Monday, October 30, 2017

Albania's Blue Eye

Ever since my first visit to Niagara Falls, in the summer of 1988, I have become increasingly fascinated by hydrodynamics. (This is a branch of physics which deals with fluid motion and its resultant forces.) For the past ten years, a considerable proportion of my research work has involved a sub-branch of hydrodynamics, namely microfluidics, which appertains to the behaviour of fluid moving within extremely confined spaces, such as biological tissues. It is not quite Niagara Falls, but the same scientific principles still govern its behaviour.

Natural water phenomena have become a healthy obsession. The laws of hydrodynamics might be simple enough to define and describe, but their consequences can be extraordinary. My latest preoccupation is a magical place called Syri i Kaltër – Albanian for ‘blue eye’ – which is a natural water spring within a lake in Southern Albania, near to the Greek border. From above, the centre of the spring appears dark (like the pupil of an eye), whereas its larger outer area is a lighter blue (reminiscent of its iris) (Figure 114.1). Around its edges, green vegetation almost resembles eyelashes. It really does look like a huge blue eye.


Figure 114.1: The eye shape is not captured perfectly from this angle, but the contrasting blue colours are evident.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

It is known as a Vauclusian spring, which means it originates from an underground cave. Crystal-clear water, perfectly drinkable, is pumped continuously to the surface at a rate of 18 litres per second (Figure 114.2). The cave is an example of a karst landscape. This is a piece of land consisting largely of limestone (calcium carbonate), which is highly soluble in water. As rainwater seeps in, it erodes, leaving cavities within the remaining structure. Subterranean caves are an inevitable consequence of limestone dissolution, as are underground streams and surface sinkholes.


Figure 114.2: This photograph provides a better ‘eye’, and bubbling can be seen at the centre.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The surrounding area complements this captivating natural water feature. Mature oak and sycamore trees line the lake (Figure 114.3), and there is a covered wooden veranda for food, drinks and photography.


 Figure 114.3: From the shallows to the abyss

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Ten metres in diameter, the cave’s depth is unknown. Divers have descended to fifty metres, but a definitive measurement has yet to be made. The first dive, undertaken by an intrepid ecologist called Xhemal Mato (Figure 114.4), took place in 1984. Mato recalls the difficulties he faced:

‘I remember the current of the water coming out of a dark tunnel. Inside, the current was so strong that my diving mask was swept away from my face, so I was forced to keep it with my hands. The deeper I went the stronger the current became until I reached a depth of 20 metres, where I felt I could not go further as the pressure of a strong river flowing out of the tunnel was unbearable.’

Nonetheless, he has inspired a generation of similarly brave and inquisitive divers.

‘I left a piece of rope which would help the other divers to plunge into the waters of this spring as well as a plastic notebook where the divers could sign. After two years, we noticed that a full page of this notebook was filled with signatures by various divers, thus encouraging underwater tourism.’


Figure 114.4: Since 2004, Mato has led an environmental organization called Ekolëvizja, which is, simply, Albanian for ‘eco-movement’.

Copyright © 2017 Shendëti

The ‘blue eye’ lies approximately 20 miles east of the Albanian coastal town of Saranda (Figure 114.5).


Figure 114.5: Syri i Kaltër is easily accessible, either by road from Greece or boat from Corfu.

Copyright © 2017 Ionian Seaways

I suppose I just love the endlessness of flowing water.

‘Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.’
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Monday, September 18, 2017

In Quest Of Mucha

I have, in previous articles, despaired of pretentious architecture and art. The Three Disgraces (26) and Emperor’s New Paintings (30) serve as examples. To counter any accusations of blanket snobbish negativity, though, I have made known some of my own tastes and preferences in Pictures Of This And That (16), The Ubiquitous Oh-Jive (48) and Save Empress Place (104). Much of the writing has been contentious, deliberately so, but today’s piece surely leaves little scope for doubting artistic genius.
In the Montmartre district of Paris, somewhere between the travertine Sacré-Cœur and sex-saturated Pigalle – I am familiar with both – lies a little architectural gem (Figure 113.1). Thousands of Parisians pass beneath it every day, but I bet few have time to stop and dwell on its aesthetic beauty. Above the édicule (entrance) to Abbesses station, the deepest in the Paris Métro, lies an iridescent glass canopy with ‘whiplash’ iron curves and the word ‘METROPOLITAIN’, designed by French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942).


Figure 113.1: The art nouveau designs of Métro station entrances are strongly influenced by the forms of plants. 86 of the original 141 entrances still embellish the streets of Paris.

Copyright © 2017 The Art Story Foundation

It is universally recognizable. Guimard’s famous design epitomizes perfectly both the city of Paris and the Art Nouveau movement. Inspirational to this total art style was Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) (Figure 113.2), a Czech-born painter and decorative artist whose works were largely forgotten after his death. I found time, just last weekend, to visit a touring exhibition of Mucha’s works – some world-famous, others undeservedly obscure – and was entranced by the painstaking attention to tiny detail evident in almost everything he created.


Figure 113.2: Neither ‘mucker’ nor ‘moocher’ – the artist in profile

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Mucha arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-seven. He was the archetypal dirt-poor, fledgling artist, combining study with whatever bits of commercial work he could secure. His life-changing break followed a visit to a print shop, where he applied to create a poster advertisement for the play Gismonda (Figure 113.3), featuring the renowned stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). The quality and public appreciation of the poster landed Mucha a six-year contract to produce further posters, all featuring Bernhardt, in his characteristic ‘new art’ style.


Figure 113.3: A four-act Greek melodrama, written by French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), Gismonda premiered in 1894 at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris.

Copyright © 2017 Mucha Trust

Many were on display in the gallery. The low-level lighting was especially dim. This was not a cost-cutting exercise, but rather a consequence of Mucha’s earliest works having been created on low-quality paper which was not designed to last. Perhaps Mucha never originally expected that they would outlive him.

Mucha’s artistic style was daringly original. There were several of his Bernhardt posters included in the exhibition. Each measured approximately two metres in height by one metre in width. This elongated format was most unusual at the time and reflected Mucha’s courage in rejecting existing norms. Furthermore, he had the confidence to break an unwritten rule of poster design. To attract public attention, poster makers routinely used bold colours. Mucha, on the other hand, confined himself to pale pastels, which were harmonious and free from obvious contrasts.

Most of the displayed works featured elegant ladies in long, flowing garments. Each picture was filled with sweeping curves, masses of flowers – usually lilies – and tiny six-pointed stars. The fonts Mucha used were equally lacking in angularity and complemented well the gracile female form. He emphasized feminine beauty with every brush stroke.

Mucha’s general philosophy was admirable. He viewed his art as a device to elevate the morale of ordinary people and, if possible, improve their quality of life. He enjoyed seeing his posters on display on Parisian streets, which he described as art exhibitions for all. After his death in 1939, following interrogation by the Gestapo, his work was considered outdated. It was rediscovered in 1963, owing partly to an exhibition at London’s V & A Museum, and enjoyed an unexpected revival, inspiring 1960s counterculture art, pop psychedelia and the 1967 ‘summer of love’.

This 21st-century celebration of Mucha’s masterpieces was long overdue (Figure 113.4).


Figure 113.4: Information regarding present and future exhibitions can be found at: http://www.muchafoundation.org/

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Summer Under The Radar

DOUBLE-LENGTH ARTICLE

As I had half-expected, Article 111 – Ouroboros At Large – lit more than a few short fuses. Anonymous online abuse spewed forth within twenty minutes of publication, which proved, with unintentional irony, the very point I was making. No matter; but it reinforces my reluctance to allow comments on the page. Emails, on the other hand, are always welcome, and the majority remain thoughtful and good-humoured. Keep them coming. I always find time to read them. This post promises to be a much gentler affair.

The best summers are those that promise never to end. This has been one of them. Not everyone will agree, since I have heard a wide range of horror stories from friends. Many involved airports, before holidays even began. (Here, I ought to be very grateful. During my 20s alone, I managed to visit more than fifty different countries, in five of the seven continents. Flying was unadulterated pleasure, and air passengers, generally, were both respected and respectful. Once abroad, it was pure bliss to point a hired car toward the horizon and just go, through small-and-quirky towns and lost coastal villages, eating and drinking with the locals, learning foreign languages, and allowing a novel ‘elsewhere’ to unfold before one’s eyes.)

Air travel, in the present era of cattle class and jihad, though, is oppressive. (Having dark hair, brown eyes and a vaguely Mediterranean look is an added inconvenience.) Intrusive ‘security’ searches, cramped seating and being obliged to endure selfish, drunken cretins have become the accepted norm (Figure 112.1). On arrival, rip-offs lurk in every corner of every city and resort. Restaurants, hotels and car-hire firms are the chief offenders. (A friend and I were once chased down a Milanese back street because of our inadequate 10% tip for lousy service.)


Figure 112.1: A summer paradise? How so?

Copyright © 2017 metro.co.uk

What, then, is the remedy? Fly-abroad-only-when-you-have-to is one. As for holidays, given the inevitable stress of air travel, and Sterling’s temporary weakness on the foreign exchange markets, is the answer not obvious?

Yesterday began as follows. At 9:00 a.m., we left our hotel, a comfortable old whitewashed pub, at a crossroads in the middle of a grassy nowhere, and drove along a quiet lane over rolling fields to the nearby town (pop. 1,600), on the eastern extremity of the island. Across the strait, the mainland mountains were topped with morning mist, which would surely be burnt off by the sun well before midday.

We walked along the jetty to its recently-renovated, wooden-decked pontoon end. A small white motor boat bobbed gently next to its mooring. On board, its turbo-charged engine disturbed the silence. We set off northward, maintaining a constant 200 metres between us and the rocky shore. Looking back inland, atop a tree-covered hill was an 11th-century motte-and-bailey fortress. Although open to the public, its restoration having been completed only last year, it retained a derelict, even ghostly, appearance. Further along, almost at the land’s end – not the Land’s End, in Cornwall – stood the ruins of an ancient monastery next to a disused limestone quarry. The entire area looked forsaken, but beautiful just by being so.

Beyond the coastal tip, we sailed around a well-maintained lighthouse, fully operational, flashing once every five seconds, but unattended for almost a century (Figure 112.2). In the near distance lay a solitary offshore island, uninhabited and virtually inaccessible – to humans, at least. A protected area for the conservation of wild birds, flocks of white-breasted cormorants and kittiwake gulls looked out from the cracks and ledges of imposing cliff faces rising sheer from the sea.


Figure 112.2: Man (almost) overboard

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Having looped around the island, we completed the offshore circuit and stepped back onto the jetty at 11:30. Back on the road, the rural lanes were almost clear of traffic. We criss-crossed the island to its opposite (western) extremity, following a narrow, winding lane to a dramatic clifftop. Perched on an exposed islet, accessible by a truss footbridge, stood another lighthouse, its brilliant whiteness causing it to glow under the midday sun (Figure 112.3). We trekked 412 steps down the cliff, then another 75 up a magnificently-restored spiral staircase to the top of the tower. The breathtaking panorama was well worth the breathlessness.


Figure 112.3: The 360° view from the top of the lighthouse is well worth the killer trek.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

After picnicking on the clifftop, we navigated a labyrinth of lanes in search of the main northbound road. After twenty minutes, we reached somewhere truly magical. Turning off the main road onto a single-lane track, we located a solitary parking space alongside a rusty gate leading to an isolated lake of perhaps 30 acres (Figure 112.4). Bisecting the water was a straight, narrow causeway, perhaps an old quarry track, which was alive with exotic-looking flying insects. Some were recognizable. There were numerous bright blue damselflies, hovering and fluttering above the water, if a little camera-shy, their wings tucked in when at rest. Others I could not identify. We learned later that it was a private lake, stocked annually with brown trout, and home to some rare aquatic plants. The boys were more interested in skimming stones, investigating some abandoned rowing boats, and were reluctant to leave.


Figure 112.4: Almost hidden from the world, this small, two-part lake is a geographical gem.

Crown Copyright © 1985

Continuing northward, we reached a small fishing port with a sheltered natural harbour (Figure 112.5). There were around thirty people roaming its sandy beach, kids fishing for red crabs and mackerel from the top of the sea wall, cafés with decorated verandas overlooking the bay, and cliff-faces which looked to be a geologist’s paradise. Formed presumably by coastal erosion over millennia, the colours and shapes of all the different rock strata were indescribable.


Figure 112.5: If you recognize this place, please keep it to yourself.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

At 4:30, the day was beginning to quieten down – not that it had ever been noisy or hectic. Air temperature was probably still 20°C, and the bay water had been warmed by the sun since mid-morning. We kicked around in the waves for an hour or two until the sun began its descent above the western headlands beyond the bay. As we left, a boat with a single white sail drifted into the harbour (Figure 112.6). It was met by a couple of grizzled old seadogs ready to carry a few open containers ashore. Fresh seafood for the locals’ dinners, I thought.


Figure 112.6: There are clues, if you look closely.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Our clothes dried in the sun on our way along the esplanade to the car. We drove the remaining ten miles back to town, windows wound down and listening to ELO and Gerry Rafferty. The car seats and footwells were a mess of sand, damp socks and sausage roll wrappers, but none of us gave a damn.

It was almost 7:30 when we reached an open-fronted (three-or-four-table) bistro on the pretty main street. The staff were unconcerned by our unkempt beach-bum appearance. They could see that we had spent the entire day outdoors and cherished every minute of uncomplicated freedom. My younger son’s trousers were still rolled up to his knees and spilling sand everywhere, yet no apology was necessary. We ordered more (award-winning) fish and chips than we could eat, relived the day, then wandered down to the promenade from where we had set sail in the morning.

At the western end of the prom, about a dozen men were, in defiance of the fading light, playing bowls on a well-tended green which was surrounded by colourful late-flowering shrubs. Laughter echoed from a small beach-shack pavilion, its front guttering festooned with coloured lights. We stopped to watch for a while before returning to the car via the waterfront. It was gone 9:00 when we stumbled through the hotel doors and upstairs for a hot bath.

That was just a single day. We have enjoyed many of similar quality throughout the summer – no queueing, no rip-offs, no ‘security’ delays, no antisocial drunks, no jam-packed beaches, and no passports required. The glorious, unblemished ‘elsewhere’ that I have tried to describe is, technically, part of the UK. Find it, if you can. I am saying nothing more.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Ouroboros At Large

Nowadays, it seems impossible to work an entire week without encountering the weasel word that is ‘diversity’. Business corporations organize ‘diversity awareness courses’. Public sector agencies employ ‘Diversity Officers’. My daughter’s university holds an annual ‘Diversity Week’, as do, I presume, most others. This central plank of political correctness has become ubiquitous.

The first online definition I came across read as follows:

‘Diversity awareness is one’s ability to embrace the uniqueness of all individuals along several dimensions such as race, religious beliefs, ethnicity, age, gender, physical abilities, political beliefs, and socio-economic status.’

It sounds benign enough. Even so, such elementary human attitudes used to come under the heading of ‘common courtesy’. Anyone obliged to attend a ‘diversity training’ event would probably receive careful instruction regarding tolerance of others and of their respective opinions and beliefs.

So far, so virtuous – but let us scratch the surface a little. Imagine participating in a ‘diversity’ seminar, where the importance of mutual tolerance was repeatedly stressed. Now, suppose a fellow trainee introduced him or herself as follows:

‘My name is XXXXX. I am a racist. I believe racism forms the intellectual basis for the concept of the nation state. Furthermore, I am proudly xenophobic; although I do not like the word “xenophobic”, as it is a Greek word, and I cannot abide Greeks … or, for that matter, Italians; and the less said about most other Europeans, and more so non-Europeans, the better. Today’s young people are largely devoid of education; elderly folk have an unwarranted sense of entitlement; and religious devotees are delusional, possibly a consequence of undiagnosed mental illness. I reject entirely the multicultural ideal. This is particularly relevant to Islamic culture, which is pervasive and fundamentally incompatible with the established Western secular way of life. Oh, and lastly, owing to my unwavering belief in karma, it seems clear that disabled people, and the disadvantaged in general, had it coming to them.’

This is, of course, a deliberately controversial caricature, drawn purely to demonstrate a point. If such a case were made, it would doubtless go down like the proverbial lead brick. Jaws would hit the floor and eyes would pop out on stalks. Mine certainly would. We must, however, refer back to the obligatory ‘tolerance’ of others’ views. Should the aforesaid views, therefore, be tolerated? I would say so, however unpalatable they might sound. Would they be tolerated by ‘diversity’ advocates? I think you know the answer to that as well as I do.

Therein lies the inherent hypocrisy of political correctness. It recommends tolerance of only those views that it finds tolerable, and is intolerant of views that it considers to be intolerant. This misguided doctrine thus eats itself, rather like the mythical ouroboros in Egyptian iconography – a snake or dragon which devours its own tail (Figure 111.1).


Figure 111.1: The word ‘ouroboros’ is Greek: ‘oura’ = ‘tail’ and ‘boros’ = ‘eating’. The icon even has relevance in modern science, namely in organic chemistry. (Look up Kekulé’s dream.)

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The (intentional) consequence of this (unintentional) self-contradiction is a smothering of legitimate debate, rhetoric and argument. In an enlightened society, it ought to be possible to hold an unemotional discussion with someone who fervently disagrees (Figure 111.2). Much truth, after all, begins as heresy; whereas suppression of dissent allows the perpetuation of falsehood and absurdity. Irrational arguments can be contested and demolished only if they are permitted to be aired in the first place.


Figure 111.2: PC zealots would do well to remember the wise words of French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who famously declared: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but would defend to the death your right to say it.’

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Free speech is the charlatan’s nemesis. Sadly, it is not the norm worldwide. Most nations are run by autocrats, theocrats, fascists or barefaced gangsters. People risk punishment by speaking out of turn. We in the West have – for now – more rights than most. We must, therefore, decide: do we value freedom of speech and expression, even in their most repellent forms; or should the contemporary Orwellian ‘thought police’ be here to stay?

So, the next time you witness politically-correct, self-styled ‘anti-fascists’ striving to stifle debate (and true diversity of opinion), you might wish to remind them that they resemble the likes of Hitler and Franco more closely than they care to imagine.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Monday, August 21, 2017

Natural Born Allelopaths

The Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets. This is a lyric from ‘Forget’, an introspective track from Ben Watt’s 2014 alt-folk album, ‘Hendra’. This song has been buzzing intermittently around my head for almost three years, and I was recently given an opportunity to put the writer’s assertion to the test.

The South Downs Way (Figure 110.1) is a 100-mile (160-km) route across the southern English coastal counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. It is largely a combination of footpath and bridleway, although there are sections of road, weaving through the chalk hills towards the south coast. Cycling along, at my usual 10 miles per hour, midday sunlight filtered through the trees, traffic noise was negligible, and gently-sloping embankments were bursting with masses of delicate, hat-shaped flowers on tall red stems (Figure 110.2). Watt’s word picture seemed perfectly apt – until I looked more closely.


Figure 110.1: From Winchester to Eastbourne, the South Downs Way is contained entirely within a National Park.

Copyright © 2017 Britainexpress


Figure 110.2: A single plant species dominating a West Sussex roadside

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

I lay my bike on a grassy verge and inspected the one-and-only species of plant. Most of the flowers were pink (Figure 110.3), the remainder pure white (Figure 110.4). Its lanceolate leaves had serrated edges and gave off a sweet balsam scent after I had crushed a few between my hands and cupped them to my face. Everything about this distinctive plant was beautiful. I clasped the nearest three or four stems and ripped them from the earth.



Figures 110.3 & 110.4: In accordance with the Monohybrid Phenotypic Ratio, the pink variety outnumbers the white exactly 3 to 1.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

You see, the plant species was Impatiens glandulifera, a.k.a. Himalayan Balsam, and a botanical thug. It is currently one of the most invasive plants in England and fast becoming a major headache for gardeners and environmental agencies alike. It was originally imported in the 1830s on the pretext that its rapid growth and spread would make gardening a less expensive pastime for the masses. If a single plant could yield hundreds of seeds capable of surviving up to two years, then what was not to like?

The Law of Unintended Consequences was waiting in the weeds. Within a decade, the impatient Impatiens had successfully negotiated the nation’s garden fences. The dispersal capability of its seeds was even more astounding than Victorian horticulturists had anticipated. Once its flowering period has ended, usually by early autumn, the seed pods literally explode with even the gentlest disturbance, producing up to 800 seeds which can be propelled as far as seven metres from the parent plant. Prolific does not begin to describe its propagation capacity. Riverbanks are particularly vulnerable to colonization, as seeds can be transported downstream as far as the water flows. The Downs are especially susceptible to unintentional seed transfer, by wildlife, ramblers and vehicles – including, I am disheartened to admit, my own bike tyres and boot soles.

This thuggish invader – the plant, not I – is, in a Darwinian sense, stupendously fit. It is the tallest annual presently growing in England, enabling it to impede smaller native species by depriving them of sunlight and attracting a greater proportion of bees for pollination. As if that does not provide sufficient evolutionary advantage, it has another, more subtle, weapon in its competitive biological armoury. There is evidence to suggest that the Himalayan Balsam exhibits allelopathy. This means that it can excrete, as a by-product of its metabolism, powerful toxins capable of inhibiting the survival and growth of neighbouring species.

Throughout England, volunteers of ‘balsam-bashers’ have begun to tackle the growing threat to public spaces (Figure 110.5). One method of control is to uproot whole plants before seeds develop; another involves chemical controls. Perhaps the most promising method, however, currently being researched, involves the parasitic use of rust fungi, which act by infecting fast-growing invasive plants.


Figure 110.5: Busy balsam-bashing

Copyright © 2017 Julio Lopez

It would seem impossible to know how problematic this plant will be, a decade from now. Will it be semi-controlled? Will it be everywhere? I cannot predict its fate, yet I am confident that the Sussex Downs, especially after rainfall, will remain as lovely as Ben Watt described.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Lakeshore Renaissance

I once assumed that, to experience a tiny, timeless paradise, where friendly, unhurried locals speak an incomprehensible language, an Englishman must necessarily travel across water. Not necessarily true; as I was happy to discover, a couple of days ago.

Llanuwchlynn – I dare you to attempt to pronounce it – is a small, quaint Welsh village (pop. 837). Had it not been for the construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1860s, it might have been condemned to eternal obscurity. A century later, though, the railway line was axed, thanks to the government’s infamous Beeching Report, but the local population refused to accept what many British people believed – rightly, in my view – was a monumentally short-sighted decision.

The village lies at the southern tip of the roughly rectangular Bala Lake, which is 3.7 miles (6.0 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide. It is an area of breath-taking natural beauty; and, naturally, the local population refused to accept the destructive diktat from central government, which decreed that their railway be taken from them.

In 1972, the tireless efforts of a local railway engineer called George Barnes came to fruition. The Bala Lake Railway opened, by means of a new, narrow-gauge track, a mile-and-a-half along the eastern lakeshore from Llanuwchlynn. By 1976, the line had been extended as far as the outskirts of the town of Bala (pop. 1,974), and a tourism renaissance was underway.

We set out from Llanuwchlynn at midday. The railway runs close to the water’s edge, in places no more than a few metres (Figure 109.1). Hauled by the refurbished 1903-built Maid Marian steam engine, the train’s carriages have open sides. It would be possible to hear the lapping water, were it not for the sound of the engine wheels and puffing steam. Partway along the line lies the semi-isolated hamlet of Llangower. Today, it is a haven for camping and water sports enthusiasts. Multicoloured kayaks, canoes and single-hander sailboats move smoothly on the lake surface. Across the water, on the western shore, there is what looks like a Scout Camp, with clusters of different-sized tents and two off-road vehicles with trailers parked in tree shade next to a pebbly shore.


Figure 109.1: View of Bala Lake from the train

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The journey to Bala takes twenty-five minutes. From the station, it is a fifteen-minute walk into the town centre, which consists of a spinal main road packed with thriving cafés and small shops (Figure 109.2). All the pavement terraces are busy. Most of the townsfolk converse in Welsh. At one end of town lies the northern extremity of the lake. At the other, a grey-stone, four-arch road bridge spans the emerging river. The clear water is shallow around the bridge’s triangular cutwaters. Wading to the opposite bank would be a simple enough venture.


Figure 109.2: A statue of Thomas Edward Ellis (1859-99), a prominent Welsh nationalist politician, and son of Bala, takes pride of place on the town’s main thoroughfare.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The last train of the day leaves for Llanuwchlynn at 4:30 p.m. En route, the Llangower campers and daytrippers show no signs of packing up. A few wet-suited youngsters are attempting to flip a capsized kayak (Figure 109.3). Dinghies sail nonchalantly into the watery distance (Figure 109.4).


Figure 109.3: The view from Llangower

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery


 Figure 109.4: Late afternoon on the lake

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Back at base, the woman from the station shop wishes us well as we alight and depart (Figure 109.5). I say thank you in Welsh – diolch yn fawr – and she smiles and nods her head in return.


Figure 109.5: The Bala Lake Railway Trust has recently submitted ambitious, and fully-costed, plans to extend the line into the centre of town.

Copyright © 2017 Bala Lake Railway

I would not say that time stands still in Llanuwchlynn, but there is, thankfully, no rush.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Time Travel To Trent Bridge

DOUBLE-LENGTH ARTICLE

‘Cricket … was more than play; it was a worship in the summer sun.’

Those are the words of Edmund Blunden (1886-1974) (Figure 108.1), one of England’s greatest war poets, an Oxford professor, six times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His book Cricket Country (Figure 108.2), written long after his playing days had ended, is a testament to his yearning to turn back time, to cricket matches gone but never forgotten, memories of which fade against one’s will, and blissful summer days which can never be recast. I wish I could have met the celebrated professor, preferably beside a cricket field and sharing a decent bottle of wine. His cricket recollections, coloured with humour and honest optimism, would have captivated me for sure.


Figure 108.1: Christ’s Hospital School XI. Edmund Blunden is seated on the left, in front of the umpire.

Copyright © 1914 The Edmund Blunden Library Estate


Figure 108.2: Edmund Blunden’s Cricket Country (1944) is, in my view, one of the most evocative and beautifully-written books describing any subject. ‘They vanish, these immortal players, and we suddenly realize with astonishment that years have passed since we heard passing mention of them. At one point, they seem as much a part of the permanent scheme of things as the sun which glows upon their faces and attitudes and the grass which makes the background for their portrait, and then, bless us, it is time for even them to go.’

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Today, I shall do what Blunden longed to do: travel back in time to revisit a childhood memory.

*     *     *     *     *

Trent Bridge is one of the world’s loveliest cricket grounds. Home to Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, it has staged international ‘Test’ matches since 1899 (Figure 108.3). In that time, the ground’s appearance has changed profoundly, but its replacement architecture has, unlike at many other venues, never disrespected the original aesthetic. Evolution has, sensibly, triumphed over revolution. This makes my attempt at time travel just about possible.


Figure 108.3: Trent Bridge in 1890

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Forty years ago, almost to the day, England played Australia in the Third ‘Ashes’ Test of the summer. It is one of the most famous contests ever to grace Trent Bridge. I followed every ball bowled, mostly via the BBC, on television and on radio’s iconic Test Match Special programme, as an eleven-year-old with Blunden-esque devotion.

A pivotal incident, which took place on the second day, remains a talking point among cricket-lovers old enough to remember it – and, also, those too young, but who have studied the video footage online.

As I sit with my two sons in the newest section of the ground, the farthest corner looks more or less as it did when I was a boy (Figure 108.4).


Figure 108.4: The ground, as it would have appeared in 1977.

Copyright © 1998 John Sutton

Visualizing that immortal tableau, I can imagine the rest.

It is 1977 – Friday, 29th July. Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson runs to the wicket at the Radcliffe Road End, to my left. He bowls, from wide of the crease, a 90-mph delivery angling in at the body of England’s opening batsman, Geoff Boycott. Boycott plays the ball solidly, in orthodox fashion, back along the pitch and sets off for a run. Thomson is alert. He leaps across the pitch and attempts to field the ball with his right hand. His momentum is too great. He fumbles the ball and stops in his tracks. Thomson then turns 180 degrees and this time successfully picks it up. Boycott, however, keeps running. Derek Randall, the non-striking batsman, dare not leave his ground, as it would be easy for Thomson, with ball in hand, to run him out. As Boycott completes the run, Thomson, with a clever flick of his right hand, tosses the ball in the direction of wicket-keeper Rod Marsh. Randall, stranded, is left with no choice but to race the ball over 22 yards. Thomson’s throw is sharp and accurate. Marsh collects and demolishes the wicket (Figure 108.5). Randall, well short, knows he is run out – beaten by a combination of Boycott’s hasty judgement and Thomson’s quick thinking. It all happens in less than ten seconds. I glance at the old scoreboard: England are in trouble at 52 for 3. I have just relived history, in real time, forty years on.


Figure 108.5: One of the most infamous run outs in cricket history

Copyright © 1977 Getty Images

I explain the controversial event to my boys. They pose the usual questions. Why did Boycott even set off? Did he call for a run? Was there a fieldsman at mid-on? Why did Randall hesitate? Whose fault was it? Did England’s innings recover?

Having run out Randall – a Nottinghamshire player and local hero – Boycott made amends by scoring a watchful century and England a creditable 364. By the following Monday, England’s victory was complete, the winning runs scored by none other than Boycott and Randall in their second innings. Boycott had batted on all five days of the match, only the second player ever to have done so. The match also witnessed the Test debut of a raw 21-year-old, and fellow Wirralian, Ian Botham.

Trent Bridge has been renovated extensively since the glory days of Boycott, Randall and Botham. A £7.2-million cricket centre and new stand, situated at the Radcliffe Road End, was opened, by another Notts alumnus, the legendary West Indian, Sir Garfield Sobers, in the summer of 1998 (Figure 108.6). Four years later, a new £1.9-million Fox Road Stand was opened, by Ian Botham, and won the prestigious Civic Trust Award for its innovative design. The new Bridgford Road Stand, where we currently await this evening’s Twenty20 match between Notts and Worcestershire, opened in 2008.


Figure 108.6: The Trent Bridge Cricket Centre can be seen on this aerial photograph on the top right side of the ground.

Copyright © 2017 Experience Nottinghamshire

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Beneath a clear blue, late afternoon sky, wisps of cirrus cloud are now drifting eastward from over my left shoulder, across the wide expanse of green, high above the new scoreboard, beyond Fox Road and along the meandering course of the River Trent.

The Notts faithful, male and female, young and old, soak up both the sunshine and the English summer game in its latest embodiment. An elderly gentleman, wearing sensible navy-blue trousers and a crazy, bright-yellow hat, walks past, carrying a pint of beer in each hand. My elder son remarks about field-placings, batsmen’s strokes and bowlers’ run-ups and actions. His younger brother bashes me over the head with an inflatable bat every time the ball reaches the boundary. He hits me harder still whenever a wicket falls. I watch the play and, at the end of each over, scan the panorama from left to right and back again, seeing action from cherished matches played long ago. The unique charm of Trent Bridge remains sublimely intact.

Worcestershire score an impressive 208 for 8 (Figure 108.7). The sun descends behind the Radcliffe Road Stand. Six magnificent new floodlights compensate for the dimming of the evening light. Notts make a valiant attempt to chase victory, England international Alex Hales striking a rapid 63, but they fall, thirteen runs short, at 9:16 p.m.


Figure 108.7: In addition to the new Fox Road Stand (pictured right), a hi-tech scoreboard has replaced the famous old one (pictured in Figure 108.4), in front of the same T-shaped office block.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The three of us leave the ground, cross the bridge and walk back, under the bright city lights, to our hotel in Nottingham’s historic Lace Market.

As Blunden himself once reflected: ‘The game which made me write at all, is not terminated at the boundary, but is reflected beyond, is echoed and varied out there among the gardens and the barns, the dells and the thickets, and belongs to some wider field.’

It really does – in both space and time.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery