Sunday, 6 October 2013

In France...

It wasn't quite the Frank Zappa experience (not work-friendly lyrics, I warn you): an altogether sedate and pleasant week in Brittany with wife and child - a combination of sunshine (mainly) and warm weather - just what we needed.

The beach and the cliffs at Kerloc'h.

The trip started well, when about 40 minutes out of Plymouth on ferry, a Minke Whale surfaced a couple of times - the closest to Devon I've ever seen one. The remainder of the crossing was rather anticlimactic though, with just a few dozen Gannets and a handful of Great Skuas to see. Having left a grey and murky England, it was a pleasure to arrive in France in bright sunshine and the journey south to Camaret-sur-Mer was accomplished with the minimum of fuss. We found our house, we unpacked, we stretched out our legs and chilled out, starting as we intended to go on.

There's nothing better than a snack found in a pile of rotting Goose Barnacles, provided you're a Turnstone...

Our days quickly developed a routine: a morning's gentle walk with Bina, giving plenty of time to do such important things as pick up gravel to drop on the plants at the edge of the path, sniff flowers, try to catch grasshoppers and watch butterflies, then a break for an hour or two back at the house whilst she slept, usually followed by an afternoon on one of the local beaches, combining some sandcastle-building, football, rockpooling, sand art and splashing in the surf, as well as a short swim for Na. Not exactly high-powered, but with sufficient interest for us all to enjoy the day properly.

The beach at Kerloc'h, at low tide. The most sticky sand I've yet come across on a beach - superb for making sandcastles!

A rather phallic slab of rock at Kerloc'h, which abuts the start of the cliffs proper.

The coastal area immediately to the west of Camaret is a nice combination of coastal heath with some interesting calcareous flushes, odd scraps of scrub and some rabbit-mown fixed-dune grassland. The general impression is of scenery combining western Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, though the flora and fauna have a flavour of the exotic: not only are Choughs all over the shop, and immensely tame to boot, but Grey Bush-crickets are ten-a-penny, even in suburban gardens, Dartford Warblers wheeze their indignation from clumps of gorse, and there are Vestal Moths lurking in the heath, Swallowtail caterpillars munching Fennel, Crested Tits purring in the cypresses...

Grey Bush-cricket

Swallowtail caterpillar

The flushes are dominated by Black Bog-rush Schoenus nigricans, with a scatter of things like Yellow-wort Blackstonia perforata, Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis (I wonder if there are also Marsh Fritillaries in season? Didn't find any larval webs, though) and Carline Thistle Carlina vulgaris, gradually merging back into heather-dominated heath full of Ling Calluna vulgaris, Bell Heather Erica ciliaris and Cornish Heath E. vagans, and three (apparently) species of gorse: Common Ulex europaeus, Western U. gallii and Dwarf U. minor.

The fixed-dune grassland also holds some nice flora: Rock Stonecrop Sedum forsterianum is widespread and no doubt there are some nice winter and spring annuals to be found, in season. Even found a couple of thalli of what looked suspiciously like Scrambled-egg lichen Fulgensia fulgens. This area is a Chough playground par excellence. A dozen or so birds seem to spend the bulk of their time around here, frequently bounding over with their sneezy-wheezy calls - so distinctive that Bina quickly learned to imitate them!

Choughs, swooping and looping around me.

A bit of Sedum forsterianum

Fulgensia fulgens, I think.

Looking west to the end of Pointe Toulinguet, across nice maritime grassland and coastal heath.

Fixed-dune grassland near Pointe Toulinguet.

The coastal heath stretches round south and east to Kerloc'h and beyond, and north to Pointe d'Spagnol. Inland is a very Cornish-looking landscape of mixed farmland and low-canopy scrubby woodland, which looks nice for birds, but is rather difficult to work effectively. Nevertheless, we found a welcome daily trickle of Chiffchaffs and Firecrests amongst the resident Robins, Blue Tits and Great Tits, along with the odd Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Blackcap - quite home-from-home in a way!

The two small lakes we visited were rather unexciting - the more interesting-looking Etang de Kerloc'h couldn't be approached closely, and the lake at Le Fret seemed to be covered in Coot, but I'm sure both have more interest at a better time of year. Etang de Kerloc'h in particular seemed nice: lots of swampy reedbed and a nice heathland transition area on one shore. Water Rail calling in the depths of the swamp were nice, but better were the distant calls of a Black Woodpecker: first of all the landing call, which sounds somewhat akin to the squeak you can get out of blowing grass-blade between your hands, then those 'krr-krr-krr' flight calls. Always a pleasure!

Finally, the beaches... most of them were lovely, gentle sand or sand+shingle beaches, generally with water warm enough to swim with pleasure, but the stand-out beach has to be just east of Pointe de Penn Hir: not only wide, gentle and mainly sandy, the western end has a superb selection of rock-pools, tailor-made for entertaining a toddler (and her father!) for as long as is possible. The pools range from several square metres to just a couple of hand's-widths, ankle- to knee-deep and with variously sandy, stony or weedy appearance. Some are clearly ephemeral, changing size - or even existence - tide by tide, some are more reliably configured, and there are even a few perfect aquariums where small hollows have been scooped out of the rocks to be left with their own microcosms as each tide departs.

The beach at Pointe de Penn Hir.

Looking seaward from Pointe de Penn Hir

Within each there seems to be a cohort of prawns, translucent creatures with chocolate bands, stalked eyeballs and immensely long antennae, picking their way fastidiously through the sand and the seaweed with tiny pincer-like claws. They move rather deliberately across the pool until they meet something they're not keen on, at which point they curl their tails under their abdomens and pulse backwards away from the threat with little darting jerks.

One of the omnipresent cohort of prawns, delicately sifting the detritus of the last tide for tasty snacks.

A large and colourful starfish is always a good start to the rockpooling session, and persuades one's daughter that her father is not quite insane yet.

The other very mobile feature of the pools is the fish: approach a rocky or sandy pool and almost certainly you will see a flurry of movement as various blennies dart away to the shelter of rocky overhangs. Wait patiently (or for the younger, capture one and temporarily house it in a bucket of seawater) and you can see that there are a couple of species (at least) involved: one rather dark brown with an array of pale-blue spots down the body, the other mainly transparent, but with a freckling of salt-and-pepper dots down it. Unsurprisingly, the darker species tend to be found in the rockier areas and the paler ones on the sandy parts of the pools. There are also occasional shoals of small sprat-like silvery fish engaged in what look like complex courtship rituals over the sandbanks of some of the largest pools.

A blenny of one or another species. This is the darker of the two abundant ones, which seem to prefer the rockier areas.

Now you see me... you don't. Almost. The paler species of blenny, showing how well it's adapted for a life on a sandy substrate!

Surrounding all this activity are the more sedate denizens of the shore: a black rippling carpet of mussels, crusted with barnacles and garnished with multicoloured periwinkles and stripy top shells all sat tight, awaiting the return of the sea, dotted here and there with the tenacious cones of limpets. Here and there lie jelly-like red blobs of Beadlet Anemones, turned in on themselves where they've been abandoned by the water, or tentatively waving a tentacle or two if still submerged - and in the more permanent rocky pools the beautiful, yet somehow faintly threatening-looking, tangles of Snakelocks Anemones gently swirl their tentacles around. We did find a couple of anemones which appeared somewhat different: one a large bright orange species with an electric-blue fringe around the base of the body (it never opened up to show us its tentacles); the other a translucent species with banded tentacles - maybe more detail if I ever get them identified.
Some rather - interesting - looking sponges (I think). Linnaeus would have loved them!

More sponges, looking somewhat like a bunch of yellow pigs trying to pretend they're not there...

Anemones, apparently, but not as I know 'em. Very fine but not a species I am familiar with.

Occasional clumps of eggs on the rocks - but whose are they, and are the pinker ones closer to laying, or to hatching?

One of my favourites - the lurid Snakelocks Anemone

The highlights of the trip, in no particular order, were probably the rockpools and rockpooling, the Choughs, and the pair of hornets which were wrestling on the edge of the road in Morgat, which we watched for a good 10 minutes - both apparently furiously intent on dispatching the other, but neither of them able to get the upper hand...

Hornets. Wrestling.


Andrew Cunningham said...

Hi Jeremy,

A return to Brittany has been on the radar for a while and your write up has probably clinched it for next year. It hit all the right buttons.

You did not mention any gastronomical delights though! Custard flans, gateux de rix, brioches, air cured sausages, bread, etc....

(Wiping drool from my chin)


jeremy barker said...

Thanks Andrew - glad you enjoyed the blog and that it's inspired some memories! Taking a toddler along with you sorely limits your ability to eat out - our one bought meal was a hasty lunch at a local creperie... Very nice though. We'll have to go back sometime in the future when eating out becomes possible again!

But yes, the bread... mmm. The British just can't make it properly :o)