We’ve been in France for the past two weeks; last week in Upper Brittany and this week in the Val de Saire in Normandy.
The countryside of north-western France is full of standing stones known as menhirs, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 4000 years ago. They carry no markings, nor any clues as to the beliefs or intentions of those who went to tremendous effort to transport them and erect them. One suggestion is that they may have served as grave markers for important people or families.
Near our gîte in Brittany we came across such a standing stone, called the Pierre de Richebourg.
Like many such standing stones, it is on private property, and in fact this one is behind a chain-link fence.
It’s a somewhat rough-hewn piece of schist about 2.5 metres high.
Menhirs are popularly associated with Brittany, partly because of the huge concentration of stones at Carnac, and in fact the word menhir itself comes from Breton (Celtic) words meaning “long stone”. But in fact they are to be found all over Europe, especially north-western France, Britain and Ireland, and long predate the Celts. Fans of the Asterix comic books (set in Brittany soon after the Roman invasion of Gaul in 50 BC) will remember the character Obelix carrying a menhir around on his back. This is a humorous anachronism, as the people who raised the menhirs were as distant in time from Asterix and Obelix as the Gallic Wars are from us.
Here in Normandy, there is an impressive menhir in a field just a few hundred metres away from our gîte, known as the Longue-pierre (a French calque of the word menhir). It’s a piece of granite about 6 metres high, of which 4.5 metres are above ground.
I met the lady who owns the field (and, I suppose, owns the menhir, insofar as that means anything). She told me there is a second, similar stone buried in the field. This standing stone is one of three in the commune of Saint-Pierre-Église, known as the 3 princesses. There is an old belief that they each swivel around during the midnight mass each year on Christmas Eve.
In addition to solitary stones, there are dolmens known as allées couvertes, or covered alleys. A very impressive example near where we stayed in Brittany is called La Roche aux Fées (the fairy rock), in the commune of Essé (Ille-et-Vilaine). Like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a south-westerly orientation, its opening aligned with the first rays of sunrise on the winter solstice. The name comes from a legend that the fairies built the monument in a single night.
This comprises 42 huge blocks of purple schist arranged to form a covered passage 20 meters long. This structure has survived substantially intact for 5000 years. Just inside the entrance (which features a truly massive lintel) you have to bend low as the passage is quite constricted, but once inside it opens into a long chamber in which it is possible to stand up.
A similar megalithic structure can be found not far from our current holiday home, in the hamlet of la Forge in the commune of Bretteville (Manche).
This is also an allée couverte about 20 meters in length, but features a side entrance with a portal stone at right-angles to the others.
Unlike the Roche aux Fées, it is oriented northwest-southeast, and the side-entrance is near the southeast end.
Some of the capstones (roof-slabs) are missing, but the walls of the passage are intact. Near the side entrance there is an L-shaped slab forming a door that you must squeeze past to reach the main passage.
A row of smaller rocks or kerb-stones alongside the main monument mark the edge of the tumulus of earth and rocks that once covered the whole structure.