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Wendy Mewes writing about Brittany



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© Wendy Mewes  -  all text and photos on this website are protected by copyright

Wayfaring in Brittany is a narrative of exploration along old paths, exploring the story of a place and its people through landscape, history and legend.

Wendy Mewes visits lonely island locations, Neolithic monuments, Celtic and Roman vestiges, sacred ways and many landmarks of medieval pilgrimage still in use today. There is also cause for personal reflection about migration, adversity and solitude during this journey on paths into the past.

 

1/

Roman Brittany is a jigsaw job, a lot of fiddly pieces, no easy coherence and inconveniently best viewed from the air for appreciation of its landscape lines.  There’s even something nebulous about historical identification, with ‘Roman’ becoming a synonym for old anything, walls, bridges or roads. The Romans were prolific builders but let’s not imagine that every route marked voie romaine was laid down before the 3rd century AD. A few military bornes marking off Roman miles are real remnants of the prodigious road system, but most are displaced or marking time in museums.  
(Roman fragments)

2/

The theme of the serial settler interests me for my own experiences after arriving in Brittany. Finding the right place to establish a new home with a real sense of connection and integration proved far more difficult than anticipated. I am not on the whole a ‘make the best of it’ person. If something that feels wrong cannot be changed after genuine effort, I move on. I am a natural wayfarer, using physical and emotional travel to improve and evolve, a principle that holds good in the context of both houses and relationships. One house was ruined by a hostile and threatening neighbour, another by its dismal location in Côtes d’Armor. In the leanest years I lived from hand to mouth in a succession of cheap rentals or free hovels, a period of hardship that led to the health problems that still confound me. Through all that time I was strengthened and supported by the umbilical cord binding me to the landscape of the Monts d’Arrée and the determination to stick there whatever. It was my goal and destiny every bit as much as St Pol’s final settlement was his, and that knowledge fuelled a difficult day to day existence. These are the journeys of the spirit that form us, the paths that bring us home. As migrants, whether medieval monks or modern incomers, our passage teaches us the difference between truth and travesty.  
(The monk’s journey)

3/

The whole area around Berrien village is a vast rising wilderness of stone and trees folded greenly into soft rounds concealing pockets of habitation as it has done throughout history. Separateness and unconformity may be more prized today when the rules of survival are different, but divert down any tempting track and sooner or later there’ll be signs of an off-grid community, bronze age huts replaced by rusting caravans and ripped tarpaulins challenged by a humid climate that is little changed. Metal work now takes the form of sculpture fashioned from scrap and old bikes. These compounds with their suggestive polytunnels can be seen as the domain of modern freedom seekers who search for existence outside social convention, a trait with a history in this area as we shall see.
(A Celtic path)

4/

The power of the processional walk becomes evident as the enormous procession from the cathedral hoves into views, flags and banners waving in mass above the rippling snake of the advancing column. At the 90° turn await the ceremonial crosses of Minihy which will bow to the incomers’ equivalents and their banners to be raised and lowered dramatically to honour the holy relic. It takes a long time for the file to pass, more than 45 minutes before the white robed priests and black robed lawyers carrying the casket and skull appear at the end. They stop just before the boundary and there is what feels like a brief stand-off. Then the home ceremonial crosses ‘bow’ to their visitors and the banners of the chapel are raised and lowered three times before the saint enters his own territory and turns down the hill to make a brief visit to his home before the parade will continue around a triangle of roads to return to the cathedral..

It is a moving spectacle, even for a non-Christian like me. I think it is the sudden sense of homecoming acted out in ritual, the coming back that awaits us all at the end of the road, the bedrock of the self re-affirmed before the next departure. This annual spiritual journey re-enacts the living steps of a man as devoted to his land as to his people, those poor and vulnerable who came to Minihy in the certainty of help and succour. Any journey can transform us on any level as movement is the root of change and evolution. This small physical shift of St Yves’ skull from cathedral to chapel, from cult centre to spiritual home, reflects all his journeys over decades, the walking to enlightenment he carried out as a constant refrain to fixed preaching and charitable acts. It is a pilgrimage in miniature, an act of commitment and renewal.
(In the footsteps of a saint)