Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Dawn's Magic at Ashlett Creek

Dawn Reflections at Ashlett Creek & The Charge of the Light Brigade?!!...

Ashlett Creek and the sailing club just after dawn on a beautiful cold, frosty, slightly misty, windless high tide - last October. I had checked the weather and tide times the night before and got a bit of a lucky hunch that the next mornings dawning might be interesting here. Ashlett always looks its best in the morning, and for me this was one of the best occasions.

Ashlett again looking eastwards. I was pretty excited about the reflections of the early morning airplane contrails so clearly defined in the dead still water. There was a bit of an interesting juxtaposition thing going on here between the quiet, magical calm of the water's surface and the way the vapour trail reflections were being depicted in their soft and surreal, zig zag patterns - when in fact at 30,000 feet further up, the flying machines that were making those very same patterns were blasting there way across a very busy, windy, noisy, dangerous, airspace rush hour at a thunderous 600 or so mph. In stark contrast to the hushed and tranquil scene they were painting on the mirror like water surface, down here in Ashlett Creek.

Kind of like it must have appeared to Lord Raglan's entourage of sickly sops and voyeurs at the battle of Balaclava, in the Crimean War of 1854, as they looked down at the somewhat surreal but rousing spectacle of the Light Brigade galloping nonsensically under the guns and smoke of the Russian artillery - a couple of miles away from the safety and complete detachment of their mute and distant sanctuary, high up on the Sapoune Ridge - babbling and cheering effusively at the 'dashing' sight of 'The Six Hundred' - hacking and slashing there way so gloriously and ignominiously into the next world - history - and for many of them....oblivion.

If you get my drift..?

And please, if you do genuinely get my drift - let me know - because I kind of drifted off myself there for a moment - from where I think I might have been drifting with that slightly Crimean 'strain' of thought, and you may well be able to pull me back on track, give me a good slapping, and reboot me - with very little effort required on your part. If you follow my drifting.....


A Fishermans Work - Sete Harbour - The Languedoc

Stayed in the Languedoc last year and drifted one fine day into a large coastal fishing town called Sete. Wow. What a place. Beats the bongos out of all the glitzy, showy, pretentious Cote d'Azur resorts. And a good deal better value on the Euros too. Just about everything centres along the 'south to north' waterway that dissects the town completely from the open sea at the bottom, to the inland waterways at the top. Its just as busy as say Cannes,but theres plenty of underground car parks to sustain the traffic.

After filling our tummies with seriously fresh seafood in one of the myriad of waterside eating shops, where the service seemed to be universally cheerful and sincere, I strolled across the road to look for some photo opportunities amongst all the fishing trawlers that were lining the harbourside.

This particular modern trawler with a remarkable huge copper stern transom - nudged in right next to me and began cleaning down and performing equipment repairs as per the image. The fishermen were not the least bit perturbed by me nosing around with my camera. If you're not already familiar with the Languedoc coast (as we weren't) and you plan on having a holiday down there sometime, I recommend a visit to the area and the endless miles of virtually empty golden sandy beaches that flank Sete from Montpelier all the way down to Spain. Stunning.

"If you go down to 'Hythe Pier' tonight....."

......You'll be in for one hell of a ride.

Having taken some earlier pictures of Hythe Pier at night - on my 'bwand new twipod' - I ventured to the ferry boat end and tried my virgin hand at pier train spotting. This particular engine and carriages became the one and only entry into my 'Pier Trainspotters' record book. And remains so to this day.

Whilst composing this shot and chatting to the jolly and friendly train driver - Bill, I discovered that - in his other life - when not drag racing his train up and down Hythe Pier every day - he is a regular and much travelled pedal biking veteran of northern Spain, Southwest France and the Pyrenees Mountains. A pursuit that he found therapeutic and calming when not racing his train down the pier after dark.

What do I know! ?

Okay... Shortly after chatting to me happily about his exploits and adventures in far flung mountain ranges with his pet camel - the Hythe Pier train driver (Bill) checked his Diamond Platinum Tag Heuer wristwatch, donned his Kevlar train racer's cap, reversed it, pulled down his infra red night vision goggles and said - "Gotta Go. Be back in 15" - - - minutes? hours?? - then calmly climbed into his cockpit behind the engine - sealed the hatch shut and....WHOOSH!..... the train was gone. Just like that. Vanished.
Fortunately for me, my camera has a 1/10,000 second high speed setting (Wow!) which comes in very useful when you're continually trying to capture those - 'elusive high speed Pier Trains as they make the jump to Warp Speed' - shots.

Precisely 15 seconds later, as I was trying to pull myself up off the floor - WHOOSH - SCREECH - and he'd returned with a train load of dazed and baffled passengers who were clearly trying to work out how they'd come to be standing at the wet end of the pier, when just a moment before they'd been standing right down the other end, waiting for the train.

My friendly Pier Train pilot (still Bill) promptly emerged from his cockpit with a hiss of air as the access hatch slid open - casually ambled back over to me and said - "Do you know what the Spanish is for 'puncture repair kit' then?" - to which I just dumbly shook my head - "Thought not" - he said - "Its: Kit de Reparación de Pinchazos" - "Not many people seem to know that" he said.

I took a whole series of these pictures of a grey & misty Hythe pier, just after dawn one morning. I just love the semi specter type appearance of the pier structure, and all the grainyness these type of light and weather condition combine to help make this sort of shot possible.
What an amazing variety of fascinating and illuminating people you get to meet when photographing warp speed capable trains on piers at night. I must continue to escape from incarceration more.

Maybe I'll become a stowaway on the Hythe Ferry one night and see what far flung port I awaken to the following morning. What an adventure that might turn out to be. Make the kids so proud of me too. Might even get a mention in the Waterside Herald:- "Stowaway man discovered in bowels of Hythe Ferry - on the day it enters Hythe boatyard for winter repairs"....

P.s. - For the benefit of International visitors or even UK citizens who havn't the faintest notion of where 'Hythe Pier' is - well its in England!.

 Or more usefully....its about 90 miles left of LONDON and down a bit, next to a city called SOUTHAMPTON. For my French friends and visitors, its only about 60 miles due north of Cherbourg....which can normally be found in northern France. So its therefore quicker to get to Hythe from Cherbourg than it is from London. Especially on a friday afternoon! 

P.P.s. - If you look at the incy wincy little tower stacks on the hard left of this image, just above the pier structure - this is the precise spot (dock) that the 'Titanic' departed from on its ill fated maiden voyage to America. So now you know.

Water wheels and boob jobs in Avignon

One of two short blogs I've just glued together, to try and make one bigger one. A BlogOpic.  Kind of two Blogs for the price of one.  An Omniblog if you prefer......or......whatever floats your Blog.

Blog-ette 1 of 2) Le Pont d'Avignon - The bridge that doesn't go far enough...or...When is a Brid not a Bridge?!...and what on earth is a 'Brid' anyway?  Other than a waste of spell check?

Much has been written, photographed and fought over, concerning this most famous of 'bridge contradictions' in Europe, and in case this doesn't make any sense at all - this particular bridge does not reach the other side of the river, therefore technically it isn't a 'Bridge' and therefore can only accurately be addressed as a 'Brid' - so I'll not try to add any more brain numbing trivia to the list. Suffice to say I spent a fair bit of time trying to photograph the beautiful textures and shadows of the stonework and masonry of this classic Provence & Rhone River landmark. With tourists understandably climbing all over it all day long, it was pretty chancy that I was going to get a shot in without other human intervention - but hey ho and here you go.....

Actually......That’s not entirely the complete story. In truth, my wife had become increasingly, intensely bored with sitting around for an hour waiting for me to take my perfect 'people free' shot of "...the sodding brid" so - she finally stood up and quietly wandered off back through the arch on the left, to the sunny side of the bridge, sorry - brid, completely removed her top & bra - and lay down on the river bank under the full gaze of all the other bored and overheating tourists up on the brid.

Well that did it.

Thirty seconds later and to a rising crescendo of commotion from above - everyone just vanished from the viewfinder, on my side of the brid.


Another thirty seconds later and my wife reappeared through the arch - fully attired again. Fixing me briefly with her - 'calmly raised eyebrow look' - "Okay...?" - was all she needed to say.

As I promptly picked up my kit and 'zoomed' after her up the river bank - there was a rising sound of applause and cheering from the even larger crowd of tourists now gathered up on the brid. She coolly gave them all a simple wave with the back of her hand, but never once looked back...

Blog 2 of 2) The Sorgue Waterwheels of Avignon & a perfect afternoon with Edith Piaf...

Click the 'PLAY' button on the above You Tube audio/video link to listen to Edith Piaf singing "La Foule" - while you read the rest of this blog post....

If you ever find yourself in old Avignon for the first time, I hope you manage to amble along the Rue Des Teinturiers - "Street of the Dyers" - where you will find this, and 22 more similar wooden waterwheels.

Gracefully turning with the flow of the river Sorgue and the various canals that were built into the Sorgue to accommodate them around 1800, they were constructed to drive a variety of industrial machinery including looms, henceforth why the Dyer's community established their trade along this street. The owners of the water wheels would attach a smaller drive wheel to the top of the main wheel. This in turn would drive a shaft that extended through a hole in the wall of the building, which in turn would be connected to whatever machinery was in place inside the property - to manufacture their chosen wares & products.

During our brief stay in Avignon we experienced the latter end of a heat wave with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees during the afternoons. Even the locals were struggling. The small cafes, shops and studios that make up the Rue Des Teinturiers were a welcome escape from the crowds and the heat of the popular central areas of the city, and only a ten minute stroll south easterly from the main square.

We were lucky to find a photo reference to this area in a guide book and thus we sneaked away from the masses into this beautiful quiet trendy neighborhood. It wasn’t long before we were sat in the cool shade of a leafy tree at a pretty cafe table right next to one of the water wheels. And we were the only live patrons present.

A truly charming waitress provided the ice cold 1664's and a delicious, simple selection of meat cuts, cheeses, salads and other local delicacies, all served on cool, rectangular grey slates. Strictly speaking they weren’t serving food at that time in the afternoon as chef was having a much deserved siesta before the evening trade kicked in - so the waitress apologised saying that this was the best she could rustle up without waking 'chef'. Only in France! Speaking as a passionate foodie who searches out 'off piste', simple, real, unpretentious eating experiences, I was so glad this lovely young woman was in the wrong job, otherwise we would not have had the opportunity to enjoy one of the best alfresco eating experiences during our trip to Provence. We were soon joined by a perfect gentle breeze, the zen like ripples of the Sorgue river currents driving the waterwheel and as if bang on cue - the stirring music of Edith Piaff singing 'La Foule' coming from just inside the cafe. Totally and utterly - Perfect.

We felt like we'd just been given Le Marie's award for "the luckiest tourists in Avignon". Pure bliss.

Edith Piaff may not be your thing - frankly she wasn’t mine until I watched the film biopic 'La Vie en Rose' with the incredible Marion Cottilard playing Edith. I became a convert. If you're on this wavelength, try Googling Youtube for some of Edith Piaff's work and set it to play in the background, while you're planning your next French journey. To save you some trouble, I have inserted a You Tube Link up on the right, under " favourite web things" - N/B - the photo imagery of modern ballet dancers that appears on this particular You Tube video link is impressive too. Enough said.

The effort of trying to leave this place a good couple of hours later was one of the toughest traveler moments we'd experienced in quite a long while.

But we'll be back. It may not be quite the same next time, but we'll be there regardless.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

My incarceration in Castle Beynac

A Stairway to...?   Well - The Blogga-Sphere for one, and my 'first ever blog post!'....

Da Daaaaaa!!!!

This particular stairway leads to the upper ramparts and turrets of the magnificent Castle Beynac perched some 450 feet up a cliff, overlooking the Dordogne river and commanding one of the most breathtaking views in southwest France. These stone steps were first set in place during the 12th century and led directly off the upper level of the main spiral stairway and thence on up to the highest sentry turrets. They would have been trodden by several generations of war lords, dukes and monarchs alike. One of the most famous and celebrated  keepers of this castle was our very own King Richard Ist - Richard Cœur de Lion, better known in popular English folklore as Richard the Lion-Heart.

A view of just part of Beynac taken from the main road that runs alongside the Dordogne river, with its guardian castle perched high up on top of the cliff. Of interest to film buffs - the light coloured door in the house near the bottom of the ramp is where Juliette Binoche exited wearing a red coat, on a cold and wintry day, in the opening scene of the film 'Chocolat'.
The castle passed briefly to King Richard, who was more French than English by birth, when the owner incumbent died without a natural heir. However, the transition was short lived since our poor, brave Richard also died soon after from an infected and eventually gangrenous crossbow bolt wound to his shoulder - sustained at the siege of Chalus Castle, some 120 miles to the east, on March 25th of 1199. At 6.05pm. Approximately. The castle was then entrusted to the late King Richard's companion, the mercenary captain Mercadier, but alas he too died just a short while later, after being assassinated one dark night, by a rival in Bordeaux.

The castle was then returned to the Beynacs. During the Hundred Years War and the many battles between the English and the French, Beynac remained in French hands while just a few hundred yards to the south, Castelnaud remained under English control. Inevitably this led to a large number of skirmishes during the period. In 1214 the castle was taken by Simon de Montfort, but soon fell back in the hands of the Beynac family. A few decades later, the part of France containing Beynac was ceded to the English, meaning that this castle and much of the Dordogne, was for a while - the southern most border of England.

Looking south from the Castle, along the Dordogne towards the towers of Castelnaude, which was where the 'bad guys' lived. Meaning - Us - The English.

In 2008 I had the opportunity to travel solo throughout Spain and southwest France for a while. For five days of my crusade I stayed in a pretty converted barn within the small hamlet of La Treille Haute, a couple of miles north west of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, perched upon a hillside directly opposing Castle Beynac, just a couple of cables south of the Dordogne's river bank's. On the afternoon I chose to explore this magnificent and imposing looking castle there were no more than a handful of visitors, so I was able to roam around freely and get a truly stark and realistic feel for the place, with few obvious visual references to modern society.

By the time I'd camera'd and camcorder'd my way up to the highest ramparts, I was not to know that I had become the only remaining visitor within the castle and grounds. Attempting to capture some moody photo images, I became totally lost in my pseudo medieval musings - 'stepping back in time' - without a care for the present world, detached and completely out of sight to the wonderful Beynacian residents who look after the Castle.
A view south west from the castles upper battlements, across the Dordogne towards the tiny hamlet of La Treille Haute where I was based. The house next door to my barn lodgings had been the headquarters and operational base of a daring resistance leader and SOE officer - Jacques Poirier - during 1944. With much deadly activity being exchanged between his resistance group and the german forces before and after the D-day invasion. I also managed to get myself lost for some hours one evening, in the densely wooded hills that surrounded La Treille Haute. Sad eh.

I sat quietly at the top of the main spiral staircase, in the semi darkness, listening to the lonely wailing symphony of wind murmurings creeping upward from the pitch black void below me - trying to imagine the real guise and voice of King Richard. Men and their peers alike, whose lives, adventures and ideologies were to define the future and in turn shape our medieval history - and who had once trod the very same I was sitting on right now.

As I exited the top of the stairway in this image, it occurred to me that they may be about to close it all up fairly soon and I was probably at the furthest point away from the main entry gates way down below. I even spoke to my camcorder saying "wouldn't it be great if I got locked in here".

I'm not making this up, but just a few moments later I heard in the distance - an ominous, wailing, groaning cacophony of huge iron hinges closing some impressively heavy, ironclad doors - and then a series of deep, resonating 'booms...' - as each of the doors closed home...


I had now become quite literally locked in by the gatekeepers as they were shutting up for the night, believing there to be no-one else still present in the castle except the bygone spirits of intrepid knights and warring crusaders. But they'd not reckoned on 'me'. Incarcerated by the French no less. It had been nearly 800 years since an Englishman had been imprisoned here against his will - but whose counting. They'd got 'me'.
Believe it or not - I laughed and laughed, from the top of 'my castle' - staring out over 'my domain' across the Dordogne as the sun set over the Perigord Noir. A real life adventure was apparently just unfolding. Right up my rampart and just my cup of mead! An Englishman alone in his castle - his home for just one night maybe - but a chance never the less to share these mighty walls with the memories of countless legions of brave and earnest souls, long since etched into so many parchments and fables from medieval history.

So here was I, swaggering along the parapets, recklessly gouging great manly bites from my tuna and sweetcorn sarnie, swinging my fairly large plastic bottle of Evian with gallant panache and defiantly bellowing out a meagre ensemble of the Bards most stirring rhetoric...."The Games Afoot!"...."Once More Onto The Breach Dear Friends!"....and then as I coughed out a truly nasty big piece of sweetcorn....."Cry Havoc!! - And Let Slip The Dogs Of War!!!".

That's when I doubled into convulsions of coughing on a morsel of wholegrain bread crust, now firmly lodged in the back of my throat. Made my eyes water too it did. How unlike the rousing speeches of Richard the Lionheart, King Henry V and even Sir Laurence Olivier. No rising chorus of cheers or warrior chants from my brave and loyal compatriots . No beating of drums and battle swords against worn and battered breast plates... just a sad little caw from a tired old crow, as he fixed a wanton stare at the fallen remains of my tuna  & sweetcorn sarnie.  My only tongue in cheek, though most respectful regret, was that I didn't have a great big 'Cross of St George' to hoist over Beynac. 'That' might have caused a few Beynacians to choke on their croissants in the morning! Mon Dieu!

Mais - Vive Les Beynacs !!

The fuller narrative of my incarceration - and - far more interestingly, the dashing manner in which I 'escaped' in the dark on my derriere - has now been adopted and somewhat embellished, into the oral narrative of the castle's tour guides for all to gasp in astonishment and wonder at. Modern folklore. Phillipe d'Murphee - perhaps the last known prisoner and escapee of Beynac Castle. Spoken of in the same hushed and reverent tones as our very own Richard the Lionheart. Phil & Rich. Sharing a piece of history together.

Dream on Macbeth.


p.s - Just in case you weren't aware... Richard the Lionheart spent only six months of his ten year reign in England, and although born in Oxfordshire in 1157, he grew up as a child in Aquitaine - south west France, becoming the Duke of Aquitaine at age 14 - and throughout most of his life, rarely spoke English.

p.p.s - Having taken the English Crown at Westminster Abbey in 1189, his first deed was to free his mum - Eleanor, Queen of Aquitaine - from 15 years of incarceration by his nasty old dad - Henry II. He also became the first English monarch to use the title 'King of England', as opposed to 'King of the English'. Very soon after, he shoved off from England again claiming it was "cold and always raining". Nothing new there then - ho hum.

The Loyal and Wonderful - 'Aida' - Holder of the Keys, Keeper of Castle Beynac, My Jailer and Ultimately - with a little regret cos I was having fun...! - My Saviour.

p.p.p.s - To raise funds for the Third Crusade, he initiated the 'Saladin Tithe Tax' throughout England. Although on his return journey from the Crusade, he was shipwrecked in the Adriatic and then ran into a spot of bother when he was captured by Leopold of Austria, who quite astutely sold him on to the emperor of Germany for 75,000 marks. That's alot of strudel. After some eighteen months of tedious incarceration in Austria and Germany, interference by the French King Phillip and the now minted Leopold once again -who were continually conniving to prevent his release until the Pope eventually intervened - Richard the Lionheart finally returned home to - 'France!!' - upon England's payment of a huge 'Kings Ransom' to Germany. The sum of which all but bankrupted England for many years to come.

p.p.p.p.s – In March 1199, King Richard laid siege to Castle Chalus-Chabrol, just south of Clermont Ferrand in the Haute-Vienne of central France. His objective was to enforce the collection of a recently discovered treasure trove of Roman gold from the dissenting Viscount Aimar. It was said that while riding around the puny castle walls on March 25th, Richard was seen taunting the archers and laughing at the very strange attire of one of the young knights, who was spotted wielding a crossbow in one hand and….a large iron frying pan as a makeshift shield in the other. Just then, another crossbowman – Pierre Basile, also known as Bertran de Gurdun - shot the bolt that hit King Richard in the upper left shoulder. Some time later, while still in the surgeon’s tent, Richard forgave the now captured crossbowman Pierre Basile, and even awarded him 100 shillings as a final act of clemency.

Unfortunately the surgeon botched his work and a few days later Richard's wound turned gangrenous. On the 6th April 1199 – King Richard the Lionheart died, and in a fit of rage and grief, his closest friend Mercadier overturned Richards final act of mercy and had Pierre Basile flayed alive and hanged.


p.p.p.p.p.s – “Yeah…I know, you’re tired and you want to go to bed” – Just one more little morsel then I’ll quit. Promise:

In 1907/8, a bright and determined eighteen year old student called T.E.Lawrence, spent a couple of years and a couple of thousand miles, cycling his way through France studying medieval castles - including Castle Beynac and Chalus - and in particular the journeys and conquests of Richard the Lionheart.

Young 'Lawrence' eventually gained a first class honours degree for his thesis entitled ‘The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th Century’, based on his own field researches in France and the Middle East. Little did this young Englishman know at the time that his own future life and destiny would become immortalised into history and boy’s own hero folklore, as a direct result of his gallant and intrepid wartime activities in the deserts of Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Jordan during WW1.

Although nowadays we know him far more famously as - ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

From one great English warrior legend....was so inspired another then.

That's it. Well done! .....You can go now.
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