blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, June 23, 2014

VIPs in an Ottawa garden

Dr. Samar, The Hon. Flora MacDonald and his Excellency Sham Lall Bathija
I received an email from Dianne R. attaching "some notes" on the people we were going to meet last Wednesday at the UWHAW (University Women Helping Afghan Women) Garden Party, where my job was to co-ordinate the photography. The guest of honour was Dr. Sima Samar, Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Among many honours and awards, Dr. Samar is an Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada, holds an honorary doctorate from Carleton University and has more than once been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here is an abridged extract from Dianne's notes, to which I've added links.
  • Laila Ayan is First Secretary, Embassy of Afghanistan in Canada [who] served in the German Afghan mission at the UN prior to her appointment here.
  • Dr.Nipa Banerjee teaches at the U of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies. She [has] led Canada’s aid programs in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Afghanistan.
  • His Excellency Sham Lall Bathija Ambassador to Canada from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
  • William Crosbie, Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.
  • Erica Donald presently a medical student at McMaster, is a cellist [who studied] music at McGill University. She has worked with the Youth Orchestra in Afghanistan and continues to support them.
  • The Honourable Flora MacDonald served in three cabinet posts including Secretary of State for External Affairs, the first woman in the world to hold that appointment. Since 1988, she has been working for women and girls in Afghanistan as part of the World Federalist Movement.
  • Dr. Maisam Najafizada is a physician and now PhD candidate in Health Policy at the University of Ottawa,
  • Eileen Olexiuk. A seasoned diplomat, she was the former deputy head of Mission in Afghanistan with extensive experience in the country. In her retirement, she is involved with Afghan causes including Canadian Women for the Women of Afghanistan (CW4WA).
  • Maryam Sahar at 15 was an interpreter for a Canadian Army unit and NGOs in Kandahar at great risk to her own life. Later she took advantage of the Afghan Interpreter Immigration Program to seek asylum here. She has provided cultural awareness training for Canadian troops en route to Afghanistan and works with Immigration programs here as a translator while attending Carleton University.
  • Roya Shams, a young student rescued from the Taliban by Toronto Star reporters after her father, a senior police commander was assassinated in Kandahar. She presently attends Ashbury and wants to complete her education in Canada, hoping to return to Afghanistan afterwards to help her country.
  • Marg Stewart is President of CW4WA in Kingston and Treasurer on the National Board.
  • Madeliene Tarasick National President of CW4WA.

On the day, over 100 guests turned up and the rain held off! Half way through the Garden Party, everyone went indoors to hear some speeches. The Ambassador Sham Lall Bathija saluted Dr. Samar and the CFUW for their commitment. In Afghanistan there are now 3 million girls in school. He was proud to say that Afghanistan has met its millennium goal for healthcare, but that “doesn’t mean we should stop here.” He spoke of the value for Afghan students of studying abroad and then going back to serve their country and offered Canada thanks, greetings and love from Afghanistan.

One of our UWHAW members paid tribute to Flora MacDonald who, like Dr. Samar, is a “rescuer”––while acting as the first woman Minister for Foreign Affairs in the world, Flora ensured that 100,000 Vietnam refugees were welcomed to Canada. In her retirement from politics, as initiator of Future Generations Canada she has continued to work on humanitarian projects, such as providing electricity to remote parts of Afghanistan by means of wind and solar power.

The hostess then introduced Dr. Samar, saying how much we were “moved by her unimaginable bravery.” Dr. Samar thanked and greeted us, telling us that Flora MacDonald was her role model. She appreciates people who can bring about changes in the lives of Afghan women. The situation in her country is “much, much better” than it has been and the improvement is due to education, although there are still millions of girls there who do not go to school. Empowerment means having the right to decide one’s own destiny, to have control over what to wear, what to do, what to be, how many children to have. Only 19% of Afghan women have access to contraception. She spoke of a girl UWHAW has been sponsoring, how she had cried when she told Dr. Samar of her impossible dreams of a higher education. Now that dream is after all fulfilled she will no longer have to be a carpet weaver all her life.

Speaking of the recent elections in Afghanistan, Dr. Samar said that the election demonstrates the influence of the international community. All the candidates had come to a human rights conference, which had never happened before. For the first time in history the Afghan people had taken the initiative. When the election is over and the new government takes office “we shall keep them accountable,” she said. Later she repeated that “we shall have to be cautious.” However, it is “impossible” that Afghanistan will now step back to the day of the Taliban. The Commission for Human Rights is now part of the Afghan constitution. Her long term vision is one of equality for all, men and women. Every child has the right to live with dignity, she said.

In answer to a question about the high literacy rates in one particular part of Afghanistan, she said with a smile: that was the area she has assisted. Her first trip to Europe was in 1989 to Norway, when she raised $10,000 for the creation of ten new schools. One school took place under a tree, one in a mosque. Tents were used as classrooms. All the children in this district now go to school.

(Photo © Robin Spencer)
Several young Afghans or students with connections to Afghanistan were at the garden party. Besides wine and strawberries among the roses, we had a silent auction. I actually won something, a framed piece of Afghan embroidery that's now brightening my kitchen wall. Some of the other guests were treated to henna hand painting by two high school students of Ottawa who had collected funds to present to Dr. Samar. Although born in Canada, these girls share an Afghan heritage and know the barriers to education for Afghan girls. They had baked and sold cupcakes, painted people's hands for donations and prepared an Afghan meal for 80 teachers, all to raise funds for their counterparts in Afghanistan.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Picnic at Lemoine Point

We followed the Shore Trail,
walking back along Meadowlark Lane
Yesterday Chris flew me down to Kingston for a walk and a picnic near the airport, at Lemoine Point. The flying conditions were near perfect with no more than tiny clouds to contend with at 4500ft and marvellous visibility. We're so privileged to be able to fly this route, one of the most beautiful in Ontario, surely, following the line of the old Perth Road from above, over Westport or Portland where the many boats are moored and the locks between the lakes on the Rideau Canal. This time we had a tail wind from the north so the outbound journey took us less than an hour. As we landed at Kingston, we think we saw a young eagle sitting beside the taxiway. It was a huge and beautiful bird, anyhow, and the men at the FBO said some eagles had been seen nearby.

Walking conditions were good too; it was not too hot. The woods and wet meadows of Lemoine Point were full of flowers and dragonflies. I have never seen so many chipmunks at once; they were everywhere. In the farmland near the southern car park an adult goat had a following of little goats, bounding through the long grass, surely not all her own? A very tame squirrel made determined efforts to share our lunch at our picnic table.

Back in Ottawa, driving down the Rockcliffe Parkway to fetch Chris after he had lingered at the Flying Club before supper, a fox crossed the road ahead of me.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Beethoven twice

This week I was one of the 400 people at the first Kulturgarten event of the week, at the German Ambassador's residence: a piano recital by Hinrich Alpers that took place in a big tent in the Ambassador's garden. (There are 74 photos of this event on the Embassy's Facebook page.) We "mingled" on the lawn outside first, as one does, then carried our glasses of wine into the rows of seats in the tent. After the Ambassador had spoken about this year's anniversaries––100 years since the start of the 1st World War ... 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall––the pianist introduced his music, telling us about Schumann's Waldszenen (scenes in the forest) that he was going to play first. One of its movements, Verrufene Stelle, he described as "strange". It was supposed to evoke a flower that had turned red in a haunted part of the forest, having imbibed human blood!

Mr. Alpers played everything from memory. An even stranger item followed, a piece by John Cage for a "prepared piano" stuffed with bits of felt ribbon and a metal bolt between two of its strings––"absolutely safe," he explained, tongue in cheek, adding that playing the piece actually takes less time than the preparation. John Cage was "one of the most versatile composers of the 20th century," he said, who attached microphones to cacti, or electrodes to mushrooms, so as to "record their inner life while they were growing". The piece we heard was Cage's Music for Marcel Duchamp
Composed in 1947 for a segment of Hans Richter's surrealist film "Dreams That Money Can Buy." [...] The segment—a dream one of the characters is having—is titled "Discs" and consists mostly of Duchamp's rotoreliefs. These are designs painted on flat cardboard circles, which are to be spun on a phonographic turntable.   (Wikipedia)
What is it like? I'd describe the sound as pizzicato, with an echo effect, the instrument "almost not recognisable any more," as Mr. Alpers put it.

The piano was quickly restored to normal and the following piece, also by Cage, was his only tonal composition: In a Landscape (1948) approximately in D-minor, a wistful, impressionist piece, meant to accompany a dance. The sustaining pedal is kept full on, throughout.

Beethoven was the last composer on the programme; we heard a wonderfully mature sonata he had composed in his 20s, Op. 10 No. 3 in D major, with what Mr. Alpers called a "deep" slow movement. I think he conveyed its profundity to almost everybody there and the birdsong in the background enhanced rather than detracted from it. We all felt the greatness of young Beethoven at that moment, as had his contemporaries in Vienna, apparently, at a time when Haydn was befriending and encouraging him. Other pianists of his day were given a run for their money, said Mr. Alpers. Beethoven dominated.

I should like to learn to play this piece!

Three days later I was at another, very different concert where Beethoven was played. This was the end of year performance of Ottawa's Orkidstra and one of the items on their programme was the famous first movement of the 5th Symphony. (Last year, they played the last movement, and they have improved since.) "Who would have thought when we started this," said the Executive Director, Tina Fedeski, "that seven years later the children would have been able to play Beethoven?" She is rightly proud. Most members of the Orkidstra have been taught from scratch, their instruments and tuition provided free of charge. Other triumphs for these admirable young people and their teachers and mentors were Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev, a movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, a Brandenburg Concerto by J.S.Bach, Alma Llanera by Gutiérrez and an exciting medley from Star Wars.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Remembering Köln

Die Severinsbrücke, May 2014
Being in Köln (Cologne) brought back memories. My first visit was in 1963 when I was a schoolgirl staying with a family called Kopka. I spoke no German in those days and they didn't speak much English. The daughter my age had two older brothers and a motherly mother. Her father was a milliner––he gave me and my sister a hat each, made of white rabbit fur, very soft. My own father was the music teacher at my school and had brought his English choir to Germany to form an alliance with a German girls' school choir. Around the cathedral, Köln had been flattened by the British/American bombing raids and was still being rebuilt. We gave our concert in the auditorium of Die Brücke on Hahnenstraße, the cultural centre of the British Council in postwar Cologne. I sang my first solo in public at this concert, Schubert's An den Mond, accompanied by my father on the piano. After the concert our school party took a cruise on a Rhine boat to Sankt Goarshausen, disembarking there to stay at a romantic hotel on the shore. As we pulled away from Köln the German girls and their families waved goodbye from the bank. We passed under the Severinsbrücke, then brand new, and further upstream got together on the deck and sang some of our concert items in three parts.

I have visited the city three other times between 1963 and now, so my memories become overlaid. Köln has changed, but the postwar concrete blocks and museums are still there and river cruises still depart from the wharf near the Alter Markt. The Severinsbrücke is close to the Novotel where we stayed this year and in 2012.

On Monday evening May 12th Chris and I met his colleagues Karsten, Emil and Yí in the hotel bar and then went out for supper with them at a nearby pub (the Rheinau) in the Severinenviertel, a fried supper with asparagus, of course, mit Kölsch zum Trinken. This draft beer is served in 0.2 l glassfuls costing €1.40 or less, but topped up over and over again. The total is totted up on the beer mats in case the waitress loses count. We learned the word for the froth on top––die Bierblume! When you've had enough, you put a beermat over the glass. Then you go out and watch the barges sailing up and down the moonlit Rhine.

On Tuesday I gave myself blisters by walking so far, past the "art 'otel" and Schokoladenmuseum, along the Holzwerft and Frankenwerft to the Hohenzollern Brücke (railway bridge), then across the river to Deutz. The fence on the bridge's footpath was covered with locks enscribed with lovers' names, their keys thrown to the bottom of the Rhine. Then I went into the Rheinpark past the Tanzbrunnen, beyond which the Seilbahn was, that swings you over the Rhine and drops you at the entrance to the zoo. On that showery day I had one of the cable cars to myself. Next to the zoo are the Botanical Gardens through which I happily wandered for more than an hour, not worrying about the thunderstorms because I could shelter in the tropical greenhouses. I took a tram / underground train back to the central station, then walked another few km back to our hotel along the Hohe Straße / Waidmarkt / Severinstraße, in a straight line. If that weren't enough I went for an evening walk with Chris as well, to a trendy riverside area, the Rheinau-Hafen, seeing the Kranhäuser there and some seriously long barges moored beside the Agrippinawerft.

Wednesday morning I returned with my camera and took the tram from Ubierring to the Hauptbahnhof whence I caught my train to Aachen. We were also near the Ubierring for supper with Chris' colleagues that day, finally finding a restaurant that had room for us, the Bona'me, serving delicious Turkish food. You order your chosen dish at the counter and when it's ready, a hand-held device flashes and beeps for you to come and get it.

Thursday was the rainy day when we escaped in Karsten's car, crossing the Mülheimerbrücke and driving east. We came back to Köln on Saturday in time for one more chance to explore––saw inside the Cathedral and found a way through the crowds outside, groups of them wearing identical silly hats, to the Alter Markt, where a jazz band was in full swing, nine men and a girl. It looked as if finding somewhere peaceful for supper would be difficult. But walking along the the Konrad-Adenauer Ufer downstream of the railway bridge, we supposed that the parallel streets away from the river would be quieter, and so they were. We found the Gaststätte zum Köbes on Thürmchenswall which served good food with our Kölsch and being early diners, we had this cosy pub almost to ourselves. As we sauntered back to our hotel, the Ibis am Dom, the churches began to ring their vesper bells. We lingered outside St. Kunibert's church––all the churches are huge––to admire its decorated doors, before mingling with the crowds in the Hohe Straße again and watching a busker at an outdoor piano laden with beer glasses.

St. Christopher in Cologne Cathedral

The doors of St. Kunibert's church

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The ubiquitous Piper

A live Pied Piper
Piper outside the post office
Hameln an der Weser is the setting of the legend of The Pied Piper––the Rattenfänger (German can sound more aggressive than other languages), meaning rat catcher. In Bad Pyrmont we were only a quarter of an hour's ride away from Hameln, so we took a train through the countryside and went to find out what was there.

It's interesting to speculate where the story came from and how it has developed over the centuries. In 21st century Hameln, they make the most of it. Statues of pipers and rats are everywhere to be seen, even before you leave the station; whole sections of the bookshops are dedicated to it, dozens of Pied Piper postcards can be bought and a real live Pied Piper gives guided tours of the old town, pipe in hand, compelling the tourists to follow him.

A model Pied Piper
It was another picturesquely cobbled, traffic free city centre, full of people enjoying the fresh air. Outside the museum on the market square Chris and I ordered ices and spent a while people-watching: a group of students at a long outdoor table had obviously already consumed a good deal of beer and two young men stumbled over to the doorway to the museum where a life sized model of the Pied Piper stood, very colourful, with a long feather in his cap, wearing tights and a little tunic. I saw one of the young men lift the tunic to find out what was underneath, miming shock and horror as he did so and then crossing himself––that made me laugh!

It struck me that the next time I travel abroad I ought to bring a recording device along to take sound shots as well as pictures: the birdsong as we hiked on the Bromberg above Bad Pyrmont that morning, the bells of the Hameln Hochzeithaus ringing in the afternoon, the dressed-up tour guide's jokes, the trains pulling in and out of the stations.

Talking of locals who dress up, I was at Bad Pyrmont for the start of their Spargelfest (Asparagus Festival) and in the market caught sight of their Spargel-Königin––a young girl in a green costume, admiring some of the produce, whose picture will appear in all the local papers. That was entertaining enough, but what amused me most was the old lady who started complaining to me in the Ladies' of a Bad Pyrmont restaurant: "Ich hab' schon 85 Jahre hinter mir und da weiß man einiges. Stellen Sie sich mal vor, die Spargel-Königin heißt Ginza. Ginza! Was ist das für ein Name? Hört sich an wie eine Spargelsorte!" Free translation: I'm 85 years old now, and when you get to my age you know a thing or two. Just imagine, the Asparagus Queen is called Ginza. Ginza! I ask you, what kind of name is that? Anyone would think it was a sort of asparagus!

In Hameln's Hochzeithaus we also saw a great little exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci's engineering inventions, with models we could manipulate. We walked past rows of 16th century houses, not standing up straight, and saw the banks of the River Weser where the rats came from, and the high water marks from historic floods.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Aachen and the Emperor

Head of Karl in the Schatzkammer

1200 years ago a man died in Aachen, a charismatic leader who'd had visions of a European Union; he was Karolus Magnus, the Christian king and emperor otherwise known as Karl der Große, Charles the First, or Charlemagne. Since Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle to francophones) is in Germany, the German papers are full of this anniversary; while I was in Köln Die Welt and Die Welt Kompakt (the tabloid version) published a four-page spread about it.

Because it was less than an hour away on the train, I decided to go and see Aachen for myself. This is another spa town, by the way, people coming here for the sake of the mineral water as long as 5000 years ago.

Outside Aachen station in the modern part of town

The theatre / opera house at Aachen
It was a 20 minute walk from the station to the old part of the city near the cathedral, down Bahnhofstraße and then left onto Theaterstraße. After you've passed the theatre (I had some tasty fish soup and a coffee at a window table in the Opera-Restaurant), there are signposts. The Elisenbrunnen park lies between the modern part of the city and the medieval part; the Jewish community had organised a display about Israel on the day I was there, outside the tourist information centre. The park and old town was populated with tourists and students. There appear to be good schools there. I walked past Kaiser Karls Gymnasium (not where the Emperor went to school!) and saw the boys from the Singschule running around in the cathedral cloisters that are not accessible to the public. For older students, Aachen has the largest technical university in Germany, of excellent reputation––the Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule (RWTH). 

The cathedral, of course, is the nucleus of the town. It's here that the ancient scraps of material are kept which Charlemagne brought home from Jerusalem. Apparently, they are the cloak of the Blessed Virgin (das Marienkleid), the swaddling-clothes (die Windeln) of the Infant Jesus, the loin-cloth (das Lendentuch) worn by Christ on the cross, and the cloth that wrapped the head of St. John the Baptist (das Enthauptungstuch) after it was cut off.  Since the mid-14th century, these holy relics have been shown to pilgrims only once every seven years, a custom which continues today; it's happening this year. They are kept in a golden shrine. The massive Byzantine cathedral was built for the purpose of housing them. It was meant to rival the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and be the heart of an empire, of a second Rome.

Reliquary of Karl's arm bone
In the cathedral's Treasury (Domschatzkammer) are further gold encased relics, among them Karl's arm bones and leg bones. Part of the casing is cut away so you can see the actual bones. I found them gruesome. The painting of the crucifixion shown there was done by an anonymous genius. Bible covers and crucifixes set with precious stones were also on display, as was the emperor's carved marble sarcophogus.

Painting by the unknown Meister des Aachener Altars (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne ruled over an empire that stretched from the Baltic to northern Spain. The lingua franca was Latin, which he spoke fluently though for most of his life; he could follow Greek too, though he could hardly read or write. Nonetheless he saw the importance of learning and founded a library of some 10,000 precious manuscripts including the writings of Cicero, Horace and Ovid, as well as schools which taught seven disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. He had his daughters educated as well as his sons but forbad them to marry for fear of trouble from sons-in-law.

Rathausplatz, Aachen
I wandered around the cobbled streets near the cathedral and Rathausplatz, absorbing the atmosphere. I've mentioned before in this blog how relaxing it is to be in a pedestrian zone where the only noticeable noise is people's voices. Some tourists were learning to use Segways for transportation. In doorways and on balconies I saw colourful Maibäume––cut birch trees decorated with ribbons to celebrate the spring.

Maibaum in old Aachen

Saturday, June 7, 2014

In praise of trains

Typical view of northern France from the Eurostar
I love trains. There's always the risk of sharing a carriage / car / wagon with an annoying person or group of annoying persons, but even so.

On my last trip abroad I was on several trains. When I landed at Heathrow on May 5th it was late morning, so I decided to speed up the next part of my journey by taking the Heathrow Express to Paddington (I usually take the RailAir bus to Reading) before catching my intercity train to Wales. It turned out to be well worth it.  No need to buy a ticket at Heathrow––if you have previously booked on line as I had, the QR code on your receipt can be shown on board; otherwise you just pay the inspector.

London stations are ten times cleaner and brighter these days than they used to be, and Paddington has a quiet restaurant up the escalator from the main concourse with waitress service, where I sat in a padded chair eating a second breakfast and watched the other passengers coming and going. I then found my seat on the fast train to Cardiff (costing £18.50, i.e. less than the above-mentioned 15 minute ride from Heathrow to Paddington. Last time I'd taken a London to Cardiff train, without booking in advance, the price had been something like £100). Very tired after the overnight flight I didn't appreciate the continuous loud monologue from the upper class twit in one of the nearby seats, but I did appreciate my views of the lovely green countryside on that sunny spring day.

My grandson Alexander on a London train
At the end of the week I had a relaxing journey in reverse, Cardiff to Paddington, followed by a ride under London on the Bakerloo and Northern Lines, surfacing at Waterloo in time to catch one of the South West stopping trains to Fulwell, the closest station to where my daughter lives. We were there again the following morning for the day excursion mentioned in my last blogpost, using our Oyster cards.

Then after breakfast on Monday May 12th I crossed London yet again to catch the Eurostar to Brussels from St. Pancras. That was really enjoyable. I had a 20 minute connection in Brussels-Midi (a huge modern station) for my ICE train to Köln and made it easily, finding the Deutsche Bahn's free take-away magazine on board, containing articles I can use for my German conversation group in Ottawa. On this journey I was bemused by the announcements in English, French, Flemish and German, the order of languages depending on where we were, exactly. Crossing Belgium for instance they told us in Flemish that we would shortly be arriving in Luik which according to my itinerary wasn't on the list. Then they said it in German, "Wir treffen bald in Lüttich ein." What? Where? I had to wait for the French and English translations before I was sure that they meant Liège.

Houses in Belgium, seen en route from
the train to Köln
Köln, the Hauptbahnhof
I rolled into Köln on time and took a taxi to our hotel by the Rhine.

While in Germany Chris and I used the trains on several more occasions. I spent a day in Aachen (separate blogpost coming soon) getting there and back very quickly and easily on the double-decker Regionalzug. We had a lift to Bad Pyrmont in Karsten's Mercedes, but when he left us to our own devices we used a local train (bound for Hannover airport)––which looks like Ottawa's one and only O-Train––to visit Hameln, quarter of an hour away, and on the Saturday afternoon returned to Köln by means of a series of trains, via Paderborn, Hamm and Wuppertal through which the famous century old Schwebebahn runs: we saw it from the window.

The station at Bad Pyrmont

The Regionalzug that runs between Paderborn and Hannover
Our intercity train to Köln arriving in Hamm

Passing a double decker train in Hagen station

Inside Köln Hauptbahnhof, early morning

Chris on the other platform
On Sunday, the last day of our trip, we were ready for an early start from the Ibis Hotel at the station in Köln, said goodbye to our view of the cathedral, grabbed a sandwich for breakfast, bought Chris' ticket to Frankfurt Flughafen, and then said goodbye to one another, because we were leaving from separate platforms. I was travelling back to London that morning and Chris had to go in the opposite direction to catch his flight home. It was a poignant moment, waving from opposite platforms as we departed, our respective trains pulling in at more or less the same time.

With two hours to wait for my Eurostar connection in Brussels I decided to roll my luggage outside the station and explore, which wasn't very gratifying, the most interesting part of the city (and I assume the less scruffy part) being too far away to walk to. I gave up, and speaking French now rather than German, bought myself a croque Hawaienne on the Avenue Paul-Henri, which I ate at an outdoor table. Once again the journey was sheer pleasure all the way, the party of British schoolkids notwithstanding––high-spirited, but actually well behaved. I just gazed out of the window for most of it and noticed when the soil turned chalky as we approached the French coast and the Channel Tunnel. At Lille I'd made a note: There's a man getting on the train with a life-sized model chicken.

Approaching the Chunnel, in France
Back in London I stepped briskly down the travellators towards the Underground, crossed the city on the Victoria Line to Vauxhall (it saves time to have planned one's route before setting off) and so back to Fulwell station. And there was my family on the railway bridge, waiting to meet me.

On the bridge at Fulwell Station

Friday, June 6, 2014

Reminders of old London

After visiting Wales, I spent a weekend in London. Alexander had been learning about The Great Fire of London from his teachers at school, so on Saturday the idea was to take him to latter-day Pudding Lane, the place where the great fire had first begun. The Monument, a doric column 202ft high, stands at the corner of Pudding Lane with its Latin inscriptions; we read them, and ate a packed lunch at its base, pigeons joining in.

The fire raged for four days. Carved on the monument is a description of the dramatic event, in Latin. Translated into English, the story tells of the fire's "astonishing swiftness and noise", how it "altogether vanquished all human counsel and resource" and how it was meant "to remind us of the final destruction of the world". The inscription ended like this:
At the bidding, as we may well believe of Heaven, the fatal fire stayed its course and everywhere died out. (But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.) These last words were added in 1681 and finally deleted in 1850.
 There was a plaque to commemorate the song London's Burning as well. After all this we were duty bound to visit the exhibitions at the Museum of London (free of charge) to learn some more about the fire. Thomas had a sleep in his pushchair during this. Alexander took notes and I dare say he told his class later about the things he'd seen and learned.

On our way back to Waterloo Station to catch the train home, the boys were delighted to sit at the front on the top deck of a London bus, and so was I, especially when we passed St. Paul's Cathedral at close quarters and rode down the Strand. Best of all was my lucky chance to get a visionary shot of the Thames from Waterloo Bridge with a view of the tall buildings, ancient and modern, and a rainbow over all of it!
Emma and boys on the bus

St. Paul's, seen from the bus
Ancient and modern London, with rainbow!

The following afternoon we walked around the Crane Park Island Nature Reserve, close to Heathrow, and found some more evidence of history in the Shot Tower, a building that may once have been used for the manufacture of lead shot for ammunition in early firearms. "Molten lead was poured through a copper sieve at the top of the hollow tower. As it fell, it formed small round pellets which cooled and hardened as they hit water in a large tank at the bottom of the tower." The inventor of this process had apparently once fallen asleep and dreamed of leaden raindrops falling on him as he lay in a field.

Next to the tower is an island in the River Crane. Between 1766 and 1928, this location was a gunpowder mill that in the mid nineteenth century had a workforce of 320: men, women and children. Several people lost their lives through this dangerous work––55 accidental explosions occurred. The ingredients of the gunpowder were sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal. Barrels of gunpowder were transported by horse and cart, van and barge to London and the docks and then it was shipped to Canada, for example, to be used against the Americans during the war of 1812.

Fragments of old Wales

A milepost on the edge of St. Fagans reconstructed village
The National History Museum of Wales is at St. Fagans (without an apostrophe) on the western edge of Cardiff. Set in parkland and the grounds of a 16th century manor house, it features historic architecture and artifacts from all over Wales. With most of the buildings moved there from their original locations, it is a similar museum to the one at Upper Canada Village in Ontario. The idea is for visitors to imagine going back in time, to different periods in the past––you can walk into old cottages and workshops and see things laid out and being used as in the old days. You can smell the old world smells: mown hay, wood or coal smoke, bread from the bakery, and there are craftsmen milling, tanning, weaving, making horseshoes and so on. Native breeds of animal are farmed here in traditional ways (don't miss the 18th century pigsty from Pontypridd!) and even the plants are carefully chosen to show what used to grow in the hedgerows, fields and gardens of old Wales.

At the beginning of May my sister, my mother and I spent an afternoon at St. Fagans. We were lucky with the weather and when Mum got tired we sat on the benches and listened to the black-caps, wrens and robins.

The inside of a thatched roof

Coal burning in an ironworker's cottage

The man who did the spinning and weaving told us all about his work

St. Teilo's from the outside
One particularly interesting building at St. Fagans is the St. Teilo's church at the far end of the museum's village. The plaque outside it tells a remarkable story: "As the building was taken down, a staggering discovery was made. Under layers of whitewash, 500 year old paintings were found. This is why we have rebuilt the church as it may have looked around 1520, when it would have been Roman Catholic. Most worshippers then could not read and would have used the images to inspire meditation and prayer." What visitors see inside the church are copies of those original, rediscovered paintings. Here's one of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child which a week later I could compare with the giant statue of der heilige Christoph in the Kölner Dom.

Tintern Abbey

Anghidi River

Ruins of the ironworks
On Thursday May 8th, Mel drove us through Shire Newton (stopping for lunch at the Tredegar Arms) to Tintern, where we saw the ruins of an even older place of worship, Tintern Abbey on the banks of the Wye. My niece lives just up the road from there, in a cluster of houses known as Chapel Hill, and further up the valley by the little (2.5km long!) Anghidi River with its fish ponds and bluebell woods, are some more ruins, the remains of an 17th century ironworks whose furnace used to burn night and day processing cast iron (pig iron), the bellows being powered by a water wheel in the river. Cooking pots and cannon fired from battleships in the American War of Independence were manufactured here. The ironmaster, David Tanner, became a Monmouthshire Mayor and Sheriff, but was also sent to prison in the 1790s, owing to a bankruptcy scandal and "...was last heard of on a boat bound for Bengal."

I saw this place for the sake of a walk with Faith, Mel, Mum, Elen, Bethan and Chris up the country lanes.