Archive for the Legend Category

Le Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, King Arthur, Legend, Tree, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The forest of Brocéliande is filled with magical places – standing stones, prehistoric tombs and miraculous fountains, many of them associated with Arthurian legend. It is also home to some natural magic in the form of several ancient trees. A while back I visited the incredible Chêne de Guillotin, and this time round I went to take a look at its younger but no less magical neighbour, the Chêne des Hindrés.

Unlike the Chêne de Guillotin, which sits on the edge of the forest in a pretty meadow, the Chêne des Hindrés lies hidden deep in the forest, around a kilometre from the nearest car park. A “Chêne” is an oak, and apparently “Hindrés” means damp, wet places, although I couldn’t see any signs of swampiness when I visited. The route to the tree is well-signposted and follows a clear path through the historic woodland.

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The ancient Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Even in this dense forest, the Chêne des Hindrés itself, with its monumental trunk and huge mass of snaking branches, is hard to miss. Apparently the tree is around five hundred years old, which is not hard to believe – it really is enormous! I particulary liked the fact that other, small plants had made their home on the oak’s massive branches, with small ferns sprouting from its broad boughs.

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The huge snaking boughs of the Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

The Chêne des Hindrés reminded me of the Ents, those living, breathing and walking trees that feature in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or even Enid Blyton’s charming Faraway Tree. Given its location, it is hardly suprising that the tree has also been associated with legend, and is sometimes referred to as the Chêne des Druides, or the Druid Oak. Supposedly Druidic ceremonies have been held here over the centuries, which makes sense – I can’t think of a better spot for invoking natural magic than this otherwordly place, the ancient heart of a mystical enchanted forest.

 

Merlin’s Tomb and the Fontaine de Jouvence, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fountain, King Arthur, Legend, Sculpture, Standing Stones, Uncategorized, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My recent visit to the Fountain of Barenton in the mythical forest of Brocéliande was just the beginning of a long day filled with magic. My second stop on this mystical adventure was another site with Arthurian associations, namely the Tomb of Merlin on the eastern edges of this ancient woodland.

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Merlin’s Tomb on the edge of Brocéliande Forest

Once a huge neolithic burial mound, this spot has long been known as the grave of the legendary wizard. In fact, it was probably this myth that led to the destruction of the mound, with its late nineteenth-century owner stripping it in search of ancient treaure. Today only two large boulders survive, hemmed in by a modern wooden fence. Despite this, the place is obviously well-visited and much-loved, the stones surrounded by autumnal offerings of berries, mushrooms and fruit.

Next I headed off into the forest, along a winding path which crossed a babbling brook. As I walked deeper into the woods, I noticed small piles of stones along the side of the track.

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A babbling brook in the mystical Forest of Brocéliande

It wasn’t long before I reached the place known as the Fontain of Jouvence, or Fountain of Youth. It has been suggested that the name of this spring derives from the fact that it was a Druidical site where babies were baptised. If a baby missed the ceremony then they would be baptised as a new-born twelve months later, and thus effectively become a year younger. Whatever the roots of this magical moniker, the rather murky, leaf-filled waters were distinctly unappealling, and I decided not to risk a sip.

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The Fontainte de Jouvence, Brocéliande

Keen to explore a bit further, I continued along the path, and noticed more of those peculiar little piles of stones. Suddenly the path opened up into a clearing, and I was greeted by an unexpected sculpture, an anthropomorphic figure created from pebbles and branches and decorated with fruits, leaves and funghi.

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A strange stone sculpture in the Forest of Brocéliande

Beyond the figure lay a quarry. But this was no ordinary quarry, because it was filled with countless little piles of stones.

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A mysterious quarry in the Forest of Brocéliande

I am not sure who or what made these odd little sculptures, or indeed why. Some contained notes giving thanks, or making dedications. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet, or any references to it in guidebooks. It remains something of an intriguing mystery. All I know is that it was a eerie, atmospheric place, and one that I won’t forget in a hurry.

 

 

 

The ‘Courtil des Fées’, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This month I’ve been back to Brittany, one of my favourite (and most successful) hunting grounds. Every time return to Morbihan, a region steeped in myths and legends, I wonder if I will finally run out of weird and wonderful places to discover, but every time I uncover more magical locations. This visit was particularly fruitful, so you can expect my next few posts to be filled with my Breton adventures!

My first destination on this trip was the enigmatically named Courtil des Fées, a phrase which translates roughly as ‘fairy courtyard’. As with many of my expeditiions, the journey to the Courtil des Fées began with a track leading into shady woodlands, in this case the Forest of Houssa. Althought it was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s, this ancient wood is slowly reestablishing itself, and still retains its magical wildness. At this time of year, the path leading into the forest is noisier than usual, littered as it is with crackling branches and crunching acorns.

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The Courtil des Fées is located on a ridge high above the Oust valley, not far from the tiny village of Beaumont. Archaeological investigations suggest that this ridge was inhabited by humans for many centuries before the trees reclaimed it. The first evidence of these ancient inhabitants that I encountered was the remains of a four thousand year old neolithic burial mound which lies deep in the forest, sitting in a pretty clearing surrounded by oaks, birches and ferns.

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

Just a few metres away can be found a small standing stone, which no doubt also formed a part of this ancient burial site. Some evidence of carved ‘cup marks’ can be seen on this mossy menhir.

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

It’s just another short walk to the Courtil des Fées itself, a raised round earthwork with a diameter of around twelve metres surrounded by a ditch. Known for generations as a magical place, the Courtil has long been considered the haunt of fairies. But these fairies are not the sweet little winged sprites of Disney cartoons, but nasty, wicked imps who were reputed to steal local babies from their cots. Not surprising then that I approached this place with some trepidation.

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The Courtil is not particularly easy to decipher, or indeed to photograph, at this time of year, its ditch and mound rather lost in the autumnal undergrowth, but its raised platform is hard to miss. As I entered its circle, the sky darkened and the wind suddenly lifted, sending a shower of acorns and chestnuts clattering to the ground around me. If I hadn’t known better, I might have suspected that someone (or something) didn’t want me to be there.

I had been promised a great vista of the valley below from the Courtil, but in fact the view was almost totally blocked by the dense wall of trees that surrounds it. In the end I didn’t hang around for long, taking a couple of photos before I headed off back towards Beaumont. As I walked away the sun reemerged and the wind faded. Back in the peaceful forest of Houssa, the Courtil des Fées far behind, I’m not ashamed to say that I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Standing Stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Island, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The Gulf of Morbihan is famous for its mild climate and pretty ports, which are popular with tourists and sailors alike. Today it is peppered with around forty islands of various shapes and sizes, but it was not always this way. Thousands of years ago this huge bay was a much dryer place, and before it was consumed by the sea, these islands were the highest hilltops of a large and complex prehistoric landscape. A number of the islands also feature fascinating megalithic monuments, and one of the most intriguing of these is the stone (semi)circles of Er Lannic.

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

As a protected bird sanctuary, it is not possible to land on Er Lannic, but you can take a boat trip which skirts round its rocky shores. From a distance, the island looks rather craggy and uninviting, but as the boat approaches its southern side an interesting feature emerges. First you notice a huge standing stone towards the top of the island, then more stones pop up and soon a large semicircle of menhirs becomes clear. On the day of my visit, each stone seemed to be topped by its own proud seagull.

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

In fact, many more of these stones lie beneath the waterline, and recent investigations have revealed another stone semicircle below the water. The largest stone measures an impressive 5.4 metres tall, and a number of cists containing bones, charcoal, flints and pottery were also discovered by modern archaeologists. Although the purpose of the monument is not clear, it has been dated to around 3000 BC. My visit to Er Lannic made me wonder what other magical treasures lie under the waves of the Gulf of Morbihan – it is surely monuments like this that gave rise to the local myth of Ys, an ancient city that once stood on the coast of Brittany which was destroyed by the a huge flood after its citizens descended into sin and debauchery.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Posted in History, Legend, Somerset, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If you’ve ever visited the world famous stone circles of Stonehenge or Avebury, you will know how incredibly popular they are with tourists. You will also quickly realise that bustling crowds of visitors are not particularly conducive to an atmosphere of magic at these ancient sites. On a recent visit to Somerset, I discovered the stones of Stanton Drew, which despite lying only a few miles away from those more famous circles, seem rather overlooked. As a result, these marvellous megaliths retain a strangely magical atmosphere.

The Cove, Stanton Drew

The Cove, Stanton Drew

There are in fact three stone circles in the fields around the village of Stanton Drew, as well as a group of three huge stones known as ‘The Cove’ in a pub garden next to the church. Recent geophysical surveys have uncovered evidence that the surviving stones are just part of a huge ritual site which is believed to be between four and five thousand years old. Today, although much of it has disappeared or lies hidden below the earth, Stanton Drew is recognised as the third largest collection of standing stones in England.

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

Stanton Drew Stone Circles, Somerset

On the day that I visited, the dramatic sky definitely added to the magical character of Stanton Drew. It is impossible to get a sense of the scale of these circles from a photograph, as they stretch across a huge area, disappearing into dips and over a ridge. Some of the stones are huge, massive lumps of licheny rock which cast long, dark shadows. Many have tumbled over and now lie pitted and mossy on the ground.

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Dramatic skies over the standing stones of Stanton Drew

Like many ancient sites, Stanton Drew’s impressive stones have some interesting myths and legends attached to them. For centuries they were attributed to King Arthur, who was supposed to have set up the stones to commemorate a military victory, a story no doubt inspired by similar links made between the nearby village of Camerley and Arthur’s celebrated Camelot. Another myth tells that the circles are the remains of guests at a wedding party who unwisely decided to celebrate with dancing on a Sunday. Their punishment for breaking the sabbath was to be turned to stone, inspiring the site’s local nickname of “the fiddlers and the maids”.

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset

One of the largest megaliths of Stanton Drew, Somerset

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.