Wendy Mewes

writing about Brittany


Extract from Spirit of Place in Finistère


Perspective. The sea laps at the foot of the hotel. From the balcony of my room I look at the seascape. A sweeping view takes in the Chapelle Ste-Barbe faintly lit on its mound like a white ghost, wispy-edged, then the port area, still bright, with boats tucked safely in the curve of the harbour wall, and, across the water, the Île de Batz, a short orange strip emanating from another world. Looking down on the water offers a new perspective, the true slant of currents, wintry moon-light shimmering on every tiny cadence like a million birds with wings spread in flight. Above the water-line in a swiftly darkening foreground is a bridge apparently to nowhere.

Roscoff is an old town, a maritime chameleon. It is the familiar of commerce, piracy, fishing, war-time subterfuge, seaweed and thalassotherapy. Miniature stone cannons on the church tower point towards the old enemy England, via an open and surreptitious route of exchange that has served both sides of the Channel well. Vikings, corsairs, pirates, merchants, smugglers, chancers, spies and secret agents have profited from this stretch of sea and its snaggy coastline in war and peace, the frisson of precarious times adding to the satisfaction of transaction in getting the better of someone.

Water gives this variety of experience. It attracts us more than all other elements because we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell it with ease. We are so much water ourselves, it takes little to infiltrate our being. As night falls early over the town, the moon drives along a silver road over the sea, between sombre crocodiles of rock that menace more in the dark than daylight. Nautical lights blaze - red, green, silver - each regular in its own sequence but the combination produces a screen of mad frenetic flashing, keeping alive the notion of danger against an ominous calm before the tide turns. Wwa, wwa, wwa comes the yell of a gull, crisp in the December night air. Huwhee comes sharply from the secrecy of black rock. The compulsive beeping of the sandpipers has fallen silent at last. The slim arc of the footbridge ends in a nothingness of inky water.

After a clear night, morning and low tide bring streaks of yellow and grey to the foreshore, the sea beyond a light aquamarine. The footbridge, constructed in 1967-9 to enable the regular ferry to the Île de Batz to operate at low tide, strides starkly across the sand on its 50 plus concrete pillars. Predators stalk the exposed beach, while a resting egret shakes itself into a great puffy feathery white ball. My balcony is on a level with the shrieking herring gulls, and one lands imperiously on the rail inches away, giving me the yellow eye of acquisitive threat. The air smells of wet wood, bladderwrack and brine, with a light tang of engine-oil brought in bursts on the breeze. The constancy of coastal rhythms throbs gently in a renewal of purposeful activity around the port.

Already there is also movement on the footbridge. A man and his dog walk steadily out along this narrow pier. The actual footfall in no way reflects the original intermittent function of ferry access. All through the day men, women, children and pets make the 590m long trek and at the end, simply turn back to retrace their steps. This is a fine small-scale example of the importance of journey not destination. The return offers a new perspective on the town, an outsider’s sense of arrival, but in a spirit of slow appreciation that freedom of movement allows, unlike so many before in more clandestine moments.

It is there, so must be walked. No-one can resist a path. There’s no such place as nowhere.


Extract from The Ambling Rock


What can we know of the slow life of stones?

Rock is our metaphor for solidity and endurance, surviving in multi-million-year life-span from towering mountains to gnarled protuberances on moor-covered hills. The strange shape of stones forges a more lively existence in the universe of the imagination. Stories of their origins are created, spread and cherished: maidens petrified by priests for dancing, the tooth of a giant, a weapon hurled in war between devil and saint. Tales that make them something other than they are, reduced to human purposes.

Is there magic embedded in stones? They are the fabric of the earth. For all those aeons of time rocks have imbibed the atmosphere above and drawn on the deep-laid energy stored far below the surface of our world. They have matured and revitalised, declined and decayed in cycles of existence of which we can truly know nothing. But beyond the legends, where they do little more than serve us, perhaps stones have their own lives, known only to a few who share their essence.

Maybe stones have things to say if we will listen and hear them beyond the beating of our hearts and the thrum of a thousand fables. They are after all witness to changing worlds. But their voice is in their own vibration, and needs careful listening, for usually they talk only to themselves.

All over the world there are those stones that tremble, shiver, slide and sing, others that house spirits and provide fabulous beasts with a lair. But curiouser still than the shakers are the movers, ones that take their ease from place to place. There are those desert rocks that glide significant distances without human intervention, scientifically certified, but what about in our mossy forest here, where they are weighted down by the damp air and dense canopy of noble trees?

On the edge of the woods near the village we have our own two little stones placed deliberately by the sacred spring of Brannec down in the deep valley. One upright, like a small grey finger, and the fashioned sphere almost hidden in the undergrowth. But these are not the only ones. Who said stones need the agency of humans to bring them to life?

Elsewhere in the forest the Ambling Rock goes quietly about its business, remnant, like all stone, of a much bigger whole. Isolated now, it is said to vary what would be a lonely life by taking a stroll from time to time. Who knows what happens in the woods when we are not there?

From The Ambling Rock (novel set in a Breton village)

Translation by Yves Marhic of a text for the exhibition STRATES at L’Autre Rive


Le paysage est enfoui sous les strates du regard et de la perception.

En rectifiant la nature, en l’entretenant, en la contraignant, aux
formes et motifs nés de son exploitation, l’homme fit le paysage.
Marqué par le combat archarné du paysan,
le dos courbé du tailleur de pierre, la joie féroce du chasseur
et le décompte des vagues par le corps.
La terre, telle une amante, partage les peines comme les satisfactions.

On s’attache trop à l’aspect extérieur aujourd’hui.
L’apparence est tout, bizarre ou extrême c’est encore mieux.
Un coup d’œil rapide. Un clic et l’on s’en va.
Mais où est cette intimité perdue jadis partagée avec la terre ?

En Bretagne, le paysage est lent et subtil.
A ceux qui souffrent de vitesse terminale prescrivons
une longue convalescence ici.
Pour vivre à une échelle qui accorde l’homme au pas de la nature.
Pour s’enfouir dans les strates de la terre et de son langage.
Equilibrage émotionnel.

Cela demande des talents depuis longtemps perdus, des talents difficiles à acquérir
Immobilité, silence, abandon conscient de soi.

Touchez la roche, goûtez la baie et la noisette, entendez le cri du courlis, humez la lisière où le sel de la marée rencontre l’eau douce,
Penchez-vous sur le miroir du paysage.
Ressentez. Il n’y a que le présent.
All text and photos on this site are © Wendy Mewes. Please don't steal my work.