Le Puy en Velay

I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.

st michel aiguilhe

This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.

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Another Place

One of my favourite places to visit in the North West of England is Crosby Beach, home to Antony Gormley’s Another Place. The beach is studded with statues of a man looking out to sea, and the effect is remarkable.

The statues, beach, sea, skyline and offshore wind farms provide almost infinite possibilities for photography (not forgetting the starlings).

another placeI rather like this one, at telephoto zoom, showing pooled water on the beach, with the windfarm in the background. In between is the deepwater channel where you occasionally see vessels making their way to/from Liverpool. The shadow on the horizon is the hills of North Wales.

The large sandy beach makes a good place to walk, but is not usually appropriate for traditional ‘bucket and spade’ activities as there is usually a fair wind.

And what’s this about wind farms being an eyesore? In the right place they can even add to the natural beauty of a location, which is not really something you can say about a nuclear power station. Yes I’m biased.


Cause of The Renaissance?

We’ve travelled around Europe a fair amount over the years and it is clear from the evidence of art and architecture that something special happened around the 12th/13th centuries and again the 15th/16th centuries. The Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the paintings and sculptures of Tuscany, the establishment of universities, printing, the beginnings of great literature,…

What was it that led to this original Renaissance? What special combination of circumstances caused that great explosion of the human spirit? Philosopher Jean Gebser had an answer in his book The Ever Present Origin (1949), and it goes back to the basic nature of our own consciousness.

Humanity has gone through four basic ‘structures of consciousness’: the ‘archaic’, the ‘magical’, the ‘mythic’ and the ‘mental-rational’. He dates the period when the transition began from ‘mythic’ to ‘mental-rational’ at around 1225. This was the period when left brain consciousness began to assert itself against the submersion into a right-brain dominated world. For a period the two were in some sort of state of balance which led to the creative explosion of those periods of Renaissance.

Then as time progressed the dominance of left brain was gradually asserted (see The Master and His Emissary), interconnectedness was reduced and the emphasis moved to individuality and competition. Of course, this has been creative in its own way, see the explosion of science and technology, but it has been at a cost of the basic connection with life itself. Hence increasing problems of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, mega-wars, terrorism,…

Gebser postulated that we are on the threshold of a fifth structure of consciousness – the ‘integral’ – which would begin to redress the balance that has gone too far one way. Such a new consciousness would re-establish that creative balance between the two halves of the brain, but at a higher level – leading to a New Renaissance.

Many thinkers have since then built on Gebser’s ideas, including Ken Wilber and Iain McGilchrist.

I am indebted to Gary Lachman’s book The Secret Teachers of the Western World for inspiring this post.

Featured image of Botticelli Venus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Will you wake

Christopher Fry’s poem from the play A Sleep of Prisoners is one of those pieces which really sets my timbers a shivering. It’s so expressive of the situation we find ourselves in collectively. It’s been quoted many times, so you may already be aware of it. For me it repays a regular re-read.

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake!

Christopher Fry was an English poet and playwright 1907-2005

Featured image of Arctic ice floes from Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, Chief Scientist National Ice Center, via Wikimedia Commons

Genius at the Château du Close Lucé

Some men and women show such prodigious genius, standing head and shoulders over all their fellows, that they almost seem part of a different race. Leonardo da Vinci was such a man.

After a leading career in Renaissance Italy, where his genius sparkled over many fields of endeavour, Leonardo spent his later years in Amboise,  by the River Loire,  at the service of the French king François. At this time he lived at the Château du Clos Lucé, now a museum that we recently visited.

We found this museum interesting in giving some insight into Leonardo’s later life, and particularly his innovative designs and engineering that prefigured many modern inventions – helicopters,  bridges, flying machines, pumps, armaments etc etc. This is reinforced by walking around the surrounding gardens, really a rather splendid shady park, containing examples of modern realisations of his designs.

However, there is little emphasis on his contribution as artist. Luckily, there was an exhibition From the Clos Lucé to the Louvre, in the exhibition hall, focusing on the three major works of art that Leonardo brought with him when he came to Amboise – La Giaconda, The Virgin, The Child Jesus and St Anne, and St Jean Baptist … and that enigmatic smile. This gave a much more balanced picture of this supreme Renaissance genius.

So, the Château du Clos Lucé is well worth a visit, but even more so while the exhibition is still there (until 15th November 2016).


If you read my post on goodness, truth and beauty, you will know that I attach great importance to these three fundamental values. Not surprising then, that I was delighted to have the recent opportunity to go to the show ‘Beautiful’ at the Aldwych Theatre, London.

The West End does these blockbuster shows superbly, and it was indeed a beautiful experience – superb set and production, a well told story, evocative music and singing.

It tells the story of Carole King, the precocious 1960s songwriter (with then husband Gerry Goffin), who became a world class singer in her own right with publication of the album Tapestry in 1971. It is quite amazing how many pop songs have had Carole King involved in their writing.

This provides a nostalgic, informative and entertaining evening that most will enjoy.

This 2-minute video tells the story of Carole King’s unscheduled appearance at the London opening night of ‘Beautiful’ – good for King addicts.

Featured image part of the pre-show set of ‘Beautiful’ at the Aldwych Theatre, London


Review of the book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ by Neil MacGregor.

Germany_coverMy education in the history of Europe was deficient. Previously a ‘tech college’, my grammar school was very oriented to science and technology – an interest in history was not encouraged. And as for Germany, the world wars were too recent in the fifties for its history to be given much consideration at all. So I’ve only picked up the story of Europe bit by bit since then – on many European holidays and through reading. I was thus interested to see the recently published book Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, a former Director of the National Gallery and of the British Museum.

MacGregor approaches his subject through the lens of major historical, cultural and artistic figures and takes us through key events and places in the history of the German speaking peoples of Europe.Read More »

A veneer of culture?

We visited Weimar in Germany a few years ago and were very impressed by this grand city with its tree-lined streets, parks and grand cultural connections – a superb place to visit for a few days. It was therefore with some interest that I read the recent article by David Blackbourn ‘Princes, Counts and Racists’ in the London Review of Books. It was all about Weimar, and told more than I had learned from tourist literature and being there – particularly its dramatically contrasting associations with Wolfgang Goethe and Adolf Hitler.Read More »

A hidden gem without

Kirkstead Abbey remains

Whilst in Lincolnshire recently, we visited Kirkstead Abbey, near the village of Woodhall Spa. All that remains of the former Cistercian abbey is a great crag of masonry, standing forlornly in the middle of a farmer’s field.

England was once dotted with many such monasteries, the result of 1000 years of the monastic tradition, and they played an important part in the life of the surrounding communities. It was of course King Henry VIII who, assisted by Thomas Cromwell, dissolved the lot in the 1530s, pensioning off the monks, killing the awkward ones (including some from Kirkstead), taking the riches and the tithes that had gone to the pope, effectively vandalising the buildings and giving the land to his mates. It was of course all about money and power – removing the influence of the Pope and monks, and transferring it to Henry and his cronies.

St Leonard’s Without

Follow the unmade road across the field past the lonely crag, and you come to the little church of St Leonard’s Without, nestling among trees, now well and truly ‘out in the sticks’. This was once part of the Abbey building complex, but lay outside the walls, being used for services with the surrounding lay community – hence the ‘Without’. Presumably that is why the little church survived, as the local parish church.

Being isolated, the church is usually kept locked, a sign of the times, but happenstance sometimes comes along at just the right moment – more satisfyingly viewed as synchronicity. As we walked up to the church gate, a car drew up. It was the local vicar returning books. He was delighted to give us an impromptu tour of the interior. It really is one of those special little churches with a feeling of great reverence and peace.

Interior of St Leonard’s Without

Although built slightly later (13C) than the abbey (12C), its architecture gives a very good idea of what parts of the abbey would have looked like, and parts of the wooden rood screen are said to be original 13C.

Overall, a good and extremely compact example of Cistercian simplicity, which for me resulted in some of the supreme achievements of European architecture.

If you’re interested in visiting, go to the sharp bend in Abbey Road in Woodhall Spa. A sign offering loan of a key from a nearby dwelling suggests that you may not have to rely on synchronicity to gain entrance to the church.

The most precious

‘I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have’.

John Ruskin 1819-1900

Lincoln cathedral is a part of me. Its image and presence are always there within.

I am the boy cycling around the countryside, always on the lookout for that sudden view across the flat Lincolnshire plain of the unmistakeable cathedral standing proud on the hill – from the south on my regular bike rides through Hykeham and Auburn – from the west near Saxilby by the Roman-built Fosse Dyke, along which pleasure boats ventured from Brayford Pool towards the River Trent – and from the east near Southrey, where we loved crossing the River Witham on the chain ferry.

I am the teenager on the bus going to secondary school in the centre of Lincoln, two miles from home – we always sat at the front upstairs and watched the cathedral getting closer and closer, often forced to wait as steam trains traversed the two level crossings on the High Street.

I am the student at that City School, the old technical college. Every Wednesday at lunchtime we would independently climb up the steep Greestone Steps, along by the girls’ High School. A friend and I often kicked a tennis ball along the way, defying it to get past us and roll down Lindum Hill into the lower city. There were a few scares, but it never did.

At the top the steps open out into the cathedral precinct and we walked in the shadow of its mighty walls, often pausing to inspect the statue of Lincolnshire poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the green, before walking on another mile to the school sports ground – to endure or enjoy as the case might be.

The annual school service was held in the nave of the cathedral, so we spent slightly bored minutes there as the service slowly progressed, but at the same time absorbed the experience of those magnificent gothic arches.

Lincoln Imp

I am the football fan, regularly watching Lincoln City play at their Sincil Bank ground. City then frequented the lower reaches of the old Second Division. We shouted ‘come on the imps’ or ‘up the imps’, long before I knew they got that nickname from the stone imp in the cathedral.

I am the adult who made pilgrimages to that cathedral when I could fit them in – the view of the west front from the castle, the walk around the outside, the internal tour of nave, choir, the imp itself high up on a pillar, cloisters, library and the chapter house where parliament once sat. And sometimes a look at the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta [now on display in Lincoln Castle], and possibly a climb up the 338 steps of the cathedral tower. This was always something special, picking out all those familiar places from this unfamiliar angle. On windy days the tower sways. On clear days you can see Boston Stump, nearly 30 miles away. You used to just turn up and climb on your own, but you now have to go with a tour.

West front from castle

Sometimes the tower was closed. I remember fairly regular reports in the Lincolnshire Echo that someone had jumped to his or her death from the great tower, but I believe this is now much more difficult.

In more recent years, an evening walk has seen the cathedral floodlit into an achingly clear etching in the night sky.

No trip to Lincoln was complete without also visiting the Usher Art Gallery [now simply the Usher Gallery]. What always attracted me the most was a number of excellent paintings of the cathedral by the English landscape painter Peter de Wint, whose wife was from Lincoln.

Model of Lincoln Cathedral with original spires

According to Wikipedia, for 238 years, from 1311-1549, Lincoln Cathedral was the highest building in the world at 524 feet. That is a far longer period of dominance than any other building since 1300. It only lost its preeminence in 1549 because the spire on the central tower collapsed and was never rebuilt – Lincoln was never again as rich as in that early medieval period. It seems that, had this spire remained, Lincoln Cathedral would have retained top spot until Ulm Minster was completed in 1890, at 530ft – that’s 579 years! [Add to that the fact Lincoln Cathedral sits on top of a steep hill!]

The spires on the western towers were removed in 1807; even without spires the building remains beautiful and dominates the city.

Lincoln Cathedral also has the third largest by floor space in England, after St Paul’s in London and York Minster.

It was probably the childhood inspiration that came from frequent contact with this great building that led to my lifelong interest in cathedrals and great religious buildings. Having visited many of the great European gothic cathedrals, I can report that, for me, none surpasses Lincoln for its overall effect – probably because of its magnificent hilltop location. I recall only Laon in France as being similarly dominant over its surroundings. Certainly Chartres is more mystical and has superior stained glass windows, as does the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Amiens and Cologne are more massive, St Denis and Reims are perhaps more historic, and so on. They each have their own special features. But overall Lincoln is, for me as for John Ruskin, simply the best.

Some images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
view from castle by Jungpionier
the imp by Dave Hitchborne
spire model by Aidan McRae Thomson

Blithe Spirit

skylarkI woke up thinking of the skylark, how common it had been in my youth, how rarely heard today – how missed that sublime sound when in the open fields that are obvious skylark land.

What is more sublime on a clear blue spring day than the trill of the skylark as it hovers and flutters up and down over its territory – the inspiration of poets, notably Percy Bysse Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. I give the first few lines of each:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert –
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art…


He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,


Meredith’s poem was of course the inspiration for Vaughan Williams in producing one of England’s most popular classical music pieces The Lark Ascending, as described in Wikipedia.

The RSPB tells us that “skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s, and is still declining. In the preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996”.

The main cause of this decline is considered to be changing farming practices: “the widespread switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals”, “the absence of stubbles, which are favourite feeding places” and “increased use of insecticides and weedkillers… likely to remove an important part of the food source”.

In grassland habitats “increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks, and increased the risk of nests being trampled” and “a switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, since the period between cuts is often too short”.

Fortunately the RSPB has been on the job since the 1990s and has successfully piloted on its own farm ways of managing the crops in a skylark-friendly fashion, produces information on good farming practice, and government is helping with incentives for farmers to do the right thing. The story is told in Back from the Brink.

The skylark population has now stabilised in some areas, but continues to decline in some cereal-growing areas. There’s a long way to go before, if ever, it gets back to the level of my youth. Farming would have to recognise that the job of growing food cannot be prioritised over the complementary job of maintaining the natural environment that enables it to be sustainable and sustains the spirit of the rest of us.

Skylark picture from RSPB website

The Kimbell Art Museum

During a short stay in Fort Worth we visited the Kimbell Art Museum, which was well rated in the tourist information. It proved an excellent choice.

Wikipedia tells us that Kay Kimbell was a wealthy Fort Worth businessman who built an empire of over 70 companies in a variety of industries. He married Velma Fuller, who kindled his interest in art collecting. They set up the Kimbell Art Foundation in 1935, and by the time of his death in 1964, the couple had amassed what was considered to be the best selection of old masters in the Southwest. Their estate was bequeathed to the Foundation, with the key directive to “build a museum of the first class”.

The building was designed by architect Louis I. Kahn and is “widely recognized as one of the most significant works of architecture of recent times”. I have to say that, from the outside, the museum is most unprepossessing, even boring. However, when you get inside you come upon an ideal space for displaying art works, with superb natural lighting coming obliquely from the vaulted ceilings and skylights.

Bodhisattva Maitreya

Looking at the art works themselves, you realize that this museum is rather special. Almost every item in the collection is a quite exquisite example of a particular period of art or artist – mostly paintings and some sculptures, including early pieces such as a beautiful 8th century “Bodhisattva Maitreya’ from Thailand.

The Torment of St Anthony, Michelangelo

Many of the most famous European painters are represented, including many impressionists and a rare painting by Michelangelo “The Torment of Saint Anthony”.

I was led to reflect on how many of the world’s major art galleries have come from bequests from those who have made mountains of money. With money comes responsibility, and it seems that Kay Kimbell and his ilk have made good use of their money, in the great tradition of philanthropy.

The museum contains an excellent cafe serving lunches, run with great efficiency by a formidable yet friendly Dallas lady – one could well imagine her on the set of the long-running Dallas TV series.

A companion building, reached through a small garden, was added later, architected by  Renzo Piano. Here is the space for exhibitions and we were lucky that the current ‘blockbuster’ touring was of the works of the impressionist and art patron Gustave Caillebotte.

This was quite an eye-opener, demonstrating what an excellent painter Caillebotte was, and also telling the story of his friendships with other impressionists and his role as patron in encouraging their development. As a man of means, he did not have the problem of lack of resources common to many who choose this profession.

Altogether, the Kimbell provided a very happy way to spend a day. Definitely ‘first class’, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.

Photographs are my own, and can be copied so long as you attibute to this blog.