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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!

 

 

 

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A Wander round Wakefield.

23 Mar

Once it was a mere field owned by an Anglo-Saxon called Waca. Waca’s field has long since disappeared beneath concrete, stone and bricks. It is now the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Correction — Wakefield is officially a city and has a Cathedral to prove it. But it doesn’t feel like a city. It is only the size of a large town. My friend, Ian, and I like to wander round old towns.  It’s one of our post-retirement hobbies. Towns are more manageable than cities but usually have more to offer than a small village. They are the perfect size for a day trip.

Up to this week, Wakefield, was just a place I glanced at from a train window, as we briefly stopped at Westgate station. A cluster of towers, cupolas and spires caught the eye as the town spread up a low hill. But then, when the train moved away, they quickly slipped out of  sight and out of mind. I had actually been there a couple of times in the 1960’s. I had acquired my dad’s Lambretta ( I was desperately trying to be a mod) and the Leeds conurbation was a comfortable 50 mile run from my home town. With a friend on the pillion we went out searching for adventure, and somehow we ended up in Wakefield. ( I don’t know how.) In fact we had a puncture there and a kindly garage mechanic helped us mend it. It was in the new 60s market hall of Wakefield that we discovered our version of paradise. It was a stall selling old juke-box singles. Everything we had heard on Pick of the Pops was there at a very cheap price. We were like little kids let loose in a sweet shop!  We would then chug back down the A61 to Chesterfield with huge grins on our faces, happy to be laden down with hits by  The Beatles, Stones,  Kinks et al. After that though, Wakefield disappeared from my radar until my recent visit.

Ian and I travelled on the struggling train system from the north-east of England to West Yorkshire. In this way, we made the journey part of the “adventure.” This time Ian had a train cancellation at Chester-le- Street to delay him so by the time I met him at Leeds we had already missed our connection and only caught the next service by the skin of our teeth. I have lost count of how many times I have had to run for trains at Leeds, across the busy connecting bridge, fighting through the crowds and running down  seemingly endless sets of stairs, seeing my train waiting to depart. It happened on my way home as well. But thankfully we made it on to the LNER London train — first stop Wakefield Westgate, 9 miles to the south east of Leeds. It was time to relax and look forward to the day. Once again the familier towers and spires slid into view, but this time I was going to afford them more than a passing glance.

As I looked at the cluster of buildings spreading out from the station, I thought of all the people to whom this is home and all the full, eventful lives that have been lived there over the centuries. If a town (or city) could talk wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what it had to say? One of my favourite singers-songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter, had exactly that train of thought. One of her songs is titled: ” I am a Town.” An ordinary American town by the side of the highway, introduces itself. ” I’m a blur from the driver’s window”, “I am a church beside the highway, where the ditches never drain”, “I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl”. It’s such an evocative song.  A humble, ordinary town trying to catch the attention of the travellers passing through. This idea has caught my imagination and came back into my mind as we wondered up to Wakefield’s centre. What would the bricks and stones tell us if they could speak?

Yes, an ordinary town ( or city) it was. We wanted to catch a slice of everyday life rather than visit a list of starry “sights”. As we followed city centre signs we were struck at how quiet Wakefield was. It was almost eerie. Then we realised that it had 2 major malls — The Ridings and Trinity Walk — and so presumed that many of the shoppers were there. Such malls are very convenient and provide shelter in the winter, but, at the same time, they suck the life out of the surrounding streets. We didn’t go in as most shopping malls are roughly the same, irrespective of the place and we were seeking buildings that were more characteristic of the area. Thus we resisted the lure of central heating and canned music and pressed on towards the cathedral. Wakefield’s cathedral is right in the centre of the little city, unlike say Doncaster Minster which has been severed from the town by a busy dual-carraigeway. The Cathedral has the tallest spire in Yorkshire. It is a beautiful building in the Perpendicular style of the early 15th century. The original 11th century Norman church replaced an earlier Anglo-Saxon place of worship. In the 19th century it was re-designed by the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Extensions were then added in the 20th century to honour two of Wakefield’s most famous bishops — William Walshaw How and Eric Treacy. The cathedral is a very beautiful and impressive space. When we entered an organ was thundering out but when the music finished, a serene peace descended. We saw a lovely modern altar, pulpit and font but there were still medieval remnants such as the strange , carved mythical beasts in the choir stalls. There is an abundance of attractive stained glass windows from late Victorian times.

Attached to the cathedral are: a cafe, a shop and the tourist information centre. However, when we arrived asking for street maps, heritage trails and guidebooks, the 2 nice ladies we spoke to didn’t have much to offer and seemed genuinely bemused that tourists had actually decided to visit the tourist office. Obviously, Wakefield does not experience heavy tourist tread. We ended up with a blue-plaque guide-book which turned out to be out of date and which had a very confusing map. Ian and I specialise in going to places that few people want to go to. When I tried to prepare for this trip by consulting the latest Rough Guide to England, Wakefield wasn’t even mentioned! This is despite it having an impressive cathedral and the award winning Hepworth Gallery down by the river. Barbara Hepworth, the famous 20th century sculptress, came from Wakefield.

We left the information centre and retreated to a cafe to make our plans. We couldn’t resist going into “Marmalade on the Square”, such a wonderful name. It was a spotlessly clean cafe with very large, tall windows letting the light stream in. The coffee and cake were excellent too. This cafe and 2 others is in an early 20th century building (1907) formerly known as Central Chambers and before that the “Grand Clothing Hall”, the HQ of the outfitters, John Manners Ltd. It’s an elegant building in light stone with domes , gables and subtle ornementations. It also has smooth, curving corners rather than sharp right angles. It stands on a triangular site between two open spaces — the Bull Ring and Cross Square. It made a lovely photo with the spire of the cathedral in the background.

After our enjoyable repast, we decided to go down to the river area. Wakefield sits on the north bank of the River Wharfe, nestling to the south east of the Pennines. It was once a thriving inland cloth and grain port. As well as the river, various canals linked it up to Britain’s once busy inland waterways system. There were the Aire and Calder, and Calder and Hebble Navigations plus the Barnsley canal going to the south. This transport system was eventually replaced by Turnpike roads. The town stands at an important  junction where the main road from the midlands to the north meets a major road coming from the Pennine Hills to the west. Later, when the railway came in the 1840s, Wakesfield’s Kirkgate station was an important stop on the Leeds to Manchester line. Today, the city has 2 railway stations ( Westgate and Kirkgate) and is situated very close to the M1 motorway, but its river area is now very “quiet”, or rather it would be if it wasn’t adjacent to a bridge carrying a busy 4-lane highway across the Wharf. Down in this area are the well-preserved, 18th century offices of the Aire and Calder Navigation, like a small, classical Greek temple. Also here, south of the river, are the remains of 2 old mills and an 18th century warehouse. They are adjacent to the ultra modern Hepworth Gallery. Inside, it’s display rooms are spacious and flooded with light, but outside it looks like a jumble of sombre grey cubes. We thought it looked more like a prison than an art gallery. Wakefield of course does have a well-known prison but we didn’t include it on our itinerary.

When we got down there, the river was in full spate. After a recent period of stormy weather, the Wharfe had been turned into a raging torrent. A barge had been wrenched from its moorings and had become jammed between the fast flowing water and one of the arches of the road bridge. I hope nobody was on it at the time! Our destination was an ancient 14th century bridge which lay beyond the busy road bridge. At the end of it is a very rare 13th century Chantry Chapel.  The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, is one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, to tell you the truth it was a bit of an anti-climax. First of all we had great trouble getting across to it because of the incredibly busy 4 lane main road that lay inbetween. There didn’t seem to be much thought for pedestrians and the nearest lights appeared to be at least a quarter of a mile away. We eventually plucked up courage and dodged across when the main stream of vehicles was temporarily held back by lights. I imagined  them all impatiently revving up as if at the start of a Grand Prix. The medieval bridge beyond was deserted — no visitors except us, despite it being trumpeted as one of Wakefield’s most famous sights on its website. The medieval chapel at the far end of it looked sad and forlorn. It’s windows were screened by anti-vandal wire mesh and its roof was protected by lines of anti-pigeon spikes. To my disppointment, I found out that only its base was original 13th century. Much of the upper part had had to be rebuilt in 1847-48, and even some of the Victorian replacement was restored in 1939 because the architect had chosen a stone that quickly weathered and deteriorated. The chapel is still a grade 1 listed building however. It is occasionally used for special functions but mostly it is neglected and ignored. Chantry Chapels were paid for by wealthy people so that others could pray for their souls as they passed through Purgatory. I doubt that even if prayers were still being said at this one, they would be heard above the constant din of the traffic on the next door bridge. Ian and I thought it was very sad. We also abandoned a plan to stroll along a riverside path because it was muddy and strewn with litter. It was disappointing.

We returned to the city centre alongside the busy road. It wasn’t eerily quiet here! This area was scruffier and had down- at- heel little shops and businesses. We noticed a couple of East European food shops featuring Polish, Czech and Slovakian produce. We didn’t notice an Asian presence though, unlike in nearby Dewsbury which we visited last year. However, I am aware that an impressive mosque was constructed there in 1995, although we didn’t spot it because it is a bit outside the centre. Thankfully we soon regained the cathedral area and walked away from the torrent of traffic. Up one side of the cathedral is an attractive , pedestrianised area. It has avenues of trees, raised beds of plants, art deco globes acting as street lamps and attractively patterned block paving beneath our feet.  On our left was a line of 1930s large stores but only a rather diminished Marks and Spencers seemed to have survived the arrival of the malls and internet shopping. From old photos from the 60s it seems that this was one of the major shopping streets in Wakefield. I looked at scenes which showed it busy and bustling with shoppers and traffic. Earlier photos showed that trams used to trundle up and down the main streets of the city. Now this area, although pleasant, is fairly quiet. Much of the retail activity is now being done elsewhere. Wakefield is not alone in experiencing this fate of course. The centre is struggling to maintain its relevance.

Ian and I started our blue plaque exploration. It was quite interesting but a bit confusing as new plaques had been added since the guide was printed. Basically, we ignored the non-descript and badly deteriorated 60s and 70s buildings and sought the stone Victorian edifices of the city’s 19th century heyday. They are mostly clustered on Wood Street and Westgate. These were largely impressive and in good condition. A couple were hidden behind scaffolding  and sheets screening the restorers busy at work. There must still be a lot of work for stone masons in the town (city). On Wood Street we were impressed by The Mechanics Institute, the Town Hall and at the very top: County Hall. The Mechanics Institute, paid for by public subscription, included an assembly room, a library and a news-room. This reflected the rise in literacy levels once compulsary schooling was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. The Institute is  graced with Georgian style windows and a line of 6 classical- style Ionic capitals. It is still a venue for large functions. Next to it is the impressively large Town Hall with a striking clock tower ( no pun intended) which has become another major feature of the Wakefield skyline. Finally, at the top of the hill is County Hall, built in dramatic Gothic style in 1898. It has towers, pillars, gargoyles, stone reliefs , pediments and big windows on all sides. It is a very large, impressive structure. At the top is a graceful cupola which makes its own distinctive contribution to the skyline. OK, it’s not exactly Rome, but this ensemble of Victorian public buildings made for an attractive and impressive sight. In the middle of them was another building hidden away behind restorers screens. When that is finished, Wood Street will be a memorable sight for lovers of Victorian architecture.

Inside County Hall , which is the administrative HQ for West Yorkshire ( formerly the West Riding), it was even more impressive. One might call it Wakefield’s hidden gem. It looked more like a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with multiple Norman style arches, large windows, a grand sweeping, snaking staircase, lovely Delft- style tile-work, delicate wrought iron banisters, mosaics and very unusual, colourful murals. One depicted a Viking longboat for reasons I never found out. I would like to return and have a proper guided tour sometime, on an heritage open day. As it is, the kind lady on reception just let us have a quick peek at the vestibule and the staircase. We thanked her and remarked that it must be very nice to work in such a sumptuous environment. She agreed she was lucky, but then complained that it was too cold in winter and too hot in summer! Some people are never satisfied!

Westgate also has impressive Victorian buildings. Primarily there is the Theatre Royal and Opera House designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894. It replaced an earlier theatre at that site. In the 20th century it served as a cinema and then a bingo hall but then returned to its original function as a theatre in the 1980s. It is a Grade 2 listed building. Opposite it is the equally impressive Unity Hall which was formerly the Victorian Co-operative building of Wakefield. It has now been restored and is used for events, weddings and conferences. It’s good that it has been given new life but sad to see that even the venerable Coop has become a victim of modern shopping habits. Unity Hall, like the theatre is made from red brick decorated with stone patterns and pictoral reliefs. It has large, curving, church like windows. Another striking street in Wakefield centre is Cheapside which features old, early 19th century wool-staplers homes and warehouses. Today they are mostly occupied by soliciters’ offices but the top floor hoists for the wool sacks can still be seen.

I’m sure that in just a few hours we didn’t see everything that Wakefield has to offer. We didn’t go into the museum for example and somehow missed the Gissing centre, the former home of the famous Victorian novelist George Gissing. We didn’t venture into the Hepworth Gallery either because of the usual time constraints. We had to make time for a late lunch at Cafe Lounge 46 back near the cathedral. It is a pleasant eating place with good food and friendly service. I don’t know where the idea that all Yorkshire people are dour and brusque came from. Everyone we met was perfectly charming. Ian marked the service in Cafe Lounge 46 as 12 out of 10. I think it was because the waitress kept calling him “my love.”

Finally it was back to the train station for another thrilling chain reaction of delays, missed connections and, surprise, surprise, sprinting across the bridge and down the stairs at Leeds station. It had been another fascinating town trail revealing the usual mix of delights and disappointments. We missed out the mind- numbing malls ( being men, we are not great shoppers) but acquired some sense of its Victorian hey-day. I imagine that many of its citizens commute into nearby Leeds, but Wakefield, as a small city , still retains its own identity. It seems mostly proud of its past and makes sure it takes good care of its important public buildings.  Wacu’s field may be long gone, but in another sense, it is still going strong.

Andalucian Interlude.

20 Feb

I’ve just been on a city break.  I much prefer them to beach breaks or lying by a pool breaks, as readers of my earlier blogs may have gathered. This time I’ve enjoyed a few days in Seville, Spain. It’s the main city of Spain’s most southerly territory: Andalucia, and the fourth largest city in the country. As with most city breaks, Seville served up a rich diet of: culture, history, architecture, religion and art, not to mention food and drink. A city break is a brief change of scene, a stimulating contrast to the norm. Seville and its neighbour, Cordoba, did the trick. It was an enticing taster for  possible longer visits to this exciting part of Europe in the future.

What did I expect to see and experience?  First up is :oranges. The most common response I got when I mentioned Seville to people was “oranges.” Yes, I certainly expected to see orange trees, even in the middle of the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Numerous squares, courtyards and streets were lined with them. Apparently, they were planted by the Arabs when they ruled this part of Spain. Supposedly, local “Sevillanos” love to joke about watching tourists picking oranges from the trees, only to spit out their first mouthfuls in disgust. These oranges are very bitter to taste. A popular legend has it that the cheeky Sevillians sold a boatload of this unpalatable fruit to the British. The trusting British sailors tucked- in, thinking the oranges were sweet. They were disappointed of course, but one unexpectant consequence was that all the seamen suffering from the disease of scurvy were cured. Thus the idea of marmalade was born. For many years huge quantities of Seville’s street oranges were sold to British marmalade factories, although changing tastes  and the effects of traffic pollution on the fruit have led to a drop in demand in recent years.

Reading about all this reminded me of another city break I made to Dundee, in Scotland.  Dundee was for a long time, famous for its jam and marmalade. A local story from the 19th century tells of a Spanish ship with a cargo of Seville oranges that got trapped by storms in the harbour. The perishable cargo was in danger of going rotten, so an enterprising young lad, James Keiller, the son of a grocery store owner, bought the oranges at a bargain price. His mother, using a secret family recipe, then converted them into marmalade and started a profitable industry for the city. A friend of mine has told me another story about Mary Queen of Scots being cured of her “malady” by the orange conconction that now graces our breakfast tables. The true origin of marmalade may be a combination of all these tales. Who knows?

So I saw the orange trees that I had expected. What I didn’t expect however, was that many of them would be surrounded by pretty patterns of ornamental cabbages, cream, pink and purple. I also saw a monumental Gothic cathedral, numerous tapas bars, a large bull ring, buildings with graceful wrought iron balconies and window grilles, lovely little courtyards or patios decorated with attractive tiles, plants and little fountains and some very special Moorish-style buildings from medieval times. Seville has a rich selection of things to see and do.

One big reason why I was attracted to this part of Spain is its close proximity to Africa, and in particular: Morocco. The Moors (Arab muslims from North Africa and the Middle East) had conquered Spain in the middle ages and ruled it for several centuries. They were masters of the Iberian peninsula from the early 8th to the early 13th centuries.  They were relatively tolerant rulers allowing the Christians and the Jews to continue with their own religious practices if they wished to, although non- muslims had to pay higher taxes. Spain, which had previously experienced the sophisticated lifestyle of the Romans, now benefited from many aspects of Arab civilisation. Education, scholarship, philosophy, architecture and craftmanship all flourished under Moorish rule. Today, tourists flock to see the beautiful architecture and exquisite decorative art left behind by the Moors in Andalusian cities such as Granada, Malaga ( yes, it’s more than just an airport), Cordoba and Seville. The Alhambra palace in Granada, which I’ve visited in a previous trip, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. The Alcazar fortress-palaces of Seville and Malaga also contain striking moorish architecture, tilework, stucco and calligraphy as well as lovely gardens, and, last but not least, the stunning mosque-cathedral in Cordoba, known as the Mesquito, is one of the most extraordinary buildings you are likely to see. In this trip, my wife, Chris, and I visited the sensational Moorish monuments in both Seville and Cordoba which is about an hour up the train line. At times, we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still in Europe and not somewhere across the Straits of Gibralter.

It’s ironic that buildings, art and craftmanship left behind by their former conquerors, now make up some of Spain’s top tourist attractions. Even though the Moors were defeated and expelled from Spain over 800 years ago, their legacy lives on in a powerful way. We were really looking forward to visiting them. But it wasn’t that simple. One problem is that in this age of relatively cheap travel and mass tourism, such beautiful, historical buildings are now frequently overwhelmed by visitors. A friend of mine travelled to Granada from the Costa del Sol especially to visit the Alhambra but could not get in because entrance was by timed ticket only and all the slots had been taken for that day! It was totally booked out. When I went, I only got in because I had paid extra to go on a guided tour. Once a place gets famous, especially if designated as a World Heritage Site, it gets put on the “bucket lists” of tens of thousands of world tourists, from China to the United States and all places inbetween. Chris and I thought Seville might be fairly quiet in early February, so we were shocked to see that there were permanent, long queues for both the Cathedral and the Alcazar. The only way to by-pass the main, slowly shuffling queue was to book on a guided tour or to book ahead on the internet. This we had failed to do for the cathedral, our first port of call, so we queued.

Seville’s is a huge cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.  After the reconquest of Spain by the Christians ( the “Reconquista”), finally completed in 1492, the Christian monarchs wanted to make a big statement to show that they were now back in control. So sadly, many mosques were demolished and replaced by churches. Synagogues were also destroyed and the Jews were expelled from the peninsula as well as the Arabs. It was not a great example of Christian tolerance, as Jesus would have preached. It was just the opposite in fact. Intolerance was the order of the day, intolerance that led to the infamous tortures and cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition. This started in the 1480s and as well as being a gift for Monty Python, it brought misery and death to countless people in its mission to purify the Catholic faith by stamping out heresy. In 15th century Spain bigotry and religious intolerance were regarded as pretty “cool” by the Christian majority. As in most countries in most eras, fear , distrust and hatred of the foreigner or the outsider was never far from the surface. This was reflected in Seville by the destruction of the impressive mosque and the building of an enormous Gothic cathedral in its place. But even the triumphant Christians baulked at the idea of knocking down the mosque’s beautiful minaret La Giralda. It was adapted into the cathedral’s bell tower and is now regarded as one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture on the planet. Built in the late 12th century, it was the prototype for similarly impressive minarets in the Imperial capitals of Rabat and Marrakesh. La Giralda is a top tourist attraction of Seville and dominates the centre of the city, especially at night when it is spectacularly floodlit. You can go up it to see stupendous views over the old city, but we didn’t go because, in our old age, we have become very nervous of heights!

Going back to the cathedral queue, we shuffled patiently forward for about 15 to 20 minutes, surrounded by Americans, French, Germans, fellow Brits and seemingly half of China. Most of them passed the time by playing with their smart-phones. It wasn’t too bad. The weather was about 18 to 20 degrees, cloudy with sunny periods. I shudder to think what the queue experience would be like in the torrid heat of mid summer. Seville is one of the hottest cities in Spain. Once in, we were easily swallowed up by the vast nave, with its enormous wood carved organ, spectacular vaulted ceilings, a string of finely decorated side chapels and several richly decorated altars, including one huge gilded one, carved by a Flemish master in the late 15th century. The building’s sheer size is somewhat overwhelming and we found it difficult to make sense of. I prefer the spiritual atmosphere of a small, simple church.  Commentators have noted, that Seville Cathedral’s sheer mass crudely expresses the Christian message of conquest and domination. As I noted in my facebook photo album , this seems a very far cry from Jesus Christ being born in a humble stable! The huge, magnificent main altar is protected by a fancy, wrought iron grille or latticed screen. It was in shadow and was only illuminated by subtle floodlights every now and then. Signs had warned “no photos” but the endless tide of tourists simply ignored this and the attendants didn’t even try to stop them. As soon as the altar was lit up there was a mini stampede up the steps to photograph it through the gaps in the grille. I’m ashamed to say that I too got momentarily caught up in this madness. I tried to get to the screen to take my photo but was blocked by other tourists who hogged the best spots. One young woman stayed at the top of the steps for an inordinately long time. When I looked over her shoulder to see what she was up to, I found she was scrolling and reading her emails and texts. She wasn’t even looking at the wondrous altar! I only managed to get my precious shot when the light went off!

There were many impressive and interesting things in the Cathedral, but to tell you the truth, it was a relief to get out into the orange- tree shaded exit courtyard. Time for a cup of coffee in a quiet cafe. I must go back to the cathedral however, because I almost forgot to mention the Mausoleum of Christopher Columbus which is situated to one side of the main nave. The famous explorer’s remains are supposed to be in a coffin carried aloft by 4  larger- than- life, symbolic knights, representing the 4 kingdoms of the united Spain — Leon, Castille, Aragon and Navarra. The mausoleum was sculpted in the late 19th century and was originally intended to be located in the Cuban capital of Havana, a Spanish colony ever since Columbus’s discovery of the New World.( although he always thought he had reached India.) However following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish- American War and the loss of Cuba in 1898, the remains ended up in Seville. This seems very strange to me as Columbus actually came from Genoa in Italy, but who am I to argue? The probable explanation is because Seville was the main recipient of the enormous treasures from the New World, later named America. These treasures financed many of Seville’s great buildings and monuments. There is some controversy about whether Columbus’s bones are actually in that Seville coffin. At one stage the bones of his son and also of his grandson were kept in other lead coffins  next to his. This was in Hispaniola, near the site of Columbus’s first landfall. However, during repairs to the cathedral there, the 3 coffins were opened, the bones mixed up and the labels lost! To complicate matters further, the Dominican Republic now claims that it still has the real remains of Columbus and has refused to let scientists do DNA testing. The tests on the bones in Spain proved inconclusive. Whatever the truth, tourists still flock around the Columbus mausoleum in Seville. It was another rugby scrum to get a picture. When the cathedral clock struck the quarter hour, a swarm of tourists would rush towards the coffin-monument. Apparently something special was to happen at that moment, but we never figured out what it was, so I cannot tell you. Life’s too short!

When we went to the Alcazar, we were on an interesting guided tour, so we jumped most of the queue. It is a fortress-palace built on the site of a Roman fort and founded in the 8th century. The various Moor rulers rebuilt or added to it over the centuries. When the Christians reconquered the area the palace was once again remodelled and extended. What can be seen today is a Christian reworking from the mid 14th century, under the orders of King Pedro the Cruel. Some of the architecture is “mudejar”, i.e. – created by Muslim architects working under Christian control.  Fragments of earlier Muslim buildings from Seville, Cordoba and Valencia were incorporated. Today , after passing through the gateway in the Arab-style fortified walls, you enter a big, open courtyard and are faced with 3 palaces. Straight in front is a wonderful muslim palace which is like a mini Alhambra, while to the left and right are more conventional, western style Royal palaces from the 15th and 16th centuries. The latter have royal portraits and renaissance furniture and decorations but it is the more exotic Islamic-style palace that takes up most people’s attention. Gracefully arched windows and doors, beautiful patterned tiles, stylised Arab calligraphy, pools and fountains in inner courtyards, and cool verandahs. Best of are the spectacularly stuccoed ceilings which have to be seen to be believed. It is very like the Alhambra and has the crowds to match.

However despite all these wonders, the most amazing building of our trip was in Cordoba, a fast, smooth train ride away to the north-east. The old town here is full of quiet narrow streets lined with white painted houses. Many have lovely patios with flowers, tiles and a fountain. In summer, some of these streets are festooned with colourful flowers. In the centre of old Cordoba, just north of the river with its old Roman bridge, stands the enormous Mosque-Cathedral known as the Mesquito. We took another guided tour to beat the crowds although it was quieter here than in Seville. The Mesquito consists of a beautiful mosque with multiple rows of double semi-circular arches made from alternating bands of creamy stone and red brick. These arches are mounted on classical pillars salvaged from Ancient Roman and Visigoth temples and churches. The effect is mesmerising. The mihrab, which is the focal point of the mosque is particularly beautiful with exquisite Arab decoration and topped by a lovely Byzantine- style ceiling made by builders imported from Constantinople. What is mind-boggling however is that right in the middle of this huge medieval mosque, the Christians built a large Gothic style Catholic cathedral. They didn’t have the heart to destroy the beautiful mosque but had to show which religion was now back in control. The experience is totally incongruous and disorientating. I think the guide deserves a medal for explaining it all especially as both the mosque and the cathedral were extended several times. In the large shady courtyard are pools, fountains, palm trees and another minaret transformed into a bell tower. It’s certainly one of the most memorable buildings I have visited .

The historical buildings of Seville and Cordoba took up a lot of our time but the highlight of our trip has to be the flamenco show we attended. Dramatic wailing singing, throbbing guitars and strutting, moody dancing punctuated by staccato bursts of blurred footwork like machine gun fire. Then there was the colourful gypsy costumes, the castanets, the rhythmic clapping and finger clicking. The dancers and singers somehow clicked 3 fingers in rapid succession. The dances were full on and uncompromising. At times it was almost like the movement of a matador but without the bull. ( thank goodness.) I know it was a show for tourists like ourselves, but it still made for a thrilling evening.

So we had our Andalucian city break, our short break from the norm. It was a packed few days of sights, sounds and experiences. Obviously it would be too boring to list them all. I haven’t even mentioned : Bizet’s Carmen , sherry or the large array of fans we saw on display. I hope this blog has given you at least a flavour of the trip. Seville and Cordoba — a lot more more than a load of oranges!

 

Remembrance or remembrance?

29 Nov

Memory is a strange and elusive thing. Two people who have shared exactly the same experiences in the past can have completely different memories of them.  Memory is not only selective but can also be subjective. It is difficult to pin down the exact, objective truth. The memory of an event can be viewed through from so many perspectives. Prejudices and subsequent experiences can colour an event so much.

That is why I suppose, Governments try to impose an “official” collective memory of an important National event. It’s much easier and more convenient if everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet. Sometimes, in totalitarian states, the past has been radically re-written with massive ommissions and massive distortions, to suit the needs of the present. The Nazi and Stalinist regimes were past masters at this.  In the UK we have not gone to such extremes, but censorship and propaganda have still been employed at critical times, in order to get the population to interpret an event in an approved way. The First World War or the Great War is a case in point. That devastating conflict finished just over 100 years ago and my country, the United Kingdom, has recently been consumed by its collective, officially- approved acts of Remembrance. Nobody who fought in that war is alive anymore, so individual acts of genuine remembering are no longer possible. We are left with: memorials, prose, poetry, sculpture and paintings. We are also left with the “official” rituals and public ceremonies. Now that we can no longer talk to a survivor, we have to make the best we can of all these second-hand forms of remembering.

Some sources are informative and some are very moving, but they are second hand nevertheless. In fact some of the works of art or literature about the war  are possibly based on third or even fourth hand sources.  Sebastian Faulkes was only able to write his famous First World War novel “Birdsong” after many hours in the library (or possibly, on the Internet.) There is a danger to this. It’s like a game of Chinese whispers. By the time the message has travelled right round the circle, it could be completely different from the one that started off. With regards to the 1914 to 18 war, we can no longer check facts with the participants, and even if we could, they would all have their different points of view. There are many factors masking the “truth.” All this has made it easier for the establishment to step in and impose its officially approved narrative. The generally accepted view of the First World War now is that it was a time of heroic, stoical SACRIFICE. That is the accepted British way — to suffer quietly and make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for one’s country. A conflicting narrative of : the waste, the pointlessness and the pity of war came with the rise in popularity of the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But this idea did not take hold until the 1960’s. By then the official interpretation of the Great War’s meaning had taken a firm hold and much of it still holds strong today. It is still not acceptable to remember our war dead as soldiers who needlessly died for a pointless cause. Much more palatable then to swallow the more accepted line that they bravely sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve the freedoms of their countrymen, from the threat of German tyranny.

Alternative versions of the war’s meaning could emerge from  memoirs of course or from other primary sources such as soldiers’ letters,  diaries, photographs and films. But all of these sources can be challenged as not revealing the whole, objective reality. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, Earl Haig, almost certainly retrospectively doctored his diaries and memoirs to give his decisions the most positive spin, in the light of what subsequently happened. Soldiers writing home might well have concealed horrible truths because they did not want to upset their loved ones. The letters were probably censored anyway. After the first few months of the war, soldiers were discouraged from taking photographs of the war happening around them.  They were also discouraged from writing diaries. Press photographers were mostly kept away from the battle areas. Films served propaganda purposes. For instance, the famous footage of the British Tommies going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June, 1916, was actually film of an earlier training exercise. We never get to see thousands of men being mown down by machine gun fire ( thank goodness!) So many of our “memories” of this crucial event are officially sanctioned, controlled and sanitised and do not necessarily reveal the whole “truth.” In this way, officially approved Remembrance has largely replaced the more confusing, mixed messages provided by personal remembrances. It is more comfortable and convenient to have one agreed version of the war and agreed methods of commemorating it. Thus we now have our Day of Remembrance every November.

So what exactly were people doing on this last, high profile Remembrance Day in November, 2018? What were they doing at the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the land? It’s easier to state what they were not doing. What is certain is that the participants were not really remembering the details of what happened a century ago. The vast majority of Britain’s population were not alive when the war was raging or when the guns finally fell silent a hundred years ago. Many, including myself, cannot even remember the Second World War which followed 20 years after the “War to end all wars.”  Therefore, if it is impossible to genuinely remember the Great War, why are we being constantly urged not to forget?  On war memorials and social media posts up and down the country we have been bombarded with the phrase from Kipling’s early poem: “Lest we forget.” This almost sounds like a threat. In the dictionary “Lest” is defined as a conjunction meaning “in order that not” or “for fear that.” Thus it seems as if forgetting is a fearful prospect. We’d better not forget, or else. Or else what? What are we frightened of forgetting? What will happen if we do forget? These questions are difficult to answer because they are like thinking about the unthinkable. Of course we will not forget what those soldiers did for us. How could we? Yet the reality is that in everyday life, departed people are only remembered for about two or possibly three generations, and after that they pass into the dreaded oblivion. I can remember my grandparents but can recall nothing of my great grandparents. They are just images on a few faded photographs or words chiselled on to an old grave stone. So without the official props of Remembrance, those thousands of perished soldiers would have been forgotten already. They can only now be remembered in a vague, general sense, in ceremonies that serve to bind us together as a nation. How long can this go on for? We no longer “remember” the British dead in the Boer War, the Zulu war, the Crimean War or the Napoleonic wars. They have passed into the mists of time.

Even though they could not be genuinely remembering, people have certainly enjoyed the whole experience of Remembrance Sunday. A nurse taking my blood, commentated that this year’s ceremonies were ” lovely.” Two friends at a recent dinner party agreed that 2018’s Remembrance Day was particularly enjoyable in their respective towns. They loved the marching soldiers, the military bands, the displays of poppies, the laying of wreaths, the 2 minutes silence and the playing of the Last Post. A very good day out then. Throughout the last 4 years, people have flocked to  gaze at and photograph striking pieces of conceptual art such as images of British Tommies on a beach or huge shoals of bright red poppies flowing into the moat of the Tower of London. Massed poppies have featured in many striking pieces of art. “Nit and natter” groups have had a great time knitting  thousands of woollen red poppies to represent the British dead from that terrible, distant war. The poppy has come to symbolise the sacrifice of the soldiers who perished. The idea came from a poem, “In Flanders Fields” written in 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, John McCrae, who was serving in that worn-torn area of Belgium. He noticed that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Once the war was over, the poppy was one of the only flowers to grow on the otherwise barren battle fields.  This is why the British Legion, which helps injured soldiers, adopted the red poppy as its emblem. The powerful symbolism of the poppy is enhanced by the fact that it is red, the colour of blood. Even today, most of the public wear red poppies out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives in that far off war. Later, white poppies were produced to symbolise Peace but many refuse to wear these because they believe it is dishonouring our war dead.

The only trouble with using a poppy to remember those who  died in the wars, ( the Second World War has now been added to the commemorations), is that it is very pretty. It’s very beauty prevents real remembering, in my opinion. I wonder how many would have flocked to the Tower of London art installation if it had featured a mock-up of rats, lice and putrifying corpses?  Or perhaps an artist could have made piles of skulls with clouds of blue-bottles buzzing around them?  I believe these would  have been a more realistic representation of conditions in the Western Front trenches. Siegfried Sassoon, a war veteran and poet made the same point in his 1919 poem “Aftermath.” Thinking of the noble appeal of war- memorials to “remember”, he wrote:

“Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a

hopeless rain?”

The point is simple — war is not pretty, like displays of poppies, and not dignified, like ritualised ceremonies. It is ghastly, ugly and cruel. I find it hard to understand why some people “enjoy” Remembrance Sunday and describe it as “lovely.” In my view, remembering such a tragedy should be an unpleasant, painful and uncomfortable experience.

Another obstacle to a realistic understanding of what the Great War was about is the overuse of certain words to describe it. Phrases such as the “horror of war” or ” ultimate sacrifice” have been used so often that they have lost their meaning. They have become cliches. They convey none of the horror or tragedy of war that they are meant to express. People are well meaning but phrases that trip off the tongue in an automatic response, fail to deliver any meaningful message. Let’s face it, if you weren’t there it is impossible to use realistic words to describe the conflict. But such empty cliches make it even more difficult to gain any real insight into soldiers’ experiences in the war. It is much easier to use off-the-peg formulae when writing or talking about the war, because they free us from thinking too deeply about such a disturbing subject. However, they are another barrier standing between us and the real thing.  Few people willingly seek out pain and distress. Most of us are not masochists.

Thus we are left with commemorations of wars that are ritualistic and prescribed from above.  People love rituals it seems. Look at all the stuff that is going on in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples around the world. Ritualistic worship is a world away from figuring out one’s personal spiritual path. It is easier to follow other people’s rules and seek safety in numbers. My parents were lifelong Methodists. If they followed the “method” ( prescribed by John Wesley) they believed it would gain them entrance to  heaven. I would argue that the act of Remembrance has mostly been reduced to the same thing. Rememberers now follow a ready-made “method.” The individual does not have to deeply engage with the subjects of war, death, horror, atrocity, sacrifice or tragedy. Neither does he or she have to ask the awkward question: “why?” He or she has simply got to follow the rules laid down by established  society. There is a lot of social pressure to conform to these rules. We are all expected to buy and wear poppies. For instance, all TV presenters are expected to religiously wear them every November. People choosing to wear white peace poppies can expect to be challenged, as diverting from the accepted norm is frowned upon. Like Christmas, Remembrance Day has been turned into a festival of conformity.

Yet another problem, in my view, is that Remembrance has got inter-twined with the idea of patriotism. You don’t love your country if you don’t wear the poppy. You are not respecting the soldiers who died if you choose to wear a white poppy. I love my country, warts and all, and would never emigrate. It is the country that I belong to, where my roots are. However, love for one’s country can sometimes turn into distrust and even dislike of foreigners. In other words, patriotism can spill-over into chauvinism, and even racism. This is why I have always been uneasy about it. Far-right, white supremecist groups such as The National Front and the English Defence League wrap themselves up in the flag of St George ( ironically the flag of Genoa in Italy) and preach hatred of immigrants, asylum seekers and foreigners in general. This is why I am always uncomfortable about overt patriotism and I believe that our Remembrance ceremonies have unfortunately become coloured by this. The days have become excuses for flag waving and military marching when it is exactly that sort of stuff that got us into the Great War in the first place. A major reason why the UK entered the war was to defend its Empire and its naval hegemony against German enchroachment. For many, it was a highly patriotic exercise. We would show Germany who was boss. The same chauvenistic attitudes were prevalent in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey and the rest — leading to a four year conflict and mass slaughter. It is ironic, in my opinion, that the patriotism which partly led to the disastrous war is now being employed to remember it. It makes me feel uneasy and makes me suspect that we have not learnt the lessons of history.

I think, if we really want to commemorate the dead of last century’s murderous wars, the best way is to campaign for peace. One should try to ensure that there is not a repeat of such disastrous wars and the terrible waste of life. I have been a peace campaigner for much of my life. I was particularly active in the 1980’s and 90’s when American Cruise Missiles were being stationed in our country, making the UK a prime target in any future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I was frightened for myself and for my young children. I did everything I could, as an ordinary citizen, to raise awareness of the dangers of war for our country and  for the World. You would think that campaigning for peace in the world would be a popular, non-controversial cause. However, during my time as an active peace campaigner I was verbally abused and called a “coward”, a “communist” and even a “traitor.” It was that patriotism thing again. I loved my country but if I spoke out against its militeristic ventures ( Falklands War, Iraq wars, parts 1 and 2, Afghanistan war, bombing  of Syria etc) I was castigated as an unpatriotic traitor. This is still the case today. I am sure some people reading this blog will think of me in such terms.

So I believe that true remembrance and true commemoration of our war dead is to campaign for world peace, not turn out to see marching soldiers, listen to military bands,  look at pretty displays of poppies and wave the Union Jack. War memorials often speak of our “Glorious Dead.” This makes me suspect that instead of reminding us of the  tragedy of warfare, they are in danger of glorifying it. Our attractively packaged “cult of Remembrance” serves as a barrier, separating people from the horrors of the real thing. I’m all in favour of remembering and not forgetting the disastrous follies of the past. But surely, remembering such shocking and abominable events should be an uncomfortable endurance test rather than an enjoyable, officially sanctioned day out.

 

 

A Walk in the Country.

12 Nov

What do retired gentlemen of a certain age do when they get together? Some may go to the pub to sort out the world’s problems over a  couple of pints. Some may gather on the park green for a sedate game of bowls. Others might gravitate to a local football match to moan and groan at their team and curse the referee. What I particularly like though, is to go for a walk in the country. Luckily I have a few friends who share this preference. Think– ” The Last of the Summer Wine.” I am fortunate enough to live near hills, woods, moors and coast, so there’s always somewhere attractive and interesting to explore. Last Friday was a case in point. My friend, Ian, and I decided to go for a 6 mile hike on the edge of the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire. We meet about once every month to stretch our legs, get some fresh air and catch up on mutual news. Some may find it surprising that men can actually talk about things other than football. Ian and I can manage this quite easily, with only passing references to Middlesbrough and Chesterfield FCs. So this was to be just another pleasant walk ( and talk) in the country — or so we thought.

No matter how tightly planned walks are though, they invariably throw up something unexpected. I like this. It’s a mini adventure! For instance, a few weeks ago, out with another friend, I saw a bob-tailed roe deer bounding gracefully along the border of a field and a local wood. Sometimes the surprise is unwelcome however, like when one comes across a huge bull, nervous cows with their calves or a herd of frisky bullocks in a field that one has to cross. Time to be a coward and creep stealthily round the far edge of the field, heart pounding and hoping not to be spotted. Once I made the mistake of running away from a group of bullocks. They thought I was playing and chased after me! As I heard the thundering hooves closing in, I hurled myself over a barbed wire fence, ripping open my padded coat- sleeve in the process. Only 2 weeks ago, the start of  a walk in the North York Moors with the local U3A ( University of the Third Age) was ruined for me by encountering a posse of pheasant shooters with their beaters and retriever dogs. This has happened more than once. As an animal lover I abhor hunting and shooting( not to mention fishing.) I fail to understood how fellow humans get pleasure from slaughtering innocent creatures whose only “crime” is to share the world with them. The hunters are always full of bonhomie, greeting us with loud, jolly “good mornings” and “lovely days”. Perhaps they are embarrassed about being “caught in the act” or couldn’t care less and are simply looking forward to the killing spree ahead. They don’t seem to realize that other people find their activities obnoxious.  Sorry — time to get off my high horse!

Usually though,  a walk throws up pleasant experiences and discoveries. One might catch a glimpse of a rare bird or wild animal,  discover a beautiful wild flower, witness a picturesque landscape or  gaze at a dramatically changing sky. On this occasion Ian and I had the multi-coloured autumn trees to look forward to. You don’t have to trek to New England to experience the glory of the “Fall”. We set off from the lovely village of Swainby, south east of Stokesley. Swainby, to quote my guide book, is a “charming and peaceful village, divided by its tree-lined stream” and gives “few hints of its dramatic past.” How about that for whetting the appetite? It actually owes its existance to a tragedy. Just up the hill above it, is the deserted village of Whorlton. In the 14th century, the inhabitants of Whorlton were devastated by the coming of the plague. The Black Death as it was then known, struck England between 1348 and 1350 wiping out a third of the population. The shocked survivors of Whorlton left their plague infected homes, full of  heart-rending memories and moved down into the valley. Thus Swainby, which up to then had only been a sleepy hamlet, was suddenly expanded into a full-blown village. All that is left at Whorlton today is a ruined church, an eerie graveyard and the shell of a medieval castle.

Much later, in the 19th century, Swainby was once again shocked out of its peaceful, rural slumbers by the opening of ironstone and jet mines in nearby Scugdale. We were to see the spoil heaps from these mines later on in our walk. Apparently, Swainby became a lively, rough and ready, “Wild West” type town, crammed with miners and their equipment, full of smoke, dust and clatter. It must have been something to behold. However by the 1920s the mines had been exhausted, the miners and their followers had moved on and Swainby returned to its previous, peaceful tranquillity.

It was peaceful and tranquil as we set off, passing the old church, crossing a quaint little bridge and walking along the banks of the gurgling stream. Local residents gave us friendly “hellos” as they went about their business. A man on his cycle gave us a wave. The trees as expected were beautiful. Leaves of yellow, orange, copper and red shimmered in the sunshine. We were lucky with the weather considering it was well into November. Storm Deirdrie was smashing into the western coast of Britain, but in Swainby, in the north east of England, we were enjoying a fine morning with the bonus of sunny periods. It wasn’t totally peaceful though. The local refuse collectors were proceding down the High Street with their noisy, rubbish- crushing lorry and a team of tree surgeons were just getting started with their saws and axes. We also had to leap on to the grass verge rather sharply when a young woman in a hurry swept past us in her car, making no allowances for pedestrians who didn’t have the sanctuary of a pavement. We headed up a steady hill that climbed  out of the village and soon entered a wood, joining a path that is part of the Cleveland Way. It was mixed, decidious woodland and the brightly coloured autumn leaves were particularly lovely.

After a while,we left the woods and descended through a field with views of tree covered hills opening up on either side. We were now largely looking at pine forests sweeping across the hillsides. To our surprise, some of the pines seemed to be retaining their deep green colour while others had needles fading into pale orange. It was quite a dramatic sight. A broad swathe of orange sat beneath a broad swathe of green and both were topped by a dark band of moorland. We crossed a stream and climbed up through more woods until we reached those high moors. We had now left the balmy calm of the valley and were suddenly being buffeted by cold, blustery winds. We put on our thick jackets and kept on climbing. The views were extensive. We looked over the Cleveland Hills including the dramatic collapsed cone of Rosebury Topping ( undermined by metal miners), across a wide, flat valley towards the distant chemical works of Teesside. Beyond that, faintly visible, was the sea, merging with the increasingly grey sky. The wet weather soaking the west was due to arrive in the later afternoon. We hoped to have finished our walk by then!

Now we spotted a couple of fellow ramblers, descending quickly down the path towards us. Naturally, they stopped to chat. This nearly always happens in the countryside. People are friendly and  say at least  “hello”. It is very different from the grey, anonymity of the town. These were a young couple, on holiday from London. By a complete fluke they had exactly the same walks- book as us and were trying to follow exactly the same route. Unfortunately, they had got lost, failing to find a crucial turn off, and had reluctantly decided to retrace their footsteps, until they met these two old geezers plodding up the hill towards them. After a brief conflab and a quick game of guidebook snap we hit upon a plan. During the conversation I rather recklessly admitted that I had done this walk before, a couple of times. I offered to guide the others back on to the designated route. What I didn’t admit though, is that I had got lost on this walk before and the last time I did it, I was just following someone and not paying much attention. However, Ian still retained his faith in my navigational skills and the others were quite happy to tag along. So now we were a group of four and I was the “leader.” It must have been the teacher in me rising up again even after many years of retirement. I admit that I enjoy being in charge. That way, if all goes well, I get all the credit. Unfortunately, the flip-side is that if it goes wrong, then I get the blame! So we set off, like a little army patrol, with me in the lead and Ian bringing up the rear. The wind was still blasting us and the thought  crossed my mind that this would be an excellent place to read “Wuthering Heights.” Emily Bronte and her famous sisters would have walked cold and windy moors like these almost every day.

We passed 2 stone cairns and eventually found a mysterious concrete post. The book’s instructions were a bit vague at this point. However, the obscure path through the bracken to the left was thankfully found and I basked in my moment of glory. I accepted the grateful thanks of the Londoners and gave them the instructions for the next section of the walk. Then we let them go, as they were quite a bit younger than us and we were feeling a bit tired. Ian’s dodgy left knee was now playing up a little, but he bravely ignored this and we returned to out Last of the Summer Wine chatting, putting the world to rights yet again. If only May and Trump would listen! We now passed over the knobbly, grassed-over spoil heaps, eventually entering a steeply sloping pine wood. The carpet of fallen needles was slippery and we had to be very careful as we gingerly descended. After negotiating a couple of styles and another field we emerged on to a hedge-lined lane leading to the pretty village of Faceby. I have it on good authority that Faceby has some of the most desirable and expensive properties in the whole region. I didn’t bother to consult my bank balance! Above Faceby stands Whorl Hill ( old Norse:” hverfill” –“high hill with a rounded top.”)

The hill is covered with an attractive wood of  larch, scots pine and beech trees.  Again the multi-colored leaves were lovely. In spring this woodland floor is carpeted with a mass of bluebells. We walked and chatted, trying to ignore the steepness of the initial hillside that had us puffing and panting a little. I confidently stated that we were now nearly home and dry. All the difficult navigation and confusing directions were now behind us. However, I spoke too soon. As we came out of the woods I suddenly realized that I hadn’t a clue where we were. I didn’t recognise the place at all and had a gut feeling that the waymarked footpath was going in the wrong direction. By now it was 2-30pm and our coffee shop visit was well overdue. Ian was yearning for his cappuccino. Also the grey clouds were darkening and thickening on the horizon. There’s only one thing worse than getting lost and that’s getting lost in the rain. A consultation of the large scale OS map revealed no clear answers. I had got my knickers well and truly in a twist and wasn’t thinking straight. A feeling of panic started churning up in my stomach. I could also feel Ian’s trust in me rapidly draining away! What to do?

You see, we didn’t have modern technology to magically dig us out of the hole. Our smart-phones probably had google maps and sat-navs but we didn’t know how to use them. At our age, one becomes technologically challenged. In the end, at Ian’s wise suggestion, we resorted to an old fashioned,  but tried and trusted method of finding our way. We asked a human being. Opposite the exit from Whorl Hill woods was a modern farmhouse. We opened the gate that had “No Right of Way” signs all over it and knocked on the door. I admit to feeling very nervous at that point. A man eventually came, accompanied by two border collies. One of the dogs was barking loudly and baring its teeth, but its bark thankfully proved to be bigger than its bite. Having been bitten by a dog when I was a teenage paper boy, I have always been a little nervous around them. The secret I’ve been told is not to show your fear, but that’s easier said than done. The dogs’ owner proved to be very nice, assuring us that they were OK. He was surprisingly kind and patient considering we had so rudely interrupted his afternoon peace. He seemed to have suffered some sort of stroke because he had difficulty in walking and his speech was slurred. However, he still insisted on coming out and showing us the way. It was very nice of him. The path we were on had been right. It was just my instincts that were wrong.

We resumed our walk, the rain still luckily holding off. Surely now we were on the last lap? We could almost smell the coffee and taste the toasties we were so looking forward to. We crossed a style and started walking down a sloping grassy field. Up ahead I at last spotted the deserted village of Whorlton. We were back on track. We had to make a detour around a large fallen tree and continued strolling downhill. I heard a distant shout and looked round in alarm but nobody was there. We carried on, pleased we were nearing the end, but then the shouting resumed, much louder, and obviously full of  anger. A man, presumably the farmer whose field we were in, was approaching rapidly with 2 dogs. The dogs were fortunately quiet but the farmer was full of hell, Apparantly, we had failed to spot a style and were now trespassing on his land. When Ian calmly explained that we had got lost and were merely trying to find our way to Swainby , the farmer angrily replied “I don’t believe you!”  Did he really think that we had deliberately ignored the style and walked on his field just to wind him up? The field didn’t have any crops or livestock in it. I looked into his eyes at this point and they were blazing with rage. “If anyone else walks down my field and bends my gate by climbing over it, I’ll snap their f-cking heads back!” he threatened. Obviously if lots of other walkers had made the same mistake as us, it was his signage that was at fault. Ramblers were clearly not his cup of tea! In the end he took great satisfaction in ordering us to walk all the way back up to the top of the field to find the style rather than letting us through the gate he had just come through. We didn’t enjoy being verbally abused. It was upsetting and unnecessary. In the end though, I ended up worrying about his blood pressure and wondering whether there were any good anger-management courses in the Swainby area. He probably went home and kicked the cat before swearing at his wife.

Well reader, we found the controversial style and walked down the same field, but this time on the right side of the fence. At last we reached a lane and walked into Whorlton. Nothing survives there except the ruined church and crumbling castle. Only the gatehouse of the latter remains. It last saw action in the English Civil War when the Parliamentarians shelled it and captured it from the Royalists. The Holy Cross Church has an arched nave open to the sky, approached by an avenue of yew trees. Some find it a disturbing place but I prefer to use the word “atmospheric.” The tiny chancel is roofed  and locked, but through a flap in the door one can glimpse a 14th Century, wooden effigy of a knight. We strolled straight past both church and castle, too tired to take any proper interest. Luckily, I’d seen them before. At the bottom of the hill we returned to Swainby, guided by its tall church spire. It was now just a case of dragging off our boots and collapsing into the Rusty Bike Cafe, very much looking forward to our well earned repast.

Unfortunately the day had one last unwelcome surprise for us. We got into the cafe so late ( nearly 3pm) that they had virtually run out of food. It is very popular with cyclists and motor-bikers and they had obviously descended like a swarm of locusts and devoured most of the goodies while we were getting lost and being verbally abused. So no toasties, no sandwiches, no sausage or bacon roll for Ian. It was a disappointing anti-climax at the end of our walk in the country. I managed to order a salad and a small delicious quiche and Ian put a brave face on things and even managed the odd smile as he sipped his cappuccino. But even with this damp squib of an ending and even after being attacked by Mr Angry, it had still been a great day out. A lot had happened, enough even to write a blog! Hopefully you have enjoyed it.

 

BULGARIA — at last.

14 Oct

Ever since the fall of the “Iron Curtain” in 1989, I have been fascinated with the idea of visiting the countries of eastern Europe, that for much of my life, had been strictly off-limits. I have made a good fist of it. I have been to many of the ex-Communist states which have extricated themselves from the Russian stranglehold and are now making their own way in the world. A few years ago I even made it to Albania, which for a long time, was the most isolated state in the whole continent. The Balkan countries have particularly fascinated me because of their complicated histories, their racial and religious mix and their pivotal role in the outbreak of the First World War. So it’s somewhat of a surprise that until this autumn ( 2018), I have never visited Bulgaria. I once thought about going on a walking holiday in the mysterious- sounding Rhodope Mountains, but in the end, deemed that too energetic for me at the time. Bulgaria then went off the radar for a long while until last year, when 2 things flagged it up again.  First of all, I read 2 books by the excellent Bulgarian author: Kapka Kassabova, who now lives in Scotland. One: “Street With No Name” describes her teenage years growing up in a totalitarian state in the 1980s. The other” Border — A Journey to the Edge of Europe” describes her travels along the much-disputed border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Both books rekindled my interest in Bulgaria. And then … I visited Doncaster!

Doncaster is a gritty, industrial town in England’s South Yorkshire, part of the Sheffield conurbation. I went there with a pal to do a Heritage Trail. The walk round the town threw up more than a few interesting surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was when we stumbled upon the Sofia Supermarket. Sofia, of course, is the capital of Bulgaria. The question was: why was a South Yorkshire supermarket named after an obscure, east European capital? The answer was supplied by the guide at Doncaster Minster. Ostensibly a loving Christian, he had nothing but bad things to say about Bulgarians. Apparently, they and the Romanians had “invaded” and taken over a whole area of the town. They had quickly turned it into a filthy slum in his view, and had even been seen defecating in the streets. We were reminded why Doncaster was one of the strongest “Leave” voting areas in the 2016 EU referendum. Many Donny voters blamed the European Union’s freedom of movement policy for the partial “take-over” of their town and the subsequent threat to their British identity. I had already been to Romania, a beautiful and delightful country, although not without its post- Communist problems. Now it was a must that I should go to Bulgaria. What terrible things would be in store for me there, the things that were driving so many of its citizens to leave and endure suspicion, discrimination and prejudice in a cold, damp country on the opposite side of Europe?

So it was that I persuaded my wife, Chris, to come with me on a small group tour of Bulgaria, entitled ” Mountains and Monasteries.” There was a slight feeling of trepidation in the air as the departure date approached. To a certain extent, it was another journey into the unknown, but that, in my opinion, is what makes travel so exciting. What about cleanliness? Would we encounter bed bugs while staying in remote mountain villages. What about the food? Would meat eating Bulgaria be able to supply us with adequate vegetarian food? What would the roads be like? Were we letting ourselves in for a bumpy, pot-holed nightmare? We were not opting for the comfort and safety of a Black Sea beach resort with its cliche of a pool, sunloungers and an all-in package deal. I had once stood behind 2 people in the post office queue, discussing whether to visit “Sunny Beach” or “Golden Sands”. I thought they were discussing places in Devon or Cornwall until I later found out that these were Black Sea resorts, given anglicised names to attract British and other western tourists. No, we were not going to wrap ourselves in the safety blanket of a “fly and flop” holiday. We were heading for the largely mysterious interior of Bulgaria, a land reputably of:  beautifully decorated churches, fine mosques, carefully preserved rustic villages, rich folk-lore, striking mountain scenary, and , possibly, — people defecating in the streets!

Well reader — it was great! OK, it wasn’t exactly relaxing, but sight-seeing holidays rarely are.  It’s a pity tour companies cannot devise more leisurely itineraries, especially for older travellers like ourselves. ( Our small group of 5 were all in their mid 60s to early 70s.) Staying in a hotel more than one night would have been very welcome. We only did this once, apart from the 2 nights in Sofia at the beginning and at the end of the trip which we organised ourselves. However I repeat — it was really great. All the hotels and guest houses were spotlessly clean, the food was unfailingly delicious ( think Turkish or Greek mezze style), the wine and beer were excellent and cheap, and all the people were welcoming, generous and friendly. Not once did we see someone going to the toilet in public view. In fact, unlike in the UK, we were hard pressed to spot any litter. I think we only encountered a couple of cigarette butts in the entire 10 day trip. Bulgarians smoke a lot and tobacco is one of their most important industries, but they observe a ban on smoking in public buildings that is now in force across much of the west.

So what did we see? Don’t worry, I don’t intend to give you a blow by blow account of the whole trip. Sighs of relief all round!  I just plan to give a few of my main impressions.

Obviously, from the title of the tour, we saw a lot of mountains and monasteries. The fact that they are often found in the same places is not a coincidence. In the past, monks sought out the natural beauty and sheer isolation of the mountains to be nearer to God and far from wordly temptations. The result is that many of Bulgaria’s monasteries, founded in medieval times, sit in very picturesque locations. This was particularly true of Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains and Bachkovo Monastery in the Rhodopes. Monasteries stand in their own walled courtyards, surrounded by arcaded and tiered ranks of monks’ cells and centred around one or more beautiful churches. They usually have a bell tower. Their exteriors were often plain and unassuming as they didn’t want to upset their muslim Turkish rulers. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Bulgaria in the 14th century ( and subsequently went on to rule it for 5 centuries), their architects were so impressed with Balkan churches that they unashamably designed their mosques along the same principles. Thus, both mosques and Orthodox churches consist of graceful domes resting on cube-like structures of brick or stone. Many of the mosques have been destroyed or converted to other uses since Bulgaria escaped from Ottoman subjugation in the late 1880s, but we were still able to visit exquisite examples in both Sofia and Plovdiv. Interestingly, non- Muslims are allowed to visit mosques so long as they remove their shoes, although women have to wear a gown and cover their heads. ( something that Chris understandably did not appreciate very much.)

Going back to the churches — they are all spectacularly frescoed. This goes back to the time when most worshippers could not read or write, so the churches had to get their messages across in pictoral form. The idea of painted churches was borrowed from the Byzantines ( Eastern Roman Empire) who ruled Bulgaria in the early middle ages. Most of the pictures depict Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist holding his own head, and one of the church’s many saints. Bulgarian monasteries and churches also seem to be very fond of graphically representing the Day of Judgement, when it is decided whether a departed person goes up to heaven or down to hell. A person’s soul is shown being weighed on a pair of scales, seeing if it is clear enough of sins to balance a feather. Gruesome devils are often seen poking poor people with vicious, large forks or trying to drag them down into the fires. Many of their potential ” victims” seem to be naked young women leading me to blasphemously suspect that this might have been some sort of medieval soft porn. ( Sorry!)  Bulgaria was one of the first eastern European nations to adopt the Christian faith. Two learned brothers were instructed to devise the Cyrillic alphabet so that this southern slav nation could be welded together under the umbrella of Christianity. It saved everybody from having to learn the more alien language of ancient Greek. The invented language has 30 letters, all pronounced totally phonetically and all recognisable to the slavic speaker. The language and the new religion helped to create a communal, Bulgarian sense of identity. In 1054 came the “Great Schism” when Christianity divided into the Roman Catholic Church in the west, and the Orthodox in the east. This reflected the earlier split of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves. Bulgaria ended up firmly in the eastern, Orthodox camp as it still is today. Just out of interest, it is the only member of the EU to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Something to remember for that pub trivia quiz. Two more interesting pieces of trivia:—  Sofia is the second highest capital city in Europe ( after Madrid), and Bulgaria is the second best wi-fi connected country in the world ( after South Korea.)

Going back to the churches again — the entire trip was a bit like a crash course in the Orthodox religion. Bulgarians are not overtly religious but since the austere, atheistic years of Communism, they have returned to the church, particularly for baptism and wedding rituals and to celebrate various saints’ days. Our group never witnessed a full scale service but did see individual worshippers. Upon entering , the devotees cross themselves. They then buy a few candles and light them, before placing them on a candalabria.  There is a higher one for the living and a lower one for the dead. Candles are symbols of faith and of the light of knowledge. Unfortunately, the smoke from constant candle burning has led to the dulling or damaging of many of the originally gleaming paintings. The faithful then approach one or more icons, cross themselves again, say a prayer, perhaps while spreading a hand on the image and then, finally, they kiss the icon. The icon is not regarded as a mere picture. It is a sanctified object that helps the faithful feel the presence of God. The picture is a sort of portal to heaven. The most striking feature of an orthodox church is the iconastasis. This is a richly decorated screen of icons and delicate wood carving. The latter is often covered in gold leaf. The iconastasis symbolises the division between earth and heaven. It has ornamental doors which are opened during a service to reveal the altar beyond. The whole scene is colourful and spectacular. It makes a typical English parish church look dull and boring. Once we observed a wedding. Large crowns were placed on the heads of the bride and groom after being symbolically tied together by the chanting priest. At the end, the married couple and guests all joined hands for a circle dance to live music in the street. The musicians played pipe and accordian. Sometimes goat-skin bagpipes are played. There was also rich, emotional male-voice harmony singing.

Bulgaria has several huge mountain ranges dominating its hinterland. Here we travelled through large forests. In the forest are brown bears, wolves and European lynx but we never saw any as we were never up early enough in the morning. The only creature we spotted was a brightly coloured Flame Salamander — a dark lizard- like creature with bright orangy -yellow markings.  We saw large swathes of meadowland populated by herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats. Invariably, these were cared for by a cowherd or a shepherd with a long stick, helped by a couple of dogs. Once we watched a flock of goats being shepherded quietly across a hillside above a mountain village, the only sound being the quiet clanking of the bells around their necks. To use the old cliche, it was like travelling back in time. Sometimes it was as if the whole of inland Bulgaria was like one big, open-air museum. We saw old, rustic villages where life had seemingly not changed very much for centuries. In one, Dolen, we discovered the female church guardian, patiently shelling a huge mound of beans. She took time off to tell us her sad life story and a brief history of the church which was in bad need of restoration. Our excellent guide translated. It was a privilege to enter this closed off, forgotten world, if only for a few minutes. That village had people walking around in traditional costume and featured architecture of the “National Revival” style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Wattle and daub walls were plastered over and topped by pan-tiled roofs with tall, striking chimneys. On the top of each chimney there was what looked like a tiny replica of a house. This architectural style came in as Ottoman power gradually drained away.

We visited two cities: Sofia, the capital and Plovdiv, the second largest. Both had an array of interesting buildings, galleries, shops, restaurants and museums. Both also had partly exposed Roman cities beneath street level. Sofia got pulverised by Anglo-American bombers in 1943 after Bulgaria became a reluctant ally of Nazi Germany. Thus today, it only has isolated historical buildings , although there are still a fair scattering of them. Plovdiv is more of an harmonious whole, with an evocative cobbled old town clinging to the side of one of its hills. It has a partly restored Greco-Roman theatre, now used for modern productions, plus part of its Circus Maximus, formerly used for ancient Roman sports and chariot racing. We loved wandering round Plovdiv. Next year, it’s going to be the European Capital of Culture. Going back to the war, Bulgaria managed to save all of its Jews from the death camps. For his trouble the Nazis poisoned the last King, Boris. His tomb is now in a revered corner of the Rila Monastery. Bulgaria had been tempted into the Second World War with the promise of regaining its lost territory of Macedonia. This had originally been part of Bulgaria when it emerged from Ottoman rule but just a short time later, the Great Powers took it away again at the Congress of Berlin in 1876. Countries like Britain, France and Austria-Hungary didn’t want Bulgaria, a Slav ally of Russia to get too powerful. This is why Bulgarians who know their history, still hate Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister at the time. They blame him for the emasculation of their newly independent country. The Bulgarians went to war 3 times in the 20th century to get back Macedonia, but lost them all. ( 2nd Balkan War, First World War and Second World War.) Our guide, Sloven, scoffed at the idea of the independent Macedonia that exists today. ( soon to be renamed North Macedonia after its long naming dispute with Greece.) He called it “Disneyland” because he said it has had to make up a fantasy history and heritage.

We saw ancient Thracian passage tombs, stunning limestone ( karst) gorges and cave complexes, and breath-taking mountain vistas.  We experienced really hot and really cold weather depending upon what altitude we were at. We did wine tasting and tried our hand at folk dancing and singing. ( not very successfully). We visited the Valley of the Roses where 70% of the world’s  essence of “rosa damascena” is produced. Originally from Damascus in Syria, this special red rose with a powerful essence is now mainly a Bulgarian speciality. It forms the basis of many of the world’s perfumes. We also learnt that so-called Greek yoghurt is actually mostly produced in Bulgaria. I won’t go on. Suffice to say it was a stimulating and endlessly fascinating journey through the lesser known hinterlands of Bulgaria.  We found that the Bulgarian people we met were all proud of their country, its heritage and its culture. The trauma of the end of Communism and the abrupt break-off of trade with Russia did cause serious economic problems however. These were compounded by  next door Yugoslavia’s Civil wars in the 1990s. Obviously great hardship and poverty ensued, made worse by constant corruption at governmental level. This is probably why some Bulgarians have felt compelled to travel and find work in the richer countries of the west. This is probably why some have ended up in Britain, despite its current “hostile environment” for migrants.

So, I have now been to Bulgaria — at last. Another piece of my personal Balkan jig-saw has been slotted into place. Travel , they say, broadens the mind. I have now learnt a lot about one of our often misunderstood European neighbours. It has been a greatly enriching experience.

 

 

Trans-Pennine Stop Off.

19 Sep

The idea came to me while on a train ride from Middlesbrough to Manchester Airport. I have travelled this route many times, on the Trans-Pennine Express, over the hilly backbone of northern England. I love the section between the cities of Leeds and Manchester. I always make a point of stopping whatever I’m doing and looking out of the window. I see an evocative landscape of glowering hills and moors beneath frequently moody skies. The steep, dark hillsides are laced with dry stone walls and dotted with wandering sheep. Every now and then there is a canal with a tow path and locks, or the  glassy surface of a reservoir. Then we pass through a town, complete with the remains of textile mills, tall, brick chimneys and regimented rows of terraced houses marching up the hillside. It always makes me want to pull Priestly’s “Good Companions” off the book-shelf and start reading it all over again. It’s evocative opening chapter is set in the fictitious Yorkshire mill town of Bruddersfield. ( a thinly disguised cross between Bradford and Huddersfield.) Well, my idea was to visit the town that lies inbetween these two. Just a 10 minute train ride south-west of Leeds lies Dewsbury. The Middlesbrough Trans-Pennine Expresses have now started to stop there. So I decided to visit it — to allow it more than just a quick glance through the train window.

My travel buddy Ian and I , love to visit towns that tourists largely ignore. It is our own peverse form of “anti-tourism.” No matter where we decide to go however, something interesting or exciting usually turns up. It’s like digging for hidden gems. For instance, people told us there was nothing to see at Stockton, but we ended up visiting it twice! Would Dewsbury throw up any worthwhile surprises? It was to be another fascinating delve into the unknown.

Our train swept into Dewsbury station across an impressive, curving , many-arched viaduct. Not a bad start! Below us, tumbling down the hill, was a town studded with grand Victorian edifices. They were the hardy survivors of the world wars, the sweeping, post-war redevelopment schemes and the modern ring road, which cuts a destructive swathe around the borders of the town centre. The result is a mish- mash of architectural styles — the old and new, the good, the bad and the ugly.  The impressive Victorian stone churches, warehouses, offices, and civic buildings, share the centre with post war developments that are already  sadly showing their age, with their discoloured concrete, peeling panels and scrawls of graffiti. To summarise its recent history, Dewsbury prospered during the late 18th to the early 20th century because of its  successful woollen textile industry. The town was a hive of activity and its buildings reflected this wealth stream. Unfortunately, the latter half of the 20th century saw textile manufacturing go into near terminal decline. As this industry provided the heart-beat for the whole community, the town fell into a parallel reversal of fortunes.  Sadly, the steep decline has carried on into the present century. Mills, offices, shops and offices have closed and the once proud industrial town has suffered badly from deprivation and neglect.

Fortunately though, not all the town’s impressive historical buildings were lost to the cause of “progress” or swept away to  make room for the insatiable demands of the motor car. Some have been rescued and saved for posterity. In the 1970s and 80s the urge to sweep away the “old” to bring in the “new”, was challenged by a growing appreciation of the past. The Heritage movement, with its emphasis on preservation and restoration, was born and quickly gained in strength.  One result of this was that most of the historic core of Dewsbury was declared a Conservation Area in 1981. The town centre still contains 280 pre- Second World War buildings, 57 of which are listed. The bull-dozers were not stopped, but they were definitely slowed down.

Ian and I, stepping out of the rail station, first had to negotiate the busy ring road but then were able to stroll down relatively quiet streets into the semi-pedestrianised town centre. Today Dewsbury, like almost every other town, has its modern shopping malls and precincts, which we ignored except for just a passing glance. They are convenient, but largely soulless in our opinion. We wanted to seek out the buildings that represented Dewsbury’s golden era. We wanted to find the architectural highlights, not the mundane. Thus we ended up on the Blue Plaque Trail kindly devised by local historians. It certainly threw up some gems and surprises on the way.

At the bottom of the hill from the station we entered the market square, the centre of the town. It wasn’t market day ( that’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays), but it was still an attractive space, surrounded by shops, pubs and cafes.  It has benches, fancy wrought iron and glass shelters, colourful hanging baskets,and areas of shrubs and newly planted little trees. The market square is dominated at one end by the magnificent Town Hall built in the late 1880s. It looks a bit like a grandiose chateau topped by a domed clock tower.  It’s built in local stone in French Renaissance style and cost 40,000 pounds with an extra 1000 for the clock tower.( sorry — the pound sign on my keyboard has stopped working!) As well as municipal offices, it housed a courthouse, a police station and prison cells. The courthouse has featured in TV drama series and the “Yorkshire Ripper”, Peter Sutcliffe, was held in the cells after his arrest. Today, the Town Hall still houses Dewsbury’s main concert venue, the Victoria Hall, with space for an audience of 700 people. In front of the Town Hall stands an impressive modern statue of the Good Samaritan tending to the stricken traveller. It looks like it has been sculpted from a single large block of stone. A plaque states incongruously that it was commissioned to mark the opening of the pedestrianised Princess of Wales Shopping Precinct in the early years of the 21st century. I forget the exact date. I am still trying to figure out the connection between the biblical character and a modern shopping centre. Maybe because of her charitable work, Princess Diana was regarded as a modern good Samaritan?

This was not my first visit to Dewsbury. I had been there many decades before, as a teenager.The sculpture wasn’t there when I was last in that market place in 1967. I remember stalls and  maybe, a cobbled square  surrounded by busy roads and tall, dark buildings. A friend of mine had moved to the area and I had gone to visit him. I remember him taking me to the disco at the local Mecca ballroom and there I miraculously acquired an attractive Dewsbury girlfriend despite my clumsy dance moves and the ultra- violet lighting showing up the dandruff glistening on my collar! Later that year I bunked off school while my parents were away on holiday and sped 50 miles up the A61 from Chesterfield ( my home town) on my Lambretta J125 with a mate Michael, on the pillion, to see the same girl and her friend on a sort of double semi-blind date. After the disco, ( and hopefully the snogging), was over,  Michael and I planned to get a few hours kip on top of the empty market stalls before riding home. It was a crazy idea of course. Inevitably it all went pear shaped. We were delayed by a puncture in Wakefield, and then, during the disco my “girlfriend” switched her attentions to Michael ( who was better looking than me) and I was left making small chat with her friend whom I didn’t fancy and who obviously didn’t fancy me. Maybe she had spotted the dandruff. Sleeping on the market stalls proved to be very uncomfortable and increasingly cold, so we cut our losses and road home through the small hours. I arrived back to an empty house, cold and miserable and without the warm thought of a girlfriend in Dewsbury! However, one consolation — I have retained a life- long soft- spot for Tommy James and the Shondells.( “Mony Mony”)

So here I was , back at the scene of my triumph and my disaster, a mere 51 years later. Now, happily married and approaching my dotage, I was chasing historical buildings not girls. The next building on our list was the Longcauseway United Reform and Methodist Church. It doesn’t sound very promising does it? Opened in 1884, it has an impressive Gothic exterior but we  largely ignored this as a sharp shower had started and we were anxious to get in out of the rain. Having been brought up as a Methodist I was expecting the inside to be plain, or even austere, like the chapels of my childhood. However this interior is fairly eleborate and quietly beautiful. It is rectangular and the old wooden pews are split by 2 aisles. At the end of each pew was a neat little stack of hymn books. Above, curving round three sides is a lovely wooden gallery supported by graceful metal pillars. Light flooded in through large windows and an impressively large organ dominated one end above the altar and the pulpit. Apparently, a large organ was a sign of prestige although I thought that non-conformist churches weren’t supposed to be into showing off, oneupmanship or anything that would distract the worshippers from concentrating on God. It is still impressive though. The original name of the church had been “Ebenezer”, an old name referring to the goodness of God. In the 19th Century there were many Congregationalist , Methodist and Baptist churches in Dewsbury and its surrounding area. Most had thriving Sunday Schools. New churches had to be built to accomodate the constantly expending congregations. However, like the town, the successes and expansions of the 19th century were followed by a long decline in the 20th. Some Congregationalist chapels were forced to  close and amalgamate with their neighbours. The new merged places of worship were known as United Reform Churches. Ebenezer was one of these. Later the Dewsbury Methodists threw in their lot with it. In 1972 it changed its name to Longcauseway. In increasingly secular modern Britain, church congregations are dwindling and ageing. An old lady was busy tidying up the hymn books. She told me she had been attending this church every Sunday since she was 5  and she was now nearly 90. An enthusisatic older gentleman in his mid to later 70s ( I guessed) was thrilled that 2 people had travelled from north-east England to visit his church. He had volunteered to be a guide and was expecting yet another quiet, boring day. He pressed guide booklets on to us, told us his stories and insisted we sign the visiter’s book. Longcauseway is a Grade II listed building and is well worth a look in if you’re ever in Dewsbury. It’s a special place.

It was fine by the time we got out again. We strolled past the Edwardian market buildings, now in need of a bit of TLC but still interesting and attractive ( wrought iron and glass.) We passed two sadly neglected Victorian shopping arcades. They were scheduled for restoration but that was still to happen. Ian commented that if they had been in Leeds, they would have been done- up ages ago to become one of the highlights of the city centre. But this was poor, neglected Dewsbury, not rich, prospering Leeds. We came across more sad neglect in Northgate Street. A very impressive stretch of tall, ornate Victorian buildings was now empty and boarded up. A wooden barrier had been erected in front of the ground floor premises to try to stop the vandals getting in. This is the spectacular Dewsbury Pioneers Building, opened in 1880. It had originally been the Cooperative Society building from 1857.  It had once consisted of department shops on the ground floor, a library, conversation rooms ( can you imagine that in the age of the smart-phone?) and offices  on the first floor, and an Industrial Hall of 1500 seats on the second floor. Extensions were added in 1896 and 1914, the last section in a flamboyant Baroque style. The hall was converted into a cinema in 1922. All that has now gone! The rot set in during the 1950s.

Thankfully there are plans to renovate and refurbish Dewsbury town centre — to give it a much needed facelift. The plans for the Pioneers Building are backed up by Lottery Funding. Some work has been done and we saw people at the back of it. It looked like a lot of it had been demolished and was going to be rebuilt behind the grand Victorian facade. Apparently the first thing that had to be done was to remove 2 tons of pigeon droppings! The plans are for  dozens of boutique shops and luxury apartments, plus a cafe-bar and a gym. It sounds good until I read in the website blurb that they were hoping to finish the work by 2010!! Eight years later, the cash-starved regeneration crawls on. Also, what happened to the idea of affordable housing? How many ordinary citizens of Dewsbury could afford to live in these apartments if they ever get built?

Opposite the Pioneer Buildings we spotted a cafe/restaurant and it just happened to be lunchtime. Ian and I always like to find a cosy English tea shop to have a refreshment break. However, in Dewsbury centre  we couldn’t see one at all. Perhaps it was hiding somewhere in the Princess of Wales precinct. We had already had coffees in a Turkish bistro off the market place and now we found ourselves in the Cocoa Lounge which sounds more like a night club than an eating place. We guessed it is run by Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi people. It is in an area of Dewsbury know as “Little India” We normally look forward to a toastie or a panini but this time we were faced by an exotic looking menu of middle-eastern and Indian dishes.As soon as the waitress spotted us she offered us the “full all-day English.” But we were determined to take advantage of this opportunity and try something different. I had a mint tea and a Samosa Chaat. ( Samosas with sweet and spicy chickpeas, lentils, veg, sauces and yoghurt.) It was warm and tasty. Ian had something similar but was subjected to more chillies! ( He paid the price later.) It was quite a bizarre but very pleasant and interesting experience. Everyone else in the room was wearing traditional muslim dress. A group of  head-scarfed young mums with 2 young children were chatting and eating merrily away just next to us. When they left, one of them donned a full length, black niqab or burqa. Only her eyes were then visible although she had been completely at ease showing off her whole face in the restaurant. Memories of Boris Johnson’s insulting and insensitive remarks unfortunately slipped into my mind. Yet the whole episode seemed perfectly natural and friendly. There was nothing sinister about it at all. In the window two paunchy men in full length smocks and embroidered skull caps were munching through what we thought were sausages. However pork is obviously regarded as unclean by muslims so we later concluded that they were eating fried chicken or turkey strips. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial,even though it felt that we were in the middle of Lahore, Delhi or Dhaka instead of  West Yorkshire. We couldn’t help noticing that there was a prominant population from the Indian sub-continant in Dewsbury. I imagine it’s like a smaller version of Bradford. These had gravitated to the region to work in the mills, until most of them had to close down because of competition from, ironically, India! Halfway through the afternoon the Iman’s call to prayer rang out  across the town from the nearby mosque. Later, I was not surprised at all to find that the anti-immigrant and racist English Defence League was active in the town. One of their books bitterly refers to it as “The Islamic Republic of Dewsbury.” Every one to their own I say. ( so long as they don’t do or say anything that harms others.) One person’s multi-cultural enrichment is another person’s alien invasion. Another great irony — as Dewsbury’s Christian Churches have declined, it’s mosques have thrived.

Replete with multi-cultural food and slightly churning stomachs we left the friendly muslim cafe and plodded on. We saw an old Church of England primary school from 1843 now turned into a community centre. We saw the Georgian-style Methodist Church now taken over by the Evangelists. We passed by impressive Victorian warehouses and even spotted a still working textile mill. The Machell Brothers moved their business to its present premises in 1874. Outside the office are busts of the two brothers, Robert Fletcher and William, alongside images of Cobden and Disraeli. They weren’t modest, those Victorians. William went on to become mayor of Dewbury from 1880 to 82. He probably attended the Congregationalist Church just down the road. The business still proudly boasts of its manufacture of “Shoddy” and “Mungo” goods. These were very early examples of recycling which is now of course all the rage. They were textiles made from re-processed rags which were once collected from all over the British Empire. “Shoddy” was produced from soft rags and cast offs such as stockings, flannels, and carpets; while “Mungo” was produced from hard rags such as dress coats, tailors’ cuttings and disused fine table cloths. They were torn up and shredded by a fast revolving cylinder with sharp teeth locally referred to as “the Devil.” Later the shredded material was turned into a kind of wool or flock which was then mixed with sheep’s wool to make cheap items for the  growing working classes. Obviously this cheaper material is where we get the modern meaning of “shoddy” from.

Our last port of call was Dewsbury Minster, an attractive ancient church with modern additions. It’s a shame that it was cut off from the town centre by the busy 4 lane ring road. ( We found the same sad situation in Doncaster.)  Dewsbury’s historic Minster has Norman, Georgian and Victorian sections as well as traces of Anglo- Saxon. The modern part contains a reception area, a refectory, meeting rooms and an excellent little museum telling Dewsbury’s story. The old part, the Paulinus Chapel, has lovely Norman style arches and pillars, beautiful modern stained glass and an ancient, but beautifully preserved font. The font was originally made in the 13th century, was found mutilated in the grounds in 1767 and was subsequently restored and brought back inside. The original church had been established in Anglo Saxon times at the place where St Paulinus preached by the crossing of the River Calder in 627 AD. The church is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Our day was in Dewsbury was almost over. We tramped up the hill to the railway station to catch our Trans-Pennine express back up north. There was just time for a last coffee in the atmospheric pub and refreshment rooms just off the platform. Ian needed the milk to settle down his Indian style indigestion. We glanced down at the Victorian buildings  for one last time as our train glided away across the viaduct. It had been another interesting, surprising and stimulating visit to a seemingly unpromising destination. All those bucket-list tourists are missing out.