This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
I owe my earliest impressions of Brittany – the beautiful region that occupies the north-western corner of present-day France – to my grandmother, who read the Paddington books to me when I was a child. The most captivating of these cheerful narratives, in my view, was Paddington Abroad, which tells of the bear’s misadventures during the course of a holiday spent with the Brown family in the Breton fishing port of St Castille.
There was something about the way the Breton landscape and people were described in this book that stirred my childhood imagination; that interest was to be revived a few years later when we studied The Franklin’s Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, at my mid-Devon secondary school.
Baffling as the words of the great medieval poet initially seemed, his stories of courtly love and magic “in Armorik, that called is Britayne” gradually got under my skin. This, together with the fact that I was by now becoming increasingly aware of the complex web of connections between the history of Brittany and the history of Devon and Cornwall, made me feel especially pleased when my own family decided to spend our next holiday in the south Breton district of Morbihan.
During the course of this trip we visited both the megalithic monuments at Carnac – ‘the Stonehenge of France’, as it is often described – and the city of Vannes, which contains many splendid half-timbered houses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. From the moment I first set foot in Vannes, I knew this was a place I’d want to visit again – its architecture so tantalisingly reminiscent of those huge swathes of my own home city that had been destroyed in the Exeter Blitz of 1942, and which I could now glimpse only in old photos.
Since then I’ve made many more trips to Brittany, all of them in the company of my wife, who is not only an ardent Francophile but also – fortunately for me – an able French speaker. Most of our trips have started with a voyage on one of the car ferries that shuttle back and forth between Plymouth and the picturesque town of Roscoff in the department of Finistère.
As these great ships glide into port at the end of our outward journey, skirting the jagged islets lying just beyond the harbour mouth, I’m always reminded of the “grisly rokkes blakke” of Chaucer’s poem and of the legions of men and women who have sailed these dangerous waters before us.
My thoughts frequently turn to Henry Tudor, for example, who spent many long years in exile in Brittany before returning from France to seize the English crown in 1485. Or I think of Charles I’s intrepid French wife Henrietta Maria who, fearing capture by the parliamentarians in 1644, made a desperate escape from Falmouth to Brest, with a squadron of enemy warships snapping at her heels.
From Roscoff, our journey invariably takes us south past the cathedral of Saint-Pol-de-Léon; its soaring, intricately carved 14th-century spires dominate the landscape and serve as an indication of the architectural glories to come.
From here the roads diverge to reach a thousand delightful destinations, including the medieval town of Guérande, still enclosed within its ancient defensive walls; the magnificent Pointe du Raz, the Lands’s End of France; and the formidable stronghold of Château de Fougères near Rennes. One of my favourite places, though, is Morlaix, not far from Saint-Pol. Once a thriving port, Morlaix was sacked and burned by the English in 1522; the townsfolk swiftly erected new buildings to replace those that had been destroyed, including a number of grand townhouses that still survive today and which are known as maisons à pondalez.
As recent research has shown, at least one house in this highly distinctive style was subsequently erected in Exeter, almost certainly by itinerant Breton craftsmen, in yet another example of the interactions that have occurred over the centuries between the people of Devon and Cornwall on the one hand and the people of Brittany on the other. And though that particular house was torn down long ago, the happy survival of its Breton progenitors enables me to resurrect it in my mind’s eye. For, as West Country travellers to Brittany so often find, (in the words of a famous piece of graffiti near London’s Paddington station): “Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.”
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Brittany is wonderful to visit at any time of year but if you’re looking for warm weather in the summer, make for Morbihan and the Presqu’île de Guérande in the far south of the region.
For anyone with an interest in the past, the best way to travel to Brittany is by sea. Brittany Ferries sail between Plymouth and Roscoff, and between Portsmouth and Saint-Malo, while Condor Ferries sail between Poole and Saint-Malo. Alternatively, you can fly direct to Rennes, Brest and Dinard from a number of UK airports, or take the Eurostar to Paris, and then shoot through Brittany to Brest on the TGV train.
What to pack
Stout walking-boots, a French-English dictionary and, if heading for one of Brittany’s many beaches, a bucket and spade.
What to bring back
Sparkling Breton cider.
The medieval town of Locronan is unspoilt by later development after collapse of local industry in 16thc
See the amazing ceramic tiles everywhere. Don’t forget a trip up the tower!
Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton. Read more about Mark’s experiences in Brittany at historyextra.com/bbchistorymagazine/brittany