The technological advances gave nineteenth century people the sort of faith that can moves mountains. The canal connects Brest – the strategic military harbour at the westernmost tip of France, to Nantes, the historical capital of Brittany, and to the Loire valley. The Aulne is the first of five rivers whose courses were canalised. The canal meanders with them through the land, but to connect them, sections had to be carved out of hills. In total, it took 236 locks to scale all the obstacles.
A chemin de halage, literally “haulage trail”, is where the horses would walk. The barges they pulled would ensure the supply of Brest, in an age of war with Britain, and unlock the riches of inland Brittany. If fishing is one teat of Brittany, farming is the other. The hinterland is not as beautiful as the coast – how could it be. Sometimes it is positively ugly, and often smelly. But certainly bountiful.
It was the onion sellers of Roscoff, the Johnnies (Yann, the Breton version of John, was a common first name) who gave the English the image of French people on bikes, carrying onions rings.Nowadays, Brittany is the most important French region for the production of butter, milk, eggs, chicken, pork (not that you will see a single pig, the animals never see the light of day), but also broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, shallots. The Plougastel strawberries are the first of the season, and eagerly awaited across France.
This continuing economic success came only in the nineteenth century, on the back of the canal, so landlocked was Brittany before. It didn’t come without sacrifices; the 1960’s and 70’s Remembrement, the land swaps and developments that enabled the mechanisation of agriculture, was a catastrophe for the landscape and the environment. Thousands of trees were pulled up, many old paths, trenches, hills and ponds erased. The traditional bocage, landscape of small pastures separated with live hedges, so common in Normandy and some parts of Britain, has almost completely disappeared from Brittany.
The whole region suffers from the pollution of its water courses. To this day, tap water in Brittany contains much higher levels of nitrates that doctors consider safe for long-term exposure. Locals tend to buy plastic bottles. Otters, which should be thriving along this rich coast and in all the rivers, are completely absent. Worse still is the issue of green algae, whose blooms, on the North Coast, are caused by nitrate pollution. They are suspected in about twenty unexplained deaths a year. Journalists who investigated and reported on the issue have been intimidated; the police seem unable, or unwilling, to catch the culprits.
Away from this dark underbelly, but close to the navel, as it were, the canal de Nantes à Brest, near Pleyben, is a peaceful heaven. Walkers, joggers, and their dogs, cyclists, horse riders (mainly children on their Shetland ponies) enjoy the old chemin de halage. The old lock keepers houses are now inhabited by dreamers, attracted by the gentle, quiet pace of life. Mallards, coots, cormorants on the river; wild garlic on the wooded banks, roe deer and muskrats at dusk. As I walk, a couple catches me up. Confident Linguists, you can hear about our conversation here, in French.