Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

Some writers compare writing a story to raising a child.

You labour to bring into the world something that is in an intimate way a part of yourself. You work tirelessly to make the very best of it as you revise and edit. Finally the day arrives when you can nurture it no longer and you are obliged to send it out in to the world to make its own way.

The first time you submit for editorial consideration a story that was hard to write but of which you are particularly proud is terrifying. Will someone else recognise it for the remarkable piece of individuality that it is?  Will your carefully selected judge be prevented from ever seeing your masterpiece by slush readers who only feel safe passing upstairs a traditional formulaic offering that's pretty similar to what their editor has approved before?

If the editor actually gets to see it, will he possibly find faults that you never suspected? Might he even mistake your diamond for cubic zirconium?

In such a parlous state your correspondent currently finds himself, having finally sent off his latest piece just yesterday.  And I love it.

All the best, little one!

Saturday, 28 November 2015


I suspect I have spent considerably more time in tour buses than in chauffeur-driven limousines.  Yet sometimes it's the rarity of things that makes them enjoyable. In the case of our airport transfer from Lyon to Chalon I have to say that Scenic did us proud. As a result of arriving quite early at the riverboat that was to be our home for the journey to the south of France, we had time for unguided wandering around the town, discovering some of its interesting features for ourselves.

Chalon owes its foundation to a conjunction of navigable river and major roads, though the road may have been more important to the Romans than to later ages since it pointed straight towards a vulnerable frontier.  

Nevertheless there are still picturesque sights that remind you of what the medieval town must have been like.  Here on the right is a photograph of the corner of Rue du Pont and Rue du Chatelet for example. For some reason this sort of thing does not sneak into the usual tourist snaps.

What does sneak in is the history of photography itself, because Chalon was the home of the inventor Nicéphore Niépce who, in addition to pioneering the internal combustion engine a half century or more before the people who became famous for it, also produced the first photographic image, even if it was a negative and he had trouble stabilising it.

The Cathedral of St Vincent has origins in the 8th century though it is the 19th century neo-Gothic facade that attract the photographers.

Inside (left) you can see the beautiful stained glass of the apse, which is still divided into three storeys so that the blindstorey and clerestory carry on right around the church.

I was busy experimenting with my new (to me) 28mm f.2.8 Ensinor lens, which turned out to be capable of pretty decent flashless indoor photographs once I got the hang of it. It certainly conveys the atmosphere of St Vincent's quite well.

I know it's selfish but I find the more commonly visited cathedrals harder to appreciate because the crowds leave so little of the reverent atmosphere and demand such an effort of concentration. Here there wasn't a lot of distraction.

Another interesting feature of Chalon turned out to be trompe-l'oeil decoration on buildings. The one on the left is perhaps a little faded, but certainly it could almost be a real flight of steps leading up to a real statue.  Maybe the artist has made the steps rather too steep and the statue too big, but it's still impressive.

Elsewhere you need to do a double take to check whether the person looking out of a window is a real person (and a real window).

But like any riverside town it is the river itself that dominates the local scene. Writing under grey, rainy skies in late November it is almost incredible to recall that we managed to visit Burgundy just as a heatwave arrived in France.

We aren't always gifted with such prescient organisation!

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Paradox of Tolerance

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." -Karl Popper

There are many people today who are offended simply by other people having the nerve to disagree with them. In many cases the views they hold are so visceral that they themselves cannot entertain rational debate and seek every opportunity to close it down. In default of an argument they stigmatise opposition by abuse, as though to stereotype a particular view by lumping it together with some despised -ism should be sufficient to end all discussion.

The denial of platform movement which is sweeping UK universities (even Cambridge!) and is, I believe, present in an even more extreme form in the US where the desire to 'protect' people against being offended seems particularly censorious, is itself an egregious offence against freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is vital to civilised society.

John Stuart Mill made the limits of freedom of speech clear a century and a half ago in On Liberty. There exists absolutely NO right not to be offended. People who claim to be so offended by the peacefully-expressed views of other people that they demand such views be suppressed are themselves attacking a free society. People who claim the right to be offended on behalf of other people by the peacefully-expressed views of another person are on course to destroy free society.

Knowledge and understanding is only advanced when a challenge to received wisdom is not only permitted but rationally answered. Systems that allow no dissent or challenge in the end become hollow recitations of notions that even their adherents themselves cannot rationally justify. The unexamined becomes a dead letter, a meaningless mystical incantation.

How far backwards has humanity marched since Voltaire was able to disagree with what an opponent said but defend to the death his right to say it?

Since I am advancing this view peacefully and rationally I am within Mill's rules for freedom of speech. And if my view offends anyone, well that's just tough. I do NOT regret it.

By all means campaign for what you believe politically, artistically, religiously etc., but do it peacefully and do not destroy the good whilst in pursuit of the perfect.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Pour La Liberté

Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'etendard sanglant est levé!
L'etendard sanglant est levé!
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Vive La France!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The House of Peers

I love the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe in which we learn how the House of Peers does nothing in particular and does it very well.

So much of the UK constitution is anachronistic that it is always difficult to enact reform in one area without introducing anomalies somewhere else. Like a worn jumper, pulling upon just one thread can threaten to unravel the whole thing. We need only consider our haphazard devolution process which subsequently threw up the unanswerable West Lothian Question and has made internal relations within the UK very much worse.

The current concern has been aroused by the House of Lords defeating a government financial proposal.  By convention they are not allowed to do this.  I suppose it mighty have been a good idea if successive governments had thought about these conventions before appointing large numbers of party donors and superannuated political hacks to the red benches. Since they didn't, we now have yet another cry for reform.

If you want someone to fly a plane, you choose a pilot. Designing a building is best left to an architect and treating the sick needs a doctor. The same principle applies to any task that requires expertise. Government of the country however has for some reason been opened up to any megalomaniac, plutocrat or ideologue willing to put himself forward, with no qualification required.

It seems odd that we should be so exercised about achieving a well-constituted House of Lords when we make no efforts whatsoever to achieve a well-constituted Commons. Surely if the Lords is to consist of well-qualified people it must inevitably outclass the Commons?  Yet the latter will still govern because they are democratically elected (sort of).

A century ago when the long slow process of reforming The Lords began, Lloyd George described the house as “five hundred men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.” It seems to me that we now have something considerably worse.

Perhaps, like juries, availability for service in the upper house should be one of the obligations of citizenship and the membership chosen randomly from the electoral roll.

Of course such a chamber might still outclass the Commons

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Common sense

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. (Luke 16.10)

Most parents are familiar with the idea of doling out responsibility in small does. See how a child handles something small before promoting him or her to something bigger. And so on and so forth until the child is an independent adult able to cope alone.

It is elementary practical logic to minimise risk. How many parents would appreciate being told by their daughter that although she's never been on a date before she must be allowed to stay out late, or by a newly-qualified son who's not even driven the family car to the local shops and back that he wants to drive it to Paris?

It may be thought insulting to compare the Scottish Government to a child, though some of their petulance when criticised is childish enough. In governmental terms however its lack of experience must be conceded.

Yet any attempt to challenge the SNP's administrative record of the last eight years is met only by an excuse that it has inadequate powers; too many decisions are still being taken in London.

What would you do with the new powers you're getting under the Referendum settlement?
Oh we're not getting enough powers.
Yes but what will you do with the fiscal powers you are getting?
We were promised more powers.
Really? Can you point out when and where exactly?
Look, we're only going to tell you what we'll do when we're in a position to do it.

Never mind about the mess we've made of police reorganisation; pay no attention to the dire straits of the health service; overlook the failures of the education system; forget about the crippling levels of student debt. Yes, we know that these are all devolved matters, we know we've been running them for years, but once we're responsible for everything, everything will be all right, you'll see.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please show me some competence in managing small things. That might encourage me to believe you.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Mink on Sliabh Mannan?

Mink have a few characteristics in common with foxes. Both are pretty to look at and thus benefit from urban sentimentalism; both have taken advantage of opportunities offered by misguided human activists to expand their populations all over the UK; both are pests; both have a reputation for killing more than they need to eat; neither is kept in check by another natural predator.

The red fox is a UK native which has benefited from man having first wiped out the wolf and then banned his fellow men from forms of fox-control that they seemed to be enjoying too much.

The mink is an American import deliberately released from captivity first by activists and allegedly later by fur-farmers when their industry was outlawed.

Arguably the latter may turn out to have been the more disastrous of these two human interventions.

Mink have devastated the UK water vole population, which has declined from around 8 million in the 1960's to a figure possibly below 100,000 today.

Being semi-aquatic, mink are able to colonise Scottish islands which are breeding grounds for vulnerable seabirds including the puffin. On the mainland they are a threat to waterfowl and other ground-nesting birds, fish and domestic pets.

The Scottish Mink Initiative, launched in 2011, aims to remove breeding mink from the north of the country.

Why am I interested? Because this week I'm pretty sure I saw one of the little perishers beside a branch of the Culloch. Almost black, with just a sprinkling of lighter guard hairs, it was below me on the bank, trotting along until it entered a hole beside a pond.

By its movement, I thought at first it was a little cat; then I realised its legs were only half cat length and its head was so streamlined with its body that I could not tell where one began and the other ended. It was much too big for any of the smaller mustelidae such as stoats or weasels, more the size of a polecat or pine marten. The combination of the colour and the waterside habitat persuaded me it was probably one of the foreign invaders.

As the bean goose flies, this sighting is a goodly distance away from the breeding grounds of our local protected species, but since I gather mink will even take on gannets and swans there is no room for complacency here. So I've reported it to SMI and I await a response.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Prospect of Lyon

Sometimes a holiday picture is just perfect. Take a picturesque setting, ideally including a river, some trees, a hill and some attractive buildings, throw in a good camera and a lot of luck, and on rare occasions it comes out like this.

This is the River Rhone as it flows through Lyon in central France. Although it shows big, bustling city, it almost contrives to convey a placid ambience such as you might expect to find in a Constable painting of rural England.

Never mind that this particular photographer takes hundreds of shots in the attempt to get one that comes out like this. No artistic genius is being claimed.

It's just lovely when it all works out right.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Chilling Ghost Stories

As foreshadowed in my 22 July post, Flame Tree Publishing's anthology of Chilling Ghost Stories is now available in the shops and on line.

I haven't yet received my own copy, but I'm told it is a deluxe hardback edition.  Since this will be the first time a story of mine has been included in any kind of hardback, I am looking forward to holding it in my hands.

Just in case the attraction of a story by me is not quite enough for you, (yes, I know, hard to believe, but never mind,) there are a lot more current and classic writers whose ghost stories are included.

You have plenty of time to buy a Christmas copy for all of your friends for whom you had not already decided to buy a copy of  Prophets of Baal.

Or if you really like them, you could buy them a copy of each!

And by the way, here is a good quiz question for you.  What does Prophets of Baal have in common with a Trabant motor car in the old East German economy?  Answer: in both cases a second hand one costs more than a new one.

Search me.  I have no idea.  In East Germany the explanation was the huge waiting list for new cars. Fortunately brand new copies of Prophets are still on sale.  Go on.  You know you always meant to get one!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Too late in the season

As I was saying, it's too late in the season for butterflies and I haven't seen a red admiral all year.

You see how much I know?

This was my first chance to photograph a red admiral with my new camera and the subject obligingly sat still and assumed the classic position of a butterfly who really wants to be obliging.

The nights are becoming really quite cold but during the day up on Sliabh Mannan we're having a better summer than we did in the summer.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Comma Two

So today I decide to take my macro lens off the camera and leave it at home because it's too late in the season for butterflies.

As a result I am obliged to try and photograph this Comma from about fifteen feet away with a 400mm manual lens.

See what happens when you take nature for granted?

It's surprising to have two sightings of this species  in what has been a very poor summer and autumn for even slightly exotic butterflies on Sliabh Mannan.

I don't recall seeing a Red Admiral this year. Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells have been infrequent too.

On the other hand, the very rarity of brightly-coloured species this year has made the ones that do appear easier to spot.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The passing of summer

On Sliabh Mannan the turning of the seasons is marked by the the arrivals and departures of migratory species of bird.

In particular we recognise the onset of autumn not just by the yellowing of horse chestnut leaves and the shortening of the hours of daylight, both now very obvious, but by the arrival of the geese and the departure of the swallows.

Interestingly, the first (and so far only) geese that I have seen this year were a skein of Canadas (below right) that arrived on 16th September. In the high moors around here Bean and Pink-Footed geese are usually considerably more common, but these species have yet to put in an appearance.

Meanwhile the hirundine population is thinning. The house martins (top left) seem to be hanging on longest this year but the remaining swallows are almost certainly juveniles (below left) who will wait to gather their full adult strength before departure.

I am never quite certain whether two separate broods can be raised by our feathered visitors during Sliabh Mannan's short summer. Certainly the numbers of sub-tenants that the horses are obliged to tolerate in their stables are now somewhat reduced and temperatures are lower after dark, but there are as yet no frosts and the supply of midges still seems endless.

Just as we welcome the swallows' arrival as a sign of spring, so we are saddened as their departure reminds us that the long and dark winter months will sound be returning.

But nature's cycle is unceasing and the autumn still has much to offer. So out with the new camera and off to search the skies for the arrival of the main geese flocks.

This year I'm looking forward to winter photography armed with 16 MP instead of 6, so I shall be interested to see  the results of what I hope will be significantly improved resolution.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The ruins of Cluny

What is left of Cluny is worth seeing, if only for the formidable effort of imagination that it demands of you.

Until the construction of the new St Peter's, Rome, during the Renaissance, Cluny Abbey was the world's largest church. It is believed that the Pope sent a delegation with specific instructions to measure the length of Cluny's nave so that St Peter's could be larger, since that was only appropriate for the premier church of Christendom.

Mind you this was presumably the same Pope who also authorised the demolition of parts of the Colosseum to provide a source of cheap marble for St Peter's.

In its heyday Cluny was the mother house of monastic institutions all over Europe. These Cluniac houses were mostly priories, not abbeys, because they owed allegiance to their Abbot in Burgundy and the priors of the satellite houses travelled once a year to confer at the gigantic centre of the monastic world.

After the French Revolution, Cluny suffered an even worse fate than Vespasian's grand arena. Sold to a stone mason it was almost completely razed to the ground; only the tower adjacent to the cloister was saved, and that not from any sense of the building's historic significance. Merchants who had turned the cloister (left) into a shopping mall were concerned that any attempt to demolish the final tower would risk the destruction of their business premises along with it.

In a year when we mourn the devastation of remnants of ancient civilisations in the Middle Eastern war zone, it is as well to remember that the urge to do away with monuments to a culture with which we have no sympathy is a recurring blight on the human race and no new invention.

The blowing up of the Parthenon in 1687 and the careless burning of Linlithgow Palace (close to Sliabh Mannan) in 1746 are two more examples. 

And in case we think we in the civilsed West are now immune to the Vandal mentality, perhaps we should consider why it was only this year, seventy years after the end of the Second World War, that a decision could be taken about what to do with the remains of Speer's Nazi rally arena at Nuremburg.

We do not have to agree with the religious or political philosophy that underpinned a historic monument in order to wish to preserve it. We learn about ourselves by learning about our ancestors and there are few better ways than having the opportunity to consider what they built and what marks they left upon the physical world.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Pérouges - a living film set

Pérouges is a small, walled medieval town in Ain, France.

A century or so ago it almost died after the re-routing of road and rail connections left it isolated from the currents of modern life. It seemed that fortified hilltops were no longer required in the twentieth century.

Depending on your source you may find that the population, never much greater than 1,500, had declined either to 90 persons or to a single family.

I am not sure whether these two statistics are mutually exclusive; I suppose it might depend on how you define family.

In its heyday Pérouges was known for hemp weaving. The name suggests that it was founded by Gallic colonists returning from Perugia in Italy, but the name is older than the town, since it applied to a noble's home which was successfully defended against the local bishop in the early middle ages.

The town was later successfully defended against a French siege, not ultimately becoming part of France until 1601.

It is so well preserved that it is used for shooting period films such as The Three Musketeers. However it is really only the fabric that is medieval. There are no chickens or pigs in the streets, no sewage runs down the middle of the roads and the unwary photographer may even find the odd motor car sneaking into his pictures on the outskirts of the town.

But if you want to see a beautifully kept set of medieval buildings, give or take the odd relatively modern window, there can be few better places to go. Even the church is built into the fortifications and the central square with its beautiful inn is a good place to purchase a restorative after a walking tour.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Comma butterfly on Sliabh Mannan

It is not often I get to report a really unusual sighting, but here is a first for me at any rate and a quick whirl around local butterfly conservation websites suggests I have not simply been walking around with my eyes shut these past many years.

I am indebted in particular to Scott Shanks & Andrew Masterman who tell me that the Comma became extinct in Scotland towards the end of the nineteenth century and even in England had retreated into a very narrow range by the 1920's.

Since then its territory has expanded, reaching Yorkshire in the 1950's and The Borders by the late 1990's.

Although in recent years it has been seen in Lanarkshire and The Lothians, I can say with confidence that I have not seen one on Sliabh Mannan before.

Even in summer it can be nippy at night at this altitude, but today was a nice warm morning and I was out on the moor with my dog and my new camera when beside one of the high woodlands we came across this beauty.

Much too fast for a slowcoach like me and these were the only two photographs I managed.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Wines of the Northern Rhone

Let's face it folks, if you sign up for a mass wine tasting the odds are you will not get to taste anything better than a reasonable economy standard; somewhere in the region drinkable to half decent is about the best you can expect; very ordinary to mediocre will be the fare if you are unlucky. 

Firstly you are obviously a tourist and not expected to know any better. Secondly you are probably travelling by air and can't carry much anyway.

I am pleased to report that the tasting organised for us in Tournon was much better than that. Whilst the presenters naturally did not include the local celebrity wines, they did present us with an attractive selection. Obviously not a scientific survey, but it did enable us to gain some sort of idea of the differences between the wine of the left bank (left) of the Rhone, known as Crozes-Hermitage and the right bank (below right)  called St-Joseph. I shall leave the discussion of Hermitage itself to those who can afford it and who are therefore in a position to know better.

This is the region of the Shiraz (Syrah) grape and it so happened that the majority of our party were Australians who know a thing or two about this variety. They were not shy about testifying to the merits of Australian labels and interested to sample the French competition. Some we encountered were promptly condemned.

Not so Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. They approved and I would not be turning up my nose at either of these should anyone care to donate a case or three to a good cause, though if pressed I would say the St Joseph is somewhat smoother and more to my own taste.

What is the link between Hermitage and my recent posts about religious mysteries of Southern France? Well, it so happens that the region takes its name from Seigneur Gaspard de Stérimberg who, wounded during the Albigesian Crusade, came here to recuperate and subsequently live as a hermit. Quite why he did so is a puzzle, since in common with the other north Rhone wine areas it has a continental rather than a Mediteranean climate, which means it has wet winters.

On the other side of the river, Saint-Joseph, named for its origins in a Jesuit winery, uses the same grapes but has a different exposure and other differences that produce subtle distinctions from its close relative. The last photograph shows Tournon on the right and Tain on the left, which are the centres of the respective areas.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Viviers - where time almost stops

Viviers is a rare exception to the seemingly universal rule that equates all change with progress. Here on the right bank of the Rhone the past threw up its defences against the encroachment of modernity and held the line, just as the resolute residents of the cathedral district once held the line against unruly soldiery quartered in the lower town.

Both parts of the medieval town remain mostly intact; if you want to buy a house here you can do so cheaply, but along with the medieval dwelling you take on the responsibility of history and a duty to preserve external appearances. Among the narrow streets houses press close upon each other as if for mutual support. Possibly the residents need the same, since many houses now stand empty. It seems it is more romantic to contemplate the simplicity of medieval life than actually to experience it. Nowadays not many folk have the option to stable their cattle on the ground floor in order to provide winter central heating; they'd prefer something a trifle more up to date.

The grandest house in the old town, known as La Maison des Chevaliers  (right), has a Renaissance frontage added in 1546 by an enigmatic local character called Noël Albert. This well to do salt merchant converted to Protestantism in order to escape condemnation for fraudulent tax-farming. During the wars of religion he sacked the cathedral but was later captured and executed after the Huguenot defeat.

It is suggested that the distinctly different quality exhibited by the two stone friezes of jousting on the house's frontage are accounted for by the fact that one was carved by a master-mason and one by his apprentice.

Our party was most fortunate to hear an organ recital in St Vincent's Cathedral by the celebrated Valéry Imbernon. We were joined by a ginger cat who strode down the aisle as though he was at home, which he may well have been.

Inside the cathedral the fine acoustics enhanced the experience, which was closed by a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise. The organist and our guide were the only French people there. Nevertheless it was a moving moment when the whole audience stood and some even managed to sing the words.

"For liberty," is a rallying cry as vital today as it has ever been.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Châteauneuf-du-Pape - the wine of the Popes

Mention Châteauneuf-du-Pape to any lover of wine and he is likely to tell you immediately that it is a famous red wine of the south of France. What he probably will not tell you is that one Châteauneuf can be quite unlike another because in theory eighteen different varieties of grape may legally be used in its production.

In practice Grenache Noir accounts for almost three quarters of the vineyard area of Châteauneuf, with Syrah and Mourvèdre making up the great majority of the remainder. Nevertheless each vigneron still blends the wine to his own satisfaction. Having looked forward to my visit without understanding these facts, I was very surprised to find that wines of the same vintage can range from the frankly quite ordinary and disappointing to the really rather special. Of course your taste (and wallet) may easily vary from mine and therefore my best advice would be to try several and when you find the one that suits you best, stick with it.

Perhaps surprisingly in view of this diversity, Châteauneuf was actually the first of the Appellation Contrôlée rules in France and all vignerons within the region (about 3200 hectares) are subject to strict rules about what they can and cannot do.

The most remarkable thing I found was vines growing in what appears to be a glacial moraine. We were consistently told on our tour that the vines need to be stressed in order to produce the best grapes, pushing their roots deep into the soil in search of moisture. Well, I have to say I have seldom seen anything that looked less like soil than the acres of galets roulés or big round pebbles of the vineyard we visited. It seems the stones retain the heat of the sun and keep the vines warm at night, enabling earlier ripening. Well that's what they tell you anyway. This is certainly an unusual terroir.

What nobody tells you is that the village has only officially been Châteauneuf du Pape since 1893, though it was informally so called for centuries. Interestingly, it was already Châteauneuf (Newcastle) before Pope John XXII ordered the construction of the castle whose ruins now dominate the town. This construction was undertaken during the Avignon Papacy, though in practice the Avignon popes made little use of the castle until after the 1378 schism.

Like many another medieval building the castle became a stone quarry for subsequent generations.. During the Second World War it suffered the additional misfortune of being blown up by the retreating Germans.

But in this case we're really here for the wine.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Ardèche Gorge - where we touch prehistory

North of Avignon, the Ardèche River, which gives its name to the whole region, finally reaches the Rhone.  Before it does so it carves its way through limestone crags up to 1,000 feet high, forming the largest natural canyon in Europe (left).

On another day I might have liked to join those brave members of our group who took on the challenge of canoeing down the gorge.  It may or may not be the case that the 'other day' referred to was a score or more years ago.

I contented myself with the slightly less strenuous task of descending (and of course subsequently ascending again) the innumerable steps that form the path down to Grottes de St-Marcel d’Ardèche.  This is not the famous Grotte Chauvet, discovered in 1994, where the walls are home to the art of our distant ancestors of thirty millennia ago.  For obvious reasons that is not open to the public. Nor is St Marcel the recently opened replica cave.  It does however, for the truly desperate, include a reproduction cave painting (right).

Far more impressive is the remarkable natural architecture of the caverns themselves.  Rimstone pools, stalagmites, stalactites and imaginatively titled sculptures created over centuries by the action of water upon the living rock.

Even amid a heatwave, the underground chambers are cool and relatively quiet, although for those who like that sort of thing you can enjoy a son-et-lumière show at the rock waterfall (above).

The most famous natural landmark of the Ardèche Gorge is Vallon Pont d’Arc where the river has undercut the cliff forming a great natural bridge. Sadly there are things that you simply cannot do on a day trip, except perhaps in the mind's eye.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Vivarais Railway

Sometimes called Le Train de l'Ardèche, the metre gauge tourist railway running up the gorge of the Doux River is a great tourist attraction of Southern France.

In summer, visitors can ride in open sided carriages, the traditional rolling stock (left) being reserved for times when more  weather protection is required.

Closed in the 1960's, like so many rural lines in the UK, the line was promptly re-opened as a heritage railway and though it struggled for funds for a few years in this century it is now going strong again.

Part of the problem, our guide informed us, had been the cost of sharing the last kilometre of the route into Tournon with SNCF (the French  national railway.) To get around this the enthusiasts constructed a new station just outside the town at Saint-Jean-de-Muzols.

From there the train makes a daily round trip to Boucieu-le-Roi, a distance of about ten miles through some spectacular scenery, hugging the side of the gorge and looking down on the river far below. 

At the terminus the engine is shunted on to a turntable where the fireman (right) is able to display a combination of muscle power and superb engineering as he switches the direction of the engine without any power source but himself!

Because of the sharper than usual curves necessitated by the terrain, the steam locomotive is articulated according to the Mallet design. This means that what looks like a single 0-8-0 set of driving wheels beneath the engine is actually two in a  0-4-4-0 layout, the front set being mounted on a separate bogie which is able to turn independently of the main frame. 

The front set of wheels is driven by the second stage of the compound steam engine's power output.


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Sous le Pont d'Avignon

The Bridge at Avignon (above) is famous because of a popular song, but in olden times it was important for far more serious reasons.

The only fixed bridge over the Rhone south of Lyons, in the early Middle Ages Avignon Bridge marked the boundary between the Papal State (Comtat Venaissin) and France. From 1309 to 1377 Avignon was the official residence of the Pope and a great palace (right and bottom) was built there. (This period should not be confused with the Schism of 1378 after which there were two men claiming to be pope, one of whom resided at Avignon and the other in Rome.)

Relations with France were not necessarily friendly in the early years of the Avignon Papacy.   Later French influence grew. The Bridge was guarded and fortified by both sides, though at some stage apparently song and dance parties were held on an island which formed the base of some of the bridge's great stone piers. What appears to be the far bank of the Rhone in the photograph below left is actually a large island; there is a further channel beyond which is not visible.  So the song has it wrong, the dancing was sous and not sur le pont.

The papal era bridge had 22 stone arches, but was vulnerable to damage by the Rhone's powerful floods which would sweep away some sections. It appears temporary patches were made with wood, but after being finally abandoned in the 17th century much of the bridge was demolished or swept away, so that now only four arches remain, into one of which the Chapel of St Nicholas is built.

Modern archaeology has discovered Roman foundations and radiocarbon dating suggests that a Gallo-Roman bridge may have existed for a time between 290 and 530 AD.

The canonised shepherd boy Saint Bénézet inspired the building of a bridge in the 12th century by miraculously lifting a huge stone. He was originally interred in the St Nicholas Chapel on the bridge itself. After the abandonment of the bridge, his relics were removed to the Hôpital du Pont on the Avignon side. Saint Bénézet's original bridge was destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade, when the Cathar Heresy (so-called) was extirpated in Provence.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015


One hundred and twenty five years ago today, Vincent Van Gogh died.

Of the three sites in Arles most associated with him one, The Yellow House, was destroyed during the Second World War but The Hospital (left) and The Night Cafe (below) can still be visited today. Appropriately the latter is still painted yellow. I was not able to photograph it at night, but my picture was taken from a not totally dissimilar angle to that of the painting.

The Van Gogh connection is not the only reason to visit Arles.  I was unprepared for the remarkable state of preservation of the Roman Amphitheatre, which is today still in use for bull fighting (with Spanish bulls) and the racing games featuring the smaller Camargue bulls.

Though much smaller than the Roman Colosseum, the Arles amphitheatre has suffered less depradation by builders looking for a cheap stione quarry.  This was because it served as a fortress on the bank of the Rhone (below)  and was able to contribute to the defences of the town.

Considerably less grand are the late Roman Empire baths, the contrast between the two clearly evocative of the decline of Roman civilsation, even if the latter was the work of Constantine.

Arles was frequently a Roman headquarters and briefly a usurper capital.  It is also known as an early site of the religious conflict between Rome's Catholicism and the Arianism of the Visigoths, the independence of the latter no doubt being strengthened by the local traditions originating from Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer not far to the south.

The Emperor Barbarossa was crowned here in the 12th century, but Arles' importance declined as that of Marseilles grew. Today, perhaps especially today, it is probably best known for its association with Van Gogh.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue

According to legend, a party of disciples fleeing persecution in Judah shortly after the crucifixion sailed to the south of what is now France and landed in the location of the present town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The refugees included the three Marys: Magdalen, Salome and the mother of James, along with Martha of Bethany and Joseph of Arimathea.

In the Camargue, no-one would entertain the notion that this story is not literally true. Though the whereabouts of the Magdalen's remains are disputed, everyone knows that Salome and the mother of James are buried in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (above right) and Martha in Tarascon (below left). It is unthinkable that the popular medieval competition between shrines to rediscover relics of saints in order to attract pilgrims, the medieval equivalent of tourists, had anything to do with it.

Even leaving aside the question of relics, the association of Mary Magdalen with the area has very strong traditional roots. It was of course a part of the old story on which The Da Vinci Code was built. The Albigensian Heresy (Catharism) in the early middle ages, and the 19th / 20th century mystery of Rennes-le-Château have also some possible links to the story.

Today these churches are still places of pilgrimage, and 
Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the site of an annual Roma pilgrimage in honour of their patron St Sarah, whose relationship to the ship of refugees is not entirely clear.  She may have been a servant or a local woman who welcomed them.

The strength of feeling that surrounds these places is entirely convincing to romantics like me.