Tuesday, June 24, 2008

LLANGOLLEN CANAL - TEN YEARS AGO

It always amazes me how one simple image can set the mind racing to drag back something which I had forgotten. My friend Chris, who writes a very erudite Blog on Things Computorial (enigmatically titled http://chris-linfoot.net/ – read the entry for 22nd June), a small proportion of which I can actually understand, put up an image the other day which he had taken on a holiday recently. He had been with his family in North Wales, and the picture below jumped out at me.


CHRIS'S IMAGE OF THE SNAPPILY NAMED "PONTCYSYLLTE AQUEDUCT"

It is of an aqueduct which carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee, and shows a boat crossing it. This is no ordinary bridge – it’s a Grade 1 Listed Structure and is currently up for consideration for World Heritage Status. It is one of the very first in the world to have been constructed from cast iron, and was built by Thomas Telford in 1805. Many people, apparently were sceptical when they first saw the delicacy of the design, but good old Telford believed in his sums, and went ahead. £47,000 later, the structure, which stands 126 feet above the river, and is over 1000 feet long, came into service, and on the basis that it’s still there 202 years later, I suppose you couldn’t blame Telford for waving two fingers at his detractors.

Ten years ago, almost to the day, we went on a short canal boat holiday along the self same canal. For reasons I can’t explain, it was also (to date) our last. We picked the boat up a few hundred yards before the bridge, which is actually the second of two aqueducts in close proximity, and got our comprehensive instructions from the Welshman at the boatyard. “Push this to go forward, pull this to go backwards, and pass on the left” was about it as I remember. No mention of the bridge, bless him.

THE BOAT-YARD

It was a windy but bright day, so we gave the throttle a shove and took off. It handled like a three wheeled supermarket trolley – all over the place, and we zig-zagged our way rather drunkenly into the main channel, which was not that wide. Because the canal is built in the hills of Wales, it twists and turns to make some effort to keep on the level round the bases of the hills – very beautiful, but I could have done with a nice straight bit to get the hang of the oversteer.

TELL ME YOU DON'T LIKE THAT!

Over one aqueduct which was quite sheltered, and you thought “This is not as difficult as people say”. A sharp right turn, and you start out on this second monster. Now the laws of hydrodynamics tell you that when you force something through a narrow water channel, because you have to move the water in front of you through the gap between you and the side, the drag of the boat increases. Well, I did have a degree in Theoretical Aerodynamics, so nodding sagely to myself, I shoved the throttle forward a bit to counteract this extra resistance.

As we got onto bridge proper, the wind started to increase, and the resistance increased, and I pushed the throttle forward – and we very gradually started to slow down. More throttle, more wind, result - less speed. By about the middle of the bridge, the throttle was wide open, the wind was blowing a gale, and we elegantly came gradually to a stop, and started to move very majestically backwards.

Now when young Mr Telford built his bridge, he’d clearly got some miserable Finance Man working with him, because they decided to put a walkway on one side, with a guardrail on it. However, on the other side, they stopped the vertical side of the iron channel just over the top of the water level, and, although they put holes in to fit a guard-rail on this side, they never bothered to fit it. So, there we were, 126 feet up in the air, and if you took one pace to the left, after about 6 or 7 somersaults with pike, you spread yourself over a not inconsiderable area of the valley below. Mmmmm.

So, with yours truly as Manager, two members of the crew, to whit, one Wife, and one Son-in Law, (Yes, I know what you’re going to say) were dispatched to act as dray-horses, and add a further 2 horsepower to the engine. We slowly crept across the bridge, and after a further 500 feet reached the other side – knackered. Well, they were.

A HELPING HAND OR TWO

Welcome to Wales!

The rest of the holiday was, to coin a phrase, plain sailing. Watching the world go past at 4 miles per hour, walking along the tow-path with the only dog in the world which got sea-sick on a canal, and stopping in the various pubs alongside the canal bank for sustenance, both solid and liquid – there are many, many worse ways to spend three days.

STEADY AS SHE GOES

Going back when we neared the aqueduct, the thought entered our heads “Here we go again”, but, of course the wind was behind us and we shot across the bridge like a rocket.


RETURN JOURNEY, JUST LOOK AT THE SIDE OF THE CHANNEL!



I have to say, in all the kerfuffle, I think I forgot to make any comment to the poor sods in the boat waiting at the other end – anyway I think they were Welsh!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

IF THE ANSWER'S "42", WHAT'S THE QUESTION?

I haven’t written much about the political goings on in this country of ours for some time – it’s just too depressing. But today, Our Glorious Leader is forcing Parliament to vote on a plan which allows the police to hold terror suspects for 42 days, rather than the current level of 28. You can argue until the cows come home about which branch of maths leads Those in Charge to decide on the number 42 – my own theory is that Gordon has read one too many Douglas Adams books.

But that’s completely beside the point.

The issue is whether we need an extension to what is already a draconian power available to this Government. We have existed since time immemorial as a nation on the basis that we all, as individuals, enjoy as much freedom as possible. Now, people will argue that that statement is the moral equivalent to the perceived length of a short piece of string – it means different things to different people. But, if you want to see what it actually means in real life, there are enough countries around the world where you can see what the alternatives are, and where most of us would very much NOT like to live. And I for one simply don’t want it here.

Sitting listening to the birds singing away this morning in sunny Shropshire, it seems so clear that the case for such an arbitrary extension is simply not there – it’s just someone’s whim. Someone whose political life is currently in freefall. Having published the draft legislation he finds himself faced with a backlash from all sides in Parliament, so what do we see? The gradual watering down of a proposed piece of legislation, with sops of modifications, obfuscations, ifs and buts, which all but destroy the principle he was setting out to achieve in the first place.

We get David Blunkett, whose stint as Home Secretary shone out as a textbook study in bullying incompetence, writing in “The Times” yesterday to support his boss, and justify the magic number of 42. His reason to increase the current position by 50% is that “in three cases, we have come close to needing every one of the 28 days currently permitted for pre-charge detention….. “. What kind of logic is that? It’s spin gone mad.

As one short letter in today’s newspaper replies, what Blunkett really meant was “.. a) in no case have the police needed to hold a suspect for the full 28 days; b) in only 3 cases did they come close to 28 days; c) in all other cases they needed nowhere near 28 days.”. If that’s the basis on which our fundamental individual rights get irrevocably removed, then it’s not just the State of Denmark where there’s something wrong.

We have here a government hell bent on removing another of our rights, based on a totally flawed logic, cravenly seeking political support by then watering the principle down just far enough to get a majority of 1, and then using second rate ex-politicians to try and justify the unjustifiable.

This “Try this for size, and if you don’t like it, I’ll change it” government style is quite odious. If they have principles, then let them fight for them. That’s what Government is about. It’s not meant to be liked. My dictionary defines it as “to rule with authority”, not “What do you think of this idea?”

We’ve seen it with the "10p in the Pound" Tax change recently, where, just because a piece of (one assumes) well thought out legislation did not find favour with the electorate just as it was about to be introduced, they borrowed another £2.7 Billion to get round it and dig themselves out of a totally self created political hole. To Hell with the Economy, it's my seat in Parliament that's really important.

I’m not sure you can have a moral cess-pit, but if you can, I know where to find one.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

PROVENCE - PONT DU GARD

Around twenty five years ago, we went two or three times en famille to Provence for our annual holiday. It was a marvellous place to spend a couple of weeks each summer – the light, the views, the food, the people, the wine, the markets and a very relaxed way of life ….. and … and. It was no surprise over the next few years to see the semi mass migration of British people wanting to set up a second home there, or just live there permanently. For reasons I can’t explain, it has taken me until May 2008 to return.

One of the unique aspects about the place is the number and the quality of their Roman antiquities. You can’t call them ruins because in most cases, they aren’t ruined. Within a thirty or so mile radius of where we were staying, you could visit Arles, Nimes, Orange, Vaison la Romaine, Les Baux and be transported back two thousand years in an instant. You can walk inside them, outside them, underneath them, and on top of them. They are real world treasures, not screened off, to be admired from afar.

When, around the birth of Christ, Rome decided to flex its muscles and invade/educate (Delete as applicable) the Western World, the first place they annexed was Provence. The name says it all – “Provincia” in Latin means The Province. They took, among other things, their civilisation, their sense of structure and order, their vineyards, and their buildings – Oh and the Aqueduct. For further information on this, please see “The Life of Brian”. The buildings and the vineyards are still there.

Many of the Roman structures leave you impressed, but there are a select few which make you absolutely gasp. “How on earth did they do that?” will be on most people’s lips when they see the theatre at Orange, or the Arena at Nimes. But the one that does it for me is an aqueduct which bridges the River Gard, and was built around 1900 years ago to carry water to Nimes – the Pont du Gard. It’s a simple piece of utilitarian construction – but one which to my untutored eyes is quite beautiful. It performed a simple but vital function, and the Romans constructed something that simply “does exactly what it says on the tin”, but in Latin, of course. I haven’t actually set to and measured it, but I’ll bet that if you match Golden Sections and Fibonacci numbers to it, you would come up with some things of interest. It sits so perfectly in the landscape.

IS THAT, OR IS THAT NOT, A FANTASTIC SIGHT?



UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES


The other thing that strikes you immediately when you first see it, is its size. The top of the aqueduct is 165 feet above the river – that’s the height of Nelson’s column. It’s around 900 feet long, and the blocks from which it’s made weigh up to 6 tons each. The thing that clinches it for me is that there is no mortar between the stones – and it doesn’t leak!.

We’d have more than a little difficulty doing that today.

I approached it a few days ago with tons of anticipation. The last time we were here, we wandered around it at river level, and then took ourselves off to the top, where we walked along the massive stones which cover the water channel, gazing down 160 odd feet over the (non guard railed!!!) side onto the river a very long way below. The picture shows what it was like in 1985. Masses of people there, picnics in full flow, children waving their legs over the edge, and no-one worrying a great deal.


TAKEN IN 1985 - I'D LOOK WHERE I WAS GOING IF I WERE YOU

When you got to the centre, the stones covering the water in the aqueduct were missing, leaving the centre section as two vertical stone side walls, each around 2 feet wide, with the water course separating them. If you wanted to get to the other side, you simply walked across the top of one of the walls, and “Bob’s your Uncle”. Simple really. My daughter, who was 12 at the time, and I did just that, because, in 1985, it seemed the natural thing to do. We remember remarking at the time how refreshing this was. In England, the whole thing would either be cordoned off, or there would be guard rails and notices everywhere, and we said then how good it was that the French took a much more laid back approach to it all.

In 2008 however, in the words of the Romans, “Tempus” has very much “Fugitted”.

It’s still an awesome structure, and there are still no guardrails there, for the simple reason that you are not allowed anywhere above the base level without a guide. And then only, I think, inside the aqueduct, where you can’t fall off. I don’t know why I found this so depressing, that the Men in Grey Suits had managed to withdraw this avenue of pleasure for today’s world. I suppose I am looking at it a little through Rose coloured spectacles. I’m sure there must have been a few cases of Pierre giving his irritating little brother Lucien a push just a tad harder that was strictly necessary, resulting in an immediate and rather messy reduction in the number of family mouths to feed. But, it still left me thinking that if it’s got to the French, then there’s no hope.

PICNIC BY THE RIVER


WALKING ACROSS FOR CISSIES ON THE LOWEST LEVEL - FALL OFF HERE AND YOU ONLY BREAK A COUPLE OF LEGS

So, for the average visitor, you get a huge crick in your neck as you stare vertically upwards. It’s still one hell of a sight, imposing and majestic, and something you don’t forget in a long time.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

PROVENCE - MONT VENTOUX

Mont Ventoux is only 6,300 feet high, which as French mountains go is nothing special. But, and it's a big But, it sits on its own away from any other mountain of any size. And much of the surrounding area of Provence from which you see it, is near ground level. So, instead of seeing an immense mountain from the slopes of one nearly as big, most of the views of Ventoux make it look huge.

MONT VENTOUX, WITH THE SUNRISE HITTING THE SUMMIT

As you meander around just about anywhere in the Rhone Valley, and you look east, you can't avoid it - it dominates the horizon with its brooding size ever present. Rather than just admire it for what it is, the French have built a radar station and a television mast on the very top, and you can see these from tens of miles around. It is a truly majestic mountain.

Bless them, with the scientific stations at the top came two roads, one going up the north side of the mountain to the very top and the other coming down the south side. From the top, on a clear day, you can see both the Pyrenees and the Alps.

"Vent" in French means "wind", and the mountain is extremely well named. Wind speeds nearing 200 mph have been measured there. Up to about 1600 metres, the ground is covered with an assortment of Provençale trees, but as you continue to climb, the trees disappear, and you quickly find yourself in a very alien landscape. Huge, huge areas of unremitting limestone shale and shingle are the only things surrounding you. You drive relentlessly upwards on a Long and Winding Road, marked by poles to guide you through the winter snows. In the distance you can see the scientific stations at the summit, which in themselves look like a huge Saturn Rocket next to an enormous Golf ball. But there's nothing else. It's like being on the Moon.


LIKE BEING ON THE MOON


THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD - 1

Being in the South of France, the French passion for cycling is not far away, so it has been the location of some of the most iconic cycle races ever in the Tour de France. Every few years, one of the mountain stages of that gruelling event involves the climb of the mountain, usually in the fierce 95 degree heat of a July afternoon. As a recipe for sorting cycling men from boys, it has few peers, and everyone with an interest in cycling looks forward intently when the Tour passes through.

The main part of the climb stretches over nearly 22 kilometres, during which the riders climbs over 1,600 metres, nearly 5,000 feet. As you reach the top, with the tree line's protection from the wind and the heat having died away, the gradient, rather nastily, gradually increases. The last kilometre is a constant 1 in 10.

A friend of mine, who considers himself to be of a good "county" standard as a cyclist, set off a few years ago on a pilgrimage to climb it, and was pleased to get to the top in around 3 hours. The current professional record is just under 56 minutes!

Such a test stretches them to the limit – and sometimes beyond. Half a mile from the summit, you come across a small memorial to Tom Simpson, a great British cyclist who, in 1967, due to a combination of drugs, alcohol, heat, illness and unbelievable determination rode himself to a total standstill there - and fell over. His last words were "Put me back on my bike", which they did, and he died still clipped into his pedals. The small monument is very moving, always with a permanent collection of souvenirs and memorabilia surrounding it. A desolate place indeed.

TOM SIMPSON'S MEMORIAL, WITH THE SUMMIT IN THE BACKGROUND


IT SAYS "THEY NEVER LEARN 1967-2007" ... AND IT'S IN ENGLISH

I drove up very early one morning, just after sunrise in late May. Expecting the glorious Provencal weather later that day, I ventured out in shorts and a thin T-shirt to take my pictures. Thank Goodness, there was no-one on the mountain to see my antics as I drove up. Towards the top, I had the car heater full-on, and I sat in the car between shots to unfreeze myself, just before rushing outside to get each picture. It was blowing nearly a gale, and the temperature was 2 degrees. Quite why I'd left my brain so far below me in the valley, I don't know.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD - 2

It was about 7am as I rolled over the top, and started to descend the other side. About 50 metres from the summit, a speck in the distance appeared, looking just like the French equivalent of Omar Sharif's amazing entrance in "Lawrence of Arabia". Except, he was on a bike, not a camel. He pedalled, frighteningly quickly I thought, up towards me, wearing the condom like top and shorts beloved by most keen cyclists. In the howling wind, and zero degree temperature, he passed me at a fair old lick, with a cheery "Bonjour Monsieur". I just stood there clapping him, quite astonished.


"BONJOUR MONSIEUR" - AND NOT EVEN BREATHING HARD


NOW THESE TWO WERE STRUGGLING - AND THEY'D ONLY JUST STARTED!

Just to prove that the French can be as mad as anyone else, once a year, there is a competition for amateur riders, where you have to ride up the mountain as many times as possible in 24 hours. The record is 11 ascents!!!

But going down can be just as dangerous. In a car, you can go the whole way without engaging a gear – I know because I've done it. You get great fuel consumption, but the brakes end up glowing Cherry Red! This time, part of the way down, I stopped to take a few pictures of the flowers at the side of the road, only to hear a sudden explosive whoosh behind me. If I had stepped back 3 inches at that precise moment, there would have been two dead people on the mountain that morning, and you would have been looking for something else to read at this moment. He must have been doing 60 mph.

I can read the ad on e-bay now – "Unexpectedly for sale - D300 camera – light use only. Slight scuff marks to body. Residual blood stains and minor tarmac indentations are a little unsightly but do not affect operation of camera."

After all, it is a Nikon.

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