Monday, 30 November 2009

Spain Tour 12: Potes to Leon (Preamble)

So where is this? The next Spain posting will tell ...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Poem of the Week

The Ruin
Anonymous (Verse Indeterminate Saxon)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
Wonað giet se ...num geheapen,
fel on
grimme gegrunden
scan heo...
...g orþonc ærsceaft
...g lamrindum beag
mod mo... ...yne swiftne gebrægd
hwætred in hringas, hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre.
Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig dreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe.
Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,
swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;
wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon
hergas to hrusan. Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong
gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig
glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,
wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;
seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,
on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.
Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp
widan wylme; weal eall befeng
beorhtan bosme, þær þa baþu wæron,
hat on hreþre. þæt wæs hyðelic.
Leton þonne geotan
ofer harne stan hate streamas
...þþæt hringmere hate
þær þa baþu wæron.
þonne is; þæt is cynelic þing,
huse ...... burg....

WONDROUS is this wall-stone; broken by fate, the castles have decayed; the work of giants is crumbling. Roofs are fallen, ruinous are the towers, despoiled are the towers with their gates; frost is on their cement, broken are the roofs, cut away, fallen, undermined by age. The grasp of the earth, stout grip of the ground, holds its mighty builders, who have perished and gone; till now a hundred generations of men have died. Often this wall, grey with lichen and stained with red, unmoved under storms, has survived kingdom after kingdom; its lofty gate has fallen . . . the bold in spirit bound the foundation of the wall wondrously together with wires. Bright were the castle-dwel- lings, many the bath-houses, lofty the host of pinnacles, great the tumult of men, many a mead hall full of the joys of men, till Fate the mighty overturned that. The wide walls fell; days of pestilence came; death swept away all the bravery of men; their fortresses became waste places; the city fell to ruin. The multitudes who might have built it anew lay dead on the earth. Wherefore these courts are in decay and these lofty gates; the woodwork of the roof is stripped of tiles; the place has sunk into ruin, levelled to the hills, where in times past many a man light of heart and bright with gold, adorned with splendours, proud and flushed with wine, shone in war trappings, gazed on treasure, on silver, on precious stones, on riches, on possessions, on costly gems, on this bright castle of the broad kingdom. Stone courts stood here; the stream with its great gush sprang forth hotly; the wall enclosed all within its bright bosom; there the baths were hot in its centre; that was spacious . . .

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Spain Tour 11:Santa Maria Real de Piasca

So this next day we got up late and headed quickly through Potes from the La Isla campsite to thislovely little Romanesque church, Santa Maria Real de Piasca.

The church is all that remains of an early monastery on the site - of which there seems to be some record that it was operating as long ago as 930AD. The present church is mid-twelfth century, and built on an earlier building.
The most interesting features of the church today must be the fantastic Romanesque carvings.

It was a beautiful, hot sunny day as we perambulated around the church. There was a distinct and pronounced disdain for the vertical on the part of the builders, or so we thought.

Lovely, lush trees and bushes surrounded the site.
...these are what our oldest insisted were 'hovering buttresses.
And the site was also notable for the number of young kittens we spotted.
A nice place to stop for a quick visit, even if a little out of the way.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Symbolism at D's House

Some species of tree are freighted with with symbolic meaning. They have a cultural or historical resonance that extends far beyond their mere physical presence. Willow reminds one of English cricket, or the dangers of the Old Forest. It also has associated notions of magic and daydreams from so-called Celtic traditions (apparently). Oak is perhaps the tree that symbolises the British and their navy ("Hearts of Oak" - echoing the notion of strength and fortitude), as well - maybe - as druidic shamanism in the old German forests (see Simon Shama's Landscape and Memory).

Anyway, D. has bought another house on our road, so we went along to have a nose around. Apart from a few accessibility adaptations, the house seems virtually unchanged from the 1960s.

This magnificent print above a condemned fireplace gives a flavour of the decor:

It is one of those mass-built houses built - I guess - in the mid-nineteenth century to cater for London's huge expanding middle classes.

Although actually knocked up in something of a hurry according to one of our builder neighbours, they seem quite sturdy and - more importantly - very large to contemporary eyes.
However, D. has assured all of his new neighbours that he isn't interested in turning this into flats. Just do it up, make it all very sound, and sell it.

The gardens out back aren't huge, but there is quite a lot you can do with them.
Some of the house only seems dingy because it is grubby, and shaded by grey unwashed net curtains. It creates a seriously sad feeling.

Out in the back there is a kitchen extension which probably once felt light and airy, but now, to me at least, just feels damp and grubby.

But then I peeked out of the back door. What was this? I could only get half a view...
A huge Yew tree covering half the back garden. Traditional symbol of death and illusion. Poisonous. This is just part of the Wikipedia entry:
In the ancient Celtic world, the yew tree (*eburos) had extraordinary importance; a passage by Caesar narrates that Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome (Gallic Wars 6: 31). Similarly, Florus notes that when the Cantabrians were under siege by the legate Gaius Furnius in 22 BC, most of them took their lives either by the sword or by fire or by a poison extracted ex arboribus taxeis, that is, from the yew tree (2: 33, 50-51). In a similar way, Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by the yew tree poison rather than surrender (6, 21, 1.)
In Asturian tradition and culture the yew tree has had a real link with the land, the people, the ancestors and the ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows. The yew tree can be found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs.
It is considered by several authors that the oldest yew tree in Europe is located in Bermiego, Asturias. It is known as «Teixu l'Iglesia» in asturian language. It is 15 meters tall with a trunk perimeter of 7 metres and a crown diameter of 10 meters. It was declared Natural Monument on April 27 1995 by the Asturian Government and is protected by the Plan of Natural Resources.

Germanic folk too, have thought the yew tree important, as the World Tree Yggdrasil is often said to be a yew.
In 1021, Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of Taxus baccata L for phytotherapy in The Canon of Medicine. He named this herbal drug as "Zarnab" and used it as a cardiac remedy. This was the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drug, which were not in wide use in the Western world until the 1960s.[12]

The yew is often found in church yards from England and Ireland to Galicia; some of these trees are exceptionally large (over 3 m diameter) and may be over 2,000 years old. It has been suggested that the enormous sacred evergreen at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree.[13][14] The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over these existing sacred sites for churches. It is sometimes suggested that these were planted as a symbol of long life or trees of death. An explanation that the yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting their animals wander into the burial grounds, with the poisonous foliage being the disincentive, may be intentionally prosaic.

Yew is also associated with
Wales and England because of the longbow, an early weapon of war developed in northern Europe, and as the English longbow the basis for a mediaeval tactical system. Yew is the wood of choice for longbow making; the bows are constructed so that the heartwood of yew is on the inside of the bow while the sapwood is on the outside. This takes advantage of the natural properties of yew wood since the heartwood resists compression while the sapwood resists stretching. This increased the strength and efficiency of the bow. Much yew is knotty and twisted, so unsuitable for bowmaking; most trunks do not give good staves and even in a good trunk much wood has to be discarded.

The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was such that it depleted the stocks of good-quality, mature yew over a vast area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and
Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory archery practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians would only sell a hundred for sixteen pounds. In 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor asked the Duke of Bavaria to stop cutting yew, but the trade was profitable, and in 1532 the royal monopoly was granted for the usual quantity "if there are that many." In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighbouring trees. In 1568, despite a request from Saxony, no royal monopoly was granted because there was no yew to cut, and the next year Bavaria and Austria similarly failed to produce enough yew to justify a royal monopoly. Forestry records in this area in the 1600s do not mention yew, and it seems that no mature trees were to be had. The English tried to obtain supplies from the Baltic, but at this period bows were being replaced by guns in any case.

In the Central Himalayas, the plant is used as a treatment for breast and ovary cancer.
As I said, some trees are freighted with symbolic meaning. And also, please note, a relationship with our recent tour of northern Spain.
Voldemort's wand is made of Yew.
When we visited the Poison Garden at Alnwick the Yew tree was something they spoke of a lot, and I came away thinking about complicated, deep history. And now D. has one in his back garden.
The house and the garden convey different, complex historical nuances.
The house is an explicitly man-made layering, but then so also is the yew, I guess, in that we superimpose our own thoughts and values onto the plant.
(Although to be fair, in the house the layer may simply be the result of some particularly garish nineteen-sixties wallpaper!)

We also came across a newspaper from 1947 in which a report recorded that the landlord of the Waverly Arms had been found guilty of watering down his Gin...
Finally, this all felt too oppressive, so I opened the top windows at the back for some air, and looked out at all the other back gardens. I thought it was a scene both domestic yet also strangely pastoral. It felt very refreshing.
But then there was the Yew again, with all of its iconography.
I felt I had to combat the symbol with another symbolic tree - and in the next door garden was the perfect thing.
A Christmas Tree! A Norwegian spruce I would guess (with a longer Wikipedia entry than the Yew - how symbolic is that?)
Either way, the clash of symbols worked and cheered me up no end!
I could even look back inside and quite cheerfully contemplate this floppy lampshade:
Outside also, the beautiful red/brown leaves (from those trees that shed in the Autumn) had coated the front step and garden to fantastic effect. I was back in ordinary life, looking at things to see what they looked like, as it were, rather than allowing all of the rich dark allusions of D.'s new-old house and garden to overwhelm me!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Poem of the Week

Whoso List to Hunt
Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Festive Nunhead

Someone has been busy with some tinsel. Several of the standard lamps in the heart of Nunhead are now bedecked. Like this one here. But the overall effect is rather sad and forlorn. Hardly Oxford Street.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Etiquette, politesse, morality, trawthe and last night's School Quiz.

Last night, the School Quiz. A Fundraising event with the emphasis on FUN. Or in other words a complex minefield of morality and politesse that would cause Sir Gawain to blanche.

Firstly, you are in a team with other people - complete strangers, although doubtless very pleasant, whose relationship with the school you will only tease out slowly through the rest of the evening. Only two join your table at first but you fear there may be a large extended family waiting in the wings. You and yours have already chosen your team name (a challenge in its own right, as you have to deal with different ages and the resulting multiple aesthetics), and in which round you will play the joker. Then you have to try and share these decisions with your new, strange, team members in such a way that they won't think you are dictating to them (which you are) and yet don't want to change any of it.

And then there are the answers. When you are nearly sure that you know the answer but one of the others, who you don't know particularly well is of a different view, how may you reasonably negotiate? Also, when the answers are read out, exactly when is it acceptable to shout Yes! Yes! Yes! and punch the air? (I only indulged in that once last night) ** Remember, this is meant to be FUN but THE TEACHERS MUST NOT WIN. That is the only, the overriding imperative. But as Gawain discovered, winning takes several forms - and I think we were reminded of that last night.

So, to cut to the chase, let me set the scene: We had completed four of the five rounds, we had all handed in our answer sheets (none of this swapping sheets malarkey - too open to abuse), and the marks were coming up on the data projector. A simple Excel spreadsheet. And...

We were in the lead!!

Not alone, and the scores were pretty tight, but...

We were in the lead!!

But the IT teachers on a nearby table were mumbling and niggling. At least I think they were, it was hard to tell; quite a lot of generalised grunting had been coming from that direction anyway - it being their favoured approximation to human language. Anyway, they weren't happy, and kept pointing at the screen. So I had a look too.

There was an error in the spreadsheet. The numbers didn't add up.

A real ethical quandary. Not the obvious thing (do you argue back and try to assert that the arithmetic is correct, they've just been drinking too much). No. It's the 'Do you offer to try and fix it so the IT teachers don't get their hands on it' question. The 'Would they make it worse, or set it up so they would automatically win' question.

How much do you trust your children's teachers?

I couldn't risk it. I got up and vounteered to fix the damn spreadsheet. Sigh.

(The error was obvious, and I simplified the sums, and thankfully they switched the data projector off while I fiddled with the laptop, so my hamfistedness witht he mouse wasn't shown to all and sundry).

Once fixed, all the scores had adjusted themselves, and we were now in joint second place (with the IT teachers). Another team (with yet more teachers on it) had taken a small lead. (Boo!)

Then I had to explain myself to the rest of my table. Why were we no longer winning?

Anyway, we had a break (auction/fundraising - more moral challenges: is the table of drunk ex-students and sixth formers at the back really to be trusted when they bid large sums for more booze?) and then into the final picture round. We did OK (missed Winchester Cathedral, got the Collisseum). Headscratching by the organisers, and then the results flashed up on the projector.

A completely different team had won. No teachers on the team (hooray!), but the scores made no sense. If the projection was correct, they had been winning last round also (and the round before that too). But that wasn't what the spreadhseet had said last time we saw it.

Of course, there was a remote possibility that I had messed up the spreadsheet. But in my arrogance I assumed that wasn't it. Or maybe the organisers had quietly realised that they'd mis-entered the results earlier. But no - surely they would have said so. It was suddenly crystal clear what happened:

There was a fiddle going on. Someone was fixing the School Quiz.

I got a little upitty. My family, (not wanting a scene), calmed me down. Sssshhh!
The results carried on coming in. There was a team of teachers in second place.

OK then, let the result stand. Otherwise the blasted teachers will win. (What would the Green Knight say to that, I wonder? The correct answer - maybe - or at least the one most full of politesse, but certainly for a reason lacking in inner trawthe.)

And we were joint third. With another team, most of whom had left, and with...
The IT Teachers.

We could have just shared the third prize there and then. A big box of chocolates. But everyone's blood was up. A tie-break was called for. The chief organiser-person stood at the lectern and asked the question - first to answer this got the third prize. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife:

"What do the letters CPU stand for?"

Now, I may be biased, but I KNOW that I had said "Central Proc-" before any of the teachers started to say anything at all. I KNOW that the judges both pointed to me when we answered. And I KNOW that I said the whole answer, and correctly. And I am of course completely unbiased. But the IT teachers started chanting:


... and the judges wavered. One pointed at them...

So after some loud and heated debate, there was another tie break question made up on the spot, which no-one could answer (although the IT teachers, flushed with success, tried chanting "Central Processing Unit" again, just in case). And so we all gave up, shared the chocolates, and called it a day. The fun fundraising was over.

And I still bear the scars.

We'll beat them next year.

(** For knowing - or kind of working out - the year of Shakespeare's birth)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Spain Tour 10: Tunnel to Bulnes

Pobcebos and Bulnes aren’t really that far from Potes, but there are mountains in the way. So we had to drive North (back through the Gorge again), then West, then South to get there.
The chief reason for including this picture, taken in the Gorge, is as a reminder of the speedy, scary Spanish drivers up in those parts, and their careful lane discipline...

Finally we reached the southern leg of the journey, along the A264 (Carretara de Poncebos), through the Cares gorge. If anything, these mountains seemed even more stark and rugged than the ones we had left in the Eastern Picos.

At Poncebos is the entrance to a most unlikely construction. The Funicular de Bulnes. Bulnes is the only town in Asturias - apparently- with no road access. So before 2001 the only way to reach it from Poncebos was to take the steep, narrow, winding track by foot or donkey.

However, with significant EU funding the mindbending decision had been made to bore a tunnel 2.23 km long, rising around 400m, to carry a small funicular railway between one and the other. The journey takes 7 minutes, the inclination is 18%, the car takes up to 28 passengers, there is a van for goods as well (if wanted) - it really is a marvel. And the residents of Bulnes go for free.

But what astonishes me is that it was built at all. The decision wasn't uncontroversial, and from the OJEC records, there seem to have been some serious questions:

Work has begun on the funicular railway which will provide access to Bulnes, despite the fact that appeals havebeen lodged and that the work has not even been approved (as is legally required) by those responsible forrunning the national park. This irregularity was pointed out by the Environment Ministry in a document of6 November which was signed by the head of the national parks division and which points out to the AsturiasRegional Government that there are irregularities in the project.

In specific terms, three irregularities are mentioned:

− The works project should have been the subject of a prior report by the park management.

− The plan (PLAN) made available for public consultation does not correspond to the one ultimately put intoeffect by the body promoting the funicular railway.

− The lack of legal backing for the project in its attempts to circumvent what is laid down in the Picos deEuropa natural resources plan.

Many environmental bodies which have appealed against the Bulnes funicular railway maintain that thedocument from the Environment Ministry justifies their claims.(Written Question to the Commission at OJEC (98/C 323/71) - answered on the following page)

Well, it's there now - surreal as that may be - so the youngest and I decided to have a go.

Its long, very long, and seems incredibly steep. Some of the effects from inside the car are quite spectacular.

At the top, after leaving the funicular, you seem deep in the mountains. A path leads away along reasonably level ground to the pueblo of Bulnes.

We stopped at Bulnes for a snack. The village is very touristy, with lots of cafes and places to take refreshment. While we were there it seemed crowded, but that may just be because a group of teenage International Scouts had stopped a little way outside the village - and they seemed to be everywhere. Large numbers of walkers and climbers also come to this part of the Picos.

While we were there we finally witnessed and heard the harsh sounds of the Asturian bagpipes. I really enjoyed them - youngest was less sure. (Actually he was very sure - he said he thought they were horrid).

We waited a while, wandering around the village, and then finally met up with the others who had come up by the donkey-path. They certainly looked as if they'd had sufficient exercise!

This is the upper entrance to the funicular. We all took the railway down...
... and here I managed to catch a picture of the two cars passing at the mid-point - where the single track railway suddenly blossoms into a passing place.
However, given that two members of the household took the trouble to climb up the hard way, it seems only reasonable to end with a few of their photographs: