At Lincoln Cathedral

I never cease to be inspired by Lincoln Cathedral. Growing up in Lincoln, it was always there, dominating the city and visible across the fens for miles around. On our recent visit we caught the afternoon sun full onto the stunning and newly cleaned West Front.

Our purpose was to attend the candlelit Christmas Carol Service, enjoy listening to the sublime singing of the choir, and join in with the well known Christmas carols, all the while inspired by that superb gothic interior.

Afterwards, purple lighting on the cathedral towers gave some magical effects. I particularly liked this one.

God’s own cathedral, I call it. But then, I am a bit biased!

Featured image is a part of the West Front.

Altrincham Market and Public Toilets

During my childhood there were always public toilets available. It was part of the civilisation we inherited from Victorian times. In the two-mile walk or cycle ride from home to the centre of Lincoln, I still vividly recall the public toilets at the South Common, in the Park, at Gowt’s Bridge, in the station, the market, and by the High Bridge in town. There was always a toilet handy in case of need. Of course, there were few cafes with private facilities in those days, so public provision was essential. But it has to be saiid that, by the 1950s, the loos were often rather smelly places.

Since then it has been downhill all the way. Public provision of toilets has not been a priority, and free public loos have gradually disappeared, some replaced by limited automated paying facilities.The rise of cafes and bars mean that there are many more private facilities available to those who can pay for a drink.

How refreshing then to find these old loos still open at Altrincham Market (Altrincham was given a Royal Charter for a market by Edward 1 in 1290.) Separate Gents and Ladies facilities are down steps each side of the entryway – clean, hot water in the taps, working hand driers, all spotlessly maintained. Better than the old days!

Altrincham Market House itself is a rather fine regeneration project, repurposing the old covered market as a community facility with small retail outlets, with the still-thriving open air market alongside. As the publicity blurb says:

One beautiful listed building; part restaurant, part market, part town square. Eat, meet, drink, shop, watch, talk, listen, laugh. Come in, be yourself and if you like it bring your friends!

All very civilised!

Gaslighting

Although gas lighting was used in China 1700 years ago, the first gas lighting in England was on Westminster Bridge in 1813 (Wikipedia). By the 20th century gas street lighting was ubiqitous in England. We even still had gas street lamps in Lincoln when I was growing up in the 1950s – I remember each lamp cast a small circle of light, and there were huge gaps of darkness in between them. Today, gas street lamps no longer significantly exist and gaslighting has a totally new meaning.

In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made the film Gas Light, where a manipulative husband makes his wife think she’s losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly dimming the flame on a gas lamp. He disrupts her environment, making her believe she’s insane, and controls her by cutting her off from family and friends.

Flash forward to the 2010s, and a new term ‘gaslighting’ starts to appear, inspired by this film. Here’s a good summary of its psychology. Basically this is emotional manipulation to control and undermine another person. It can be quite hard to spot, once sucked into its orbit – particularly in a relationship with strong positives as well as strong negatives.

Why do people gaslight others? The above website gives a good summary:

“The typical goal of the gaslighter is not just manipulation, but power and control—typically with the misguided cooperation of the manipulated victim.”

If you’re being gaslighted the website identifies steps you can take to protect yourself, including gaining distance, keeping a record, setting boundaries, getting an outside perspective, and ending the relationship. Of course, ending the relationship can lead to further problems, such as harassment and stalking, but that’s another story.

Gaslighting not just a person-to-person thing. You may have noticed that we’re being gaslighted by some of our politicians on a regular basis – for instance those who tell us the country cannot afford to provide support for a healthy life for each of its people, particularly those who have little, yet it can afford to be extremely generous to those people who have a lot. Indeed, it seems like party leaders in a democracy increasingly resort to gaslighting by conflicting narratives, rather than doing their real job of addressing real world problems in the most effective way for all concerned.

Gaslighting – worth knowing about.

Picture of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Techno-fog

The other day I spent half an hour working out how to connect my WiFi repeater into the home mesh. Why? I got an email saying that the mesh was not fully operational and had to search out the instructions on the web, after it became apparent that trial-and-error was not going to fix it. During that time I needed the password for the router, the password for the repeater and the password for my account with the provider, some of which were remembered by ‘the system,’.

Then, in a bid to save fuel, we had a British Gas Hive thermostat installed. Wonderful, we can now control the heating from a smartphone, by time, by degree, as many time slots as we want, rather than the ‘on 1, off 1, on 2, off 2’ of out previous central heating controller, which was rather venerable, it seems. Except that it stopped working after less than 24 hours, while I was fitting the thermostat to a stand. There is no manual; it’s all online or in the app. Fortunately, I find instructions on the web to reset and get it working again, and then reprogramme the heating schedule.

And the all-singing, all-dancing Norton virus checker on my laptop keeps telling me all the wonderful options it offers that I am not taking advantage of. Does it really matter? Who knows? And can I really trust Microsoft’s OneDrive to not lose a vital file or two from the cloud, when I accidentally do the ‘wrong’ thing?

All this web-connecting technology really makes a lot of things easy in modern living. Yet more and more, I find myself confronted by a mystery when something goes wrong and the answer lies beyond my limited understanding of how it all works. Because you only need to know when it goes wrong. How to fix it, where are the instructions, where are the passwords, how did you ever get it going in the first place? A search engine usually gives an answer for the technology, who knows if it is the best one?

So what happens when there’s a power cut? What happens when the web goes down? Both of which will happen sometime, especially in these uncertain times. Then it’ll be back to the temporary brain fog while I try to recall where are the instructions, how to get everything going again – assuming the power and the broadband eventually do come back. It all feels rather precarious.

All this angst, and I have always been interested in, and involved in tech. What about those who aren’t, and those whose memories are fading with age?

Are we making a world that is just too complicated and vulnerable? But maybe that’s my age speaking. It will all come naturally to the grandchildren, assisted by so-called intelligent technology!

St Jacques, Aubeterre

The church of St Jacques at Aubeterre sur Dronne is a typical pilgrimage church on one of the routes through France to Compostella in northern Spain, approached by a long climb up through the village from the river Dronne. Romanesque simplicity is the keynote, remarkably beautiful.

West front and tower, wide angle lens

I passed through many similar churches over 20 years ago, as I followed the route from Vezelay to Compostella in our motorcaravan. The basic plan is the same.

Enter, there is no one there, you find a haven of peace, the atmosphere shared with so many thousands of pilgrims since the 12th century. Profoundly moving to tarry awhile, part of that historical stream of seekers.

Nave and side aisles

The tradition of pilgrimage lives on, not only in the so-called Christian world. Yet so many today appear to have forgotten about the interior dimensions of life, focusing only on the external – money, business, science, technology, politics, war… Yet the interior journey is the true journey of life – how we deal with the challenges thrown up by the external, how we learn from it and grow…

I should add that Aubeterre is perhaps better known for its Church of Saint Jean, an underground, Monolithic church built into huge caves in the rock of the hillside – also well worth a visit.

Aubeterre is in Nouvelle Aquitaine, France’s largest region, administered from Bordeaux.

The Elizabethan TV Age

My early childhood in the postwar years was in audio. We listened to the radio or read the newspapers for entertainment and news. The visual age began in 1953. I can date it precisely because that’s when, like many others in Britain, we got our first television set, to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. To my childhood eyes, the coronation only came second for excitement to the preceding Stanley Matthews Cup Final, on 2nd May when Blackpool thrillingly came from behind to beat Bolton 4-3 thanks to Stanley’s magical dribbling and Stan Mortensen’s hattrick.

The coronation on June 2nd was the only occasion I can remember my grandma coming over to our house from the nearby village where she lived – her induction into the television age. I remember the stunning opulence of the occasion on that small black-and-white screen, and the sonorous tones of Richard Dimbleby’s commentary, which set the benchmark for the BBC forever more. After the main event we walked into the centre of Lincoln along by the River Witham. At the Brayford pool I remember all the boats bedecked with celebratory flags.

After that, the TV became the focus for national events but otherwise life continued much as before, but with the added promise of new technologies. The second Elizabethan age had begun.

Most of my experience of Queen Elizabeth II was via the TV, but I did physically see her twice, once at a Royal Tournament on a school trip, and more memorably in 1957 when she was driven round Lincoln City’s football ground at Sincil Bank, packed with all the city’s schoolchildren. I was 12. It was quite exciting seeing the queen. Perhaps it’s significant that I remember her dressed as a princess, when the reality is revealed by the website of Lincolnshire Live (featured image) – she circled the playing area in a Landrover with Prince Philip on a rainy day. Funny thing, memory. 

Now, I am naturally inclined to be republican, as opposed to royalist. Elizabeth was around for most of my life and was clearly dedicated to doing her duty, but also to retaining the privileged position of ‘the firm’. She was probably the best monarch one could have wished for, and only put a few feet wrong, many of which were related to Princess Diana. But was all that killing of dumb animals for sport really necessary, setting the aspiration for generations of well-off wannabees. And did she really need all those palaces, riches and hangers-on – setting the example for the rich and powerful all over the world.

So it’s a mixed legacy, as it is for all of us. She’s part of our mental furniture, so it is taking a while getting used to “God Save the King”.

It really is a new age, dominated by the internet, smartphones, streaming, podcasts… rather than the TV. My grandma, a life lived in a rural village, would be a fish out of water.

We just have to make the best of it, and hope that King Charles III and the current alarming Conservative government do not damage the country too much along the way.

Fens 10 The Wash

Conclusion of our exploration of the Fens.

The Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire/Norfolk Fens all drain into and were flooded by the sea of The Wash. A potted history: they were first drained by the Romans, reverted to a natural state after the fall of the Empire, and were again drained around 12C by monks, falling into disrepair around 16C after the Dissolution, and drained in on a larger scale in 17C, the period focused on in James Boyce’s book.

The Fens and their drainage machines are an ongoing enterprise to maintain a balance between sea and land, in this most fertile part of England. No wonder this part of Lincolnshire is called New Holland.

The Wash is now a major natural asset for migrating and indigenous birds. As a last hurrah for our explorations, we go close to the mouth of the River Witham at RSPB Freiston Shore. Again we stand on the sea wall looking out over The Wash – salt marsh on one side and fresh water lake on the other.

Along the sea wall at Freiston

A solitary cormorant stands in typical pose, amid black headed gulls and ducks.

On the landward side Boston Stump stands out proud (featured image), seaward there appears to be almost endless salt marsh, beach and then sea, with a misty Norfolk in the far distance.

I reflect that some of my ancestors played a part in this great drainage enterprise; the Fens are part of my own roots.

The dog was not impressed; there were cows on the sea wall. He dashed back towards the van.

Fens 9 Boston

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Our next destination is Boston, near the mouth of the River Witham, and in the Middle Ages a major port of England, related to the wool trade.

River Witham and St Botolph’s church

Our main target is the church of St Botolph, commonly referred to as Boston Stump. This is one of the great churches of England, almost cathedral sized, funded during Boston’s glory days, made rich through export of wool and membership of the Hanseatic League. What a magnificent building it is! And the dog was welcome to enter with us.

Choir

I recall from childhood that we could see the tower of Boston Stump from the top of the central tower of Lincoln Cathedral, but we never actually went there. Boston did not have a great reputation. Today, the prosperity of Boston’s heyday is long gone, and the economy of the area appears quite depressed to us visitors.

I visit the dog-free 14C Guildhall, well preserved and containing a rather haphazard museum, with display boards outlining some of the key events in Boston’s history, particularly the role of local people in the nonconformist/ puritan movements, the emigration of those who became the Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of the US city of Boston. 1 in 10 Bostonians emigrated to help form the new city of Boston, Massachusets.

Boyce’s book has a theme that Fen drainage was a colonisation project similar to what happened in Tasmania. It became clear here that the Fens were being colonised at around the same time as the Americas. This was the spirit of those times.

Not mentioned is Boston’s role in leading resistance to the drainage of fens in this area, described in Boyce’s book – such that the process was actually reversed. Drainage channels were destroyed and the process delayed for 100 years. Boston people resisted the trends in the rest of the Fens – a bloody mindedness that maybe continues to this day, as the area was significant contributer to the majority in the recent Brexit vote.

Fens 7 Frampton

Continuing the story of our exploration of the Fens.

Our second base was another Premier Park – Long Acres, near Boston. Unexpectedly, the satnav takes us there via Crowland, zig-zagging northwards – using the major east-west cross-fen highways between Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Boston.  These seem to be the only decently surfaced roads in the area, and they are busy with lorries, tansporting the products of this fertile area to the rest of England.

We arrive at RSPB Frampton Marsh (featured image) and enjoy lunch overlooking freshwater marsh with a smattering of birds. The dog is more interested in the cows munching away at the grass, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

There are many more birds on the freshwater lakes we pass by to reach the raised barrier that constitutes the seawall. From this seawall we look out over huge salt marshes out into the Wash. This barrier is all that stops these Lincolnshire fens from being regularly inundated with seawater.

We are lucky that avocets are reasonably close to this side of the lake.

But we see rain approaching across the Fens, so make haste back to the van and on to our next base at Long Acres.

Out in the Fens, the sun slips slowly below the horizon.

Fens 6 Crowland

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Next day we wend our bumpy way back up to Whittlesey (Whittlesea – it was once coastal), a place of conflict in the Fen wars described in Boyce’s book. Locals all over the Fens did not like their land being drained and given away to outsiders, just like indigenous peoples all over the world. There were many battles and acts of sabotage before the resistance was tamed. Even after that, the great lake at Whittlesey remained at around 8 square miles, but it was eventually drained in 19C.  Sadly, there is little evidence of all this in today’s slightly depressed looking town.

We went north to from Whittlesey to Thorney, once one of the five great abbeys that effectively ruled this area before the great Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 (Peterborough, Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney). All the is left of the once-great abbey is a rather large parish church for such a small village, quite striking nevertheless.

Thorney Abbey church

More striking is our next stop, Crowland Abbey. I recall stopping here for a break many years ago on my cycle ride from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Abbey of memory is more delapidated than today’s impressive remains.

We are made enormously welcome by enthusiastic volunteers. All that remains of this once-great Abbey is the north aisle of the former church, now an impressive building in its own right. And with evocative ruined features attached. We are guided by the volunteers to see the highlights of the interior, including a striking Green Man, and then the exterior.

It is quite evident that the Dissolution in this area led to Fen drainage falling into disrepair – this job had been done by the monks. This was one factor setting up the situation where new forms of drainage were perceived as being necessary, and hence the new major drainage schemes less than a century later.

At the centre of Crowland is a unique 3-way bridge that once spanned the River Welland and a tributary. The waterways were diverted long ago, leaving this unusual structure high and dry.

3 way bridge in Crowland

Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.

Moorhen in hedge

Fens 5 Welney

The continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

The first large scale work on draining the Fens was completed in 17C by the Duke of Bedford and a Dutch engineer Nicholas van der Muyden. We drive along by one of the main drainage channels, called the New Bedford River (featured image), although it’s not actually a river but an extraction of some of the waters from the Great Ouse River.

The waterway is long and dead straight, with a high bank separating it from the surrounding lower ground. Nearby is an earlier parallel channel, the Old Bedford River. The land between these two channels, the Ouse Washes, is used as a flood relief area when the old River Ouse would have flooded. It’s also good for wetland bird conservation and bird watching, hence our visit here to WWT Welney, where hides that look out over the wetland.

We take turns to visit the hides as there is no provision for dog walking here. There is a fair bit of birdlife around, notably martins, avocets, lapwings. I also see a single black tailed godwit in the distance – evidence that the WWT project to establish a viable population here may be working. The avocets are particularly photogenic.

Following the channel towards the sea, via circuitous Fen roads, we arrive at our second destination, the Denver Sluice Gates near the Norfolk town of Downing Market.

Denver sluice

These sluice gates manage water flows both ways from here up to the coast near King’s Lynn – and specifically prevent the Fens from being inundated by high tides. It is salutary to realise that without these gates this whole area of the Fens would be under water at high tide.

Fens 4 Ely

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 3.

It is Sunday and we again circle Ely to the south, this time to to the small village of Prickwillow and its Engine Museum. With a small group of visitors we learn more about the history the Fens and specifically the engines used to pump water, from an enthusiastic volunteer and video. It is remarkable that the whole area of he Fens would be inundated regularly by the sea without regular pumping. A marker at the museum shows that the high tide water level would be above our heads.

After the Fens were drained, the land gradually sank due to contraction of peat, so that the fields are now lower than the rivers that drain them – another incredible feature of this area.

The village of Prickwillow was established in 1830 as a tolling station on the River Lark. When steam power came along in 1860 a pumping station was established for drainage. The old pumping station has now become a museum, containing a number of old diesel pumps on display from around 1970s. Sadly there are no remaining steam pumps.

I note that several of the pumps on display are manufactured by the company WH Allen, for whom my father worked designing pumps. Maybe he had a hand in some of these!

After this education, we visit and savour the magnificent Ely cathedral, one of England’s great religious buildings. The medieval octagon tower is quite remarkable. Ely’s position as an island in the original Fens made it a natural focus for travel and trade.

Featured image shows Ely cathedral from nearby meadow.

Fens 3 Wisbech

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 2.

Next morning, we drive north, past the pretty market town of March, following the River Nene up to Wisbech. The river here is straight and channelled, part of the great works that ensure continued drainage of the surrounding farmland. Coming into Wisbech there’s a pleasing arrangement of Edwardian-style buildings along by the river. 

River Nene at Wisbech

In the 18C, Wisbech was a prosperous Edwardian town, but now we get the impression of a struggling economy. There is evidently a large population of non-indigenous people, and some just hang around on benches smoking or drinking. Apparently 70% of the town voted for Brexit. This trip is not about Brexit, but this experience gives us a feel for why they might have done so.

A visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum gives us more insights into the history of life in the Fens over nearly 2000 years. The layout of the museum is just like the museums of my childhood 70 years ago, with a huge miscellany of historic items. We browsed for quite a while. Remarkably, this Museum claims to be the second oldest in the country.

Wisbech & Fenland Museum

Here was a real example of a 19C ‘punt gun’ – an obscenely large shotgun carried stealthily on a punt until it was close to a group of birds, before firing and killing up to 50 birds – a frighteningly efficient way of exploiting what must have seemed nature’s inexhaustible bounty.

There was also evidence of the heavy use of opium and laudanum in the 19C fens, reminding me of a story in my great grandfather’s diaries, where a child had accidentally died from laudanum poisoning. It seems that this was a common occurrence, the bottles being easiy confused with a popular childhood remedy.

Returning to our campsite via March, I recall cycling down that very road nearly 60 years ago, transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, on the way from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Beatles’ She Loves You had just come out. The headwind that day was seriously strong, it was hard work.

Back at base, we see an odd couple of a greylag with a Canada goose, with just a single chick.

The odd couple

There is a small group of modern windmills near the campsite. However, considering the reliability of wind in the Fens we saw surprisingly few such windmills. I suspect that the vested interests that control much of this land are the sort who don’t want windmills disfiguring their landscape!

To finish, yet another spectacular sky!

Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Fens 1 Whittlesey

I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.

I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.

We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!

Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.

It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.

The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.

The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).

The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.

To be continued.

Not too neat

After a winter and spring of neglect, the back garden was looking decidedly untidy. More to the point, I could not effectively feed fruit bushes or plant new flowers in that tangle. So it had to be made more neat and tidy, like traditional gardening. Days and hours later, there is much more to do. Some plant feeding has taken place, albeit far too late in the season, and I’m looking forward to at least some berries off the fruit bushes, roses and flowers in the patio planter.

Here’s the transformation of some fruit bushes. I’ve left some of the weeds and the rampantly spreading Spanish bluebells.

My dreams are now a tangle of pulled up dandelions, buttercups, clumps of grass, goose grass, baby’s tears, bluebells and much more – now considered weeds, where days before I admired their beauty. And the horror of those forced to flee my predations as their damp hidy-holes are uncovered – the scuttling woodlice, centipedes and millipedes, various beetles and spiders, fast- and slow-moving worms – and the discovered slugs and snails consigned to a gluttonous paradise in the compost heap. And the thought that there will be less food and cover for the newts in the pond, and for any visiting frogs. So there are patches of tangle left in messy confusion, providing sanctuary for these friends.

I realise that I am repeating the age-old conflict between the agriculturalist who tills the land for food and flowers, and wild nature living in its own glorious profusion. Maybe Buddha would agree with my solution – a balanced ‘middle path’ between the neat and tidy ‘productive’ soil and nature’s gloriously diverse tangle.

Now for that flower bed by the pond…

1965 Prague

The first match of our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was actually in Prague. I was struck by the similarities of Prague with Vienna, which I had had the good fortune to visit on a school trip a few years earlier. The spirit of the people seemed similar, yet more depressed. Many of the magnificent buildings bequeathed by history were in much need of repair. Prague was not thriving at this time.

During our time off we explored some of the great historic sights – the powder tower, cathedral, astronomical clock, but my main memory is of doing all this sightseeing while playing blindfold chess with friend Brian Kerr. Maybe we did not adequately attend to the magnificence around us.

Little did we know at that time, but the spirit rising that we sensed was soon to be inflamed by the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubček‘s reforming government and then crushed by the Russian invasion in August 1968. We later learned in horror and admiration that in January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest, in the very same Wenceslas Square we had wandered through.

The parallels with the current invasion of Ukraine are all too apparent. Russia seeks to rule by fear and compel compliance, and punishes those who will not submit.

There is an echo of an earlier religious reformer, Jan Hus, who died by burning at the stake for heresy, by order of the Catholic Church in 1415, memorialised in this statue before the Tyn church.

The cycles of history go on and on.

Featured image is from cathedral door at Prague.

1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

All neat and tidy

During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.

After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.

As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular trimming, any ‘weeds’ appearing among the flowers were hoed away, imperfect leaves were removed, lawns were regularly mowed and plantains removed.

That was until my brother and I grew older and destroyed the lawn by continually playing soccer, or football as we called it. But that’s another story.

I’m led to reflect on this as I look at today’s English suburban gardens. Sadly, the modern trend has been to destroy many front gardens to create car parking, or simply to create low-maintenance areas of gravel or tarmac, even weirdly coloured synthetic grass. All neat and tidy. And lifeless.

Back gardens have also suffered to a lesser extent. Expanses of decking or stone patios create more lifeless, tidy spaces. Weeds and insects are destroyed with toxic chemicals from the Garden Centre. All this part of man’s apparent continued assault on nature. But all neat and tidy.

Thankfully there is increasing awareness of the devastation of insect and bird populations caused by this domestic obsession, and the equal dedication to low cost neat and tidy farming, with its sterile monocultures, hedges shaved to minimal depth, lack of field margins and spaces for field-nesting birds, no wildlife corridors.

It is clear that in this respect the trend of modern life is a sustained attack on nature. Nature is not neat and tidy with sharp edges. It’s alive and messy, with shaggy edges. Biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere. Gardens, fields and parks must include wild space for nature. Weeds are actually plants well suited to their environment. Within limits they can be tolerated, providing a variety of sustenance for nature. Crops will not thrive on denatured monocultures for centuries. This neat and tidy obsession needs to end. Now.

Featured image is Eden Park Recreational Area, London, via Wikimedia Commons.