Archive for Countryside

The Valley of Saint-Clair, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Church, History, Landscape, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by mysearchformagic

The Chapel of Saint-Clair nestles in a quiet valley just outside the Breton village of Limerzel. This is a tranquil part of the world, one that the rapid developments of the late 20th Century have largely passed by. As a result, a visit to this valley, with its collection of fascinating ancient monuments, is rather like stepping back in time.

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path towards the chapel begins in a stretch of shady trees. There is a picnic table here for any passing tourists, although this is not the kind of place that attracts lots of visitors, just the odd dog walker from the village or maybe a passing farmer on his tractor. Walk a bit further down and you will find the first curiosity on this short journey, namely the Fountain of Saint-Clair.

The fountain of St Clair

The fountain of St Clair

Large scale holy fountains like this were once common in Brittany, and a number of them survive to this day, but few are as decorative as this beautiful example. Saint Clair himself can be seen carved in polychrome relief below the elaborate canopy. The first bishop of nearby Nantes, Saint Clair was responsible for bringing Christianity to the region in the late 3rd Century. In the past, his fountain has been attributed with healing powers, particularly for those suffering from maladies of the eyes, although the mossy, leaf-filled pool which lies at the heart of the fountain doesn’t inspire much hope for modern miracle seekers.

Follow the path a bit further and you will emerge out of the trees; take a sharp right turn and you will discover the next point of interest – the Cross of Saint-Clair. Like many of the crosses which dot the landscape in this area, the carving on this monument is provincial and naive, while centuries of erosion has erased much of the fine detail. The base is dated 1818, although the obvious age of the cross itself suggests that this date relates to a later restoration rather than its original construction.

The cross of Saint Clair

The cross of Saint Clair

By now the chapel itself can be seen nearby. It is just a short walk across a babbling stream to the final destination of this magical pilgramage, a simple building which dates from the 15th/16th Century and was sympathetically restored during the 1800s. Nowadays the chapel is almost always locked, but a small grille in the door allows visitors a view into the sombre interior, its religious statues and austere furniture bathed in the golden light from the small stained glass windows.

The chapel of St Clair

The chapel of St Clair

Every year on the 15th September the locals celebrate the Pardon of Saint Clair, during which a procession makes its way from the fountain, which is temporarily festooned with colourful flowers, to the chapel. After the procession everyone indulges in a communal meal to commemorate the Saint’s day. But for the other 364 days of the year the chapel remains peaceful and largely forgotten in this secluded valley, a place which still remains a magical haven far from the noise and bustle of modern life.

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

The Hoo Peninsula, Kent

Posted in Kent with tags , , , on September 1, 2012 by mysearchformagic

The Hoo Peninsula is a place with a strange, rather magical atmosphere. Despite the fact that it is located north of Rochester in Kent, just a few miles from the London’s sprawling metropolis, it feels remote, almost forgotten. It’s the kind of place that people tend to pass by without even noticing it is there.

This is also an area with a long history stretching back to Saxon times, the word Hoo being derived from the old English for ‘spur of land’. It is dotted with ancient buildings, in particular medieval churches, but despite the fact that it has rolling hills and rich farmland, this is no picture-postcard idyll. The arrival of industry in the 19th and 20th Centuries has resulted in large-scale developments around the peninsula’s coastline. No matter where you are, no matter how pastoral the surroundings, the looming visions of chimneys and the hulks of power stations can be seen lurking in the distance.

The view from Allhallows-on-Sea

All of this heavy industry hasn’t stopped the peninsula becoming a haven for wildlife, which now attracts birds, insects, rare water voles and wild flowers. The views here are breathtaking; on a blustery day when the sky is wide and dark the marshes near Allhallows can feel like the edge of the world.

A Red-veined Darter, Cooling

Further south, the village of Cooling stretches along a narrow country road, the crumbling remains of a castle at its centre. The nearby church of St James’ may be redundant, with no regular services held there, but it is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, who keep it open to the public. Inside it holds some fascinating remnants of ancient Kent, in particular the rows of 14th Century carved oak benches, and an odd little vestry, the walls of which are decorated with thousands of cockle shells. Charles Dickens recognised the spooky possibilities of Cooling and its windswept surroundings, allegedly using the churchyard as inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations, which features the pivotal meeting between Pip and the escaped convict Magwitch.

St James’ Church, Cooling

In the late 19th Century the mud of the peninsula’s flats became a valuable commodity, ideal for use in the production of cement. Fleets of barges would carry the mud from Hoo to factories further up the Medway and beyond. Later, as trade declined in the early 20th Century, the barges were either converted into houseboats or left as hulks on the shoreline, their dark, ghostly wrecks still visible around the peninsula today.

If you are looking for chocolate box perfection, then the Hoo Peninsula is not for you. Parts of it are built-up and ugly, huge factories blot the skyline and the remains of concrete military installations litter the shore. But at its heart are ancient places, villages and buildings which recall a long and complex past. Perhaps it is the contrast of these two worlds that makes the Hoo Peninsula so intriguing. This is, however, is a place at risk. Recent proposals to build an airport here are strongly opposed by the locals, who fear it will destroy the area’s fragile environment. Let’s hope that they are successful in their campaign, and manage to preserve the unique landscape of this eerie, magical corner of England.

Fields near Cliffe