Friday, July 30, 2010

The Café du Palais, Pâtisserie & Princesses.....

The Café du Palais is virtually an institution in the capital of the Champagne region and heart of champagne production, the city of Reims....
This being the school holidays, I went to the Palais with the children for a hot chocolate - the weather having turned quite a bit cooler. Situated near the Grand Théâtre and just opposite the Palais de Justice, this renowned café counts a mixture of artists, actors and lawyers amongst their regular clients whilst tourists are delighted to discover this unique establishment. The unchanging decor manages to avoid being kitsch although the art and artifacts are most original, unusual, if not just plain weird and are juxtaposed in a manner that highlights the originality of each piece without being vulgar or tasteless. In a similar way younger clients are seated alongside the rather elderly clientèle that seems to flock to the Palais on late Saturday afternoons, the well-heeled share a banquette with people of more modest means and single people find themselves opposite romantically entwined couples or busy families. It is even through all these differing elements that the café finds its harmony.

As can be imagined, the Palais is a relatively old establishment which was set up in 1930 in a city that was still recovering from a devastating war that had decimated a huge part of the city, along with 80% of its buildings, and had almost destroyed the cathedral of Notre Dame. From the ashes, rubble and ruin of the First World War ambitious architectural projects arose as Reims embarked on a reconstruction plan that involved some 325 architects and saw the birth of hundreds of new buildings - many in the Art Déco style.
In the 1920's a certain Louis Millet came to Reims from Paris as an aspiring cafetier hoping to run his own establishment. Indeed, Millet was an auvergnat, a descendant of one of the thousands of hard-working natives of the Massif Central region of France who had converged on the capital from the 17th century onwards, gradually developing their trade from initially being water carriers, coal delivery men ('les bougnats') to become wine merchants and cafetiers.
Louis Millet originally set up shop in a modest quartier of the city with a small café which was given the name the 'Tout Va Mieux'. However Louis soon moved to the town centre where trade flourished. When Louis died it was widow Jeanne who took over the running of the café and today it is Jeanne's grandson, Jean-Louis Vogt who runs the family commerce. In today's Café du Palais we see many references to the family's trade history with some of the fittings and furniture that originally came from the first café. The décor is well worth seeing - with its sculptures, paintings and drawings (including one from Chagall), and famous stained glass verrière ceiling from the Belle Epoque. Although this was in fact bought from a nearby jeweller's shop and carefully mounted in the café in the 1990's it seems to find its perfect home in this eclectic setting - so much so that you simply can't imagine it wasn't there from the café's very beginnings. Even the wall paper is of a style that evokes bistrots of times gone by, even more original today when many café owners have totally refurbished and 'relooké' their establishments but in so doing often seem to have lost the character and soul of their cafés.
The Palais, like the majority of the rémois cafés, has a terrace so that in summer the clientèle can enjoy looking at passers-by, or being looked at themselves whilst eating the bistrot cuisine on offer, sipping wine or champagne or simply drinking a hot chocolate, as was our case today!

Near my home we have an exellent pâtisserie that offers the most beautiful-looking cakes created by the man who was once the patissier-chef at the Hôtel Crillon in Paris. Here's one example of his oeuvre - called 'Paradis du Fruit'...

However, as the saying goes, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" and I am happy to report that this particular piece of paradise was indeed delicious! This led me on to the idea of endeavouring on some more serious pâtisserie sampling, so I shall try again this week, finances permitting, of course!

Perhaps you do need a princess's purse to eat such pâtisserie.......

After our trip to the Palais, we went to the park to see the beautiful flowers there and feed the fish (sorry, just an old baguette!). Here's my little princess...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lanterns & Bells, Pumpkins & Peppers...

I love this beautiful ornamental plant, Physalis Alkenkegi, whose name is derived from the Greek word for 'bladder'. It is indeed most easily recognized by the seed-bearing structure which is formed by  the enlarged sepals that fuse together to envelope the fruit within a calyx, protecting it from dehydration. Little by little this structure turns a bright orange shade and gradually becomes an intricate lacy, paper-like  husk which gives rise to its popular name the 'Chinese Lantern Plant'. Safely encased within these lanterns is the fruit, eventually freed when the lanterns break apart, releasing the seeds to scatter in the wind - hence the French name for the plant, 'L'Amour en cage'.... Nevertheless Physalis does not solely rely on seed-based reproduction as it is a profilic underground runner, in the same manner as bamboo, so that it can be most invasive in a garden and very hard to eliminate. Its beauty comes at a price!

Physalis is often greatly appreciated for the precious fruit within the lanterns - thus the plant's other name, the 'Winter Cherry'. The fruit, like the tomato, is both rather sweet and sour, and appears as a smaller version of the tomatillo, very popular in Latin America. However caution is required regarding the Physalis fruit as there are 80 varieties of the plant, and not all bear edible fruit. Indeed, even those plants which do yield fruit for cuisine must be treated with care as until fully ripe the fruit is toxic! The Physalis belongs to the same family as Nightshade and so the leaves and unripe fruit contain solanine, a poisonous substance also to be found in green potatoes and the leaves of the tomato plant.
 The pâtisserie here in France is often decorated with such a fruit-bearing husk and this adds a finishing touch to cakes that are already works of art in themselves!

I don't know if it's as a consequence of the strange weather that we've had this year, but I am very pleased to still be able to buy pumpkin on the open street markets. Usually, the season is over until autumn and then, needless to say pumpkins abound, in all shapes and forms..... In France, however, Hallowe'en - with its lanterns and trick-or-treating -does not hold an important place on the calendar of festivities and so the pumpkin is reserved for the kitchen.

Here's my pumpkin soup for dinner, with ground nutmeg and a bit of baguette!

On the market at the moment you can, of course, find many vivid colours - none more so perhaps than the bell peppers in green, red and orange... From the Capsicum family, these were labelled 'peppers' by Christopher Columbus when introducing plants from the New World to Europe, even though in fact they bear little relation to the peppercorn,  from piper nigrium, other than their spicy nature. In fact the bell pepper is, from a botanical point of view, a fruit, but is considered a vegetable in terms of cuisine, and whilst it belongs to the capsicum family, it does not contain the chemical substance present in the chilli, which has such a fiery effect.
The peppers below are going to make up my version of ratatouille. Bon appétit!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bejewelled Butterflies....The Metamorphosis of Morpho

A few years ago my aunt gave me the unusual  framed picture below, which made me think a little of a watered-down, asexual version of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing, with its fine stark black lines and an enigmatic figure dancing in the moonlight in an eery wood.

What particularly caught my eye, however, was the shimmering background of the picture, along with the iridescent clothing which changed at every angle from pale blue to lilac and was, of course, due to the use of butterfly wings to create this very effect. In fact, this little picture is just one of many butterfly-wing ornaments, souvenirs and pieces of jewellery which were highly fashionable from the 1920's to around the 1950's, and which have now become popular collectibles. Indeed, brooches, bracelets, earrings, pendants, decorative trays and pictures were churned out in the United Kingdom from the mid-1920's, and the heart of this production was in the long-established Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.
In 1922, the Shipton company applied for a patent on this specific reverse painting - the technique generally used in butterfly-wing art - however it was the firm of Thomas L Mott (founded in 1875) which caused the surge in enthusiasm for this, following at exhibition of their work at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Subsequently the firm of Thomas Mott acquired the other manufacturers -  Henry W King in 1925 and then Owen Brothers in 1933. It was in the Thomas Mott company that my aunt worked shortly some sixty years ago....
Working as one of the team of painters, applying the reverse images to the glass that would cover and seal the final piece, be that a piece of jewellery or a painting as in this case, my aunt would have to use a steady hand to carry out this intricate work. Apparently the conditions were fairly archaic, and represented a significant fire-hazard, but there was a very good working atmosphere, with fellow painters coming from all different backgrounds, chatting together on their tables, which ran the length of the room.
The images that were recreated were often either 'exotic', with sunsets, landscapes & seaside horizons, or romantic and 'other-worldly'. I have to say I prefer the latter type....
These dreamy images remind me of the silhouette drawings and pop-up work that used to attract me when I was younger - the work of Jan Pienkowski.
Here is his 'Magic Castle'....but you can see much more on this link:

The butterfly wing used for the art work was in general that of the South and Central American (male) butterfly; the Morpho. This huge beautiful creature flutters around the forest vegatation and humidity, and I had the great pleasure of seeing some flying in an Ecuadorian jungle some years ago. Truly magical!
While their irridescent blue mesmerises us, the Morpho's wings offer it camouflage against predators which find it difficult to distinguish from the blue sky above whilst the brown colouring of the underside resembles mere decayed folliage of the undergrowth.
In fact this blinding blue is not pigmentation, but an optical phenomenon wherein the miniscule scales, or 'lamellae', that make up the surface of the wing reflect light repeatedly at different levels. Apparently nanotechnology is currently perfecting techniques whereby the iridescence of the butterfly wing will be artiificially replicated in order to encrypt information on bank notes...
At the height of the craze for butterfly-wing art the commercial desire for the Morpho was such that to satisfy demand butterfly breeding schemes were set up in Europe...  A cheap alternative was simply to use coloured foil as false wings for a background material (think Quality Street wrappers!), but without the irridescence of the Morpho the art lacks its bejewelled quality, the lustre and magic.
The other day I came across the truly beautiful butterfly work of Damien Hirst, an artist I have never felt any particular enthuisiasm for. However anyone who can admire the magnificence of these butterflies and then create such works must have some vision. The resulting work is almost religious, or certainly spiritual, as are the titles - 'Amazing Revelations'; 'Bringing Forth the Fruits of Righteousness from Darkness'.... Just as the Morpho and other butterflies mimic the structures of the world around them, these butterfly works mimic stained glass windows and intricate Arab geometric mosaics. The sour taste to these great works is the fact that countless butterflies of many, many species were used and I'm not sure these were collected in a manner appropriate for a time when we are gradually becoming aware of the fragility of the insect world.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

From Doulton to Deyrolle...

While in London at the start of our holiday, we visited a favourite haunt of my children - Harrods! Reaching the Knightsbridge area via Hyde park, and then wandering along the pavements leading to this world-famous store already gives you a rich expanse of flora & fauna and a glimpse into how the ultra-rich creatures amongst us may live! This is observation on a grand scale, for while only the truly well-off make serious purchases at Harrods the others can consider a trip to this temple of luxury consumption as a spectacle of "Omnia, Omnibus, Ubique", which is the store motto... Harrods does indeed offer all things to all people, everywhere.

We love the sumptuous decor, excess and expanse of Harrods and I especially enjoy looking at the lavish displays in the richly-tiled food halls. It's literally a mouth-watering sight & site on such a huge scale!
The food halls were built at the very beginning of the last century, and were designed by W.J.Neatby who was in charge of the department of architectural ceramics at Doulton. Neatby sought to bring art and industry together, unifying craft tradition and industrial processes just as William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement had done. The resultant decoration in the Meat Hall at Harrods is beautiful for all its exuberance.

In Paris we went to visit one of my favourite places - namely Deyrolle. I came across this unique 'shop' a few years ago when I just happened to look up at a facade in Rue du Bac, near St Germain des Prés and noticed all manner of strange creatures looking out at me from the first floor!  Maybe I had the eery feeling of being watched, but anyway that's how I found the magnificent Deyrolle.

Established in 1831, Deyrolle is a highly unusual mixture of natural history museum, taxidermy outlet and curiosity shop, all set in a wooden-panelled, parquet-floored decor that dates from the 19th century. Experiencing Deyrolle goes way beyond simple shopping for the eccentric - it's educational and aesthetic too as we see the full extent of  the beauty and mystery of the natural world. When Deyrolle fils took over from his father in 1866 he wished to develop this educational aspect and so built up the supply of teaching materials, notably the wall hangings from the Musée Scolaire Deyrolle designed to educate the public, from primary school to university level. At a time when photographs did not exist, few people had seen life-like images of exotic beasts and Deyrolle understood that "an image is worth a thousand words"... And so it is that you find the domains of zoology, botany & entomology brought together with specimens all presented in an eclectic ensemble that is often humourous, always breath-taking. Frustratingly, but understandable, visitors are not supposed to take photographs inside the actual shop, but few photos could ever do justice to the shop itself. It goes without saying that I would fully recommend visiting Deyrolle, or else just go onto their excellent site - where videos will give you a better insight into its originality and magic. There is an English version, but the images just speak for themselves!  Deyrolle Boutique - Rue de Bac, Paris

Having been so taken aback by this weird experience I raved about Deyrolle to my students so that the few who weren't already familiar with it could make the discovery too. It sadly turned out that the shop had just been severely damaged by fire, and much of the collection had been burnt or charred beyond recognition or recovery, whilst the beautiful shop itself was in a very pitiful state. Now, several years after the unfortunate event of February 2008  Deyrolle seems to have made its come-back and visitors can see the beauty of insects, birds, mammals, coral & sea shells - the exotic and the ordinary - yet all presented in this highly original manner in this unique setting. Even some of the poor singed and scarred specimens were able to rise from their own ashes since the book '1000°c' (Editions Assouline et Deyrolle pour l'Avenir) by Laurent Bochel managed to give beautiful photographic coverage of the accident.

The displays are changed at regular periods so that while we set off to England having seen the majestic peacock and crested crane, we came back to find a butterfly-hunting baboon, complete with net, hat and collector's handbook, riding on the back of a patient donkey!
However, as magical as I certainly find Deyrolle, my daughter reminded me of the stark reality - these were all live creatures and may have met their demise simply to satisfy our curiosity or just plain greed... Nevertheless, all of the flora and fauna represented at Deyrolle suffer above all from the pollution and wide-spread destruction of their natural habitats and the environment as a whole. For every magnificent Morpho butterfly pinned onto an entomologist's display board, thousands more will die through our negligence and ignorance of the natural world.

Thank goodness you can appreciate the incredible beauty of the peacock simply by picking up feathers, as I was very happy to do in Devon when a most obliging peacock kindly shed a few tail specimens as it nonchalantly wandered along a rather muddy farm road! The sublime and the ordinary brought together... And of course I did crack at Deyrolle and bought a sachet of sea shells...A cheat's version of beach-combing - though not too dramatic...
While last at Deyrolle I noticed that detectors have been placed at the exit to prevent people performing their own 'collection' of natural specimens within the shop - I was told that these amateur collectors have even managed to steal relatively large mammal specimens! This shouldn't really surprise me since the Catacombes of Paris are likewise obliged to do a bag-search at the end of the visit as it would seem many people succomb to the temptation to collect skulls!!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Heads & Tails....

Despite a marked lack of rain, the crops are growing in the summer sun, all laid out in straight lines that criss-cross the fields like wild patchwork. Here, of course the main crop is the vine for champagne production, but there are also golden fields of colza and sunflowers too.

The soil here is ideal for the production of sparkling wine thanks to the chalk deposits left behind when ancient oceans receded and subsequent seismic activity caused marine sediment to be brought to the surface. The resulting terroir, with its specific temperature and climate, raises the acidity of the grape and favourizes the effervescent nature of the wine once labelled the 'le vin du diable' due to its capacity to explode a series of bottles, one after another. In addition, the chalk soil provides the ideal conditions to enable the bottled wine to mature in underground cellars. Reims, the heart of Champagne, wine & region, has 250 kms of underground cellars of Gallo-Roman galleries, known as 'crayères'.... The town centre is said to be seated on a veritable underground chalk labyrinth, some of the galleries of which offered shelter during the First and Second World Wars.

 The méthode champenoise was finally fully developed and capitalized upon during the 19th century when it was promoted as being highly beneficial to health.
Reims, Epernay & Aÿ are the principal sites associated with labels that are seen all over the world and are symbols of the union of luxury and savoir-faire. Reims is, however, the only city able to unify 'corks & coronation' since it was here that the monarchs of France were consecrated. Imagine Westminister Abbey linked to the most prestigeous drink in the world...and I am not referring to the ubiquitous cup of tea!

The monarchs of France had their heads removed during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, however regal heads still flourish in the form of sunflowers that dominate the landscape with fields that seem to stretch out to the horizon and beyond.

The sunflower is the perfect example of the application of the Golden Mean of mathemathics to nature. Just as the sunflowers are not laid out at random, but follow a strict alignment of the rows set out by the farmer and in turn track the movement of the sun's rays, the seeds of  the sunflower trace out a precise pattern, based on the Fibonacci series....

Viewed up close, the sunflower head has 34 petals; its face has two series of curves, radiating in different directions, from the smaller seeds at the centre moving out towards the exterior of the face, in order to fill all available space by assuming a certain angle in relation to the precedent seed. The angle is at 137.5 degres - the Golden Mean - the seeds all having the same space between them. In this manner the Fibonacci series is re-created in floral form, wherein each number is made up of the sum of the two precedent numbers (1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55 etc).

Perhaps this is the most apparent in the sunflower, but can be visibly seen in the pineapple, pine cone or the passion flower. In the Passiflora, each part of the flower was thought by Spanish Christian missionaries to represent the last days of Christ and the crucifixion  - the Passion of Christ.
The regular features of the passion flower face also led to its being called the Clock flower in non-Christian communities.

Today being Saturday, I went to the big open market in the town centre where you can find all kinds of vegetable, fruit & flower - heads and tails!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Light on glass bottles, baubles, beads and butterflies .... & Insomnia!

The weather being so hot here at present it prevents you from sleeping or wakes you up during the night... Impossible to go back to sleep again, so rather than count sheep I like looking at my magpie finds.

Hmm.... Not so sure it's an effective method, but nevermind!

Here are a few of my favourites - many being old glass bottles filled with dried flowers & sea shells; various insects, skeletal leaves (I particularly like these), faded feathers and old glass Christmas baubles that look like soap bubbles or crazy spiders's webs!

Right, I shall try again... Good night!

This basket of old shells only has very few finds that I actually came across washed up on the beach during beach-combing missions.... If only! Now, that is something to dream about!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sea glass, mermaid tears & sea shell mirrors...

During our trip to Penzance I made the most of early morning walks to go beach-combing, going to the usual old haunts around the town beaches and then those of St Ives and Porthcurno. There is a real pleasure to be had in walking on virgin sand in the morning when the day is new and fresh  (regardless of the weather!). It didn't take long, however, to notice that sea glass, namely those lovely 'pebbles' formed of old discarded glass, pounded by the waves and rocks and ground by sand to be finally washed up onto the shore is less and less common. While I used to scoff at tourists coveting these smooth yet frosted pieces of coloured glass as if they were some magical finds from the oceans deep, these days sea glass is indeed becoming a veritable treasure to be sought after!

 I suppose this must be a consequence of the recycling of glass, and perhaps people's reluctance to throw glass bottles and containers directly into the sea or to smash them on rocks (a very satisfying sensation, I have to admit!), either way the amount and variety of these beautiful little glass 'pebbles' has been dramatically reduced.

I did persevere and found several pieces of green and colourless glass, but there now seems to be little chance of finding blue, green, red or amber nowadays. And so for years of taking this sea glass for a relative banality of beach-combing life, I've now come to realise that it really is something precious and out of pure sentimentality even prefer the other name originally given to these pieces of glass - mermaids' tears. Just goes to show that as Joni Mitchel sang "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't what you've got till it's gone...". I'll keep my treasure of mermaids' tears for my daughter so that she can pass them on in turn.

Sea glass is romantically called mermaids' tears due to old legend or folklore which would have it that mermaids, forbidden to change the course of nature by Nepture, the God of Sea, nevertheless defied this by trying to save sailors in peril at sea and were consequently banished to live in the depths of the oceans, banned from surfacing or swimming near fishermen or sailors again. In their distress the mermaids would cry tears that turned into crystalline drops, reminders of their shattered sentiments and their inability to rescue those lost at sea. Other lore stated that mermaids could only come on shore in the light of the full moon, and as dawn broke they shed tears as they were obliged to return to the seas were transformed into rainbow coloured glass...

While mermaids were said to sing to the sailors and fishermen either to lure them or aid them, in the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor, it is the lover of Morveren the mermaid who sings to the local fishermen to warn them of peril at sea. The 600 year-old wooden bench end of the Mermaid can be seen at St Senara, the church of Zennor, and shows Morveren holding her mirror and it gave me the idea of creating a mermaid mirror - here shown in the photo taken in the garden.

I also like picking up nicely rounded pebbles and stones - some look like mottled seagull eggs, others like striped sweets (these came from Devon) and they all are very comforting to hold in the palm of your hand. The little seal pictured is an earthenware creature that has captured the exact expression of the basking seals that you see during boat trips around St Ives.

Sadly I came upon the second meaning of  'mermaids' tears', and unlike the rest of the flotsam that drifts up onto the shores having been buffetted by the seas, there is very little to find romantic or beautiful therein. The dire situation brought about by this variety of mermaid tears would truly make any sea-lover weep. Indeed, these tears refer to plastic pellets, also known as 'nurdles', which is the modern un-biodegrable debris that is ground down yet never leaves the seas, being ingested by sea creatures and so entering the marine food chain representing a threat to man and animal life alike.We may well laugh at quaint naïve folklore, but don't seem to take hard reality seriously either....

I also enjoy collecting driftwood, but seem to have less skill finding it around Penzance - this came from the South of France where the Mediterranean washes up interesting shapes of pale water-worn wood...

Lac d'Orient - Flood & drought kept at bay.... Flora & fauna guaranteed (and sunburn!)

As the weather is very hot and sunny at present, this weekend I went to visit the Lac d'Orient in the Champagne-Ardenne department, situated in North-East France - near the Medieval town of Troyes, and not too far from Reims.
The Lac d'Orient is the third largest artificial lake in France and is a reservoir lake for the river Seine which finds its source at Saint-Seine, near Dijon in the Burgundy region (and therefore relatively close to the Swiss Alps) and then flows on through Paris into the English Channel at Le Havre. The Lac d'Orient is one of four big lakes designed to protect Paris from flooding and was constructed in the 1950's-60's, and finally put into service in 1966. Indeed the capital was, and still is to a lesser degree, vulnerable to the consequences of excessive rises in the water level of the Seine following severe rainfall; the most dramatic flooding taking place in 1910 when Paris was was inundated,and the water level rose to up to 8 metres. Whilst the Seine did not actually burst its banks at that time, as it did in neighbouring towns, heavy winter rainfall rapidly infiltrated the basements of buildings, after having flooded sewers, drains and the tunnels of the Metro system, leading to the evacuation of thousands of Parisians, and a paralysis of the capital's basic infrastructure.

Since that time, high water levels on the Seine and the threat of flooding have been measured on the statue of Le Zouave of the Pont de L'Alma; in 191O the waters reached the statue's shoulders. In the 1930's the people of the Aube region initially rejected plans to create a reservoir to avoid future catastrophes, however in 1949 the dam lac de Pannecière was built in the Morvan on the tributary of the Seine, the river Yonne. Indeed with its water-tight Champagne soil, rendered even more efficient by a layer of clay (argile albien), this region offered ideal conditions for such schemes, despite local alarm at the prospect of submerging a large area of the oak forest of the Aube. Subsequent flooding of the capital in 1951 gave rise to the creation of the first part of a big reservoir lake, originally called the Lac de Lusigny. This name was finally dropped in favour of the today's title Lac d'Orient, derived from the fôret d'Orient owned by the Templiers in the Middle Ages.
Today the lac d'Orient, like the neighbouring lakes of Amance and Temple, is part of the national parks and is a conservation zone for much flora and fauna. Many different species of birds inhabit the area all year round, while others use the lakes as breeding sites, wintering grounds, and stop-off points during migration. Crested grebes, cranes, herons, moorhens, geese, storks, ducks and swans are just a few of the birds that can be seen - and the nearby Lac du Der-Chante-coq attracts even greater numbers of birds and ornithologists.

In the same way that the wildlife fluctuates permanently, so too do the conditions in the lake. The Lac d'Orient has a maximum depth of 18.7 metres, but the general water level changes throughout the year. Depending on requirement, water is either taken from the Seine in the process called 'l'ecrêtement des crues' during the 'wet' period of the year - November to June - when the river level is at its highest, or fed into the Seine, with the 'l'étiage' process during the more arid period of July to October to avoid water shortages when the river is at its lowest level and there is a risk of drought. These fluctuations are apparent in the vegetation caught in the branches of the willows leaving traces that remind you of swampland in Louisiana. The lake must look very eery early in the morning, especially in misty conditions; I certainly intend to come back in winter...

There is however an imposed minimum level which ensures that the lake maintains standards - 'la tranche morte' - necessary to preserve the aquatic plants and wildlife up to the month of November when the reservoir fills up again. Every ten years the lake is drained so that inspection can be performed and vital maintenance work can be carried out. Like many artifical lakes, below the surface of the lac d'Orient lie the vestiges of the old forest land, along with the remains of old dyke works and buildings.
On radiantly sunny days this darker submerged world appears a mere detail, however in winter, with the starker vegetation and greyer skies, this second dimension must feel more imposing. Even in summer, as the swallows swoop and weave their way amongst the branches of the willows on the lake in search of insects these same branches already have great clumps of winter Mistletoe growing on them...reminding us that the seasons will change, another reality is waiting just beyond the bright surface...  This beautiful, yet eery dimension of these hidden worlds remind me of the flooded valleys of Wales, when entire villages were to find themselves at the bottom of similar lakes, like strange shipwrecks complete with chapels, churches & graveyards, and the inhabitants of these communities moved on.  This image of submerged reality, hidden identity and buried memory was one of those that play an evocative role in one of my favourite books - Austerlitz by G.W. Sebald (Penguin Books 2001). Here the author gives a description of the flooding of the Llanwddyn valley in Powys to create the Vyrnwy dam in 1888 that goes far beyond an account of its construction with great slabs of Welsh slate ... and builds passages that I found very moving, having an almost physical effect that was difficult to define.
Strangely enough, on returning home and reading the news I learnt that an online campaign has been set up on Facebook to raise money to buy this same Vyrnwy estate which has just been put up for sale by Severn Trent Water; local people hope to acquire a large share of this in order to preserve its role as a conservational site of outstanding beauty, to ensure public access to its land and to maintain the livelihood of the many who work there.

Today the lac d'Orient draws visitors from many parts of France, and the creation of several carefully positioned sandy beaches, sailing ports and aquatic sport facilities & cycle paths has created a tourist site in this lake region which appears to sucessfully offer everything to families and nature-lovers alike. The demands of modern living appear to blend in with the older ways of life in a region which is very picturesque, with its traditional architecture of gnarled wooden barns, ancient tiled roofs and beautiful farmhouses. Well worth a visit!

Nevertheless, the other reality of the lake is ever-present as the risk of flood is constant - even in 2003 there was a first-level flood alert in the capital which led to the biggest relocation of artworks (usually kept in underground storage) that Paris had experienced since the Second World War.... although that is difficult to believe when you've just been scorched by the sun!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Penzance Welcomes You! Pensans A'gas Dynergh

This is one of my favourite views, especially early in the morning - from the track that runs alongside the railway and the sea front and leads from Penzance train station to Marazion. While sunny weather makes it picture-postcard picturesque, as above, it's perhaps even more dramatic and invigorating in the rain and wind with spectacular views of Mount's Bay, and of course, St Michael's Mount.

The name Penzance comes from the Cornish words pen, meaning 'head' or 'end' and sans signifying 'holy', forming the word 'Holy Headland'. Pen refers to the rocky headland where the first Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements were established, while it is thought that sans refers back to an ancient chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of fisherman. However, the holy head reference is also brought to mind by the town's seal and first coat of arms, namely, the image of John the Baptist's head on a plate. Not surprisingly the town and its surroundings has had a very rich, chequered past and has withstood many events - not least marauding Turks from the Crusades, an attack by Spanish raiders (looting and destroying the major part of the Medieval harbour area), but also the passage of countless other Barbary pirates, smugglers and privateers. As a natural anchorage point for sailing ships coming back into the English Channel from oceans afar Penzance witnessed significant sea traffic and consequently news of great events overseas was transmitted to the local fishermen in the Mount's Bay via these homebound ships. In this manner, traders of silk, spices and other riches also brought back with them tales of the Spanish Wars and the French Revolution. The victory at Trafalgar and Nelson's death were announced in Penzance (in today's Union pub in Chapel Street) before Londoners were to hear of such events....

Around the area you can still see the remains of Cornwall's great mineral industry - copper, tin and the by-product arsenic... with the old engine houses. These look spectacular against the landscape, especially the coastal workings and reflect the industry that employed a large part of the population with work that was extremely dangerous and difficult. Here is part of Levant mine, near Pendeen, with its tortuous shafts and galleries some going kilometres off the mainland, under the Atlantic. The slump in the latter part of the 19th century due to cheaper foreign supplies hit the Cornish mines hard, and although mining tin lodes provided work many men were obliged to find employment elsewhere, often emigrating to California or Australia to the extent that a mine would often be defined as "a large hole in the ground with a Cornishman at the bottom."

Penzance was made the principal town of the Mount's Bay in the 17th century (previously neighbouring Marazion had been considered the main mercantile centre) and its importance grew, largely thanks to its role as a 'Coinage' town, where tin from the regional mineral mines was assayed before sale and exportation. The town benefitted from the increase in wealth and this prosperity is reflected in the Georgian and Regency architecture. Needless to say, fishing continued to be the major source of income; Cornwall being the heart of the pilchard fishing industry. While the boats set off from Newlyn and Mousehole, the salted catch was exported from Penzance, largely to the Mediterranean, giving rise to important trading relations with the French. This is a photo of Mousehole which I took during their Sea, Salts & Sail Festival this year, the festival being an event to celebrate the maritime heritage of this little fishing village.
Parallel to this legitimate, open business was the smuggling - a 'free trade' -which involved many, even respectable citizens, and has been highlighted in literature ever since...  Today the Turk's Head pub, in Chapel Street, Penzance, is now decorated with original artifacts from the seafaring past, with furnishings from galleons and other great vessels. It is well worth a visit for its unique visual experience (and good food & drink!!), and dating back to the 13th century this pub is said to have cellars that were once linked to the seafront by a smugglers' tunnel!

In the 1860's Penzance was to become the southwest terminus of the railway network that finally linked Cornwall to London, with the opening of Brunel's railway bridge over the River Tamar at Plymouth in 1859. The Great Western line greatly multiplied trade opportunities for the Mount's Bay region as perishable goods could be transported for sale in the capital. Likewise, as the Victorian taste for travel grew, more and more visitors came to discover Penzance and its area, with many artists attracted to St Ives and Penzance by the landscape and luminosity.

It is largely from tourism that the regions thrives today and at the railway station a large granite plaque greets visitors in Cornish - Pensans A'gas Dynergh - Penzance welcomes you! I just love walking around the area, but especially next to the railway track and then wandering along the sand for some beach-combing!