In the forests of Brittany: meetings with remarkable trees

I went to France in search of the legendary Broceliande, the ancient forest which once covered the whole of Brittany, and found something much more interesting: a present-day enchanted forest. Though it was a pretty place, I didn’t find the greatest enchantment of all in the privately owned, heavily managed forest of Paimpont, which claims to be the last remaining fragment of Broceliande. I found the greatest enchantment of all in the smaller but wilder old forest of Huelgoat, farther west in the region of Finistère. Huelgoat, ‘high wood’, scattered with old giant granite rocks.

Sometimes, when you wander through the forest with an open heart in search of mystery, you find it. I found it off the track, clambering down a steep muddy bank, my attention caught by a glimmer of water far below.

I walked along the edge of a beautiful little river, and a series of pools opened up:

Huelgoat7 LR

I sat there entranced on a moss-covered rock in the silence of the wood for an hour and a half, watching the light change as the sun came and went. I looked up to see a single crow gliding slowly past, just above the water. Following its path with my eyes, just beyond the second central rock in the image below, I saw the figure of a reclining giant:

Huelgoat3crop LR

Here she is, Old Moss Woman, staring eyes and wide maw:

Huelgoat2 LR

Finally, I got up, and walked through the woods for a while. And through a tall, thin portal to another world, rich with old oak, ash, beech, chestnut and thorn:

Huelgoat6 LR

On the borders of the forest at Paimpont, I met with another remarkable tree. An ancient yew on the border of the garden of a new friend. A yew which has been cracked in two, its heart hollowed out, so tall that you can stand inside it and listen to its old bones creak in the breeze. The gift of yew: longevity and rebirth. Spirit-tree, memory-tree, oldest tree, crone-tree, the last tree. A couple of weeks before, a visiting friend had brought me the unexpected gift of yew, its Ogham letter carved carefully into a strong polished stick from a tree on her land. And what a gift it is:

Yew LR

I came home to the river, to this small cottage in the township of Min Doire, ‘plain of the oaks’. There have been no oaks here for centuries; they are buried in the bog, filled as it is with the ghosts of forests past. I brought back to the river the memory of oak growing strongly in a land across two seas, the forest floor cluttered with seedlings. I brought back a dried leaf and a dried-out moss-covered stick from the foot of a tall old oak, and I laid them at the feet of the two small oaks we have planted here, one sessile and one pedunculate. Look, I said to the trees: there are still so many oaks in the world. The web is strong. And I thought that there might someday be strong oaks again in Min Doire, if we plant our trees and then just let them be. If ever we can bear to just let them be.

Baby oaks LR

30 thoughts on “In the forests of Brittany: meetings with remarkable trees

  1. Delighted to read of your time charmed in the forests of Brittany. Your photos and patient connecting honor the place beautifully. In September I go there to learn my connection with the ocean and the Île de Sein. This post adds to my anticipation. I thank you.

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    1. Natalia – that’s really difficult to say, as so much depends on what you are looking for, on both counts. I had a very specific reason (research for my forthcoming book) for going, so I’m not necessarily the best person to ask. I would say only that much of the legend associated with these forests is related to the Medieval and later Grail literature. If that resonates, then Brittany is as good a place as anywhere. If you’re looking for links to older spiritualities and mythologies, then you may want to look elsewhere. But Huelgoat was certainly one of the loveliest forests I’ve been in, whilst being far from the largest or wildest.

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  2. oh so beautiful, your words are like leaf shadow and water-caught light, making me feel that I am sitting too in the forest.

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    1. Wish I’d thought to bother you 🙂 I had such a short time there (my manuscript deadline is looming frighteningly near and I am in panic mode!) and the sudden onslaught of lower back pain meant that I had to be very focused on achieving the minimum requirements whilst I was over there, which were to have a sense of place of those particular forests, and also to glean some understanding of Breton myth (such as it is) outside of the Grail mythology. (I got the latter from the very wonderful Pascal Lamour http://www.pascallamour.com/ )

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    1. It was a revelation for me too, Aurora. Forests (except for the dark, predominantly coniferous kind) have been so hard to come by in the places I’ve lived! This was no dark, dangerous wood of the kind we see in northern European fairytales, but an altogether lighter, more enchanted kind.

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  3. Oh! Waking to your words is always a real gift and beautiful as ever. Ah! Yew! I have a flute crafted from this ancient wood. Playing it is rather like standing within the heartwood. And here in Broad Oak, we are blessed with huge Oak trees, standing proud, marking ancient trackways. Some now in their third age of dying back, being over 200 years old and more, our grandchildrens faerie trees,where treasures are left . We love them so deeply, and have seedlings to take with us when we leave. Our lane in years of acorn growth, becomes a carpet of the fallen and a treasure trove for squirrels. Blessings on your two wee trees, may they grow strong and true.

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  4. Just magical. I long to visit ancient forests in Europe. Until then I sit under and old gum tree and dream. Thank you for sharing your journey 🙂

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  5. Loved this post and the photos. I’ve recently had a residency in Blean Woods in East Kent and this has resonated deeply.

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    1. Thanks, Victoria. And yes, it made me want to spend much more time in forests. Although we have a small grove of trees here, I’m lucky enough to be close to the very beautiful old oak woods at Ards Forest Park in Donegal (complete with ringforts and megalithic tombs). I sense a few pilgrimages coming on!

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    1. Thanks, Erin. There is a comforting beauty in moss, for sure. Maybe it’s the fact that they shine so brightly all through the dark times of winter and in the dark forests …

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  6. Very evocative and inspiring writing. It reminds me of an encounter I had in the Galloway Forest at the Old Mares Tail waterfall. It was a magical place and once I printed my photos I found the distinct figure of a woman with long hair, cloak and circlet on her head. It has stayed with me amidst each encounter with the world of water light. Now I live on the shores of Morecambe Bay and the ebb and flow of the tide, rush and lazy turn of the river and estuary surround my home. Your words paint a picture where I can hear, smell and taste the mossy ground, undergrowth and see the light glancing off the clear water of the forest glade. My thanks.

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  7. Beautiful beautiful dear Sharon. The images, your words. Feeling both rooted and gliding into that thick lush place. Thank you!

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