Callanish

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a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism

Martin Martin A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland circa 1695

Someone once said that the wonder evoked by historical sites is inversely proportional to the number of eyes that have already gazed upon them. ‘Must-see’ tourism and mystery tend to stand in direct opposition. This is partly connected with the familiarity of the site itself — how well we think we already know somewhere from postcards, tourist board propaganda, travel features and social media. The Pyramids at Giza, probably the oldest tourist destination in the world, are a prime example. Magnificent though they may be, there is much at the site to detract from unbiased appreciation: crowds, trinket hawkers, faux guides, camel-hire men, and the very fact that an image of them has been burned into the retina since childhood even if we have never even stepped from these shores.

Similarly Stonehenge, England’s prime sacred site, which is of even greater antiquity and in many ways even more mysterious than the Egyptian pyramids in terms of function. In recent years, for perfectly understandable reasons, the monument has  been sanitised and practically cling-film-wrapped by its guardians at English Heritage. New Age travellers, modern-day druids and miscellaneous stone-huggers are kept well away if at all possible, while the sightseeing general public is discouraged by means of fences, timed tickets, high entrance fees and the benign tear gas of lavender-wafted gift shops. The presence of large coach parties and the constantly rumbling A303 does little to engender a mystical atmosphere either. This may seem a little harsh but, personally speaking, I can no longer bring Stonehenge to mind without thinking of the film Spinal Tap and a particularly comical stage set.

Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man

And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan.

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A place which, for me, has far more resonance is Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not that it is undiscovered, far from it — this 5,000 year-old stone circle has long served as a poster girl for Scottish Highlands and Islands tourism promotions — but Callanish/Calanais is at least suitably remote, close to the western shore of Lewis and the best part of an hour’s drive from Stornoway, the main town on the island.

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The first thing you notice on arrival — the stones themselves are already half-familiar thanks to photographic reproduction — is the immense beauty of the landscape that surrounds the site. Less raw and perhaps a little softer than some Lewis scenery, the stones stand on a bluff above the small eponymous village that developed in their shadow. The view from the hill is a pleasing vista of lochs and inlets, with the low hills of Great Bernera rising in the distance, the outlying stones of Calanais II and III pinpointed by distant figures on their way to view them.

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The stones, of course, are not deserted of people — it is a fine late September day when we visit and visitors are making the most of the clement weather. A couple of tour minibuses are parked up outside the visitor centre and the gift shop and café are both enjoying a brisk trade. Walking the short track that leads to the stones we come upon a French tour group who are engaged in photographing each other as they stroll around the monoliths. Most of the women of the group sport black midge masks that droop in front of their faces like saggy proboscises — the fine mesh protecting them from ravaging insects. The donning of masks also appears to be an unconscious act of sympathetic magic as their chosen headgear makes them look uncannily like giant flies — biped flies, that is, garbed in Gore-Tex and Barbour. Truth be told, the midges are really not all that problematic and it seems that the French fly-women are perhaps overreacting to the perceived threat. It seems a little ironic, too, that they hail from a country that banned all-enveloping face coverings like the burqa just a few years ago.

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The site is relatively busy yet the proverbial camera proves to be an efficient liar. It is approaching lunchtime; the crowd around the stones has already thinned, and it does not take long to snap a number of images in which no human presence is detectable. No doubt, with sufficient Photoshop tweaking, I could possibly also adjust the contrast and saturation to simulate a sunrise rather than late morning scene. But I am happy as things are and reflect that as most of the evidence points towards Callanish being constructed as a temple orientated to moon-rise I really ought to be here at night instead.

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The Callanish site is well known and rightly cherished but there are other, less-heralded standing stones in the vicinity. The previous day we had come across a small group of monoliths close to the bridge that leads across to Great Bernera. These stones, fewer but similar in size and shape to those at Callanish, were of the same three-billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on Earth. Known locally as Tursachan (Gaelic for ‘standing stones’), or more prosaically by archaeologists as Callanish VIII, they stood on the island of Great Bernera overlooking the bridge from the Lewis mainland. Formerly an island off an island (Lewis and Harris), which, in turn, stands off a much larger island (Scotland, England and Wales), Great Bernera has only been connected to Lewis by bridge since 1953. When first erected, the semi-circle of four large stones would have stood sentinel-like overlooking the straight between the island and Lewis; now they overlook the bridge that connects them. Unlike their better known neighbours to the east these stones are now almost forgotten. With little more than a modest signpost to point them out, they are a sidebar of prehistory, mere cartographic marginalia on the OS Explorer 458 West Lewis map.

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Posted in History, Islands, Scotland, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Shape on the Map — South Lochs, Isle of Lewis

IMG_7623Eleven miles east of the main road, six from the nearest shop (closed on the Sabbath), two miles from the open sea as the raven flies. Glen Gravir – a slender thread of houses stretching up a glen, just four more unoccupied dwellings beyond ours before the road abruptly terminates at a fence, nothing but rough wet grazing,  soggy peat and unseen lochans beyond. This was our home for the week, a holiday rental in the Park (South Lochs) district of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

IMG_7596Gravir, of which Glen Gravir is but an outpost, is large enough to feature on the map, albeit in its Gaelic form, Grabhair. The village – more a loose straggle of houses and plots – possesses a school, a fire station and a church but no shop. A road from the junction with Glenside next to the church winds its way unhurriedly downhill to the sea inlet of Loch Odhairn where there is a small jetty for boats. Some of the houses are clearly empty; others occupied by crofters and incomers, their occupants largely unseen. Others are long ruined, tenanted only by raven and opportunist rowan trees, with roofs absent and little more than chimney stacks and gable walls surviving. It is only a matter of time before the stones that have been laid to construct the walls will be indistinguishable from the native gneiss that underlies the island, surfacing above the bog here and there in outcrops like human-raised cairns. Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in Britain. Three billion years old, two-thirds the age of our planet, it is as hard as…well, gneiss. It is the same tough unyielding rock that five thousand years ago was painstakingly worked and positioned at the Callanish stone circle close to Lewis’s western shore; the same rock used to build the island’s churches, which occupy the same sacred sites, the same fixed points of genii loci that had been identified long before Presbyterianism or any another monotheistic faith arrived in these isolated north-western isles.IMG_7587Ancient hard rock (as in metamorphic) may underlie Lewis, but religion is another bedrock of the island. Despite a respectable number of dwellings the only people we ever really see in the village are those who come in number on Sunday. The Hebridean Wee Free tradition guarantees a full car park on the Sabbath when smartly and soberly dressed folk from the wider locality congregate at Grabhair’s church, which, grave, grey and impressively large, is the only place of worship in this eastern part of the South Lochs district.IMG_7586IMG_8372At the bottom of the lane beneath the hillside graveyard next to the church are a couple of recycling containers for villagers to deposit their empties and waste paper. Larger items of material consumption are left to their own devices. Rain, wind and thin acidic soil are the natural agents of decay here. Beside the roadside further up from our house lie four long-abandoned vehicles in various stages of decomposition. Engines are laid bare; bodywork and chassis, buckled and distressed, rust-coated in mimicry of the colour of lichen and autumn-faded heather. Cushions of moss have colonised the seating fabric. The rubber tyres remain surprisingly intact, the longest survivor of abandonment. Sharp-edged sedges have grown around the rotting car-carcasses as if to hide them from prying eyes, preserving some modicum of dignity as the wrecks decay into the roadside bog, all glamour expunged from a lifetime spent negotiating the island’s narrow single track roads. On Lewis, vehicles die of natural causes, not geriatric intervention.IMG_8301IMG_8306Our cottage was rented as an island base: a place to eat, rest and sleep before setting off each morning on a long drive to visit one of Lewis’s far flung corners. Happily, it feels like a home, albeit a temporary one – a domestic cocoon of cosiness with all the modest comforts we require. Its small garden is a haven. As everywhere on the island,  tangerine spikes of montbretia arch like welder’s sparks from the grass. Rabbits scamper about on the lawn, colour-flushed parties of goldfinches feed on the seed heads of knapweed outside the kitchen window. Robins, wrens and blackbirds flit around the trees and shrubs that envelop the cottage – non-native plants that have adapted to the harsh weather conditions of this north-western island, softening an outlook that on a grey, wind-blown day, with a gloomy frame of mind, might be considered bleak.

Bleak perhaps, but beautiful: nature simplified to an essential dichotomy of land and sky – the former, solid, dark, numinous, unrelenting; the latter, capricious, changing in minutes from Mediterranean blue to storm-cloud black, with a cloudscape that can quickly morph from a liquid mercury-silver  to a rose-pink blush. There seems to be something about the air here that enables a clarity of sight, even when it is overcast or misty – an acuity of vision, a sharper edge to things. The topography is finely delineated, a bold line divides earth and sky like the firm brush stroke of a child’s painting.IMG_7568Most days on our jaunts around the island we would see an eagle or two, golden or white-tailed, sometimes both. The majority of these sighting are in more mountainous Harris, or in that southern part of Lewis that lay close to the North Harris Hills, but on our last day on Lewis we see a white-tailed eagle fly over Orinsay, a village relatively close to where we have been staying. An hour later we spot another bird swoop along the sea loch at Cromore, a coastal village that lies a few miles to the north. It might well be the same bird. White-tailed eagles are very large and hard to miss, and their feeding range is enormous. But that is exactly how Lewis seems – enormous, almost unknowable despite its modest geographical area. A place larger than the shape on the map – a mutable landscape of rock, sky and water that does not easily lend itself to the reductionism of two-dimensional cartography.IMG_8399IMG_8426IMG_8433IMG_8439IMG_7559

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Under the Greenwood Tree – Forest Bathing in the Deep, Deep Woods of Coed Felinrhyd

IMG_6699The Japanese have an expression – shirin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) — which refers to time spent in a wood or forest for purposes of health and relaxation. Scientific field studies have demonstrated that spending even a short time among trees promotes a lower concentration of cortisones, lower pulse, lower blood pressure, decreased levels of stress and improved concentration. In Japan activities such as shirin-yoku are part of the culture and hold an important place in the national psyche.  Modern Japanese culture is still rooted in ancient nature-worshipping Shinto beliefs that are expressed in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most striking of these for westerners is the annual celebration of the sakura (cherry blossom) season that seems, almost atavistically, to drive an entire nation into parks clutching picnics, beer coolers and selfie sticks each spring. In the West, things are different, and such worship of nature tends to be more a private practice than a social or cultural one on the whole. Certainly, while most would admit to enjoying an autumnal woodland walk, a family ramble though crackling leaf litter on crisp, white-breath days, for much of the year forests are spurned by most of the population, perhaps even slightly feared by some.IMG_6680The forest, the greenwood, comes with cultural baggage. It is sensed to be a place of ‘the Other’, a place of wild things, of decay, of hidden danger; of runaway fugitives, mythical outlaws — Robin Hood being prime example — deserted children (Babes in the Wood), ghosts and malevolent spirits.  There is no denying that some tracts of woodland are downright spooky, places where dark forces can be felt to be at large. Traditional children’s literature does not help much in mitigating this irrational if primal fear. In fact, it nourishes it — one of the very first books I remember reading as a small child was Winkie Lost in the Deep, Deep Woods, the very title of which suggests some sort of unspoken dark menace. As an archetype, a forest is perceived as an eldritch zone where wicked witches live alone in eerie hovels, where red-cloaked little girls are preyed upon by egregious wolves, and large gatherings of ursine cuddly toys attend sinister secret picnics. Go into the woods (today) and you might well be ‘sure of a big surprise’. In adult life the same fear is perpetuated as a trope of the horror genre — the psychological terror of The Blair Witch Project springs to mind. The forest is a place where bad things happen — a place to bury the bodies. Be afraid. Even Japan with its devotion to sakura and forest bathing traditions has its fair share of indigenous forest demons. The country even has its own haunted forest, Aokigahara, at the foot of Mount Fuji, which has the unenviable reputation of beings the world’s second most popular choice as a place for suicide. IMG_6714But let us embrace a positive outlook and view woodland as a place of wonder and nurture rather than fear and loathing, a place to breathe in the beneficial volatile oils emitted by trees and enjoy their beauty. Where better to delve into the greenwood in Britain than a tract of temperate rainforest that has hardly changed since the last glacial period? Coed Felinrhyd in North Wales has stood largely untouched since from this period and, although tracts of this woodland have been partially managed over the centuries, other parts have remained undisturbed for around 10,000 years. Coed Felinrhyd, owned by the Woodland Trust, is just a fraction of the remnant temperate rainforest found in this damp corner of Wales: a 90-hectare tract of woodland on the southern side of the narrow Ceunant Llennyrch gorge through which the mercurial Afon Pryser, a tributary of the Afon Dwyryd, flows. Coed Felinrhyd’s particularities of relief and climate, tucked away in a sheltered, virtually frost-free gorge close to the Welsh coast in a region where it rains on average 200 days a year, ensure that the ecosystem here is in many ways unique. Scarce plants and ferns thrive in the understory, rare lichens and mosses cloak the trees. But this is more than simply remarkable ecosysytem, this is also a place where geography and legend intertwine – the forest receives a mention in the ancient Mabinogion myths written down in the 12th century and is said to be the location where two warriors once fought to the death. IMG_6660The entrance is a little hard to find, hidden away just beyond the entrance to the Maentwrog power station on the Blenau Ffestiniog to Harlech road. A Woodland Trust notice board by the gate gives background information on Coed Felinrhyd and a signpost points out the direction of a well-defined trail that circuits the forest. The trail climbs steeply at first, then more gently before levelling off. The first thing to be noticed, other than the towering oaks that stretch in every direction, is moss. Although ferns are almost as prolific, sprouting like green shuttlecocks wherever they can secure a foothold, it is moss that is everywhere cloaking every surface — on the bark of trees, on the rocks that line the pathway, on the dry stone walls that partition the woodland; on any surface where moisture can collect. Even most of the tree stumps are upholstered with velvety jade cushions of moss, their cut surface having been rapidly colonised by the feathery fronds of bryophytes. Each of these is a pedestal-raised forest in miniature, a Lilliputian lost world — this small tract of woodland contains a million tiny moss forests within it. Some of the tree stumps have been cut mischievously into the shape of a chair or a four-legged stool, the work of a rogue woodsman with a sense of humour and an artistic streak. A few of are fresh enough to not yet sport the forest’s inevitable green uniform, although no doubt soon they will. IMG_6664Having reached a plateau in the woods we come across a ruined slate barn beside the trail, its roof long gone and ferns sprouting like bunting on top of the walls where the eaves should be. Long abandoned, the building is probably at least two hundred years old and a remnant of the old farming practice of ‘hafod a hendre’ in which shepherds would remain on higher pasture with their flocks during summer. The track continues past clumps of trees that seem to emerge directly from the moss-carpeted boulders at their base. The blanket of moss and lichens that covers both gives the impression that both tree and rock are born of the same material, something primal and green that is neither strictly vegetable or mineral but something in between.IMG_6683Descending back down into the valley we arrive at a dry stone wall that has a gate which leads into Llennyrch, a neighbouring tract of forest of similar pedigree to Coed Felinrhyd. We follow the wall to the left and the sound of rushing water becomes gradually louder as the gorge reveals itself. A small viewing platform gives a glimpse of the waterfall of Rhaeadr Ddu that plummets down onto the rocks below although the view is partly obscured by the dense foliage. The river is still some way beneath us but we draw closer to it as the path gradually descends. Finally we come to Ivy Bridge, which, true to name, is enveloped by long trails of ivy that hang over the edge almost touching the water and rocks beneath. Beyond the bridge, on the other side of the river, the unsightly machinery of an electricity substation can be discerned beyond a fence; beyond this, unseen from this position, lies the Maentwrog power station.IMG_6713After two hours of slow walking, looking, taking photographs and what can only be described as mobile ‘forest bathing’ we are back where we started. It suddenly occurs that we have met absolutely no one on our walk even though it is a relatively bright day with little threat of rain. No hikers or dog walkers, no botanists or tree-huggers, no Celtic warrior ghosts. And, to the best of our knowledge, no malevolent woodland sprites either.IMG_6677IMG_6695IMG_6708

 

 

 

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Blyth Spirit

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Back in April I took part in a writing workshop in Suffolk led by Ivor Murrell of Suffolk Poetry Society and Melinda Appleby of Waveney & Blyth Arts. The workshop encouraged the participants to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the Blyth estuary and to reflect something of the history and nature of the area. The following is what I came up with on the day.

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Blyth Spirit

We followed the estuary path beneath spindly oaks in first flush leaf, the reedbeds rippling in a southerly breeze. Across the water, white-faced cattle grazed on the sloping pasture: a pastoral diorama framed by willows with the Southwold skyline beyond – church, lighthouse, a scaffolded water tower. This once was a place more connected to the sea, to fishing and trade; the town’s lighthouse, no mere curiosity but earning its keep as a warning to shipping. This was before the great silting and scouring of the coast, when Dunwich was a name on every seafarer’s lips and Suffolk was still holy – Selig Suffolk; before the great land grabs of enclosure and dust storm robbery of the sheep walks, before hangings and suicides cursed the brackish waters of the Blyth.

Now only the names on the map gave the clue: Deadman’s Creek, Bloody Marsh. And Angel Marshes – did this expanse of reed and tidal water take its name from the wooden figures that graced the roof of Holy Trinity Church, angels that you might just imagine taking flight at dusk to quarter the marshes crepuscular as owls? A chance to flex stiff wings and dust themselves of woodworm and Puritan shot; a flight to taste the brine of the incoming tide before following the creek back to settle like beautiful bats in their resting place in the rafters. Did anyone see them, even catch a glimpse? Or did they steal between the cracks of the day, visible only to curlew and estuary ghosts?

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Three estuary haiku

Through slats of pale wood

Green spears of reed thrust skywards

To taunt passing clouds

Mud oozes over reed

In the shade of green-gold oak

A memory lives

Reeds scratch like tinsel

Piping redshanks stitch the air

A dull groan of cars

 

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Posted in History, Suffolk, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

Sacred Fig

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A recent re-reading of Richard Mabey on the ancient and revered Fortingall Yew in Scotland put me in mind of other trees with a well-documented spiritual connection. Such a tree is the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) or bodhi tree in whose ample shade Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating. The site of this sacred tree is in present-day Bodh Gaya in Bihar state in India. The original tree is said to have been destroyed but a branch of it was taken by Emperor Ashoka to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in 288BC. A cutting from this descendant tree was later returned to Bodh Gaya thus ensuring that the tree that stands at the Mahabodhi temple complex is, in theory, a clone of the original – a tree historically if not genetically predisposed to spiritual enlightenment.

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I visited Bodh Gaya in early 2008, breaking my journey from Varanasi to Kolkata by way of a detour via Patna and Gaya to spend a couple of nights in the pilgrimage town. Venerated as the most holy place in Buddhism, Bodh Gaya is less a town, more an extended religious complex with temples and monasteries belonging to all manner of Buddhist traditions. Bodh Gaya lies close to the poor, crowded city of Gaya, a scooter-taxi ride through dusty farmland in one of India’s most poverty stricken and politically corrupt provinces. The weather was dank and drizzly, although this being India it was still unremittingly hot and humid; the sky was grey-white without feature, drained of colour, which is something that can rarely be said about India in general. Spoiled for choice for accommodation, I lodged in a friendly Tibetan establishment where I was served hearty dumplings and beer with the meals – as befits a people living on a high arid plateau, Tibetan Buddhists have a tolerant and pragmatic outlook on life.

Buddhists from all over the subcontinent thronged the streets and thoroughfares that linked the town’s numerous temples, and I encountered Burmese, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims as well as Ladakhis and mountain folk from all over the Himalayan region. The pervading atmosphere was undoubtedly one of gleeful joy, with excitement and piety shown in equal measure. For many of the visitors, poor farmers from isolated mountain villages, this pilgrimage would probably the only journey in their lives that would take them so far away from home. It must have felt much the same in medieval Europe when adventurous folk made long arduous journeys to Rome, Santiago or Canterbury.

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I am no Buddhist but nevertheless I paid my respects to a wide variety of the town’s temples, driven more by curiosity and cultural interest than any sort of spiritual craving. I was particularly interested in the ancient sacred fig that grew at the Mahabodhi temple and so joined the cheerful crowd that repeatedly circumambulated the temple. The route followed a walkway that passed beneath the boughs of the sacred sprawling tree on each circuit. The sacred fig tree, many branched and mature, was protected behind a stone wall along which many saffron shawls had been draped to signal the tree’s sanctity. Such physical confinement seems a characteristic of venerated ancient trees – Mabey had complained in his piece of the Fortingall Yew being disappointingly inaccessible, and even at home here in Norfolk the 900-year-old Hethel Old Thorn, the subject of an earlier blog post, is surrounded by a solid wooden fence fence.

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After a few clockwise revolutions around the temple I noticed a small group of Himachali pilgrims on their hands and knees on the paving beneath the tree. I saw that they were gathering some of the tiny figs that had fallen from the tree. No larger than blackcurrants, I wondered what they would do with the fruits – eat them or make some sort of spiritually charged cordial? – but apparently they would be used to create prayer beads. I gathered a small handful myself and over the next few days dried them out on tissue on the window ledge of wherever I was staying.

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Back home a couple of months later I tried my hand at germinating the fig seed I had gathered in India. I planted dozens of the miniscule seeds in potting compost and within a few weeks had half a dozen or so plants. Four of these survived the re-potting process and of these I kept three and gave one to my friend Karin who had expressed an interest in what I had done. One of my plants, clearly the runt of the litter, did not last long but the other two have grown slowly over the years to become decent-sized pot plants.

Nine years later the figs still grace the windowsill of my kitchen – the diffused light and the humidity seems to suit them reasonably well although scale insect is a perennial problem and I have to swab them with diluted washing-up liquid to keep the sap-sucking insects under control. Karin keeps her plant in her living room and it is now larger than either of mine, with larger, if fewer, leaves. Undaunted, I like to think that my little fig trees still have a touch more wildness about them, a little more ecological integrity. A stone temple in a warm sub-tropical climate is, of course, better suited to their natural requirements – they naturally desire to clamber over stone, to bake in stultifying heat, be seasonally soaked in monsoon rain. But they are, after all, strangler figs by nature – forest dwellers that germinate on the wood of other trees before eventually taking over their host — and even a Buddhist temple in India is not the species’ ideal habitat let alone a windowsill in northwest Europe. Whether either of these direct descendants of Buddha’s sacred tree will ever grow large enough for me to be able to sit and meditate beneath is unlikely but I like to think that their presence adds a little oriental wisdom to whatever I get up to in the kitchen.

In the event of my ever moving home – not something that is even vaguely on the horizon right now – I will be looking for a place with some sort of conservatory. It will probably be the plants that dictate such a move, rather than any motive of down-sizing or considerations whether or not I can still negotiate stairs in my dotage. In the meantime I will keep on re-potting and squishing scale insects. Enlightenment is mine for the taking but I must be patient.

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The Minster in The Saints

IMG_4925The Saints is a small, loosely defined area of northeast Suffolk just south of the River Waveney and the Norfolk border. Effectively it is a fairly unremarkable patch of arable countryside that contains within it a baker’s dozen of small villages with names that begin or end with the name of the parish saint:  St Peter South Elmham, St Michael South Elmham, St Nicholas South Elmham, St James South Elmham, St Margaret South Elmham, St Mary South Elmham, St Cross South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham, Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Lawrence, Ilketshall St Margaret, Ilketshall St John and All Saints Mettingham. The area is bisected in its eastern fringe by the Bungay—Halesworth road that follows the course of Stone Street, a die-straight Roman construction, one of several that can still be traced on any road map of East Anglia. On the whole though the roads around here are anything but Roman in character: narrow, twisting, often bewilderingly changing direction, and marked with confusing signs (too many saints!), it is a good place to visit should you wish to humiliate your Sat Nav. John Seymour in The Companion Guide to East Anglia (1968) describes The Saints as ‘a hillbilly land into which nobody penetrates unless he has good business,’ which is perhaps hyperbolic but there is undoubtedly a feel of  liminality to the area that persists to this day. IMG_4891The village names conjure a medieval world where saint-obsessed religion loomed large. Such a tight cluster of settlements suggests a concentration of population where parishes might eventually combine to form a town or city – with 13 villages and the same number of churches (eleven of which are extant), there were more churches here than in all of Cambridge. But The Saints never coalesced to become a medieval city – none of the villages had a port, defensive structure or even significant market to its credit and consequently the area would slowly slip into obscurity as the medieval era played out and other East Anglia towns and cities – Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and, of course, Norwich – took the baton of influence and power. IMG_4903It was not always so: one of the villages in particular held great significance in its day. The land covered by the South Elmham parishes was once owned by Almar, Bishop of East Anglia and the late Saxon Bishops of Norwich had a summer palace here at St Cross, now South Elmham Hall. The most intriguing of the churches lies within the same parish. It is not in any way complete but a ruin framed by woodland a good half mile from the nearest road. South Elmham Minster, although probably never a minster proper, is veiled in mystery regarding its origins but its appeal owes as much to its half-hidden location as it does to its obscure history.  South Elmham may have once been the seat of the second East Anglian bishopric (the first was in Dunwich, the sea-ravaged village on the Suffolk coast), although North Elmham in Norfolk seems a more likely contender. Whatever the ruin’s original function – a private chapel for Herbert de Losinga, Norwich’s first bishop, is another possibility, or it may even be that a second bishopric was founded here – the church in the wood just south of South Elmham Hall dates back at least to the 11th century. It is probably older in origin – a ninth-century gravestone has been unearthed in its foundations. The site itself is undoubtedly of greater antiquity: a continuation of an earlier Anglo-Saxon presence that occupied the same moated site, which, earlier still, was home to a Roman temple and perhaps, even earlier, a pagan holy place. IMG_4918We leave the car in a muddy parking area alongside another vehicle and a dumped piece of agricultural machinery. Nearby stands a weather-beaten trestle table that suggests that this once might have served as a designated picnic spot. Now half-submerged in grass and thistles, the table did not look as if any sandwich boxes had been opened on it for some time. Things have changed here a little in recent years: the permissive footpaths that once threaded through the South Elmham estate are no longer available for the public, and the hall itself has been re-purposed for use as a wedding and conference venue. At least the minster was still accessible by means of a green lane and a public footpath across fields. IMG_4930The green lane is flanked by mature hedges frothed white with blackthorn blossom. Reaching its bottom end we turn left to follow a footpath alongside a stream, a minor tributary of the River Waveney; strange hollowed-out hornbeams measure out its bank. Soon we come to the copse that contains the ruin, a rusty gate gives admission across a partial moat and raised bank into what can only be described as a woodland glade. The ancient flint walls of the church stand central, striated by the shadow of hornbeams still leafless in late March. There is no sign of a roof but the weathered walls of the nave are clear in outline, as is the single entrance to the west. On the ground, last year’s fallen leaves provide a soft bronze carpet that is mostly devoid of ground plants. IMG_4920Church or not, there is a timelessness to this place in the woods. And a strong sense of genius loci, the sort of thing that put the wind up the Romans with their straight lines and four-square militaristic outlook. I wander off to explore the bank to the west and discover the opening of a badger sett that looks to be newly excavated. Without much expectation, I rummage though the spoil musing that there might just be the remotest of chances that, burrowing deep beneath the mound, the animals have thrown up some treasure long buried in the soil below: an Anglo-Saxon torc, a Roman coin perhaps? I would even settle for a rusty button, but nothing. No matter, the mystery of the place is enough for now. We leave the bosky comfort of the site and retrace our steps along the beck and green lane back to the car. The other car has gone – we never did see its occupants. IMG_4933IMG_4951IMG_4945

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Skellig Michael – The Edge of the World

IMG_4023Today is St Patrick’s Day and March 17 is the supposed date of the 5th-century missionary’s death. Patrick was the forerunner of many early missionaries who came to Irish shores to preach Christianity, the island more receptive to new ideas about religion than its larger neighbour to the east across the Irish Sea. Consequently Ireland abounds with relics and ruins of early Christianity, sometimes in the most improbable of places.IMG_3921.JPGSailing around Ireland’s southwest coast, skirting the peninsulas that splay out from the Kerry coast, the two islands of the Skelligs come into view after rounding Bolus Head at the end of the Inveragh Peninsula. Both islands are sheer, with sharp-finned summits that resemble inverted boat keels. The smaller of the two appears largely white at first but increasing proximity reveals that the albino effect is down to a combination of nesting gannets and guano.  The acrid tang of ammonia on the breeze and distant cacophony announce the presence of the birds well before the identity of any individual can be confirmed by binoculars.IMG_3925As the boat draws closer, the sheer volume of birds – gannets, fulmars, puffins, terns – becomes plain to see. With something like 70,000 birds, Little Skellig is the second largest gannet colony in the world. But on the larger island of Skellig Michael, although seabirds abound here too, there is also the suggestion of a human presence, albeit an historic one. High up in the rocks, small stone structures can be discerned: rounded domes that are clearly man-made and which soften the jagged silhouette of the island’s summit.  These are beehive cells, the dry-stone oratories favoured by early Irish monks for their meditation. Sitting aloft the island on a high terrace, commanding a panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and the fractal Kerry coast in the other, these simple stone cells came without windows – the business was one of prayer and meditation not horizon-gazing. Such isolation was necessary for reasons of both safety and spirituality. And Skellig Michael was the acme of isolation. In the early Christian milieu the Skellig Islands, facing the seemingly limitless Atlantic off the southwest coast of Ireland, were more than merely remote: they were at the very edge of the known world.IMG_3960The island’s monastic site is infused with mystery, as all good ruins are, but is thought to have been established in the 6th century by Saint Fionán. Consisting of six beehive cells, two oratories and a later medieval church, the site occupies a stone terrace 600 feet above the swirling green waters of the sea below.IMG_4001Skirting Skellig Michael, a landing stage with a helicopter pad comes into view. A vertiginous path of stone steps leads up towards the beehive huts close to the island’s mountain-like summit.  We do not disembark. Instead we keep sailing, bound for a safer harbour in Glengarriff in County Cork. No matter, the sight of the rocks, the winding, climbing path and the austere cells on the terrace at the top is already imprinted on our memory.IMG_3989Without doubt this was a life of supreme hardship: the isolation, the relentless diet of fish and seabird eggs, the ever-battering wind and salt-spray. Such was the isolation, and so extreme the privations of this beatific pursuit, that one might assume that the monks would have been left in peace to practice their calling. This was not to be. Viking raiders arrived here in the early 9th century and took the trouble to land, scale the island’s heights and attack the monks. For most of us it is probably difficult to comprehend the blind-rage fury of the raiders, the wrath invoked in them by pious upstarts with their new Christian God. Easier perhaps is to imagine the dread that must have been felt by the monks as the Vikings approached their spiritual eyrie.IMG_4041

Posted in History, Islands, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Ladywood: Two Towers and a Reservoir

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It had been many years since I had been to Ladywood. This inner city borough of Birmingham had long been a mythic landscape for me even before I became aware of any sort of Tolkein connection. It was here that my mother grew up in a terraced house on Rann Street with her mother, father and aunt. The street has long since vanished from the map, bulldozed to clear the way for high-rise development in the 1960s – housing that grew old and unfit for purpose before its allotted time, and which later was partly demolished once more to make way for housing better suited to the needs of city dwellers. The city, always a palimpsest, sometimes requires deep archaeology to show its traces. Rann Street is now a place that exists only on old maps and photographs and in the memory of former residents like my mother.

I have vague memories of visiting my Aunt Anne there back in the day – I recall a house redolent of cats, a dozen at least, although my mother insists there were only ever a maximum of four. Does memory always tend towards the hyperbolic? Aunt Anne was eventually re-housed in a modern council flat in King’s Heath at the city’s southern periphery, while Grandad Frank went with his second wife Mabel to live in another terrace house nearby at Leslie Road close to the Edgbaston Reservoir. This I regularly visited with my parents on Sunday afternoons, a reluctant teenager dragged away from Pink Floyd records and surly introspection in a green belt bedroom.

Ladywood had declined in the post-war years and I strongly recall a miasma of urban blight overlaying all of the inner city area: newspapers blowing through the streets like tumbleweed, wan-faced children sitting on steps waiting for parents to come home, soot-stained brickwork, moody wet streets that sparkled with Bill Brandt monochrome highlights. Many of the terrace houses had been recently bought up by newly arrived commonwealth immigrants, Pakistanis mostly, that my grandparents’ generation usually referred to as “blackies” – a generic pejorative that was bandied irrespective of faith, country of origin or even skin colour. These latest incomers, culturally at odds with the long-established white working class community, provided grist to the mill for the anti-immigrant tirades of Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell, who was MP for Wolverhampton on the fringe of the Black Country just up the road. If sex, according to Larkin, was invented in the 1960s, then so was casual racism it would seem.

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Inside the Leslie Road terrace, the front room, as in all decent working class households, was only ever used for special occasions such as family funeral gatherings and the like. The back room, which faced onto a yard and a galley kitchen, was stuffed with furniture: a bulky three-piece suite with cushions and antimacassars, a sideboard, stiff-backed chairs and a scuffed leather pouffe that never saw service. Grandad, as I remember him, was a short rotund man with thinning hair Brylcreemed into a barcode across his pate. The trousers he wore were not so much high-waisted as halfway up to the armpits as if they came with some sort of integral cummerbund, and defied gravity by means of braces, belt and beer-habit. Like all of his generation, there was no such thing as casual dress. Mabel, his second wife and my step-grandmother, was only ever referred to by her first name. A ‘big-boned’ woman, Mabel, who resembled a spinster straight out of a 1940s photo-nostalgia book, seemed to be all angles. With sharp corners rather than curves, she was an early Picasso demoiselle in pinny and National Health specs. Mabel did not say much, but then neither did my grandfather. The only thing that really seemed to animate him was ‘The Club’ where my grandfather went most nights to drink pints of Mitchells & Butlers beer. The establishment was a local Social Club run by his former employer Lucas, the Birmingham electrical component company. Another of his interests, as I recall, was to regularly write letters of complaint to the Birmingham Post regarding the failure of ‘the corporation’ (Birmingham City Council) in regards to its pavement maintenance.

Our relationship as grandchildren was cordial, a little distant perhaps – a throwback to the stern attitudes of the Victorian era whose final days cusped my grandparents’ birth. My grandfather would give my sister and me two half-crown coins each birthday and Christmas, and always referred to us as ‘the nippers’, which started to irritate me by the time I became a know-it-all teenager as I recall. Grandad Frank meant well but it tended to be his sister, Aunt Anne, who provided most of the fun and warmth, improvising songs and stories for the two of us, spinning colourful, if sometimes dubious, yarns about her own girlhood – a direct link to the gaiety of Edwardian music hall and the carefree pre-war years that led up to 1914. To our young minds it seemed as if Aunt Anne was both ancient and ageless, as if she had always been here, as if they had built Birmingham around her and the machine she operated during her long working life in a city button factory.

Grandad’s working at the Lucas plant has hatched a small fantasy in my mind: a coincidence of time and place that allows an imagined encounter that almost certainly never happened. The end of my grandfather’s career at Lucas must have coincided with the youthful employment of one of Birmingham’s most famous sons, John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne. Pre-Sabbath, Ozzy is recorded as having worked at Lucas for a time testing car horns, a job that must have helped prepare his ears for future battering by thunderous heavy metal sound systems. Most probably he worked in a different factory (there were several around the city), and more than likely would have been on a different shop floor anyway, but I like to imagine the embryonic prince of darkness creeping up behind my phlegmatic, soon-to-retire grandfather and blasting him mischievously with a car horn. What would he have said? “Oy, you little perisher.” Or something more profane, the sort of industrial language that, as children, we would never hear uttered from his lips? Alas, Grandad’s and Ozzy’s respective Venn diagrams probably never overlapped in any way other than a brief spatial and temporal connection, but this fancy remains my only grip on any sort of Who Do You Think You Are? connection with rock royalty. Ozzy’s subsequent legacy as godfather of heavy metal is inadvertently celebrated in the city centre less than a mile away. Standing close to the neoclassical Town Hall, rising at an angle from the concrete of Victoria Square, is Antony Gormley’s Iron:Man, a 20-foot-high humanoid figure that, while officially symbolising the West Midlands’ traditional manufacturing skills, also references a well-known Black Sabbath song of the same name (give or take a colon).

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Rann Street had long gone, redacted from the city map, but Leslie Road still stood much as I remembered it. I had made my way there from the gentrified canal trappings of Gas Street Basin, striking west away from the Birmingham Canal Old Line with the help of a local map. A sign on the traffic-choked Ladywood Middleway had announced the periphery of the borough of Ladywood and I soon found my way to Reservoir Road where the Victorian waterworks stood, its elegant, almost Italianate brick tower supposedly the inspiration for JRR Tolkein’s Twin Towers of Gondor (the other tower was thought to be Perrott’s Folly on nearby Waterworks Road).

Reservoir Road, as its name promised, took me down to the water, and just before I reached the reservoir I found Leslie Road leading off to the left. The house looked to be in decent fettle, freshly painted, with a ‘To Let’ sign on the wall. I allowed myself a brief reverie of memory before retracing my steps back to Reservoir Road and on to the reservoir itself. Just beyond the gate stood the low-rise edifice of the Tower Ballroom, a venerable institution that had hosted dances for rhythm-happy Brummies intermittently since the 1920s. It had started life in the 1870s as a roller skating rink before going on to become a prestigious dance venue. Closed in 2005 in preparation for bulldozing to make way for housing, the Tower received a last minute reprieve and, revamped by a local businessman, opened once more for business in 2008. Just one year later it was taken over yet again to be repurposed as a glitzy Asian wedding venue with a concession for afternoon tea dances and nostalgic 1940s ‘Back in Time’ events.

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I made my way around the eastern bank wall of the reservoir. The view to the left across the shimmering water seemed almost rural, a church steeple rising above the trees on the western bank. To the right, peeking, indeed glowing, through the trees was a sight my grandparents would never have imagined witnessing: an oriental temple, the gilded stupa of Birmingham’s Buddhist Vihara. This glimpse of the celestial soon gave way to something altogether more prosaic: the semi-wasteland of half-demolished factories and yards that occupied the area around Icknield Port Road and a varicose kink of the Birmingham Canal Old Line. Beyond, in the distance, towered grey stacks of krushchyovka high-rises and the beacon of the BT Tower.

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I left the reservoir’s pastoral embrace to emerge at Icknield Port Road, where Pakistani and Somali parents were picking up their kids from primary school. Passing Summerfield Park I continued north to reach the major thoroughfare of the Dudley Road. My father had been born somewhere along here, above a tripe shop so he had always said. His early life was spent separated from my mother by nothing more than a few streets, a reservoir and a four-year age difference (they finally met after the war at a dance on the other side of Birmingham). The tripe shop went long ago, and Dudley Road, once Birmingham’s Golden Mile, with the densest concentration of ale houses in the city, had since become a parade of curry houses and Asian greengrocers, boiled offal giving way to more modern, international tastes – biryani and brinjal bhaji.

Crossing Dudley Road onto Winson Green Road I took the steps at a bridge at Heath Street to descend to the canal path once more. I would follow this as the Birmingham Canal meandered northwest out of the city. To Smethwick and beyond; into the Black Country, an energy-drained landscape that had yet to learn the knack of being post-industrial, a soot-blasted territory that must have made a deep impression on the young Tolkein sufficient to sow the seeds for later fiction. Mordor?

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Hethel Old Thorn

img_4397If trees could only speak. If they had some semblance of sentience and memory, and a means of communication, what would they tell us? Ancient trees – or at least those we suspect to be very old – are usually described in terms of human history. Perhaps as humans it is hubris that requires us to define them in this way but the fact is that by and large they tend to outlive us: many lofty oaks that stand today were already reaching for the sky when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the land over two centuries ago. This linkage of history and old trees has resulted in some colourful local history. The story of the future King Charles II hiding from parliamentarian troops up a pollarded oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire carried sufficient potency for the original tree to have been eventually killed by souvenir hunters excessively lopping of its branches as keepsakes. Undoubtedly the stuff of legend, Royal Oak ended up becoming the third commonest pub name in England. A long-established folk belief also tells of the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree which is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arithmathea whom legend has it once visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. What was considered to be the original tree perished during the English Civil War, chopped down and burned by Cromwell’s troops who clearly held a grudge against any tree that came with spiritual associations or historical attitude.img_4398There is an ancient thorn in Norfolk that is sometimes connected with the same Joseph of Arithmathea myth. Hethel Old Thorn can be found along narrow lanes amidst unremarkable farming country 10 miles south of Norwich. Close to the better known Kett’s Oak that can be seen propped up alongside the old London Road near Wymondham; closer still to the Lotus car factory and Hethel’s All Saints Church, which dates back at least to the 14th century and may even have a Saxon core.

The old thorn stands enclosed behind a fence, a measure designed to deter the red poll cattle that graze here, and perhaps also would-be tree-huggers if the rampant bed of nettles around its base were not enough. Occupying just 0.025 hectares, the site is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve; indeed it is probably the smallest nature reserve in the country. The tree itself is impressive although now much diminished from what it once was – in the mid 18th-century its trunk was recorded as having a circumference of over 12 feet and a spread of 31 yards.img_4402At an estimated 700 years old this is thought to be the oldest specimen of Crataegus monogyna in the UK. Like the nearby Kett’s Oak, the thorn was thought to be a meeting place for the rebels during Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. Long before that it may have been used as a meeting point for protesters during the time of King John. According to the information on the sign board local children would once have danced the village maypole and then scrambled to the thorn to count the number of props holding up the boughs. Seventy or so years ago it would have witnessed a flow of American Liberator B-42 bombers taking off for operations over Germany from the nearby airfield that now serves as the Lotus works. Despite age, decay and fragmentation the thorn still appears to be in good fettle. On my visit in late November a fine crop of haws were hanging on its boughs, a rich invitation for blackbirds and wintering redwings. Clearly the Hethel Old Thorn is still very much alive and thriving. Who knows how many more centuries the tree will live and what future events it will observe as silent witness?

Posted in Folklore, History, Norfolk, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Memory fields in the city of sock-wearers

img_2984The small city of Kruševac in south-central Serbia is probably best known for its fortress and 14th-century church, a fine example of the highly decorative Morava school. This was Prince Lazar’s capital in the late 14th century and it was from here that the Serbian army under the command of Prince Lazar set off to fight the ill-fated Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The Turks won yet it still took another 60 or so years for the city to fall under Ottoman control. Later on Kruševac became known as the ‘city of the sock-wearers (čarapani)’ because of an incident during the First National Uprising when Serbian rebels removed their boots to slip silently into town at night unheeded by the Turkish guards. Today Kruševac is an easy-going sort of place that, church aside, serves as a textbook case of Tito-era urban planning with its extensive use of concrete and scattered high-rises that loom like grey termite mounds over the city centre. img_3043This was my third visit in a decade and on this occasion I was prompted to seek out something that I had hitherto not even been aware of. A short distance out of town to the south lies a monument park dedicated to the victims of Nazi shootings during World War II. This was close to a former German prison camp and the scene of mass shootings between 1941—4, most especially in the summer of 1943 when over a thousand Serbs partisans and civilians were executed mostly by Bulgarian and Albanian troops. The Slobodište Memorial Complex, designed in the early 1960’s by architect, politician, one-time Belgrade mayor and anti-nationalist critic of Slobodan Milošević, Bogdan Bogdanović (1922—2010), occupies the same low hill just outside the city where the killings took place. The monuments of the complex serve as focus for a location already tainted with dark memory and collective suffering. img_3000-1The monument park is reached on foot by way of a route through Kruševac’s outskirts. The city edgeland arrives suddenly: a roundabout, a small airfield marked by a jet fighter on a plinth, an out-of-town retail hangar with supersized advertising depicting super-fit sportsmen. As elsewhere in Serbia, the edgeland is the realm of Roma – the poorest of the poor in this none-too-wealthy country – who, as always, are involved in the recycling business. Perpetually sorting through waste – paper, metal, plastic – skilfully assessing its value, their make-do shanty shelters seem barely separated from the middens of 21st-century detritus that they live among.

In an instinctive trade-off of safety for freedom, a few of the free-ranging Roma chickens stray across the pavement onto the perilous dual-carriage highway that leads out of town. I follow the pavement alongside the highway for a while before veering off right when a footpath into the trees suggests that the memorial park lies just beyond. img_2974-1At first there is nothing to see other than landscaped grassy mounds in the distance. Walking through a birch plantation I am entertained by the head-cracking antics of a Syrian woodpecker that hammers away remorselessly at a tree stump. Crows in all their variety – rooks, jackdaws, magpies and jays – call harshly, their voices like creaking tree trunks in a gale. I make for the grassy mound ahead and from the top can see a curved chain of stone sculptures stretched up the hollow of a hillside. The monuments resemble birds – owls to be precise – buried up to their beaks in the earth, but rising from rather than sinking down into it. They might also be angels. As I walk closer to investigate I notice a man with a bicycle at the top of the rise who is waving and beckoning to me. We manage some sort of rudimentary conversation using an inelegant polyglot mixture of German, Serbian and what might be Russian, and I learn that he lives locally in one of the housing estates that fringe the park and uses its pathways as a shortcut to the shops. img_3013Conversation, and commonality of language, exhausted the man cycles off and I turn round to trace the pathway back to its beginning. What is actually supposed to be the entrance to the memorial complex – the ‘Gate of the Sun’ – serves as my exit: an incomplete arch reminiscent of an Andy Goldsworthy dry-stone creation. Flanking the entrance just beyond this are two pyramidal mounds like Neolithic cairns. In front of each is a low stone funerary slab upon which rest wreaths and polythene-wrapped flowers. Whether or not these are actual burial mounds or merely a symbolical representation does not really seem to matter – this whole site is a memory field of death and the act of remembrance is the important thing. And remembered it is: memory is honoured; this site still holds melancholic charge for townsfolk and visitors alike despite its mundane use as a place for cycling, exercising and walking dogs.

I think about leaving and then am distracted once more by the same woodpecker that has taken a liking to a nearby tree and pounds away tenaciously with its beak despite the seeming reluctance of the bark to yield to the hammering. I put my ear to the trunk and think this is what the grubs within must hear whenever their woody sanctuary is threatened by a predator; the tree, like the memorial park itself, is a microcosm of both life and death. img_3030-1There is one more monument to see: the cenotaph. I find a curious, vaguely zoomorphic statue that brings to mind a Mayan glyph, or a totem – or perhaps another owl. It stands alone and inscrutable in front of some administrative offices that have been landscaped into the naturalistic contours of the park. Within one of the offices I spot a man working on a computer. I cannot decide whether I am envious of his workplace or not. No doubt it is peaceful enough tucked away in the folds of this green domain but the heft of dark memory weighs heavy here – a place to visit certainly but not one in which to repose. img_3068

For an excellent account of memorial parks and spomeniks (memorial monuments) throughout the countries of the former Yugoslavia take a look at this post on The Bohemia Blog.

Posted in Balkans, Eastern Europe, History, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments