The Chapel of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Church, Saint with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

On a recent cycling trip along the Nantes-Brest Canal in Brittany I came across a small village named Saint-Gobrien. Looking at it across the canal, I instinctively sensed that this interesting-looking little place was worth a small detour. I was drawn in particular to the ancient church that stands at its centre, its spire clearly visible above the small clutch of houses. As is often the way, my instinct did not let me down, because I soon discovered that this church, in particular its atmospheric interior, was unmistakeably magical.

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The name of the church, and indeed the whole village, comes from Saint Gobrien of Vannes, a local bishop and holy man who lived in the region and was reputed to perform miracles. After Saint Gobrien died in the early eighth century his body was laid to rest here, and the tomb quickly became a place of pilgramage. It is thanks to this that the village grew up around its increasingly grand church, drawing worshippers for miles around who came in search of miraculous cures for their ailments.

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Old chapels are ten-a-penny in Brittany, but I have never encountered one with such a unique charm as this. Although parts of the building date back to the eleventh century, most of what we see today was built in the five hundred years that followed.The large porch is notable for its beaten earth floor, a rare survival of a once common building technique.

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The church is also filled with wonderful sculptures, ranging from colourful life size figures of saints and monumental carved altars to tiny red angels hovering in the rafters. Even the ends of the rafters themselves are carved into elaborate dragons’ heads.

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Although the church is obviously well cared for, its cobwebby nooks and dusty corners only add to its wonderful aura of age and mystery. I was particularly intrigued by two strange carved faces, which project from the wall just above the elaborately carved gothic gate that decorates the arch between the porch and nave.

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Saint Gobrien’s tomb, an unusual carved wooden structure, still survives too, although the bejewelled treasures which once decorated it, including a reliquary and a chalice, are now locked away for safe keeping. Legend tells that if pilgrims left a handfull of metal nails on top of the tomb, by the time the nails had rusted their illness would be cured.

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A ‘pardon’ is held here once  a year, but other than that this is now a pretty quiet place. The flocks of pilgrims may have stopped coming, and the saint may be largely forgotten, but the church of Saint-Gobrien thankfully still retains its wondefully magical atmosphere.

After a thoroughly enjoyable visit to this special place, what else can I say but ‘Merci à Saint Gobrien’?

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The Standing Stones of Montneuf, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, History, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Readers of this blog will know that I am a regular visitor to Brittany, and that I enjoy nothing more than scouting out its many ancient sites – menhirs, dolmens, burial mounds, the place is littered with magical reminders of our ancient history. One of the best-known sites in the region is at Montneuf, where a recently restored set of standing stones attracts crowds of enthusiastic tourists every year. With its busy visitors’ centre, helpful information boards and regular educational events, this is a marvelous place, and is definitely well worth a visit…but magical it is not.

On my recent visit to Montneuf, however, I picked up a leaflet with a map of the surrounding area, and noticed that it featured a number of interesting-looking sites in the forests and moors that spread out around the stones. The weather was changeable, and I wasn’t wearing sensible walking shoes, but fired up with the notion of discovering some magic, I set off anyway, the map in my hand and a spring in my step.

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The path into the forest of Montneuf, Brittany

The first location on my list was a site known as La Loge Morinais. The path led me into the forest, and drizzle began to descend from the darkening sky. On I walked, turning here and there as the map dictated. Soon I realised that I must have walked too far, and turned back to try another path. On it lead, but still no sign of the Loge. I could feel my socks getting damp, and the rustle of the rain on the canopy of leaves above my head was becoming more insisted. It was clear that I was lost.

I turned back again, took a long hard look at the map and then another at the forest around me. There was only one path left, so I took it, feeling rather pessimistic that I would ever reach my goal. And then suddenly there it was – a wooden sign pointing down a narrow path towards a clearing in the trees. At last I was there. I had found La Loge Morinais.

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

La Loge Morinais, Montneuf

Once a huge covered passage grave, La Loge Morinais is constructed from immense slabs of local purple schist. Its cap stones may have fallen long ago, but at thirteen metres long it is still an impressive ancient monument, well worth the long treck and those damp socks.

Next my walk took me out of the forest and on to the moors of Montneuf. Luckily the sky had begun to clear, and I could take the time to enjoy the incredible views across the wild lanscape as I continued my search. I was all alone, with noone to be seen for miles around, so I was able to enjoy of the rare peace and tranquility of this unique place. My next target, La Roche Blanche, or White Rock, was much easier to find, and its distinctive name gives a fairly good idea of what to look out for.

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

La Roche Blanche on the moors of Montneuf

There is more to this monument than just the large block of white quartz that gives it its name, however. As this photo shows, the block is surrounded by a ring of smaller stones, making a rather unusual group which is probably the burial spot of a high-status individual. On the day that I visited it was also encircled by a mass of purple heather. As I carefully stepped across it, I noticed a low hum emanating from the ground below me. Looking down, I saw that the heather was alive with hordes of buzzing bees, hard at work collecting pollen from the bright blossom.

It was just a short walk to the last site on my list. Also standing on the moors of Montneuf, although rather hidden by bushes and scrub, La Pièce Couverte is another passage grave which has lost its covering mound, its mighty stones now exposed to the open air.

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

It may not be as imposing as La Loge Morinais, but La Pièce Couverte is notable for the ‘cup marks’ that decorate a number of its stones. Although quite hard to spot at first, once you see them these man-made hollows in the surface of the rock emerge all over the monument, an intriguing remnant filled with long-forgotten meaning.

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The cup marks on one of the stones of La Pièce Couverte, Montneuf

The final stretch of my walk took me across more open countryside, past a lake and through a pretty farmyard busy with clucking chickens. Soon I was back at the main stone circle of Montneuf, with its crowds of tourists, cropped lawns and carefully tended paths. The magic I had found up on the moors and deep in the forest was gone, but the memory of it will surely stay with me for a long time to come.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Fountain, Gardens, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Nestling in a quiet valley in the middle of rural Brittany can be found the romantic ruins of the chateau of Quinipily, an ancient fortress now reduced to just a few sturdy walls and terraces. Today the remains of the castle have been transformed into pretty gardens which are open to visitors throughout the year.

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

It’s not the flowers that attract visitors to this place, however, because it is far better known for its strange statue, a monumental figure of indefinite age now known as the Venus of Quinipily. The 2.2 metre tall Venus stands at the centre of the terraced garden, staring out at the surrounding landscape from her position atop a huge fountain.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Until the seventeenth century both the Venus and the huge stone trough that is now situated below her stood in the Breton village of Bieuzy-les-Eaux, on the site of an ancient Gaulish city. Also known by the villagers as Ar Groareg Houar (the Iron Lady) and Groah Hoart (The Old Guardian), the statue was worshipped by the locals, who believed it to have magical curative powers. Pregnant women would visit the Venus, and later bathe in the trough (which can apparently hold up to 3600 litres of water) after giving birth. It was also thought that the figure could help boost fertility, and it is said that some couple indulged in some rather naughty practises beneath the statue. Finally the bishop of nearby Vannes decided to bring an end to such pagan rituals, and in 1661 he had the Venus thrown into the river. Before long, the locals fished her out, and resumed their old religious rites.

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

In 1670 the statue was attacked and thrown once again into the watery depths. At this point local gentleman Pierre de Lannion stepped in to save the Venus, and shipped her off to his castle at Quinipily, where she has stood ever since. He faced opposition from the Duke of Rohan, who claimed ownership of the statue, but after a long legal battle Lannion won the case and was allowed to keep her.

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The true age and purpose of the Venus of Quinipily have stirred up debate for centuries. Some have suggested that she may be a representation of Isis first erected by Romans who had settled in the region. Another theory is that she is in fact a Gallic goddess, or perhaps Roman mother goddess Cybele. Some sceptics have proposed that this statue is not ancient at all, but a later copy made when the original statue was destroyed in the seventeenth century.

After such a checkered past, the Venus must relieved to have finally found a safe home in the beautiful gardens of Quinipily. Here she is surrounded by huge old trees which have grown up amongst the fragments of castle wall, and althought the spring which fed her fountain has now dried up, the former ponds and cascades are now a mass of foliage and flowers, a bit wild and overgrown, but wonderfully atmospheric. I said earlier that she attracts visitors to Quinipily, but on the day that I visited there was noone else around, and I was able to enjoy the magical ambience of this intriguing place in peace and quiet, a unique experience in an unforgettable place.

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

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

Little Compton Street, London

Posted in History, London with tags , , , , on July 6, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Under a traffic island in on a busy road next to London’s Soho district is perhaps not the most obvious place to look for magic. But strange things can be found in the most unexpected places.

A traffic island on London's Charing Cross Road

A traffic island on London’s Charing Cross Road

Back in Victorian times, Little Compton Street was a bustling lane which joined Old and New Compton Streets. In 1896, however, the area was largely demolished to make way for Charing Cross Road, and the street level was raised. If you look carefully, however, you can find an intriguing remnant of Old London right beneath your feet. Below the unassuming grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road can be seen a wall still bearing not one, but two street signs for the now-buried Little Compton Street.

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

The underground street signs for Little Compton Street

Not quite a secret street perhaps, but this is still a rather magical remnant of London’s fascinating past, and one which most people pass over without ever even knowing it’s there.

The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious

Posted in Art, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This week I visited an exhibition dedicated to the short life of mid twentieth-century artist Eric Ravilious at the rather lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery. Ravilious spent much of his life in Sussex, and many of his best works are views of the South Downs and the charming countryside that lies around them. Images of winding country lanes, travellers’ caravans and rolling hills recall a magical rural England, reminders of a time now long past.

, Eric Ravilious

I particularly loved his painting of the Wilmington Giant, which can be found on Windover Hill just outside the village of Alfriston.  While many things may have changed since Ravilious painted this scene in 1939, the Wilmington Giant, also known as the Long Man, remains steadfastly the same. He’s been there since time immemorial, and will not doubt still be there for centuries to come; huge, silent and mysteriously magical.

The Alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, History, Standing Stones, Woods with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The huge complex of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany is, quite deservedly, world famous. With row upon row of huge megaliths running for kilometres across the landscape, it is hardly surprising that these stones have fascinated generations of antiquarians and now attract thousands upon thousands of tourists every year. The large numbers of visitors have inevitably had an impact on the fragile environment of Carnac, and as a result the majority of the stones are now kept behind fences, far from the fingers (and feet) of inquisitive day-trippers. So, although they are an amazing sight, the best-known alignments of Carnac can seem rather distant, untouchable, lacking that certain uncanny atmosphere that I love so much.

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

What few of the visitors to Carnac realise is that there is in fact one set of the stones which remains rather overlooked, and still retains a wonderfully air of magic. The stones of the alignements du Petit-Ménec, which sit at north-easterly end of the complex, might be smaller than some of their better-known neighbours, and may be rather hidden in woodland, but the fact that they remain open and unfenced means that visitors can still wander among them and get a real sense of their unique ancient mystery.

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Although they do appear on most of maps of the complex, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are not properly signposted, and lie quite a distance from the other megaliths beyond a busy main road. This is perhaps why they tend to be ignored by most visitors to the Carnac stones. Whatever the reason, I am rather glad that they are overlooked. Hidden in a quiet woodland, far from the crowds and their cars, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are a magic-hunters dream come true!

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

There are plenty of fabulous tales associated with the stones, including the (rather anachronistic) story that they were marching Roman centurions turned to stone by the wizard Merlin. Another legend tells that they are in fact a fleeing army of Pagans literally petrified by Pope Cornelius. All in all there are 101 standing stones in the Petit-Ménec group, with seven rows facing east and a further three facing north-east. Wandering amongst the stones in their peaceful forest, its easy to imagine yourself in some enchanted wood. I didn’t see any fairies, goblins or Korrigans on the day of my visit, but if I had, I am not sure I would have been that surprised. After all, I can’t think of a more suitable place for them than the magical alignements du Petit-Ménec.

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac