Thought for 2014

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The Stones of Avebury

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Rooks wheel and cluck overhead, exiting their trees elegantly, their calls echoing across a mystical landscape. The clearing storm has left the sky blue, bruised and tender. A nagging, insistent wind whips off the downs bringing tears to eyes and the smell of open fields and a life long ago.

In the half-light of a late November day, heading towards the winter solstice, the shortest day, the day it can’t get any worse, the day from which it all starts to get better, the day our ancestors worshipped —is surely the best time to visit the stones of Avebury. The summer tourist throng has ebbed away, leaving the stones and their earthworks alone once more. Sentinels, keeping watch, marking time, somehow capturing the spirits of all who have worshipped and toiled.

Spending time amidst the stones of Avebury and its restorative landscape is a nourishing experience. The majesty of the giant megaliths reminds us of something we once knew, things that were important to us, echoes from the past, resonating here and now.

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If Stonehenge is a beautiful church, that we can look at but not touch, then Avebury is the spectacular cathedral that we can enter into, engage with, touch the fabric. Stonehenge is the newcomer: all innovation, new technology bristling with flashy new techniques but Avebury is old school, predating its upstart neighbour by hundreds if not a thousand years.

This is a landscape rich in ancient treasure, man-made hills, enormous barrows stretching out to the horizon, burial mounds peppering the rolling hills, stones standing, lying, hedges carved into the chalk. Impressive though this all is, what we see is but a pale echo of the grandeur of the past. Avebury was abandoned in the iron age, actively ignored and to this day, we have no idea why. Perhaps the next new thing came along, all bells and whistles, new ideas and all that — stones are so last millennia darling.

The dark and middle ages were unkind to the stones, fear and myth grew up around them and in an attempt to confront their power, they were used in church buildings and a village settled in their midst. Eventually revered antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley identified their importance in the 17th century, recording amidst systematic vandalism and wanton destruction.

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It’s a miracle of sorts then that we still have something so impressive. Concrete pegs take the place of giant stones hauled away; their aligned brothers remain, still standing, stoic and silent. The modern Avebury visitor can get a real feel for the place, although the busy A road that bustles through the middle of the site can prove a distraction, another ploy by our descendants to destabilise the importance of the site, failing miserably.

To wander amidst the stones is to get back in touch with our past, to try to understand who we were and in some odd way, give us some clues as to what we are now. Touching the ice cold stone, fingers running over rough hewn sarsen, a worn smooth lunar landscape, weathered by time, moss clinging, there is no magical sizzle of energy for me, but a connection to lives lived across the millennia.

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The Lancaster bomber

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The second world war loomed large in our house growing up. Thinking about it, I was born just twenty years after the war finished and although my dad was too young to fight in it (he did national service in Libya) he was obsessed by all things military. In truth, I think most of the country was still a little bit obsessed by the war and its long shadows, still creating darkness twenty years on.

For me personally, this translated in to a deep fascination of the machinery of war. Writing that it does sound completely bonkers and obsessing over everything man created to help him kill his fellow-man does sound like the first stage of a seriously deranged personality. But we were all at it. Planes, tanks, ships, submarines, guns, uniforms—every aspect of the kit of war was minutely observed and collected. Scrapbooks, model kits, films, books, magazines. These days it would be bona fide OCD, but back then it was normal.

Every detail was scrutinised and oddly there were no residual difficulties collecting and studying our old enemies—in fact, the Germans and Japanese had more kudos, the passing years allowing more than a grudging respect for their superior kit and machinery. British gear was unglamorous and got the job done, reflecting our threadbare resources perhaps and of course American machinery was supremely glamorous and flashy.

But we did have our icons and one of those was the Avro Lancaster bomber. Immortalised by the famous Dambusters raid, the Lancaster caught our imagination. The film perpetuated the myth and the brave chaps dropping bouncing bombs, behind enemy lines, against the odds, all played to our fertile imaginations. Of course we loved the rakish Spitfire and its never say die Battle of Britain pilots, but there was something of the yeoman about the Lancaster. It was the heaviest bomber ever built and compared to its ugly predecessors it looked stylish and imposing.

Of course, we easily brushed under the carpet the true nature of the Lancaster: its ability to deliver the heaviest payload of bombs due to its long, unobstructed bomb bay, the 12,000 lb blockbuster bombs that could—and would—level entire neighbourhoods.

The perspective of time has left us with a peculiar relationship with the Lancaster bomber. It’s still a much-loved, iconic aeroplane that is closely associated with our pride in our air force and the part it played in shortening the second world war. But to modern tastes, Bomber Command‘s controversial tactics of targeting civilian targets makes us wring our hands and get all squeamish about what happened.

Standing underneath a real Lancaster bomber earlier this week at the RAF Museum was something I’ve never done in my life (a lifelong ambition) and, listening to the guided tour, the true nature of the machine became clear. A proud and noble construction, a design classic, boys own stuff, over 100 sorties each balancing life and death on a knife-edge, delivering death and destruction. It’s easy for me to marvel at the fabric of the plane itself—I know the parts intimately after building countless Airfix model kits, the fiddly gun turrets, the clear plastic canopies that if glue got on them would be milkily opaque and of no use to the gunners. It’s also easy to admire the bravery of the crew, who statistically were more likely to die than an infantryman in the trenches of World War 1.

It was with mixed feelings we left the cavernous bomber hall, housing the death delivering giants. All of them childhood heroes in a way; iconic shapes, familiar, glamorous. A realisation of the true nature of the beasts, but still the childhood adulation, this time tempered with respect and humility.

 

 

From the sea to the land beyond

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Cornwall is a special place for me.

The first time I ever visited was just before we were married and it has been a constant in our lives ever since. I’m not quite sure what it is that captures my imagination, it just feels so completely different to Yorkshire and if I think about it, pretty much most counties in the UK.

As the traveller heads South West in England, the counties get more mystical the further west one travels. From the ancient prehistoric majesty of the stones in Wiltshire, to the spirituality of Glastonbury in Somerset and the deceptive chocolate box beauty of Devon, these are all precursors to the unique county (or some would say country in itself) of Cornwall.

We holidayed with the kids for many years in Cornwall, camping at the same campsite – Rose Hill in Porthtowan – on the North Coast. Cornwall is a small county and it doesn’t take many visits to become accustomed to its charms. The North coast has the crashing drama of the Atlantic and the south coast has a delicate coast of inlets and beautiful ports. The land in between ranges from rolling countryside awash with sleepy villages and hamlets, seemingly lost in time, surrounded by rugged moorland and magical valleys locked in their own eco systems.

It does have an otherworldly feel too. The far western tip of the county is the western most point on mainland UK and this feels like nowhere else in the country and the Lizard peninsula to which it is attached is full of mystery and Cornish legend. There are of course more workaday cities and towns in Cornwall that to be fair look and feel very similar to every other high street in the country, but that seems to be the blight of modern living with homogenised towns and to some degree lifestyle.

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Cornwall does its own thing and wears its tourism crown lightly. In summer, the tourist hotspots and jammed and the spectacular beaches full to bursting, just as they should be with tourism being the major source of income. In the winter it has a very different feel. The masses have long gone and the towns and cities get back to living a relatively normal life.

This week I took the girl down to Falmouth for her University interview. She’s looking at a few options and Falmouth University College is one of them. Falmouth on a cold, stormy day in February is actually pretty good. There are still a few half-term visitors milling about listlessly and the locals and students seem quite happy to have the place to themselves.

We booked into a very nice B&B and whilst the girl was being interviewed, I had a wander. I know Falmouth very well of course from previous visits as it was always our default place to visit on a wet day when the beach wasn’t an option. It’s always therefore a surprise to me that the sun does shine there from time to time. Falmouth has an edge to it in comparison to some other towns in Cornwall and I think it’s the seafaring history and although lots of the maritime links have long gone, there is still a large ship repair yard on the outskirts of the town.

In 1688, Falmouth was made the Royal mail packet station and news from around the world landed there first, including the Victory of Trafalgar and nelson’s death. I was also quite taken with the fact that Darwin landed here in the Beagle after his voyage of discovery that changed the way we think about evolution. The excellent book by Harry Thompson This thing of darkness uses Darwin’s voyage of discovery to wonderful effect – I wrote about it here.

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It’s this history that adds to the atmosphere in the town and although it’s generations since British sea power ruled the waves, Falmouth still proudly sits at the mouth of one of the worlds most stunning natural estuaries, waiting for its time again.

In the meantime, I enjoyed a cracking pasty, had a very nice pint of Doombar and hope the daughter gets a place at the University ensuring plenty of future visits.

Gastronomic adventures in Brittany

On our recent holiday to Brittany we had some fabulous food…

From the astounding Oysters from Cancale on the Northern coast to the ubiquitous Moules et Frites which are always consistently great, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a foodie in Brittany. On the whole, the food is simple and rustic but uses the very best seasonal produce. There’s lots of fish as the coast is never far away in Brittany and the Bretons have a mad love affair with beef with some spectacular cuts available – especially the lip smacking Cote de Boeuf.

It kind of goes without saying that French cheese and wine is nothing short of awesome but I’ll say it anyway – it’s awesome. And on the whole wine is significantly cheaper in France, even the good stuff. And if you like pungent, creamy cheese then you probably should move there.

I’ve pulled together a little foodie photo montage that errs on the side of cheesy (no pun intended)…and if you’d like to read more about our foodie adventures elsewhere, have a look at our food blog Globetroffers.

 

 

 

Brittany

On our recent holiday to France we stayed in a small cottage on the Cote d’Armor in the North West corner of Brittany. Holidays are great in so many ways that I can’t even begin to write about it but the real treat for me is to get my drawing book out.

I have pretty much kept a drawing book going in every year since I left college in 1983, which is a scary thought but one of which I’m quite proud. At art college in those days drawing was a critical part of the curriculum, as I still think it is in some institutions, long before the advent of technology.

I always found drawing therapeutic once I’d got past the sheer terror of having to draw nude women in life class. The act of looking closely at any object for the purpose of drawing allows the artist to truly see what you’re looking at. Those of you that draw will understand this and those that don’t will think I’m being pretentious.

Anyway the drawing above is no more than a sketch on a sunny afternoon and unusually for me it drawn with pencil, a medium I’m quite sniffy about as I like the immediacy of pen and ink. However I did enjoy the process of drawing it and I’m quite pleased with the result.