1965 Berlin

On our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia we crossed the iron curtain between West and East Germany. On the way out there was minor drama, when the easy-going West German border guards had taken the original of a key document listing the 24 members of our party, leaving only a photocopy for the dour  East German guards. They were not happy, but ultimately let us through. It was all a bit of a drama for me, as a totally inexperienced tour leader. Fortunately, we were subsequently in the safe hands of the Eastern student organisation that was running the trip for us.

On the return journey, we went through then-divided Berlin. After a long rail journey across Poland, we arrived in Berlin early evening, and hastily dismounted onto the platform. We soon realised that something was wrong. The station was deserted. A couple of us went seeking help, and found ourselves emerging into totally darkened streets. The light dawned – we were in East Berlin and the train had gone! Back in the deserted station, we saw that there was another train due to go to West Berlin in a few minutes time. We embarked onto this one and soon arrived in West Berlin, without further trouble, other than checking of documents. Was it really that easy to cross the curtain?

West Berlin was a huge contrast – lively, brightly lit, people going about their business as in other European cities – a graphic illustration of the difference between lives on the two sides of the curtain. Of course, many in the East wished to escape to the West. As we saw the next day, the Berlin Wall was massive and surmounted with barbed wire, before the no man’s land where would-be escapees were regularly shot.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, manifestation of the thawing of the hearts of men and women. Thank God for that, and what joy was in our hearts at that time. This makes it all the more tragic that Vladimir Putin now appears intent on dragging us back to those days of European division.

Featured image:  Berlin Wall from Potsdamer Platz 1965.
For the rest of the trip, see 1965 Prague, 1965 Kiev, 1965 Odessa, 1965 Moscow.

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.

At Garner State Park

We visited Garner State Park mid March. This Texas State Park lies on the Frio River, an hour or two’s drive from San Antonio. There are extensive camp grounds and many recreational opportunites afforded by the river and surrounding hills. On a very hot day we could just get a flavour of this picturesque area, see the following photos.

This impressive and popular park was built as a New Deal job creation project and is named after John Nance Garner, who served as Roosevelt’s vice-president from 1933-1941. This is a model for government action when times are hard for the people. Thousands benefit from this historic government investment every day.

The good old Texan attitude to covid-prevention is shown on the sign on the back of a camped pickup, see featured image.

At Dunham Massey

The winter garden at the National Trust’s Dunham Massey gives a wonderful splash of colour, lots and lots of snowdrops of various sorts, early daffodils and irises, heralds of spring. And the 500 year old oak, with one living branch, has such an intricate lived trunk.

The man

The men comprising Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby beach are ever-evocative, depending on tides and weather.

Here man stands alone,
having taken tentative steps through the shallows,
faced by turbid depths of watery emotion,
his own and others,
with storm clouds on the horizon.

Yet beyond calls the light,
reflected in current surroundings.
He knows that all is well.

Parkgate and Mostyn House School

The village of Parkgate on the north bank of the Dee Estuary presents a beautiful aspect on a sunny day. The continuous quay of what was once a port, before it silted up, gives a fine aspect on the white buildings set against the nature reserve of the estuary itself. On this occasion we saw lapwings, marsh harriers, great egrets, kestrels, and varous ducks and geese.

The most striking building is Mostyn House School, which I’ve photographed before (for example in this post). This time I looked for more detailed shots against a stunning blue sky.

History of Mostyn House School

The building was not always thus, and has an interesting history. The original building was a hotel for 100 years, linked to the success of Parkgate as a holiday resort, when there was had an outdoor lido. The Mostyn Arms Hotel even had a ballroom. In 1855 the hotel was sold to one Edward Price of Tarvin, who moved his school to Parkgate, but the structure was deteriorating.

“I have never seen such a horrible hole in all my life…” was the comment in 1863 when a new owner’s wife, a Mrs Grenfell, first saw it.

By 1899 the building, again according to her husband, was a ‘decrepit, insanitary wreck’. It was pretty well rebuilt over the next ten years to become the building we see today. A fine job they did, but clearly the building is not as old as you might think!

The school closed in 2010 and the building was subsequently converted to apartments. See timeline.

At the National Memorial Arboretum

A sunny day was forecast, so we decided to visit the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. The arboretum is part of the Royal British Legion, dedicated to passing on the baton of remembrance of those who served and suffered in Britain’s wars. We did not have any great expectations, other than for a pleasant day out in the sun at a memorial that is but 20 years old.

What a revelation, we were blown away by the rural setting, the trees and natural areas, and particularly the art works that have been created as part of some of the memorials, evocative of many of the less considered victims of war. Most are connected by tarmac paths. And the dog could go most places.

Here’s a small selection showing favourite images from our walk.

Particularly sobering was the large memorial (top left), containing the (around 16,000) names of all those who have died since 1945, in the many wars that the UK has engaged in over my lifetime. Was this all really necessary?

Yes, the experience does bring home the reality and the futility of war.

We will go again.

Featured image is a detail of the police memorial (bottom left), rotated 90deg.
Looks pretty ordinary until you catch the sunlight at the right angle!

That was 2021 on this blog

My favourite photos from posts of 2021

These were the individual posts, if you’re interested: Towards Tywyn, Sun going down at West Kirby, Sunset at Barmouth, Chinon, Black pine canopy, Common gallinule

My favourite wordy posts of 2021

Most viewed (2021)

As ever, the most viewed probably depends on the vagaries of search engines and my choice of keywords. The top two were the same as in 2020!

Most liked (5 years)

At least the top entry suggests that this exercise is worthwhile.

A happy new year to you all!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bodnant Gardens

The National Trust’s Bodnant Gardens, set in a sheltered valley near the mountains of Snowdonia, make available to the people grounds that were at one time private property. And what wonderful gardens they are, well worth visiting. Here’s a selection of photographs. Click to view as slideshow.

Black pine canopy

The black pine is native to southern Europe. We found this gathering of black pines at Bodnant garden, in Snowdonia, North Wales. Bodnant lies in a sheltered valley, enabling many exotic species to flourish within this mountainous area. What really struck me was the enormous trunks extending up far and away, with just a relatively small amount of branches and leaves in the high canopy. The effect is striking, almost monochrome.

Ringlet

We haven’t seen many butterflies so far this summer, but there were plenty of these brown ringlets in the woodland during our recent visit to the National Trust’s Bodnant Garden, North Wales. Fortuitously, one paused on a neaby leaf allowing this shot.

The two eyespots at the bottom are characteristic; there may be one, two or three eyespots on each of the outer wings.

According to the Woodland Trust, the ringlet is not a threatened species and is on the increase in many areas.

Avebury

The neolithic remains at Avebury are on an awe-inspiring scale. There were originally three stone circles, the largest having diameter 330 metres, inside the henge – a roughly circular bank with deep internal ditch. The stones are thought to have remained largely intact from around the neolithic period 3-4000BC until the late middle ages, the 14th century, when some of the stones were removed/ buried, presumably due to their pagan associations.

The stones and village of Avebury, ditch in foreground

The stones were cataloged in 16C, removed/buried in 17-18C, and substantially restored in 20C. The village you can see in the background was built in one of the circles.

The site is now maintained by the National Trust, together with the long avenue of standing stones (West Kennet Avenue), connecting the circles to other contemporary remains including the mound at Silbury Hill. The whole is on a vast scale, indicating that this was no primitive society, as we tend to think.

Read More »

Saint Richard Whiting

On entering Glastonbury Abbey, one of the first buildings you come to is the charming little St. Patrick’s Chapel. Here is a mural which recalls the last days of the Abbey in 1539.

At the time of the Dissolution programme which began in 1534, Richard Whiting was the gentle and respected bishop of Glastonbury Abbey, the second richest religious institution in England, with around 100 monks. The story is well told by Wikipedia here.

In essence, Whiting was conned in the early years that the programme would only affect smaller institutions. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only remaining abbey in Somerset. On being told to surrender the Abbey, Whiting refused, acting legally correctly. Naturally, the Glastonbury leaders took steps to keep the abbey’s treasures safe. This was then turned round by the church commissioners, and ultimately Thomas Cromwell acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, as evidence of treason. His defiance was simply not acceptable to the all-powerful king. There was no due process. Whiting was convicted in secret, and executed on Glastonbury Tor with two of his team.

The mural shows three gibbets on Glastonbury Tor, where the 3 men were hanged, drawn and quartered. These were savage times, and of course Whiting was not the first religious leader to be so treated.

Whiting is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church which beatified him over 300 years later.