Posts Tagged 'walking'

Brittany

If you’ve never been to Brittany, here’s a tiny word of advice. Don’t.

Don’t, because you’ll only help to fill almost empty roads.
Don’t, because you’ll take up emplacements we might want to use shortly.
Don’t, because the dearth of typical English campers is a delight.
Don’t, because we loved the place and fear you could spoil it.
Don’t, because I want to be selfish and keep it to myself.

We journeyed for three weeks, pottering the lanes and roadways of the Atlantic coast. Apart from the initial drive to get there and back, we covered very few miles. Probably, we walked further than we drove. From Brest to Concarneau, we encountered jagged granite cliffs, white sands in remote coves, fishing villages in rocky bays, misty islands ghosting off-shore, enigmatic statues on bluff outcrops, miles of footpaths free from people except us four, rural campsites and aires almost empty – and entrancing towns half asleep until beyond midday.

In those three weeks, I rediscovered Jacques Prevert, tasted and relished my first ever Breton beers, tapped feet to the stimulus of Breton music, ate crepes in tiny bistros, missed out on moules frites because of a serious case of mistiming (they disappear on 1st May – the very day I tried to order the dish), learnt the difference between the French verbs for ‘to buy’ and ‘to sell’ much to the puzzlement and amusement of a patient shopkeeper at Cleden, drank more cheap French wine than I should have done – and walked about 150 miles of GR34, the coastal footpath around Brittany.

At St Malo, we wandered through the awe inspiring medieval town immured by ancient high stone walls. At Paimpol harbour market we rummaged among stalls laden with marine paraphernalia. At Landrellec we found a strange green frog (that’s not a joke). At Brest we saw penguins. At Pors Peron a swallow-tailed butterfly passed within a few inches of my head. At Pointe du Raz we watched fishing vessels bouncing in the wild tide. From Audierne we walked up the winding river to Pont Croix, where we drank beer, ate our first crepes and saw our first heronry in the trees. In Quimper, we became acquainted with Rodin. At Concarneau, another ancient citadel, we had more crepes while the flags of European nations fluttered above us.

And we brought home a few lasting impressions of Breton life. They like to hang bedding out of windows to air. Trees are pollarded into tight symmetrical balls. LeClerc supermarkets are probably the best in the world. Colourful wooden shutters on windows, often closed against the sun. An absence of ‘no camping’ signs – even small villages provide extraordinary services for motor homes, unlike the anal antediluvian attitude of most British towns. An absence of toilet seats. And a scintillating Atlantic Ocean, blue to green and as clear as vodka. A countryside as rural, green and clean as Kent was in the 19th century.

When I get time, I’ll post a few more thoughts on this fascinating part of France. In the meantime, please keep trying to find a Caravan Club site in England able to accommodate you on a Saturday night. In all we stayed at twelve camp sites in Brittany – and booked at none.

unexpected dovedale

pollys cottage_1

polly's cottage, milldale

Much of the mystery of travel in the UK has gone these days. Everything worth seeing is assiduously recorded and publicised on the internet, in guide books, magazines, leaflets or travelogues. When we journey to a new area, we’re not exactly emulating Marco Polo or even H. V. Morton. Most things have been discovered and we journey to view them so they can be ticked off against our list of 1001 places to see before we die.

Perhaps for that reason, we take most pleasure in unexpected delights. They are usually fairly minor events, but all the more intensely exciting because they surprise us. We didn’t know they were there.

For example, earlier in the year we paid a visit to Derbyshire. On a day of snow flurries and heavy hail, we walked through Dovedale. We mentally ticked off anticipated sights – Lion Rock, the caves, Tissington Spires, Lovers’ Leap and the famous stepping stones to name a few – and agreed that the three miles of river gorge, deep craggy valley and meandered water meadows deserved every published eulogy.

Yet for us, our greatest joys were when we came across three unheralded sights, one at each end of the short walk, and one on the approaches. The first was Polly’s. Her little shop is tucked away on the corner of a tiny lane in Milldale. From over the stable door, open only at the top, she serves mouth watering sandwiches for the hungry. Queues form outside; we’re not allowed into the cottage no matter the weather – I doubt she has room anyway. Her fare is probably unsuitable for the pretensions of the likes of Giles Coren, but after a five mile walk with another nine ahead, what she fashions out of bread and sundry fillings seems like a snack fit for a wilting emperor. Never walk Dovedale without taking refreshment at Polly’s.

Where Dovedale ends is the village of Thorpe. Here we climbed a steep hill heading for the Tissington Trail to lead us north. As we topped the brow of the hill, music was flowing down the slope towards us. And here we found our second unannounced delight. Dovedale Garage forecourt is home to the Mighty Compton Organ, and two vast mechanical organs mounted on the backs of lorries were pumping out their deep breathy and brassy melodies. We could almost taste the candyfloss and sniff the nostalgic aroma of fried onions mingling with old mown grass, redolent of the fairgrounds of our day. The Galloping Major cantered through and reluctantly we wrested ourselves away to follow. Time was now pressing.

Rain spattered us; at times we had to lean into the wind. Then, half-way home, the sun burned a small gap in the clouds and bathed nearby hills in golden evening light, finding the tower of a distant hilltop church, I think at Ballidon. We sat on an opportune bench and looked across the shallow valley as for about 120 seconds the landscape was afire with gleaming greens and golden russets framed by darkling clouds. Behind us, a solitary farmer worked late repairing a dry-stone wall while his old wiry dog twitched sleepily in the field, no doubt dreaming of bowls of rabbit stew and maybe Polly’s off-cuts of beef and ham. No guide book could prepare us for this vignette of crepuscular pastoral tranquillity.

These little encounters are not something to include in a travel book or a Sunday supplement’s guide to country walking. But for us they give more pleasure than all the seven wonders of Derbyshire combined, simply because they were totally unexpected.

We stayed at Rivendale caravan park. The entire round walk was 14 miles, most of it off-road thanks to the Tissington Trail, the track bed of an abandoned railway line. If you’re interested, the camp site is listed under Ashbourne on the “good camp sites” page.


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