East of the stunning pont de Trévénez (discover here), you go up the Aulne maritime, the estuary of the Aulne river. At Port-Launay, a lock stops the tides, and turns the meandering river into the canal de Nantes à Brest.
But a place called Le Passage, fifteen kilometres down river from Port-Launay, was the ancestral crossing point. Here the estuary is narrow enough, and the tides tame enough, for a ferry to cross. It could finally take you across and out of the Crozon peninsula, into the Plougastel peninsula, to the North, and the Pays de Léon. A ferry was officially established in 1858. At its height, it would ferry 25 000 people a year, and at least as many heads of cattle. It was in activity until 1951.
This place, once a pinch point of activity, is now out of the way, and tranquil. The sea is just the twice-daily rising and receding of the water. The cooler, steep southern bank is wooded, apart from two houses down by the ferry port. The northern bank, sunnier, is dotted with houses and fields. They are only half a kilometre apart.
In the late afternoon, two older men catch-up loudly on the bank of the estuary, in the last sunny spot of the bank. Their laughs fill the still air of the valley. As I approach, their two big dogs bark; but they are only after cuddles, really. The men are summer-time neighbours, and rejoicing in each other’s returned company. One lives in the South of France, near Arles, and comes back in the spring and summer to look after his family home. He brings back funny stories, like the one about the bulls in Arles, who broke free and wrecked havoc on a photo-shoot with scantily-clad models. It feels like a different country.
At Port-Launay, the lock of Guilly Glaz puts an end to the tides on the Aulne river. It marks the true beginning of the Canal de Nantes à Brest. Napoleon the Third, and the empress Eugenie were present at its inauguration in 1858, in the same year as the ferry at Le Passage. Since 1866, the lock is over-shadowed by an impressive viaduct, the triumph of rail.
The mind-boggling ambition of this canal is testament to the spirit of the Enlightenment:
And the actual realisation of this pharaonic project speaks of the spirit of the nineteenth century – the English would call it the Victorian age. In the nineteenth century however, France was ruled by, in order, an emperor – Napoleon I, two absolute monarchs (Louis XVIII and Charles X), one parliamentary king (Louis-Philippe), a 4-year-long republic, a second emperor (confusingly called Napoleon III), and its third Republic. The political instability could have been a serious impediment to the enterprising spirit of the Industrial Revolution.
But the economic imperatives were constant, whatever the regime…