Posting from home: a cat from Montmartre

Here in the UK we are into week 5 of lock down. People are responding to the situation in different ways. Some are coping well and are adjusting to a slower and simpler temporary life; others are struggling with confinement and  uncertainty about when things will change. I’m naturally a homebody and enjoy my own company, so thankfully I’m doing OK; though I am starting to lose track of what day it is and doubt I am alone in that. Sadly, there are no rural amblings to be had close to my home so I can’t show you any verdant spring scenes. I’m sure I’ll be itching to get out when restrictions are lifted, but as that could be some time off I thought I’d write a little retro travel post without having to leave the house.

Though not intentionally or philosophically a minimalist, I appear to own less stuff than most people I know and I tend only to have things that I actually use or am really fond of. In the second category is Montmarte Cat who sits on a shelf in the kitchen. I bought this ceramic feline about five years ago from my favourite part of Paris.

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Montmartre is well known as the artists’ quarter of the French capital, a bustling and lively place with lots of winding cobbled streets, cafes, artists and little studios. Montmartre is actually the name of the hill but it incorporates the district which has grown up around it.

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Walking around admiring street artists’ work is to be taken much more seriously than here in England. Stand too long in admiration and it’s assumed you have entered into an unspoken commercial contract to purchase the watercolour you have been ogling for the last seven minutes, or to pose for the portrait painter whom you have naively made eye contact with. Once those bristles hit that canvas there’s only one honourable outcome unless you want to make your escape, chastened and shamed, as the offended artist shouts insults after you. Just keep moving unless you want to buy, and enjoy the wonderful energy of the village.

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Moulin Rouge is a just a short walk away but I haven’t been tempted. One of my two favourite views of the city can be savoured from the Basilica of Sacre Coeur which sits atop Montmartre (the other favourite view, perhaps unsurprisingly, being from the top of the Eiffel Tower).

Sacre Cour (5)

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Each time I have visited has been a warm and bright day, perfect for buying a freshly made baguette and walking up the steps of Sacre Coeur to sit and enjoy the sprawling metropolis below.

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Of course, there are the usual hawkers and pick-pockets and opportunists who can spot tourists a mile off; it’s a slice of life. There are also souvenir shops selling tat to those of us who can’t resist – my personal weakness is fridge magnets. Bill Bryson once admitted to the same (tat, not especially fridge magnets) so there’s no shame in it. Excellent coffee or a green fairy will soon have you feeling more sophisticated again.

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On my last visit five years ago I came across this gorgeous little ceramics studio.

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The items on display outside were, understandably, glued in place but I was still impressed that they remained intact. I knew I was going to buy something…

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Not the handrail, though it was exquisitely painted.

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Inside the tiny gallery there was a collection of cats in white and a rich olive green, singular and paired, reclining, sleeping, stretching, serious or smiling. One looked very pleased with himself, contented and lazy as cats should be, and as he has been since, on my kitchen shelf.

Keep smiling too! Planes will once again fly, ships will sail and adventures are awaiting.

Whalley Abbey,dissolved but not forgotten

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This is the second week of my Easter break from work, and in these strange times all that means is that I’m just not looking at anything work-related for a fortnight. On Monday morning I’ll take up my position at my home desk and work on whatever can be worked on within the limitations imposed by distance and technology. At the onset of lockdown I thought working from home would be easier than the reality has proved, hence my present ‘hard line’ on taking this two weeks’ leave. Still, I’m immensely grateful and relieved that I’m able to continue working and have security and peace of mind where so many others now face uncertainty.

Being blessed with excellent weather, I’ve spent much of my time contentedly pottering outside: sowing, re-potting, pruning and repairing. I’ve also been able to finish a couple of books, both sidelined some weeks or months ago, and am now, after a slow start, just over a hundred pages into Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. This final part of the trilogy which charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell has been a long time coming, and I know that I have not been alone in wondering, impatiently, what was taking Hilary so long. I read somewhere that she was finding it hard to write the end; to finally put Cromwell’s head upon the block. Hilary Mantel is a perfectionist, which is the real reason for the gap between Bring up the Bodies and this finale. Having been awarded Booker prizes for instalments one and two, the pressure to maintain that standard a third time must have been immense.

Thomas Cromwell was a key figure in driving King Henry VIII’s programme of dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation. Henry’s main interest was in the considerable revenue which, confiscated from the wealthiest monastic establishments, could boost his kingly coffers. For Cromwell, apart from wanting to impress his boss, the king, his own agenda was more theological, being strongly in favour of rooting out all things papist.

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All this talk of Tudors and Reformation brought to mind another of my favourite places, Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe. Now owned by the Church of England, only ruins remain of the 14th century Cistercian monastery. More modern (still centuries old) buildings on the site are in use as a spiritual retreat and conference centre. I was first introduced to Whalley about 10 years ago by a friend who was training to be a counsellor and had taken part in a residential course there. She had found great pleasure in strolls among the ancient ruins and along the banks of the river Calder which skirts the grounds. These photographs I took on a summer’s day a few years ago capture the Abbey’s serenity.

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Of course, the Abbey was not always the peaceful location it is today. Established in the late 13th century and a work-in-progress for nearly a century after that, the monastic community had its fair share of controversies and scraps over money with other local religious powerhouses. The founders had relocated to Whalley from their original Abbey at Stanlow on the banks of the river Mersey where a series of unfortunate incidents including flooding, gales and fire damage had led to the decision to move to pastures new. An age of prosperity and calm followed and the Abbey became one of the principal landowners in east Lancashire. Rivalries in the region were fierce where money was concerned, and records dating from the last quarter of the 15th century tell of vicious feuds between the Abbott and the Rector of Slaidburn over tithe payments, with reports of the Rector’s thugs attacking monks.

The church then, as now, enjoyed fantastic wealth, and inevitably some of that was abused as records of lush living and monkish opulence describe. Of course, Abbeys were also places where the sick could receive care and the poor, alms. The rising star that was Cromwell saw an opportunity. In 1535 delegations of ‘visitors’ were sent to the English Abbeys to carry out inventories of their assets and to look for signs of superstitious practices such as promoting belief in the power of so-called relics, a lucrative business in its time. Examples of some of these finds were widely publicised by Cromwell to provide further justification for the dissolution. The Visitors’ report on Whalley was not especially damning, with only one monk apparently conducting himself lewdly, but the Abbott, John Paslew, was accused of selling off some of the church’s gold. Sanctions were placed on the community and records show that Cromwell himself was required to make judgement when the Abbey appealed. He relaxed the sanctions. Nice.

The following year, 1536, saw Abbott Paslew and many of the monks participate in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion. Paslew was executed for treason. The year after that the Abbey was dissolved. Centuries of private ownership followed before it was bought by the Church of England in 1923. It is a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument. To me, it’s just a really lovely place to spend some quiet time.

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I hope to go back to Whalley once some sort of normal life is resumed and spend a few hours just moving slowly around the grounds, bench-hopping, listening to birdsong and blissfully doing nothing much.

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Grasmere

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On the occasion of the birthday of William Wordsworth I am reblogging this post from a couple of years ago. I’ve just watched a feature on the local news about the poet and his great  love for his Lake District home turf, a spot I am also fond of. Wordsworth fiercely disapproved of the ‘uneducated masses’ descending on the area to enjoy its beauty and inspirational power as he and his privileged contemporaries did.  The emptiness of pretty Grasmere village today would have been very much to Wordsworth’s liking, a paradise for any lonely cloud-wanderer. News footage showed deserted streets and empty cafes as social distancing keeps us all close to home. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before the danger abates and allows us once more to enjoy scenes like these.

 

I was recently given an intriguing book: a paperback version of a travel guide of the Lake District written by the celebrated poet William Wordsworth who was born and resided most of his life in that beautiful part of England. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes was first published in 1810 and revised and reprinted several times before the final version was written in 1835. Wordsworth was strapped for cash and with a growing family, hence the artistic compromise. Wordsworth himself expressed some degree of contempt for this work, admitting that the need for funds had been the incentive behind its publication.

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William Wordsworth

Whilst it’s obviously not in the same league as his poetry, I quite like this book; it’s like a Lonely Planet guide of its time and reminds me of the later Wainwright guides which laid out walking routes across the mountainous pastoral terrain of the north of England, routes still followed to this day. I find it very interesting to compare Wordsworth’s poetry with his – albeit highly descriptive in parts – functional writing.

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Wordsworth made his home close to Grasmere Lake to the south of the Lake District region. Its name is from the old English gress and mere – the lake flanked by grass. Wordsworth first stayed at Dove Cottage, and his final home was at Rydal Mount where he died in 1850. At only a mile long and half a mile wide, Grasmere was not particularly impressive in size, but was Wordsworth’s favourite. The river Rothay feeds the lake, from where it flows on into Rydal Water and then to Lake Windermere.

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Canoes heading across Grasmere and then onto the Rothay on route to Rydal Water. You can’t see it here but one of the passengers was a dog in a life jacket.

A footpath along the west shore of the Lake leads to Penny Rock Woods, another route to Rydal Water

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I really like Grasmere, not because it is spectacularly atmospheric like my favourite of the lakes, Ullswater, or as grand as the better-known Windermere, but because it is relatively quiet, is easily accessible for most people and because the south shore is like a pebble beach from where it’s easy to paddle or swim.

What better descriptions could I use than those of Wordsworth himself?

‘In preparing this Manual, it was the Author’s principal wish to furnish a Guide or Companion for the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for Landscape, who might be inclined to explore the District of the Lakes with that degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim’ – William Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes.

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‘I do not know of any tract of country in which, within so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime or beautiful features of the landscape’

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‘…at the outlet of the lake, the stream pushing its way among the rocks in lively contrast with the stillness from which it has escaped.’

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‘The presence of a lake is indispensable to exhibit in perfection the beauty of one of these days.’

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‘the smallest rivulet – one whose silent flow is scarcely noticeable in a season of dry weather – so faint is the dimple made by it on the surface of the smooth lake.’

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‘… the lover of Nature might linger for hours’

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‘All else speaks of tranquillity … the clouds gliding in the depths of the Lake.’

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‘It has been said that in human life there are moments worth ages’

… never has a truer word been written.