I’m in London on Half Term Duty. Zoë’s at Nursery, but William’s four, and at school these days, where an early encounter with the planets quickly turned into an all-consuming passion.
So I thought I should take him to the Planetarium in nearby Greenwich. There’s not much he doesn’t know about the solar system (Makemake anyone?),so ‘Moons beyond counting‘ seemed a likely hit. Twelve thirty, I said, that’s when we’ve got to be there.
At 8.30, William was all present and correct, dressed; rucksack packed with essentials such as a pencil case and an I-spy book of birds; shoes on; coat organised, demanding to leave. I fobbed him off for a while, but by just after 9.30, we were on the top of a double-decker bus bound for Blackheath and Greenwich.
Greenwich has one of London’s lovieliest parks. There are wide avenues, trees, green space – hills even – and if you walk to the far end, a wonderful playground. William was persuaded that this was a good place to spend the two and a half hours before the show. We trotted down avenues and gravelly paths. We chatted to dog walkers – William, having given his full address to one, informed him that I was a visitor who didn’t normally live here.
We examined tree bark.
And we reached the playground, where William climbed, chased, crawled, bounced, made new friends and finally announced, round about 11.30, that he was hungry.
We climbed one hill and then another, looking across at the views of Greenwich below, and the City of London, just across the Thames.
And we picnicked pretty much on the Greenwich Meridian line.
Finally, it was time for the show. We sat next to a boy called Jack who turned out to be just as much of a planet geek as William. The performance over (it was very good thanks, and back home, William gave a far better account of it than I did), Jack and William hurled obscure facts and quiz questions at one another, and were half pleased and astonished, half vexed that each knew as much as the other.
We decided enough was enough, and took a different route back through the park to the bus stop and home. Where we spent the rest of the day doing – what else? – a jigsaw of the solar system.
January. It’s almost at an end and I haven’t revisited a post from France yet this month. I’ve picked this one. We’re living in a village community here in England, yet it’s hard to imagine someone from here with memories similar to those of Paul, the subject of this post. Let’s have a history lesson from .…
…. January 29th 2012
An Everyday History of Country Folk
Yesterday afternoon was fascinating. We went to Belesta library for a talk by Paul Garrigues, a local historian who collects old wooden artefacts. He gave us an insight into a way of life which only finally drew to a close about 30 years ago.
He’s pretty much my age, but his childhood was spent around ox-drawn farm machinery, distaffs and a host of things that formed no part of my rural infancy. Now that most Ariègeois farms look pretty much like anywhere else’s, with tractors, silos and irrigation systems, it’s rather hard to believe.
Paul’s childhood was spent in the next village to here, Aigues Vives. Later, he met and married a young woman from a tiny community in the Couserans, a part of the Département to the west of here. He was surprised to find how different the tools in his wife’s village often were. Besides that, the villagers spoke Gascon, rather than the Occitan traditional in our part of the area.
His interest began. He started to collect mainly wooden artefacts: agricultural items, kitchen tools, playthings. To him these things tell a story of rural life here as it was lived over many centuries.
First of all, he showed us a simple wooden torch, looking something like a charred rounders bat. Items just like this were in use – almost daily – since man first populated the area in Stone Are times, right up until the First World War, and in a few cases, beyond.
Next, a distaff. This item too remained unchanged almost from those early days until the early years of last century. Any female over the age of about 8 living over the last 1000 years and more, whether rich or poor, would have recognised it. Spinning would have been a constant part of her daily routine, whether she was managing a fine estate, or supervising a few sheep on the mountainside. And do you know what? Constantly licking your finger and thumb as you handled the wool made your mouth dry, so beside you, you might have a little wooden box, filled with snuff, to help your saliva to flow: he showed us samples.
We saw long wooden balloon whisks and three-pronged forks used to stir the great vats of millas (a sort of porridge made from cornmeal) beloved of the Ariègeois, wooden spoons and forks, large wooden bowls.
He showed us wooden clogs.
We saw wooden roof tiles. All these things are made from unplaned wood, so the implements can follow the natural grain of the wood and be strong and sturdy.
From the Couserans he had savage long thick knives, looking like swords in their wooden or leather scabbards. Their design was directly descended from the instruments of war the Gascons often saw in their battle-rich past, but in fact they were more recently used to cut rough grass, crops, and the long straw required for thatching.
There were other differences between that part of the area and ours. Here, terracing was a feature of upland farms, and it was male beasts who worked the land. There, the farmers worked directly on the steep slopes: the cows who ploughed the land (it was female animals who did the work there) had to have specially designed wooden yokes so that they weren’t strangled as one worked at a higher level than her work-mate.
But it wasn’t all hard labour. Anyone who’s ever been to a bowling alley would recognize the bowls and skittles he showed us (made from wood, naturally). They were a big feature of life round Biert in the Couserans, but inter-village tournaments were rare. They all played to different rules, which tended to make contests rather difficult. But it was over here, in nearby Le Sautel, that a game was bought to a sudden end at the end of the 19thcentury.
One Sunday, the women went obediently to Mass, and as usual, the men played with their bowls outside, getting argumentative and noisy as the morning wore on. Eventually, the priest in church could take no more. He stormed out through the church porch, confiscated the bowls, and hid them in the sacristy. Evidently completely unchastened, the men simply produced other bowls when it came to their next match.
Paul’s keen that we should regard these tools and artefacts as living objects, part of a traditional way of life extending back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. He doesn’t want them consigned to the cemetery of history. If you live round here in some old-style village or town house, you’re almost certain to find quite of few of the things he talked about in your outhouse or attic. Perhaps I should have another look.
Which of my posts about our time in France to re-blog this month? In the end, it was easy. I fell to thinking about all the wonderful trips we had learning about the history of the area we’d chosen as our home, courtesy of Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares. Here’s a memorable day from July six years ago…
July 13th 2013
Tabariane: new light on the Dark Ages
As you explore the site at Tabariane, this fellow expains much of its history.
Meadow flowers on the walk.
The burial ground.
An information board reveals some of the artefacts found at the site.
View from the burial ground.
A local craftsman, Lamande, has made the seating that adds to the site’s interest and charm.
Continue to climb above the site, and this is the view.
… and this …
When I was at school (back in the Dark Ages), we learnt in history that the Romans came after the Greeks. They left us a legacy of Romance languages, our alphabet, Roman law, neo-Classical architecture, impossibly straight roads and under floor central heating. As the empire crumbled, so we were told, the continent descended into the Dark Ages. Barbarians, Vandals, and unpleasantly savage descendants of Asterix the Gaul ravaged Europe, raping, pillaging and generally leaving little time for culture and a settled everyday life.
I think we all knew it was a bit less straightforward than that. The Frankish Germanic tribes entering the late Roman empire had a very different culture from that developed by the Romans, and it’s been much harder to research systematically because there are few contemporary written records.
This week though, we went to visit a Merovingian site, Tabariane, recently excavated and interpreted near Teilhet, not far from Mirepoix. The Merovingians were an early Frankish dynasty established by Clovis, and they ruled an area roughly equivalent to much of France and Germany from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and are the kind of tribe that was dismissed as one of those from the very heart of the Dark Ages.
It was a burial site we’d come to see. It has first been discovered in the very early 20th century by Captain Henri Maurel, and had been partly excavated according to the fairly invasive practices of the period. War and economic upheaval meant the site became first neglected, and then entirely forgotten about until recently.
Recent research lead by Nicolas Portet has meant that the burial ground, now carefully excavated, is now, as it almost certainly was then, a burial garden. It’s a large site, on a hillside overlooking the site of the now disappeared Merovingian settlement on the opposite side of the valley. The 166 tombs seem to have been arranged in ‘clans’: loose arrangements of extended families and friends, over a long period of time. It seems to have been a burial ground which held a place in the life of the community for many years, rather than being a cemetery developed as a result of tragedy – war or plague say. Most of the bodies were laid with their heads to the west, their feet to the east. Originally they were clothed, but little remained apart from metal objects: belt buckles, brooches, jewellery and, with some of the men, weapons.
This is where ideas have changed. Early 20th century archaeologists sent excavated objects to museums far and wide, even to America: modern practice which encourages an area’s ‘patrimoine’ (heritage) to remain as far as possible intact did not then exist, but you can find examples of objects found here in the Museum at Mazères, and in Saint Raymond de Toulouse.
Now as then, the tombs are planted with local flowering plants: lavenders, marguerites, herbs. It’s thought that locals would have visited the grounds with their families, spent time there, as we might in a modern park. So it was important to both the living and the dead to make it a pleasant, calm place to be. The burial ground overlooked the village. The village overlooked the burial ground. Each had an interest in the other. Each could intercede for the other.
It’s a tranquil, special place, surrounded by meadows and hilly countryside. A circular walk of some two and a half kilometres , starting and ending in the village of Teilhet gives you a chance to spend a peaceful hour or two exploring scenery that may not be so very different from the way it was when the Merovingian villagers first laid out their burial ground, some 800 years ago. Excellent information boards will help you understand a little more about those Merovingian people who made their lives in this still rural area.
While you’re there, make time to enjoy the facade of the 14th century church at Teilhet. Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.
The village and church of Teilhet seen from above.
Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the use of this image of the church facade
Stained glass window from “largest stained glass window-manufacturing firm in the world” of the 19th century Louis Gesta.
Every region of France has its own area-organised Pays d’art et d’histoire programme. If you speak French, it’s well worth seeking out the visits that they organise. Always slightly off the beaten track, always interesting, and always inexpensive.
Were you a collector as a child? I was. Stamps; seashells; those evocative sheets of fine tissue that they used to wrap individual citrus fruits. Another month, another collection. By the time I was ten, I’d abandoned the lot.
Not Frederic Marès though. You may not know him, but he’s Catalonia’s foremost 20th century sculptor, and you’ll find his work on public buildings and in churches here.
How he made time for his work is a mystery. He was an obsessive collector. He collected sculpture to inform his own studies, and …. stuff, because it was interesting.
ThisisMarèssuitcase. He seems pretty well-travelled.
By 1947, his collection was so large that he made it public. On his death in 1991, he bequeathed it to the City of Barcelona. It fills an entire museum.
Here’s the place to come to find an eclectic mix of religious sculpture: crucifixions and Pietàs by the score, as well as Christmas crib figures from the 19th century. It sounds dour, but it’s not. His personal choices make for fascinating viewing…. but if it all gets a bit intense, pop upstairs.
Here are tin soldiers; toy theatres; pairs of spectacles; early bicycles; pipes; dolls; door keys; clocks: walking sticks; extraordinary glass domes that seem to be full of dried flowers – look again. Each flower is made from dozens of shells – this was 19th century seaside art.
This museum, in the heart of Tourist Barcelona, is not crowded. Which was fine by us. But those tourists who amble past, never noticing it’s there, are missing out.
I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK. Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.
When we lived in France it was far more important. It was a day off work of course, because it was the all importantFête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours). No garages. No newspapers. Only essential workers turned up for duty.
But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented. In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies. It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).
I used to ask people the origin of this tradition. Nobody knew. ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged. But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell. We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume. The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing. And those bell shaped flowers? Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.
Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day: here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date. And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.
As you travel on the B1252 to Driffield in East Yorkshire, you may notice ahead of you a strange spire thrusting skywards. Is it a steeple? No, too slender. Is it some piece of machinery, agricultural or otherwise? No, that’s just … wrong.
Then suddenly, you’re upon it – it’s there, at the side of the road, a needle-sharp column rising some 120 feet towards the heavens. You get out. You read the story. And then you come home and find out more about the extraordinary man whose life is commemorated in this memorial.
Sir Tatton Sykes was born in 1772: and he chose to wear 18th century dress all his life. He lived on the 34,000 acres of the family seat of Sledmere House, the largest estate in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Sykes family was one that thought little of building an entire village – Sledmere – to support it, or of hiring the most noted landscape designer of the age, Capability Brown, to transform its parkland. They employed the foremost designers, plasterers and architects of the period to fashion the house itself. They were rich, energetic, resourceful … and eccentric. You can read all about it here.
Sir Tatton grew up to be an informed and intelligent sheep breeder, but his first love was horse racing. Apparently he even sold a copy of the Gutenberg Bible to support his stables and foxhounds. In the unlikely event that a copy of this book came onto the market today, it would probably sell for between $25 million and $35 million.
He’d travel miles on horseback – or even on foot – to see a horse race. He’d even be found riding the winning horse himself. He bred horses – some 200 at a time, and held quality stock, paying 3000 guineas for one particularly fine animal.
National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Sir Tatton Sykes on horseback (Wikimedia Commons)
So far, so fairly normal for an upper class English eccentric. But here is a man who was also a bare-knuckle fighter; a man who’d roll up his shirtsleeves and work alongside his labourers, earning their admiration and respect. He noticed the grass growing more lushly where his foxhounds buried their bones, put two and two together, and invented … bonemeal.He didn’t marry till he was fifty, but then he went on to have eight children, seven of whom lived, before he finally died aged ninety.
Some 3000 people, rich and poor came to his funeral. And it was some of these people who came up with the idea for this monument. It comes complete with keeper’s cottage (Job? Keep the place in order, and conduct visitors up the presumably horribly narrow stairs to the viewing room at the top).
‘To tenants he was a liberal landlord, to the poor a kind and considerate friend’, it says on the information board by the monument. Not a bad epitaph.
I spent a lot of 2018 being angry: most of you know why – the ‘B’ word. While our rage motivated us to take action and become more politically engaged than we’ve ever been in our lives, we were also probably largely impotent to effect change.
So in 2019, I at least am going to look after myself a bit more. How about spending a bit of time with Vermeer, that supreme documenter of everyday life among the Dutch merchant classes of the seventeenth century? He takes us into comfortable homes, and shows us simple moments of domestic life: a woman playing the lute, a servant patiently pouring milk. He shows their faces, expressive and full of inner light and makes us wonder about them and their thoughts. He makes the ordinary extraordinary.
I’m revisiting Vermeer and his work thanks to an exhibition curated by the Mauritshuis. No, I’ve not been to den Haag to visit this museum since about 1970. But in a pioneering project with Google, it has brought together every surviving Vermeer painting for the first time and exhibited them on-line.
Here, I’ve been enjoying looking again at all his work. I can examine any individual work in great detail, or consider recurrent themes that Vermeer returns to: paintings within the painting: musical instruments; maps…. I can read articles about his technique, his influence on pop art…. I can lose myself for as long as I wish in his world, and return as often as I want to.
Sadly, neither my computer nor my phone are as state-of-the-art as they could be to get the most out of all the features offered. But I’m happy enough. While I’m in the company of a young lady playing her virginal, observing a tired maid snatching a quiet moment’s sleep, a young woman making lace, or a reflective astronomer I’m not engaged in twenty-first century life for a while.