Wednesday, June 02, 2010


"In the midst of that wild expanse, a tall ruin rises; a square castle, flanked by towers, standing there, alone, between two wastes: the moorland and the sea."

That was Maupassant, passing through in 1879.  Now the Rhuys peninsula is no kind of waste, but a well-off and busy playground, with an arterial road running to a marina at the end of it.  It wasn't, we decided, our favourite of the corners of Brittany we'd explored. 

But you can branch out and follow any of the smaller arteries that flow from this, and sooner or later find yourself in a small capillary of a road finishing at the sea.  The castle at Suscinio lies near the end of one of these. 

Maupassant saw it in one of its lowest states, albeit one of its more romantically lonely and ruinous ones.  In the Middle Ages, it was also a playground for the well-off: the dukes of Brittany.  Its location was of little strategic or defensive importance, the views were negligible; it was really a large and sumptuous hunting lodge, for the marshes and forests around it teemed with game and fish.

It took a few hundred years to build, then fairly soon afterwards was largely abandoned for the more convenient castle at Nantes.  It fell into ruin, was sold off and pillaged as a quarry in the Revolution, provisionally rescued in the mid 19th century by the family of its former steward, then finally set bought by the department of Morbihan who set about restoring it, a process which continues.

In general the practice of restoration and reconstruction, the creation of replicas in fact, is set about with far more conviction here, I believe.  I'm sure historians, archaeologists, architects and town planners could argue and disagree about the rights and wrongs of this, but we find we rather like it.  And when I compare the meticulous facsimile of St Malo's walled town, for example, created after the bombings of WW2, with the monstrosities of modern town planning visited on British ports, I have to say I prefer the former.

The Victorians of course loved to make mock mediaeval where the real thing once stood, and perhaps a reaction to this is partly what motivates today's attitudes .  Some of that was awful, of course, though some (Cardiff Castle and  Castell Coch, Bute's and Burges's pretty follies, for instance - that Wiki link should take you to all the others if you're interested) have some charm.  But anyway, the land of le Corbusier and generally unrepentant modernism doesn't seem to worry half as much about making faithful replicas of the old as the Brits do.  So unlike the still ruined and just shored-up Welsh and English castles I grew up scrambling over in my holidays as a kid, which was good fun, though sometimes the dark and crumbling spiral staircases scared me, what we find here are often beautiful and detailed reconstructions. (Or nothing at all, if they bashed it all up and taken it away for hardcore in the Revolution.)

And Suscinio is one of these.  It is a place of pattern. In windows,

in walls,

and most of all in the floors.   Late in the 14th century, some 50 years after its completion, the chapel of the castle burned down.  The ash and fallen slates covered the tiled floors, and so they remained for 600 years, until they were discovered, lifted, and pieced back together again, late in the 20th century, so that their reds and blues and golds and umbers and pinks, their geometry and heraldy and fabulous beasts, glow and live again in the great halls of the castle.


PurestGreen said...

How stunning! I love that floor. At times I wish there were more "complete" castles here, but most are now ruins. Thanks, Cromwell! I love the light coming in the window.

Zhoen said...

Love the detail, the invisible hands of craftsmen long gone.

Dale said...


Roderick Robinson said...

Should one dignify the postwar rebuilding of British ports with the phrase "modern town planning"? Expediency is perhaps the better word. David Kynaston's book "Austerity Britain" about the years 1945 - 51 blows the gaff on how the planners, having sought the wishes of the people, set off in entirely the opposite direction.

I'm glad you have a good word for Cardiff Castle although I might be tempted to a stronger reaction than "some charm". Transcendental charm, perhaps? The Hilarious Era of Interior Decoration? One thing is sure - no one comes away lukewarm.

Fire Bird said...

it reminds me of Chenonceau and those very fairy-tale chateaux in the Loire valley. I love the floor tiles.

Lucy said...

Thanks oh ye faithful!

Sophia - it was quite late mediaeval in its final stages, and obviously very solid, so even as a ruin the walls, towers, window surrounds etc were largely intact, obviously the roof had gone. I think in the UK the received historical and archaeological wisdom is not to try to restore such ancient buildings to their original state, but to leave them as ruins. Others, as here, were rebuilt as country houses in the intervening years. I'm not sure there was much to choose between Cromwell and the French Revolution, or Henry VIII, or modern town planners come to that, for cultural vandalism, but these things happen. Using national treasures for quarries seemed to persist for a long time here.

Thanks for commenting, actually it was partly your wonderful tourism blog which made me feel encouraged to get on with this post.

Z - yes, I love mediaeval floor tiles, and it was a treat to see such perfectly preserved ones...

Dale - ta!

BB - the book sounds good; I daresay there were indeed quite a lot of factors which contributed to the disasters. Re Cardiff Castle - I was at university in Cardiff and have a soft spot for Burges's whimsy. There was a good expo there about him in my first year there. He not only did the two castle jobs but a number of domestic architectural projects around the place, and certainly inspired a whole vein of Celtic/ Mediaevel revival Victoriana which I'm sure had an influence on many a posh villa on the Brittany coast too. Somehow he always seemd to me more charming and less twisted and weird and grandiose than Pugin... Castell Coch was a favourite for out-of-town sorties by train or bike; such a dear little toy of a place, unsurprisingly a favourite with film and TV programme makers, as it looks just like a stage set. All the panels of birds and flowers around the wall were rather like a set of gorgeous tea cards. I remember it better than the castle really, in fact. My chief memory of the latter was going to a rather kitsch Mediaeval banquet for a works 'do' there, eating lemon syllabub with a wooden spoon and being told off, with my fellow booksellers, for being too hilarious ourlselves during the cabaret, which was ladies in mediaeval costume singing 'Scarborough Fair' and 'David of the White Rock'.

FB - It is a very archetypal castle isn't it? And I suppose in fact only a little earlier than those chateaux, if at all. We took a trip down the Loire years ago and looked at lots of them from the outside and hardly went in any of them! The tiles were lovely.