Rome visit 2: including a Mary of Egypt

Last time I wrote about the gorgeous mosaics in the basilica San Clemente that we visited during our short break in Rome recently. Today I’d like to say a few things about some of the other outstanding places we saw.

Bernini elephant I particularly liked the Bernini elephant near the even more spectacular Pantheon. Revealed to the public in 1667 in the Piazza della Minerva, the animal bears on its back one of thirteen huge Egyptian obelisks dotted around the city’s squares. This one was probably brought to Rome in the first century for a temple to Isis located here. It dates from c.580 BC. He has an admirably long, curling trunk, and a slightly worried expression. Probably the effort of holding up such a heavy load.

We walked across the Tiber – which was criss-crossed by swooping swallows feasting on insects just above the surface of the water (still haven’t seen any in Cornwall) – to Vatican City and the impressive avenue leading up to St Peter’s. Visitors were told to wear FFP2 face masks. A young woman ahead of us had passed through bag checks but then been turned back by the next level of security. She was asking people if they had a spare mask. She was so distraught we took pity on her and found a spare in our rucksack. It was worth it for the beatific smile she gave us.

Inside the basilica was jaw-dropping. It’s the largest structure I recall being in – including the massive hangar where Concorde was built in Filton (I’ve mentioned my student vacation job there before). It’s not necessary to relate what’s to be seen there. It starts with Michelangelo’s Pietà just inside the main doors – then the wonders continue.

I was expecting a rather more ostentatious, opulent interior, having seen so many Baroque churches in our wanderings in Rome, but St Peter’s is relatively restrained, even austere in comparison. It’s still sumptuous, of course, but my expectations of distasteful excess were not fulfilled. It was a genuinely spiritual experience. We even joined a service of mass. Mrs TD was raised a Catholic, so was thrilled to take communion in such a place. We didn’t understand too much of the sermon, but I gathered it was about good and evil, and renouncing the devil. Not surprisingly. We watched the film The Two Popes on Netflix when we got back: made a lot more sense having experienced the place for ourselves.

Bernini's baldacchino St Peter's I would single out for special mention the enormous baldacchino over the high altar under the basilica’s dome. Completed by Bernini (again) in 1634, it’s twenty-six metres high – as high as many palazzi in Rome. Rather like the more portable palanquins, these structures would originally have been tent-like cloth canopies; this more grandiose, architectural example is made of bronze. The name derives from ‘Baghdad’, because the cloth used in early versions of these canopies originally came from there.

Mary of Egypt St Peter's Regular visitors to TDays will know of my interest in hagiography, and in the legend of St Mary of Egypt in particular. Rome has several representations of this penitent ascetic saint, and even a temple that was once a church dedicated to her. Time didn’t permit a visit to all of these, and I stupidly neglected to research properly where to locate the statue of her among the 140 figures perched on top of the grandiose portico-terrace curving round the square in front of the basilica. Hers is one of a group of 24 in the north colonnade , and they’re so high up it’s hard to identify them from ground level. So now I’m home I’ve returned to the online image (link HERE) and can pick it out properly from the dozens of others – next time I’ll know exactly where to find her and can take my own pictures.

There were so many other places in Rome that I could enthuse about, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’d single out for passing mention the moody Caravaggios in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi near where we were staying by the Piazza Navona, and another in the neighbouring San Agostino church.

I could write a whole post just on the Piazza Navona itself. One of its three beautiful fountains – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651) – depicts symbolically four great rivers: the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate. Bernini crops up again here: he designed it, and did one of the carvings. Legend has it that the figures facing his arch-rival Borromini’s church façade opposite are shielding their eyes from its horrors!

This is the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. As a former student of hagiography I’m thrilled to think that the relics of this saint, martyred when she was just thirteen, are enshrined here – on the site where the martyrdom took place.

So many places to return to or see next time. The Keats-Shelley museum by the Spanish Steps was closed, but it was good (and sobering) to see its exterior and think of poor Keats wasting away inside. The Trevi Fountain was thronged with tourists, but still breathtaking. As for the Colosseum – those Romans were brilliant architects and engineers. We’ll go inside next time.

 

 

St Hilary’s: part 2

Nave view

View of the nave looking east towards the altar; the striking crucifix image is by Ernest Procter

In my previous post I described the church of St Hilary, near Penzance, and some of the artworks by the former priest’s wife Annie Walke and her fellow members of the Newlyn School that decorate the interior.

First a word about the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and the painting depicting the dedication. Hilary was born in Poitiers around 315, and became bishop of that city. He was a vigorous opponent of the Arianism that was prevalent in the west at that time, and many of his writings were complex defences of Christian orthodoxy.

In England he gives his name to the ‘Hilary term’ of some of the more pretentious universities, and the courts of law (it begins on or about his feast day – 13 or 14 January). Hilary has been a name for both men and women since the middle ages. There are two other churches in England dedicated to him.

On the south side is a painting of St Hilary saying goodbye and blessing the people of Poitiers on going into exile.

On with the artworks. Many depict the subjects’ sympathy with animals and the natural world, as we saw last time. Not all are signed. They were painted by Alethea and Norman Garstin, Dod and Ernest Procter, Harold Harvey, Annie Walke, Gladys Hynes (whose brother Dr Hugh Hynes wrote the notes on the paintings in the guide leaflet) and Harold Knight.

Dedication of St Hilary's church

Dedication of St Hilary’s church by the monks of St Michael’s Mount

In the chancel on the north side is a picture of the monks of St Michael’s Mount (a short distance off the shore of Marazion, connected at low tide by a causeway) conducting the dedication ceremony. The monastery on the mount is visible in the top left background. As in the panels by Joan Manning-Saunders that I wrote about last time, the colours here are glowing and fresh. I like the way one of the monks processing towards the church glances out at the painting’s viewer, his expression inscrutable. The one at the rear looks a bit like Nosferatu – though I doubt this was the effect the artist was striving for.

St Morwenna

St Morwenna

Among the paintings of mostly Cornish saints is a dramatic one of St Morwenna, who gives her name to the town of Morwenstow, the northernmost parish in Cornwall, where she established a hermitage on arrival in Cornwall from Ireland, where she was receiving instruction. Its charismatic vicar from 1843 was Robert Hawker (1803-75), author of the ‘Cornish hymn’,Trelwany. He was an eccentric in his dress and behaviour: he built a hut out of driftwood on the clifftop and spent time there writing his poems and other works. Legend has it that he excommunicated his cat for mousing on a Sunday. He’s also known for his kindness, compassion, and devotion to his parish; he would be one of the first to attend the numerous shipwrecks that occurred at that dangerous stretch of coast, and gave drowned sailors a decent burial in his churchyard, rather than allowing the usual practice of burying them in unmarked graves in the sand on the beach where they were washed up.

Morwenna is thought to have been one of the many children of a Welsh king. One of her sisters is said to have been St Edelienta, whose portrait is also found in the choir, but I don’t include it here. Morwenna is depicted joining her nuns to to rescue travellers being robbed by a bandit called Gwenlock. I’ve been unable to trace the source of this explanation, taken from the church guide leaflet.

St Petroc

St Petroc

 St Petroc is reputed to be another son of a Welsh king or chieftain, who also began his training in Ireland. He sailed to Cornwall with other monks, landing in the Camel estuary. Here he established a monastic centre, Petroc-stowe (now Padstow). There are several charming legends concerning his kindness to animals: in this picture he’s shown sheltering a terrified fawn seeking refuge under his cloak from disapproving mounted hunters and their equally disgruntled hounds (there’s a similar legend about St Eustace, among others).

In another legend he removes a splinter from the eye from an unhappy dragon that had sought him out (a variant of the St Jerome legend – possibly calqued on the story of Androcles – in which he removed a thorn from the paw of a fierce lion; in iconography he is often depicted working in his study with the grateful, now domesticated lion snoozing contentedly nearby). His reputation for sympathy with all creatures was obviously well known, even in the draconian community (not the other kind, emulators of harsh Draco, the Athenian lawmaker).

St Piran

St Piran

 St Piran (or Perran), patron and most popular saint of Cornwall, is shown with more animals: his first converts – a badger, a bear and a fox. I’ve posted about him several times – link HERE.

Little is known about the St Senan, for whom Sennen Cove in west Penwith is named. There’s an Irish 6C abbot by that name, but the

St Sennen

St Sennen

Cornish one seems to be an unknown woman saint. The figure in this picture is clearly a venerable white-bearded man, who according to the guide leaflet had asked, after receiving the last sacrament, to be laid to rest under a blossoming May tree.

 

St Fingar (Gwinear, Guigner), is patron of Gwinear (near Hayle) seems to have been a 6C Welsh (or Irish) missionary, companion of Meriasek (Meriadoc), subject of the famous Cornish-language

St Fingar

St Fingar

mystery play. On a visit to a prince in Britanny, killed a stag. While washing the blood from his hands in a pool, he looked down at his reflection (like Narcissus) and concluded he looked too good for this kind of thing, so built a hut in the forest and devoted the rest of his life to prayer. In iconography he’s sometimes shown with a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, apparently conflating the legend of Eustace.

 

 

 

 

 

Blackbird, crows, a ram: St Hilary’s church decorations

St Hilary's churchA couple of years ago I posted about the memoirs of Fr Bernard Walke, the innovative and much-loved (by most; there were some dissenters) Anglo-Catholic priest in charge of St Hilary’s church 1913-36 (link HERE). My friends, the owners of the elegant cats, recommended a visit to the church, especially because of this connection with its warm-hearted, slightly eccentric priest, and the numerous artworks that decorate the interior – donated by friends of Annie Walke, Bernard’s artist wife, and an associate of the nearby Newlyn school of artists. They include pieces by Annie Walke herself (a striking portrait of an armoured Joan of Arc), Roger Fry, Dod and Ernest Procter and Harold Knight.

We went on a blustery day last weekend. The church is tucked away down a lane at the edge of the tiny village of St Hilary, a few miles outside of Penzance. It’s a rural, sparsely populated district, fairly bleak and largely agricultural. The copper and tin mining industry that used to thrive here, and which Fr Walke tried in vain to revive during his time in the parish, has long gone, and much of the working population moved on with it.

A chap we met in the church was visiting from London. He told us that he’d been born and brought up in the village, and although a Catholic he used to attend services in the church sometimes (after Fr Walke’s time). He said the locals were very poor in his day – most didn’t have running water. Now, he added ruefully, the place had become gentrified, and in his view had lost much of its gritty character.

The church is set in the highest point of the swelling land between the Marazion and St Ives, where the peninsula of Cornwall is only a few miles wide. It’s thought that there would have been a Roman fort on the site originally, then various early medieval churches, possibly with other dedications. I’ll comment on the dedication to St Hilary of Poitiers in a later post.

Apparently the 13C spire can be seen from both coasts. It’s rumoured that the port of St Ives is said to have paid to whitewash it, to act as a navigation and orientation point for sailors. The paint is no longer there.

The spire and tower are the only surviving parts of the last of the two or more medieval structures. It burnt down in a disastrous fire in 1853. The rebuilding used much of the original stone material in the two following years.

Joan Manning-Saunders nativity scene

This appears to be a nativity scene, with fairly conventional setting – except for the very Cornish-looking engine house in the distance

There are too many pictures that I took of the paintings that decorate the interior for one post; let’s start with the pictures on the parclose screen in the Lady Chapel, in the NE end beside the altar. These vibrantly coloured panels were painted by the remarkably precocious 12-year-old Joan Manning-Saunders (1913-2002).

She was living at Sennen

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 2

This seems to be the shepherds being told by an angel of the nativity – unperturbed by the frisky sea serpent below.

Cove, a few miles west of St Ives, near Land’s End, when Fr Walke commissioned her to paint this sequence of panels – I think they’re watercolours. They’re scenes from the New Testament, but with her own idiosyncratic interpretations.

A couple of years later, when she was just 14, she became the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London, a feat she repeated the following year. She became famous over the next few years as

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 3

This seems to be a rather hallucinatory annunciation; the young woman (Mary?) seems to be having a picnic with a Cornish pasty and half-finished bottle of red wine. A goat admires the languidly stretching leopard floating over a tree. Lions lie down with lambs.

a youthful prodigy, but her career faded in her later life.

So what’s a ‘parclose screen’? They’re designed to screen a chantry or side chapel from public areas of the church like the nave or chancel (the space around the altar at the east end of the church). Such screens are often richly carved and decorated to allow for light to enter and to enable some sight of the altar during eucharist or mass.

I’ll end this first post with the three painted wooden panels around the pulpit (by Ernest Procter?). There’s St Mawes (Maudez or St Mawes with ramModez in Breton, where he founded houses and was said to be a bishop, and where he’s better known.) Cornish tradition has it that this 5C saint established his hermitage in the small coastal town opposite Falmouth that bears his name. He was possibly a monk and missionary from Wales, founder of monasteries in Cornwall and Britanny. I’ve been unable to find a source for the iconography in this portrait, which depicts the ram that he employed to carry his prayerbook. I suspect this and other unusual iconographical features in other pictures in this church simply reflect the taste and imagination of the artists.

St Kevin with birds' nests

St Kevin seems to have a bird’s nest in each hand here! Inquisitive rabbits look on from their burrows.

St Kevin (Coemgen) was the 6-7C hermit, founder and abbot of the monastery at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The most famous and charming of the many legends about him is depicted here: he prayed for such a long time in the ancient orans prayer posture (arms outstretched, palms upwards) seen in the painting that a bird (usually portrayed as a blackbird) built a nest in his hands. When he realised what was happening he chose not to move as this would disturb the bird. After it laid an egg Kevin waited until it hatched, and the baby bird had fledged. In another legend he’s said to have fed the members of his monastic community on the salmon brought to him by an industrious otter. I posted long ago about another helpful otter in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (link HERE).

There are many such legends of (especially Irish) saints that serve to show the affinity between saints and the natural world. I recall first reading about this many years ago (before my academic research into medieval hagiography) in a delightful book intended originally for children by the wonderful Helen Waddell: Beasts and Saints, a collection first published in 1934 of her translations from the legends in their original Latin.

St Neot admonishing crowsSt Neot is shown admonishing hungry crows: don’t eat the seedcorn sown on the ground. His dates are unknown but he’s said to have a Glastonbury monk who became a hermit on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, where he founded a small monastery; a village there bears his name. The legend of King Arthur burning the cakes originally appeared in a Latin life of Neot.

Once again I’ve not found the source of this legend of the crows (it might have been borrowed from another saint’s life; it reminds me of the scene early in Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, when young Jude is too soft-hearted to scare off the crows feeding on the seeds of the farmer who employed him to do so – rather the opposite message than the one in this picture). Better known is the legend of the wild stags which came and offered their services to him when his oxen were stolen by thieves (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The stag often features in the iconography of Neot.

More next time. I’m indebted for some of the detail here to the church guide, which includes notes by Dr Hugh Hynes on the paintings and decorations.

 

Gaudí nights (and days): 2

Casa Vicens rear facade

Casa Vicens rear 

A visit to friends in London and then a work project after my first Gaudí/Barcelona post at the start of this month prevented me from writing, so here’s the delayed second one.

Towards the end of our final few days in Barcelona last month having ‘grown-up’ time, me and Mrs TD alone, no little grandsons to amuse, we visited another of the houses designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. My previous post was about his final civic commission, Casa Milà; this one, Casa Vicens, was his first one.

It was built 1883-85  in the then suburban district of Gràcia as the summer house of the Vicens family. As the house’s official website Casa Vicens roof towersays, it embodies ‘all of his sources, influences and experiences on other projects, and his own idea of a single-family home…where construction and ornamentation are integrated in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other.’

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

The most striking feature of the exterior and facades is his use of colourful ceramic tiles, featuring vivid yellow-orange marigolds (though some say these are Indian or Moorish yellow carnations that were found growing in the garden where the house was to be built), alternating with plain green and cream/white tiles. Here and in the interior decoration the influence is apparent of oriental style – Indian, Persian and Japanese, as well as Moorish-Hispanic details (all found together in the side of the house with its plashing fountain, slatted shitomi blinds and more colourful ornamental tiles).

Casa Vicens side fountain screenUnlike most of his later undulating work with a defining reliance on curved lines, this house is built on geometric, straight-line principles. But Gaudí used all his skill to ensure that every window and balcony made maximum opportunity for the occupants to enjoy the semi-rural light, shade and fresh air. And there are a few of what were to become his trademark sinuous wrought-iron balcony railings.

Inside it’s also possible to see what was to become his main design inspiration: the natural world. So there are painted or papier-mâché flowers, fruit leaves, tendrils, palm-hearts and fronds, and plenty of birds (including a gorgeous flamingo – though I think these birds were done by other artists).Casa Vicens ceiling birds

It doesn’t have the extravagant boldness and panache of his more famous later buildings, but the signs of his idiosyncratic genius are clearly apparent in this early work.

Casa Vicens porch from inside

Interior image: By Canaan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105999185

 

Casa Vicens roof turrets

Casa Vicens roof turrets

 

 

 

Gaudí nights (and days): 1

While staying in Sant Cugat with our son and his young family last month (see previous post) we took the train into Barcelona a couple of times, and spent the last four days of our visit having adult time in the city. This enabled us to visit a few more of the houses designed by Gaudí.

La Pedrera façade

La Pedrera façade

In previous visits we’ve been to Park Guell and Casa Batlló, as well as the iconic basilica Sagrada Familia. Our first visit this time was to Casa Milá, aka La Pedrera (meaning ‘stone quarry’, because of its remarkable undulating, rough-hewn façade). Architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is the most famous of Catalan ‘modernistas’. All of his work reflects his love of nature: there are very few straight lines, all is fluid, sinuous curves, imitating the spirals of snail and sea shells, plants and other organic entities. It’s a style known as biomorphic.

The house, completed in 1910 and occupied the following year, was commissioned by Pere Milà, a wealthy developer, and his wife Roser Segimón. This was Gaudí’s last civic architectural commission. It is perhaps his most daringly innovative design, with its unique framework structure and undulating façade and roofline. It even had an underground carpark.

By the 1980s the house had fallen into disrepair; it’s been sympathetically restored to a state as close as possible to Gaudí’s original vision.

La Pedrera roof terrace: helmets The self-guided tour of La Pedrera begins with its spectacular roof terrace on the sixth floor. The flamboyant staircase exits and ventilation shafts (I think that’s what they are) are given the designer’s trademark attention to detail. Instead of purely functional adjuncts to the building, they are works of sculptural art. What look like chimneys (but their purpose is a mystery) are designed to look like the torsos and heads of fierce guardian warriors or sentinels in medieval armour and helmets reminiscent of the famous Saxon one from Sutton Hoo. They’re known as the ‘witch scarers’, so I suppose their function and aesthetic is similar to that of gargoyles under church roofs.La Pedrera roof: warriors

From this rooftop there are marvellous views across the city. In one direction the sea can be seen shimmering about two kilometres away. In the other direction is the mountain range that looms over the city, with the slightly cheesy fake castle Tibidabo amusement attraction on its summit.

The top attic floor has an amazing ribbed vaulted ceiling. The curved beams are in fact all made of stone. The effect is meant to evoke the inside of a whale. There are scale models of the house on show here; Gaudí preferred to work from models like this rather than from drawings.

La Pedrera inside a whale attic

Inside a whale: the attic

One can visit several of the rooms on lower floors. Here there are countless examples of Gaudí’s idiosyncratic eye for detail. Even the doorknobs are little works of art, ergonomically designed to invite the hand to caress them before fulfilling their mundane purpose. On the main floor intended for the Milà family to live in he included his designs for every aspect of the décor, including the floors, ceilings, custom-made doors and even the furniture – all with his distinctive ‘organic’ as well as ergonomic flair.

The city has incorporated a tribute to this extraordinary architect’s legacy to Barcelona by paving the Passeig de Gracia, on which the Casa Milà is located, with small stone tiles etched with a flowing, plant-like design that he often used to decorate his structures.

The whole experience of this visit was exhilarating. It’s easy to dismiss Gaudí’s highly idiosyncratic style as over-fussy and quirky, and when this house was first built it was widely criticised: its nickname ‘La Pedrera’ was intended in a pejorative sense. But when you relax into it and let it wash over you it really takes your breath away. And of course La Sagrada Familia is his masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

Homage to (part of) Catalonia

The blog has been silent for a month or so while I travelled with Mrs TD to Catalunya to visit our son and his family, who live near Sant Cugat del Vallès, a few kilometres behind the mountain that looms over the city of Barcelona. I posted last about this area back in 2018 (link HERE). It was lovely to see them after an imposed separation of nearly two years (because of…well, you know.) Our two little grandsons, now six and seven, had changed so much since 2019.

S Cugat monastery tower

S Cugat monastery tower

It was interesting to see how compliant everyone in this part of Spain was with hygiene measures: everyone wore masks in indoor settings and on public transport, and in busy streets outdoors, and scrupulously observed social distancing. It remains a mystery to me why our British government remains implacably opposed to such simple and effective means of mitigating transmission of this deadly virus in the community.

Sant Cugat monastery and church.

We visited the handsome honey-coloured monastery at the centre of the town several times. Legend has it that the saint after whom the town is named was executed on the site of what became the Benedictine monastery.

Ayne Bru, Martyrdom of Sant Cugat

Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21929804

Born in 269 to a noble Christian family in Scillium on the N. African coast (modern-day Tunisia), Cucuphas (Cugat is the Catalan version) travelled to Barcelona to evangelise the area. During the Diocletian persecution he was imprisoned and tortured by the Roman governor of the area, and was martyred around 304. As my image shows – apologies for the gruesomeness – when all other efforts to dispatch him failed his throat was cut.

German-born artist Ayne Bru was commissioned in 1502-07 to paint the retablo (altarpiece) of the church of the monastery of Sant Cugat with scenes from the saint’s life. The monastery building can be seen in the background of the picture. The original is in a museum in Barcelona. I rather liked the insouciant sleeping dog in the foreground. This dog was reproduced in the 1954 painting by Salvador Dalí, ‘Dalí nude contemplating before the five regular bodies’ (I can’t include it here for copyright reasons, but it’s worth Googling). Dalí of course was born and brought up in Figueres nearby on the Catalunyan coast, and later returned to neighbouring Cadaqués, so would no doubt have been familiar with this image. Interesting that it was the dog that stuck in his memory, and not the graphic depiction of the demise of the martyr saint.

S Cugat monastery cloister

The monastery cloister. The lower level is romanesque, the upper floor is renaissance

The saint’s legend shares many of the topoi of other hagiographical accounts of early martyrdoms: multiple cruel types of torture fail to harm the victim, bad things befall the tormentors (or they’re converted to Christianity as a result of the miraculous preservation from physical injury of the prisoner at their torturers’ hands), etc.

From the eighth century the monastery of Sant Cugat claimed to preserve his relics and dedicated itself to his veneration.

Cal Gerrer

Cal Gerrer

Across the central town square from the monastery and church is the ornate modernist building now the museum Funcació Cabanas, popularly known as Cal Gerrer, formerly the Arpi family’s old ceramic factory. Built in 1853, it is famous for its incorporation into its design of some of its own pottery and gorgeous ceramic tiles (see the frieze under the roof eaves). There are many more modernist houses across the central town area, many featuring ceramics by the Arpis and others, along with decorative details that I’ll write about another time.

Cal Gerrer roof

Cal Gerrer roof: tiles and decoration made in the Arpi factory

From the early 1920s the house was occupied by members of the creative Cabanas-Alibau family. Three of the brothers became noted for their work in the fields of photography, painting and literature. Many of their artworks and family relics are exhibited in the museum. One floor, weirdly, is full of exhibits representing the life and career of

Arpi bat

I like the bat in this image of a detail of the front of Cal Gerrer

Marilyn Monroe.

More on Sant Cugat, Girona and Barcelona to come in future posts.

 

 

 

 

Dorset days: sculptures, sand, sea, a castle and a church

I haven’t posted here for a while because of work commitments, a week’s holiday in Dorset with Mrs TD and two old friends, then more work.

Poole harbour at sunset

The shallow waters of Poole harbour

We rented a house on Sandbanks, the weird spit of land, originally a string of sand dunes – just a few hundred metres wide and maybe a couple of kilometres long, sticking out into the huge natural harbour of Poole, on the south coast of England. Sandbanks is said to have some of the most expensive real estate in England: there are huge glass and steel architectural fantasies, mock-Spanish colonial mansions, art deco ship-houses, and a scattering of the original pre-WWII houses of more humble proportions. It’s a cross between Beverley Hills and Bournemouth (just a mile or two up the coast, and much more down-market). How they managed to build massive houses on foundations of sand defeats me.

Our house was one of the originals, built in the mid-30s: art and crafts, with terracotta tiles and attractive angles and details. It was right by the terminal of the chain car-ferry that plies across the narrow entrance to the harbour, linking Sandbanks with the mainland promontory on the far side of the harbour at Studland. Gin palaces, yachts, jet skis and pleasure boats constantly sailed or buzzed past, playthings of the wealthy holiday-home owners who were our temporary neighbours.

There was an air fair at Bournemouth the first weekend. We were aghast to hear that a biplane with a wing-walker that we’d seen fly over our garden had crashed into the harbour near the ferry terminal just minutes after we’d been sitting on a bench admiring the view there. Fortunately, the pilot and passenger survived with just minor injuries.

Grandees scupture by lake

These striking figures are called ‘Grandees’. They look a cross between Egyptian gods and revellers at a Venice carnival

The highlight of the week was a visit to Sculpture by the Lakes. Simon Gudgeon gave up his city job to buy a former lake fishery to concentrate on his sculpting – especially his beautifully graceful images of birds and aquatic animals. He positioned some around the picturesque pools, where they fit beautifully, and finally decided, as the collection grew, to include sculptures by other artists, and to open the place to the public. My favourites are included here.

Falcon sculpture

This falcon is one of the many birds and animal sculptures that blend so naturally into the lovely lakeside setting

 

Another day we took the ferry across to Studland and on to Swanage on the local bus (to avoid the massive queues of cars; buses have priority). After lunch on the promenade, we caught the vintage steam train for the short trip to Corfe Castle.

Corfe CastleThis is a dramatic ruin on top of an implausibly high, steep hill. Its construction started under William I a few years after his victory at Hastings in 1066. Subsequent monarchs extended and modified it until it passed into private aristocratic family ownership. During the Civil War in the mid-17C the family supported the Royalist cause of King Charles I. They were besieged and defeated by the Parliamentarians, who destroyed the castle to prevent it being used for military purposes again. Handsome grey sheep graze the rich undergrowth on the hillsides beneath the walls.

For most of the week we had beautiful sunny weather, and were able to spend time on the beach and swimming in the (not so cold) sea. With a bit of imagination the miles-long sandy beach could have been mistaken for South Beach, Miami (without the pastel lifeguard posts).

Towards the end of the week the weather changed: cloud and mist. The queues of cars for the ferry dwindled, so we were able to take the car across to Studland and do the coastal walk to Old Harry rocks – huge pillars of chalk at the end of a headland. A group of coastguards was preparing to do a cliff rescue exercise, with abseil ropes and crash helmets. I would not want to launch myself off those cliffs, even with a harness and rope.

Studland church After lunch in the garden at the famous Pig on the Beach (pizzas called rather grandly ‘flatbreads’ – delicious, and a pint of local ale) we walked to Studland church. This is one of the oldest surviving churches in England, almost unchanged since it was modified from its Saxon original form by the Normans in the 11C (around the time Corfe Castle was being built). The tower was never finished (the masons were worried about the soggy, sandy foundations – something that the builders of mansions on Sandbanks don’t seem perturbed by), so the building looks more like a fortress. The windows are mostly tiny and plain glass – no fancy gothic arches, buttresses or stained glass windows (apart from a couple of gaudy Victorian ones).

Studland corbels One of its most curious features is the sequence of carved corbels under the eaves of the roof. Many of these would have been familiar to early Saxons and Celts: animal heads and human faces with bulging eyes, looping amorphous creatures. But also some that could only be described as downright rude: naked exhibitionist figures – ithyphallic males and the notorious female sheela na gig. These may well have served as apotropaic figures (to ward off evil; I did a post on this in the early months of this blog – link HERE.) Others believe that they were survivals from the days of pagan fertility deities, or more austere warnings against the sins of the flesh (strange way to do it).

Now, back home, our case numbers of Covid are frighteningly high, the government repeats its ‘don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, let’s get back to normal’ mantras of the past (disastrous) 18 months, and drops all public health restrictions – even as scientists yet again plead for caution, unheeded. A week in Dorset was therapeutic, but its benefits quickly evaporated as we brace ourselves for yet more unnecessary pandemic suffering as a consequence of our leaders’ obduracy: economy, selfish notions of ‘individual liberty’, and free market capitalism taking priority over lives and people’s health and safety.

Cornish ramblings again

I was intending a post on Philip Roth today, but have postponed this in order to write about a visit I made with Mrs TD yesterday to the Japanese garden in the pretty village of St Mawgan.

St Mawgan bridge

The bridge over the Menalhyl beside the church

It is situated in and around the valley (the Vale of Lanherne) of the river Menalhyl. Wikipedia suggests that this name is from the Cornish ‘melyn’, mill, and ‘heyl’, estuary, but I’m not convinced by this.

The full name of the village is St Mawgan-in-Pydar. ‘Pydar’ is one of the ten hundreds of Cornwall, but I’ve been unable to find out what the name might signify in Cornish.

St Mawgan is one of those obscure early medieval saints who are celebrated in all kinds of place names, church dedications and so on throughout Cornwall. All I’ve been able to determine online and in my hagiographical books is that he may have been a 5-6C Welsh missionary bishop who established a monastery and church in the area. There’s another village with this name, St Mawgan-in-Meneage, on the Lizard peninsula. ‘Meneage’ is from the Cornish for ‘monastic land’, with connotations of ‘place of rest or sanctuary’.

AcerWe last visited the Japanese gardens in St Mawgan soon after they opened over 20 years ago. Not surprisingly it looks very different today. It’s a serene and peaceful place, shaded by hundreds of lichen-coated trees, many of them that Japanese stalwart, the maple or acer. Most are very old, and have become contorted in shape as a result presumably of what was once soft, swampy soil, causing their trunks to veer at sharp angles. As a result they now resemble huge equivalents of the miniature bonsai trees on sale in the garden shop.

Meditating figure

The gardens inspire a meditative mood, reflected in the sculptures posing in nooks beside pools and groves

There are waterfalls and natural ‘sculptures’ formed by tree stumps and moss-covered rocks. There are also a couple of pretty ponds, one patrolled by beautifully marked koi carp, and shaded by acers that seem to be just starting to turn colour as autumn approaches.

Zen garden St Mawgan

The zen garden; leaves had blown over it in the wind

Statues of the Buddha and various meditative monks are sited strategically in every zone, along with pagodas, dragons, lions and other traditional Japanese designs.

There’s an austere Zen garden, with the characteristic raked pattern in the gravel, and several moss-covered boulders to soothe the observer’s spirit.

The attractive parish church that stands in the village centre nearby is dedicated to Sts Mauganus (the Latin equivalent of Mawgan) and Nicholas. The current building dates at least partly from 13-15C. There are some fine 15C carved pew-bench ends. The church guide says there’s a holy well beside the lychgate. If so, it’s now just a sort of overgrown hole.

St Mawgan convent

St Mawgan convent

Next to the church is Lanherne House, once a Carmelite convent (Historic England gives detailed architectural description and history HERE). The structure is mostly 16C, with 17C and later additions and restoration. It’s said to have been resurfaced at the back by Sir Christopher Wren.

This was one of the grand houses of the Arundell family, lords of the manor here since the early 13C. By 1501 John Arundell had become the wealthiest man in Cornwall.

Convent cross

This ornate cross stands in front of the convent

The family’s fortunes dwindled after the Reformation and establishment by Henry VIII of the church of England; as a staunch Catholic family they were persecuted as ‘recusants’ – some were imprisoned, fined or had lands confiscated. Most of the family land had been sold by the late 1700s, and the line had died out, continuing by marriage in a ‘cadet’ branch in Wiltshire.

(There’s an interesting account by the local scholar Bernard Deacon: ‘The fall of the Arundells of Lanherne’, at his blog Cornish Studies Resources, 2020, link HERE.)

Lanherne House was given in 1794 to a group of Carmelite emigrée nuns from Belgium. Their order left the site around 2001, and the convent became home to the Franciscan sisters of the Immaculate. As far as I can tell from online sources, this is a small ‘first order’ of nuns founded in the late 20C in Italy.

It’s an attractive building, but we weren’t able to go inside, where there are said to be some interesting features. There’s a modern shrine to the BVM in the courtyard in front of the 19C chapel section, and a collection of what look like former farm buildings behind. There’s a fine view into the valley from its elevated position above the river.

Cornwall-Newquay airport is nearby (Newquay town is four miles away). At the mouth of the Menalhyl river is the fine sandy beach and resort of Mawgan Porth. There were 69 shipwrecks in just a six-mile stretch of coast here 1754-1920. One of the most famous is that of the schooner Hodbarrow Miner in 1908. Three of its crew are buried in the churchyard, where there’s also a wooden memorial to others who lost their lives at sea nearby. A photograph of the wreck hangs on one of the church’s walls near the main entrance.

I’ve posted previously about the dangerous, unpleasant underground conditions in which Cornish miners worked until recently; the same could be said for the people who sailed in the treacherous seas around the peninsula’s rocky coast.

 

Fal cruise and a pen

We had friends stay for the weekend – it’s so good that we can mix socially again now, even though we’re still having to take precautions against infection. We’re all vaccinated, so that gives us some sense of security.

The banqueting table

The banqueting table

On Sunday we’d booked a cruise with lunch with Blue River Table, an enterprise started a few years ago by Charlotte and Jess. They have years of experience of sailing, crewing and cooking, and decided to combine these passions to offer gourmet eating for guests while enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Carrick Roads and Cornish creeks as they cruise on the River Fal.

Blue River Table boat Tethra

I didn’t take a picture of the Tethra, so this is my photo of their postcard, given to us a souvenir

Their boat, the Tethra, is a restored motor launch built in Looe as a fishing boat in the early 70s. On board, the eating area is almost filled by a magnificent chestnut banqueting table with a striking river-blue resin design swirling along its middle.

All the food is freshly prepared in the tiny galley, and sourced locally as much as possible, with baked fish and seafood caught that morning as the pièces de résistance.

Their food is influenced by the

Blue River Table food

This picture is taken from the Blue River Table website: https://www.bluerivertable.co.uk

cuisine of the places they’ve loved: the Med and the Middle East, so apart from the fish it’s vegetarian. There were huge sharing platters of salads, veg, tarts and dips. The fish served to us that day was baked sea bream and crab. Everything was absolutely delicious.

Just as we felt we could eat no more, Katherine, who was the chef that day, brought out a scrumptious chocolate torte. Even then we weren’t finished: there was a cheeseboard (all Cornish cheeses, of course) and tea or coffee.

The weather was a bit iffy, this being the south Cornish coast, with some heavy showers followed by bright sunshine. This didn’t dampen our spirits, though: Tethra has a canopy and transparent, removable ‘windows’ that sheltered us from the breeze, and the lovely views were unimpaired.

Three hats

We didn’t need our hats

Green undulating hills chequered with fields or woodland border the river system. Along the river we saw egrets and herons, cormorants and the ubiquitous gulls. No seals or dolphins, unfortunately, on this trip (though we’ve seen them around there previously). The famous itinerant walrus that’s popped up in the SW recently also failed to put in an appearance.

Mrs TD’s sister and her husband, who live nearby, joined us and our two friends from London. We all enjoyed the experience enormously. Jess and Katherine were delightful hosts. We anchored just offshore after our cruise to have lunch, then chugged back downriver to Mylor. A perfect way to spend a summer Sunday afternoon.

My new Pencole Pens fountain pen

PS During the week I visited the local market. I couldn’t resist indulging my love of fountain pens – I’ve posted in the past about my beautiful Namiki with crane and turtle (link HERE), my most recent indulgence – and bought this one. It’s made by Jonathan Arnold, a local craftsman, whose business is called Pencole Pens and Turnings. I’d bought myself a rollerball from his stall just before Christmas, and this pen matched it too well to pass by. It writes as well as it looks. I’m very pleased with it. I may have to get myself a larger pen case.

 

Recent events – and a grumpy gull

We’ve just said goodbye to our two English grandchildren, who came for their first visit in over a year. We hadn’t seen them since last August, so it was lovely to be together again. Lockdown restrictions eased recently, meaning we could start meeting other people indoors again. The weather was finally summery, and we were able to go to the beach. Mrs TD and the kids’ mum, who came for the final two days, went for a swim, joined by the 12-year-old granddaughter, but the water was a bit too cold for me.

Last week we paid our first social visit since before Christmas. Our friends who live nearby, the owners of those fine cats Iggy and Phoebe (they’ve featured a few times in the blog), invited us for coffee and cake. It was such a relief to mix with other people indoors, relax and enjoy stimulating conversation.

We admired their artworks, in particular a strange, vividly coloured crucifixion scene. They told us the artist was a Scot, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). They explained that the little dog looking up at the Christ figure, who returned its gaze, was the artist’s much loved Bedlington terrier. He features in many of his works, they told us.

Craigie Aitchison mural treeWe took the grandchildren to Truro cathedral during the week to seek out the four Aitchison murals our friends told us were to be seen there. The style is very distinctive, with vibrant bands of colour and stark, strangely mystical images of the crucifixion scene.

This first one appears to be a tree, perhaps the one that provided the timber for the cross on which the crucifixion took place.

To its left is the first of the scenes depicting Christ on the cross. The same vivid bands of colour form the basis of the image. At the foot of Craigie Aitchison mural cross and dogthe cross, instead of the usual human figures (mourners, soldiers), the little dog walks up to it, perky ears raised. The Christ figure appears to hang from one limp arm on the crossbeam, head bowed.

Next to this is the first image of the Christ figure looking straight out at the viewer. The dog now looks lovingly up at him. A star shines brightly in the sky above, and streaks of light or energy emanate from the figure on the cross. A blue bird – presumably symbolising the holy spirit, perches companionably next to the figure’s left hand.

Craigie Aitchison mural crucifixion

The mural on the far left of the four panels is a sort of mirror image of the first. This time the Christ figure’s right arm hangs over the crossbeam. The dog is no longer present.

Craigie Aitchison mural far leftI’m not sure how to read all the imagery, but each picture glows with a quiet energy. Despite the painful iconography, the simplicity and…I don’t know…charm of the scenes leaves me with a sense of happiness and hope. I’m not a Christian, but I can respond to the serenity of these images.

Grumpy gull FalmouthAfter our trip to the beach, we took the children to Falmouth docks, where we hoped to see the Estonian cruise ship that’s to be the floating hotel for some of the hundreds of extra police officers being brought in to police the area for the G7 conference. This takes place next week in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The ship wasn’t there, but I liked the grumpy expression of this seagull perched on the railings above the docks.

Buttercup fieldWhen the children had left for home with our daughter yesterday we went for one of our local walks. Here to end this post is a view of the horses’ field that’s featured in previous posts, now a mass of shimmering yellow buttercups, with pink clover among them. A circling buzzard overhead isn’t discernible in my picture, but it’s good to know it was there, keeping an eye on things below. Despite the rather hazy focus, I hope it’s still possible to see the beauty of nature.

Back to books next time (probably).