Saturday, 29 September 2012

Meeting Vasa

Stockholm, Sweden
22nd September, 2012

I bought my ticket in the lobby and passed into the Vasa Museum. One goes to see a preserved sailing ship expecting to see a ship. What I saw before me when I passed through the doors brought tears to my eyes.

The Vasa story is a classic tragedy. Hubris then Nemesis. The warship set out on her maiden voyage from Stockholm harbour in August, 1628. Five minutes from shore, before a crowd of onlookers, a gust of wind struck her amidships and she heeled over, water poured into the open gun ports, and she sank with the loss of 50 lives. Simple design faults and royal ambition were to blame. Vasa lay on the seabed for 233 years in 60 m (120 ft) of water, preserved by the brackish waters of the Baltic, until she was lifted for conservation and reconstruction. The Museum has been built around these remains, using concrete and copper sheeting. There are five floors, and a visitor may choose what level he wishes to view the ship from: perhaps a grandstand from above, a side panorama, or a gaze from below. There are side displays of cannons and objects recovered from the wreck, including skulls from her skeleton crew; their faces have touchingly been restored to life in wax.

The Vasa is a huge brown hulk towering up in spotlit gloom. Carved timbers shape a curve from stem to stern. Her body is lined with gun ports, each adorned with a lion mask; her stern rises high with sculpted figures; her prow juts forward like a beak. Overhead, masts rise to half their original height, ending in crows' nests and held in place by a complex of rigging.

Resting between the worlds of the living and the dead, Vasa somehow resembles the pitted, oaken carcase of a sunken pirate vessel. She has been brought to the surface and thoroughly dried out, but still has a whiff of darkness about her: Vasa is one of the Undead.

Vasa is also beautiful. Humanity is evident in the sweep of her planking, the animation of her carving, the rhythms of her cordage and the scale of her doomed ambition. I have seen many admirable buildings in my time, but never a human construction so large and yet so fragile, so vastly venerable.

Vasa is an awesome artefact that has become a place of pilgrimage, one of the wonders of the world. People whisper round her much as they might round the casket of an uncorrupted body in a cathedral. She is a message from another world, handed over to our own for some extraordinary reason.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Near Corain, Spain
27th April, 2012

I am sheltering while a persistent April rain falls on this corner of Asturias. The tiled roof above me covers a village lavandería basin, with Año 1919 inscribed on its stone cistern. The sound of water is everywhere: the steady input from an iron pipe, the constant pitter-patter of drips from the eaves, the rustle from a small stream twenty yards away. Overhanging trees gather the rainfall into loud, plummeting drops.

The laundry is set into a wooded limestone slope overlooking a small valley. I have climbed a lane beside hedges, apple trees and a sloping meadow with two grey horses and a foal. The sky is weeping over this hilly, wooded landscape that reminds me of Somerset or Powys; trees are lichenous, the ground is mossy and floral. Small farmsteads are dotted here and there, many showing signs of careful but unfussy management: trees are coppiced and pollarded, hedges trimmed, drystone walls maintained. The stream is neatly culverted where it flows under the lane. The natural wealth in this damp corner of Spain needs constant attention, and I'm glad to see that people still provide it.

But what of the laundry - does anyone come here to wash their clothes? A white plastic bottle labelled Mistol Original stands next to a pillar, and a scrubbing brush and an orange plastic mug sit near the cistern. These are signs of laundry life. But the crystal-clear water flows over a sunken drift of dead, black leaves, and stirring it brings up clouds of silt. The lip of the basin is smoothed from years of use, but now patinated with moss and dirt. The paved floor has sprouting weeds. This laundry needs a thorough cleaning out.

Use and disuse: this place is telling me of a vanishing culture pattern. I imagine women's stories were exchanged here for generations, but their voices have now faded to silence; a part of Franco's world of peasant Spain.

I am telling a story of my own about this laundry, created from a bottle, a brush and a cup. An elderly woman still visits from time to time, and she vividly remembers the scenes and sounds of social life that that used to go on here. But now she only hears - like me - the voice of her own thoughts, and the stories told by fallen leaves and water flowing over stone.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Lifting boulders


The chestnut forests of the Cévennes are roasting in hot sunlight; the steep valleys and rocky outcrops are glowing green and tawny brown.

View of Le Castel, looking south-west

I am staying with my friend Nicolas at Le Castel, a Provençal mas or farmstead. It lies on the Mediterranean side of the Cévennes, standing on a knoll overlooking the head of the Vallée Française, through which the waters of the youthful Mialet flow on their way to join the River Gard, and ultimately the Rhône.

Abandoned terraces

Jean-Baptiste C. has lived here for seven years, but he has just put the place on the market. Originally from Paris, he keeps a handful of sheep in a byre on the ground floor - whence a strong but not unpleasant smell drifts up - otherwise he lives alone with a dog. Le Castel is a dry place on a steep valley side, with a black alkathene pipe from the stream as its sole aqueduct. The soil is very stony; rocks are continually shifting downhill from the granite outcrops above, or breaking out of the scanty soil. The land near the house is arranged in terraces, mostly covered with scrub or trees; elsewhere the slopes are forested. Inside, the house has a dim, lofty feel, with big wooden beams and wicker baskets and sheep bells hanging from them. Pictures with religious associations, ranging through Christianity, Hindiusm and Buddhism, decorate the walls, for Jean-Baptiste is a kind of mystic.

There are other buildings at Le Castel. A ruined farmhouse and barn are situated nearby, with a window lintel engraved 1730. A ruined chapel lies in the valley below, with the remains of an apse and a stone-vaulted ceiling. If you take a goat path slanting up the valley side - through broom, bracken and bramble, along crumbling terraces, past unmanaged chestnut trees and over small ravines - you will come to a roofless stone barn known as a clède.
Clèdes are evocative places, like old engine houses in Cornwall. They were once central to rural industry in the Cévennes, being used for smoking, dehusking and drying chestnuts after harvest. In olden days, a fragrant fume would hang over Cévenol valleys every October, as people processed the châtaignes which were a staple of their subsistence. Beyond the clède, the pathway and terraces peter out, and chestnuts give way to rocky moorland with stunted oak trees. Population growth in the 16th century led to a major expansion of chestnut cultivation in the region, we are told: forest clearance accelerated and a major phase of terracing and planting took place; thus the Cévennes became clothed in chestnut forest, within the natural limits dictated by soil and climate (1). Situated at a valley head, next to the high Atlantic / Mediterranean watershed, Le Castel may lie close to those limits - the high strandline of châtaigneraie.

View of Le Castel, sited close to the gorge in the centre
There is a bronze statue of a naked man in the village of St Germain de Calberte. He is lifting a boulder, and clearly symbolises the monumental effort of people to terrace and transform their mountains into productive land. Le Castel has evidence of much prolonged labour written into its landscape and ruins. I imagine the families that once made their homes here; they created the terraces and buildings over the centuries to make their subsistence. Jean-Baptiste grows a few vegetables and maintains his tiny flock, but he can hardly be described as a Cévenol farmer. By contrast, the National Park is trying to maintain historic land-use and culture in the region. For example, it runs workshops on how to look after and revive la châtaigneraie; it promotes traditional apiculture; it specifies that roofs are to be made of heavy, overlapping slabs of raw schist known as lauze. The Park also has a say in who may buy property in its domain: it prefers people with strong local connections. It promotes efforts to record the last scraps of surviving paysan oral culture (2). The aim is to conserve local culture and a distinctive sense of place.

Today, we had visitor from Paris, a man interested in buying Le Castel - house, ruins, chapel, terraces, forest and scrub - all 23 hectares. He shares his surname with one of the managers of the National Park. Is he the kind of man to rebuild a productive Cévenol landscape - can he lift boulders?

Whoever lives at Le Castel, the granite will continue to crumble from the mountain side and wildlife will continue to invest the place with its own anarchic wealth and beauty.

Episode after rain
Jersey Tiger Euplagia quadripunctaria

(1) 'Votre Chataigneraie' (Parc National des Cévennes, 2008)
(2) Laurence, P,: 'Du Paysage and Des Temps -  La memoire orale en Cévennes Vallée Francaise et Pays de Calberte' (Sivom Des Hauts Gardons, 2004)

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Archives and memory

I spent yesterday in the company of many old documents. They are the residues of the old Redgrave Estate and general family admin. Over 7,000 similar documents have already been catalogued by the Redgrave History Group, and there is already an archive in the Suffolk Record Office. While there is little family material of public interest, there is much information about local people and places over two centuries, and through them it is possible to get detailed insights into the life of villages such as Burgate, Botesdale, Hinderclay, Rickinghall and Wortham as well as Redgrave. The oldest papers go back to the 16th century, the most recent date from the 1970s, though most span the period 1780 to 1860. The residue has passed into my hands since my father's death, and it is my little task to sort it for posterity. Once catalogued, most of it will go to the Record Office and the rest into a box of family history.

The remains of Redgrave Hall, c.1955. The Georgian house was demolished in 1946,
leaving the Tudor core, with the eventual intention of restoring it. This never happened,
and these ruins were demolished c.1970. Photo courtesy Shaun Addy.

Drainage plan, C16th.
Here, I am inevitably drawn into the story of Redgrave Park. I first encountered it at the age of six. I was fascinated by the crumbling ruins of the Hall and its overgrown gardens, the rambling Park and beautiful lake. The impression made by that place has never left me. Who would not be amazed by such a place? The landscape had been designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to catch the human eye and heart. My sister Pip and I swam in the lake, collected birds' eggs on the islands, explored the hollow oak trees; we picked plums in the overgrown gardens, visited 'Wop' Garnham in his keeper's cottage beside the lake, and had picnics at the Round House. The Park is a focal place in the Mythic Geography of my life.

From an Estate terrier, 1803
The Park was sold in 1971, when I was 12 years old; my parents split up and my mother moved to Scotland. As a teenager I pored over photographs, maps and plans, resurrecting the prelapsarian life of the Park in my imagination. 

Views of the Park, c.1935

We never lived at Redgrave Park, but it is still alive in my psyche, as if it were a cherished homeland destroyed by a War. I recently caught some words by author Jonathan Coe, speaking on the radio. I think they are a clear statement about the importance of 'place' in the psyche, and importance of personal memory in creating - and re-creating - it. 
"Sometimes I think that these spaces we inhabit are not physical places at all, just layer upon layer of memories. They are built out of experience - human experience - not steel or pre-cast concrete. A friend of mine used to live on the 19th floor of a tower-block near Liverpool. They knocked it down, but he still used to drive past that place every day, and look up into the sky and remember all the things he had done, the friends he'd met, the women he'd loved and lost - and all these in a few cubic metres of space which were now hung, suspended in mid air. When this place is gone what will be left of the people who lived here? That mound in the middle of the court, my court, Bobby's court, will be flattened, no one will remember it. No one will remember I met Susan there, fell in love with her, and when we were children we called that The Moon; and that other people lived within these concrete walls, had their own memories, had their own stories. It will all disappear, it'll all be lost unless we struggle to remember. Someone has to keep the records".
 (BBC Radio 4, October 7th, 2011)     

If I set fire to the Redgrave Estate papers nobody would ever miss a thing. But perhaps future generations would lose some richness which I have it in my power to give them. This archive is a resource of memory for other people's families as well as my own. The struggle to remember serves the future, but in doing so it also serves the people of the past. Someone could use the archive to resurrect the bare bones of past life, and through diligent research, give them flesh. Maybe I am standing with one foot in the land of massive unreason, but I feel as though I have a responsibility towards the dead and the places they knew. I have only a few more documents to catalogue, then I can hand their records over. My part in their resurrection will be done.

Redgrave Park today