In this treeless, ever-windy landscape, an important industry was the exploitation of wrack. In French it’s goémon, from the Breton word, or varech, which has the same Anglo-Scandivian root as the English word. It was used as a fuel, fertiliser, and animal feed. As you walk along the cliff top, you can still see the overhanging stone slabs, pierced in the middle, that people used as hoists.
The abundance of wrack at Pointe St Matthieu is one of the many signs of a subtle, but definite change in the seascape. This is not officially the Channel (la Manche) yet, but the waters are cooler, richer than further South. Suddenly, there are oystercatchers (huîtriers-pies), and they come in large groups. Shags assemble to dry their wings on the rocks. The seagulls are more numerous too, and more vocal. The French word for seagull, goéland, is from the Breton gwelan, name for the bird, and, evocatively, “to cry”.
On the nearest beach, at Porz Liogan, the shell of limpets are strewn, and they are the biggest I remember seeing. Terns, too, so graceful, fly along the coast and patrol the shallow waters of the beach. At a flick of their wing, they suddenly dart and dive after small fish. There is a sand martin colony in the cliff above the beach; they seem to fly at the cliff at full speed. Swallows join them in the evening. The coastal path is bordered by cliff roses, but also bladder campions and daisies, and Spanish bluebells in the sheltered sections. Spring is gathering pace.
Twenty kilometres north from Pointe Saint-Mathieu, the Aber Ildut is the first of three deep cuts into the land that is called Pays des Abers. The 6-kilometre-long estuary of the tiny river Ildut used to be a sizeable obstacle; signs detail the epic tales of midwives having to be rowed across in order to deliver babies on the other bank. But as you walk along the aber, the signs of human ingenuity to exploit the quirks of nature are everywhere.
The deep harbour at the mouth of the river was the key to the prosperity of the historic village of Lanildut, on its northern bank. It was an important centre for cabotage, the coastal navigation trading network that connected Spain to Scandinavia, and of course across the Channel to the British Isles. For many centuries, it was cabotage that brought Bordeaux wines, salt, granite, coal, timber, linen to their consumers. The hostile attentions of the Royal Navy, and even more, of mutineers from Jersey and Guernsey, led to the installation of battery at the mouth of the harbour. Now, the harbour allows ferries to the islands of Ouessant and Molène, and some industrial activity still.
Lanildut, in keeping with the traditional industry of the local area, is the first harbour in Europe for wrack exploitation, with 35 thousand tons landed here each year. In the nineteenth century, the uses of wrack develop. It is burned in racked stone kilns to produce soda ash, used in the manufacture of glass. The iodine factory nearby uses it to produce tincture of iodine, an important sterilizer. In the twentieth century and up to now, wrack is used as a gelling agent, and comes into many food, cosmetic and hygiene products. Considering its widespread uses, and the gentle pace of work in Lanildut, I am left wondering whether it takes very little wrack to produce a lot of gelling agent, or if the immense majority of the world’s wrack is extracted elsewhere.
As you walk along the aber and leave the coast and the village behind, the boats on the moorings get smaller and smaller. On the banks, a simple hedge of bramble and hawthorn separate the quiet ebb and flow of the aber, the reed beds, the lichen-clad boulders, from houses and gardens, fields of wheat, buckwheat, rape, and dairy cows.
On the southern bank of the aber, people have widened and deepened the river valley…