Jutting out into the bay off the northern coast of Brittany is the Ile de Bréhat. It’s hardly one island at all, more a ragged archipelago of spits of rock – treacherous for sailors – with two inhabited like conjoined twins. No cars are allowed, the pedestrian roadways are sparsely peopled by cyclists – the silence is deafening – raucous seabirds fracture the peace while dark cormorants sit broodingly on the rocks. This is Celtic country – the missionaries arrived here before taming the wild Irish a few hundred kilometres north. The landscape is harsh but forgiving – a gentle microclimate where in summer agapanthus usually native to South Africa grows wild and rhododendrons bloom in supreme, luxurious abundance. The land yields its fruit, wild plums, figs and herbs can be picked as they ripen beside the pathways. The houses are sturdily built of pink and grey granite – some with walls over two feet thick – standing stubbornly for three hundred years or more against the wild weather from the sea. The western sun catches the pink-tinged walls as it falls below the horizon, its last traces illuminating sailboats heading for home in the evening light.
I am the guest of a child psychiatrist and autism expert and his Czech wife, calm as a Madonna, with sundry relatives and children who are numerous but strangely effacing – their presence hardly ruffles one’s concentration. The public boat travels to the mainland a few times a day to scoop up tourists, chattering like starlings; I arrived too late so my passage was an exhilarating fifteen minute ride at dusk in my host’s speedboat. Eschewing the delights – excellent as they undoubtedly might be – of the small but well-stocked supermarket in the tourist south of the island, our host puts dinner on the table the old-fashioned way, with rod and line, so tonight we have Brittany oysters, sea bass , lobster and barbecued octopus. However shall I bear it.
The French either go on holiday for all of July or all of August and changeover day is usually like the seventh circle of hell. Traffic, however, was kind enough to allow a stopover at Mont St Michel, which has been a place of pilgrimage in adoration of the archangel and field commander of the heavenly host, not least because it resisted all English attempts to conquer it during the Hundred Years War, for which, no doubt, the perfidious Papists were grateful for centuries afterwards, believing the English with their superior firepower to be the devil incarnate. Some still do, I imagine. The image is of the ‘other’ St Michael’s, Coventry Cathedral, where my young voice once soared in the chancel and Epstein’s masterpiece tramples Beelzebub underfoot. Nice.