Wendy Mewes

writing about Brittany

Wendy Mewes

writing about Brittany

1. Extract from Wayfaring in Brittany, Chapter 'Watery Ways'
2. From The Ambling Rock (novel set in a Breton village)
3. Translation by Yves Marhic of text for exhibition STRATES at L’Autre Rive
4. The Red Cap Rebellion in Brittany
1. Extract from Wayfaring in Brittany, Chapter 'Watery Ways'
2. From The Ambling Rock (novel set in a Breton village)
3. Translation by Yves Marhic of text for exhibition STRATES at L’Autre Rive
4. The Red Cap Rebellion in Brittany

Coming back is a different experience. It offers a sense of survival, triumphal retreat over a mastered road, sharing not so much the idea of pilgrim procession as on the way out but a return to the home of connected land, to mundane life. This can be a relief after heightened experience. Few are making their way out to the island so late in the proceedings, with mass over and the blessing in progress. Soon the water will start to rise and all will have to return to the mainland. A tiny white haired figure moves hesitantly towards me, picking her way precariously through the mud, which has been churned by tractors and horses since this morning. It is an elderly Breton woman with bright blue eyes and bright yellow wellingtons. She stops and smiles, telling me she is worried about slipping over. And with reason. I want to ask her why she is going at all so late in the day but it seems rude. She is cheerful and self-contained, walking on towards the music and crowds with steady purpose and in no hurry. I doubt I will be making such a crossing in twenty years time.

Without being in a line of walkers there is more time to stop and take in the surroundings, the rocky frontage of Ile Milieu, the pebble cordon connecting the islands of Illiec and Banalec, nearest the shore. Peace and calm have replaced the earlier air of nervous excitement generated by the crowds with their mixed purposes. I am more taken by the immediate, more aware of the sensuous marine elements, the smell of brine, the slap of wet sand, the distant intermittent notes of a drifting canticle, more conscious of a real rite of passage where physical difference echoes an inner state of suspended normality. The beach I left so crowded a few hours before is now completely deserted save for the metal steps awaiting the return of tractors with their human load. Feelings of weary exhiliration flow through me as I face a steep uphill trek to the car, but the abiding impression I take away  is that today in a very small way I have travelled from one world to another via a third.

Extract from Wayfaring in Brittany, Chapter Watery Ways


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)

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.
Équilibrage 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.

(Translation by Yves Marhic of text for exhibition STRATES at L’Autre Rive)



The revolt of the Red Caps or ‘bonnets rouges’ in 1675 was a local reflection of dissatisfaction with the extravagant and exploitative government of Louis XIV. It began with urban unrest when his minister Colbert decreed taxes on tobacco and stamped legal paper. From violence in the streets in the regional capital Rennes, the unrest spread to ferment rural rebellion in western Brittany that would see a widespread uprising of peasants against landowners. Many thousands were prepared to lose their lives in the fight against injustice and oppression. Publication of a Peasant Code set out the rebels’ demands and church bells called the peasants to rally to the cause. Chateaux and manors were burnt to the ground and nobles slaughtered. A song of the time ran: ‘What’s new in Brittany? A lot of noise and smoke...’ One of the leaders, Sébastien Le Balp, had a wider vision, aiming to secure the port of Morlaix in the hope of help from the Dutch fleet in the Channel. These ambitious plans came to nothing when he was lured to the manor of Ty Meur for talks and murdered by the Marquis de Montgaillard. Without a figurehead, the rebellion faltered. The king’s minister Colbert sent 6000 men to Brittany to quell the revolt and reprisals were savage: at Combrit, 14 peasants hung from a single tree. Around Pont l’Abbé chapels that had summoned peasants to arms had their bells and towers destroyed. These truncated buildings remain today symbols of that brief flurry of passionate resistance to abuse of power. Although the Red Cap rebellion failed in the short term, it was one of the many seeds that would grow into determined and successful opposition to monarchy and traditional government in the French Revolution a century later.
Summary of an article published in The Historians magazine