Simon Hoggart sometimes infuriates me, but at others he hits the nail on the head. As in today's article, which includes this, about Pope Benedict's recent speech to the Curia:
...I know he was trying to make a more subtle point: that we should worry about human frailty as much as environmental degradation, but it didn't half come out wrong. Maybe someone should point out to his holiness that the human race will survive since the great majority of people are still straight, and being gay isn't just a lifestyle choice, like where you live, or whether you pick turkey or goose for Christmas. It's a decision made for you - you may think by God.
What the Pope may need is someone to live with, of either sex, someone who treats him as an equal, and is able to tell him, "but, dearest heart, that is sheer blithering idiocy! Please don't say it. And you did promise to peel the potatoes ..."
As it is, working it out on his own this one seems to be roughly as infallible as a 30-year old Hillman Imp.
Edmund, Claire, William and Laurie are at their home for Christmas (and we are going to see them on Boxing Day). Claire telephoned yesterday to say that Laurie was walking.
Leo and Mini are busy planning their wedding celebrations, to take place at various stages during next year.
Thomas arrives back from Lisbon for Christmas tonight.
Agnes will complete her proof-reading course shortly; whilst Ida - who enjoys chocolate pudding - is now 14 months old, and, having been spurred on by her younger cousin's prowess, has (yesterday) taken her first independent steps.
Midnight Mass at St Gregory's is always packed out, but I hope that Caroline, sister Sarah, Leo, Mini, Thomas, Agnes and Ida will be joining me for the first Mass of Christmas on Wednesday evening at St Thomas More's Church in the West of Cheltenham.
A Happy Christmas to blog readers everywhere! This extract from Dickens' A Christmas Carol came today from the RSA.
Malcolm Rooker was a university friend of mine: we met up again after we had both come to work in Cheltenham, in the '70s. Some years later, he died suddenly - at far too young an age.
Passing through the nearby village of Withington yesterday, I glimpsed that the South entrance to St Michael's Church was looking a bit special. Was it decorated for Christmas? No: on further investigation I found myself talking to the bride's mother: today at 4.30 Malcolm's niece is to be married in the church.
The decorations inside are if possible even more impressive than those around the porch, including the largest bunch of mistletoe I have ever seen. It is all the work of the celebrated Sue Artus, I was told.
This morning I walked past this beech, standing on the edge of a Cotswold conifer plantation near Withington. Maybe the vandal who carved "CRIME" into its bark some years ago was upset by the loss of whatever was growing on the land previously, or perhaps the view. Otherwise it's hard to know the motivation for desecrating a beautiful tree in this way.
"CRIME" seems to cause the tree to weep! (I think I'll enter the photograph for the What is crime? photography competition.)
Advent Art is an online Advent calendar which showcases the creativity of artists living or working in Gloucestershire today. In the words of the organisers, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum: "There is no theme, it is simply art for art's sake."
Now in its second year, I am pleased to have been chosen as today's artist: this link takes you to my page on the site.
Alfred Brendel gives his last public recital this week. Yesterday's G2 carried an interview with him, and an article by his former pupil, Imogen Cooper.
To commemorate, I have dusted down this photograph I took in July 1976: Brendel was in Cheltenham - as so often before and since - for that Summer's music festival, and staying at the Greenway Hotel. Imogen, a family friend, was staying with us. Here they are with Adrian, now a celebrated cellist, then aged one!
What impressed me most at the time, I recall, was the ends of Brendel's fingers - heavily plastered.
Today is Gaudete Sunday. The Introit at Mass goes: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice; let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.
If you take Advent seriously, then Gaudete is a welcome and necessary break from voluntary austerity, as is Laetare Sunday in Lent. Our church didn't possess rose-coloured vestments - until now. But are they necessary for two Sundays a year?
I ask this, as we learnt today that a set has been donated (presumably by a parishioner). Anyway, the assistant priest and one of the deacons paraded in for mass this evening, each togged up in fetching pink. Distracted, I kept wondering what the tailoring bill had come to, and how much might instead have been sent to those looking after the cholera victims in Zimbabwe, the subject of our intercessions.
Thomas took this excellent photograph in August: Leo and his fiancée, Katsumi Ikushima, known to the world as Mini, are now formally engaged. In The Times, there is a Guest Book for them: do sign in! You can see half a dozen other photographs of them on The Times' site also, in their Photo Gallery.
The wedding is now fixed for May next year, to take place in England, with another ceremony in Kyoto in October: we shall be flying out!
From Luxembourg it's not that far up through the Ardennes to Brussels, where we arrived at midday. An unmemorable journey, apart from the train being remarkably empty: the day was misty so we couldn't see much. Oh yes, Namur's Citadel looked impressive, perched above the River Meuse.
We were kindly invited to Brussels to stay with Thibaud and Ulli de Saint-Quentin, recently-moved there from across our road in Cheltenham. Thibaud, with an insider's knowledge of the chocolate industry, was well-placed to guide us round the mouth-watering shops in Place du Grand Sablon: the window of Maison Marcolini looked more like a jeweller's than a chocolatier's.
Left to ourselves, we enjoyed the Royal Museums, both ancient and modern: the modern (besides its impressive collection) has a lift as large as a dentist's waiting-room. We also had an excellent lunch in the Museum Brasserie: recommended. Earlier, we explored the Marolles quarter, and the market in Place du Jeu de Balle: I bargained for some pretty plates there a couple of years ago, carrying them back unwrapped in my hand on Eurostar.
I had visited the beautiful late Gothic Notre Dame du Sablon a couple of times, but apart from another look at that lovely church we also went into the nearby Notre Dame de la Chapelle, an enormous Romanesque/Gothic church, burial place of the elder Brueghel, and the Chapelle Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. This last is tiny by comparison, a restored jewel, clearly much used and loved. One of the Sisters of the Assumption keeps a small shop.
Reflecting on our nearly four weeks away, it's the Christian thread to our journeys that stands out: great cathedrals; monastic buildings, churches and chapels, and religious painting and sculpture - all relics of a common culture flourishing over a period of many centuries. The same stories again and again, but told each in its unique way, and with the utmost reverence, formed a persistent theme for meditation. Even if churches lack repair and may be poorly attended, with few priests available - as in France particularly - nevertheless in that kindness to strangers we experienced everywhere we went, I felt and was grateful for more than a merely humanist tradition: it is Christianity's enduring legacy.
Whereas Strasbourg station entrance was all shiny new glass cladding and opened onto wide spaces, Luxembourg's seemed more like a building site, its outside crammed with people and traffic when we arrived there. Eventually we heard a welcoming cry from Angela Hoogewerf, an old friend with whom we had invited ourselves to stay: she whisked us off in her car, pausing by the Adolphe Bridge so we could look down into the deep gorge which gave the city its strategic importance. Migrating storks - in the dark, we could only hear them - honoured us with a flypast as we shivered.
Down by the somewhat puny (I thought) river, we admired an exhibition of wire body forms suspended above the water: spot-lit, they seemed beautiful but faintly sinister. After a look round the river area, we met up with Francis Hoogewerf at his Club. We drank a coupe de champagne. I had to don a (Club) tie before I was allowed in: "Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn," is the Grand Duchy's motto - "We want to remain what we are."
Angela and Francis live in a most welcoming house outside Luxembourg itself: as one of the smallest capital cities, its surrounding countryside is not far away. Having said this, we seemed to find ourselves in a long and rather slow-moving line of BMWs and Mercedes on the way back to the station the next morning, no doubt Eurocrats all.
We passed the Vosges mountains on our left as we sped along to Strasbourg, another city that surprised us. Europe has certainly made its mark on the station building there, but we hadn't thought there would be so much else to see between trains. Leaving our backpacks, it was an easy walk to the old centre - the Grande Île.
This turns out to be a city crammed full of fine buildings, but dominated by the pink Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg with its vast spire. The carvings - inside and out - and the stained glass are sensational; but then I seem to have felt that about very many of the churches and cathedrals we have visited. What was different here was the throng of people, in spite of which the manner in which the authorities presented the church and its works of art to the public displayed a special reverence.
What a contrast between Colmar and Clermont-Ferrand, our previous stay! Colmar is clean, pedestrian-friendly and full of charm. You could use it to model sets for a traditional production of Die Meistersinger.
The main purpose of our visit was to see the Isenheim Altarpiece. Could it be worth it, we thought as we walked across the town, seeking out a museum which could have been closed according to one interpretation of our leaflet? Well, yes it surely was. The retable is the main work to be found in the former chapel of the convent which is now the Unterlinden Museum. Before reaching it, you pass through cloisters and a warren of smaller galleries, full of fine things, none of which however prepare you for the impact of this extraordinary polyptych.
Though we have all seen the subject-matter in very many forms before, this so-expressive crucifixion will remain with me.
This was another three-train day, weather dull but dry. The journeys (600kms in total) passed comfortably: not many on board. As usual, we were on time. I was pleased to see one of our trains in particular was kitted out for lots of bikes, and that all passengers sat in what was a mobile phone-free zone: jokey signs indicated you could use them between the carriages.
As always there seemed plenty to look out for, though when taking photographs it was never easy to avoid reflections from the windows - none of which of course opened (unlike when we were travelling through Mongolia). We passed along the Rivers Saône (here, near Lyon) and Doubs, and later through vineyards and the Belfort Gap.
We stopped to change trains in Mulhouse, which my spouse thought should rhyme with "full house." But the ticket inspector was quick to correct her: In fact, it's pronounced like "Toulouse."
This was the most scenic journey on our 5,000-mile route. The train wound its way up from Nîmes, through the mountainous Ardèche and many tunnels. On and on, with rushing rivers below us. Quite a different France from that we saw on our flat run this morning - long views over the landscape with glimpses of Mediterranean coastline.
Getting into the train at Nîmes station, we settled ourselves down in what turned out to be first class seats. But the move wasn't arduous: the carriage next door had a nostalgic corridor down one side: we had a compartment to ourselves.
We arrived well after dark in Clermont-Ferrand, a huge place. (I suppose I knew this, but it was unexpected somehow.) The twin-spired Cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, dominates the city, its black stone giving it rather a grim air. We had supper - pork and stuffed cabbage - looking out at a transept wall from the first floor of our restaurant.
Two TGVs from Toulouse - one a double-decker - took us the 300kms to Nîmes in time for elevenses, in the shadow of the elliptical Roman amphitheatre. In the absence of left-luggage facilities at Nîmes station, we had to carry our rucksacks up Mont Cavalier to the (also Roman) Tour Magne: it was just as well we didn't know how steep it was, or we would certainly have missed out on the view and a gentle walk down to the Jardins de la Fontaine.
I know it always helps to see somewhere when the sun is shining, but we very much enjoyed Nîmes, a stylish city, with its generous streets and rich history. This is the façade of Agrippa's Maison Carrée: the other end, restored recently, has come out all bright and shining: a bit too white for my taste. The building has been variously a temple, a Christian church, a meeting place, a stable, a storehouse and a museum. You enter it up an immensely steep flight of steps.
Norman Foster was responsible for the clearance and layout of the surrounding square, and for building an adjacent art gallery. It looks rather fine, but we didn't have time to investigate before our train North.
As we drove into Toulouse, we experienced one of the disadvantages of being car-borne: there wasn't anywhere to park near Les Abattoirs, so we missed the chance to see something of its enormous collection of contemporary painting and sculpture, and Picasso's Minotaur backdrop. After handing the car back, though, we were free to explore the old centre of the city, and particularly some of its many fine churches: Caroline had only passed through before, and it was many years since I had visited.
I had forgotten how spectacular is the interior St Sernin, Europe's largest Romanesque basilica. And I don't at all remember the brilliant carvings on the church's Porte Miègeville: in the tympanum, there is the Ascension, witnessed by the disciples in stylised poses: they look faintly Egyptian. The figures on this capital are more naturalistic: I like the rather laid-back angel who accompanies Adam and a glamorous Eve out of the Garden of Eden. (This photograph also indicates the repair work needed on St Sernin's exterior.)
We only glimpsed the Pyrenees just as we were leaving our chambre d'hôte at the end of a two-night stay. Its address was a remote hamlet, Monferran-Plavès. But the house was further from there than we were led to believe: in the middle of nowhere actually. Not a place to find easily on a rainy, windblown evening after dark.
During most of our stay, the weather was misty - and very cold. We made sorties to various local villages, but all were as quiet as the grave. We spent a long time in the bleak but beautiful church at Simorre, but seeking out a cup of coffee (lukewarm) in the local bar, we found it populated just by the silent proprietor and two cats. Driving through the empty lanes of the Midi-Pyrénées in November, I thought what a desolate place to live! However attractive, you can't eat the scenery.
Simorre church is a huge, brick, fortified, 14th Century priory (restored by Viollet-le-Duc 600 years later), its main external feature an octagonal lantern, surrounded by pinacled turrets, a haven for the pigeons circling round. Inside, there is a set of 35 choir stalls (with misericords), the carving as fine as in Auch Cathedral, but more rustic, and the wood much lighter in colour. Through the grille on the sacristy door, you can see wall paintings, and a small, rather exquisite Deposition. No doubt it's not worth the risk of leaving it in an open, untenanted church, where there is a larger one - simple compared to Monastiès, but fine all the same. Some old glass too, but high up and difficult to see clearly. Altogether, a great building: like many others in sleepy corners of France, a delight to come across.
Encouraged, we also went into the church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption in nearby Boulogne sur Gesse: another large 14th Century building, but not so impressive apart from the pulpit - covered with stone carvings of animals (more or less fabulous): I particularly liked the lizard, about to devour a snail.
In that area, we liked too the Cistercian Abbey of Sainte Marie de Boulaur, with its 14th Century frescoes. Nuns returned after World War II, and it is very much a place of prayer today. But how do they maintain such a place? We were looking round the church when my mobile phone rang: the only time I heard it during our entire trip.
Gimont church (Notre Dame) also boasts an octagonal tower - very tall - but with its interior in a sad state. (To make up for it, our coffee in the market square bar was hot.)
The coach disgorged us at Pau station 90 minutes or so later than expected, but no harm was done: indeed, we had rather enjoyed this minor drama. Up we went on the funicular to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, but of the view there was none: the day was grey. Caroline rather likes Pau, but we didn't dawdle long in the City after lunch, feeling the weight of our backpacks. Instead, we tracked down an efficient bus which took us out to the Europcar base and to temporary possession of a Fiat 500 diesel. (It seemed plenty big enough for the two of us - though I attracted some odd looks when getting in and out - and used very little fuel: in fact it's rather more economical than the Smart car that Caroline covets.)
Though the object was to discover some more remote parts of the Midi-Pyrénées, our first stop was Lourdes, which we could have reached by train. I had been on two Ampleforth Pilgrimages in the early 'Seventies, of which I had clear and happy memories. Caroline for her part was intrigued to see what the fuss was about.
Although 2008 has been a big year at the Shrine, 150 years after Bernadette's apparitions, there weren't hordes of pilgrims about in the Domain on a damp November afternoon. All things considered we declined to join the short queue for the baths, walking past to the bridge across the Gave and into La Prairie: heavily developed now compared to 35 years ago, it remains a still and special place.
The strangely-named Puyoo is a village halfway to Pau, where we had planned to break our journey for a couple of days' car hire. A very long SNCF train pulled out of Hendaye and snaked its way up the coast through St. Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz, exotic places compared to the grime of industrial North-East Spain yesterday.
It wasn't quite as comfortable as with Renfe, but all was going smoothly till we came to a halt here, and out we had to get. Apparently the train in front had been derailed - possibly a result of industrial action aimed at France's TGVs: when we tried to get to the bottom of it our French failed us.
So, we asked the station master for the key to the station loo, and tried to wait patiently for coaches to take us onwards. Amongst the throng was an elderly French woman in pilgrimage gear (i.e. complete with a dangling scallop shell): she had not only walked toCompostela, but also back again as far as the Spanish border. That spurs me on.
Our final single-track, narrow-guage journey took us (via view after view of hideous, tightly-packed apartment blocks, washing draped from their windows, graffiti everywhere) across the French border to Hendaye. With some relief, we traded the train for a taxi: this took us back across to the Spanish border town of Hondarribia, formerly known as Fuenterrabía and scene of many battles.
Our comfortable hotel was a converted 14th/15th century palace in the heart of the historic centre of Hondarribia, within impressive walls. Walking down the steep path through one of the stone gateways, we emerged by the harbour: excellent fish soup for dinner at Kupela, a Basque restaurant in a charming old fisherman's cottage.
This was a good stop: we could easily have stayed here longer.
Having been spoilt by our swish Renfe journeys, we now found ourselves on FEVE and Eusko narrow-guage trains, which stopped every five minutes. They were freezing, like in the more dire parts of Southern Region. Comfort was not the first consideration. No luggage racks. On one stretch, there wasn't even a loo. What was worse, our InterRail passes weren't recognised, so we had to PAY.
There were however some pretty sections - river valleys and seaside - on our crawl Eastwards along the North coast, but the mist - and darkness - made it impossible to see anything of the Picos de Europa. Santander - as hinted before - wasn't a great overnight stop, and we didn't have time for a look round San Sebastian. In Bilbao, again we just changed stations - this is Concordia, looking through the rain across the river from our (very efficient) tram.
Having visited the Iberian Peninsular's South-Eastern and Western coastlines, here we were now visiting Caroline's cousins on the Northern edge. Not that we saw the sea during our short stay: in our shirtsleeves, we sat about in the lovely garden, my most strenuous exercise being to pick a basketful of persimmon - a new fruit to me: from afar, they look a bit like oranges.
Nothing at Muros seemed to have changed much since our last visit, in 2004. In particular, we received the same immensely warm welcome. Our washing was whisked away. I found a hole in one of my socks had been mended on its return. We were fetched from and driven to our trains, and sent off with a large bar of chocolate, which saw us through the rest of our holiday. After so much city life, it was a joy to be in such a haven of peace.
Before we started on our rail tour, we bought Thomas Cook's map showing all Europe's train lines. It has the scenic routes highlighted: this was one of them, through the mountains dividing Castilla from Asturias.
My view out of the window across the gangway was interrupted by a couple constantly kissing and caressing each other: they were both male. And there was I reflecting that it was easy to understand why Christianity was always able to hold out against Islam in Asturias when you pass through this wild country.
The line from Oviédo to the sea at Avilés passes through a comparatively developed landscape. We found ourselves in a more or less empty commuter train apart from a pigeon, which hopped on at Oviédo and off again two stops later. I suppose even pigeons value a lift now and then.
However hard you study the Cook's timetable, there are some journeys you can't do in one go. That's why we found ourselves in Ourense, walking from the station across a Roman bridge: 370 metres long, it has shells embedded to indicate we were on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - the Via de la Plata. Our train had brought us from Vigo along the Miño River valley, a journey through delightful forest scenery - a comfortable Renfe train this time. This more contemporary bridge over the Miño caught the eye; as did the elegant hot water (very hot!) baths in the centre of the old part of the city, its baroque main square and 13th Century Cathedral of Santiago. A good place for a bicycle race too, it seems: without having a clue what it was about, we joined the hundreds on the streets cheering contestants on!
James and Penny Symington provided all too good a dinner for us in Porto, considering how early our train left the next morning: I acquired a stiff neck, trying to catch up on sleep on the way North, back towards Spain. Not one of our most comfortable trains.
We had a two-hour slot in Vigo, waiting for our East-bound train, but failed to make the best of it. (Vigo, Santander and Lyon were all failures on that score: they all had something to offer, but we were flummoxed by the lack of left luggage lockers and/or our failure to get to grips with the geography. In Lyon, we got as far as the Metro platform, but no trains came! It was Sunday morning. Memo for future trips: do pre-journey prep when you only have a relatively short time to look round somewhere.)
Quite often during our holiday we came across human statues. They are very much part of the scene in Barcelona's Las Ramblas for instance. Sometimes they are caught unawares: Julius Caesar winked at me in Brussels as he (or was it she?) puffed at a furtive cigarette. I thought I'd lined up Charlie Chaplin for a photograph whilst he was waiting to cross the road in Vigo; but - not having been paid - he turned away.
Returning to Porto, we found ourselves rather overwhelmed by hospitality. We had been recommended a hotel, offered dinner, given two introductions to the Graham Lodge, and lent a book about the Douro Quintas! This last was inscribed (to our friend Jane Blunden) by Fr. José Cabral de Ferreira, a member of one of the oldest port families and a Jesuit priest, retired from teaching anthropology at Porto University.
Because of the timing of our Graham's visit we thought that, before checking in at our hotel, we should walk up to the Cathedral from São Bento: later it would be closed. More wonderful tiles, in the cloister! Then, on arrival at the hotel reception when we were already running late, there was Fr. José, maps and guide books to hand, waiting to show us round his home city. Oh dear! Would he by any chance mind accompanying us to a rival family's port lodge? Of course not, he said graciously; and so it was that the three of us made our way over the high bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia.
From Pinhão the road winds giddily up the hillside for five km, eventually reaching the hamlet of Chanceleiros. There - upon Paul Hall's kind recommendation - we had booked in to stay the night, at the Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros. Definitely, our best billet!
We were the only guests, but nothing was too much trouble for the redoubtable Adelaide Lopes and her colleague. Before dinner, Ursula Böcking, the Casa's saviour a decade or more ago, came to chat. We sipped white port with her in the drawing-room after a peaceful walk round the village: lost, we were guided gracefully back onto the road by the couple into whose garden we had strayed.
In the morning after a delicious breakfast, we walked further afield. Mist lay below us; we could hear those working to prune the vines across the valley, smoke curling up from bonfires of the clippings. A fabulous place.
The two-and-a-half hour journey from Porto up to Pinhão was hardly the most comfortable of our holiday, but the views - after we joined the Douro - were completely absorbing. Steeply-banked vineyards - a couple of rows of vines on each terraced "shelf" - rise up to a great height above the river. Goodness knows with what effort the grapes eventually arrive at the quintas!
Until half a century ago, the river ran fast, and flat-bottomed rabelos took the full barrels on a perilous journey 100km or more down-stream to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto. Now, more prosaically, they travel in tanker trucks; and the river's power is harnessed for hydroelectricity.
It's not just the views that made this excursion worthwhile. Pinhão station is as beautiful as São Bento in its own way, with blue-tiled scenes both front and back. And during the long breather the train takes at Régua, we watched whilst the platform's weighing machine was opened up and given a thorough dusting by a smartly-dressed lady. Then there arrived the expert, whom we took to be her father, with his tools to make the necessary adjustments. Good team work.
From Lisbon, we travelled Northwards, changing trains in Porto before a much-anticipated trip inland, alongside the Douro river. At the main Porto station, we first caught a train to the more central station, São Bento - St. Benedict: appropriate, as our mentors over the next couple of days would - with a single exception - be connections via Ampleforth.
São Bento station took first prize of any we passed through on our 36-train journey: it is lined with around 20,000 tiles, portraying episodes in Portuguese history including the 12th Century battle against the Spanish at Arcos de Valdevez. Worth the detour!
Not far from Thomas's flat in the Largo da Graça lies the oldest, and still one of the poorest, districts of Lisbon. This scene in the Rua da Regueira exemplifies tha Alfama: a family lives above its small shop, the washing dries outside the window from which the caged bird's song melds into the noise of traffic - cars in the narrow street always threatening to knock over the produce. Worse still must it be to live on the Number 28 tram route: this climbs precipitously from below the Cathedral, the driver having to get out every now and then to help his colleague in an oncoming tram push a car out of the way.
From Toledo, we travelled back to Madrid, and thence overnight to Lisbon. Coming off the train (still swaying to the motion) Thomas met us - after a somewhat anxious wait - with a hire car; and we were soon on our way Southwards across the Vasco da Gama Bridge (the longest in Europe) in the warm Portuguese sunshine.
He had selected Sines for our out of town experience - a couple of hours away from Lisbon. The road was empty, as was the coastline when we arrived nearby. We walked along the deserted beach: I resisted Thomas's urging to me to swim, even when he pointed out an area of specially warm water - just by a power station outlet.
Sines boasts a world music festival - in the Summer - and a magnificent Centro Cultural Emmerico Nunes: Caroline disliked this building intensely, while I was rather impressed. It did look odd, though, stuck in between the closely-packed, small-scale white houses and shops of the little town centre. Just further South along the coast is the rather more charming Porto Covo: we visited it the next day (in even warmer sunshine).
Meanwhile, in Sines we ate our best-yet fresh fish, grilled, sitting outside the little restaurant A Castello, near to the birthplace of the said Vasco da Gama whose statue towers over the harbour.
Caroline pointed out to me the cloister of the 15th Century Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo's Jewish quarter's extraordinary array of water spouts. Alongside this praying friar are a pair of protruding legs (booted); a boy with bow and arrow; a frog mounted on a fish; a cat, ears pricked and ready to pounce on its prey; a monkey; a young man carrying water; what looks like a dragon; an eagle with captive owl; a man playing the pipes - and others difficult to describe, but equally intricate. All, a tribute to the ingenuity and sense of fun of those intensely skilled craftsmen of 600 years ago.
On 31st October, after saying goodbye to the Russells at Madrid Chamartin - they were off to Bilbao and home - we caught a Pendolino for the next leg of our trip. We glimpsed the huge Escorial (mausoleum/palace/monastery), and - with the sun setting behind it - the walled city of Avila, both World Heritage Sites, en route to a third, Salamanca. My expectations for this city were not that high. Knowing Oxford and (a little of) Cambridge, I couldn't believe that Salamanca would be comparable. It isn't. It's far better!
We were fortunate to have chosen a hotel well-placed for its view over the city: the Parador must be the ugliest building in Salamanca, but at least looking out from it you are spared looking at it. On our arrival there, all the main buildings were floodlit (er, yes, energy-wasteful, but magical all the same).
Before dinner - we were still getting used to Spanish hours - my young cousin Martin Williams and his charming fiancée Victoria led us through car-free (and, cf Oxford, bus-free) streets to the 12th Century, circular church of San Marcos for mass to celebrate the vigil of All Saints; and - the following day - they guided us again round the two great cathedrals, the church of San Esteban and the Pontifical University (with its Mudejar ceilings and library of 60,000 pre-19th Century books). In warm sunshine, we marvelled inside the Casa Lis, temple to Art Nouveau, and more still at Plaza Mayor: the world's grandest open-air drawing-room.
Our train whizzed along at great speed from Valencia to Madrid: we could watch the onboard video, listen to a choice of music (headphones provided by Renfe), or - as I did - gaze out of the window at the passing sierras, noting the wind farms en route: we saw them everywhere on our journey through Europe, but none more than in Spain - a sign of hope.
Madrid was one of two pivots for our trip: Thomas's move to Lisbon was the other. Majestic Wine came up with an amazing offer in August: buy a case of Marqués de la Concordia wine through them and you could stay for two nights free in the Marqués de la Concordia private Wine Club in the Barrio de Salamanca, the so-called Mayfair of Madrid. As Caroline and I had always wanted to visit the Prado, it was a no brainer. The bad news was that Caroline missed seeing anything of the Prado, either its permanent collection or the great Rembrandt exhibition, because of an enforced day in bed. The good news was that there was no more comfortable bed in which to spend a day during our entire trip. The Quinta turned out to be more luxy than any hotel we could have afforded.
Happily, we had persuaded our good friends Colin and Jessica to buy a case of Marqués de la Concordia too, so it was all four of us who had travelled together from Paris to end up here in Madrid. And we did all four together manage to visit and enjoy the two other big Madrid galleries, the elegant Thyssen and the excellent Reina Sofia: Guernica hangs there, a worthy setting.
After my day at the Prado in the presence of masterpieces by Velazquez and Rembrandt, I felt more comfortable with Velazquez, especially after seeing Las Menenias. Picasso's series based on that great work (dating from 1957: we had seen it in the Barcelona Picasso Museum) seems trivial beside the real thing.
Just being in Madrid is inspiring, even when you don't do any conventional sightseeing.
Aquariums are not normally my scene. I did however enjoy the one I went to in 1998 with Leo, when we were in Sydney. And Valencia's was certainly good for a once-in-a-decade visit. You can't fail to be staggered by the variety of underwater species here, this sea horse being one of my favourites, second only to the amazing sea dragon (but that was even harder to photograph).
We didn't have too long to look round, having arrived rather late in the day after taking too long over our lunchtime paella: for this, we took up Nick Rawlinson's suggestion and booked into a place on the Malvarrosa beach - Restaurante la Carmela: memorable. But just as well we hadn't visited L'Oceanogràfic before lunch: it might have put us off what we were eating.
L'Oceanogràfic is in buildings designed by Felix Candela, which lie alongside the extraordinary City of Arts and Sciences, developed by Santiago Calatrava. This is still work in progress, but what is already there - planetarium, science museum, bridges etc. - makes a huge impact on the city of Valencia (which is footing the bill). Personally, I prefer the Frank Gehry architecture of the Bilbao Guggenheim to the new work in Valencia, but perhaps I should return when it's all completed.
There are plenty of temptations to go back: we didn't allow ourselves time for more than a quick look at the graceful Lonja (or Silk Exchange), said to be the jewel of European Gothic civil architecture, or the splendid Cathedral with its translucent (alabaster) lantern windows. But (as I've already mentioned) we did manage to get to hear Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Göteborgs Symfoniker in Nielsen's 4th Symphony, preceded by a performance of the Sibelius concerto by violinist Sergey Khachatryan: a wonderful concert (only spoilt by various people in front of us apparently wanting to record it on their cameras and phones).
We came away from our two days in Barcelona with so many contrasting impressions that it is hard to choose just one. Having had my rucksack (with cash, credit cards etc.) snatched from beside my seat in a bar, my first thought is of the number of needy people Barcelona must contain, living off unwary tourists the year round. What makes me feel stupid is that several friends had specifically warned me of the risk. But we moved on to Valencia in the same train as members of the Göteborgs Symfoniker, some of whom suffered a worse fate - being personally attacked on the beach after their Palau de la Musica concert the night before.
The good memories far outweigh the bad though: mass in Catalan in Sta María del Mar; drinking cava outside afterwards; discovering - rather against my will - the intimate delights of the Picasso Museum, such a contrast to the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay the day before; walking in Parc Guëll; exploring the Boqueria Market and Las Ramblas - all in sunny, warm October weather.
But the highspot for me was Gaudi's La Sagrada Família, not so much a place of worship as a crowded building site, with workmen smoking, listening to their iPods and chatting on mobile phones as we snailed round the perimeter of the interior. The exterior is another matter altogether: the South transept entrance adorned with quite conventional carvings depicting the Nativity, whilst the other side, the Façade of the Passion, is covered with the most striking Holy Week scenes, culminating in this extraordinary Christ Crucified, and Veronica's veil transformed into a death mask. An indelible impression!
It was our first visit to Paris for many years: the last time I saw Cézanne's Achille Emperaire, it was hanging in the Jeu de Paume. That means we can't have been there for at least 22 years: the old station building on Quai d'Orsay was opened as the great museum it is by François Mitterrand in December 1986.
The obvious comparison is with Tate Modern, also built round a cavernous main hallway. You can't compare the pictures, but as a gallery it seems to me that Musée d'Orsay wins hands down.
After a relatively cursory look round the collection either side of lunch - there are 80 separate galleries: we shall have to go back! - we walked in the sunshine across the Pont Royal to the Louvre, to see their great Mantegna exhibition. One of my very favourite artists: what a day! All we missed out was hiring a Vélib'.
As we had more than an hour in hand before our Eurostar check in, we donned our backpacks and walked round from King's Cross to the just-opened Kings Place (sic - no apostrophe!), designed by Dixon-Jones. (This is the view looking upwards from our lunch table.)
Four weeks ago today we were in Paris on the first leg of our InterRail holiday, from which we have just returned. Having embarked at Cheltenham Station, this - our first train - was late, our carriage door was stuck and the loo was blocked. I won't say every continental conveyance - we also had goes on metros, trams, buses and even a funicular - was perfect by contrast. They did all however run to time and were mostly more comfortable than our dear First Great Western.
We are still digesting it all (assisted by 900 photographs). Apart from our 36 trains, we clocked up six capital cities, 11 art galleries, 13 cathedrals, 17 World Heritage Sites - well yes, this does include a couple we saw from the train - and slept in 22 different beds. No opera and only one concert - but what a concert (Dudamel conducting the Göteborgs Symfoniker in Nielsen). Good food (and drink). Meetings with old and new friends, and much kindness of strangers. Hardly any rain, and really warm at times.
Low point: my bag was snatched in Barcelona, complete with credit cards and €100 - boring to say the least, and chastening in view of the specific warnings friends had given us.
More later perhaps, but must now get on with the thank you letters!
We returned from our travels last evening to find the house opposite had been sold. Which is rather galling, when you consider how hard we tried to sell our house throughout the first nine months of this year!
The comfort is that we continue to have this nice view across the road looking out upon an evidently attractive property. With its characterful bargeboarding, it was indeed picked out as a "key unlisted building" in Cheltenham Borough Council's Park Character Area Appraisal and Management Plan (part of their recently-published local development framework). Meanwhile, its new owners look back on our Cinderella semi, stubbornly unsold.
But no longer am I going to be able to put, for the return address on the back of envelopes that I commit to the post, my name "Davis M" with just our postcode; because the house over the road, which is in the same postcode area, evidently has for its new owner a "Mr M Davies" - judging by mail already delivered here while we were away, and opened by me in error late last night!
Ida was one - and the one - yesterday. A tea party took place, Ida in her Tripp Trapp chair surrounded by friends and relations of all ages at the dining-table. Agnes had, as can be seen, let her imagination flourish delightfully in the making of gingerbread men - sorry, women! - which set the tone for a great celebration.
Now Caroline and I are looking forward to four weeks away. On Friday morning we shall be picking up our rucksacks and embarking at Cheltenham Station on the first of about three dozen train journeys linking five European capitals - Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Brussels. Our schedule looks like a logistical cat's cradle. We plan to see some architecture: Gaudi of Barcelona; Calatrava of Valencia; some cathedrals - Salamanca, Toledo, Oporto, Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand... If it's Wednesday, it must be Pau.
And we shall not be taking with us anything other than a basic mobile phone - unlike Stephen Fry with his laptop and "a suitcase full of cables, chargers, memory cards and connectors." So, no more blogging for a bit whilst I range free.
Last evening, Michael and Sarah Burrell gathered a huge number of friends around them for a party in the Great Hall of Chelsea Royal Hospital. It was a fortieth wedding anniversary celebration: though we were not forewarned, James in an excellent speech announced it from a table top - toasting Gilbert Thompson-Royds, the man who introduced his parents, to save them the embarrassment of being toasted themselves.
Having met Sarah before she met Mike, I found myself bumping in to some very old friends: Willie Stevenson, for instance, who reminded me of a tip I'd given him for the Irish horse Double Jump, which won five out of six races - but not this one. (I've found different ways of losing money since the '60s.)
Such grand events stick in the memory. In an age of short marriages, dressing down and generally low-key entertainment, none of us will soon forget a smartly-dressed party with champagne in such an august setting as Christopher Wren's hall, lined with royal portraits and the vast mural of Charles II on horseback by Antonio Verrio - even if it was pouring with rain as we struggled to get there (and back).
From this photograph of Bill that I took five years before his death (last Autumn), you might think he was a Master of Wine, or possibly even an alcoholic, but he was neither: we were sitting across the table from each other at a post-wedding party, and Bill was talking with habitual earnestness: the subject could have been anything, but was most likely not to have been that about which he knew best: Bill was a pre-eminent practitioner on the bassoon.
"A worthy fellow, Ratty, with many good qualities, but very little intelligence and absolutely no education." So says Toad (in The Wind in the Willows). Superficially, Bill Waterhouse might be said to resemble "dear good old Ratty", with his unmistakable physiognomy – though equally perhaps Moley, ceaselessly industrious; Badger (with his fancy waistcoats): even (dare I say) Toad himself, when kitted out in his leathers and astride his motor bike. What is certain is that Bill indeed had many good qualities – but (unlike Ratty) they included a very unusual intelligence and a continuing zest for education!
His bassoon (and wider musicological) prowess has been well recorded, but as a neighbour I chiefly recall his appetite for his community and his joie de vivre. Bill was a regular attender at the Sevenhampton Produce Show and also the Whittington Summer Show – since 1981, as he recorded in a learned article he wrote for the celebrated Whittington Press's Matrix 26.
Bill and Elisabeth's cottage was situated well apart from Sevenhampton itself, but everyone at all interested was welcome there for the Waterhouse musical afternoons - at Christmas, Easter or some other occasion dreamt up for celebration. On arrival Bill would be standing (in his fancy waistcoat) directing the traffic and getting splashed with mud. Inside the Musicbarn, we perched on garden chairs or just a cushion on the floor. We always emerged feasted.
A neighbouring village gave its name to a scratch group that used to put on an annual concert, with what might sometimes be described as uneven results. But when the Shipton Consort performed Mozart's Requiem, with its opening bassoon motif, we all gasped: it was Bill playing.
Never having been to Highgate before 23rd November last, the day of Bill's Memorial Service, I asked myself what he would have done to mark the occasion. Of course! Yes, after a magical remembrance of Bill in prayer and in music, I sought out Karl Marx's splendid tomb in Highgate Cemetery, and George Eliot's more modest one. The eclectic Bill would surely have approved.
Yesterday, visiting Elisabeth and having tea with her in Bill's beloved Musicbarn, I met the musicologist Jim Kopp and his wife Joanne. They are hard at work completing the book Bill had agreed to write on the bassoon for the authoritative Yale Musical Instrument Series. It will be a long task, but one that's clearly in good hands.
Our nearest Council tip is just up the hill from us here in Leckhampton. It's just back from the Cotswold edge, close to some old open-cast stone mines. On dog duty once more, I walked past it the other morning, and was appalled to see the remains of a truly vast bonfire.
And there was I thinking that all the garden waste we have been putting out in our green sacks was going to make compost!
It's rare to hear two quite different lectures in the same day, each so full of wise words, and so well delivered. I would have been glad to read either "The Choice of Hercules" by A.C. Grayling, or "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" by Jeffrey Sachs, but knew realisticaly that it was unlikely. The appearance of their authors - both renowned speakers - therefore made them easy choices out of the 26 events on offer at our Literature Festival yesterday.
The philosopher Grayling had virtually a full house at 10 a.m. in the Everyman Theatre. Though he spoke from the lectern on stage, such is his fluency that it represented no sort of barrier. The success of a lecture can often be judged by the quality of questions posed to the lecturer at the end: all were good, and Grayling answered with skill and humour. But he was flummoxed when asked, "Were you assuming we had come along as a duty or for pleasure?"
Hercules chose duty above pleasure, but, Grayling asks, where is the conflict between them today? What do we think about reading novels in the morning? Conventionally, the answer is "guilty", but insofar as they are an excellent way of our learning much-needed toleration - allowing other people to do things you don't like - maybe we should look upon a couple of hours with our novel as our morning duty.
From Jeffrey Sachs' viewpoint as a development economist, working for the Earth Institute, our car is careering towards the cliff edge. Even if the road turns out to bend a little away from the precipice, our alarm increases when we realises that Dick Cheney is at the wheel. (A McCain victory next month is too grim for Sachs to begin to contemplate.)
The three horsemen of Jeffrey Sachs' apocalypse are environment, poverty and population. Each can be reined in, but not by a self-regulating market. Global, co-operative, science-based mechanisms are needed. They don't at present exist, but they could be established - at a cost of about three per cent of world income. Trillions have been made available to save the banks, so in principle the money is there. Can we sit back and allow the aggregate of a year's Wall Street Christmas bonuses to continue to exceed the entire world's annual aid to Africa? "I'm a PhD beggar," proclaims Jeffrey Sachs.
Sachs spoke for 50 minutes without any notes from the Town Hall stage, an astonishing tour de force.
We have all the grandchildren staying here, so Caroline delegated dog walking to me this morning. We trespassed, dog and I, up near Withington. Although a mere six miles from home, as you can see from my photograph, it's completely another world from Cheltenham.
Only two disturbances to today's Autumn tranquility crossed my mind, one vertical. one horizontal. The steel pylon, which reared up at me as I took a wrong turning in the woods reminded me that, despite all the renewable fuel that surrounded me, the need for electricity is all-pervasive, and complete carbon elimination a far cry. Two low-flying vehicles of the RAF, gone almost before they came into hearing (but nevertheless brutish for those few instants) semed to be saying that - however our longing for disarmament and a constructive peace - some defence force will always be required, albeit at a huge and unsustainable cost.
Well, perhaps not a full-blown Whoop!, but even a round of applause is rare enough in St Gregory's church! At the Induction this evening of Fr. Bosco as our new parish priest there were no less than two outbursts of clapping led by the presiding Bishop Declan of Clifton.
The Bishop spoke about human beings as latecomers to Planet Earth; and Christians as a very young people in Earth terms. So we can identify with St Paul talking about us giving birth to something new, by producing the fruits of God within our lives. We are not a settled people, the Bishop said, but a pilgrim people, on the way to perfection - which was entirely appropriate for today's feast of St Teresa of Avila.
Cheltenham acquired a new piece of public art earlier this year: a statue of Gustav Holst now stands in the centre of the fountain in Imperial Gardens. (Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874.)
Holst's fame resting as it does on his composition of The Planets, they are listed on the fountain's surround. What will future generations make of the sponsors' names which accompany each planet on its plaque I wonder? The name of the sculptor, Anthony Stones also appears prominently on the base of the statue itself, the lettering being somewhat larger than that of Holst's own name!
But what really irks me about the statue is that, first, it is too small for its situation, and secondly it portrays the composer as a conductor. (He is incidentally shown wearing a cummerbund as part of his evening dress: wouldn't he have worn a white waistcoat?) Someone like the contemporary composer Pierre Boulez could well in due course be immortalised with a baton in his hand: surely not though the shy Gustav Holst, whose topple backwards from a podium contributed to his death at the comparatively early age of 59.
Having carped sufficiently, I have to say that the rebuilt fountain seems to have become a popular meeting place, and the ornamental grasses planted round it look great!
Our literary festival has forged good links with the Royal Shakespeare Company over the years, though there have inevitably been last-minute cancellations. Yesterday, however, three Cleopatras lined up according to schedule on the stage of Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre, for a discussion that never quite took flight. Mainly, Janet Suzman, Harriet Walter and (pictured here) Noma Dumezweni were too polite to each other. You longed for a touch of the asp to enter their conversation. And above all you ached to hear one of them launch into "His legs bestrid the ocean". They lacked a prompter.
Later in the day, Michael Pennington made an altogether more memorable appearance on the same stage. Pennington described catching the Shakespeare bug at the age of 11, and never having shaken it off: his resulting one-man Shakespeare show "Sweet William" is a tour de force.
"Sweet William" runs through what we know of Shakespeare's life in chronological sequence, with the actor morphing into both major and minor characters to illustrate the developing achievement of the playwright and in particular its historical and political context. Apart from audience coughing all round me, which would never have been tolerated during the performance of a play, I have seldom enjoyed a LitFest evening more.
My sister Sarah is staying with us for the Literature Festival: she is keen to see as many events as possible, whereas we (old hands) are feeling rather semi-detached about the whole shebang, as I foretold when the brochure first came out. (The local paper published that ill-humoured blogpost in the form of a letter to the editor, attracting some supportive comment; but will they listen?)
Long queues snake round the tented village in Imperial Gardens, for the events themselves - often three or four starting simultaneously - and also for book signings. I wonder how many of the books bought in the vast Waterstones' tent will be read.
Why are people so restless in a queue? On Friday evening I was manning the stall which the Friends of the Festival put up each year inside the Town Hall, to help raise funds towards sponsorship of future Festival events. For this cause, a wide range of cards is on display - including a basket of my own photogaphic cards - but not many people were in the least interested: either the place was deserted (during the events) or punters were stationary in a distracted queue which waited for the doors to open, and completely ignored my presence alongside it. Perhaps the atmosphere will be different when I am on the stall for another stint this evening.
Reverting to what I was saying yesterday, if the minutest fraction of the money that is being injected into the banks were somehow directed towards encouraging people to make gardens more genuinely productive - instead of turning them over to tarmac and decking - wouldn't life be vastly healthier? Morrisons' "Let's Grow" scheme has the right idea.
Of course, I wouldn't in any way exclude flowers: they do so much for our mental wellbeing. Apologies in advance for some more horticultural hubris: you expect geraniums to stick around for a long season, but I've never had such luck before with sweet peas. It was nearly four months ago that I reported that ours were flowering - and they are still. You see a lot of extremely realistic artificial flowers around these days, including sweet peas, but despite their short life, there is nothing to compare with having fresh ones in a vase on the table.
It's been a good year too for raspberries, a few of which seem to be there for the picking each morning. And though we've exhausted the fig tree at last, it's hard to keep up with falling apples.
For anyone without the opportunity to grow their own, there is of course a wide variety of vegetable box schemes, some more organic and local than others. Following a recent post, it was good to hear from my Canadian cousin, Bruce Coates that his son and daughter-in-law Kent and Ruth are heavily committed in this field: one of the ways a blog seems to be able to bring together diverse people with similar ideas.
As I said on Monday, we all love local food. But by last month we four had already eaten all the potatoes I planted this year. This week therefore, in glorious Indian Summer sunshine, I have been digging up more of our lawn. Another nine square metres under cultivation next Spring does not amount to very much perhaps, but in a week so full of doom and gloom on the front pages that one is made to feel helpless, it is at least a small step in what I see as the right direction.
After our "Henry Moore - Surrealism and beyond" lecture this afternoon - when both Caroline and I fell asleep - I cycled down to check out the Literature Festival book tent, and ran into Jane Blunden and Finola Sumner, just emerged from John Gray's talk. If the Moore talk was dreary, the gospel according to Gray seems to have been lively but pessimistic, with seismic shift as its watchwords. "Things will never be the same again," Finola reported. Before I could get in a boast about my gesture with the spade, Jane came out with the healing words: "It's the potato patch". A kindred spirit indeed!