Thursday, 23 February 2017

Little cities

In the last two days, I have heard three people quite separately advising that a good way to live is to stay humble, work with your hands, and be kind (or not steal things). Working with your hands implies some kind of mercantile society - because no-one can make enough things personally to fully live. If you were good at making fishing nets, you would quite likely not have had time to learn how to make usable pots, or strong shoes. A small tribe of people might have all the necessary skills among its members for them to have access to all the things they'd need, but after a time, that tribe would itself need things beyond its immediate scope of making - maybe iron, or timber, or new animals.  So, since we gave up being nomads after the last Ice Age, we've had to live in or near to groups big enough to make all the basic necessities, or to trade in them. Agriculture means markets. It is very interesting to me to see how farmsteads and villages are scattered in particular kinds of landscape. Richer lands allow more people to live closer together, but poorer lands (such as mountainsides) mean each group needs more space to create tradable wealth, so dwellings are less numerous overall.
Market towns have various things in common - accessibility, some sort of security, water, civic provision such as law courts and justice, a tax system, a weights-and-measures authority, religious buildings, and so on. There also have open space or sometimes a covered building in which to conduct the trade, and if the trade is in beasts then there will have been an abbatoire or shambles. Fish and poultry often have separate and maybe smaller markets.
Our own town of Faversham had or had these, in different districts, over the centuries, and so does Thame and Settle and Bishops Castle and so on. Kilkenny has the same thing.
All these town share another feature which is that they work completely perfectly for people on foot. You can easily walk from place to place - the river, the castle, the old law court, the market, the several ancient churches, and so on.  Modern traffic has to thread its way through, but the traffic is out of place, too big, too close, too smelly. We have been slowly familiarising ourselves with Kilkenny over the last few years as this is where our son lives with his wife and baby son. The similarities and differences between this town and others we know in England keep presenting themselves.  We feel at home here, but keep seeing how it's not the same.
It clearly has medieval origins, and may have been almost indistinguishable in the 14th century from its counterparts in England, but as time passed, the impacts of history have led to divergence. Ireland is understandably very very Irish, so there are masses of green things on sale - wigs, Viking helmets, clothing of all kinds, beards, garden gnomes, scarves..... This is in the run-up to St Patricks's Day in a few days time.
It also remained mostly Catholic, and we see far far more visible signs of religion as we walk around - bible study shops, shops and posters inviting you to buy your children's confirmation clothes. They have the Angelus on television twice a day.   There are far far more small businesses in old retail shops, run since forever by families... So the names adorn all the shops - Egan, O'Reilly, Kelly, Lewis, Byrne, and so on.   It's a noticeably friendly place, so the Vietnamese nail bar which opened just before Christmas came here because the owners, on a day trip from Dublin were so struck by the pleasant attitude of the residents asked all their staff it they'd like to relocate, so they did, the whole lot of them.  There are masses and masses and masses of pubs, though some are empty, but a new brewery has opened up to visitors.
And there is a thriving pride in local produce, so we find a highly confident and vigorous restaurant and arts culture, with delicatessens, cafes, health food shops, craft shops, galleries, award-winning cuisines, and probably hundreds of local producers supplying the basic fare - eggs, meat, fish, bakery, soaps, oils, biscuits, art, specialist items of all kinds, honey, cosmetics, weaving, music, interior items, it's all absolutely alive and well. As the old employment-based, industrial and banking economies have faded away, the place has reverted to its ancient origins.... trading in local goods.
It may be that the churches do not have such a hold on the people now, as we see yoga, reiki, shiatsu, hippy stuff, Buddhism, etc all advertised, and there are lots of Indian and other foreign population groups who may not be Catholic. One of a pair of stone gates bears a carved tablet explaining how the English managed their scorching rage of the locals under Cromwell by dragging local lords and commoners into some sort of parliamentary government - as it says 'wars which were waged to maintain the religious and political liberties of the Irish people......'   Oh no. Atrocties.
But todays' Irish people are mostly completely polite about what the English did to them, for so long. Given the current political upheaval, its' not beyond the realm of possibility that the English might apply to become a province of Ireland, allowing St Patrick to hold hands with St George....  Ireland has its citiies, of course, but as in England, its' the old market towns which preserve a more authentic sense of the culture and nations, in my opinion. Kilkenny, like Faversham, holds a lot of experience and wisdom in its higgledey-piggledy streets and merchant houses. People on foot have to see each other's faces, can sample each others' cooking, watch each other's children.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


We often drive to the airport but just taking small handluggage this time we went by train, a smooth experience apart from seeing my on-ward ticket disappear completely into the ticket barrier's maws at Victoria. The man on duty didn't immediately grasp that I needed it for the next leg of the journey but did eventually take the side of the automatic machine off, and working like a croupier at a poker game, started to dislodge a mass of used tickets from a stash. Eventually he found mine and handed it back, but made me walk through a different channel as if I or the rascally ticket might cause further disruption if I tried using it again.
It was a pleasure to get onto the Gatwick Express which not only has electric sockets for charging phones etc, but free wifi as well. The blessings of the 21st century. 
The airport chicanes are - frankly - exhausting and questionable. The security lines which are intrusive and oversensitive - bleeping at my reading glasses, requiring me to take my comfortable but awkward boots off.  Why? Why?  I am a fat middle-aged housewife. I am not a terrorist. They have tracked me through their barriers for twenty years now.... It's just annoying.  Then you have to go through that vile Shoppong World thing, a winding corridor with sparkling paving, the air drenched with disgusting artificial scents, people standing around hoping I'll stop and buy their liquor, chocolate or face creams. No!!!!!! Can we not have an alternative route without all this? I think my toxin levels go up 1000% each time I go through, just from the polluted air.
We get lunch in Wagamamas  -  with lovely service from the staff - none of whom is English, by the way, so if they're all sent 'home' under Brexit, who will come forward to work there?  The food is ok-ish. The mango smoothie with chilli is disappointing - really barely a hint of either mango or chilli - but really it just tasty test of pear juice.  I The waiter replaces it for me, but it's the same. I tweet about it, and get a swift response from Gatwick Airport.  Hmmn. A bit of overkill, methinks. Maybe the airport authority needs to check the quality and customer satisfaction of all their retail outlets.
As we take off, a huge fire is burning on the ground beside an old airplane not far from the runway. It's some sort of training exercise, but the bright orange flames and black smoke are alarming. Sobering.
We hit Dublin in the rush hour and it takes two hours longer than expected to get to Kilkenny. As we crawl along the M50, it feels like we're being easily overtaken by litter, tumbleweed, donkey-carts. Jovial relationships are formed between drivers... cups of tea passed through windows, card games set up......
We get to the flat. Alex has come to meet us in the car park... So much more confident, walking, smiling, murmuring, speaking! Our first grandson. Beautiful. He's grown so much since Christmas. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Kilkenny dreaming

We're off again, tomorrow morning, to Kilkenny to see the O'Kiddoes, especially baby Alex who is heading towards one-and-a-half and we don't see enough of him.

This time, having had half an hour to spare this afternoon before we pack and so on, I did some research into 'things to do in Kilkenny'. There are abbeys, monasteries, caves, the castle, glass-makers, wool-weavers, waterfalls, parks, art galleries, ancient dwellings and jails, riding centres, and a farm with a small town inside it.  It may be possible for us to get to see some of the ones we haven't visited so far. It would be great to take Alex out to somewhere with animals to look at and pet. Mares and foals are a possibility.

I have my usual pre-departure panic: what to pack (hand luggage only), getting all my admin tasks done in advance, trying to reduce my stuff to the bare minimum. I usually end up taking too many clothes - and then find I never wear them. The thinking is, we MIGHT go out to dinner. It may be EXTRA hot, cold, wet, windy, etc etc which would mean I need a change of clothes.... But, really how many shoes do I need? This time we're also taking some things for Alex: a spinning top, some clothes which cannot be bought in the Republic (giving the mother a bit of cachet, I hope, at the mother-and-baby meetings).  

My thinking is also distorted by today's remarkable event, namely the memorial service in Canterbury Cathedral for Sir John Swire, whose charitable foundation has been extraordinarily generous to the Faversham Creek Trust. The cathedral was pretty well packed. We had the full theatrical show, with a long procession of various clergy including the Dean, the choristers, the organist and deputy organist looking after the music, and a marvellous eulogy from Sir John's cousin Michael Todhunter. He explained, as part of a very moving and inspiring address, how Sir John met Moira, now Lady Swire.   She was a passenger on one the Swire family cargo ships in the orient, but had a really unfortunate experience which propelled her - later - to complain at the highest possible level about what happened to her. That was, that a water-buffalo entered her cabin and the only way to get rid of it was to cut its head off ('decapitate').  It scarcely bears thinking about. No wonder she wanted to talk to the man at the top.

Anyway, blessed sunlight streamed into the nave. The congregation was thoughtful and responsive. The music was wonderful. The prayers were simple and eloquent. The eulogy was fascinating. The whole thing was - pretty well perfect. As Mr Todhunter said, 'He was a good man'.

So these thoughts are in my mind while I consider emptying out the fridge and getting keys to the right people.  I shall go and have a glass of white wine and make some supper.  The packing will be more stripped down than I have managed in the past. We're only away for a few days.  I am really looking forward to stony dark historic Kilkenny, with its river and castle, and our little grandson with his watchful eyes and determinations. I wonder how he'll get on with the spinning top.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Real values

We've often remarked amongst ourselves how similar the rural architecture is between Ireland and France, and Wales has to come into it and Scotland too but I have not been there for a while.   We could probably include Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.  It's absolutely not the same as English rural architecture. The placement of buildings inside their plots, the shapes and exterior surfaces, the details of doors and windows - these have an insistent Celtic quality to them which is absolutely unfamiliar to a southern Englishwoman. But it never dawned on me till this Christmas weekend in Tipperary what this is about.
The significant thing is that none of these cultures are English. They have - for various reasons - eschewed some of the dominant stylistic choices of the English, and so what we see in the Celtic regions is what we ourselves might have had if it had not been for the successfully long reigns of some British Queens. In particular we can think of Elizabeth I, Victoria and (to some extent) Elizabeth II.
The English have been utterly mesmerised for centuries by a dream of greatness, reflected in architecture by a consistent return to the styles of Tudor domestic - black-and-white, gable-fronted, modest homes with leaded windows (very often with diamond panes), and with any luck, roses round the door.  We had a wonderful romance (wrong word!) with Georgian classicism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but couldn't help ourselves and rolled back to ornamental brickwork and then into Tudorbethan suburban expansion, millions of small homes built in long rows, some as solos and some semidetached or even terraced.
This was all coinciding with our nation's extraordinary (and in many ways repulsive) empire-building outreach and the industrial revolution which stole and created so much wealth, and has been almost universally regarded as brilliantly successful.
Even in the decades since WW2, when we have seen a further massive expansion of housing provision across England, we have favoured a particular kind of twiddle, the 'Englishman's home is his castle' kind of propriety, with front walls in particular being more often than not adorned with false fronts - white-painted wood, and latterly plastic planking, or vertical tiling being popular (and cheap).
However, our neighbours did not necessarily take the same view of all this activity or style.  They did not generate quite the same jingoistic view of the explosion of capitalist activity, although of course they provided huge amounts of the necessary labour and raw materials - the coal, iron, plate, chains, rails, engines etc.
And, because they did not produce such a massive number of new industrial cities with all the attendant social relocatoin, they had nothing like the same disruption to their peasant heritage... so the dreams from the ancient days remained more intact.  The idea would be that - one day, if all went well - you'd be able to afford a new house (no rats, no silverfish, no cockroaches, no mud, proper drains, separate bedrooms, etc etc) sitting plum in the middle of your own terrain, something to be proud of, a shining homestead for the family to call home. The whole slant was different.
They did not need the beguiling details of tiling or gables or black-and-white or leaded windows to demonstrate the success of the family's endeavours - the house itself is enough.
So when you stroll down a quiet lane, or drive around any of the Irish or French or Welsh towns, you will see proud newish houses, very clean, usually bang in the middle of the ground, with distinct boundary walls and gates, and a driveway, and sometimes it's a bit naff or blingy, but it's unmistakable - the shining demonstration of a family's achievement.
In England, by contrast, we have tightly-huddled clusters of new homes far too small, with a lot of attention paid to exterior styling and none at all to layout and purpose - the the needs of families - garden space, laundry space, shed space, privacy, community.  They are shockingly, achingly overpriced. We have by far the smallest square footage per new dwelling in the whole of Europe.
These minute new homes are also quite often built using timber-framing and infill - but priced as if they were made of brick and mortar. And they are not as fireproof as you'd like either - the fire which ripped through the top floors of the ludicrous new Lego-style apartments at the Tannery roundabout in Canterbury a couple of years ago showed that the industry has now adopted the American style of residential building. They may look safe and sound, but they are not.  Why do you think the firemen are regarded as such heroes in the USA? Because they are. They have to be. The number of fires and the speed at which they rip through buildings in the States is shocking to a European.  If you walk through any American city on any day, you will see the glorious fire-engines out at work - or patrolling and reminding people they're there: that just doesn't happen in Europe, not on any average day.
I have nothing against firemen, of course. But I think this is another example of how (in England) the standards have been allowed or encouraged to slip.... the residential property development industry could make more money with shoddy techniques during the last 50 years property-boom, and so they did.
So you get a very distinct cultural difference. And it's not them who are abnormal - it's us.
It's not all bad of course. Out of the weird mix of character which is called 'typically English' with its absurd class-structure and casual violence, we also shaped a whole new world during these centuries. And we did it with very small tools.....  First, our visionaries (monarchs, soldiers, capitalists) looked to the nearest sources of raw wealth - Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, etc.   And because in some ways not very much has happened to change things in those areas, it's easy to find and marvel at the railway engineering, the mines, mills, bridges, canals, wharves and warehouses which are still there. The extraordinary thing about the canals is how tiny they were and are.  Some are barely ten feet wide. Yet it was on these tiny threads of access that the whole international business was constructed. They are capillary-small. It's almost inconceivable to a modern eye.
Walking along the rural Irish lanes, you can see the modern revolutions happening in front of your eyes.   The proud new family homes are built along the lanes which have had almost nothing happening in them otherwise for 1000 years.  You must have a car to live there now, and you can be in the beautiful countryside with your land about you and feel satisfied. Down the road, are some tiny stone cottages falling into complete decay, and the occasional small family farm built of stone with mud and cows and gates held shut with string.
Occasionally, near the ports or or business parks, these old functional buildings are converted to huge brand new steel-and-concrete hotels and conference centres (we stayed last night at one near Rosslare, called The Farmers Kitchen, a massive depressing plastique place). But the name gives away the nostalgic and powerful marketing tool.... There was a woman once called Irene Scallan, whose kitchen was a bit of a bar, and then it all grew from there.  The receptionist said some of the old buildings are still there, out back.  You can visit once-thriving market-towns like Thurles or Bunclody which have wonderful family names (such as Stakelums) adorning the buildings once dedicated to pharmacy or butchery or alcohol or clothing, but the centres are now mostly used as carparks.  All through France this summer, we found the old family restaurants shut down, and new American-style diners operating in the new shopping parks in their place (food handed over on plastic or paper sheets or cups). We live in an age of transition. People gratefully walk away from the rotten old stuff, and have to choose what they like from the future.
In the Celtic lands, their choices look more sound, for the most part. In England, we're still transfixed by the facade, what things look like rather than what they do.  The great Abstract Expressionist artist Rothko called his paintings facades. It's a word with a double meaning. Is what you see the real thing, or is something being hidden?
However small the 18th century canals were, they weren't hiding anything. They didn't pretend. Our modern life is mostly about pretence. Going to an empty rural country like Ireland reminds you of real values.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Royal Disdain

Like all robust communities, Llanberis has several interesting historic occasions to refer to. For instance, twice in its history, despite an energetic entrepreneurial spirit shown by the community over centuries, introducing slate-mining, railways, new roads, mountain-climbing, tourism, etc etc etc, English Royals have snubbed it. Meanies.

The Royal Victoria Hotel at Llanberis has only a tenuous claim to the name because of an irritating no-show by HRH.  On a grand day in August 1832 when HRH Princess Victoria was due to visit, arriving with a huge entourage of courtiers and nobles, and with the whole town turned out to meet her, the Princess was indisposed and did not appear. Her huge party of celebrants and grandees came along, and it took the assembled townsfolk (and hoteliers) a while to realise that their patroness (and in the case of the hotel, their namesake) was not there. The party had to go on without her. She was too ill.  The hotel's written history says 'considerable disappointment was felt when it became known that the young princess, or as the quarry-men called her 'Frenhines fach' was not in the party.'

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the others all went on a day trip around about, on the lake and to the ruined castle of Dolbardarn, and the royal banner was displayed opposite the hill of the council where the barons of Snowdon encamped when they made a treaty with Edward which united Wales and England.  But, somehow, it doesn't quite work.  They called this huge hotel Royal Victoria, but she never turned up.

But this wasn't the first royal snub. The hotel is not far from the site of the town's ancient castle, a seat of resistance and national Welsh pride, built by Llywelyn Fawr who died in 1240. When the English King Edward took over, he decided that Dolpadarn was NBG for his purposes and Caernarfon would be a better place and he proceeded to partly dismantle Dolpadarn and use the timbers in his other pad.

Local bitterness was perhaps assuaged by Prime Minister William Gladstone who - in 1892 at the age of 84 - arrived in Llanberis and gave a truly stirring speech about (of all things!) the the freedom of small states, and he did this up on the slopes of Mount Snowdon, attended by a huge crowd. He was there to celebrate the opening of a footpath, because by that time, the wars of the past had faded away, the slate quarries were in fine fettle, a railway had connected the area to the outer world for tourism and freight, and a new road had been constructed down the terrifying Llanberis Pass, making access so much easier. Walking (or taking the train) up Snowdon became a national obsession. In fact, in the 1960s, I remember a weekend at my granny's house in Hampstead when some of the uncles arrived in jubilant mood having gone to climb Snowdon (there and back) between Friday and Sunday. They missed lunch when they got back, but were given sandwiches and cheers by the family. None of the uncles had anything special in the way of clothing or footwear... tweed jackets, twill trousers, brogue shoes.  They did it on a whim.

The hotel is rather grand where it can be. The breakfast buffet is offered at the entry of the large dining room (though your seating is quite a long way away in a glazed balcony). No trays are available so you have to go back and forth for each orange juice, cereal, toast, or whatever, wending your way between the tables in the main area... It dawned on us that one of their main preoccupations is petty larceny. Everything is arranged so you can't nick anything. It must be a big problem for them, with hordes arriving in summertime for walking and mountaineering. The books lining the wall are fake - a kind of wallpaper. On the buffet, the only fresh fruit is a slice of water melon (no apples to sneak into your lunch picnic). The yoghurt is served in a huge porringer. The butter comes in little open rolls all ready at your table (you have to take some with you back to the toaster if you want to put an egg on your DIY toast back at the far end of the dining room). Actually, once you get the hang of it, it's all fine - the choice is superb and everything is delicious.  But the night before, the head barman was really refusing to let me take a glass of wine to my room, although I was in my bedroom slippers, because I did not have the little slip of white paper which came with the room key.... And a whole picture had been stolen from the wall, leaving four patches of velcro where it had once been.  Stealing stuff from hotels is not a joke. And royal no-shows are not a joke either.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

We've just checked into the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis, having driven all day across England to get here. Tomorrow we'll do the last 30 miles to Holyhead to catch the fast midday ferry to Dublin.

We don't do all that much driving on motorways in England. Things change, subtly all the time. There is a distinct hitch-up in the aggression rate. People drive fast all  the time, so as they leave a motorway and get to a roundabout they're still on high adrenalin and swerving round as if it's a racetrack. That makes anyone going at a more suburban rate, maybe unfamiliar with the route or struggling to see the signage, vulnerable. There's a lot of horn-work, aggression.  More than, say, five years ago. Perhaps we should impose lower speed limits on all roundabouts, so they just slow down before they join in with less speedy traffic.

It's also interesting to see how all the big heavy vehicles are evolving. Whereas HGVs used to be fairly standardised, they are now getting more specialised. There are so many different kinds of trailer, grab, tipper, crane, low-bed, car-carrier etc now.  They seem much heftier, chunky. Whoever makes and sells these things must have upped their game, designing and marketing very highly specialised vehicles in much greater numbers.  No idea if these are British or not, though.

We had an impressively unimpeded journey round the M25 (N), then up the M1 as far as about Daventry, and then hopping off onto the A5, thus avoiding some sort of vile hold-up on the M6. Hoorah.  It's such a relief getting off the motorways... the kind of concentration and manoeuvres you have to make on an A road are just more stimulating. I was wondering if there would be any special reason evident to a passer-by to explain why the A5 (Roman Watling Street) has a distinct change of direction at one point - now a six-wents, and it turns out that was where it crossed the Fosse Way. Wikipedia has a good page describing the A5, concentrating on the engineer Telford who did a lot of work on it.

We stopped for lunch at a random cafe which turned out to be the works canteen of the wonderful British haulage firm of Eddie Stobart. It is smallish but clean and gets good marks from reviewers on Trip Advisor (we only read those after we sat down).  It is deeply reminiscent of motorway service stations in the early 70s. The food is ok, hot, reasonable choice, brought to your table by willing waitresses...  but, I feel sorry for anyone eating in such places every day.  The French established les Routiers, which had culinary standards....  This stuff is done to a price and even the salad was tasteless.... though we were grateful for it.  The chips were ok, but cooked in the dullest oil. The peas were copious and bright green, but could have been made of soya.... no flavour, and I guess little nutritional benefit.

Once again we observe how the great choice of roadside pubs has diminished - many are now Chinese or Indian restaurants, or closed down altogether, or for sale.  England is changing.

Getting into Wales made a great difference - suddenly everything looked beautiful. Dusk was falling (a bit later than in Kent, of course), and the Dee valley was lovely.  By the time we got to the Llanberis Pass which I would have liked to see, everything was dark, and rain had started, so it was more an imagination-road than eyeball-socking Gothic.  But the hotel is brightly lit, over-heated, with cheerful reception staff, and a stormy wind blowing outside so we feel snug.

Ireland tomorrow.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

High Life and Low, at Laon and Arques

We just got on the ferry home. It’s warm, mildly sunny. We have driven 2,500 miles. Naturally we have been thinking about our grand tour, summing things up: what was best, what was worst, what we’d do again, etc.

One heart-stopping moment was as we drove away from the quaint hotel in Troyes yesterday morning. In a split second, we had a flat tyre, on the front nearside wheel. Of course the spare was stashed deep, deep in the boot, under all the stuff – tent, clothes, picnic kit, bags, boxes of this and that. But my dh, aka the concierge sorted it in about 20 minutes, though I noticed he did blush, or flush red, just for a short while. This was in the very heart of the town, on cobbles with narrow enfilades for the traffic, and lots of cautious drivers edging past – thankfully not offering to stop and help. My part was to find and erect the legally-required red danger triangle and place it some yards behind the car. I felt that was a truly important contribution to the exercise. Kept us safe, etc. I also helped unpack and then repack the boot with all that stuff. One day, I will really trust my experience and stop taking so much with us. Trouble is, you never know in advance what you are going to want, and sometimes, having ‘just the right thing’ saves the day. Sigh.

We had taken an hour or so after breakfast to saunter back into the town to see the cathedral which was shut the night before. We called into the might church built by Pope Urban IV right on the spot where he grew up in his father’s cobblers shop. So, dad had a smelly old leather workshop, and Urban had a colossal, stunning, huge church, right there, on the very same place. What do you think?

The church is remarkable (has a lot of really beautiful old statues, which are well labelled), but the cathedral which is a few hundred yards away is just amazing. It is HUGE. They only managed to build one of the two planned towers, and the columns which support this gleaming and highly decorated edifice are, at the base, more than 15’ across. Of course it’s been enlarged and beautified at various stages over the centuries but most of it is pre-16th century and with its masses of stained glass and quiet aisles, it is one of the most beautiful places I can remember ever having been in. Superb.

You may wonder why a low atheist like me finds churches so interesting. First of all they are major artistic and cultural artifacts which have survived from way back in our history. Real people made them. Real people defaced them from time to time, too. They have a secret language too, can be compared to the inner space of the female body, or expressed in musical similes. It’s interesting to go and look at neolithic tombs with their dark portals, and then stand looking east inside churches. They are enclosed, they are aristocratic, or even royal, spaces which offer a springboard into eternity and the mysteries of ‘god’ and the universe. You really don’t have to be a religious person to learn from them, and like them. I am very proud of many old English churches, love them even, but it’s salutory to go and see what was happening in Europe while our own religious houses were being built. However glorious our churches are, they do (sometimes) pale into insignificance next to what the great orders were arranging in France, or Spain, or Italy, or Germany…..

Anyway, I need to report that we fitted two splendid excursions into the last few hours. One was a trip into the citadel at Laon, and the other was to see the most important bit of industrial archaeology in northern France.

At Laon, we checked into the Hotel des Arts which is near the railway station and probably not one we’d recommend to friends. It was built in the early 50s, and the service is very friendly but it’s all too flimsy and in need of an overhaul, and there is not much to stop you hearing what people are saying in the adjoining rooms and balconies (till 1.30am!).

The town has spread out on the plain around the massive rock which has attracted the attention of the high and mighty for centuries, arguably millennia. That is where all the ancient and rich buildings are, with the rif-raf spread out on the low ground all round it. We went up into the citadel, where we had been before a few years ago, and it has been improved a lot. There are a goodly selection of cafes and restaurants and useful information panels….and the abbey is just jaw-dropping to look at. But there are loads and loads of empty shops, to let or for sale, and they have just – just a month ago! - closed down the funicular railway which for a few short years carried tourists (or commuters? or shoppers?) up from the lower regions into the historic centre. All very sad. A wonderfully dikey and grumpy woman served me a glass of delicious wine while I sat and tried to draw the front of the abbey… Later she melted and showed me the label, saying lots of people ask what it is: Colombelle, l’original 2015, from Gascony.

And this is just part of it... the towers at the east end are equally amazing

Sometimes the lowly lot got the upper hand.  They massacred the bishop up there even though he was hiding inside a barrel.  But the main theme was that they only really wanted aristos in the centre (dirty tradesmen had to stay in the bourg and had their own door in the city walls). The lords and ladies and bishops etc liked looking at the amazing the views from the ramparts, where you can see for 20 or 30 miles even in the dusk. It’s terrific.

Anyway, after a poor night’s sleep in the Hotel des Arts at Laon we made our way towards Dunkirk, stopping for lunch in Arques… That proved hard to find till we did the obvious and looked around near the Mairie/Hotel de Ville. But then we went to the Ascenseur at Fontinettes.    What they had there was a problem – a difference in levels between the R Lys and the R Aa (which is, incidentally, one of my favourite names for a river, being the oldest word associated with rivers in Europe). The difference was 13m, but as the French industrial revolution unfolded they needed to connect these two waterways up.    At first, they had a series of locks, five of them. But that was very slow - ninety minutes at the very fastest, but the boats had to wait to get through and that sometimes took a week or more and some cargoes were destroyed as a result (food going bad). So, they set some men to work, and filthy hard dirty work it was. A clever engineer supervised the installation of a lifting canal system, based on what had been working very well at Manchester (Anderton Boat Lift). In 1888 they installed two huge iron basins, balanced against each other and each big enough to take one of the mighty barges, and barges could then move from one river to the other with their vital cargoes and that took much less time - less than half an hour - but they still had to queue up to get in and out. Amazingly it kept working till 1967 – but of course even these lifting locks really were too slow, so then they put in a massive huge lock and that is what is used today, to get the barges from one river to the other. Up and down.

The lifting basins are still there, sort of, rusty and roped off, and their waiting basin is grassed over, with quaint little moorings all around…. it’s all very poignant and interesting, with a band of volunteers who have amassed some marvellous old maps and photographs and made us watch a shaky old video ‘een Eenglish’ which tried to explain it all. Another place worth a visit.

I am really tired. Outside, the sea is flat calm with an impending sunset and soft sky. There is a horrid list of chores to be attended to when we get home, let alone re-acclimatising ourselves to England and its ways. Commitments, invitations, the allotment, the garden, the laundry, meetings, the clearing-up admin associated with this wonderful trip. The concierge and I have had a lovely time, seen some of the true wonders of the world, learned that we still get along quite well, and can even manage our occasional bad temper with a laugh.