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

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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