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.

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