Thursday, 31 May 2007

While researching York Minster I came across an interesting, and indeed rather moving, account of the restoration of the south transept rose window by the glazier.

And he says two things in particular that are very interesting.

First of all, he's convinced that the window only survived the fire because it has already been restored, so it was in good shape - the pieces of glass weren't loose in the leading, so they didn't fall out.

Secondly, which I think is most interesting, he mentions that when the restoration of the glass was half complete,  he exhibited it in the chapter house so that people could see it from close up. I've noticed that conservationists and craftsmen nowadays are often - not always - keen to show what they're doing.

The old practice was to swathe the object of restoration in layers of netting, and ban visitors - it's still being done in Italy, unfortunately, which seems to be one of the least progressive countries in Europe in this regard. (I would love to be proved wrong.) But if people can't see what is being done, how will they know that it's worthwhile?

Anyway, enough of my views; read the article for yourself.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The sound of the Low Countries

One of the things I've come to appreciate as I've travelled around the Netherlands and Belgium is the sound of bells. Carillons are everywhere.

In Antwerp, the cathedral carillon plays 'La Follia' every hour. That's a tune I know from the Renaissance, being a musician, so I felt welcome in Antwerp right from the start (before the nice guy in the tourist office marked my map with the three best serious beer bars in the city - De Waagstuk, Oud Arsenaal, and Kulminator).

And in fact I've got a closer connection with the carillon than that. One of my favourite composers for the recorder is van Eyck - a blind musician who published 'the flute's pleasure garden' or Der Fluytenlusthof in the 1640s. But recorder playing was only his second trade; he was a carilloneur, too - and, what I didn't know, probably started the famous bellfounding Hemony brothers on the right route to producing properly tuned bells, something that had proved difficult to achieve up till then.

So I was happy to find this exceptional recording on Youtube. Credit to Mr van Eyck (any relation?) for this fantastically exciting piece, played on the carillon of Mechelen cathedral.

Intimacy with the past

It's always fascinating when you come across the past intimately - when you find one of those little things that we overlook, that are completely everyday, that suddenly allow us to step out of our own world and across the boundaries of time into another.

For instance there's a painting in Mechelen cathedral that shows a dockside scene - and on a sack, the merchant's mark. It's not a great painting but that single detail gave me a shock of intimacy - connected me with that merchant.

Or like the time I found a photo of my grandfather as a young man of seventeen. He looked so exactly like my brother - yet his clothes were clearly not contemporary. Again, there was a real shock that the past was so vivid - as well as so far away.

So I really enjoyed this posting by Gawain about  old Venetian playing cards. It's not an "easy reading" blog, but it's a good one. I came across it when I started researching Punch and Judy (Tiepolo sketched a number of Pulcinellos, some in quite surreal positions) and I've been reading ever since.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Bob, bob, bob

A fantastic press release from Travelodge appeared this morning. My favourite of the year, so far, and thank goodness it's not April 1st.
If you are stressed out, they now offer you the opportunity to book quality time with a goldfish.

Two Travelodges, in Leeds and Birmingham, will have nicely equipped tanks for their guests to watch. And we're assured they will be properly looked after.

I certainly would book myself some time with the goldfish if I were staying. It does seem one of the nicer services offered. I remember another hotel chain where you could book out a Nintendo Gameboy for a rather different method of de-stressing.

Why  'bob, bob, bob' in the headline, you may ask. If you can lip read, you'll realise this is what goldfish keep saying. A good thing they only have an attention span of thirty seconds.

Flower power

A little diversion from my usual travel photos; I've been photographing the bearded irises in the garden, on a dewy morning.

It's the first time I've ever taken flower pictures. Normally I never use the closeup ability of my camera or lenses, so this is something new.

A few lessons.

Just because the flower is a few centimetres away doesn't mean I don't need depth of field. I actually needed f22 to shoot down the tunnel of an iris and have the furry stamen clear all the way back.

On the other hand a really wide aperture lets you shoot the flower and keep the grass behind well out of focus, just a blurry green background. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

Don't ever use autofocus doing this. It unerringly picks up just the bit of the plant you don't want in the picture. Use manual focus and choose carefully exactly where you focus - whether it's on the furry inside, the raindrops on a petal, the texture.

Keep moving in all three dimensions - around the plant, up and down, sideways. These are complex shapes - every inch you move will show new vistas.

Zoom in. Relentlessly, zoom in to find a line, a pattern, a texture, a vortex, that makes a complete picture on its own.  Showing the whole flower is for simple flowers, like harebells. A bearded iris has too much complexity for that. I'm amazed how poor my shots of the whole irises are, compared to those shots where I zoomed up close.

I've done nothing with lighting today. No flash, no reflector. Just using ambient light. I might think about using some light next time to get a little more definition on the shape of the irises.

Rain is your friend. Nothing makes an iris sexier than raindrops on the petals.

Last lesson: don't overlook your own back yard. Today I was still a travel photographer,  but I travelled inwards, not away.

Next week: photographing cats.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

The station as a destination

I like stations.

York station - a great curve of vaults above the track. Antwerp - a neoclassical nightmare out of Piranesi's prints. Milan - the monstrosity of modern machines created for a Fascist railway. Or even  some that don't exist - Adlestrop, the station of Edward Thomas's poem where no trains stop now, or SAP Walldorf, which shows up as a station on the Deutsche Bahn web site but is (as far as I can find out) actually a bus stop.

Now I've discovered there are other people who think stations are a destination, too. There's a Zone One Tube Race in London on the 18th of May. Every single station in Zone One has to be visited (though as long as the train stops and the doors open, you don't have to get out).  There's an even bigger version visiting every Tube station in all the zones... Zone One on its own takes about 3 1/2 hours if you're leisurely.

Never mind the race. But I think I might take a whole weekend and visit all the London tube stations - and see what I find. I might decide to take a little walk outside the Tube at some of them, to see what I find. That would be a lovely way to take a slice of London. Or perhaps leave a bit of it up to chance; get off at every fifth station, let's say.  Or throw a dice and get off whenever I throw a six.

But... does the Docklands Light Railway count? Or shall I be a purist?

If any readers fancy a trip - let me know. Some time late August might be fun.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Fun and games

Medieval sport seems to have resembled a battle - rough, unlimited in time, and pretty vague in its rules.  I don't think they did penalty shoot-outs in the Middle Ages.

What's fun for us is that quite a few of these medieval sports remain. There are tantalising suggestions in the art of the time - for instance in Gloucester Cathedral there's a 'bandyball' player shown in the east window. Apparently the dean of Gloucester challenged another couple of clergymen to a re-enactment game. I can't find out who won, though.

But if you're really interested there are some fine medieval games still being played. For instance in Siena the Palio horse race round the main Piazza still takes place, twice a year. In Florence, there's 'Calcio storico', traditional football, with a ridiculously large number of players on each side. In Pisa, the Gioco del Ponte justifies a glorious military parade - but it's a violent game between the two parts of the city, Tramontana and Mezzogiorno, with twenty men at a time trying to push their opponents off  the bridge.

In Germany, Mainz has its own tradition, rather a damp one - on St John's Eve, in midsummer, the boatmen have a joust on the Rhine, using long poles to try to tip their opponents into the water.

Getting people wet is always fun. One of my friends has his own game - not a 'tradition' that the local tourist board would recognise, I suspect, but known to a good few - of organising a water-pistol siege of his house on the August bank holiday.

And here Spain and France turn out to have some really oozing, slurpy, disgustingly wet games. For instance in Prats-de-Mollo in the Pyrenees you'll find the 'bears' - villagers liberally covered with soot and oil and sheepskin, set up for the other guys to chase. They may well relate to the Jack-in-the-Green, the May Day king, but they've gone in a different direction - fun and games rather than pageantry.

There's just no excuse for the Tomato festival in Bunol, in the Spanish province of Valencia. It starts with another good game - climbing a greasy pole to get at a leg of ham. But the fun really begins when they start throwing the tomatoes.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Two views of the Orient

The crypt of the cathedral in Boulogne is not really worth visiting. It's damp, full of bad nineteenth century plaster saints, and chilly.

But I was intrigued by one of the monuments. Sir John B Hearsey, "the hero of Seetabuldee", with a fine feathered hat and sabre. What is he doing here?

He was a general who had campaigned in India in the early nineteenth century - days of huge expansion for the British. But it seems he retired to Boulogne in later life; it was a cheap place for British pensioners.

Under the magnificent ramparts is a pyramid shaped monument to another man who had spent time in the east - Mariette Pacha.  He was born in Boulogne, but before he was thirty he had headed out to Egypt - and he never returned (though he worked at the Louvre for a while before entering the Egyptian Khedive's employment).

Now you might think that Mariette, as an Egyptologist, is a less swashbuckling figure than the "hero of Sitabuldee". But you'd be wrong. These were the days when archaeologists competed to find the most valuable artefacts - when the way to open a sarcophagus was to put gunpowder under the lid and light it with your cigar, as Mariette is said to have done.

The strange thing is that both these  figures are commemorated in Boulogne - half fish processing centre, half seaside town. It's like finding a monument to Richard Burton or Mungo Park in Frinton on Sea.  I wonder what other intriguing stories the town might hide?

Mariette Pacha - French scholar and archaeologist, - the man who wrote the plot for Verdi's Aida -

Two precious wall paintings - a disappearing heritage?

Frecoes are, for most of us, an Italian thing. Painting on walls just isn't something we think artists did in medieval France and England.

But that's got more to do with centuries of damp than it has to do with medieval artists' work. Every so often you come across a wall painting that startles you with its vividness - and makes you realise how much we have probably lost.

Amiens Cathedral for instance has a lovely painting of the Sibyls; fashionable fifteenth century ladies, in lovely springtime colours - living green, sweet pink, golden yellows. But look more closely, and you'll see the paint is actually flaking off the wall; how much longer will they be there?

I was amazed recently to find a stunning wall painting in my own city. I never knew it was there. Yet it's of such fine quality that if it were in Florence or Venice, it would be in all the guidebooks.

St Gregory, Pottergate, Norwich, was only open because there was a craft fair inside. Norwich has many fine Perpendicular churches, and at first sight this was just one more of the same style - whitewashed walls, most of the furnishings gone, cobwebs and damp.

Then I saw the painting at the back of the north aisle. St George and the dragon, against the  dreamlike parapets of a fantastic castle. Its colours seemed darkened by time but the lines of the painting were still clear.

Maybe it doesn't rank with Uccello. But it's an amazingly beautiful piece of work. It's also a testimony to the medieval culture of Norwich, where St George and the Dragon were part of the guild celebrations (a dragon still turns up to the mayor's procession), and the Guild of St George was one of the most powerful.

Yet this painting is unnoticed, unprotected, in a redundant church that's open a few times a year. And though it's in a better state than the Amiens Sibyls, I wonder how it will fare in future, in an empty church that's used a few times a year.

Poirette and peche de vigne

A nice surprise this week was finding a little local grocer's in Picardy with a fine selection of local spirits.  We counted fifteen in the window - and there were more inside.

First we tried the Poirette de Picardie. Pear juice is left for three years in oak barrels with 'eau de vie de cidre', cider spirit. (Basically, if it was made in Normandy it would be Calvados.) There's sweetness, a little tartness, a hint of pear taste. Picardy farmers also make Reinette, using apples instead of pears this way; I haven't tasted that. Yet.

Then we tried creme de peche de vigne. (Actually not the brand I've linked to, but a 'craft' product.) The peche de vigne is a particular type of peach tree that grows in vineyards - hence the name. Now I've had peach brandy before and found it usually far too sweet; but this is nice, with a delicate flavour, and fine aromas, and almost no sugary feeling at all. Just right for the long, light evenings we're beginning to get.

Friday, 4 May 2007

The friendly gargoyle

We went to Amiens last weekend to look at the cathedral.

It's fine, though I have to say my preference is for the earlier Gothic  of Bourges or Laon. But this is a majestic church - and a huge one; the first evidence of the French striving for height with its immense arcades and narrow, tall nave.

What made the visit really memorable, though, was our tour of the late Gothic choir stalls in the company of monsieur Jean Macrez - 'the last living gargoyle' as he jokingly calls himself.

He's spent years looking after the sculptures - dusting, waxing, polishing - and he clearly loves them. He pointed out the Bible stories - Joseph, Samson, Job, Jonah - but also the little figures of the tradesmen of the city. There's the scribe, the tanner, the mason, the carpenter, with a perfectly rendered little plane, the sculptor, the baker, even a laundrywoman with her tub and a man selling the famous duck paté of Amiens (still available today).

There's humour in the telling, too. The little carpenter has made it through five centuries untouched. The lithe young woman to his left, though, has had her features eroded by the strokes and caresses of the canons and choristers. Poor girl.No wonder then that a little further on, a woman is taking revenge for this chauvinism by beating up her husband!

Kneel on the floor, and you can see beneath the table of the wedding of Cana the feet of Jesus, and all the guests. Guess what - two of them are playing footsie (Jesus is not involved, for those of you who've read too much of the Da Vinci Code).  Then at one end of the stalls, go behind one of the scenes, and you can see why the four Evangelists appear at the top - they're standing on a bench to see over!

Too often, we submit to false professionalism with tour guides who tell us all the facts but have no passion for what they're showing. But here was a man who has not only mastered his subject (and written a couple of books, available in the cathedral shop), but has an abiding love for the cathedral and its art. You couldn't fail to be moved - and amused - by his presentation.

Monsieur 'Quasimodo's tour of the stalls was at half past three, Monday afternoon. He seems to do them most days - there's a little card at the choir entrance gate telling you when the next one is. Definitely worth waiting for. 

The dawn chorus

Sunday is 'International Dawn Chorus day', apparently. Lots of guided trips into the woods to hear the birds, at ungodly hours such as 4.45 am.

Now the nightingale and the skylark are the gold standard of song according to all the books. But I beg to differ.

The skylark actually sounds to me - a true city girl - like a dial-up modem. (You remember, before we all had broadband.)  Just with the skylark you never get the satisfying silence at the end that means it's connected.

So can I disagree with Keats and Shelley - and propose the blackbird and the thrush as the champion songbirds?

There is nothing as delightful as a blackbird's song. Its full-throated, slightly hollow, fluty tones ; its extension, in free forms, imaginative melodies tumbling over each other; the way it echoes in the stillness of the evening. There's something melancholy about it; not gloomy, nor depressing, but just gently sad, a true evening song bearing with it the same slight sadness as the smell of the wet earth after a rainshower.

Of course we don't always get that. Today I'm listening to a cuckoo. Two notes, two notes, two notes, just repeating them over and over. Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. It seems to keep going for ever. Does it never get bored?

Other days I can hear the woodpecker in the coppice, drumming away with its beak on the wood of a dead tree. I've never seen him, though I've seen the nuthatches who come out to be fed in winter, and heard their cry, sharp and repetitive like a sopranino version of a pneumatic drill.

Or the woodpigeons murmuring away. They always look plump, their purplish plumage shining - a very different bird from the urban mongrels most of us know.

So whether you can bothered to go on an official guided walk on Sunday, or just stay at home - it's worth waking up early. While the traffic hasn't started, the kids next door aren't squealing, and the TV's still switched off, you can hear the birds instead.

Resource:International Dawn Chorus Day web site

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

My favourite service station

Let's face it, most service stations are a dead loss. 1960s formica tables or gleaming 21st century chrome, they're all the same, wherever you are - logoland, plasticland, nowheresville.

But the Baie de la Somme service station on the A16 motorway in France is different.

First, it's architecturally not a bad design, with a long, low building of wooden slats and glass, along a rectangular pool which gives on to the Somme marshes. That's refreshing. So is the selection of food on sale inside, which includes jars of salicorne - pickled samphire - and local preserves.
But secondly, it has a belvedere - a stumpy tower which gives a fine view of the marshes. If you're lucky you'll see a plume of smoke  from the little steam train to Le Crotoy.

And in the basement of the tower is a marvellous diorama, a slideshow which shows you the sights and sounds of an entire day, from morning to dusk, in the bay.  Let the sounds of the waves, the seagulls' cries and the shingle on the beach lull you into relaxation - before you head off down the A16 again. It never fails to refresh me on the long drive down from the ferry port at Calais or Boulogne to Rouen.