Josselin and Pontivy

Monday 28th October 2013, Lannion, Finisterre
Tonight we are back in the north, to the east of Roscoff. We are gradually making our way towards Caen but have several more days and several more strategically placed campsites still open for us.

Yesterday we left our woodland campsite near Vannes airfield and drove through the rain along winding country lanes through the pretty Breton countryside, crunching over chestnuts and acorns scattered along the roads as we passed through areas of woodland, stared at curiously by black and white cattle out in the wet open countryside.

We were now at a suitable point in our peregrinations around Brittany to seek out the places recommended to us by the friendly barman in Landiviseau when we first arrived less than two weeks ago!

Nearing our intended destination of Josselin we found ourselves caught up in a series of deviations blocking all routes into the town. Parking right outside the limits of the town we walked in alongside the river. We were hoping to see the chateau for which the town is renowned. We’ve seen pictures frequently in books and on posters. We were destined to see little more on our visit though the exterior was mightily impressive set high on its rock above the town. Below, down beside the canal, there was a race against cancer being run by the women of Josselin while the rest of the town had turned out to support them, lining the roadside and cheering then all on. We were impressed by the community spirit of Josselin. The entire town seem to have worked together for this event the menfolk acting as marshals while those ladies too elderly to run – though there were some quite elderly ones running – had made Breton far, buttercakes and pancakes to raise funds.

Josselin Castle on the banks of the Nantes-Brest canal

Josselin Castle on the banks of the Nantes-Brest canal

Race against cancer by the ladies of Josselin

Attractive architecture in the streets of the town, Josselin

Before the race the ladies had each written their reasons for running and these were pinned up for spectators to browse. They brought tears of sympathy to our eyes and caused us to appreciate that everyone running had a very serious reason to be there on a chilly and damp Sunday morning when they could have spent an extra hour in bed. One young runner had lost her younger sister six months previously and had still not come to accept it, another had a mother who was very sick with the affliction.

The river at Josselin has been canalised, as have a number of other rivers across Brittany. Back in the early 19th century during Britain’s wars with France, Napoleon had ordered the construction of a canal for military purposes to run from Nantes to Brest and link to the arsenals at Lorient and St. Malo. The intention was to enable the movement of goods around the country thus avoiding Britain’s Continental blockade of the French sea ports. This was achieved in Brittany by canalising rivers where possible and cutting three canals to link them. The undertaking was enormous and everyone, women as well as men, were obliged to work on the project alongside forced labourers – felons criminals and prisoners. The water level for the network was maintained from a reservoir created at Lac Guerlédan in central Brittany and navigation was made possible by creating locks along the course of the canal.

Decorative carving on the town’s oldest house, 1538, Josselin

Roofscape of Josselin from across the canal

The sun was shining as we left Josselin to drive along empty roads to Pontivy. This name changed during Napoleonic times to Napoleonville in the emperor’s honour. He took a great interest in this otherwise insignificant little town regarding it as of strategic importance, in part because of its location in the centre of Brittany and its proximity to the canal. The old town with its original houses still stands but in front the Emperor garrisoned troops and set up a huge parade ground, now used as a car park and a place for us to have lunch and a gentle snooze on a wet Sunday afternoon. The “new” town has been laid out with straight streets leading out from the square and a very different style of architecture. Certainly it was an interesting place to explore though the rain and rapidly increasing wind made us grateful to join the crowds flocking in to the only entertainment available in the town – a vide grenier in the palais des congrés. It was warm and dry inside and crowded with the usual assortment of junk so adored by the French. Never though do we lose hope that we might just discover exactly what we have been searching for. Nor were we disappointed. Having searched every bookshop we’ve seen for a picture dictionary in French for Deyvi, we finally picked one up in Pontivy for a euro. It will be just right for her.

By the time we came out again the rain and wind made us realise we were in for a very wet and gusty night.

Fortified town house, Pontivy

Château, Pontivy

Entrance to the château, Pontivy

Already the light was fading and we recalled that back in Britain the BBC was issuing dire warnings about a fast approaching tempest due to hit southern England overnight. It was expected to be the worst since 1987. Such a storm does not simply arrive in Britain from nowhere. Believe us, it was also very much in evidence here in Brittany! We decided to head straight to the nearest campsite on our fast diminishing list of those still open. We’re lucky in that it was a new site with hedges no more than a foot high and absolutely no trees. This seemed a safe option given the force of the wind and, just as the tempest hit we rolled Modestine gingerly onto our grassy pitch, praying we’d not sink into the mud and would get off again next morning.

So new was the campsite that there were as yet no external walls to the sanitary block! It has to be among the most draughty, wet, chilly and uninviting facilities we’ve ever encountered! At least the electricity worked though and we soon had the fan heater keeping us snug and remoska heating up an easy supper as outside in the darkness the wind roared and the rain slashed down covering the grass with a sheet of water. We watched a dvd with a glass of wine and ignored the rocking sensation and the slapping sound of the electricity lead hitting regularly against Mod’s flanks. Ian’s new shoes proved not to be watertight when he returned from washing up after supper to announce that the sinks were standing in a lake of water. All night the wind rocked us violently about as we slept, warm and dry beneath our duvet, relieved that there was no risk of trees falling on top of us.

This morning we looked at our sodden pitch with anxiety. If Modestine’s wheels started to spin on the slippery grass we’d simply bed ourselves deeper in to the mud. A couple from Jersey, as wet as us but in a bigger van that paradoxically was less likely to stick, offered to help pull us out if we got stuck. Such is the bonhomie shown to fellow travellers. In fact Modestine reversed off her pitch like a dream leaving a couple of very deep ruts behind her and we were on our way. In England, according to the news the storm was still causing havoc.

The roads everywhere showed evidence of the storm during the night. There were few fallen trees but many broken branches and leaves, nuts and twigs that formed a thick wet oozing carpet along the minor roads.

Our first task was to restock our fridge. Leclerc is our preferred French supermarket and M. Leclerc was a Breton, from Lesnevan, near Joël in fact. The Loudéac branch also provided a warmer and less draughty loo than the campsite, as well as wifi, croissants and coffee. Feeling civilised once more and our email boxes unjammed we set off in search of further adventures recommended by our friendly barman. Along the way we wondered about a sign to Mur-de -Bretagne. Ian searched in his 1982 guidebook and announced its main claim to fame was as the liveliest town in inland Brittany. This we had to see! Parking in the square near the mairie it didn’t look too hopeful. There was a lady waiting for her poodle to finish its business on the mayoral steps. Was this excitement perhaps? Then a huge juggernaut careered across the square, did a wheelie around us, avoiding Modestine by inches and disappeared out on the far side. This seemed more like it! Next a tractor and trailer took a short-cut into the car park – across the flower beds, and reversed into the poodle’s deposit. Such excitement was too much and we moved Modestine elsewhere to park. We discovered one of the most delightful little granite churches we’ve seen dating from the mid17th century, the chapel of Ste. Suzanne. We were particularly attracted by its stone-arched entrance porch and delicately carved belfy unlike any we have seen before. It stood so deeply amidst the large oak and chestnut trees – said to have inspired the Breton painter Corot – that it was quite impossible to photograph it properly.

Ste. Suzanne, Mur-de-Bretagne

Down in the town the silence was deafening! France is generally pretty drowsy on Mondays but if this was central Brittany at its liveliest the region must be completely comatose! The main church offered some interest as well as shelter from the chill wind after the storm of last night. It only dated from the 19th century but was an object of pride for the community. The exceptional carving of pews, the lectern and pulpit, chairs, organ loft and wooden statues were all the work of one man, a 19th century resident of the town, Joseph Langle, referred to as the local Michaelangelo. His work was certainly delightful, as were the stained glass windows. These only dated back to the 1920s but they were charming.

19th century lectern in the parish church, Mur-de-Bretagne

19th century wood carving in the parish church, Mur-de-Bretagne

19th century pulpit in the parish church, Mur-de-Bretagne

20th century stained glass in the parish church, Mur-de-Bretagne

Out on the streets there was nobody at all! We searched without success and returned to Modestine to find once again she was the one having all the fun. She’d been watching the school bus driver revving up his coach ready to take the children back to school! This took him fifteen minutes during which time we went off to see how far it was down to the lake on foot. We returned to find there was now someone standing at the bus-stop waiting hopefully for the bus that had just left. Never a dull moment in Mur-de-Bretagne

It was several kilometres to the lake so worth driving down. This is the Lac Guerlédan that once augmented the water in the Brest-Nantes canal. It has a large barrage used for generating electricity and now is at the heart of an outdoor recreational centre for young people as well as a network of country walks. It was very similar in fact to places on Dartmoor but perhaps unusual for Brittany.

Lac Guerlédan, feeder lake for the Nantes-Brest canal