Birmingham Edgelands Part 1

IMG_3729Some cities draw you straight in from their edges by dint of gravity or beckoning pathways – officially designated walking routes or desire roads shaped by regular footfall. Not so Birmingham: here the momentum at the city’s outer limits is largely centifrugal – a manic rotation of cars and passengers around the city rim; a spinning Catherine wheel of inertia that is hard to break through. Much of England’s second city is, as Jonathan Meades and other commentators have observed, purpose-built for motor transport; unrepentant walkers may struggle for footing away from its pedestrian-friendly core around Centenary Square, Victoria Square and the newly appointed Jewellery Quarter. Birmingham’s obeisance to the internal combustion engine has long had comedic value: the Gravelly Hill Interchange, aka ‘Spaghetti Junction’, is infamous for its confusion of tangled asphalt pasta subbing as roadways, and parts of the outer city can give the appearance of an apocalyptic Ballardian landscape in which the motor car has unfettered dominion.

There are chinks in the armour here and there though – safe passages on foot towards the centre that can be discovered by close scrutiny of the upper right hand side of the Birmingham 1:25,000 OS Explorer map. One such pedestrian wormhole occurs beneath the M6 Motorway at Chelmsley Wood at the far eastern edge of the city close to Birmingham Airport. Chelmsley Wood is actually part of Solihull rather than Birmingham but that’s another story.


I approach the city from Coleshill, a north Warwickshire market town that lies on a ridge just beyond the M6. A brownstone settlement with a high street lined with pubs that once might have been coaching inns, it gives little clue to the vast West Midlands megalopolis that lurks nearby. I weave my way down from the high street through a new housing estate to approach the traffic roar that comes unseen from beyond a protective belt of trees. A muddy footpath leads through to the A446, the Stonebridge Road – a busy dual-carriageway that I have to cross carefully, resting briefly like a human bollard in the central reservation before continuing to the other side where the track continues though more din-blasted woodland.

The footpath soon joins a farm track that rises over a bridge that spans both the M42 and the M6 Toll. Traffic roars underneath – more than a dozen lanes of cars and lorries heading north and south, their road-dazed occupants oblivious to the ancient forest that once stood on the territory they are speeding through. This motorway island,  like Chelmsey Wood, its high-rise blocks now within sight to the east beyond the pylon wires that frame them, was once part of the vast Forest of Arden – a leafy tract of Merrie England across which squirrels (red, of course) could travel for miles without the inconvenience of having to touch the ground. But such romance is now long dead, despite the subterranean presence of 2½ million Mills & Boon novels pulped to provide bulk for the underlay of the M6 Toll road – bodice-rippers recycled in such a way that their female protagonists would now genuinely be able to feel the earth move beneath them.

IMG_3739Even here, in plain earshot of the hum and thrum of the motorways, the landuse remains determinedly rural: the hedgerows cheep with edgeland birds, flowers deck the drainage ditches, isolated oaks stand proud soaking up CO2 and less desirable hydrocarbons; wheat fields stretch productively to the very edge of the motorway. A timely reminder of the close proximity of Birmingham Airport comes when a jetliner suddenly swoops into land, hugging the horizon – a trick of perspective giving the momentary illusion of the plane perching on the roof of one of the Chelmsley Wood blocks that lie just beyond the motorway ahead.

IMG_3745I follow the farm track under the pylons and a tunnel comes into view ahead. It is, in fact, a subway, a passage that leads beneath the third of this triptych of motorways, the M6. Graffiti daubs the walls of the subway – it would feel very wrong if it didn’t – and at the other side a staggered, anti-motorbike gate leads directly into Chelmsley Wood, streets of tidy new-build to start with (the estates posh end?) and then its high-rises. Chelmsley Wood doesn’t have the best or reputations – a clergyman was attacked and car-jacked outside a church here in broad daylight recently – but it does not seem too threatening on first glance. The high-rises – 39 in total, one of the biggest development schemes in Europe when they were first erected as an overspill estate on green belt in the late ‘60s – seem well-maintained; grassy landscaping softens the territory between the blocks, cycle-ways trace curving routes to the meandering River Cole that delimits the estate’s northern boundary.

IMG_3751Kingshurst Brook, effectively a damp ditch enlivened by a blousy pink display of Himalayan balsam, leads away from the river, skirting the perimeter of the estate to pass Alcott Wood, a remnant pocket of ancient woodland that now serves as a local nature reserve. A few local youths in grey tracksuits have gathered at the wood’s entrance, although their interest in botany is probably negligible.

I veer left along roads into Marston Green, a very average sort of suburb, and make my way to the railway station. A train has just departed but there will be another along in just twenty minutes. The only other passenger on the platform is a beautiful and elegantly dressed young Asian woman who shouts gleefully into her mobile phone with a posh, distinctly non-Brummie voice, asking of her unseen friend, “You said that would fix me up with a nice man. When are you going to do it”? The train arrives on time and we immediately become anonymous occupants of a fast-moving bubble that speeds us southeast away from the city, past the airport, past the cow-grazed fields of bucolic Warwickshire, through the ghost territory of the ancient Forest of Arden. Already Birmingham seems far behind.

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Lenins of the world, unite!


I don’t quite know what it is but whenever I have come across an old Lenin statue anywhere in the territories of the old Soviet Union I have usually not been able to resist taking a photograph. It may be it purely a matter of posterity – these things will not be there for ever. But perhaps it for other reasons – vague nostalgia for something I never had the opportunity to experience, or a sneaking regard for an idealistic yet flawed political system that had such indomitable self-belief? Another part of me acknowledges that I am drawn towards old Soviet statuary in the same way I am attracted to photogenic ruins: as revolutionary ghosts manifest in stone and concrete that serve as repositories for the recent past.

IMG_6856The countries of the former Soviet Union have widely differing attitudes to displaying representations of their erstwhile leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The new Baltic countries and those of the Caucasus region, keen to sever any lasting connections with the USSR, tend to shun them completely – most of the old statuary has long been toppled and reduced to rubble or hardcore for roads. In a few cases, like the irony-heavy Grutas Park in Lithuania, the statues have been collected together and repurposed to make a joke of the past by creating a sort of Soviet-era theme park. This comes complete with statues, barbed wire, military music and canteens that serves ‘Soviet-style’ food – dishes that feature cabbage, beetroot and, of course, vodka.  Such a move is motivated by nostalgia to some extent, but it is also undoubtedly partly taking the piss.

IMG_7900Ukraine, which once had an impressive number of Lenin statues, has got rid of up to 500 of these over the past couple of years, an ideological casualty of the civil war and perceived Russian aggression in that divided land. Currently many still remain in place but President Petro Poroshenko has recently signed a bill setting a six-month deadline for the removal of the country’s remaining communist monuments and so their days are probably numbered – in the pro-European west of the country at least.

IMG_5854Elsewhere, where Soviet-era murals are attached to buildings or just too cumbersome to remove wholesale, the offending revolutionary faces are simply scratched away. I once saw a hillside in Uzbekistan where a Lenin-shaped ghost image was left where a giant face had been erased from the landscape. Once lovingly marked out in stone, the image of the revolutionary leader was no longer needed – or indeed desired – in a newly independent country presided over by a self-elected president-for-life. I have seen much the same sort of thing in Georgia – murals of Soviet period scientific achievements in which Lenin’s face has been clumsily redacted by means of a chisel. Curiously, local boy Stalin – a far more murderous character than Lenin ever was – is still revered in some circles in that country. A museum to the ‘Man of Steel’ – more a shrine of very dubious taste – still stands at his hometown of Gori together with a statue that used to have pride of place in the town’s main square.


Russia has long condemned Stalin’s brutal excesses but his predecessor Lenin can still to be seen in more or less every town and city the length and breadth of the land. The same can also be said for Belarus, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Kyrgyzstan – the Central Asian country I know best – is much the same, the only only place in Central Asia where it would appear that the recent Soviet past is not thoroughly scorned. Weather-beaten statues and busts of Lenin can still be seen in most towns in the country, although these are now slowly being usurped by shiny heroic representations of national heroes like Manas and Kurmanjan Datka.



Photographs from top to bottom (all ©Laurence Mitchell)

Lenin and bust in Soviet sculpture park, Moscow, Russia

Lenin waving at civic buildings, Yekaterinberg, Russia

Lenin in taxi-hailing mode, Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

Nonchalant Lenin, Pskov, Russia

Redacated Lenin face on Soviet space travel memorial, Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

Lenin and friends, Russian flea market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Dynamic ‘caped crusader’ Lenin, Tirasapol, Transdniestr

Lenin the theatrical performer (note the redacted face on plinth), Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin the thinker, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin points out the lofty Ala-Too mountains beyond the city (not any more though, he’s been moved and now faces the other way), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stoic upright Lenin with Kyrgyzstan flag, Chaek, Kyrgyzstan

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Crowland – the name seems to be well chosen. Walking into the village I cannot help but notice several dozen crows perched on the wires above the village sign: a welcoming committee taking a brief respite from wind-wheeling above the fields that surround this south Lincolnshire village.

A few minutes earlier, well within sight of Crowland Abbey’s stumpy spire, I had been in a ditch, albeit briefly, when in a fit of pique resulting from the footpath not being where it ought to be according to my OS map, I had attempted to plough my own furrow through head-high thistles to the edge of a cornfield. As it turned out, the field was surrounded by a drainage ditch full of rushes and foul-smelling stagnant water. Plunging knee-deep into this hitherto unseen swamp I hastily beat a retreat to return to the main road, which I followed west to reach a roundabout where a sign pointed me towards the village centre and Crowland Abbey, half ruin, half working parish church.


With soggy feet, and still brushing storm flies and thistle fragments from my hair, I reflect that the unseen ditch was a timely reminder that, historically, all routes to reach Crowland were once of a watery nature. Crowland (formerly ‘Croyland’) lies in the South Holland district of Lincolnshire, hard against the border with Cambridgeshire, just to the north of Peterborough in that part of the county that once belonged to the far north-eastern tip of Northamptonshire. Crowland Abbey, its remains now part of a parish church, was formerly a Benedictine abbey church founded by Saint Guthlac, a priest who came to live as a hermit Croyland in 699 when the village was nothing more than an isolated island in the Fens. A monastic community developed here in the 8th century and Viking attacks took place on the abbey in the following centuries. Land was slowly drained and reclaimed around the village for agricultural use and during the early years of the Norman occupation Hereward the Wake held land here as an abbey tenant. The abbey was finally dissolved in 1539 and its eastern part demolished leaving just its nave and aisles for continued use as part of the village’s parish church.


On the day of my visit the church is shrouded with scaffolding – never a pretty sight. I soon leave it behind to walk down West Street where a triangular bridge stands marooned on dry land – another reminder of Crowland’s watery past. Trinity Bridge once stood over the confluence of the River Welland and its tributary, the River Witham. Both of these rivers have long been diverted away from the village and so now it stands high and dry, a white elephant of civil engineering, opposite the village pub and tight cluster of houses that are built from the same warm-hued Barnack stone that the bridge itself is made from.


Barnack and its now exhausted limestone quarry lies a dozen miles to the west in Cambridgeshire, just beyond Helpston, the birthplace of John Clare, the ‘Northamptonshire peasant poet’ who documented the changing landscape of his home patch with razor-sharp detail and poetic vision. Crowland Abbey was the subject matter for one of his sonnets, although it is unlikely that Clare had to put up with scaffolding dampening the spirit of his muse.

Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,

The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;

 And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,

Crumbling from arch and battlement around,

Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,

 To sink more silent still


I leave Crowland behind, Helpston-bound, and follow the raised bank along the New River channel south of Crowland High Wash, a large area of grazing land that has served as emergency drainage for the area since the reign of George III.  With the exception of the abbey, whose church spire slowly diminishes behind me as I progress westwards, and a white water tower across Crowland High Wash in the distance, the bank, just a few metres above the surrounding land, is the highest thing around here for miles. The River Welland, now diverted to flow a little way north of Crowland, lies just out of sight at the northern edge of the High Wash.


A strong, warm westerly breeze confronts me head-on as I make my way along the bank. The track serves as part of the Green Wheel Cycle Route that circles Peterborough. It is part of a local heritage trail too, and placed at regular intervals along its length are wooden posts with carvings and Perspex panels that depict local wildlife – flora, owls, crows. There are no cyclists today, nor walkers either apart from a solitary jogger and a woman from the village who struggles with four dogs on leads.

A little further along the bank stands an iron ‘Charm Tree’ that has dangling charms designed by local schoolchildren. The metal charms move and clang in the wind and in this minimalist landscape the sculpture certainly possesses charm on more than one level.  The schoolchildren’s brief was to show what made Crowland special, and the charms depict the things they associate with their home village: musical instruments, fish, a hand and what I first thought was a pair of briefs until it dawned on me that it was a representation of Crowland’s Trinity Bridge. Flying lower than the other charms, there is also, of course, a crow.


There are real crows too: ahead on the bank, a dozen or so are pecking at something or other on the path. They rise at my approach and are joined by scores of others from the fields below – a wheeling, whirling protestation of harsh-voiced birds above my head. Can this be some sort of farewell to the parish, a place that is the unchallenged domain of the crow? Perhaps there could be some sort of civic twinning with Rockland (Rookland) in Norfolk’s Yare Valley. Both villages belong – historically, ecologically – to what best might be described as Crow Country.


Half a mile further on, at a large pond where tracks lead away from the water to lonely farmsteads, I pass unheralded into Cambridgeshire, that part of the county which was formerly Northamptonshire. The track and bank veer south here, edging ever closer to the course of the River Welland. Just after Sissons Farm, where an information board describes the extensive drainage work carried out in the 17th century by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, I meet a minor road and cross a bridge into the hamlet of Peakirk. The fastest way to Glinton from here is cross-country, and walking alongside wheat and sugar beet fields I am confronted by something I have not encountered for some time – a gentle slope. Broaching the top of the field a stone needle emerges over the rise – the towering spire of Glinton’s St Benedict’s Church.

John Clare had a sonnet for this too:

Glinton, thy taper spire predominates

Over the level landscape – and the mind,

Musing – the pleasing picture, contemplates

Like elegance of beauty, much refined

By taste – that almost deifies and elevates,

One’s admiration making common things

Around it glow with beauties not their own.

Thus all around, earth superior springs;

Those straggling trees, though lonely, seem not lone,

 But in thy presence wear superior power;                         

And e’en each mossed and melancholy stone,

Gleaning cold memories round oblivion’s bower,

Seems types of fair eternity—and hire

A lease from fame by thy enchanting spire



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Passing through Birmingham recently I had a little time on my hands and so decided to visit the Digbeth area, a shortish walk from New Street Station. Head south from the futuristic silver button bulwark that is the Selfridges building and you will soon arrive here. Hitherto, I had known of Digbeth coach station – which is still here, revamped and now known as Birmingham Coach Station (opened by Fabio Capello, no less, in 2009) – but somehow whatever else lay in this industrial area close to the city centre had mostly escaped my attention.

IMG_2306IMG_2440Typhoo Tea once had a factory here, as did the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company before it decamped to Selly Oak, but probably the most famous of Digbeth’s buildings is the imposing Devonshire Works, better known as The Custard Factory. It was here that Alfred Bird & Sons manufactured their innovative egg-less custard powder, a buttercup-coloured product, which combined with hot milk, provided the nation with the necessary lubricant for its stewed rhubarb and apple crumble. An illuminated sign still hangs over its entrance to remind us of the building’s former use, although these days the complex has found new life as a centre for arts, small businesses and independent retailers.

IMG_2501IMG_2372The Custard Factory stands as a slightly self-consciously gritty beacon of culture amidst the quotidian surroundings of Digbeth High Street. Digbeth, which clearly still has some industrial dirt beneath the finger nails of its clever hands, does ‘gritty’ quite well. Beyond the high street, narrow streets lead down to the railway bridges and embankments that bisect the district east to west. The tropes of inner city cultural re-purposing are clear to see: the graffiti is mostly of a high standard; the converted galleries have a homespun, do-it-yourself air about them; the pubs remain authentic-looking despite their reinvention as hip places to drink.


IMG_2400It is widely thought that Digbeth was the focal point from which England’s second city developed when Berma’s Saxon tribe chose to settle the valley of the River Rea in the 7th century. Digbeth, which now tends to incorporate the old parish of Deritend at its eastern end, later became the manufacturing heart of the city when Birmingham rapidly expanded during the Industrial Revolution. Evidence of this industrial heritage can still be seen everywhere, although these days it is marked more by conspicuous absence than thriving activity.


IMG_2361Flanked by the Irish Quarter to the south and Eastside to the north, Digbeth was mostly cleared of its poor housing in the 1950s and ‘60s to become a factory zone that has slowly atrophied into a wasteland of disused industrial buildings and car parks, some of its more edgy-looking pubs now standing solitary and alone like isolated fortresses. Now, the area is an edgeland of sorts – a buffer zone between the shiny new architecture of the CBD and the residential areas of the inner city. Surprisingly, this formerly industrial quarter is also where Birmingham’s oldest secular building, The Old Crown, may be found: a Tudor period timber-framed inn that began life as a private house and would look more at home in genteel Stratford-upon-Avon than here wedged between the old factories and viaducts. There is more pre-industrial history if you look for it: a blue plaque next to the Irish Centre commemorates Bible translator John Rogers, who was born in Deritend in 1507 and burned at the stake at Smithfield, London in 1555, the first victim of the Marian persecution waged during Queen Mary’s reign. Whether or not a plaque that commemorates a Protestant martyr should be placed quite so close to a (Catholic) Irish institution is perhaps a moot point.

IMG_2394IMG_2487For all its atmosphere of gentle dereliction, Digbeth is clearly on the rise once more. The Custard Factory has its shops, studios and workshops, its bars are busy at weekends and there’s a burgeoning electronic music scene centered around some of the clubs.  On the up, certainly, but Hoxton-style hipsters have yet to take over (better try Moseley instead) and, rather than fashionable full beards, most of the facial hair that you will witness on the street here tends to be the henna-died chin whiskers of elderly Pakistanis who pass through Digbeth on their way to the Southside markets.IMG_2439


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Lunar Sun (Ra)

IMG_2069This post comes not from Elveden or points east but from Arden, as in Tanworth-in-Arden; from the lush green countryside between Redditch and Solihull in northwest Warwickshire, that rolling bucolic Eden that lies just south of the diesel-rank treadmill that is the M42.  Umberslade Farm near Tanworth-in-Arden is the inspired location for the Lunar Festival, which has just enjoyed its third annual convocation.

“Hello Lunar. I’ve been living in North Wiltshire in a mystical state” was how Julian Cope introduced himself to the audience before launching into a troubling but catchy song about ‘sleeping in the room that they found Sadam in’. Cope, enthusiastic psychedelic practitioner, occult archaeologist, Krautrock chronicler and self-parodying rock survivor, seemed a natural choice for the Sunday afternoon slot at Warwickshire’s Lunar Festival. Dressed like a fallen Hell’s Angel and accompanied by only a sparkly 12-string guitar he entertained the crowd with darkly melodic songs that he interspersed with rambling tales of how no-one would work with him these days because of his errant Byronic ways.

IMG_2114Sadly I missed The Fall and Mark E Smith’s malevolent mumblings on the Friday night, along with Tuareg camel-rockers Tinariwen, but had enjoyed Wilko Johnson and a resurgent, partly septuagenarian Pretty Things on the previous day. I had also witnessed Mike Heron and Glaswegian nu-folk-rockers Trembling Bells covering some early Incredible String Band back catalogue in the Bimble Inn bar – a slightly shambolic but warm-hearted performance with Heron grinning broadly at the crowd, clearly enjoying himself as they performed the likes of “This Moment” and “A Very Cellular Song”. And it was – very cellular.

IMG_2075The Lunar Festival is intimate and small-scale with a local feel. The lingua franca spoken here is mostly Middle Brummie, a tonal language spoken throughout the West Midlands, north Worcestershire and Warwickshire: a tongue in which I have working proficiency having grown up nearby, although decades in East Anglia have stymied full fluency. The Lunar vibe is early Glastonbury: gently pagan, psychedelic and counter-cultural. Imagine a Midlands Wicker Man without the unpleasant sacrificial burning at the end. Crow symbols abound, there are quite a few animal-headed folk strolling about, and the wood-smoked air is pleasantly redolent of 1967, as are some of the attendees – patchouli and other popular herbal fragrances may possibly be discerned. An oak tree trunk next to the arena’ s central camp fire is carved with the legend: ‘A day once dawned and it was beautiful’ – a line from a song by Nick Drake, a large portrait of whom hangs from a tree branch next to the Crow Bar beer tent at the top of the field. The reference is deliberate: leafy Tanworth-in-Arden was the childhood home of troubadour Nick Drake, whose tragically short life created a musical canon of great longevity.

IMG_2161The Bootleg Beatles concluded the festival on Sunday, and were glorious with their note-perfect trawl through the very best of the Fab Four’s 1966—70 material, but for me the real star of the festival was the penultimate act, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by 91-year-old Marshall Allen. Allen joined the band way back in 1957 and took over the musical directorship in 1993 when their controversial leader Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra  1914—93) ‘left the planet’ to return to his native Saturn.

IMG_2179I had seen the Arkestra perform last year at London’s Barbican Centre when they celebrated their erstwhile leader’s centenary. They were good but somehow it seemed that they did not quite gel musically on that occasion. At Lunar though, they dazzled, segueing from one tune to another, Marshall Allen directing his cohorts with hand gestures, ear-whispers and alto sax squeaks. Despite a playful sense of humour and the faintly ridiculous galactic-warrior outfits sported by the Arkestra players, the music they generated was deadly serious: spontaneous, risky, and on occasion quite unsettlingly beautiful. At times the music seemed to teeter on the edge of anarchy but it was usually only a brief time before the band swiftly gathered itself together to swing into another languid yet skin-tight ensemble passage.  It has sometimes been dubbed ‘space-jazz’ or ‘afrofuturist’ but to accurately describe the scope of the Arkestra’s music is a futile endeavour – never has the dictum ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ seemed more apposite. There were a couple of tunes I recognised: “Saturn”, I think, and “Angels and Demons”, and near the end of the set we were treated to a superb straight-ahead blues in which everyone took a solo and the Arkestra seemed momentarily to almost be a normal sort of jazz band, albeit one where the adjectives ‘left-field’, ‘spacey’ and ‘psychedelic’ still seem to be wholly appropriate.


The set concluded with the Arkestra leaving the stage to lead a procession around the site: a motley pageant of aged jazzmen in sparkling capes followed by an assortment of folk in badger and crow outfits, black-faced Molly dancers and a few adventurous children. The denouement came with the ritual combustion of the wooden crow-man totem that had stood in the centre of the site for the duration of the festival. The crow-man burned hard and bright, sparks crackling to the strains of “Space is the Place” played by the Arkestra’s gamely marching horn-men.

Perhaps space is the place? But then so is Tanworth-in-Arden in early June. Magic is undoubtedly in the air around this time. Wicca comes to Warwickshire; Sun Ra smiles down from Saturn. Lunar, I’ll be back.



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Palmyra 2000

SYR006LMThe news is always bad from Syria these days. The newsworthiness of the conflict seems to fluctuate as we in the West become increasingly inured to a lexicon that includes words like barrel bombs, Isis, chlorine gas, jihadi, caliphates and air-strikes. It seems almost too much to take in as a distant observer let alone as one of those unfortunates who have to suffer and bleed day-in, day-out on the ground. Recently the attention has turned to historic sites rather than people, and now that Isis have reached Palmyra there is fear for the future of this beautiful and well-preserved historic city in the Syrian desert. Religious fundamentalists have a habit of gleefully destroying great works of art and architecture – for some reason, beauty and creativity are seen as an affront to their misguided theological nihilism – and Isis are no exception. Much as the destruction of something as unique as the great desert city over which Queen Zenobia once reigned is an abomination, it is not as egregious as the loss of a single innocent life. But, tragically, there have already been an uncountable number of deaths. Perhaps it is a sad reflection on the values of the West that, when all things are measured, an historic site – albeit something as extraordinary as Palmyra – is sometimes valued higher than that of human life?

SYR023LMI visited Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in 2000 – an inspirational trip  in which I saw a plethora of ancient sites and exciting modern cities, and encountered welcoming and friendly people wherever I went. What I see on television news today does not register with what I experienced back then, although sometimes the backdrop – Aleppo Citadel, for example, which now lies in ruins – is just about recognisable through the         debris and smoke. These photos – low resolution copies of slides – are those that I took early one April morning after staying overnight at Palmyra.

SYR024LMOver the years I have been lucky to visit several places of great historic value before they were later destroyed by savage acts of war: the sandstone cliff Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which I visited en-route to India in 1977; the World Trade Center in New York (visiting a friend who worked alone in a TV broadcast monitoring station at the very top of the building in 1986); the bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (in 2006 before it was largely burned to the ground by inter-ethnic rioting in 2010); Aleppo Citadel. I can only hope that Palmyra does not go the same way as these unique sites, reduced to just a memory that exists only in photographs and people’s minds.




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Wayland Wood


Last month I posted on hanami in Japan; on how the fleeting beauty of cherry blossom captured the Japanese imagination and seemed to unite the country in an appreciation of the transitory nature of the seasons. I observed that we had no real equivalent in the West but on reflection that statement is not strictly true. In England, Wales and Ireland we have bluebell woods. IMG_1688

When I say in England, Wales and Ireland I am being necessarily precise. The Bluebells of Scotland celebrated in the popular folk song are actually harebells, a different plant altogether. The thing about bluebells is not the individual plant – lovely though it is – but their mass impression. Carpeting the dappled shade of a woodland floor, the dizzying effect is one of floral synergy – a sparkling wash of violet-blue, redolent of hyacinth (it belongs to same family) but more subtle, more evocative, more wild.IMG_1719

Some of the best bluebell woods can be found in England in tracts of ancient woodland that have stood, little changed, for millennia. I almost added ‘unmolested by man’ to the last sentence but that simply is not true: it is the hand of man that has made such woodland the ideal habitat for species like bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), with management practices like coppicing maintaining woodland as a productive and ecologically diverse resource. Bluebells and other woodland species are, of course, an added bonus. IMG_1710

One remarkable stand of ancient woodland can be found in Norfolk on the edge of the Brecks. Wayland Wood is the place upon which the Babes in the Wood legend is based, its name perhaps a corruption of “Wailing Wood” (the fictitious babes appear on the town sign of nearby Watton), but, more likely, the name comes from “Waneland”, a Viking word for a place of worship. Place of worship seems appropriate: in the first week of May the understory of the wood is so covered with bluebells that the effect is one of wading through a fragrant floral lake. Wayland Wood is not a particularly large expanse of woodland – just 34 hectares – and the traffic on the main road that runs alongside its southern fringe is usually just about within earshot. Such a low-level background-level thrum is easily filtered out though, and the sound that predominates is a melodious chorus of robins, blackbirds and warblers that pipe (largely unseen) from the newly unfurled lime-green foliage of the trees.IMG_1745

It is hard to say exactly how old Wayland Wood is. It is, as all the best natural phenomena  are, recorded in the Domesday Book, and it is probable that the wood was already thousands of years old by the Saxon period. Now it is protected under the auspices of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a place where visitors come in early May to appreciate not just the bluebells but the impressive display of early purple orchids, wood anemones, yellow archangel, bugle and primroses. Its trees are magnificent too – coppiced hazel, oak, ash, and field maple, and multi-trunked hornbeam with silver-grey bark like elephant skin.IMG_1738

There is cherry too – bird-cherry (Prunus padus), a native British species with frothy white racemes of flowers that dangle over the woodland rides. This perhaps adds a little more weight to a hanami-type comparison. But if truth be told it is the bluebells that people come to see: seasonality, transient beauty, a fleeting flourish of blossom before summer leaf growth closes the woodland canopy. This is our nearest equivalent and, although such events do not attract the crowds of revellers that they do in Japan, it is encouraging to see that there is still some modest interest in such things in these materialistic, post-Utopian times.IMG_1679IMG_1715IMG_1704

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The Japanese have a word for it – hanami. The full meaning of hanami is difficult to translate accurately but in literal terms it means ‘flower viewing’ and normally refers to sakura, the blossom of cherry trees in spring.  Incorporated within this meaning is also the notion of transient beauty, the appreciation of something rare and fleeting that will not last for long. Hanami is a hugely important aspect of Japanese culture and the period between late March and early May – cherry blossom time, naturally – is the season in which it is practised.IMG_0417

A predictive blossom forecast is announced by the national weather bureau each year, with expected dates of first bloom and peak blossom made for the entire archipelago. The blossoming starts in Okinawa in the far south as early as February before moving like a slow-moving weather front northwards through the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu to conclude in cooler Hokkaido in May. For a number of reasons that are mainly to do with micro-climates and urban heat bubbles, sakura in Tokyo arrives earlier than might be expected for such a northerly latitude, climaxing at the end of March and the first week of April.IMG_0455

The arrival of sakura is celebrated with gusto throughout Japan. In Tokyo, Ueno Park with its long avenues of cherry trees is a highly popular spot for hanami revellers, who assemble here with friends, family and work colleagues to sit in large groups beneath the trees to eat, drink and have fun. As it gets dark the paper lanterns that hang like bunting between the trees are switched on to create a delightful festival-like ambience.


IMG_0595Another sakura epicentre in the Japanese capital is along the Meguro-gawa riverbank at Nakameguro in the south of the city. Here the branches of the cherry trees on either bank almost touch across the water, blocking out the sky with their delicate blossoms. Such is this neighbourhood’s popularity in late March that the bridges that cross the river become packed with Tokyoites armed with cameras and mobile phones. The bridges make the ideal location for group photos and, of course, selfies. They are also the place from which to witness that most exquisite manifestation of hanami: the fall and drift of white petals on dark water.


IMG_0746We have no real equivalent in the West – certainly not in the United Kingdom. Winter snowdrop walks, spring daffodils and bluebell woods have, perhaps, some sort of equivalence but their draw is generally limited. But in Japan during the sakura season the appeal is almost universal, and you will find all walks of life – pensioners, teenagers, young families, office workers, labourers – standing side by side taking in the view and enjoying the convivial atmosphere, all united in the appreciation of the singular cultural phenomenon that is hanami.



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Rainy Day Kyoto


A  rainy morning in Kyoto. The immediate reaction is one of disappointment – a damper on photographic aspirations for the day. But umbrellas have their own aesthetic charm, as do rain-washed streets and silvery skies. The kimono-clad young women who throng the streets of the old city do not seem at all phased by such inclement weather, so why should a camera-toting gaijin?



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Easter Eggs


Easter, as well as its obvious Christian association, has strong connections with the giving and receiving of eggs in one form or another. In Britain, and in no doubt much of Western Europe and North America, we give chocolate eggs to children as a treat. With a bit a luck we might even receive one ourselves – a proprietary brand confection from a supermarket with packaging that often dwarfs the contents within resulting in disappointment.

In Eastern Europe, though, are Easter customs that reflect a far more personal approach. Egg-painting – that is the application of delicate geometric designs on real eggs – is a widespread tradition throughout the region. The tradition reaches its apogee of expression in the Hutsul region of western Ukraine where the creation of pysanky (painted eggs) is considered to be akin to religious art. The Hutsul practice is thought to be a pre-Christian, rites of spring tradition in origin, in which it was formerly believed that the continued creation of pysanky was necessary for the world to continue peacefully.

Nowhere has this tradition been more painstakingly documented than in the pysanky museum in Kolomiya, which has a collection of around 10,000 painted eggs. Such is the enthusiasm for the craft that part of the museum itself – the central ‘yolk’ that contains the reception, gift shop and two circular pysanky galleries – actually takes the form of a painted egg.

Happy Easter

nb: A longer feature on this quirky ovoid edifice appeared in hidden europe magazine back in 2008.


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