Fiumalbo is a village for which the word beautiful is entirely inadequate. It follows the contours of a bowl in a river valley in Emilia Romagna in north-central Italy.
A few weeks ago I was in Fiumalbo. On one rainy morning in our hotel I wrote as follows:
"Rain is falling in Fiumalbo. I have opened our window so that I can hear and smell it.
The little piazza below our room is glistening with the water on the pavers, reflecting the glow from the double street light towarfds one edge of it. The small tree to the right of the street light shades its foliage from black to the darkest green as it ascends from the trunk, orange in the glow of lamp and rain.
In the lamplight the buildings which form an approximate arc from our window are all a pale flourescent green, as are the outer-extremity pavers. Their green has shaded from the orange pavers below the lamp, and itself shades into darker green, close to black, as it approaches the base of the buildings. The whole is a wonderful study of colour.
The centre of interest is the street lamp and the orange pavers surrounding it, but a second point of interest is the 16th century Oratory of San Rocco whose facade looks out onto the piazza almost as a face with an amazed expression as it takes it all in. The right-hand pitch of the Oratory roof is batghed in brilliant green.
Rain is the greatest producer of beauty that I know. It places a whole new set of clothing on a scene. The sound of its falling as it gently meets the ground pre-sunrise is the sweetest of sounds. Heavy rain produces a different sound and a different aural beauty (though I know that most people don't find rain beautiful at all).
The changes of Fiumalbo's clothing have given me a picture gallery of a village, an ingternalised one which I suggest is indelible. Sadly, I have to leave this lovely village today."
I add only this to it. Fiumalbo is a delightful village, whether or not it rains, whether the sun shines or does not. Much of it has not changed for centuries. It promises to remain largely unchanged for quite a while yet.
To explore the mountain villages of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany is immensely rewarding. My visit to Fiumalbo was part of a month of learning the art of watercolour and was a very special time.It was an example of the benefits of getting away from the tourist routes.
Have you thought of visiting the villages?
The cities have their fascinations. Venice has the grandeur of the Piazza di San Marco, the shops of the Mercerie and the magic of an evening's opera at La Fenice; London has the bustle of Piccadilly, Tower Bridge and a play in the West End; Prague has the Old Town Square, the Stefansdom and Charles' Bridge; Florence has the Ufizzi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio and an evening meal at Fiesole watching the lights come on in the Arno Valley; Sydney has the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Kuringai Chase. Every major city has its attractions.
Yet there is a sense in which the villages are more interesting than the cities. One city can be much like another in being comparatively impersonal; a village is friendlier with a feeling of community and its own ethos.
I first discovered that many years ago when I spent a day and a night in a village called Snitterfield (wonderful name) not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. In the evening I went down to the bar of the hotel I was staying in, to listen to the local conversation and get a feel for what was going on. I quickly entered into conversation with a local man who had something to say on the subject of Shakespeare. There was a discussion in the media at the time concerning the possible influence of Bacon on some of the output of the Bard. At one point in the coversation, he said to me, "That Streaky Bacon, 'e didun' 'ave nuthin' to do wi' it." He said it with all the conviction you could imagine. Yet the matter was not really about who influenced or who did not influence the Shakespeare canon; it was about local pride and identity, as I discovered the following morning when I wandered through the village, called at a couple of shops and talked to some more locals. I could not have mistaken the fact that the village had a unique ethos, as all villages do. When I concluded my very brief visit to Snitterfield I had learned the value of local identity and to an extent I'd been led to think about my own formation in a place very different from that village. We are products of our community whose values influence us from our earliest days.
I have lived in four villages in Wales, which is not my native country. Those villages, Manorbier and Lydstep in Pembrokeshire and Bodeddern and Malltraeth in Anglesey, were each different in character from the other three. Each had a unique cultural and emotional heart. In those days in Wales I came to love all things Welsh, and learned a good deal about what communal living means while getting to know each village in turn.
Many years ago while driving in Tuscany I stopped at a village called Lucarella to buy some lunch. It consisted of a panino with ham and cheese and some red wine, all local produce. Discussion with the proprietor about that local produce gave me some understanding of what makes Lucarella tick.
More recently I walked through the village of Pavullo in Emilia-Romagna with my wife Ruth where we enjoyed a fine time wandering through the morning market, buying things we had not intended to buy. But markets are fascinating and the person who does not buy is highly disciplined. The major memory of that market is that the buyers were almost all women. Clusters of men gathered together in the market street and in the cafes where they talked animatedly together. Clearly the wives did the practical work of comparing prices and buying while the husbands left them to it and enjoyed the men's time of chatting. That's the culture and it was fascinating to watch.
Another village in Emilia-Romagna is Gombola where, on a hillside, a small church of around four centuries in age exists. There are no doubt many churches like it, but this one is special because it contains the skeletal remains of one Antonio Macchia who lived from 1639 until 1694. He is known as Il Santo di Gombola (The Saint of Gombola). He has never been canonised. He does not appear on any Catholic Church list of saints or martyrs. But Antonio was a man of great popularity in the Gombola area, and was, it seems, always there when someone was in need. The Church has not declared him to be a saint? "Too bad for the church" seems to have been the village response to that. The villagers decided that he was their saint and that was that. The village spirit needed no confirmation from any external authority.
The village also contains a mill dating from around 1500. It is a working mill, the wooden wheel still turning, still driven by leat water. The mill is operated by a brother and sister who have been working it all their adult lives.
In the village of Menerbes in Provence is a cafe which was called when I visited it the Cafe Progres. Elderly men meet there. They play dominoes and they talk. Their talk is of local issues mostly. You might say that there is no attraction in that. My answer is that it is in moments such as sharing the local conversation over the dominoes and coffee that the real fascination exists. There is local ethos and local history in those conversations in the Cafe Progres in Menerbes, a village which has at least twice had to be defended against Saracen attacks.
This is no more than a small selection of the villages I've visited. Every one has been packed with interest and every one has taught me something about what it means to be a person in community.
Don't write off the villages. They show us aspects of life the cities know little of.
Why not think about taking a break from the cities on the tourist trail and experience life in the villages where community is alive and well.
Recently my wife Ruth, son Richard and I went for a three-hour lunch cruise on the side-paddle-driven Captain Proud upstream on the River Murray from Murray Bridge.
We were not without experience of cruising on the Murray, having almost a year before experienced a seven-day, live-on-board cruise from Mannum on the Murray Princess. From Mannum the journey was first downstream to Murray Bridge, then upstream to the Walker's Flat area. Though the accommodation was spartan and in our opinion not really up to scratch, and though the after lounge was noisy (because it was just forward of the stern driving wheel), we enjoyed the journey, enjoyed the vessel and enjoyed the shore excursions. We would do it again if the opportunity were to occur.
To return to our cruise on the Captain Proud, we were on board from 1045 am to 2 pm and enjoyed the opportunity. It's a bit pricey at $59 per person (there are discounts on Tuesdays), but our view is that there is real pleasure in the experience.
While the Murray is close to its widest in the Murray Bridge area, it's narrow compared to the great rivers of Europe such as the Rhine and the Danube, but it has its special charm, not least its tranquil air produced by the lines of willows along each bank and the number of bird varieties which make their home by the water. Captain Proud does little to disturb the peace of the river, her side paddles operating comparatively quietly. Its true that her 6LW Gardiner diesel engine, which generates 82 kilowatts, is noisier than a steam engine, but it's not an excessive decibel producer.
The vessel was built at Port Adelaide in 1977 by the Proud family who also built Proud Mary and Kookaburra. All three vessels are working on the Murray. Captain Proud has the distinction of being the only side-paddle passenger vessel to make the journey by sea from Port Adelaide to the river via Backstairs passage and the Murray Mouth, a slow and potentially perilous journey for such a craft.
We made our cruise on a day of 30 degrees centigrade and the airconditioning in the saloon coped perfectly. At no time was I hot or even uncomfortably warm. The saloon is partly beamed with a small timbered bar at the starboard after end. Farther aft and one deck below is a small comfortable lounge. A few chairs are set out on the foredeck for those who want to watch the world go by and a bench which has a portion of one slat broken off but is otherwise pleasand enough seating.
The commentary was informative and not too much of it so that it was possible to concentrate on special interests (in my case the history of the river and its wild life) between the pieces of information shared over the vessel's speakers.
Lunch was pleasant and appetising. The passengers are allocated to tables on boarding so there is no scrambling for this table or that - a wise move on the part of the vessel's operators. The menu offered chicken or roast beef for the savoury course and choice of pavlova, apple crumble, fruit salad or cheesecake for dessert. I had chicken and pavlova and enjoyed it all.
However, lunch is the subject of the only difficulty I was aware of. The food was very good, the waitress who served us was pleasant and courteous, but there was a 30 to 40 minutes wait for the dessert after finishing the savourty course. We completed eating desserts just as the vessel was approaching her mooring at Murray Bridge and therefore the ending of the cruise. People were waiting all that time in the saloon for dessert and so missed the return part of the cruise. I felt that I had only had the outward leg. It was a long time for people to be kept away from the on-deck air and views of the scenery. That's a problem I believe has to be addressed. I can see no reason for so great a delay and so long a time for people to be kept in the saloon.
Even so, the cruise was a very pleasant way to spend a good part of the day. We were all three pleased that we'd had the experience.
The Woakwine cutting, situated not far from Robe in South Australia's south-east, is a remarkable achievement. With my wife Ruth I've visited it a couple of times, the last occasion being August 2014. Strangely, not many people seem to know about it. Those who want to find out more at first hand will find the cutting between Robe and Beachport.
It's the work of one Murray McCourt, a man who possessed vision and a tenacious spirit. He owned a good-sized slice of land that was little more than snake-infested swamp, with no obvious suitability for farming. There was no natural drainage outlet for the swamp. Murray McCourt had an astonishing and outrageous idea. He believed he could work out a way to drain the swamp into Lake George which lay reasonably close by, and thus convert the area from swamp into farming land. The problem was that a high range of hills lay between the swamp and the lake.That doesn't seem to have daunted him at all. Without sophisticated equipment he set about the task producing one of wonders of the State, a cutting 1 km long, 90 feet deep at its major earthmoving point, 10 feet wide at the bottom and 100 feet wide at the top. It was a truly remarkable achievement. On the two ocasions I visited the cutting I looked down from the viewing platform and found it remarkale that one man could manage this huge civil engineering feat. It is a human achievement on a huge scale. The great swamp is now fine land, permanently drained by the cutting. The project took Murray McCourt three years to complete.
The machinery he used is on display by the viewing point at the most spectacular part of the cutting a short way from the Robe - Beachport road.
I bought a book on the cutting at the National Trust museum at Beachport. It shows the first flow of water making its way through the cutting. How elated McCourt must have been to see that first flow. He must have been immensely satisfied when he stood where the water enters Lake George, knowing that on the other side of the hills the swamps were draining and good land was being formed.
Sould you be planing to visit Robe, you might find the short diversion to Woakwine Cutting worthwhile.
The Henge which stands north of Salisbury and just a little west of Amesbury on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire has been a mystery for as long as archaeologists and antiquarians have known it and investigated it. The great stones have collectively been a fascinating mystery to me since I first made their acquaintance as a serving soldier on the Plain many years ago. They have been a familiar mystery, largely because i visited them every day during one summer and have visited them often since.
The crush of tourists takes away something of the mystery unless you stand back, ignore the cameras and crowds, and allow your imagination to work on the stones and the construction. Even that is not entirely sufficient because you have to look around you to see the barrows (burial mounds) and study the map of the area, visualising the great Avenue from the Henge to the River Avon, the Cursus, Durrington Walls, Avebury Rings, Woodhenge, Silbury Hill and the many other features of the surrounding area, all thought now to be related to Stonehenge in some way. Improvements have been made recently to the way in which the Henge is viewed. The road which until last year ran right beside it has now been grassed over, and visitors are taken by coach or road train from the new Visitors' Centre to the Henge site.
Concerning Stonehenge, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, of Stourhead (a country house in magnificent gardens near Mere, not far from Stonehenge), wrote in his Ancient History of Wiltshire Volume 1, published between1810 and 1812, "Even the most indifferent passengers over the Plain must be attracted by the solitary and magnificent appearance of those ruins." As I read again Sir Richard's words I can't help but be reminded of a time, not many years ago while driving with my wife Ruth from Heathrow to Cornwall. As we approached the breast of the hill on the A303 before Stonehenge, I said to Ruth, "Look forward to your right as we go over the hill." When we went over the hill she wept with the exhilaration of the sight (it's probably the best view of Stonehenge). The solitude and magnificence of the Henge, despite the visitors, is hard to resist.
Earlier, in 1663, in his Chorea Gigantum Or The Most Famous Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly called Stone-heng, Walter Charleton wrote movingly of the stones that they were "sleeping in deep forgetfulness, and well-nigh disanimated by the lethargy of time." I like the expression, "sleeping in deep forgetfulness" and the feel that it gives of the depth of the mystery of Stonehenge.
The fact is that there is little if any agreement concerning the building of the Henge, the builders or its purpose. It remains a "mystery within an enigma".
So many have written of Stonehenge and I am moved by Sir Richard Colt Hoare's and Walter Charleton's observations, though their explanations of the monument have been superceded. That is the case with every writer on Stonehenge.
I am led to ask what I have to say about it. Yes, the stones "sleep in deep forgetfulness, affected by the lethargy of time". Yes, they stand in solitary magnificence. But I have more to add. They make a spiritual connection with the ongoing drama of humanity. They link me with the greater play that goes on and on. Tony Gates is found in the great ruin as, in a sense, every person is. I am absorbed into the great human story at Stonehenge while I stand apart from it as an individual.
The technical matters interest me. Of course they do. I want to know as much as can be known about the monument's origins and purpose, of the latest research, but the greatest importance of the stones for me is an experience of spiritual integration.
Have you ever wondered why Venice's Santa Lucia railway terminus is so-named? Perhaps in the bustle of arriving at or departing from the station you don't think of such things, but the story is an interesting one.
The song, Santa Lucia, is well enough known, but it seems that less is known of the saint.
Lucia was born in Syracuse in south-eastern Sicily in 283AD. Very little is known about her life, which has been heavily clouded in legend. It is safe to say that she died a martyr (She is officially remembered as a virgin martyr) at Syracuse during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 304. The early Church suffered a number of persecutions under various emperors.
Her father seems to have been of Roman stock but her mother, Eutychia, had a Greek name, so it is assumed that she was a woman with both Roman and Greek heritage.
A legend suggests that she consecrated her virginity to God.
The story really becomes interesting and road to Venice emergies when we consider what happened to her remains. For a woman who spent her life around Syracuse, she was a very well-travelled saint post-mortem.
Her bones spent 400 years in Venice after her death but were then removed from Sicily by the island's conqueror, the Duke of Spoleto. He took the body to Corfinium in the Abruzzo. During her lifetime she never travelled anything like that far. However, her journeyings were not over. In 972 her body was taken by Otto I to the church of St Vincent in Metz. She might have been expected to rest in Metz after her post-mortem wanderings, but we know that her remains were in Constantinope in 1204 when they were appropriated by Enrico Dandelo, Doge of Venice who took them to his native city in the Venetian lagoon. They were deposited in a church by the Grand Canal, a church which was given the name, Santa Lucia. But even then she had not found her final resting place.
The railway age did not ignore Venice. When the line was brought from Mestre on the mainland over the causeway to the Venetian islands, space was needed for a large terminus. The church of Santa Lucia was standing in the way, and it had to go. In 1861 the church was dmolished and Santa Lucia's remains removed to the church of San Geremia at the junction of the Grand Canal and the Canareggio Canal.
The end of the story? Not quite. on November 7th, 1981, thieves stole her remains. Five weeks later on her feast day of December 13th, they were recovered by police and are now back in the church of San Geremia.
The church of San Geremia is one of the easiest to find in Venice. When you leave the station concourse, turn immediately left and follow the "street" called Lista di Spagna. it will bring you to a bridge over the Canareggio Canal. Just before the bridge on your right is the church of San Geremia.
So when you are pulling your case along the platform from the train to the main concourse of Santa Lucia station, remember the virgin martyr whose name the station bears, and the railway's role in removing her to yet another resting place just a little farther along the Grand Canal. Think of her too when you hear a gondolier singing Santa Lucia, not necesarily in tune.
It could be argued that Wales is one of the world's most beautiful countries. Many organised tours go there, and many include Snowdonia and Llangollen on their itineraries. Some include Cardiff, and one or two the railway station on the island of Anglesey which has the absurdly long invented name, devised by the London and North Western Railway before it became defunct by incorporation into the London Midland and Scottish Railway in the groupings of 1923. The objective of the LNWR of course was to raise revenue by attracting passengers to travel to the place with the longest-named railway station on earth.
I have not heard of a tour which includes the lovely village of Manorbier. The village is in coastal Pembrokeshire, or the ancient region of Dyfed. It was once my privilege to live in Manorbier. Each Sunday I went to church in the little chapel which bears the name 'Penuel'. Inside the church, above the pulpit, a scroll bears the words, 'My House Shall Be Called A House of Prayer.'
Gerald of Wales ('Geraldus Cambrensis'), grandson of Nest, described as the most beautiful woman who ever lived in Wales, wrote in his journal of journeys through Wales that of all the counties of Wales, Pembrokeshire was the loveliest, and the most beautiful part of Pembrokeshire was Manorbier. I have lived in Tenby and Lydstep as well as Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, and in Bodedern and Malltraith in Anglesey and visited very many other parts of Wales and I have no doubt that Gerald was right. Manorbier is, for me, the loveliest of places.
Gerald was born in Manorbier Castle which still stands on one side of Manorbier Bay, in as fine a setting for a castle as can be imagined. The castle was used for filming part of the television series of C.S. Lewis' 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.' I have returned to Manorbier three times since living there and still the castle and the village thrill me with their glorious location.
Manorbier also possessed the beautiful cove known as Skrinkle. The cliff-to-pebble beach descent is precipitous, but for those who go down, and manage the arduous climb back, the experience is almost magical. When I lived at Manorbier, my house was no more than a few hundred yards from Skrinkle and I went to it often.
During my period of living there, the village was easily accessible by train. The Pembroke Coast Express (alas, no more) ran from Paddington to Pembroke Dock and Fishguard. The Pembroke Dock section of the train stopped at Manorbier. Now access to the village is nowhere near as convenient, but the effort to get there is abundantly worthwhile. With a private car the need is to drive to Tenby and take the road to Manorbier via Penally. One of the gems of Wales awaits visitors.
Capri - More than the Blue Grotto
When I was a very young man earning my living as a merchant seaman my ship visited Naples. The visit was both a pleasure and a frustration.
The pleasure followed a decision to walk from the ship as far as I could to the northern end of the Bay of Naples before looking back. When I did so, I had no doubt that the scene before me was the most beautiful I had ever looked upon. The water of the bay was a deeper blue than I had seen anywhere. Sailing vessels supplied a number of other colours and as I looked across to the Sorrento Peninsula my gaze ran out to the right of the headland where the island of Capri with its two massifs seemed to invite me.
The frustration was in the lack of time to visit the island. As a schoolboy I had read Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele and formed a deep desire, even at that young age, to visit Capri, where Munthe's villa of San Michele stands at the head of a precipitous cliff. The story set my imagination on fire at that young age and the romance of Capri has not left me. To live on Capri in a villa of his own design was Munthe's ambition. Eventually the dream became a reality. My dream of visiting Capri was not to become a reality on that day.
My next visit to Naples occurred many years afterwards. On that occasion I was a passenger on an Italian liner. The visit was for just a few hours, so yet again there was no opportunity to get to Capri, so near and yet so far.
Since then, however, I have made a number of visits to that beautiful island, and I hope to visit it again.
If you are planning to visit Capri, there are two important preparations to make. One is to read Axel Munthe's book, available only second hand or possibly through an inter-library loan. The other is to read as much as possible about Tiberius, the
Roman Emperor at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Munthe was a student doctor at the time of his first visit to Capri. While there he saw an old church on the site that his villa now occupies. He made up his mind to buy that site and build on it as soon as he could afford to do so.
The book describes the years of attempting to get the money together to build his villa, his time living in it, and his disappointment at having to leave it eventually when his sight began to fail and he had to find a place less exposed to the sun. He found such a place in an old tower on the island called Torre Matterita, just outside the village of Anacapri where the villa is situated. It has been my pleasure on a number of occasions to visit the villa and its beautiful garden.
To visit the villa you need to take the funicula from Marina Grande to Capri town which is situated on the saddle between the two massifs, then take the small bus to Anacapri. The villa is a short walk from the bus stop, less that five minutes. But to appreciate it you need to read the story first. It
Tiberius' background is important. He hated Rome and spent a significant part of his rule as Emperor in residence on Capri. He was there, living at Villa Jovis, at the time of the crucifixion. There is enough of the ruin of his villa left for a visitor to gain a good appreciation of what his life was like there. From your point of view as a visitor, the important point is that during his residence Capri was the centre of Imperial power. When, eventually, he left Capri, he was assassinated.
The major park on the island, a very pretty one, is named after the Emperor Augustus (Parco Agosto). It may be the major park but, like everything on Capri, it's quite small, but it's a delight. Via Krupp, a steep stairway, leads down from Parco Agosto to Marina Piccola. However, it was blocked off some years ago for safety reasons.
Villa Jovis is found by taking Via Tiberio from Capri town and following it for a walk (ascending) of about half an hour. The visit to the villa is well worthwhile. While there it is worth taking the path from Villa Jovis to Arco Naturale, a natural arch in the cliff-face on a beautiful part of the island.
Marina Piccola is pretty. You can walk it, downhill from Capri and get the bus back. It has a pebbly beach and as its name implies it's a small marina. However, the view of the razor-like rocks rising sheer out of the water is spectacular from Marina Piccola. They are called i Faraglioni and are taken in local legend to be the sirens of Ulysses. There is another fine view of them and to enjoy it you take the chair-lift from Anacapri to the top of Monte Solaro. From there you look down upon them from a considerable height, and on a clear day you can see as far as Calabria.
The Blue Grotto ( Grotta Azzura ) is worth seeing if you have time after experiencing the important things on the island. Most of the boats going there leave from Marina Grande, and a switch of boats occurs in the vicinity of the grotto. The blue within is certainly striking, but you might feel you want to listen to the lapping of the water on the boat in the otherwise silent experience. That's what I wanted to do but unfortunately the boatmen think you want to be entertained so they sing, mostly off-tune, in the echo-chamber that is the grotto. Don't lose sleep if you don't have time to visit it.
You can get to the island either by taking a hydrofoil from Naples ( Napoli) to Capri or taking the Circumvesuviana articulated railway to Sorrento via Pompei and Herculaneum, then a short ferry journey to Marina Grande on the island. Hydrofoils leave Naples from the Mergelina quay, and some from the Beverello quay.
One of my experiences that I like to have a little joke with myself about concerns my time at sea. As a merchant seaman it was a routine activity for me to be at the wheel. I remind myself that as I stood at the helm, hands on the wheel, the ship was rarely on course.
You might think that alarming and be a bit surprised that I’m prepared to admit it. However, you should know that the neither the ship’s Master nor the Officer if the Watch expected anything better, no matter who the helmsman was.
The activity of steering a ship is one of course correction. A seagoing vessel does not have positive steering. Let’s say that the helmsman has a compass bearing of 270° to steer. He will try to steer that course as carefully as possible, but he might have the ship’s head at, say 272°, so he’ll ease the wheel a little to port and slowly the ship’s head will come back to 270° will overshoot it slightly, perhaps to 268°. So he will ease the wheel a little to starboard. The head will slowly move back to 270°, but again overshoot it a little. So the process goes on, with the ship rarely on its course of 270°. The result is that on average, the ship follows the required course.
Later in my life, then a military electronics technician in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), it was my privilege to work on the technical side of a surface-to-air guided missile system. You probably didn’t know that a missile has attitude, and that its attitude is very important. Like the ship at sea it is rarely on course, but it almost always gets exactly to its target. As it flies on its path to its target, it is one moment a little off course. It has within it what is called a servo system, which corrects its attitude and brings it back toward its course to its target. But, just as the ship does, it overshoots it a little, and the servo system brings it back again, then corrects the next overshoot. It’s on its target course on average, though rarely in reality. But it gets there. It succeeds.
Isn’t life a little like that?
I like to write. My objective is to write pieces that others want to read. I might sometimes be a little too colourful in a paragraph here or there and I try to correct it. Do I then become too severe, perhaps a bit sterile so the wording becomes boring for the reader? I do the best I can, and hope that as I go along, with more practice, I’ll get better at it, and in the end get to where I want to be, a writer who can interest his readers.
When, with my wife, I was bringing up children, was I here a little too hard, and corrected so that there I found I was being a little too soft? But maybe with practice I was getting better at it, and my children were good enough to love me despite imperfections in child-rearing.
Perhaps being a better man, or attempting to be, follows the same pattern. This much at least, I know; character is not built through perfectionism – we can’t be on a perfect course of character building all the time. Sometimes I might become self-satisfied. That required correction! Sometimes I might find myself acting in a self-serving way. I try to learn and make corrections. My hope is that as my life goes on I become more often a blessing in other lives and less often a stumbling block to them. Life is as much trial and error, success and failure, mistake and correction, as any phenomenon of the physical world.
To return to sea. It was always handy to have consecutive days of clear skies so that noon shots were taken with the sextant of the sun to gain an accurate measurement of the ship’s latitude, and to have a reliable chronometer to be sure of the vessel’s longitude. You knew where you were with those tools – a sextant and a chronometer. When near land another aid was dead reckoning. Land marks supplied angle measurements so that the intersection of the measured lines showed precisely on the chart where the ship was.
I find that people I admire can be my marks for character sextant shots or fixed points for dead reckoning so that I can gauge where I am in my life’s progress. I think now of some of those people who, as dead reckoning points or sextant shots, have been my templates, none of them, by the way, knowing it. I think of Bob, who showed me what integrity and industry and faithful friendship are. He, I am sure, followed his own success/failure/correction course, but in doing so I never saw anything less than integrity in him. I think of Archibald (yes, an unusual name today, but not then), a Baptist Minister in whom I saw pastoral compassion that seemed to me never to waver. He was my template for caring. I saw in Ann a template for courage as she fought a terrible cancer with bravery that I cannot forget. I see in Melvyn a template for gentleness and sensitivity. I saw in Don a template for kindness that lives with me still, though he is no longer with us. I think of Harold, who showed me the exciting world of books and learning.
These are my fixed points for dead reckoning; they give me some indication of where I am in this extraordinary adventure of life. I have more to thank them for than they could ever know.
How important those people are, who are our fixed points, our sextant shots. Let’s be thankful for them and their contributions to our success/failure/correction course toward the best we can be.
When you think of Scotland such places as Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Glasgow, Iona, might come to mind. Probably Orkney does not. But I must share with you my excitement about Orkney. When I visited I first set my feet on its shore I realised I was beginning one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.
It's fascinating in part because it is a small island, one-and-a-halfe hours by ferry from the mainland. I love ships, so I look forward with excitement to any voyage, short or long. Those who love railways (and I am one of them) will be delighted to know that the journey from London to Thurso (the most northerly railway station in Great Britain) takes them over the myounaetals of no fewer than four of the pre-1923 independent railway companies, namely the Great Northern, the North Eastern, the North British and the Highland. If you choose your departure times well you can make the journey by only two trains, the first being from Kings Cross to Inverness, the second from Inverness, a rather charming, quiet station, to Thurso, small and even quieter. Scrabster, the departure point for the ferry, is a short taxi ride, station to wharf.
When you arrive at Stromness you find yourself in a rather grim-looking town, but one which is very compact, with a range of accommodation, but not over-plentiful.The Stromness hotel very close to the ferry terminal is convenient. The wise reserve their accommodation before visiting the island. Car hire is availabe in the town and should be made use of it you are going to explore Orkney.
So why did I find Orkney so exciting when, many years ago, I first saw it? Probably my excitement started before I went there becau se the magical words Scapa Flow rang in my head. That most evocative name conjured memories that this was where the Royal Navy's great wartime fleet was harboured during the second World War. There are no naval ships there now, but as I gazed over that expanse of water I could see the ghosts of those naval grey vessels with their massive armaments ready to do battle, and the crews with every kind of naval warfare skill ready to face whatever the German fleet could offer.
There were Italian prisoners-of-war on Orkney and they have bequeathed to it one of its mkost interesting buildings. That might not sound so very important when I say that its a nissen hut. But what a nissen hut! Those prisoners of war had the hut at their disposal and so they made of it a very beautiful church, and very obviously an Italian church. When you enter it you forget immediately that it's a nissen hut. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful interior. Wartime or not, the prisoners determined not only that they were going to worship as they had done in peacetime, but they were going to worship in a bueatiful building. It ceased to be just a nissen hut the moment they started work on it to build their church. It is one of the delights of Orkney.
And then there is Skara Brae. It is a World Heritage site under the care of Historic Scotland. It is the best-preserved neolithic village in northern Europe. We might not have known about it had it not been for a massive stgorm in 1850 which removed grass from a hight dune known as Skara Brae in the Bay of Skaill. And what is the mokst exciting thing about it for me? The fact that it was inhabited betore the great pyramids of Egypt were built, and before construction at Stonehenge commenced. Skara Brae is 5,000 years old and as I looked down upon the dwellings (you look down into the level of the village because you are standing on the raised dune) I began to imagine what the people who lived in them were like. Their dwellings were small, built of large slabs of stone. They were farmers, and the closeness of their dwellings one to another suggests they were a very closely-knit community. How small were the dwellings? A modern in Britain might be, say, 60 to 62 square metres in floor area. The dwellings at Skara Brae have a floor area of 36 square metres. That's tight living by our standards. The beds were constructed of local flagstone, as were the dressers and all the other furnishings. There was a stone hearth, and most intriguing of all, stone boxes cemented at the joints to make them waterproof. Archaeologists are confident that they are boxes for soaking limpets used as fish bait. Limpets have to be softened before the fish fine them attractive.Once softened, they are very effective bait. So the inhabitants were fishermen as well as farmers. Some of the stones are decorated with carvings, so they were also artistic people.
They kept cattle and pigs and sheep and grew barley. Evidence of whalebones exists, though they might have come from beached whales. Their main fishing was for coastal fish. Most exciting of all for me, with regard to their leisure, is that stone dice have been found at Skara Brae, so they were games-playing people too. It seems that they were not too much unlike us.
It seems that among other foods they ate cod, deer, goat, and lamb. Combined with their crops it seems that they had a pretty good diet. Pins, beads and pendants suggest that they were dress-conscious.
Thinking of going to Orkney? Hire that car at Stromness and visit Skara Brae, Scapa Flow and the Italian chapel. Include too the cathedral at Kirkwall. It isn't a large cathedral, but it makes up for its smallish size by being a fine building with fine artefacts and an atmosphere of veneration. Give yourself time, too, to explore the highways and byways of this remarkable small island. There are few trees - perhaps the history of winds have prevented their growth.But the rolling country is impressive. My guess is that when you board the ferry at Stromness to return to the Scottish mainland, you'll be glad to visited Orkney.
I first saw Cornwall before I saw Devon. To visit Cornwall while never having set foot in Devon is unusual, because Cornwall borders one county only, and that county is Devon. How did that happen with me? Many years ago, while serving on a merchant ship, I saw Cornwall because the vessel called at Fowey to load china clay for Italy. The beauty of Fowey stayed with me, and is so compelling a memory that I went back to Fowey a few years ago with my wife who, though South Australian, is Cornish by blood.
There can be few places in Britain so different from their neighbouring counties as Cornwall is from its one. The River Tamar, which provides the greater length of the border, is the division between the Celts, or Britons, of Cornwall and the Saxons of Devon. Once you cross the bridge over the Tamar from Devon you find the road signs are in English and Cornish. In fact, you learn immediately that you have entered Kernow. If you are familiar with the map of England you can't help noticing that, though on the far side of the country, Cornwall has something in common with counties such as Kent and Sussex, Middlesex and Essex. The commonality is that none of them has the addition of the word "shire". What does "shire" mean? Historically, it is a share of a larger piece of land. Kent, for example, was a kingdom and was never shorn from a larger holding. Just so with Cornwall. It exists as a separate entity because it too was not shorn from another area. It came to be because the Saxons pushed the Celts, or ancient Britons westwards. Some were driven into the mountainous lands of Wales, some into what has become known as Cornwall, beyond the Tamar. So there is no shire appended, as in the case of, for example, Hertforshire, Yorkshire, Worcestershire of Bedfordshire.
Cornwall did once have something in common with Devon. The ancient name for the combination of them wasTotnes or Dod- Ynys, 'the projecting island.' They never did form an island, of course, but it was a convenient word, for together they form a projection to make a projection of the most westerly part of England out into the Atlantic on the northern side and the English Channel on the southern. Now the peoples and the lands of the two are very different, though the local police force is the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. The word ynys is well-known to the inhabitants of the Welsh island of Anglesey, whose name in Welsh is Ynys Mon. In fact, there is evidence that in the 10th century AD Cornwall was known, among other names, as Cornweales, that is, Cornwales, making the Cornish the Cornwelsh.
That is not inappropriate, given that the Welsh and the Cornish were for political and military purposes one until the advancing Saxons drove them to the River Severn, thus divinding them into the Celts of Wales and the Celts of Cornwall. Prior to that, there was no trace of the wall or wales element in the name.The Latin title of the area was Cornubia.
There is one other area around the English Channel which bears the Cornwall name. The most westerly area of the French Celtic region of Brittany is known as Cornouaile. The projecting portion of Cornouaile which juts out into the Channel, and marks its southerly entrance, is Finistere, meaning Land's end. That, too, is a nice link with Cornwall, where the northerly entrance to the the Channel is Land's End.
Here I come back to my starting point, my arrival many years ago by sea at Fowey. The nature of the land, surrounded on all sides but its Tamar connection with Devon, and the special nature of the geology, has caused Cornishmen to become a hardy breed of fishermen and miners. The china clay industry became huge, as the tin mining industry did. A great deal of the china clay was transported by rail via Par to Fowey for export. The ship I was serving on was participating in that transportation of china clay. I was a very young man then, and I suspect it was the beginning of my considerable interest in mining.
More on Cornwall in a second article to appear shortly.
Talbot House is not as well-known as it should be.
Its contribution to the morale of troops fighting in the trenches of the Ypres Salient during the First World War was, to put it mildly, extraordinary. It's chaplain, the Reverend "Tubby" Clatyton, was no less extraordinary. He built such a place of rest and recreation at the house that many hundreds of those who enjoyed its hospitality during the terrible war years came together after the conflict to ensure that the spirit generated there remained alive in the new organisation that Tubby founded, known as Toc H, the signallers' code T.H. for Talbot House.
Toc H continues as a worldwide service group today, continuing the spirit that many soldiers discovered at Tubby's Everyman's Club at the old house, as it's often known. It is situated in what was then known as rue l'Hopital, but now Gasthuisstraat in Poperinge, a few miles west of Ypres, known today by its Flemish name of Ieper.
On December 11th, 2015, Talbot House will celebrate its Centenary, with Toc H members from all over the world attending for almost a week of celebrations, many of them in the house itself. My wife Ruth and I have the privilege to be among those staying in the house.
It will by my fifth visit to Talbot House and Ruth's third. In May 2013 we were volunteer wardens there for two weeks, a wonderful experience. We became absorbed in the ethos of the house and each day went up the steep stairway that leads to the chapel, christened The Upper Room,by Tubby, there to imagine ourselves into the atmosphere and sense of reverence at the services of Holy Communion attended each Sunday by hundreds of soldiers. Before the British Army leased the house the Upper Room was a hop loft. The house's owner was a successful local brewer who agreed to the lease when shells began falling so close that one landed in the garden with some damage to the structure. The damage was made good by the Royal Engineers when the Army signed the lease.
Those who visited Talbot House found a place where they were valued. It's worth imagining what that felt like to men who werespending their days in the misery of the trenches. At the house they found a warm welcome, a games room, a chapel, a recreation room with a piano (it seemed there was always a soldier around who could play it), endless cups of hot tea, a relaxing garden and a chaplain who brought both humour and a listening ear.
It was known as Toc H. Toc was the signallers code for 'h', so Talbot House was Toc H. It was in that remarkable place that the worldwide movement of Toc H was born. The spirit of comradeship and service became, post-war, the motives for commitment to the building of a better society. The movement continues today.
In London the Toc H guild church is the Church of All Hallows by the Tower, where Tubby served as the rector for 40 years after the First World War. The Australian guild church for Toc H is the Anglican Cathedral in Newcastle.
The movement is worldwide and its achievements are considerable. Toc H was instrumental in the establishment of blood-transfusion services in many countries. It has provided service to leprosy sufferers, built schools for those most in need, established various facilities for youth, set up hospital libraries, organised friendship circles for people enduring mental illness. During the Second World War it organised branches is prisoner-of-war camps, branches which made significant contributions to the maintenance of morale. In Victor Harbor Toc H maintains a magnificent camp site which provides a very important service in the State of South Australia.
Today the spirit of Talbot House is alive and well in Toc H branches throughout the world. The Toc H branch in Victor Harbor meets in its rooms at the railway station, and welcomes new members and volunteers to serve the community.