Hailes Abbey

We visited Hailes Abbey last summer. This former Cistercian abbey near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, elected King of the Romans and brother to King Henry III. The abbey soon acquired a relic of the (supposed) Holy Blood of Christ, ensuring that it became a popular place of pilgrimage.

Of course, Hailes Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539. All that remains today, in a peaceful country location, is romantic grassy ruins – very pleasant to stroll around and admire the Cistercian architecture, and much enjoyed by the dog.

We come across Cistercian ruins all over England. The massive extent of Henry VIII’s Dissolution is really brought home by this Wikipedia entry listing all the English Cistercian Abbeys.

Hailes Abbey is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the National Trust.

The White Ship

Charles Spencer’s book The White Ship tells the story of the first Norman kings of England, and the shattering effect that one event – the sinking of a ship – had on the course of English history.

Of course, 1066 is the one date burned into the mind of every English child – when the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror effectively turned England into a province of Normandy, and the land of England was shared out between William’s favoured knights.

The job of every king at the time was to produce a male heir. If there was more than one boy, there was often conflict between the brothers. William had three sons, so there were years of conflict after his death in 1087, complicated by the fact that the English Channel split the ‘nation’ or empire.

Eventually William’s youngest son prevailed to become the dominant monarch, King Henry I, of the re-integrated country. After the final battles on the continent that assured his dominance, Henry returned to England from Barfleur in Normandy in late November 1120.

Henry and his wife Matilda had just one son, William Ætheling, and a daughter Matilda. There were also a number of illegitimate sons. Henry left for England early evening, on a favourable tide. William was to follow Henry back later in the evening, on a faster, White Ship, along with many of Henry’s supporters and heroes of the campaign. The story tells how drunkenness and revelry led to the ship running aground on rocks off Barfleur, losing all but one on board.

Henry I now had no male heir. The rest of the book details the contortions as he tried to get his daughter Matilda accepted as the next monarch, and the ensuing conflict and anarchy after Henry’s death in 1135, between his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who actually became king of England, and Matilda based on the continent. When Matilda’s son Henry took on the battle, Stephen was eventually forced to concede that this Henry should become the next king, Henry II, who became a dominant monarch in 1154 in the same mold as William and Henry I.

Similar tales have been recorded over the ages – the problems of succession, the intervening of natural disaster or folly. This one has a particular ring about it, at a key point in the history of England, Normandy and associated territories. It is well told by Charles Spencer in this book.

Featured image of the White Ship was produced in 1321, public domain.

Barmouth viaduct

We were out of season in Barmouth, and the railway bridge/viaduct over the Mawddach Estuary was closed for refurbishment work.

The bridge/viaduct was constructed of timber in the 1860s, and is being repaired over 3 years using similar materials, except that concrete is used to protect vulnerable wooden parts from attack by marine worms. In season, passengers and cyclists can cross over, which I recall doing with the children many years ago. It is quite a tourist attraction, and rather photogenic.

Towards Lleyn

The view from Barmouth beach to the north, towards the Lleyn peninsular, was not as spectacular as that towards Tywyn on this particular occasion, but not bad at all. The peninsula was slightly misty, giving a more dreamy look with the pastel colours of the sky. Quite a surprise, as I was not expecting much from this shot, handheld in fading light.

The hills you can see would be those behind Pwllheli and Criccieth (try pronouncing those names).

My lesson here is that it’s always worth trying shots to the side of that glorious sunset, as well as directly into it.

Sunset at Barmouth

We were lucky with the sunset at Barmouth the other day. It was difficult to choose between exulting at the glory of the unfolding scene and working out where to frame and take the next photograph. Here’s a small selection.

Barmouth is on the west coast of Wales, between Aberystwyth and Caernarfon.

Fungi time

There are lots of fungi about around tree stumps and the damp autumn leaves at the moment. Here are just a few taken on our estate verges with my phone.

Identification is never easy. I’ve given my best estimate of the names. I think the featured image is also common inkcap at another stage. Anyone got a better id?

By ring counting the recently felled dead conifer was about 60 years old, maybe killed by the fungus?

The gathering

They came together
to keep alive
the Lady One Point Five.

Predetermined positions,
little room for manoeuvre,
they did what they could.

Who called the shots –
the men at home,
for they were mostly men.

Left brain, logical arguments,
a final text, the lady betrayed
behind weasel words.

It was not time, they said.
Not an emergency.
God make us chaste, but not yet.

Back home, in the dark,
unwitnessed, they ravaged her
and her secret places.

She was there on a catafalque when
the waves washed over the island
one last time, it was no more.

She was there on a bier when
the fire destroyed a major city
and many inhabitants, it was no more.

She tended the wounded as
the Global Resource Wars raged,
a billion refugees cried in vain.

She was there and wept when
the Great Plague swept away
half the world’s population.

She flew with the last Monarch
on its long migration,
and expired with the last Orang.

And that was before
they gathered again, to keep alive
The Lady Two Point Five.

In memory of COP26, Glasgow 2021.

Featured image is a mid-19C reconstruction of Alexander the Great’s catafalque, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cormorant 2

We see cormorants quite commonly in UK, in Europe and in US. Few present themselves quite so conveniently as this one, on a post near the promenade at Southport’s Marine Lake.

Unfortunately the light was fading, and there was strong backlighting on the water, so texture on the back could be better.

See also Cormorant.

The fate of man

When the tide is out,
for long man and his companions
stand proud together,
facing the western horizon,
full of promise.

Inevitably the tide turns,
heads back towards the shore.
Wave after wave comes closer,
at first harmless,
but soon a sea of troubles.

The forward phalanx slowly disappear from view,
then ever more of his companions.
Soon the waves lap at his feet,
up his legs, to his torso.

He is alone.
The occasional wave splashes right over his head,
yet recedes. He endures,
again and again submerged.

Unbowed, he is the survivor.
The primitive force of earth and moon spent,
the waves slacken, begin to recede,
new hope kindled.

Soon the heads of companions appear
in the lull of a wave.
New life, new companionship,
the promise of idyllic times again…

The cycle of earth, of life,
of man.

* * * * *

Inspired by a high tide at Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach, where 100 cast iron figures face towards the sea at varying distances from the land. In my mind this presents a metaphor of the wave of troubles now besetting us human beings, with the effects of global warming, the floods and wildfires, the species extinctions, the pullution, the failing societies, shortages of resources, the covid pandemic, the rise of nationalism and inequality, and on and on. Nature tells us there will be a way through, but many of us may not like it…

Other posts inspired by Another Place:
Another favourite place,
Another Place,

Another Place, Another Time.

Carpenter bee 2

It took a beautiful sunny day after a cloudy period, and out came the carpenter bees that had apparently disappeared in one of our favourite haunts, in the Dordogne region of France.

Because of their short mouth parts, these bees are most suited to quite open flowers.

What a wonderful contrast to these bright red flowers, and I never ceased to be amazed at just how furry are the bodies of many insects.

Great spotted woodpecker 2

This great spotted woodpecker is a frequent visitor to our garden, attracted by the feeding station and also by the trunk of the old apple tree. I noticed it as it set about searching for insects in the nooks and crannies of the tree. The only way to get a shot was through the window – not the best way but necessary, and editing software did a bit of colour correction.

This is an adult, as it does not have the red head of the juvenile in my earlier post. It’s probably the same bird.

I got the impression he saw me behind the glass, as he appears to be looking directly at me in the featured image. Notice that he’s hanging on backwards!

The Secret Stories of Our Lives

The secret stories that we tell ourselves. Victor Negro reminds us of the power of our own positive and negative thoughts and the stories they tell us. They shape our character and destiny. So being aware of the stories we tell ourselves is actually rather valuable. Maybe we can then change them!

The Victor Negro

There are secret stories that we tell ourselves. These stories have a lot of impact on how we see ourselves, how we interpret the world and how we carry our relationship with other people.

These secret stories have both positive and negative elements. The negative elements carry all our fears, doubts, our sense of inadequacy, our regrets, and our shame. The positive elements carry our hopes, our memories of accomplishment, our victories, our needs and desires, our fantasy of greatness, our prospects for success, and the different permutations of our ambitions.

Our prevailing mood at the time can influence which story plays over on the screen of our minds. The story that stays longer in the mind takes us in the direction of the story because your physical life would have to act it out one way or the other.

If you dwell on the negative stories, they will produce…

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Pathocracy, psychopathy and narcissism

In a fascinating article in Psychology Today on The problem of pathocracy, Steve Taylor reflects on the concept of pathocracy – which was defined by Andrzej Lobaczewski after observing Stalin’s government in Russia.

“pathocracy is a system of government ‘wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people’… the transition to pathocracy begins when a disordered individual emerges as a leader figure. While some members of the ruling class are appalled by the brutality and irresponsibility of the leader and his acolytes, his disordered personality appeals to some psychologically normal individuals. They find him charismatic. His impulsiveness is mistaken for decisiveness; his narcissism for confidence; his recklessness for fearlessness.

Soon other people with psychopathic traits emerge and attach themselves to the pathocracy, sensing the opportunity to gain power and influence. At the same time, responsible and moral people gradually leave the government, either resigning or being ruthlessly ejected. In an inevitable process, soon the entire government is filled with people with a pathological lack of empathy and conscience. It has been infiltrated by members of the minority of people with personality disorders, who assume power over the majority of psychologically normal people… Soon the pathology of the government spreads amongst the general population… an epidemic of psychopathology in people who are not, essentially, psychopathic.”

Look at countries around the world and we see many plausible examples. Steve goes on

“there is a good deal of evidence that people with psychopathic and narcissistic traits (or people who are just ruthless and lacking in empathy and conscience)… are attracted to high status positions… ‘like moths to a flame’.”

Steve quotes evidence that suggests around 1% of the population have these traits, whereas 12% of corporate senior managers have them. My own personal observations during a period working in a large company would seem to confirm this. Interestingly, Machiavellian has been observed by psychologists as the third of a ‘dark triad’ of traits which are closely associated.

The real question Steve raises is how do societies and organisations protect themselves against these people, indeed how do democracies prevent themselves from being undermined by them. Lacking empathy, these people do not see the point of democracy; life is seen as a power struggle. This is of course reflected in the current dominant trends of thought in modern right wing Republicanism in US and Conservatism in UK.

There are no easy answers, and psychological vetting of candidates for power is unlikely to become ubiquitous. But, if we observe and ask the questions, that is progress in itself. The majority must protect itself against these pathologies. The quote attributed to Edmund Burke comes to mind:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Picture of Mao, Bulganin, Stalin, Ulbricht etc Moscow 1949, via Wikimedia Commons.

Covid-19 in England and France

Having recently spent a few weeks in France, I can confidently say that the experience of life is currently very different from that in England. This is simply because the way that the covid-19 pandemic is being managed differently in the two countries.

France was easy to visit in September, all that was required was to demonstrate double-vaccinated status using the NHS app. To return to England we had to take two covid tests, one in France and one in England (now it is just the one in England) – despite the fact that the French covid statistics were much lower than the UK rate. So English measures are apparently more strict, but actually less effective.

While in France we never felt in great danger from covid-19, simply because mask wearing is widespread, and public spaces such as restaurants require either proof of double vaccination (the NHS app is accepted) or proof of a recent covid test. It became apparent that this is policed by the restaurants themselves, as we witnessed the exclusion of someone whose test had expired just a couple of hours before.

Returning to England, we were shocked by the low level of mask wearing and lack of social distancing in public after ‘freedom day’, particularly at large social events where no vaccine passport is required. For the clinically vulnerable and the elderly, this has now created a two-tier society where these groups are effectively excluded from many forms of social discourse. 

The current daily rate of new cases is now below 5000 in France and over 40000 in England, which does suggest that the French ‘control’ approach is keeping the virus under much better control than the English ‘hands off’ approach.

Of course, the French approach is not universally approved of in France, particularly by the large population of French anti-vaxxers – but it works. The English approach is or course applauded by that constitutuency that objects to receiving any instruction from the state, even if it is for the general good – but it seems not to be working.

I know which approach I prefer.

Chinon

One of the joys of motorcaravanning is to stay overnight in some small town, often French, sample the atmosphere, perhaps enjoy a local restaurant or visit a tourist attraction. Chinon, on the River Vienne, is one such place.

The town’s raison d’etre is the restored 11C Chateau of Chinon, which became the favoured residence of King Henry II of England and much else. Henry’s tomb lies at nearby Fontevraud.

The castle came under French control in 1205, as it has remained since. In 14C it was used to imprison some of the Knights Templar, in 15C it was used as a residence for French King Charles VII, and in 16C it became a prison, after which decay set in. The restored building is now a fine visitor attraction.

The riverside setting makes for good photographic opportunities.

The heavily tree’d promenade by the Vienne provides for a popular and atmospheric evening walk, to build up an appetite for a meal in the town. The route includes the spectacle of a number of fiercely contested boules matches (featured image).

Click on images to enlarge.

Chinon is well worth a detour, as the old Michelin Green Guides used to say.

A Reflection on ‘Amor Fati’

This post by Andrew addresses one of the major themes of my blog: “There is no doubt that we continue to live in uncertain times. No one quite knows where we are going and what the future holds. We exist in a liminal space of unknowing; a time of transition between worlds.”i75b7z

The transition is from the world we have known since the Second World War, now running into environmental buffers and sheer physical limits, into a new world, a new way of thinking, a New Renaissance.

So thank you, Andrew, we all will need Amor Fati.

A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Given that I recently got a tattoo of the phrase ‘amor fati’ (which means to love one’s fate), I wanted to write a short reflection on what the term continues to mean for me.

There is no doubt that we continue to live in uncertain times. No one quite knows where we are going and what the future holds. We exist in a liminal space of unknowing; a time of transition between worlds.

It is easy to cling onto the promises of ideologies which proclaim they have the ‘right answers’ to move forward. They relieve our anxieties and give us a map to make sense of the world. However, I’ve come to realize that all these assurances are just a façade. The efforts of the modern world to influence and control the will of nature still remain futile at best.  

Nothing is ever set in stone.

Nothing is ever…

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Fontevraud, Royal Abbey

The historic Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud lies between Chinon and Saumur, in the area just south of the River Loire. We were lucky, it was an annual French jour de patrimoine, when entry to national museums is free – a great way for a government to encourage interest in local culture and history.

The necropolis

Fontevraud is designated a royal abbey because it was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry II, established in the church a necropolis containing recumbent statues of the dead Plantagenets (from bottom, left to right, then top) Henry II, Eleanor herself set higher than her then-dead husband, their first son Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, and Isabelle, wife of Richard’s brother John. This was intended as a similar idea to the necropolis of French Kings in the church of St Denis in Paris, celebrating the continuity of Plantagenet reign over England/parts of British Isles/Normandy/Aquitaine (the so-called Angevin Empire). The necropolis never really developed after John, then king, ‘lost’ most of the French possessions to the French King Philip in 1204 – an early forced ‘Brexit’ which led to decades of scheming and warfare. The Plantagenets remained kings of England until the death of King Richard III in 1485.

A major feature of this abbey was that it contained both male and female monks/nuns, and was always overseen by a woman. Close links with French royalty ensured its survival until the French Revolution, when the abbeys were dissolved and taken over by the State, and where possible sold off. This was 250 years after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in England.

The abbey at Fontevraud was founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, 3 years after founding of the Cistercian movement. This soon developed into a similar chain of monasteries across France, with a few in Spain and England. So controversial was the involvement of women, that  Robert was never canonised by the Catholic Church.

Evraud Tower

The architecture is quite remarkable, as you can see.

After the Revolution Napoleon decreed that the buildings be converted into a prison containing prison workshops. Even the abbey church was adapted to contain first 3 then 5 storeys. The experience of this prison is well described in exhibits at the abbey. The prison was only closed in 1963.

In the meantime, restoration work was recreating the essence of the original abbey. The kitchen/ Evraud Tower was rather imaginatively restored early on. Today, most traces of the adaptation of the abbey buildings to serve as a prison have been removed.

As well as being a tourist attraction in their own right, the abbey buildings now serve as a cultural centre for Western France, with many events and exhibitions.

Today Fontevraud looks magnificent. It provides a great day out to immerse yourself in this aspect of French/English history.

Featured image shows tombs of Henry and Eleanor.

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

The girls playing out on the cul de sac on a September evening were huddled together, excited. One of them had found this enormous caterpillar crossing the road – around two inches long. it was the biggest caterpillar any of us had ever seen, even the parents.

What on earth was it? It took some time to identify as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth, which received its name courtesy of the characteristics of its caterpillar phase. The fake eyes are said to frighten predators off.

This picture from Wikimedia Commons shows what the adult looks like.

Photo of adult elephant hawkmoth by Gail Hampshire, via Wikimedia Commons