Wye 1: A Stroll to The Crown

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The second of November this year was a glorious day; warm and sunny, blue Sky dotted with puffs of pristine white cloud. The day owed more to summer than to autumn; a perfect day for a stroll from Wye to ‘The Crown’, an earthwork etched into the chalk of the Downs.

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A fine site for a cheek-by-jowl housing development; should be able to get a hundred or three on there!

We, daughter, grand daughter and myself, left Wye village along Olantigh Road, named after its manor, first recorded as being held, in the late thirteenth century, by a Ralph Kempe. Passing by the abandoned, presently unoccupied, fine Edwardian red-brick buildings which, until recently, were the main campus buildings of Wye College, an internationally renowned agricultural research centre; the college was established in 1894. I felt sadness for the buildings, for the village and for future would-be students who could now never be. The history of Wye college, correctly, ‘The College of St. Gregory and St. Martin at Wye, began in 1447 when John Kempe, Archbishop of York at the time, founded the college for, ‘the training of Priests’. Why, in 2004, the by then owners of Wye College, Imperial College London, choose to destroy the asset they held in trust for the whole nation, and cast over a hundred years worth of dedicated research and discovery to the winds, is a mystery to me; perhaps the hundred million pounds they expected to make by developing the land and buildings may have influenced their decision; if so, may they choke on their Bitcoin feasts!

There are documented reports of doubtful doings between Ashford Council, Kent County Council and a firm of developers, concerning negotiations, behind closed doors, in advance of a planning application, concerning the building of 10,000 new homes on land belonging to the college, land registered as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Fortunately, some informed and alert villagers rumbled these corrupt and nefarious deceits and mounted huge opposition to nail any such scheme, opposition which was ultimately successful enough to scupper, for the time being at least, the appropriately named Imperial College’s mercenary ambitions.
When Olantigh Road ran out of the village, into surrounding farmland, we turned onto a wide track on our right, onto the path that would lead us up to The Crown. The track first passes by a fine modern building, completed only twenty yeas ago. The ‘Kempe’ building was purpose built to house the college library. Presently, the building is presently home to a new school, the Wye Free School. Beyond the school the track passes through an avenue of trees half-hidden behind which rows of lately field laboratories in which Wye College students worked to serve a global community.  These buildings are presently on death row, shortly be demolished to accommodate new buildings for the expanding Free School. Many of the buildings are still occupied. Squatters or short term tenants? It does not matter; useful buildings are being saved from pointlessly wasteful dereliction. The commissars of both Ashford Borough and Kent County County Councils were against the opening of a Free School, state funded but managed by a board independent of local authorities; I doubt then that the planning departments of those councils will be in any hurry to approve plans for new school buildings. The occupiers of the ex-Wye College outbuildings could be secure for quite a while.

The broad track narrowed to a single path, a white line of bare chalk beside an established hedge at the base of which we noticed a rat, fearlessly padding his way past us to satisfy whatever ambition had inspired his journey. I plodded, on my rising path, struggling a little now to keep up. Beyond the hedge on our left, a large ex-Wye College field had been planted by Ripple Farm Organics with vegetable crops. Ripple farm have a lease on the land, presently into the 2020s, from Imperial College. Eventually the path, becoming yet steeper, entered a wood, to bring some respite from the midday sun which, through the thinning canopy of the wood, shafted columns of bright light illuminating dancing dust motes and spheres of diaphanous insects. Perspiring and panting, I emerged from the wood onto a sheep-cropped, grassy meadow. Following an imagined contour line, a little below the summit of the ridge of the North Downs which stretches from here to the White Cliffs of Dover in the East, and West to Farnham, Surrey; a hundred miles or so in all.
The ‘Wye Crown’ is an excavation of the chalk escarpment filled with white-painted flints. The effect is an image of a dazzling white crown set into the face of the hill.

The crown was originally created, by students from Wye College working under the guidance of the college Vice Principal, in 1902 to mark the coronation of Edward VII. On the night of the coronation the crown was lit with 1,500 fairy lights and similarly illuminated in 1935 to celebrate George V’s silver jubilee. To mark the Millennium a stone pillar was sited above the crown on the top of which are arrows pointing to several historically interesting sites from Winchester in the West to Richborough in the East.

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Hitherto the crown has been maintained by Wye College students. Now there are none, I do not know on whom the responsibility for The Crown’s maintenance will fall. Imperial College perhaps?

From the Crown we took a diagonal path across the grassy slope to the point at which we had entered the wood earlier. From there we picked up our previously trodden route past the Free School and along Olantigh Road into the village where we enjoyed an excellent pub lunch at the ‘King’s Head’.

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The Iron Mountain Festival

John McGahern died in 2006.  In 2007, Leitrim Council and NUI Galway staged the first John McGahern Symposium an event, at which, for the delectation of symposium attendees, eminent writers and scholars who had known or had been influenced by McGahern, presented papers and read from books relevant to his literary legacy. In 2008 the university published the first of four, annual, John McGahern yearbooks in which themes established at the symposiums are expanded; covetable, beautiful books.

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Spread from the 3rd Yearbook, 2010

The symposiums ran until 2013 when, presumably, the funding ran dry; the year books published only until 2011. Two years after the sad demise of the symposium, in 2016, Leitrim Council instigated an ‘The Iron Mountain Festival’, a similar event but with a rather broader base, less exclusively literary. Last year I traveled up to Carrick-on-Shannon for the inaugural ‘Iron Mountain Festival’ which, although different and more varied in content from the symposiums, clearly followed a similar format.

The first Festival enjoyed sufficient success to warrant Leitrim County Council running a second Festival which ran, this year, from 6th – 8th October.

I enjoyed the festival but lamented the passing of the symposiums with which last year’s festival had, I believe, kept greater connection; Annie Proulx and Anne Enright both spoke a good deal about their own books invoking McGahern themes of place and memory. Other 2016 contributors spoke about language and landscape; the identity of place through folklore and built shelter.

This year, there was more emphasis on music and on conditions which stimulate emigration, on multiculturalism. The event, it seemed to me, had edged from literature towards current affairs; recent history; national border issues; Brexit; immigration. Bernadette McAliskey and Muhammad Al-Hussaini were interesting to listen to but a long way from John McGahern. During the nineteen-seventies, anthropologist Henry Glassie spent ten years living in Ballymenone, County Fermanagh, bandit country, where he recorded the lives of his neighbours, how they coped with the violence of that time. Henry’s book, ‘The Stars of Ballymenone’ (2006), is a story of place and people, McGahern only once removed. McCabes, Eugene and Pat, also invoked McGahern; Eugene McCabe’s four closely-linked short stories,‘Tales From the Poorhouse’ (1999), set close by Henry Glassie’s Ballymenone, are masterly evocations of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century; Patrick McCabe’s, ‘The Stray Sod Country’ (2010) recalls, for me, McGahern’s, ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’.

Sunday, the last day of the festival, had very much an end-of-term feel about it. The venue for the day was Skerry Rynn’s Pub at Ballinagera, where Karen Ryan, her friends from the London Irish folk music scene, in company with local musicians and singers, provided musical excellent entertainment. During breaks in the music Leitrim poets gave readings of their work.

Despite my reservations about the evolving format I enjoyed the festival. I shall be there next year.

Folkestone Triennial

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I have some very early life memories of Folkestone, as a child I would be taken there by my parents, probably because it was the nearest town of any consequence to Dymchurch, a coastal village ten miles to the west, where, on Bank holiday weekends we would invariably stay at the “Silver Waves Chalet Hotel”. For me this place is now exists only in memory; yet another lacuna in the story of my life. The hotel was built during the nineteen-thirties; a bold modernist design, horizontal lines, long and low, white painted rendered concrete, extensive metal framed fenestration, a flat roof from which projected a circular, fully glazed sun lounge also flat roofed, for use when there was no sun (most days) or when the sea breeze became a little too bracing (sun or not, also most days). Sadly, the hotel was built in the wrong place at the wrong time; The war ended the dream before it had begun. By the time my family began to use it the hotel, built for an age which had, in some respects, moved forward a century in five years while in others was on its way back to the dark ages. Inadequately maintained for want of resources, the place had become shabby, unkempt, nature had long reclaimed the tennis courts and croquet lawn; the rickety bridge that led over the wide drainage dyke to the sands gave such case for concern that we crossed a couple of hundred yards further along the dyke over a brick road bridge.
DE205725-1628-464D-BB8C-9668A6952372I doubt the building reached its twenty-fifth birthday before being demolished. The rickety bridge no longer straddles the dyke. The below-sea-level hotel site has been re-developed. A score of cheek by jowl private houses have been built there. How much life expectancy, I wonder, can these buildings expect?
Dymchurch, a less than two hour drive from our London home, had been a place of childhood convalesce for my father whose early years were dogged by illness. The long periods he spent there, lodged in an ancient cottage in the Main Street, bred within him a lifetime affinity with the village.
From those earliest visits I formed impressions of Folkestone which were almost certainly false. My young mind committed to memory a Folkestone that might have been before 1914, 1899 perhaps when the Pavilion Hotel beside the harbour had just been refurbished; it had been built in 1843.
Two huge brick built Edwardian Hotels, ‘The Grand’ and ‘The Metropole’ marked, and still mark, the western end of ‘The Leas’, a broad and level promenade, lawns, flower beds, a bandstand, above the cliffs through which zig-zag wooded paths meandered down to sea level. An ingenious water-powered funicular lift transported those not up for walking the paths.
Researching for this essay, I have learnt that the lift is presently closed for want of funds to address demands made by the nannies at the Health and Safety executive. News which ought to be shocking but sadly is not.
26112368-D348-473E-87C3-951AB291A0C4The ‘Golden Arrow’, a train which ran daily from London to Paris, passed under ‘Union Bridge’ near Dulwich College. Occasionally, on Sunday mornings, my father would take me to the bridge to wait for the train to thunder under the bridge; crossed Union Flag and Tricolour flapping up front; thick plumes of smoke and steam pouring back from the engine. On my childhood visits to Folkestone I would again see this train, crawling down the last yards from the highest brick viaduct in the world onto the harbour arm station.
In the early 1960s I was visiting Folkestone again, making fleeting visits as I passed through the town on my way to motoring holidays in France. The ferry I took was steam powered, cars were loaded onto its deck by crane, a slow process. The ferries too were slow but, on calm, fine days, there was nothing to compare with the sensation of gliding almost silently over the sea; only the gentle hiss of escaping steam broke the tranquillity. The ships were small and accommodated only a limited number of passengers who would sit around the walls of a room on one side of the ship’s companionway until summoned by the steward into the dining room on the far side. Perhaps fortunately, my crossings were all on calm, fine days.
Because my visits to the town at that time were so transient I have few memories of them. I do, however, remember the disappointment of noticing the condition into which many of the town’s finer buildings had fallen. A keen disciple of Nairn and Betjeman, I was sensitive to the unwarranted neglect and destruction of our built heritage. Rather than spending my youthful energies gallivanting in France, perhaps I might have directed them to defending what was fine in my England by fighting its barbaric destruction by mindless Philistines who allowed the destruction of Folkestone’s beautiful Pavilion Hotel and its replacement with the monstrous ‘Motel Burstin’ modeled, apparently, on an ocean liner but appearing to have been designed to compete with the worst of communist brutalist architecture.
In 1976, circumstances largely beyond my control had me living just ten minutes drive from Folkestone, my nearest town of any consequence. During the ten years during which I lived at Acrise I came to know Folkestone, and many of its inhabitants, very well. Although the town was a neglected mess I kept a strong fondness for it. Since my childhood several of its treasures had been lost but the majority remained, albeit that some were in less than fine fettle. Apart from the afore mentioned monstrous excrescence which rose, seemingly overnight, from the last resting place of the beautiful Pavilion Hotel, the majority of buildings in the lower town Centre were owned by a slot machine arcade operator; misnamed ‘amusement arcades’ these places are toxicants in any town. The arcades exclusively attracted their own brand of follower for whom, in order to survive, surrounding businesses were obliged to cater. West Folkestone was a world apart whose residents had little call to go East and were more likely, to satisfy their shopping and socialising needs, to drive west to more apposite places; Sandgate and Hythe.
There were good places in which to be in the Old Town but they were oases in a cultural dessert.
F19D4976-2800-4461-966C-6398111F0613In 1996 I left England to live abroad, I continue so to do. Periodically I return briefly, to visit my daughters. My most recent visit coincided with Folkestone’s third Art Triennial. I had to get there.
I was far from disappointed. The month long event was magnificent; works were on public display from the far West of the town to the far East; art works by major international names from the world of contemporary art. The exhibition is impressive but more so is its effect on the town. This is the third Folkestone Triennial, the first being in 2011. The knock-on effect of this glorious indulgence in creativity appears to have been nothing short of miraculous. The ‘Amusement Arcades’ and all the tack that surrounded them have been swept away. Artists’ workshops and the services that serve them have taken leases on vacated commercial properties. Creative architecture is evident everywhere. Interesting Cafés have opened to serve the creators and their followers; the town is alive and buzzing as I have never known it.
D2702740-DAE1-410B-A472-E90A4419434EThe junk-yard fun-fair and its attendant market site are no longer polluting the foreshore to the west of the harbour. Plans are presently being realised to redevelop the site and redevelopment of the harbour arm, including refurbishment of the old marine railway station is close to completion. Can all of this, depending on whether you are a chicken or an egg person, be a result of Folkestone finding art or art finding Folkestone. To me that is academic, I am just so happy to see this lovely town finding sponsors with the Vision of their Victorian and Edwardian forebears.
Much of the foregoing text has been written from memory, some recent, some far less so, I cannot guarantee the truth of any of it but I am happy to have written it and will never let veracity stand in the way of a dubious memory.

Aran 1: MV Plassey

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At the end of September I made a pilgrimage to Aran, three rocky islands beyond the wide entrance to Galway Bay which defy the worst of Wild Atlantic weather. For many years past I have wanted to visit these islands, inspired originally by watching Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary film, ‘Man of Aran’, and thereafter reading J. M. Synge’s account of his visits there at the beginning of the twentieth century.

To discover what I might find to interest me when I arrived on Inisheer, I re-read Tom Robinson’s, ‘Stones of Aran’ books and watched as many videos about the islands as I could find on ‘You Tube but, when I stepped off the ferry, peculiar novelties of the place surprised me. Passing between the gathering of irregularly aligned buildings which constituted the island’s main town, I savoured the sounds of the island’s inhabitants conversing solely in Irish. I also noticed an extraordinary number of motor vehicles around the place. How did they get there? Where did they go? From where did they get their fuel?

I spent the next few days exploring the island on foot. Nowhere was further than a half hour stroll from my base at the hotel and the narrow, snaking island roads, contained everywhere between high stone walls, were well surfaced making for easy walking.

One of my rambles took me close by the rusting remains of a wrecked ship, high and dry on the shingle. The remains, I learned later, were those of the MV Plassy.

The Plassy, had been launched in 1940 as the ‘Juliet’, a steam trawler. Later she was re-named, converted into a cargo vessel; her steam engine replaced with a diesel. During the spring of 1960, carrying a cargo of Whiskey, yarn and stained glass, she was caught in a storm which drove her onto rocks close to Inisheer. The trapped and imperiled crew were miraculously rescued by islanders who, by means of a rocket fired from the beach, sent to the ship a line along which all eleven men were hauled to safety by Breeches Buoy. Subsequent storms moved the wreck, first from the rock on which it floundered to a beach at Inisheer, then higher up the beach onto the shingle bank where, contorting and decomposing a little more each passing year, it remains. Quite what happened to the cargo is an untold mystery.

 

Searching

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Poring over a map, an 1811 ‘Grand Jury’ map of the area around the home place, I noticed a symbol indicating a church.  This afternoon I set out to try to find on the ground evidence of this building.  Although no more than a kilometre away, at the place my map suggests a church to have been I have yet, despite regularly travelling past, both on foot and in the car, to be aware of any sign whatsoever of either a church or any other building.

I enjoy searches; they sharpen my awareness of place.  Today, well before I was near to the marked spot, I began to take an extra careful note of my surroundings.  A small, brick-built, three-sided, roofed structure with an iron-gated front attracted me.  A spring?  A well?  A Holy Well?  If the last, may not a church have been nearby?  The bright light of rational thinking quickly faded initial excitement.  Whatever this water-source is or may have been there was no further evidence of there ever having been a church close by.  Further along the road a substantial, rocky eruption of land on my right caught both my eye and my interest.  Steep-sided and rising to all of ten metres above road level, it is the kind of mound often favoured by church builders.  After a few hundred metres this landscape wart drops back to road / field, level.  Here, beside the road, there is a gate which opens onto a promising path running between the foot of the mound and a farm fence but the path peters into a narrow animal track which soon disappears under thick bramble cover.  There is no point in searching further here, besides which I am yet well short of the marked place.  When I arrive there I gaze intently for any sign of anything but can see no more than I saw earlier on Google Earth; unmarked pastures of lush grass.

I move on to the next junction where I turn sharp left and follow the steep and narrow road down to the slipway at Castlehaven.  Here there is a church, or the remains of a church, a church that has been a ruin since the British Routed the Spanish and the old Irish clans here very early in the seventeenth century.  The churchyard though seems to have found plenty of business up until the present; there were, when I looked in today, fresh flowers on more than one of the graves.  The church, sections of its walls and a gable end survive, is yet recognisable.  Less well favoured has been the O’Driscoll castle, of which, at the western end of the strand, there are no visible remains.  The total loss of this ruin must be relatively recent.  I have seen a print of a photograph, taken in 1912 of the ruined castle standing to roof level with a gable end rising above the eastern wall.

Reviewing my map, I noticed no symbol indicating the ruined church on the strand.  I can but conclude that the church symbol printed on the map in a field far above must relate to the ruins of the church on Castlehaven strand.

Keeping The Home Fire Burning

A week has passed since chum Bryn came to take down for us the dead Ash tree at the end of the meadow.   Since then, I have spent several hours sawing the felled tree into logs of a suitable length and to burn on our sitting-room fire and ferrying them home .  The stouter logs Lisi splits into appropriate size segments.  The wood burns easily, bright and hot; I know of no better firewood than well seasoned Ash for warming a room.

15178186_10211346899490811_2534697021520818166_nI like to think of the heat these burning logs release being that of the warm sunshine which fell upon the leaves of the tree during its short life and which it has kept stored for us.

I have no idea what  killed this young tree.  Its trunk has but ninety or so rings.  The average age of a mature Ash tree is reckoned to be around four-hundred years.

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Sandy Cove to Sandy Cove: a Short Stroll

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Late November  afternoons, their light fleeting, are suitable for only short strolls.  Today I drove west along the coast road to park the car at the roadside above Sandy Cove.  From there I began to  stroll, setting off uphill, away from the shore.

A few hundred metres later I could hear, over the hedge on my right, Moorhens chirping.  Peering through a thick hedge I could see, beyond and below the hedge, a large lake; home, I guessed, to the Moorhens.  In the roadside verge I noticed a surprising number of  plants still flowering; Buttercup, Dandelion, Daisy, Ragwort, Coltsfoot, Clover and, brightening the dun browns of dead fern leaves, tiny Geranium flowers. Fuchsia hedges yet flower and a few buds of Pussy Willow are already showing silver-grey and furry.

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Reaching the junction with the coast road I turned right onto it to face directly into a stiff, bitingly-cold breeze deliciously laced with warming whiffs of silage from one of the many small beef and dairy farms hereabouts. After strolling a a few hundred metres, glancing right I could see over the splendid lake I had glimpsed through the hedge earlier.

Eventually I came to Castlehaven Cross, where a large flock of chattering sparrows clung to the bare twigs of an apple tree.  Here I turned right yet again, off the Coast Road, to head towards the shore at Trahata.  Ignoring the track to the beach there, I continued on to my car.  Almost at the end of my circuit I found, high on a bank, several flowering Winter Heliotrope.  On tiptoe, to sniff and enjoy their subtle vanilla scent, I noticed, almost hidden amongst long grass, fresh flowers of one many varieties of Scabious.

Before driving home, I climbed down steep steps onto Sandy Cove Beach to photograph the westering sun.

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