Another Ardennes Teaser

The Ardennes is a region of which I only ever manage to catch a fleeting glimpse every now and again and every time I see it I wish I could see more. Having experienced this little problem in the 80s and again in the 90s I went back to Luxemburg for a wee winter visit about ten years ago – and, would you believe it, the same thing happened again. We spent more time in neighbouring Belgium and Germany than we did in Luxemburg and my time in the Ardennes was limited to a short trip I took to the northern town of Clervaux.

Our group split up for the day and I travelled alone on the train from Luxemburg City. From Ettelbruck onwards there was a noticeable change in the landscape, going from the soft, rolling south of the country to the darker and more secretive north. Small rivers, edged by broken plates of very thick ice, washed up and left stranded like concrete slabs on waste ground, bounded and skittered through steep-sided valleys, the hills surrounding which were garbed in stubbly winter dress, trees bereft of growth and looking like a half-grown beard on the face of the land. Tucked away in these hidden valleys was the occasional house, puffs of smoke lingering in the damp air; or maybe there’d just be a lonely barn, while both road and rail were committed to a tortuous course, with cars and trains wandering like mice in a maze. The railway frequently resorted to tunnels to make any progress and in the cuttings that preceded them trickles of water had frozen overnight, or maybe over a period of days, with more water freezing over the top of it to form contorted lumps and bulges on towers of ice that appeared to lean on the sidewalls and were only ever glimpsed momentarily before the train plunged into darkness.

The end of the tunnels always brought another scene. Here and there you might see a buzzard flapping about, or a cormorant on the move, but the herons never flinched as we passed and the mallards carried on bobbing on the eddies. These scenes came and went, alternating; in the tunnel and out again; light to dark; scenes strung together in no particular order but all joined by the common thread of the railway. Stations came and went, each with its own activity, where previously there had been none, until our arrival in Clervaux.

I was the only one to get off the train and once it’d moved off I found myself, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. The railway and the river took up all the room and the two or three buildings there had been pushed up against the sides, hiding in alcoves in the valley walls. There didn’t seem to be an awful lot there so I went into a shop to ask for directions. Although he didn’t speak any English the shopkeeper was able to make me understand the town was about a kilometre away and to get there I must follow a path over the intervening ridge.

The path up the hill and through the trees was lovely and would be even more so in the spring. It gave glimpses downwards and led me to an abbey, which was closed for renovation, so I picked a path on the other side that led me down to the town. On the way I passed a church, which was beautiful to look at and even more so to hear. Its bells tolled sweetly the hour and these were not the stern-sounding bells we have here in the UK but sweet tinkling bells that played a happy tune. It sounded familiar and I felt I really ought to know it but I couldn’t place it.

I suppose the most attractive sight in Clervaux is the whitewashed chateau. It’s accessed by an archway in the outer wall that leads through to an inner courtyard. There’s an American Sherman tank there, left where it was when it was hit while defending the castle during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. There’s a museum in the town that tells you much more than I could but it was closed – maybe winter’s not the best time to visit.

By the end of the day I was back in London. Clervaux had been lovely but it was just a stolen moment in life; it gave me more questions than answers and made me feel, once again, that there’s so much more to see in this area of wonderfully quiet, peaceful, and timeless hills and valleys – perhaps I should go back?

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Photo: Steve Hindley

 

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A Sixth Sense?

Have you tried Instagram? I love it. It’s where I post whatever photos I’m happy to share and I love its accessibility and reach. I can explore the world on Instagram. There are places in this world I’d love to visit but probably never will but I can see those places online and it’s all so easily done. It teaches me a lot; it informs me and sows the seeds of desire; it excites me, and it inspires me and most days I’ll dip my toe in the water there and see what I can find. 

But it has its limitations. A picture is worth a thousand words, or whatever it is they say, but tell me a scene that could accurately or fully be described in a thousand words. It can’t be done. We have five senses but a picture only works with one. 

When was the last time you smelled the rain in a flower meadow? Or in a pine forest? Have you noticed the different textures of the bark of different trees? Or the smoothness of certain rocks? Does a mountain stream taste as good as it looks? Is that blackberry as juicy as you imagine it to be? Have you ever heard a rabbit stamp its foot in warning? Or the wind swish through the feathers of a bird in flight?

Best of all, I find, is that other sense you can sometimes feel hovering, almost unnoticed, at the very edge of perception. In my experience it’s only present when I spend a long time in one place and that place has to be one that’s ruled by the rhythms of the natural world. The best way to feel it is probably to spend the night on a beach; actually to settle down among the sand dunes, under an open sky; to fall asleep with the breeze caressing your face while the constant wash of the waves sets you adrift, and the last thing you see before your eyes finally close is a billion stars punching bright lights in the veil of night. You realise you can see infinity and wonder why you’ve never seen it before. You’ve seen the sky every day of your life and you wonder why you’ve never noticed it holds infinity in its depths. As your eyes close and you sink into nothingness you can almost feel your soul seeping into the earth and if you’re truly fortunate you can feel, wrapping itself around you like a toddler’s favourite blanket, a new sense; a sense that was there all along but had been drowned out in the clamour of life and its cares – the sense of eternity and its place within you. Because in that very moment you know, even more than you know your own name, that the earth is like this every night; that the tide always turns; that the stars eternally twinkle, and the sun always shines – and you’re a part of it. 

Photograph by Duncan Mansfield

Carved in Stone

It’s been a bit windy here in the U.K. this week and I’ve always enjoyed a walk in the woods on a windy day. The trees come alive and there’s an air of vitality, a feeling of movement, and even hints of mischief that are sure to leave a smile on your face. 

But mine wasn’t the only face in the wood. In this particular wood, between the villages of High Melton and Hickleton, the trees follow the line of a low crag of magnesian limestone. I’ve seen it before, many times, but I’ve never seen what I saw this week – a face carved in the stone. 


What beautiful person carved this face? What inspired them? How long did it take? And why? Actually, I don’t want to know why; it’s enough just to see it and to enjoy it. What a beautiful thing to be able to do – to leave a permanent mark that enhances, rather than desecrates, the landscape; something hidden in the trees for strangers to discover, and something to send people on their way with smiles on faces normally carved in stone…

I Love Spiti

One of the best things about WordPress is just how easy it is to find and follow other blogs. One of the bloggers I follow is Shivya Nath and I particularly enjoyed her recent post, I Love Spiti. Spiti is a beautiful valley in the Indian Himalaya that is slowly disappearing beneath a mountain of plastic waste. But what can you do? What can any of us do? And just what, exactly, did Shivya do?

Find out here

I Never Asked

Just the other day

I found myself walking

Down a road called Memory Lane. 

This is not nostalgia;

It really exists,

But it’s a road known only to me. 

I walked as a boy

And I walked as a man

And I walked in the sun and the rain. 

But I didn’t know

A seed was planted,

A seed that was sure to grow. 

And I didn’t know

That a place can grow

And take its place in your soul. 

I just didn’t know

You could need a place 

And without it you don’t feel whole. 

So I just went back,

Again and again, 

Especially when life brought me low. 

While I suffered the bad

I thought of the good,

Of all those days long gone. 

And I saw the boy

I once used to be;

I caught him looking at me. 

I remembered how

We laughed and we loved,

I remembered, remembered, remembered

How I laughed with my love

And the ones we both loved;

Now my love and the loved are gone. 

But I never asked them to leave. 

I look for them here

And I look for them there 

But always I walk alone

Sometimes I see them, 

As they used to be, 

But I know they don’t see me. 

I go there for solace

And I go there for grace 

And always I let myself be. 

And I feel the life 

And I sense the strength

In every rock and stone. 

It makes me feel fresh

And somehow reborn, 

That one special place of all places. 

I gather myself

And return to the fray

And I deal with the daily grind. 

But when it all

Becomes too much;

When life’s too much of a bind,

I know I can go

Down Memory Lane

And see their bright happy faces,

Though I never asked them to leave. 


Photograph courtesy of Duncan Mansfield

Across The River, To Another World

 

            After you’ve crossed a few borders you start to pick up on things; to notice little oddities. The one thing all border towns have in common, in my experience, is a listless, surreal atmosphere. Normal life – dare I say, life as we know it? – doesn’t seem to exist in border towns. They’re merely transit zones, like glorified airport lounges, only on a much larger scale and sometimes far less salubrious.

 

Staying in the Algarve for a week meant Spain was close by and we decided to go and have a look. The town on the Portuguese side is called Vila Real de Santo António and it fits the aforementioned pattern, although that’s not to say there was anything wrong with it, obviously. It just felt different. The border here is a watery one, the Rio Guadiana, and the ferry to take us across wasn’t a very big boat. After bobbing about on the river for ten minutes and admiring the fine modern bridge that links the two countries just upstream we stepped ashore in the Spanish town of Ayamonte.  

 

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The first thing I did was check the return times and it’s not often I’m so organised, I can tell you. It was then 1:15pm and there were two boats back: 1:30 and 3:30. Obviously, we weren’t going to be in Spain for very long but at least we had a couple of hours to enjoy lunch. There was a lovely square, just off the river, and it had everything we needed. We’d not been sat down very long when I heard the church bells tolling the hour. Three o’clock, said the bells. That’s odd, thinks I; I’m sure it’s only two o’clock and my watch agreed. But something nagged away at me. Why did the bells toll three? Because Spain is one hour ahead of Portugal, that’s why. I’d forgotten about that. Our lunch was curtailed and we were soon back in Portugal. We literally went to Spain for lunch.

 

It makes you think though, doesn’t it? After leaving Vila Real de Santo António we drove north by the Rio Guadiana, as far as Alcoutim, and it was all very scenic and enjoyable but I was still thinking about the absurdity of mankind. The town on the Spanish side, across from Alcoutim, is called Sanlúcar de Guadiana. Each side has a castle, the one on the Spanish side being noticeably higher, a demonstration of the mind games of the past. Over there, in Spain, the time was different to where we were and yet that river was no more than 150 metres wide at that point. In that 150 metres it wasn’t just the time that changed: the language; the law, and the habits, rituals, and beliefs, not to mention the attitudes and the history of the people involved all changed. And yet the water was the same on both sides. The plants and the trees were all of the same species; the temperature was identical, and the problems and difficulties faced by the Spanish were no different to those faced by their Portuguese neighbours. It’s so very odd what we do to ourselves.