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:

Huelgoat1 LR

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