Can’t see the wood for the trees? (Musei Vaticani Pt I)

In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.

Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–14...
Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–140 CE after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. Found in the 16th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope.  Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.

Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise.  It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court.  I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.

In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality.  But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).

The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old?  What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre?  It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century.  Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:

…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

Which is perhaps why I shot The Braschi Antinous instead.


William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Lord Tre...
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Lord Treasurer with his son Robert Cecil, later 1st Earl of Salisbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who persevered with the BBC’s series Gunpowder beyond the early torture/execution scenes will have witnessed the key role that Robert Cecil played as adviser to James VI & I (and before him Elizabeth I).  Cecil’s father William was arguably the world’s first prominent spymaster, and when he was forced from office for having incurred Elizabeth’s wrath over the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert was the only qualified successor.  Both were masters of manipulation who employed any means at their disposal in service/advice to the monarch and so were arguably the most powerful men in the country.  The family estate is still Burghley House on the border of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, where Cecil’s descendant trained for the Olympics as portrayed in Chariots of Fire, complete with champagne glasses balanced on his hurdles.

A family of such influence didn’t restrict themselves to one great house however, and in the 16th Century William Cecil commissioned the building of a grand new house in Hertfordshire, called Theobalds,  that Robert would later inherit.

Conveniently located one day’s travel from the City of London (by the standards of the day), the house was visited regularly by both Elizabeth and James.  The latter liked it so much that he exchanged it for another property with Cecil (Hatfield House) and it became a Royal country retreat, where James eventually died in 1625.   Tragically this great property was demolished by 1650 as a result of the Civil War.

Following The Restoration the estate returned to royal ownership and a century later was sold to a merchant who built a Georgian Mansion on the site. Ownership then passed to the Meux family who extensively remodelled the property during the 19th century.  Lady Meux was an interesting character who had risen from being a London barmaid through marriage.  This colourful lady was known for driving an open carriage round London drawn by a pair of zebra, and was painted on a number of occasions by Whistler.  Remember Temple Bar in London?  This was the estate where it was relocated on her whim.


Theobalds is now a hotel and conference centre (which is what brought me here to deliver training) and little remains to remind you of this great history, at least not within the current hotel grounds.   Though still home to muntjac, they are far smaller than the original deer park that surrounded Theobalds.  Resort to Google maps however and you can still see a couple of labyrinths from the air elsewhere in Cheshunt, features which records indicate could be found in the original parkland.

A tale of reduced circumstances?  (It certainly was for gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby; he was exhumed so that he could be decapitated). There’s one part of that tale that I haven’t uncovered, and it relates to the crest on the mansion walls; the motto is that of the Worsley family (a notoriously licentious bunch in the 18th century) but I don’t know how they are connected.  I like the sentiment of the Latin though – Ut sursum desuper.  I swoop to rise again.






Sir David Attenborough found himself in a bit of hot water last week, water being the nub of the problem.  He presented two programmes on BBC Radio that examined the possibility that the reasons we are so different to the other apes (bipedal, hairless, larger brains) was a result of evolutionary adaptations to an aquatic environment.  (You can listen to the programmes here if you’re interested).  He stated that this theory, which goes back some 50/60 years had initially been dismissed out of hand, but that it was gaining in credence and may one day gain acceptance over the current view that it was adaptation to leaving the trees and moving to the savannah that produced these changes._pw_7944

Enter Dr Alice Roberts, who has presented her own programmes on human evolution for the BBC, to dismiss the programmes and bemoan the BBC’s decision to “indulge this implausible theory”.  I enjoyed the programmes nevertheless and could see the appeal of the “aquatic ape”.

I may be biased of course.  I lived on the shoreline or within half a mile for 20 years and initially turned to it to inspire my photography, buoyed by the ever-changing environment and the opportunities it presented to me.  (Though only thirty minutes drive from the sea now I miss it enormously.)  It seems I’m not alone for Attenborough quoted from a 2010 Columbia University report that suggested around half of the world’s population live within 60 miles of a shoreline.  This is probably stronger evidence of a historical reliance on maritime trading than any primeval urge to return to the water of course.

All of this was on my mind as I ventured to a tiny village on the Northumberland coast called Low Hauxley, primarily to enjoy the beach, but also to seek photographic opportunity.  The only other time I’ve walked these sands the tide was low and a vast expanse of beach was at my disposal, and so even though I knew that high tide was approaching I arrived hopeful of being relatively free to walk the beach.  Wrong.  There was already only a narrow strip left and even that was shrinking fast; as I set up to shoot Coquet Island in the distance I was having to move my backpack to higher ground and ensure that my tripod was on one of the few areas where rock gave stability.  Nevertheless I achieved my objective, and then set about practicing my macro focusing as the waves lapped at the high water seaweed deposits.

I was disappointed not to be able to progress south because I wanted to check out a peculiarity of the area that creates a very special environment.  An inland path just behind the low cliffs provided a solution and took me to the top of those cliffs, passing a nature reserve and finding a little wildlife along the way too.



_pw_8032_pw_8030A mile or so later and I found the cliffs – unique because they are made of peat, and so consequently very fragile.  When the tide conditions are right (not today) the sands will sometimes recede to reveal footprints in the organic black surface beneath, though due to that fragility they will eventually be lost to the sea.

The footprints are those of humans and animals and are thought to be 7000 years old.

Hardly evolutionary timescales, but man’s love of the sea still has history.



Mixed Feelings

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Tanzania twice and on each occasion have managed to incorporate a safari; to the amazing extinct volcanic crater of Ngorongoro on my first trip, but to Lake Manyara National Park both times.  Manyara may be lesser known, but it did have something in its favour; your proximity to the elephants.  I’ve no idea how many of the beasts can be found in the park at any one time, but on both of my visits it seemed as if we encountered them around every other corner.

We own the road

Manyara was also the birthplace of one of my favourite wildlife TV presenters; Saba Douglas-Hamilton, whose father Iain was working there as a zoologist studying the elephants.  My limited kiswahili didn’t extend to numbers so it was only recently I learned that Saba means seven, for she is the 7th grandchild, born on the 7th day of June at 7.00pm.

She continues to live and work in Samburu, another nature reserve in eastern Africa, so you might expect her to be against keeping animals in captivity under any circumstances.  In fact on her website she says this:

…there are a few zoos that really do assist conservation. If they have a large enough space and a truly interesting natural environment then sometimes one has to accept that the animal is an ambassador for its species raising awareness and creating new champions to fight for its brethren in the wild. David Attenborough for example started his work through zoos, as did many other esteemed conservationists I know.

I don’t know where Dublin sits on the spectrum of good and bad zoos; I do know that on my recent visit I found some of the displays and facilities a little tired.  If that is true of the visitor, does it also hold true of the visited?  I don’t know, but it’s been an experience common to a number of zoos I’ve seen in the UK, so yes I do have concerns for the welfare of the creatures kept in them.  Most of these sites have Victorian origins when animal welfare wasn’t even on the radar.

And yet…

I also understand what she means when she uses the terms ambassador and champion.  No matter how innovative and skilful the BBC’s Natural History Unit become in their documentary series, there is still something fascinating about the human-like behaviour of fellow primates, the might of a big cat, the sub-aqua agility of a sea-lion, the grace of a moving giraffe that can only be experienced first hand.

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That’s my excuse for having such a great day at the zoo so I just hope my entrance fee does more good than harm.

Nothing beats the real thing though.

Don’t Spit on the Bus

When I was at school one of the more memorable teachers was Ian “Johnny” Whan, a geography teacher whose lessons were peppered with anecdotes from his life and travels that often demonstrated his personal enthusiasms more than they illuminated the subject. Often exaggerated for dramatic effect they nevertheless had some impact; I can’t visit the Jungfrau without his tales of death-defying traverses returning to my mind.

Another, stranger story came to mind this week when I returned to the Salford Quays area of Greater Manchester. Weather conditions were kinder than on my last visit and on the evening that I took my camera with me a golden sunset brought a warmth to my shots that was missing from the cold reality. _PW_6560_1_2


_PW_6572This location is one of seemingly endless docks and quays (hence its name) and was once the country’s third busiest port, a surprising statistic considering that Manchester is about 40 miles inland.   This seemingly insuperable obstacle was overcome by an extraordinary feat of Victorian engineering.

The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester is often thought to relate to their football teams, which between them have dominated English football for many years.  The truth is that the animosity goes back to the 19th Century, when traders and manufacturers in Manchester were reliant upon the port of Liverpool for transporting their goods and receiving supplies.  With such a captive market the fees charged by the Merseysiders rose to such a level that Mancunians felt was unacceptable.  Their solution?  Bring the sea to Manchester.

They constructed the Manchester Ship Canal; thirty-six miles of inland waterway that was large enough to handle the shipping of the day, and though it was slow to develop by the 1950’s it was at its peak and Trafford Park; the industrial estate served by the docks became the largest in Europe.  Changes to container shipping killed the port however as it was unable to handle the larger vessels and Salford entered post industrial decline.

Now though it has been regenerated and become home to Media City UK where Britain’s major broadcasters have established homes away from the capital, and the tram that links the area to central Manchester means that a number of hotels have also located here.

But back to Mr Whan.  The story of the Manchester Ship Canal was an important one for a geographer, but one that he always prefaced with a tale of two notices he had seen on a bus in the 1950’s or 60’s.  Their messages were independent of one another, but they had been placed one above the other which created an incongruous message.

Don’t Spit on the Bus.

Use the Manchester Ship Canal.



Jervaulx Journey

What links Valentines day, a BBC historical drama based on a Booker Prize winner, and visit to a seemingly remote part of North Yorkshire?

The answer is one of the most revolutionary periods of English History; the dissolution of the monasteries.  To simplify things enormously, the love of one of our most iconic monarchs for a young lady of his court resulted in a five year period where the religious and economic foundations of the country, events in which Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Wolf Hall, was a prominent player.

Henry VIII’s response to being denied a divorce from Catherine of Aragon saw him appointed head of an independent church that severed ties with Rome.  Disbanding the monasteries was more than an act of revenge however, it enabled Henry to acquire their assets and income.

Viewed from a modern perspective that might not seem a significant amount given that monastic life tends to be one of simplicity, but in the 16th Century the 900 religious houses and the 12,000 people within them owned about a quarter of the land in England.

Where do I fit into the connection?  My trip to North Yorkshire yesterday took me up the Ure Valley to the former home of one such religious community; Jervaulx Abbey.  As is the case with so many of the affected monasteries, it is now a ruin (lead roofing was often part of the plunder).

Even on a cold, grey and damp winter’s day there were riches to be found that Henry could not have stolen; the monastery fishing pond provides beautiful reflections, and the Yorkshire countryside showcases nature on both a large and small scale.  Look what you missed Henry.

About a Boy

The novelist Helen Fielding recently caused outrage amongst her fans when it was announced that in her latest book she had killed off one of the main characters of her hugely successful Bridget Jones series.  Bridget was now a widow, having lost her husband five years ago.

Why should this cause such dismay?  The man in question was no ordinary spouse.  He was a Mr Darcy.

By replicating the surname of Jane Austen’s romantic hero, she automatically transferred some of his cachet to her character, albeit that the two are barely alike.  Or were, when confined to the page.  The duo were further conflated when Colin Firth, who in the eyes (and hearts) of many Englishwomen was the quintessential Fitzwilliam Darcy due to his role in a BBC production of Austen’s novel, was cast as Mark Darcy in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary six years later.

That he should have captured the affections of so many was perhaps more due to Firth’s looks and an infamous wet shirt, than to the charm of the character.  Austen’s creation is rude and stand-offish for much of the novel.

I met my friend Nicola who was in the role of agony aunt recently, and finding a walk to be a good vehicle for our talking we set off up the Derwent Valley with her young boxer. The valley is a wildlife haven, particularly noted for its population of red kites which have been successfully reintroduced to the area and so they and other fauna are represented in a series of sculptures that hide amongst the trees.

But our afternoon wasn’t about the kites. It was the utter ebullience of Darcy.  You could hardly call him stand offish!