Category Archives: Travel


Kentish pleasures

After elections, an afternoon off – a very pleasant stroll in Kent from Eynsford to Shoreham – yes the weather helped…

I was following a 1998 guide to walks around London, but luckily the paths were still there and open – and surprisingly accurate.

Eynsford has a well-known ford beside its little humpbacked bridge at the start of the walk; packed on this sunny day with paddling children. Around the bend there were still the Highland cattle billed as on show in 1998, together with some Indian runner ducks in the river.

Then you come to this simple, elegant railway bridge …

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History Travel Women's history

Women in two Oxford museums

A day off on Saturday, and a very pleasant one it was too, including quite some time in the Ashmoleon and the Oxford City Museum. Quite a contrast, given the Ashmoleon is all shiny and new (is it too heretical to say I rather prefer the way it used to be?) and the City is a lovely traditional museum packed with excellent material, even if most of the labels are paper pasted on to whatever material came to hand.

I found a delightful number of named women across both museums. Here’s a small selection…

First, the famous one, Livia

Then the (probably) relatively humble Cornelia Thalia, resident of Rome who died about 50-75AD and whose cremated remains were placed in this small casket, its carving still astonishingly crisp.

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Politics Travel

A delightful weekend in Norwich

Just back from a weekend of canvassing and leafletting in Norwich, where they’re having a huge byelection (in every ward) as a result of the mess over the on-off unitary status.

(As a workmate said, I really do know how to live…)

But seriously, it’s always delightful to see the smoothly oiled machine of the Norwich Green Party in action. I didn’t match my previous record (10.5 hours canvassing in one day), but between a solid stretch of canvassing on Saturday and a swath of leafletting today feel like it was well worth the effort.

And as always, the doorstep was delightful. I think the highlight was the discussion with an absolutely on-the-ball 96-year-old. She says she’s a Lib Dem, and the subtext was she felt she was too old to change now, but she’s happy her son has decided to vote Green for the first time this time. She said many interesting things, but what really struck me was her thoughts on the environment. “I’ve never seen the world in such a mess. I think you [the Greens] are going to be proved right.”

But meeting a 92-year-old voter (and her, in her words, “toyboy” husband – late 80s…) was also wonderful. They’ve read the literature, and both decided to vote Green for the first time. Would that all voters took such an interest…

And on the leafletting score, was pleased to ensure the “singing plasterer” had his Norwich Green News. I had my hands full so didn’t take a pic, but see he’s also tickled the fancy of others.


Entering a photographic time machine

Sitting in my hall cupboard, for many a year, is a case of transparencies – slide – yes images taken with real actual film, dating back well over a decade.

It’s been on my to-do list for a very long time, but I’ve taken the chance to start scanning them in – because these days a picture that doesn’t exist digitally might as well not exist at all, really.

They are labelled, and I think, somewhere, there is a key, but at the moment it is all a bit of a mystery (the boxes have got mixed up over time). I’ve done one with pics from Sri Lanka, Cambodia and I think India – I wasn’t really a bad photographer in those days, if a little over-fond of sunsets. (And these are done with a cheap scanner, so the colour and the sharpness are both a bit off – I do think the slides are better.)

Here’s a small selection…

Sri Lanka

elephant sanctuary
If memory serves, this is an elephant sanctuary on the road between Colombo and Candy…
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Books Travel

Getting to grips with France beyond Paris

A Frenchman I happen to know has lived all of his 73 years in one small hamlet of around 100 houses, except for a couple of unhappy years of national service in North Africa. He’s now half surrounded by the holiday homes of assorted Dutch, English and other nationalities, which he tries very hard to adjust to by trying to educate those who are amenable into the ethos and behaviour that he considers appropriate, and traditional. He’s friendly and keen to chat, but loses interest as soon as the topic moves beyond the hamlet.

Having read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, I now understand him a great deal more – for its thesis is that France, at least until the First World War, was not a nation, or at least was many, many nations, payes, which might be best defined as an area in which you could hear one church bell. Anyone with an interest in history knows that Germany was very late in European terms in forming as a “nation”, yet in Robb’s account France was scarcely more of one .

To set the scene he looks at the experiences of a series of intrepid mapmakers, some of whom paid with their lives for their efforts, not because of natural accidents but because their “foreign” status and “strange” tools made them targets. So the first mapster to see Le Gerbier de Jonc, 350 miles south of Paris on the watershed dividing the Med from the Atlantic, after trekking for three days through rugged, bare rock, in the early 1740s met his end: the locals took him for a sorcerer, and hacked him to death. Even in Murray’s Handbook for Travellers (1854), while it was suggested that this was a fine region for viewing by balloon, the writer added that this was “only if the aeronaut can remain out of range of a rifle”.

Beyond the main roads, there was wilderness and total isolation. So a girl of eight could get lost in the Issaux Forest, in the Basque Country, and only be found eight years later by shepherds in 1730, having lost her speech. In the mid-18th century a 300-strong band of smugglers roamed one-fifth of France, evading three regiments for a year and half, only captured when the leader, Louis Mandrin, was betrayed by his mistress. It was a land of tiny communities. In the late 18th and early 19th century, almost a third of the population, about 10 million people, lived in isolated farms, or hamlets with fewer than 35 inhabitants. “The known universe, for many people, had a radius of less than 15 miles and a population that could easily fit into a small barn.” Newcomers did arrive over the centuries, such as the Scottish mercenaries given forest land between Moulins and Bourges in the 15th-century by Charles VII, but were absorbed, and almost lost in the folk history that seldom stretched beyond three generations. (They became the Foratin people.)

It was a world that stopped for many months of the year, out of necessity, Robb quotes the diaries of Jules Renard about the Nievre: “the peasant at homes moves little more than the sloth”; “in winter, they pass their lives asleep, curled up like snails”. Official reports (this of 1844 on the Burgundy day labourers of the Nievre) were shocked: “these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.” Yet as Robb says, clearly hibernation was a necessity: a lowered metabolic rate prevented food stocks being exhausted..

And what industry there was often had different motives from the purely economic. In parts of the Auvergne, Robb has found, women got together in the evening, sometimes until after midnight, to sew and knit clothes that were sold to travelling merchants. The profits were tiny, but the proceeds were enough to pay for the lamp oil that enabled them to get together in the first place. And antidote to boredom and a place (almost) of their own.

The established church had little real hold, Robb contends. The “pagan” gods – from pagus or pays – were still around, and saints were regarded much as they had been: “the Church was important in the same way that a shopping mall is important to shoppers: the customers were not especially interested in the creator and owner of the mall; they came to see the saints, who sold their wares in little chapels around the nave”. And the idea of hierarchy among the “congregation” may well not have matched that of the priest. Robb quotes a lovely case from 1872 in Chartes of a woman asked to move out of the way of “le bon Dieu” in a procession. “She retorted, ’Huh! I didn’t come here for him, I came for her, pointing at the Virgin.’”
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Christmas in France

I thought that I was having a pleasant if restrained Christmas – a fancy half-langoustine done up by the charcuter in aspic, with a dressing of boiled egg and tomato, a slice of truffle pate, some pre-prepared potato dauphinois, and a few fancy sweets, but having read the local Autun paper, which filled its front page with a no doubt highly popular vox pop of “what are you doing for Christmas?” I know that I’m serious underdoing it. Each respondent has an almost identical list: snails, foie gras, oysters, roast beef, smoked salmon, cheeses, to which there are added variations, mostly around dessert, along the lines of chocolate mousse, Christmas biscuits and Christmas ice cream.

It still seems to be the women who are responsible for this labour – although it was clear from the crowded butcher in Etang sur Arroux last on Christmas Eve that the French form of the ready meal – as prepared by your local shop – is well used. “How long should I cook it for? What temperature?” the woman in front of me was anxiously asking. Most shoppers were taking away a wooden crate containing several large foil dishes – enough to feed a small army.

I’m thinking about spending the afternoon working in the garden, but perhaps that will shock the locals – it seems Christmas is sacred in French – in a carefully secular sense – the small towns and hamlets are all festooned with lights (as are many of the houses), but all in a carefully secular – snowmen and reindeer – sense. I was surprised that the local paper is full of notices from mayoral and other official offices saying they are closed on Christmas Day (well isn’t that kind of obvious?) but I suspect this is a sign of anxiety about the officially secular state – and if that’s the case, shouldn’t offices be open today?