Friday, June 29, 2018

Biodiversity along the Canal...

Biodiversité - Levalet - Reims 2018
Rowing along the canal the other evening, I noticed one of the latest pieces of art from Levalet! Not wishing to tempt fate, I never go on the water with my camera, just in case I end in it! This meant taking the photo from the bicycle track at a certain distance, from the other bank, but nevermind....
I discovered that there are also several new works in a nearby village, which I will try to pinpoint. That will involve driving there, which will be whole new experience in itself and so far I can't say it's been plain sailing. So, I hope I'll be able to add some new images to this post over the weekend, but am not entirely banking on it!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Brighter Star....

A light that goes out on Earth may illuminate a brighter star in the night sky above....

A flower that does not open fully will one day burst out in the warmth of a private sun...

Whilst they are here with us, the most delicate of living things let us glimpse their fragile beauty...

And even when they have flown so far, so early....

They leave us a trace of this beauty so that we may find our wings to fly in this life.

Rest in Peace, Paulette.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Towering Follies...

Perrot's Folly
During a recent visit to Birmingham, I found myself back in Edgbaston and tried to take the opportunity to explore some roots. Originally, this district was home to more affluent Brummies, attracted to the leafy suburban area just beyond the city centre. A stroll past some of the substantial houses still intact today, surrounded by majestic trees, gives an impression of a certain past sophistication. A number of these are now divided up into multiple flat conversions, providing accommodation for an ever-growing population and sizeable rent revenue for savvy landlords, just as they are across the country.

Other streets are of a far more modest aspect, composed of rows and rows of small, identical red-brick buildings, stretching out like patchwork. These byelaw terraced houses were once home to workers and their families, but now are more likely to offer short-term accommodation to a large student population.

My grandmother lived in a house not unlike these, albeit in another part of the city, and I wonder what has become it now. It is strange seeing the schools and streets that my grandparents and parents once knew as the backdrop to their daily lives, and quite amazing that so much of these are still standing and recognisable! The same cannot be said for large parts of a city which seems to have undergone so many radical changes over the post-war decades.

Perrot's Folly
Whatever the status of the house, past or present, any garden space seems to be given over to the parking of cars or the storage of the numerous disposal bins, as needs must. Little by little, the demise of tended or even treasured pockets of garden and greenery takes its toll, and seems to hint at the gradual decline of a cohesive community that cares about its surroundings, and its life therein. Rubbish litters the pavements like crazy punctuation and the high-powered cars, with blaring music and tinted windows skulk along the roads, day and night, provide a menacing pounding tempo. It does not seem to take much for an area to get run down, but it seems sad that this seems somehow inevitable these days.

Edgbaston Reservoir
We pondered over this because poverty, or diminished means cannot fully account for this downward shift and this change has gained momento over the past few years. Fortunately, the rather dismal aspects of this urban landscape are offset by the beautiful expanse of water and cultivated wilderness in the form of Edgbaston Reservoir, built in 1827, and are also at odds with the friendly disposition of the locals in general.

It was in this part of Birmingham that JRR Tolkien grew up, and from his bedroom window he would have been able to see one of the two imposing towers that marked his childhood memories and fired his creative imagination; Perrot's Folly. This is a 30-meter, seven-floor hunting lodge, built  in 1758, with a sweeping view over what was once a landed estate. Since it did actually have a practical role, this is not a folly in the strictest sense of the term  ie; a 'non-functional building used for aesthetic enhancement.

This Gothic brick tower, with its looming lighthouse shape, was therefore never a mere eyecatcher. Since the emergence of the trilogy of the Lord of the Rings films, Perrot's Folly has drawn in avid Hobbit fans on the Tolkien Trail, like moths to a candle, just as the second tower.

Edgbaston Waterworks
This ornate tower is part of the Edgbaston Waterworks and access remains difficult as it is situated behind a security fence.

A century ago, creeping industrialisation caused Tolkien to lament the loss of the rural expanses that had been part of his childhood years "in the Shire... in a pre-mechanical age".  Like H.G Wells, the imminent threat of a brutal, modern world and the experience of the trenches in the Great War modelled Tolkien's writings. Both men warned of civilisation's downfall through ignorance and the desire for power at a time when science and technology had the potential to lead Man into a No Man's Land.

I cannot help wondering what Tolkien would make of the latest advances in stage two of the Big City Plan; the 'City Centre Masterplan'.

One certainty is that Tolkien would surely have had great difficulty finding many familiar landmarks around vast swathes of the city! Nevertheless, the desire to capitalize on a striking association of ancient and 'sci-fi modern'  architecture has meant that some of the old vestiges have remained. This creates the most astonishing views!

St Martin's church at the Bull Ring
I kept wondering what these old, odd remnants of a past life would say to us if they were granted the power of speech... Not least of all, St Martin's church in the Bull Ring shopping centre, which now has the futuristic Selfridges bulding as an outrageous bedfellow.

Another point of which I am certain; most of these supposedly state-of-the-art, 21st century shiny creations will literally be little more than a flash in the pan in the fabric of the city.

Indeed, I suspect these will only last a few decades and may never even garner as much sentiment as the Brutalist architecure that lead to Birmingham's 'concrete jungle' reputation when the Spaghetti Junction cut up the city.

What appeared to be so avant-garde in the wave of redevelopment in the 60s now looks old, grey and Stalinist.

Furthermore, many of these buildings have been abandonned, and yet I remember visiting Birmingham as a child and thinking these were the height of sophistication!

St Martin's Church with the Rotunda.
I suppose childhood memories have attached themselves to my vision of these same buildings, resulting in a misplaced fondness, if it could be called that.

I spent a great deal of time wandering around the city centre, looking up at the sights and was not disappointed. However, what bothers me is that the old buildings will ultimately decline, to be replaced by this massively anonymous architecture that has little real depth, character or longevity, and nothing that attaches it to one specific city or country. What will differentiate Birmingham city centre from any other in the long term? Will it just be inhabited by these towering follies?

Around the old town hall and the public library, construction is 'intense', to say the least. With fences, scaffolding and boarded-up expanses, movement is hampered and views are blocked so that navigation is hard work!

Trying to get around was rather frustrating, but each street offered something unusual.

Some of the old buildings are literally dwarfed by these architectural descendants...

The stonework on the façades of the Victorian architecture here was incredible, but this would no longer be desirable or viable. Who ever looks up these days?

Did the average Victorian spend an incredible amount of time gazing far above eye-level, or were these buildings decorated 'just in case'?

In true Gollum fashion, most people today are busy clutching onto their precious electronic devices, eyes rivetted to screens, too engrossed to lift their heads up and away from this cunning gadgetry that has enslaved us.
Sculptures shrouded in netting...
Along the canal, the mood was peaceful and timeless and the risk of falling into the waterway probably encouraged people to take in and enjoy their surroundings!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

An Aqueduct to bridge Time and Space.... Roquefavour

 As I was staying in the countryside just along from Aix and Les Milles in Provence, a modest road sign indicating a nearby aqueduct kept catching my eye. Towards the end of a very wet Sunday afternoon, we went to investigate...

Even in the dull light, the sight from a distance was impressive, with the aqueduct spanning the whole valley, towering over the green fields and road below in the commune of Ventabren. One can only imagine the awe and wonder it inspired at the time of its construction in the mid 19th century.

In fact, this is an aqueduct that is remarkable on several counts. This is indeed the largest stone aqueduct in the world - it is an incredible feat of engineering and aesthetic beauty - from afar or up close.

Despite being even more ambitious in dimension than the Pont du Gard, Roquefavour is frequently overlooked, seemingly overshadowed by the renown of its ancient Roman predecessor. Both are set out in a three-tier design with rows of arcades that stand out so dramatically against the skyline. Roquefavour measures almost 400 metres in length and 82 metres in height, compared to Pont du Gard's 270 metres by 47... Both naturally serve the same practical function as the very first aqueducts of ancient Rome; the supply of water.

The Pont du Gard was built to cross the gorge of the Gardon river in order to convey spring water from Uzès to the Roman colony that would later become Nîmes. Some 18 centuries later, the Roquefavour aqueduct was constructed along similar lines. It successfully bridged the flanks of  the Arc river valley, carrying much-needed water from the Durance river, along the Canal de Marseille, to the city some 80 kilometres away. Marseille was continually blighted by drought, having suffered the same fate for centuries and was furthermore beset by a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. An adequate water supply was vital and the Pont du Gard served as inspiration in the solution to this problem, thus spanning the centuries between the ancient site and that of the 19th century with the creation of the aqueduct of Roquefavour.

 As the plaque on the aqueduct's pillar indicates, the watercourse was completed in a mere five-year stretch, with the project led by a young engineer (Franz Mayor de Montricher) who was but 26 years old in 1842! The  Canal de Marseille was virtually the city's sole source of water until the 1970s.

Visitors can climb up a path to reach the top of the aqueduct and then gaze across the Provençal landscape. Any plans for this were scuppered by the rainy weather that day, but even the darkest, wettest spells might lead to magic, in the form of a rainbow. And this indeed was the case, when I was treated to a perfect arc above the mountain of Sainte Victoire!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Pocket of Provence...

I headed South a few weeks ago, and arrived in the Provence region to find fields of poppies in a vegetation that was surprisingly green this year.

This was in fact down to the uncharacteristically wet weather in the region - the torrential rain I experienced when there certainly swept away any doubts I may have harboured on that theory!

Once the sun has disappeared, and the clouds settle, the temperatures drop... Fortunately, that doesn't last too long!

My friends' house is in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence, surrounded by old platane trees, scrub and woodland, corn fields, olive groves and woodland.

The smell of the earth and the pine trees is everywhere... Everything seems heightened as time seems to go at a slower pace away from city life...

We literally follow the sleeping habits of the roosting hens - and get woken to the call the very proud and protective cockerel.

You sleep and rise to the sound of birdsong that goes from the familiar to the weird and wonderful, to the point that you even wonder where you actually are...

This all certainly makes a change from the constant hum of car traffic and the regular rumble and clanking of the trams below my flat, here in the north-east.

In fact, the intrusive noise of cars is thankfully minimal - although this time I didn't hear the song of any cigales either - probably too cold still.

 All kinds of insects are drawn to nearby hedgerows that are generally full of wild flowers...

Whilst more formal varieties grow in the garden, attracting their own collection of creatures, great and small.

Just beyond the bushes lie the pig enclosures, set in scrubland that leaves these fine black specimens - le Noir de Bigorre - free to roam.

The sows grub about in the undergrowth, amongst the tree roots, wade around in the muddy puddles and bask in the sun, surrounded by a throng of piglets (thirty at the last count!).

The boar resides in a very boggy, wild part of the scrubland and waddles around in an imposing manner due to his impressive male appendages! I couldn't cross the mud to photograph him, sadly...

And here is the most recent arrival to the menagerie, Oscar. This was his first day in his new surroundings with his new mistress! His huge paws, densely-tufted nose and beard, golden-brown eyes and white-flecked coat are characteristic of Czech gun dog breed to which he belongs - le Barbu Tchèque. 

However he shares the same traits as any other puppy, with his burning desire to gnaw at any kind of footwear, an insatiable appetite for any remaining food scraps, and steely determination to settle on any soft furnishings. And of course, the skill for getting himself into all kinds of scrapes...

My favourite moments of the day are perhaps as dusk grew closer, or in the early morning, when all the sights, sounds and smells seem to grow in intensity and the mountain backdrop stands out more than ever.

 Who would have thought that a penpal scheme from secondary-school French classes would lead to over forty years of friendship?!!