Monday, 31 August 2009

The trees around Nunhead

It was John Major who infamously spoke about going 'Back to Basics' and the last person I would like to emulate is that Tory prime minister, the very rotter who oversaw the privatisation of the railways.

Nevertheless, for this post only, Basics is exactly where The trees around Nunhead is going back to.

Nunhead has lots of roads whose names derive from trees. But I don't think there are many lindens (limes) on Linden Grove, Limesford Road nor Limes Walk. I haven't spotted any. Hollydale Road may have some holly, however, and I'm sure somewhere on its long length Ivydale Road boasts some ivy.

This small specimen, which is none of the above, can be found on the corner of East Dulwich Road and Peckham Rye (W):-
Turning the other way, there is this huge horse chestnut: Some of you may recall my posting of 11th March (Just what it says on the Tin) where I wrote about a huge tree on Nunhead Green that 'after some heavy-handed topiary... dominates the Green today. Huge, menacing, with blunt fingers grasping at the sky'.
Well here is what it looks like now. The blunt fingers are covered with greenery and a lot of the sense of menace has gone. Perhaps the topiarist knew what she or he was doing after all:-

Just around the corner, this strange growth stands guard over Nunhead Library:
There are quite a lot of these strange spiky trees (bushes?) in the area. Maybe they were fashionable once?
This poor shot of the roundabout at the junction of Clayton and Consort Roads at first seems pointless in the current context.
But closer up, you can see a mature Aruacaria or Monkey Puzzle Tree.
Elsewhere in Nunhead, these trees stand outside Ivydale school (unsurprisingly, on Ivydale Road):-
And this is the entrance to Nunhead Cemetery from Limesford Road:

Finally a photograph of the unusual house that stands near the south-east end of Peckham Rye, opposite the old tram stop:
So. I've beaten the bounds of Nunhead (sort of), photographed some trees - some for the first time - and gone Back to Basics.
And I feel all the better for it.
After all, people might otherwise wonder about the title of the blog and what it was all about, and I wouldn't want that.
Oh, and I felt it would be appropriate.
This has been my hundredth posting.

Spain Tour 6: Squid Sandwich

Potes sits at the centre of the Eastern Picos. It's the jumping off point for all sorts of activities in the hills around - quad bikes, walking packs, guides, hats and coats, wet suits, etc. On this day we just went in for a wander and lunch.

As you would expect, it is very touristy. Not much in the way of ancient monuments 'though. This tower is the famous building, and we could not work out what it was famous for. Perhaps it's just old.

As you can see, there were lots of open-air bars and cafes catering to us visitors. We vacilated at length before choosing one of the cafes in the square on the other side of the river. As we sat down, the wind picked up, so at least half of the entertainment was watching our fellow diners try to keep control of their sunshades.
I ordered a squid sandwich. Sounded delicious on the chalkboard (or maybe I was just very hungry). What arrived was something that looked like a chip buttie. But with a lemon rather than ketchup.

It tasted heavenly.
You can focus on the little streets and patchwork of houses and other buildings in the centre of Potes. But every time you lift your eyes you see the hills...
This door was closed and seemed vaguely medieval. We wondered what was behind it. When it opened up after the heat of the day, it proved to be a shop selling wine and beer.

And so we wandered around...

Sunday, 30 August 2009

On Holiday Reading

I’ve never really gotten the hang of holiday reading.

I know that the Sunday newspapers get a lot of column inches from this sort of thing – you know, ‘This summer’, says David Cameron, ‘I will again be reading the latest fashionable thing that makes me look good and just a little bit normal.’ But I still have this sneaking suspicion that it’s based in a reality: that when people go on holiday they read different sorts of books.

OK, for some people I can see that this may mean that they read a book at all. Something for the beach, perhaps. But even setting this group aside, there seems to be a class of books that are meant for the holidays.

As I said at the start, I’ve never really understood this. The first hint that there was a problem came on a holiday to Turkey with future missus in 1988. We were travelling around, doing sights, ruins and beaches. So I took something I wanted to read; something I was interested in.

I still don’t understand why it was wrong to read Chaucer on the beach in Kuşadasi. I mean, I could perhaps understand if I was reading a particular tale that was offensive; but no, that wasn’t it – in any case, I’d brought the Robinson in paperback (I think), so I had them all with me, with footnotes and critical apparatus. There wasn’t even a polite enquiry as to which of them I was looking at at the time. No, it was just ‘You can’t read that on the beach!’

Now, I might accept this if it had been said with a tone of thoughtful concern – you know, that I might get sand in a valuable or much-loved volume. Although as I mentioned I’d brought the paperback and left the hardback at home so that wasn’t very likely. No, the tone of voice was one of outrage. Horror, even.

So I had to accept that this was a new epistemology of reading, one I didn’t get. That some books and some places just don’t go.

Now, mostly, having recognised the problem, I’ve ignored it. I’ve happily read Baudrillard in North Wales, Shakepeare in Belgium and Asimov in Brittany. And Jilly Cooper in Hungary but apparently for some reason that was OK.

This year’s reading before the Spain trip was different again. I’d never been to Spain before so I thought I ought to do some background research. We had a lot of guidebooks and stuff but I started in the most obvious place: the first Canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. Only to be reminded again, and more forcibly than usual, that I really am not a fan of Byron. I couldn’t finish it. Never mind, Homage to Catalonia came next. A much better read (for me), and interesting from the viewpoint that Orwell was writing before the outcome of the Spanish civil war was known. It gave me some insights but I still felt that I needed more.

And so we come to the three main books that came with us on holiday (apart from some post-structuralist theory and a little light fantasy of course).

What a tiresome book Roads to Santiago (Cees Nooteboom, 1992) is! It’s basically the story of the Dutchman’s meanderings around Spain over the last forty years. He maunders up to a derelict village seeking to have a look at an old (usually pre-Romanesque) church. Only to find no-one is in, but after a few hours of sitting and wandering he comes across a wizened old man who has a key to the place and lets him in. He has a look around and although there are some interesting things inside, and he can indulge in some outré art-historical musings which are pretty much meaningless because he doesn’t describe things very well and the photos in the book are frankly rubbish, he ends up vaguely disappointed and says so at some length. And then he does it again, in another bit of Spain. And then again, only this time the bloke with the rusty key doesn’t materialise so he doesn’t get to see inside and goes away even more sad than usual. And if you get overwhelmed by this journeying and sadness you can have a rest, turn over and look at the back of the book where you can see his picture, which must be the most fed-up-looking author picture I have ever seen.

Sigh. Since we were in a campsite surrounded by Dutch people I was worried about reading it in plain sight. We only had it in translation, but if they saw it and knew the book, we’d remind them about it and there was a good chance we might provoke a rash of suicides.

So I started to read The Ghosts of Spain (Giles Tremlett, 2006). Only it turned out I could only read this in front of non-Spaniards (in our case, in the campsite, this meant the Dutch), as some of it at least is about Spain’s act of ‘forgetting’ related to the reign of General Franco. About the violence and injustice that has been left unaddressed and unresolved in the name of stability and peace, and the effects on those who see themselves as victims. It is about a hidden, fragmented and uncomfortable Spain.

In some ways the subject-matter of this was more conducive to me. A bit of politics from a left-liberal perspective (Tremlett writes for the Guardian & Observer) is very comforting. But he writes like a journalist – lots of human interest accounts; short punchy sentences; and he changes the subject a lot (so you don’t get too bored). I found this all quite annoying by the end of the book, and - unpleasant as the thought was - I preferred the maudlin Dutchman.

I needed some sensible, well-turned prose that might be making a less liberal political point, but which I could trust to be argued from a plain, muscular, matter-of-fact point of view as an antidote to the Nooteboom. Sir Walter Raleigh’s Selected Writings (Penguin). I’d grabbed this in a hurry as we left London, as something I should have read before, and which ought to be a good read on holiday. So I turned readily to the first prose piece:

A report of the truth of the fight about the Isles of Azores, this last summer, betwixt the Revenge, one of her Majesty’s Ships, and an Armada of the King of Spain.

This was going to be much more like it! A true and unbiased view of the Spanish from a highly trustworthy source (or perhaps not).

Possibly this was another text I couldn’t read in public – how touchy were the Spanish about the wars of the sixteenth century against the English? Tremlett explains that several of the separatist movements in Spain claim some form of continuity going back to grudges beginning more than eight hundred years ago. So the Elizabethans are comparatively recent and may be fresh in the memory. However, I risked it and nobody seemed to mind.

Except for one or two members of the family, who said it wasn’t proper holiday reading.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Spain Tour 5: Bats!

The campsite had a stream that ran along beside it (actually, I think it was the same Rio Deva that accompanied us through the Gorge). At one point, beside the stream, there was a small bar/restaurant. It was usually quite busy.

As soon as it was fully dark they would switch on a strong bug-attracting light just outside the big windows of the bar, hanging slightly out over the stream. Moths and various other bugs would float around and congregate.

And they in turn attracted the bats.

Zooming back and forth along the river, snapping up the flying insects as they passed the cafe. Whirling around and returning for more.

They were fast, small and light, and despite the strong illumination from the bug-light, quite elusive to spot. And even harder to photograph. I must have tried forty or fifty times.

Here is what the scene looked like:

And again:
No, hang on. Look at the last picture again - the blur in the bottom right corner. It resolves to this:
Definitely batlike. So now we know what we are looking for.

This was the only other shot which was half-way successful at capturing one of the little furry flying things:
Did you spot it?
I am sure we spent somewhat longer in the bar, and went there more often, because of the bats. Not that I knowingly refused vino tinto at any time.

We christened the bug attracting light the Bat Signal (sigh).

I remember Ad-- Woosh!!

Earlier today the route of a new high-speed railway line was announced by Network Rail. The journey time from London to Scotland would be brought down to 2 hrs 16 mins.
Now at first sight this is a fantastic idea. We have good friends in Edinburgh, Manchester and Liverpool, so this would make them feel that little bit closer. I hate flying anyway, but we would also be less likely to drive. We'd let the train take the strain.

But then I had a little think. We keep focusing on high-speed links, don't we?
Beeching did the same, concentrated on the profitable main lines and cut the branch lines that fed them (I have no idea if this is true, it's just what I was always taught).
When are we going to see the next new meandering country branch line open?

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

According to Wikipedia (currently):
"The railway station closed in 1966, however the local bus shelter contains a bench which was originally on the platform. A plaque on the bench quotes Thomas’s original poem which describes an uneventful journey Thomas took on June 23 1914 on an Oxford to Worcester express. He did not alight from the train but his poem has immortalised the village throughout the English-speaking world ever since."

I know that from one point of view this is a pseudo-romantic evocation of a fantasy world that never existed. But it does also serve to remind us how much we have thrown away. As does The New Adlestrop - a smashing map.
And of course there is:

All of which is just meant to be a reminder that speed isn't everything, and sometimes other aspects of the way we travel may be more important than the fact that we arrive quickly.

So, let's start the campaign to rebuild and re-open Adlestrop station and all of those other places... Then you can have your high-speed line...

End of very mild rant.

In any case, they probably won't build it. 2020 as the best estimate for the first bit? A Government review also in hand? Helpful to the environment? Huge capital sums required? I don't think so.

Oh well, I was getting quite used to the idea.

(While looking things up for this blog, I encountered / remembered the fact that Jane Austen is also linked to Adlestrop. She seemingly made several visits there to stay with her uncle who was the Church rector and there is a rumour that the house and grounds of Adlestrop Park were used for the setting of Mansfield Park. Amazing).

Spain Tour 4: Campsite

Like any other I guess.

Lots of Dutch people.
Why? Does this come back to old Spanish empire questions?
A lot of Spanish families and groups also.
Small pool, right by the front door of our chalet (not in the picture).
And lots of trees...

Monday, 24 August 2009

Picos Folgate

Driving up from the main Potes road to the village of Bes, from which the rest of the family have launched themselves on a guided walk. (‘It says it’s easy – or does that word just mean ‘lower’, as in, the walk is in the foothills?’). The temperature has climbed into the nineties in old-fashioned money; there are stunted trees I don’t recognise with succulent-looking leaves and more butterflies than I have ever seen, in a huge variety of colours and sizes. A lot higher than we are, the Picos de Europa show touches of snow just below their summits.

I switch on the CD player and the latest Madness fills the silence. They are a London band and The Liberty of Norton Folgate is a love letter to London. Possibly their best ever record – certainly for some time. At home, this album sounds richly allusive, yes - full of dark rainwashed streets and London characters in all their complicated lives and sinfulness - but also an affirmation. It reinforces a sense of the place where you are. However strange, it is about home. Here in the Picos however, it seems wildly exotic. NW5, Holloway and Chinatown seem fictional places; unlikely inventions in this bright, green and mountainous landscape. London in some way becomes like all of its fictional manifestations – an outlandish, rare place that teeters on the edge of impossibility.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Spain Tour 3: Through the Gorge

The road from the Northern coast to the Eastern range of the Picos, where we were going to stay, is the N621.

At one point this road snakes through the incredible Desfiladero de la Hermida gorge. The N621 becomes a narrow two-lane road running by the Rio Deva; the gorge is similarly narrow and steep-sided for most of its 20-or-so kilometres.

Although overtaking seems plainly impossible, Spanish road signs still point out that you aren't allowed to. At a couple of points, equally unbelievably, you come across 'Road Narrows' signs.

And then it does.

Nevertheless, it is the main route to Potes from the North, and quite huge lorries can be seen trundling through the Gorge. At some speed.

Breathtaking and nerve-racking.