Across the pink gravel, through the gate made by our late handyman next to the camellia hedge and into the little cul-de-sac that is our street. At this time of year, October, most of the houses around are shuttered and empty and even those which are occupied stand mainly reticent and quiet. The sky is an intense blue and the air is fresh and sweet, despite the saltiness of the breeze, the trees are still mostly green although the wind is already beginning to encourage the leaves to loosen their grip.
Left around the first corner, then right around a second, accurately trimmed evergreen hedges border a lot of gardens, a small ditch on the left below a wall used to harbour snakes, they said. Now it is manicured and only of interest to the dogs who regularly come and leave their mark for the next sniffer. As I pass along the higher road, a string of houses on the right, all with a sea view and trees and yet still not all occupied year round, a large paddock on the left with the camping ground tucked in behind, invisible unless you know it’s there. No wonder it’s popular in summer. The field is a wide open sloping space that pulls the eye south over it and down to the next property and the village beyond, but it has to be skirted in the dip where the tidy homes and gardens look a little lost, belonging neither to the actual settlement, nor to the ones on the ridge that gaze onto the sea and the islands, a bit forlorn and barren-looking.
By the time I get to the far corner of the field, I feel as if I am really inland, the hedge is thick and to my right the road peters out into a woodland valley. Winding up towards the village again, the farm on the left is the epitome of Brittany, two long low stone buildings set at right-angles to each other, longères, a main house and a holiday property that looks onto the field, with coloured shutters. In between, a courtyard garden separated from the lane by a stone wall that allows the passer-by to peek into a small protected idyll. This is my favourite house of all!
A slight incline leads into the village proper, and like every good French village, there is a tabac (newsagent), a baker and a small café-restaurant that changes hands every couple of years and still struggles. Also ubiquitous is the pharmacy – even if there is no infra-structure at all, it seems there is always one of those. I wonder if the French really are always ill?! Or do they just think they are? A crise-de-foie, un petit bobo, high blood pressure, low blood pressure… perhaps my neighbour is typical?! She does seem to have a string of complaints…
Ahead is the proud stone building that now houses the mediathèque; this includes a small library, post office and the tourist information, the original building having been gutted a few years ago, right down to the granite walls and then a modern interior hidden inside and some attractive landscaping on the far side to form a small yard where people can prop their bikes and sit to consult a map or use the wifi or just look at what’s on – the walls are covered in posters advertising fest noz, jazz concerts, vide-greniers or this year’s big art exhibition in town or one of the other villages. Once it was a fabulous show of quilts in a village hall in a small town nearby, wondrous works of art nonchalently shown in a practical atmosphere utterly lacking in charm. But fabulous nevertheless.
The road is very narrow at this point, a threeway junction. To the right, it widens out to meet the pretty little schoolyard and village primary school where the childrens’ voices at playtime ring out over a vast area, all the way back to us above the shore. On the left, the church rises commandingly and is decorated with large pots of flowers and plants attractively arranged along its perimeter. It hides the low mairie behind, where there is also plenty of room for cars to park. Funny how this large “place” isn’t the centre of the village. Maybe it was in years gone by?
However, we are going to cross over straight ahead through another narrow impasse between the houses, past the impossibly tiny house that used to house a branch of the bank and past some larger properties with bigger gardens, set farther back from the road behind lazy trees and bushes. Here, I’m surprised by someone actually sitting out in the sun with a cup of coffee on this fine afternoon. Her little dog comes to investigate my little dog, she comes to lean on the gate and chat and we exchange dog stories. The fuchsia ballerinas dance in the hedge and teeter out towards the road teasingly, the sun is warm on our backs and heads as we squint to see who we’re talking to. Behind us, the small modern complex of Les Glycines, the old people’s home and sheltered housing, tucked in between the church and the mairie, still in the thick of things but quietly getting on with it behind the greenery.
Here, the village begins to peter out again, the centre is only small although the boundary goes wide. On this corner, there is a large stone building, a small L-shaped château surrounded by something of a wilderness and stone walls with intriguing doors cut into it for access and tall trees around it. What a family seat that would make! I have never seen anyone there but today a jeep stands outside the walls and someone has hacked their way in and is doing some cutting and tidying… is this just regular maintenance or a work in progress? Will there be more going on there next time I pass, will the house be occupied at some point? Patience, patience. It could be years before we see any change, it’s always slow around here. A path cleared, a tree pruned, a shutter opened, a ladder against a wall, a window cleaned, a planter planted, a car in a drive, a toy in the garden… it’s a slow process, but then all can be silent again for another aeon.
Passing along the road, puddles along the broken edges, trees to the right and up ahead, a very tidy green fence is just low enough to see the cemetary beyond. Painfully neat and swept, most of the gravestones in their orderly lines are similar, with just an odd one here and there that defies the custom. Quite a few are made of the local pink granite, but it’s expensive. There is plenty of trim green lawn in reserve. But it’s a pleasant resting place with few houses around it and behind it, a surprisingly large forest that sits comfortably on the slope down to the marshy land and the big crescent beach. I hadn’t realised quite how big that woodland is until I saw it from the other side of the little valley.
But today I go along the road that becomes increasingly canopied by tall trees on both sides, meeting overhead in the prettiest of tunnels, the afternoon sunshine glimmering through and proving that autumn really has arrived. Not only is the road rather muddy along the sides, there are sheaves of fallen leaves and autumn fruits – beech, chestnut, acorn – lying in the road. They even fall on me as I pass, aiming at my head or shoulder and giving me a fright.
Here, the array of sharp and soft greens darkens but also becomes yellow and orange and brown. The shade is pleasant, the day warm, not much wind for once. As the road descends and curves steeply down into the valley only narrow tracks indicate houses set farther back, hidden behind trees, hedges, bends, snuggled into the slope out of the wind that blows so consistently most of the time, tiny hidden paradises showered in fallen leaves. Surely they must dissolve into the landscape within a short time when nature takes over? Do the owners spend their time clearing the area around their houses over and over, just to keep access? What must it be like in this damp climate when the lane isn’t tarred and permanently rutted and muddy?
A funny little house like a small white-washed box sits up on a ridge with a boat parked in front of it, looking rather incongruous. The roof is flat and there are curtains at the windows – could it be liveable or not? Perhaps in years gone by when any roof over your head was welcome or old people didn’t have pensions? Today it would have to be a tiny house pioneer to enliven it, but perhaps it now really only houses boat paraphernalia and has this precarious spot to park the little fishing vessel, held in place by a couple of concrete bricks on the slope.
As the road gets steeper, it feels more and more as if I’d wandered into a fairytale and I increasingly wonder if I’ll ever get out again? Or will I just get lost in a tanglewood of nature in this village backwood. It seems as if nobody ever comes here, so quiet and neglected, decades worth of decay both in the woods and the houses, the old mill in the last, sharpest corner at the bottom of the valley almost buried and barely visible, a few old roof tiles poking through at road level and a vague idea of a barn and house beyond, stretching off to the right, who knows where that valley leads, surely into eternity?
On the left a more modern house, tidy and clean with a modern veranda and a neat garden sloping down to the tiny stream that flows through, originally serving the old mill on the other side, but still half-hidden by trees and bushes.
Here the road takes a deep bend to the left and begins to ascend again. Perhaps there is a way out, after all, somewhere back there, past the marshlands to the left the air seems more open… Sloping steeply up on the right up behind the old mill another lane comes down to meet this one and a small lorry struggles to manage the hairpin bend. To my surprise, several cars and even taxis have passed me, which seems quite ridiculous, surely I’m in the back of beyond?
The road straightens out and flattens out and then meanders more purposefully in a vaguely straight line – no ruler was used! – on towards civilisation. There is a path through the open marshland I’m not familiar with, the woods rising up on the slope above it, but down here a single road with houses on both sides, each one different, some older, some newer, some well-maintained, some not, some in Breton style, some in Breton stone, some which don’t fit in at all…
As I walk along, the atmosphere changes, the air feels drier somehow, the sun on some stone walls reflects the heat, small flowers reach for it and show up daintily along it. The property it belongs to is shuttered and closed, silent and empty, though apparently modernised and tidy. On the right, the slope is quite steep and there are more houses than I remembered, though I have no idea how they are accessed, perhaps from above, as this is a completely different part of the village with its own name. The closer I get to the beach, the more dense the building becomes, though still with plenty of trees. On the left, the houses peter out into woodland, another of the strange, flat-roofed houses – early holiday cottages? – and scrubland, an urban-looking, scruffy carpark and tennis courts that back onto the more obvious camping ground, this one not tucked away neatly like the one near our house but boldly only just set back from the beach and bound to be a mosquito-ridden nightmare in summer! And now there is a pavement again, the little road opens out onto the main thoroughfare that passes along the beach, to the right a large complex of flats on the corner as the road rises steeply, across the even larger complex of a rehabilitation centre perched on the right-hand, eastern side of the beach. Zebra crossings, playgrounds, a surf school… the low granite wall allows for a protected area of grass, playground and carparks, but beyond it is then finally, the beach.
Depending on the tide, you might have to walk a while to reach the water. Incredibly fine sand, soft as velvet, is piled up against the retaining wall, warm to the feel, soft to sit on. As it becomes damper and more compact when you approach the water, it becomes harder, too, firmer to walk on, run on, fly kites on, play football on, or badminton or beach volleyball… Sandcastles, tunnels, buckets, spades, it’s all part and parcel of a classic beach. At low tide the sea curves back from the beach and the figures marching through the water are tiny and far distant, but when it comes in the variety becomes more apparent. Some people swim every day for most of the year, others don neoprene suits and body surf or windsurf or even just walk through the water at ankle, knee or hip depth for the water resistance. Adults and children swim, splash, squeal and jump as the waves trickle and crash their way up and down the beach four times a day, relentlessly following the mesmerising command of the moon, regardless of habit or time, light or dark. Dogs race around, loop the loop and double back, barking, chase balls, or kites, dance around their masters, leap into the waves, trot through the foam, begin to dig frantically, moving ever backwards and leaving funny long channels for the sea to fill.
An expanse of sand, from white to beige to gold to brown, the lace frill of the surf ruffling up and down it irregularly, the blue, grey, green water glowing behind transparently, reflecting the ever-changing sky, huge above the open beach. When the sky is as blue as today, the colours are almost graphic – deep blues, white, yellow. Now, in autumn, there are hardly any algae, just the odd brown abandoned sheaf, while in summer there were whole bands of bright green “mermaid salad”, as we always used to tell the children.
It feels dry and dusty as you walk along the parade, even though there is grass and there is humidity in the air, the sand is a permanent presence. I will find sand in my shoes and in my car for months after returning home. The fine flakes stick stubbornly to the skin and to the feet, catching the light and causing blisters. My grandson retreats in frustration – how do the French manage all this sand, he asks, rubbing at his feet in an attempt to clear them enough to put socks on…?!
The sea, the beach, the parade, the road, a couple of creperie restaurants. That is all on our beach. No souvenir or other shops, no other amenities. The restaurants both close on the same days, the campsite is only open in July and August. It’s quiet. The whole is in a cove, so as soon as you leave the beach up the road, it rises steeply again, winding up the hill back to the village. A cliff on the right looms over the western point of the crescent beach, with large firs reaching up and over in black sculptural beauty, deep dark green needles like contrast shadow clouds to those above.
Another small road leads off to the right on the top of the cliff, first straight along with more shuttered holiday homes left and right, before it begins to go downhill, past a couple of beautiful stone houses occupied only in summer and some artichoke and cabbage fields. A hidden track leads to a secret beach known only to regulars, pocketed between the large beach and the small port, a rocky little sanded area protected from the wind to a great extent but which can only be reached along a tiny footpath between tall grass and rocks.
The road, though, leads down to the port. There is only one building on the left for the regular boaters, locals who go out almost daily to fish for crab, lobster or whatever luxuries the sea provides, and who meet there, hold their club activities there. On the right, rocks. All the way down to the sea, rocks rocks rocks. A small grassy promontory sticks out, surrounded and crowned by rocks, but protecting the tiny harbour and long slipway. There is a car park edged by the little nutshell dinghies on wheels that are used to reach the boats, colourful pennants around the rough dinginess. Everything is sandy and crumbles but the little harbour is always in use and a fleet of little fishing boats bobs around, attached to buoys throughout the protected area, seagulls squawking over and around them, stalking around on the beach behind.
Yes, there is another little beach, just as sandy to begin with but also pebbly further along and less expansive. This time I’m walking along the path behind it, screened from the sea by rocky dunes and long, messy grasses. On my left fields, the corn harvested, dry dusty earth despite the rain we’ve had. The land slopes up, squared off into fields and farms, to a row of houses with a view, the tiniest one is ours! But to get home, I walk along the back of the beach until a burbling brook flows down onto it, a bridge breaches it and the woods begin again. Just before the bridge, I turn left and start the climb, woods on my right and a high hedge to the fields on my left as the lane drapes itself around the landscape and takes me back up to that little row of houses, out of breath from the steepness, ready for the much-loved view of those steady seven islands.