkers’ cairns that now so often spoil wild and rural landscape. These are glaringly intrusive features, making statements about the self, vaunting the vertical as mankind is so fond of doing. Are people not capable of containing their homage to place within? Are spiritual and emotional reactions too demanding compared with piling Pelion on Ossa? Do we still need to say so physically ‘I was here’? These clumpy lumps are not art, just empty self-expression.
Contrast them with the sinuous partnership of man and nature in the work of Nash, Brook and Goldsworthy, whose challenge is to enter into landscape rather than impose themselves on it, to understand its workings and to learn the strengths and limitations of its materials. Their work is not immediately outstanding from the surrounding landscape, so close is the harmony between nature’s creation and their own. They reflect that edge of us that can soften into landscape and blur – often fleetingly, for such is nature - the separation between man and his environment. Picking up a stone and placing it on top of another, distorting the lie of the land and showing community with other people rather than natural landscape is not an art. Unfortunately it is rapidly laying claim to being a tradition.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The island of Ouessant

It's been a busy time with various guided visits/tours and translation work, whilst moving house, with all that brings. I recently enjoyed a great visit to the island of Ouessant, taking a small group to see the dramatic landscape of this westernmost outpost of Breton territory, 25km out into the Atlantic from the coast of the Pays d'Iroise. We left from Brest for a three hour voyage out, stopping at mainland Le Conquet, then the tiny island of Molène before crossing the turbulent waters of the Fromveur towards Ouessant. It's odd to arrive in an isolated port without houses, commerce or bars, but only stark cliffs and the towering radar tower that protects the Rail d'Ouessant, keeping large freighters at bay. Le Stiff, the oldest lighthouse in Europe (Vauban's idea in 1695) peeps out above the headland.
We were staying on the edge of Lampaul, the only village, at the other end of the island. Its name reflects the tradition that Welsh saint Pol Aurelien made land here and initiated a spirited confrontation with pagan practices, determined to break up a sizeable cult centre. Decades of archaeological investigation at Mez Notariou have offered some insights into the nature of island worship from the Bronze Age onwards. The results can be seen in an exhibition in the Museum of Lighthouses and Signalling, located in the iconic black-and-white Phare du Creac'h.
In the bourg, we visited the church and cemetry to see evidence for the proella, a sad ritual made necessary by so many lives lost at sea as the menfolk from the island habitually served in the French navy. A small wax cross was treated as a symbol of the dead, with a vigil at the family house, a procession to the church, the placing of the cross in an urn until a bishop's visit for a formal blessing, and then the 'resting-place' of the cross in a special tomb in the cemetry, the only structure aligned north-south in contrast to the graves which all lie east/west.

Mostly we walked the coastal path, surrounded by lighthouses and the sites of countless shipwrecks, whose origins indicate the location of Ouessant at the epi-centre of international trade over centuries. In 1937 the Greek ship Mykonos went down off the northern shore (remains can be seen at low tide at the Baie de Calgrac'h), releasing a cargo of fat white sheep which some enterprising local took advantage of, with the result that traditional scraggy, hardy black Ouessant sheep are a rare sight in their home territory.
Ouessant is an exceptional place for walkers. My new book Walks in Finistère contains a feature with full maps, suggested routes and places of interest along the way. The island offers nearly 50km of coastline and plenty of inland paths through hamlets, marshes and moors, mostly with views of the sea on the horizon.

Monday, March 28, 2016

New book

Advance copies arrived - out shortly. My new collection of walks in Finistère including town, coast, country, island, circular and linear routes, features on places of special interest to walkers. Published by Red Dog Books ( who produced the excellent maps. Practical spiral binding. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Combourg and environs

Chateau de Combourg
I've been staying in Combourg, revisiting the wonderful chateau and its English-style park which are so evocative of Chateaubriand's formative years here, intensely described in Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, published soon after the great writer's death in 1848. And what a remarkable man he was - explorer in North America, soldier, author, politicial figure, opponent of Napoléon, royalist, journalist and diplomat (ambassador to London in 1822) - all roles examined in the powerfully emotional prose and beautiful language of the Memoirs. For all his far-flung careers and final resting-place on a little island off St-Malo, I can't help feeling that his spirit lingers strongest here, where he felt the first stirrings of the all-possessing exhiliration and hopelessness of a passionate nature that was to earn him the title of Father of Romanticism.
There was also time to seek out a little known menhir of great size and presence, rather unusually placed on a high ridge not far from Broualan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


The funerary monument at Barnenez is probably the oldest structure in Europe. It is a powerfully impressive place to visit. This enormous cairn (now 75x28m), orientated east/west, was constructed in two phases: five tombs built from local dolerite date to about 4600BC, and another six made from granite taken from nearby Ile Stérec were added perhaps a thousand years later. The dry-stone work of the overall structure, a huge carapace of smaller stones protecting the graves, is remarkable for its time, and the actual tombs show a range of techniques from chambers shaped by megaliths to tholos-style circular roofs. The architectural abilities and degree of organization demonstrated rather give the lie to the concept of a primitive prehistoric society.
The land was acquired in the 1950s by a developer involved in public works construction. He used another nearby cairn as a quarry, destroying it in the process, and had begun breaking into the existing monument in 1955 when protests led to a halt in the demolition and the first prosecution in Finistère for deliberately damaging an important historical site. Four tombs in the westernmost later section had already been slashed through by the diggers, leaving an unexpected cross-section view for visitors today, demonstrating the variety of design and execution by the Neolithic builders.

Careful excavations were carried out in the following twelve years, as well as conservation and restoration work. André Malraux, the minister of culture in the 1960s, famously and fittingly, called Barnenez the ‘neolithic Parthenon’. Finds were not prolific, but they included pottery fragments, polished axes, arrow-heads, flints and a later copper dagger, attesting the continued or renewed use of the site. Some equivocal carvings include an idol’s head with spiky head (or is it a shield), cup-shapes and wavy lines (like those seen at Carnac). Recently, traces of red and black colouring have been identified, suggesting artwork.

The landscape has changed considerably since the construction of the monument. Now the sea of the Bay of Morlaix laps at the foot of the prominence where the cairn was situated. This gives quite a different impression from the original setting, where the bay was grassland with a river running through it. Rather than being sited to astonish passing travellers or signal a ritual rendezvous to those arriving by boat, perhaps its size and solidity are more a weighty reminder to those on the low hills across the water – this is our territory, marked by the graves of our significant ancestors.

A great degree of confidence and security led to the foundation of this cairn, and ensured its re-use by later generations. As the balance between men and the earth began to shift for the first time with settlement and incipient farming, control of the environment became an issue. Construction of monuments that carry a sense of permanence and anchor a people to their land is one manifestation. The pride and satisfaction of extending their practical knowledge and skills to complete such a memorial must have been enormous. It is an expression of living community as much as reverence for the dead. Smiles and laughter, mixed with grief.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Holding on

It was the moor that opened us 
To freedoms of the horizontal plane,
So hard, so soft, a world of
Pluvious air, wrapped every nuance
In pale folds of brume.
The moor-grass changed each season:
Young, verdant, later bleached of life,
We saw beyond all reason,
Leaning locked against the rock, with                                     
Sun-gleamed quartz a white sheet
For our backs.
Lulled by a rare ease like the buzzard’s soar,
We lived a rainbow on that moor.
Our footsteps fell on stony tracks
Where what might be was stretched out
Vastly, over tracts of gorse and broom,
Hemmed only by the distance of the view.
You talked and talked, the words like litter
Scattered on a breeze that rippled
Brownly over bracken seas.
Moor-covered hills with mountains
In their DNA, hold on to every memory:
A little piece of you, a part of me,
Still strewn like jewels across the heather
A lasting spawn
Of days we spent inside that weather.
It nailed our colours from the very start,
Your green eyes and my grey heart.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Yet more moor

From Tuchenn Gador
I've been looking back at my life to trace the history of my profound attachment to landscape. This background may or may not figure finally in the new book I'm working on, but here's an extract anyway:

There were early travels over the Brecon Beacons, as my poor exiled Welsh parents, miserable in manicured and over-managed Gloucestershire countryside, often made the return to their homelands - Swansea, Mumbles, Gower - with four children in tow. It was part of my father's sad, hopeless quest for a reassuring identity and a crucial building block in my own first passionate attachment to landscape.

The sight of those moors we passed made me happy, and when I walk now on the heaths of the Monts d’Arrée in Brittany I am connected each time with that childhood self in the rekindling of a deeply stirring feeling of boundless freedom. I know better now that the apparent simplicity of the moors is an illusion, but it seemed of high value then. Other landscapes were psychologically more complex to me even as a small child: the sea with its tides, the changing shape of a river, the uncertainties of woodland, hills lost to the unsettling exploitation of farming. But those long, high rounded slopes, empty of life and difficulty, solid and unchanging, gave me both a powerful sense of permanence and an invitation to limitless possibilities, to the open heart and mind that seemed so perplexingly elusive in the constraints and compromises of the everyday world. I came to learn that there was far less isolation and considerably more connection for me in the wilderness of moor than in family life.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Prepositions of place

I’m really looking forward to this new year. My work will concentrate on local landscape – natural and built - and how it comes to shape and absorb us, offering a relatively stable network of emotional connection in an uncertain world. This is forged by the heightened experience of being inside and within one’s environment, a participant rather an objective observer. I’m also increasingly interested in why certain places exert a hold whilst others with similar elements do not, and how somewhere with no specific historical significance or enhancement through legend can still generate a remarkable atmosphere and make its mark on all who pass by or through it.

Prepositions of place may well turn out to be the title of the book.