Archive | April, 2019

In Aachen — Confronting an Enigma.

26 Apr

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Since the early dawnings of my lifelong interest in history, I have been fascinated and bugged by another enigma. It took the shape of a mysterious, mythical figure from the Middle Ages — Charlemagne. I first encountered him in a book of famous people in history which I must have got as a Christmas or birthday present when I was still at primary school. Alongside Hannibal, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Boadicea, Julius Caesar and the rest was this mysterious foreign emperor from the so-called “Dark Ages”. From the brief description in the book I couldn’t work out whether he was French, German, Roman or something else. Where was he from? What did he do? Why was he so revered over many centuries? My fascination remained dormant for many decades, until at last, in this, my 70th year, I finally visited Aachen in west Germany, the town that this enigmatic Emperor had made into his capital. It’s not the most obvious German town to visit on holiday — it’s not nationally important and not particularly beautiful. Unfortunately many of its older buildings were blasted to smithereens by the Allies in the Second World War. It is not even the biggest place in North Rhine-Westphalia, the region of Germany it sits in, for Cologne, a very large city, lies just an hour’s journey to the east. So what attracted me to Aachen?  Well, it was that irresistable combination of history and mystery. Charlamagne’s capital was at Aachen. Finally I would have a stab at unravelling the enigma of that mythical ruler. Luckily I had a friend who was happy to share in the investigation.

Well, Charlemagne is everywhere in 21st century Aachen. I’m surprised that he didn’t meet us off the train and shake our hands! He was in the foyer of our hotel, an avuncular figure welcoming us with his long, curly beard and flowing medieval robes, not forgetting the ancient, octagonal crown on his head. He looks a bit like Father Christmas. Of course it was just a statue, but it was one that was repeated constantly as we wondered through this small city. He guards shops and cafes. He appears in ginger-bread form in bakeries.  I heard a rumour that there are chocolate replicas of him in the confectioners. In the market square there is an impressive statue of Charlemagne sporting a renaissance- era suit of armour and holding an orb and sceptre. His image sits above the main entrance to the City Hall ( Rathaus) alongside that of Christ and the Pope who crowned him Emperor, so he is in exalted company. Aachen’s main museum is called Centre Charlemagne and the Tourist Office’s Heritage walk  is called — yes, you’ve guessed it — the Charlemagne Trail. We even saw his statue in the window display of a shoe shop!

So who was Charlemagne? He was the King of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries AD. The Franks were a Germanic tribe who took over the lands we now know as Germany, France and the Benelux countries. They once formed most of the Western Roman Empire. The Franks were one of the main “barbarian” tribes who swept in from the east to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman legionaries.  Charlemagne inherited the Frankish throne in 768 AD from his father, along with his brother, and when his sibling died a few years later, he ended up as sole ruler. Charlemagne is his French name. The English refer to him as Charles the Great and the Germans call him Karl der Grosse. These multiple names show what an important, international figure he became. Like many of the famous people in my little history book, Charlemagne made his name as a great war leader. For 26 years or more he ruled, not from a throne, but from the saddle. He was disciplined, determined and relentless. Through no less than 54 military campaigns he accumulated a vast Empire. It was know as the Carolingian Empire. It covered what we now know as France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the far north of Spain and much of northern Italy. It was the greatest Empire Europe had seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, over 300 years before. There was not going to be another European empire like it until Napolean Bonaparte came to power in the early 19th century.

But Charlemagne didn’t merely conquer land, he forced all the people in these territories to give up their pagan gods and convert to Christianiaty.  This is why the Pope in Rome liked him so much. He may have been a devout Christian but that does not mean that he paid much attention to the teachings of Jesus.  For example, he fought many bloody battles against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of pagan worshippers. After defeating them at Verden in 782 AD, he ordered 4500 Saxons to be massacred! He eventually forced the Saxons to become Christians by declaring that anyone who refused to be baptised or follow Christian ways would be put to death! As with so many of these so called “great” figures of history, the accolade was awarded for the “end” result not the “means” by which it was achieved. Yes, Charlemagne created a great Christian Empire, uniting much of western Europe under his control, but one can also say that he was a ruthless murderer and ego-maniac. So how did he end up becoming an Emperor instead of a mere king and why was such a violent, bloodthirsty man feted by the head of the Christian Church? As is often the case, power and wealth won out against peace and love. Charlemagne used his military might to rescue Pope Leo III from a rebellion in Italy. Leo thanked him by crowning him  “Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans”  in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica, on Christmas Day, 800 AD. This I believe, was the beginning of the “cult ” of Charlemagne. Not only was he a very powerful,  early medieval ruler but he was now being hailed as the natural successor to the  great Roman Emperors of the past. His achievements were being ranked alongside all the glories of the ancient Roman Empire. He was in effect, the first Holy Roman Emperor, a prestigious title for the honorary ruler of the numerous states of what we now call Germany. Subsequently 30 German kings or Holy Roman Emperors were crowned in Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen.

It has to be said though that Charlemagne’s glittering reputation rests on a lot more than his soldiering exploits and vast conquests. Ambassadors, scholars, legal experts, scribes and artists were encouraged to come to Aachen, his capital. Culture flourished under his rule such that this period has been dubbed the ” Caroligian Renaissance.” The arts and intellectual pursuits were encouraged. Roman and Ancient Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced. Significant detailed attention was applied to laws and precedents, so that a uniform legal system was established across much of Europe. This had not been seen since the days of the actual Roman Empire. Charlemagne introduced administrative reforms and standardised weights, measures and custom duties throughout his territories. All this created stability and encouraged commerce , which led to prosperity for many. So after all that slaughter, the peoples of western Europe eventually reaped the considerable benefits of Charlemagne’s enlightened rule. He encouraged eminent scholars to attend his court in Aachen and he established a library of Christian and classical works. He held a General Assembly  there every year. So although he was a dictator, Charlemagne did make some small steps towards democracy by consulting representatives of the people he ruled. His mission was to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom. So one could confidently claim that he was the founder of modern Germany. His Empire also laid the foundation for modern France as well. In recognition of this, his statue stands right outside the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Charlemagne was the source of inspiration for such leaders as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler who also had visions of ruling a united  Europe . In fact Emperor Charlemagne is referred to by some as the “Father of Europe.” Not surprisingly his achievements are heralded today by the European Union, an ambitious modern project to unite much of Europe in peaceful trade and co-existance. Not surprisingly, the 2 major players in the E.U. are France and Germany which were the 2 main parts of the Caroligian Empire all those centuries ago. It seems that throughout European history, everyone, good or bad has tried to get a piece of Charlemagne , to legitimise their own rule and to bask in his immense reflected glory. Charlemagne was not merely a king and emperor from the distant past. He is now a cult, a legend and a myth. He is a symbol of civilisation and European unity.  He is an icon of the Catholic church. However so many people have tried to hitch a ride on his coat-tails, distorting the truth to suit their own agendas, that it is now very difficult to untangle fact from fiction. To quote Winston again, you could say he is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Big C is also a massive tourist attraction of course even though he died and his great empire disintegrated more than a thousand years ago. Afterall, this was why my friend and I were visiting Aachen and not some more obviously picturesque location. Despite a great fire in the 17th century and 74 consecutive nights of British and American bombing in 1944, the crowning glory of Aachen remains Charlemagne’s magnificent cathedral, the Dom. After an orientation stroll and our first sampling of Aachen’s excellent coffee and irresistable cakes, we inevitably ended up at the entrance to the Dom. It’s not everyday that one can stand in front of a building that was established at the start of the 9th century. In Britain that would be the Anglo-Saxon era and few buildings have survived from that time. Charlemagne’s Palace-Chapel was completed in 800 AD. It is an unusual octogan shape, not the cross-shape we are used to seeing in cathedrals. The ancient, octagonal chapel is topped by a cupola. To our surprise, it is free to go in. 1 euro is requested to take photographs but there were no offertory boxes and no one seemed interested in collecting any money. A few laid- back security guards kept a casual eye on things. As we wondered in, our jaws dropped. This was one of the most extraordinary buildings we had been in. Sorry to be so corny!

The first things that hit you are the rich, dazzling mosaics. They adorn a sixteen sided arcaded walkway that surrounds the central octogan. Separating this walkway from the central worship area are a series of Arabic style archways in alternate dark and light blocks of stone. The whole area is adorned in shining marble. The original impact of the spectacular mosaics is only slightly reduced when you find out they were done as recently as the late 19th century and early 20th century in neo-Byzantine style. Inside the octogan, one’s view is drawn inexorably upwards. It is a spectacular 3 storey space. Above is a 2 tiered gallery with 8 arcades of classical columns originally brought from Ravenna and/or Rome in Italy. Some of these ancient columns were hacked off and carted to Paris by French revolutionary troops when they took possession of Aachen in the Napoleonic wars. Not all of them have been subsequently returned so some of the ones seen today are replicas. Up above in the cupola is an enormous fresco ( or mosaic) representing heaven. The original mosaics were cracked and badly damaged by the installation of a colossal  12th century brass chandalier hanging from a powerful iron chain donated by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He too wanted to verify his rule and gain prestige by connecting himself with Charlemagne. The great chandalier hovers dramatically above the worship area. It is so huge that it had to have been constructed inside the Dom. It is a place to sit down in silence and simply be awed. All around us tourist cameras were clicking away as if there was no tomorrow, but although we had taken some pictures ourselves, it seemed to be a time to sit in quiet contemplation.

Subsequent kings and emperors added their chapels , artefacts and expensive adornments. There is a gold-plated altar and a jewel encrusted pulpit. The most wonderful addition in my opinion, is a 14th century Gothic chapel based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It has huge, spectacular, glowing, stained glass windows. The original medieval windows were blown out  by the wartime Allied bombs but excellent replicas were quickly made and installed between 1949 and 51. From this magical chapel comes Aachen’s French name :Aix- la- Chapelle. The wondrous chapel was built in 1355 to help accomodate the tens of thousands pilgrims who were flocking to Aachen. They were coming to see Charlemagne’s gilded shrine, finished in 1215 . By then many regarded him as a saint although he has never officially recognised by the Catholic Church. The pilgrims also came to view 4 important Christian relics which had been brought to Aachen and kept in the golden Shrine of Mary, also in the chapel. They are: the apparel of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of the baby Jesus, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. These are put on view every 7 years, and if you want to go and join the pilgrim throngs, the next viewing is in June 2021. It seems strange to me that objects like this still have such a powerful hold over  religious people today. Fancy coming all that way to see an ancient nappy and a bloody rag? Surely such blind faith and deep superstition belong back in the middle ages before the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century? But who am I to argue with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims?

Charlemagne originally wanted to transform Aachen into a new Rome. It had previously been a Roman town but on the northern edge of their Empire. The Romans were attracted there by a series of hot springs which they tamed and turned into a luxurious bath complex. They did the same in Bath, England. The word “Aachen” simply means “water.” There is still a thermal spa complex in Aachen but we didn’t go in because it looked expensive, and anyway, we had forgotten out trunks.

It was an interesting and very enjoyable holiday. Aachen lies on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, so it a great place for trips on the excellent rail network. We went to Cologne in Germany and Maastricht in the Netherlands as well as passing the Belgium cities of Brussels and Liege on our rail journey from England using the Eurostar. It was a great trip around a fascinating part of the European Union, the organisation that the United Kingdom has now voted to leave. Obviously the “leave” voters in the UK are that rare breed — people who don’t know or don’t care about Emperor/Saint Charlemagne’s legacy. Many others through the centuries have been desperate to be part of it such that he has reached mythical, superstar status. For me, I am really pleased that I have at last  visited Aachen/Aix-La-Chapelle to unwrap the enigma and understand a bit more of my continent’s rich history and culture. Never again will I say “Who’s Charlemagne?” He meant many things to many people. Like Heinekin, he reached the parts that other emperors couldn’t reach!





Another Crazy Away Day.

5 Apr

It was another crazy idea. I planned to travel by notoriously unreliable public transport on a 250 mile round trip to watch a low-quality, non-League football match. Against all common sense, I wanted to support my home- town team of Chesterfield FC, even though they had sunk to the 5th tier of English football and even though I had not seen them win or even score a goal all season. In fact it seemed as if they reserved their worst performances for when I went to see them! Maybe they sensed my presence and would then crumble under the extra pressure of my expectation. My friend, V, a fellow “Spireite” supporter, had threatened to take out an injunction to prevent me from attending matches, as it definitely seemed that I was the team’s bad luck charm. However, in theory, I am not superstitious and so decided to go again anyway. The team’s results had improved under a new manager, so surely, they wouldn’t lose and fail to score yet again? It was to be a day of crazy ups and downs. All real football fans are masochists and this was to be a typical masochistic day out.

I live near Teesside on the North Yorkshire coast, so even a Chesterfield home fixture is a time consuming away- day for me. I like the relaxation and adventure of train travel rather than the boredom of motorway driving. However, the relaxation only materialises if the journey goes to schedule, with no late trains and/or missed connections. A lovely day of reading my book and looking at the scenary, can easily turn into a nightmare of uncertainty and stress. Unfortunately, this was to be partly one of those days, but it did have a couple of wonderful surprises as well.

The alarm clock rudely awoke me at 7am and by just gone 8am my wife was dropping me off at Saltburn rail station, a couple of miles down the road. Even though in early March, the worst of the winter was supposed to be behind us, I stepped out of the car into freezing temperatures and driving sleet. The station looked ominously deserted as I approached it. Was I the only passenger daft enough to venture out at this time on a cold weekend morning? I looked at the departures screen and then I understood the reason for the lack of fellow passengers — the 8.17am train had been cancelled due to engine failure. The next train was not due for a whole hour. I would miss all my connections and maybe even miss the match! What to do? I hastened up to the nearby bus stop in the forlorn hope that there would be a bus to transport me to Middlesbrough, the town where the cancelled train would have taken me. By a stroke of sheer luck ( not that I’m superstitious!) there was a bus in ten minutes. Miraculously it appeared out of the sleet on time, and I boarded it along with 3 or 4 other shivering passengers. It was a tedious journey, diverting through housing estates and ploughing through ominously large lakes of standing water left by recent heavy rain. It seemed that we were finally nearing Middlesbough when yet another detour took us to a desolate bus depot on the edge of the town. Our bus had developed a mechanical fault so we all had to troop off and board another vehicle! You couldn’t make it up! Another 5 to 10 minutes wasted.

By the time we got to Middlesbrough bus station, I had already missed my connection for Darlington, the next stop on my “exciting” journey to the north midlands. I ran in the rain through the town centre to the train station but I already knew I wasn’t going to catch a train. The connection I had missed was a dreaded bus-replacement service. There were weekend engineering works on the line. I had to stand and shiver for 25 minutes in a windy subway until my bus finally came. I had missed the previous bus by 5 minutes. More time lost! When the coach finally rolled up it was comfortable and warm but we set off over 5 minutes late because an African lady turned up and wasn’t sure which bus she had to catch. The driver and an inspector had great trouble in understanding her accent so took an inordinately long time to advise her to get on.

I hate bus replacement services! They never go their destinations by the most direct route because they are constantly detouring to visit the next rail station. We ground through housing estates and past retail parks, constantly stopping at traffic lights and getting stuck in traffic jams caused by temporary road works. It was tedious! We visited 5 intermediate stations with no one getting off and only one person getting on. We all sat there, anxiously looking at our watches because we knew we were almost certainly going to miss our mainline connections at Darlington. I missed mine of course. I finally got to Darlington station a full 2 hours after setting off from Saltburn. The journey usually takes about 55 minutes.

I trudged disconsolately into the station, resigned to being held up for at least another hour. However, to my amazement, on the far platform, I saw a train in the red and grey livery of the Cross Country rail company. All those trains stop at or near to Chesterfield on their journey south. I broke into a 69 year old’s version of a sprint. As I neared the platform I heard the guard’s whistle blow. Was I going to miss it by a matter of seconds? I went into overdrive and hurled myself towards the nearest door. Luckily the guard spotted me and waved me on. Another big stroke of luck was that this train had old-fashioned manual doors. If it had had the automatic, electric doors of more modern trains, they would have been closed 30 seconds before departure. I made it on to the train with 10 seconds to spare! I slumped exhausted but elated into a seat. Not only was the train nearly empty but it was also stopping at Chesterfield! I didn’t even have to change at Sheffield as I would have done on the service I had missed. My luck had suddenly changed and I was now almost back on schedule despite all the mishaps on the way to Darlington.

It was a lovely, quiet, smooth journey. I read my book and admired some of the countryside outside the window as the wet weather had now cleared. The only disappointment was that there was no refreshment trolley service because of staff shortages. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that announcement. However, I got a thrill at York when I saw the famous locomotive “The Flying Scotsman”, in full steam just outside the National Railway Museum. Being the son of a British Rail engine driver and an avid train spotter in my youth, I still feel a genuine quiver of excitement run up my spine when I spot a steam locomotive. The day was at last looking up!

We slid quietly into Chesterfield only about 25 minutes behind my original schedule. It was now that I got the most incredible and fantastic surprise of the whole day. The station platform seemed to be unusually crowded with men of a certain age. Most of them had cameras and some had even erected tripods. What on earth was happening? Surely Chesterfield was not going to be blessed with a Royal visit? Thankfully the answer to that question was “no”. The truth was actually much more exciting. On a little used side platform of Chesterfield station stood a magnificent steam locomotive  — huge, red, with a gleaming name plate and striking smoke deflectors (or shields.) It was at the head of a steam enthusiasts’ special and was about to depart. As it slowly started to ease forward I heard that familier ( and thrilling) “chuff, chuff” sound as it momentarily disappeared into  spectacular, swirling clouds of  smoke and steam. To me it looked like the famous LMS express locomotive The “Royal Scot” which I had only seen once. However when I enquired of a fellow “anorak” poised behind his tripod, I found it was the ” Duchess of Sutherland”, number 6233, a very rare and special locomotive from the 1930s that I had never seen before. It was a “Coronation” class of locomotive built at the time of the crownings of Kings Edward VIII and George VI in 1936. It used to pull the London Euston to Glasgow expresses on the West Coast mainline. It was the LMS’s answer to the East Coast’s famous A4 Gresley Pacifics, the Mallard et al. I had seen a “Coronation” locomotive at the National Railway Museum, but had never, ever seen one in steam and in action before. For an ageing trainspotter like myself it was a thrilling and unique moment. Little did I know when I was waiting for my bus in the early morning sleet that I was actually heading for this wonderful moment. If I had gone on my scheduled train or if I had been a few seconds later at Darlington, I would have missed seeing this altogether. Suddenly, despite my athiestic tendencies, I said to myself: “There is a God afterall!” I quickly put my smartphone into camera mode and rattled off 4 shots of “Duchess of Sutherland” as “she” chugged majestically past me.  Now I had something to prove that this incredible surprise was not really just a dream. ( and something to bore my friends with.)

Still stunned, I marched up into the town of my birth, heading towards the striking sight of Chesterfield’s wierd but wonderful crooked spire. Although I grew up with it, this strange church spire still has the capacity to surprise me. As I got close up to it, the 13th century spire reared up in front of me, twisting like a giant corkscrew towards the sky. Apparently, the spire twisted as a result of being built with unseasoned timbers which subsequently warped over time. Local legend has it that the spire of St Mary’s will straighten on the day a virgin goes in to get married! Remedial work had to be carried out 20 to 30 years ago as the spire was in danger of collapsing. The work kept its crooked or twisted shape, thus preserving one of Chesterfield’s main claims to fame. It wouldn’t be the same if it was boring and straight like every other church spire in the country.  Imagine visiting Pisa and finding the famous tower wasn’t leaning anymore. It’s their unusual imperfections that make Pisa’s Leaning Tower and Chesterfield’s Crooked Spire so memorable and special.

I now settled comfortably into my usual Chesterfield away day routine. I had a lovely lunch at the Stephenson’s Coffee and Tea Rooms where I am greeted like an old friend — the strange, grey -haired man who travels from the north east to the north midlands to see a lower league football match. Who are they playing today? Do you think they’ll win? I’ve been going there for several years now. The Coffee and Tea rooms are named after George Stephenson, the “Father of the Railways”, who spent his later years in the town. There is a statue of him outside Chesterfield’s rail station. He is shown holding a model of his first successful locomotive: Locomotion No 1. Next I have a wander through the town centre, a familier mish-mash of old and new. A highlight is the sloping, cobbled market place, the largest open- air market in England. Overlooked by a grand, clock-towered Victorian market hall and bordered by some of the town’s oldest buildings, it gives more than a hint of a Flemish, medieval market square.  Grabbing a sandwich to eat on my return journey I now walked out to the football stadium about 2 miles out of the centre. The modern Proact stadium is built on the site of an old glass works where my dad used to work before he joined the railways. The walk out there is along a dreary, noisy main road but I do it anyway to get some exercise and fresh air ( apart from the traffic fumes.)

At the ground I sought out my cousin and his friend for a chat. They drive up from Malvern, south of Birmingham, to see the match. I also caught up with the Methodist Minister of my parent’s chapel as he has a season ticket and keeps me up to date with football as well as chapel news. I then took my seat in the east stand and the match began. We were playing Eastleigh, a team I had had never heard of before Chesterfield dropped down into the obscure depths of non-league football. Apparently they are based in the Southampton area. They were doing very well and were a lot higher than Chesterfield who, despite an improvement, were still dangerously hovering just above the relegation zone. Would my luck change? Would I at last see a Chesterfield goal? Was there a God afterall?

Well reader — we scored after 20 minutes! A huge roar erupted around me as we all leapt to our feet and punched the air. Perfect strangers slapped each other on the back and shared exclamations of delight. I was thrilled. My duck had at at last been broken! I had seen a man in a blue shirt put the ball into the net. All the trials and tribulations of the journey were suddenly worth it. Chesterfield scored again early in the second half. Surely I was now going to witness a victory? It would be a truly memorable day! But it wasn’t to be. Our defence collapsed and we conceded three. The last goal, in the 84th minute was like a sickening punch in the stomach. It had been another emotional roller coaster of a match. Even though we eventually lost ( again!), I had experienced adrenaline rushes and warm camaraderie with perfect strangers. That would never have happened if I had stayed at home to read my paper or watch the telly. It’s what live sport is all about!

And so came the return journey — the walk back into town, a smooth train journey back to Darlington. However, problems with the line around Northallerton meant we got in late. Once again. I missed my rail replacement bus service to Middlesbrough. A group of us hung around in the evening cold, starved of any information about the next bus. People in high-vis yellow jackets gave us conflicting information. After 20 minutes or so, a coach came in and after an inexplicable wait of 15 minutes , the driver finally let us get on. The trouble is, as soon as we all got on, the driver got off! He was going for his statutory rest break. It was now 8.30pm and the coach wasn’t due out until 9.09pm. One of my fellow passengers got angry and became embroiled in an argument with one of the female yellow jackets. She was given chapter and verse about the rules governing rest breaks, something the yellow jacket was an expert on because she used to run a haulage company. That seemed to miss the point that there should have been more buses and more drivers so that the poor, suffering passengers didn’t have to wait up to an hour before they could continue their journeys!

I was fed up and worried. All my previous elation at seeing the steam locomotives and seeing my team score 2 goals had now evaporated. If I waited on the bus for the next 40 minutes, it would then take about 50 minutes to grind its way to Middlesbrough, by which time it would be 10pm. Would there then be a train to finally get me back to Saltburn? I didn’t know. I was now tired as well as cold and fed up, so had a sudden rush of blood to the head. I got off the bus, visited a cash point on the station concourse then blew 30 quid on a taxi to Middlesbrough. It was an expensive, reckless act I know. Sometimes time and comfort are more important than money. I then picked up a bus within 10 minutes and was walking into the house about the same time as the bus replacement service would have been arriving at Middlesbough.

It was a day of exhilerating ups and dispiriting downs. My wife thought I was mad. You probably think I was mad. But I’m glad I did it. It was a big adventure — another crazy away day! Thanks for reading this.