To visit Europe is to travel through history, and in my case gradually build up a picture of Europe’s history that was neglected in my education. I first heard of Aix la Chapelle as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which reunited Western Europe, effectively recreating the original Roman Empire (European Union is not a modern idea!). Charlemagne was crowned Emperor there in the year 800.
Eventually I realised that the romantic-sounding Aix la Chapelle is actually known as the much more dour sounding Aachen in German. The roman languages are so much more poetic! Aachen is today in Germany, close to the Belgian border.
According to Wikipedia, Aach, means river or stream, corresponding to the Latin aqua and the French Aix. Remains show that Aachen was indeed a Roman ‘spa’ town. ‘La Chapelle’ of course refers to Charlemagne’s cathedral, one of Europe’s great and most historic buildings, originally completed around 805.
I intend to say more about a recent visit to Aachen in a future post.
Featured image shows Aachen town hall and cathedral,
by Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia Commons
How typically English (in the bucolic imagination) to play croquet on the lawns of the Bishop’s Palace with Well Cathedral in the background. The players are all dressed up in whites for the occasion, watched by the hoi polloi at the nearby tea shop.
A couple of games are in progress, all women apart from one man, who from time to time rests on his mallet while the women enjoy discussing the tactics of their next move, or maybe their next shopping trip.
The game appears to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ spirit, with handshakes all round at the end. There is none of the aggression I recall from young men playing opportunistic games of croquet many years ago.
Leave Interstate I10 at Katy and go up the long straight Katy Hockley Road for nearly 10 miles, past lines of new housing developments mixed with the usual (for Houston) random industrial and commercial units, and eventually you arrive at Paul D Rushing Park. Amazingly, you are still in Katy (yes, the greater Houston area is just that big). We’d ‘discovered’ this park from the website of Houston Audubon, giving suitable places for birders.
Suspicions arose when there were zero cars in the car park. At first sight this looked like a sports facility with ball courts. But there must be birds somewhere! Past the ball courts and toilets there were several lakes, apparently surrounded by little vegetation other than grass. A few odd ducks were immediately apparent, but the area looked otherwise barren.
Well, we’d come to walk, so walk we did. There were lots of viewing platforms, blinds and walkways over the lake, but not a lot to view. Soon we saw a coypu in the water, then an amazing scissortailed flycatcher rested in one of the few bushes, then egrets on the boardwalk hand rails (featured image), chicks in the water, a black stilt in the distance, a little brown job – some sort of sparrow, then a yellowlegs wader, turtles,… So actually there was quite a lot going on in a park that at first looked so unpromising. But it still looked strangely lacking in vegetation to European eyes!
Llano is a good place to stop on the way to somewhere else in Texas. This small town was founded as a frontier trading centre on the Llano River in 1856. The river and the ‘old’ town provide the main focus of interest, plus one of the best BBQ restaurants around (delicious).
The bridge is rather functional and not particularly attractive, so I was quite surprised that my Panasonic ZX200 made it look quite attractive after nightfall (featured image).
More spectacular was the view of the evening sky from the bridge, over the weir.
Mute swans are common in the UK, possibly related to the fact that the Monarch retains the right to ownership of all unmarked swans in open water.
Mostly you see them in small family groups, but in some places such as Windsor there are large colonies. This group that we saw on Southport’s Marine Lake were clearly acting as a coherent grouping, speeding along together, like lads who’ve heard there’s free beer – presumably to meet up with others we’d spotted further along the water.
The single cygnet suggests that this is not a family grouping as such.
One of the delights of visiting WWT Martin Mere, Lancashire, in November is to see the feeding of the thousands of birds – ducks, waders, geese, whooper swans, with flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, sometimes a starling murmuration, more geese and swans circling and descending gracefully onto the water,…
This is soon followed by the gradual descent of the sun to the horizon behind the mere, as the birds begin to settle for the night.
I was intrigued to know what was this colourful plant amid the marram grass on the sand dunes at Southport.
A bit of research shows that it is sea buckthorn. It is the plentiful berries that are so colourful, lit up by the low November sun. Like the marram grass itself, sea buckthorn has an extensive root system that is able to cope with the extreme environment of the sand dunes (which also helps to stabilise the dunes).
The featured image shows the berries, leaves and thorns closer up.
Today, after an unseasonably warm month, typical November weather has finally arrived – cold, wind, and rain. Yesterday afternoon, in marked contrast, we had balmy sunshine, giving wonderful light for photographs in the late afternoon.
I love the effect on this otherwise rather undistinguished Lancashire farmhouse, set on the edge of a stubble field.
It seemed a good idea to go through the local lanes blackberrying with friends in Normandy. Due to the dry weather a lot of the berries were quite small, but there were plenty if you could reach, and we got enough to make a few jars of jam.
Wearing T-shirt tucked into long trousers, there did not seem too much danger of insect bites. But then a day or two later came an insane level of itching around ankles, thighs and waist, and the discovery of 36 ‘bites’. Our friends thought they were from local spiders, but subsequent research suggests that they were bites from chiggers, or harvest mites, or aoutats in France (August pests).
I was not really aware of these pests. See the above Wikipedia entry. The larval stage of the lifecycle of this mite is of size about 0.007inch, so hardly visible to the naked eye. Once on you they can come and go as they please! They burrow down and eat the inner skin, and can cause skin rashes, blisters etc. Two of mine blistered and took ages to heal.
Well worth being aware of these little pests, and beware those tempting blackberries in an area you’re not familiar with!
This spider web encrusted street lamp in Amboise looked quite spectacular. I took a photograph on automatic, and the effect was underwhelming. For the following shot I tried the ‘postfocus’ facility on my Panasonic TZ100 – this takes a number of frames at different focus and give the option of selecting the best or merging the best focused parts of the picture. The result is much better. Not quite like the old film photography!
I have previously written of the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Amboise. Recently we again tarried in that crossing point of the River Loire, to be impressed this time by just how photogenic Amboise is. The featured image shows what is left of King Francois I’s chateau, and the bridge over half of the river from the island, beautifully enhanced by modern lighting. Here’s a larger version.
Go onto the bridge and look to the right and you see the beautiful sunset over a wild part of the River Loire, ‘Europe’s last untamed river’.
There were plenty of cormorants and gulls on the river, too, but I didn’t get any shots worth sharing this time.
I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.
In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.
So I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?
The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.
Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.
St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.
I was quite struck by one particular quote:
And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?
Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.
So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.
I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.
Orval chapter house
For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.
And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.
In March we took a road trip through some of the Deep South US States. A few images stick in my mind.
Exploring the Louisiana flatlands down towards the Gulf, south of Lake Charles – Lafayette. This is clearly hurricane alley. There is evident poverty. Many plots of land have an aged RV next to the shack, ready for quick getaway. Some just comprise an RV in a shelter.
In Birmingham, Alabama the great industrial centre built by blacks for white money is no more, just a few museums, like the Sloss steel mill.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the famous choo choo runs no more and its very fine station is closed.
Fort Payne in Alabama was built in the 1830s to intern and relocate Cherokee Indians. In the 1880s, due to the railroad, it was a booming iron and steel town until the minerals ran out. The opera house is still there. In the early 1900s a hosiery industry started and by the 1990s Fort Payne was ‘sock capital of the world’. Globalisation put an end to that, and the place now feels like it is struggling.
Winona in Mississippi is another a town which owes its existence to the railroad. It now seems more dead than alive, with many shuttered buildings.
Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of a major battle of the Civil War in 1863, and grew on the back of the trading boats plying the River Mississippi. Vicksburg has a history of suppression of first Indians and then blacks.
It is now a tourist town, with an apparently prosperous posh residential area. But Main Street looks faded, with many closed shops. Drunks or druggies patrol the edges of the civilised area.
I see all these as symptoms that the great American Dream is not working. Struggling towns and communities, due to jobs destroyed or moved elsewhere, particularly due to globalisation. Donald Trump offered change from this failed system, which has been engineered by both Republicans and Democrats. It is not surprising that people voted for him despite reservations on his character.
There is no evidence yet that politicians other than the Bernie Sanders left wing Democrats offer any solutions.
Featured image is the now-static Chattanooga Choochoo. Picture of Fort Payne Opera House courtesy Jerry & Roy Klotz, via Wikimedia Commons.
Northwich in Cheshire is notable as being an old salt town, so much so that during its history there have been frequent occurrences of subsidence as the land has subsided into old salt workings below. This proved a big problem for bridges over the River Weaver, which provided Northwich’s water link with the River Dee. The bridge pillars gradually subsided.
Hayhurst Bridge, Monochrome
This was solved in 1898 with the building of the Hayhurst Bridge, followed the Town Bridge in 1899, the first electrically powered swing bridges in Great Britain. Two bridges meant that one was always open to traffic.
Town Bridge, monochrome
To avoid the subsidence problem, these bridges were built on floating pontoons, said also to be also the first of their kind in the country.
I’ve included monochrome images, trying out the capabilities of my new phone’s camera. I thought the black-white bridges could look better this way, but the colour versions actually look better to me.
Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, led me to reflect on our recent brief visit to that city, as part of a road trip taking in some of the Deep South states.
It was clear from the places we’d visited along the way that the local economies are not working well in these states, and the anti-discriminatory process accelerated by King in the 1960s is by no means yet finished (just listen to some of those speeches from Memphis last Wednesday). Both were probably factors in the election of President Trump.
Yet Memphis is a good place to visit, with music in its soul, exemplified by swinging Beale Street, exuding a similar atmosphere to the French Quarter in New Orleans. We loved taking in a drink and meal at BB King’s bar, with sound levels almost tolerable to sensitive ears.
We found plenty of attractions suitable for children, including an excellent Fire Museum, which kept children and adults alike engaged with informative and entertaining exhibits.
Of course, Memphis exists because of the great old lady Mississippi (featured image shows bridge, taken from the top of the Memphis Pyramid, now a megastore). The city was frequently visited by Mark Twain during his period as a pilot on the Mississippi, documented in his book Life on the Mississippi.
There’s also a guy called Elvis associated with Memphis. We got taken to his birthplace but somehow managed to avoid Graceland.