Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

Friday, 24 December 2010

A German Christmas in Sosa

Merry Christmas from Sosa, a little village in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region of Saxony, dominated by the 1019 metre-high Auersberg.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Frozen trees at the Europa-Rosarium, Sangerhausen

Here are a few pictures taken at the Europa-Rosarium in central Germany, where a combination of thick early morning fog and freezing temperatures brought some winter magic by turning trees and bushes into amazing ice sculptures.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Yenidze cigarette factory, Dresden

The back of the factory, facing the railway tracks

As the train crosses the River Elbe on its short journey from Dresden Neustadt to Dresden Hauptbahnhof, one can catch sight of the most exotic building in the capital of Saxony: the Yenidze. In a city known above all for its grand Baroque monuments, the minaret-like chimneys and dome of this former cigarette factory never fail to surprise.

Following the completion of the railway through the Balkans in the late nineteenth century, Dresden became the main centre of the tobacco industry in Germany. Tobacco grown in the Ottoman Empire could be transported easily across Central Europe and cigarette factories emerged in the country's eastern gateway. Between the 1890s and the Second World War, sixty per cent of all tobacco goods consumed in Germany were produced by Dresden's forty manufactures. One of the oldest cigarette companies was the Orientalische Tabak- und Zigarettenfabrik Yenidze, founded in 1886 by Hugo Zietz. It took its name from the village of Yenidze in Western Thrace, where high quality Turkish tobacco was grown (at the time the village was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1913 it became part of Bulgaria before being handed over to Greece following the 1920 San Remo conference. Its Greek name is Genissea). This particular kind of tobacco was much appreciated by German smokers and Yenidze's 'Salem Aleikum', 'Salem Gold', and 'Salem Nr. 6' cigarettes became extremely popular. Growth was such that by the early 1900s Zietz took the decision to build a larger factory, whose design would be the trademark of the company. Work started in 1907 on a plot of land relatively close to the city centre, adjacent to the main railway lines.

The main façade on Weißeritzstraße

In order to reflect the provenance of the tobacco used by the Yenidze company, Martin Hammitzsch, the 29-year-old engineer and architect contracted by Zietz, designed an astonishing building that incorporates Turkish, Moorish and Jugendstil architectural and decorative elements. It is topped by a 20-metre-high coloured-glass dome inspired by the tombs of the Abassid Caliphs in Cairo, which can be illuminated from inside at night. Originally two steam engines produced the electricity needed to light it and project the words "Salam Aleikum". Local legislation forbade factory chimneys near the city centre but Hammitzsch got round it by disguising them as minarets. The main part of the factory consists of six floors, and rises to ten under the dome, making it when built one of the tallest structures in Dresden. The lower floors were dedicated mostly to production while the top floor housed the canteen and a rest area for the factory's 1500 workers. Weather permitting, employees could also enjoy the roof terrace during their lunch break. For the internal structure of the building, Hammitzsch used reinforced concrete, a first in Germany. As for the façades, they combine granite, coloured concrete blocks and stucco.

Entrance on Weißeritzstraße

The decoration around the entrances to the building is particularly striking and incorporates several patterns traditionally found in Turkish and Moorish buildings, albeit slightly simplified.

Decorative patterns used around the entrances

Even before it was completed in 1909, the 'Tabakmoschee' or 'Tobacco Mosque', as the new Yenidze factory became known, was the subject of much debate. Indeed Hammitzsch's highly unusual design was not to everybody's taste and shortly after the Yenidze opened, he was expelled from the German Architects' Guild. Later in life, he described the Yenidze as "a folly of youth".
Hammitzsch then took a teaching position in Chemnitz but returned to Dresden a few years later. In 1920 he became the director of the Dresden State College of Architecture, a post he occupied for nearly two decades. Hammitzsch, who had been a member of the nationalist Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People's Party) during the Weimar Republic, joined the Nazi party in 1935 and from 1938 was appointed to several important positions in the regional government of Saxony. Two years before that, he had married as his second wife Angela Hitler, the elder half-sister of Adolf Hitler. Hammitzsch committed suicide in May 1945.

Even though part of the ruling elite and population in Dresden decried the Yenidze building, the company continued to prosper. In the mid-1920s Zietz sold his factory to tobacco giant Reemtsma. Actually other leading cigarette manufacturers from Dresden, such as Jasmatzi, Delta, and Lande, were also bought by Reemtsma around that time. Production continued at the Yenidze until the Second World War. During the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 one third of the building was destroyed and the dome collapsed. The Yenidze was partly restored in 1946 and following the expropriation of Reemtsma by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany one year later, cigarette manufacturing resumed. However it ceased in 1953 when the VEB Tabakkontor moved in. This national monopoly was in charge of organising the supply and distribution of tobacco leaves to cigarette factories across the former GDR.
After the reunification in 1990 and the privatisation of VEB Tabakkontor, the Yenidze, which by then was in a dire state, was sold to a property fund from Berlin. Over the following seven years the building was restored and transformed into an office building at a cost of around 38 million euros. In the process, the dome, which had been rebuilt in 1966 with brown-green glass, was given more colourful glass, more akin to the original, and a bar and restaurant opened underneath.

Mosaic in the recess of the entrance

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snow on Wimbledon Common

Last night the first snow flakes of the season fell over southwest London. Could we soon witness the same scenes as in January this year, when a thick carpet covered Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath for several days?

This vast expanse of open land between Putney, Wimbledon and Kingston-upon-Thames, which is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every week was almost lost when Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon, proposed in 1864 to enclose about two thirds as a park and sell the remaining third as building land. Fortunately after several years of conflict with local residents a settlement was reached and in 1871 Parliament passed the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act. Under the terms of the Act, a new body of eight Conservators took over from Earl Spencer. They are charged with the duty of keeping the Commons open, unenclosed, unbuilt on and their natural aspect preserved. In compensation Earl Spencer and his descendants received £1,200 a year. However this yearly payment stopped in 1968 after a lump sum was paid.

Near the centre of the Common stands its most famous structure: the windmill. This hollow post mill was built by Charles March in 1817 and worked until 1864, when it was purchased by Earl Spencer. By then the windmill was being operated by John Marsh, whose family owned several mills around Kingston. When Marsh sold it, he insisted the machinery should be dismantled and the grinding stones removed to prevent any competition. As a result the building was converted into cottages for six families. In any case, this suited Earl Spencer, who hoped to diffuse opposition to his project of converting the commons into parkland and building a new manor house near the site of the windmill: people would be less likely to resist if they had already lost a major asset.
By the time the windmill came into the care of the Conservators it was in a very poor state. Major repairs were carried in the late nineteenth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1974 it had become clear it was no longer suitable for living and the decision was taken to restore it and convert it into a museum. It opened two years later and offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the Wimbledon windmill and of different milling methods. Several models also chart the development of windmills throughout the ages.

Most of the £1 m budget needed to manage the Commons comes from a levy added to the council tax paid by residents living within three quarters of a mile of the Commons or in the old parish of Putney. The amount varies according to the tax band but is a small price for the privilege of living within minutes of such a beautiful open space.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wat Long Khoun, Luang Prabang

The sim, or congregation hall, of the monastery

On a wooded hill across the Mekong from Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, stands Wat Long Khoun, the Monastery of the Blessed Song. This spiritual retreat, founded in the eighteenth century, is closely associated with the city's and country's history. Indeed it was customary for the future kings of Luang Prabang to come here and spend three days in meditative retreat and ceremonial bathing before descending the long flight of steps leading to the river and boarding a boat to cross the Mekong to Wat Xieng Thong, the city's most prestigious monastery, on the eve of their coronation.

View across the Mekong towards Luang Prabang

Several guide books on Laos claim this tradition dates back to the rulers of the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (literally 'One Million Elephants under a White Parasol'). However this is not the case as the kingdom of Lane Xang, which was established in 1354 after Fa Ngum put an end to Khmer domination over the middle Mekong valley, collapsed following the death of King Suriyavongsa in 1695. Internal feuds over the succession and successive Burmese invasions led to the breaking up of Lane Xang and in 1707 Luang Prabang became the capital of one of three rival kingdoms, the others being Vientiane and Champassak. As there is no evidence that a monastery existed on the site of Wat Long Khoun before that date, the custom must have been established by the first ruler of that new kingdom, King Kitsarat (1707-1713) or, more likely, one of his succeessors. Albeit formally independent the Kingdom of Luang Prabang was forced to pay tribute to its more powerful neighbours, be they Chinese, Siamese or Burmese, until 1887, when it became a French protectorate within French Indochina. The French maintained the monarchy and kings-to-be continued to retreat to Wat Long Khoun to meditate before their accession to the throne.

The original part of the sim with two of the monastery's that or stupas

The oldest structure of the monastery, dating back to the eighteenth century, is the rear part of the sim or congregation hall, where monks, laymen and members of the public meet and meditate. It faces east in the auspicious direction of the rising sun. The rather small structure was enlarged in 1937 by King Sisavang Vong, who added a front porch. This porch rests on eigth black and gold columns with capitals in the shape of lotus petals. Its red ceiling is covered with stencilled dharma wheels, lions, monkeys, peacocks, butterflies, bats, birds and mythical animals.

The porch now shelters two unusual Chinese bearded figures in elaborate military outfits who stand guard by the sculpted entrance to the sim proper. The hilt of their sword rises above their shoulders, ready to be drawn. However their severe appearance is softened by the elegant position of their hands, one of which holds a handkerchief. The subtle folds seem to indicate these were made of silk rather than cloth. It has been suggested they could represent Haw warriors but one would expect to find protective figures rather than bandits that brought devastation to the region. Coming from Yunnan in China, much-feared Haw forces reached Luang Prabang in the mid-1870s and again in the early 1880s.

The interior of the sim is dominated by the monastery's main image of the Buddha. Here he is represented in the posture of Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness or Bhumisparsamudra. The west wall, behind the statue, is decorated with images of the Buddha, lotus flowers, and a frieze stencilled in silver on a red background. On the upper part of the wall, rows of niches containing small gilded images of the Buddha have been carved.

However it is the beautiful Lao style jataka murals that decorate the north and south walls that really catch one's imagination.

The jataka tales relate the 547 previous lives of the Buddha, before he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gaumata and achieved enlightment. They capture the moral evolution, inner strength and pursuit of virtue of the Buddha and emphasize the importance of the act of giving, the most important virtue in Buddhism. As it is often the case in Laos, the murals also incorporate local legends and folklore.

Vandalism by revolutionaries in the mid-1970s and then dampness caused extensive damage to the murals. Indeed following the victory of the Pathet Lao and the proclamation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, Wat Long Khoun was abandonned for several years and fell into disrepair. Monks were allowed to return only after the Communist regime re-embraced Buddhism in the 1980s.

The murals, together with the rest of the monastery, were carefully restored in 1994 by the École Française d’Extrême Orient and the Lao Department of Museums and Archeology. Yet the high degree of humidity during part of the year takes its toll and the murals would require almost constant attention.

The elaborately decorated window shutters, with gold figures on black, suffered even more than the murals. The one below could represent Rama, the prince from Ayodhya and hero of the Ramayana. This Hindu epic story reached Laos via Siam and was adapted to the local context. Many figures from the Ramayana are represented in Lao sims. Similar shutters can be found at Wat That Luang on the other bank of the Mekong.

Apart from the sim, Wat Long Khoun includes a whole variety of buildings spread over 1.5 hectares. Most were restored if not partly rebuilt in 1994. Six are kuti or living quarters for the monks, where the veranda and rooms on the upper levels are reached by earlier masonry stairs.

These wooden structures, built in different styles, rest on brick pillars.

Luang Prabang has many fantastic monuments but with its amazing sim, serene atmosphere, and beautiful views over the Mekong and surrounding mountains, Wat Long Khoun is certainly one of my favourites.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Churchyard watch huts, Warblington

The enlarged northwest watch hut

Near the entrances to the churchyard of St Thomas à Beckett in Warblington, Hampshire, are two curious little buildings. These are watch huts built in 1828 to shelter the men employed to guard the churchyard against body snatchers.

At the time, the only corpses medical and anatomical schools could obtain legally were those of criminals sentenced to death and dissection by the courts. However by the early nineteenth century demand rapidly outstripped supply as new medical schools opened across the country and the courts were passing far less death sentences than in the eighteenth century, when even a petty crime could lead to the gallows. The result was an imbalance of ten to one. Since these schools needed fresh corpses for their teaching and were ready to pay good money to get some, body snatching became a lucrative business, with relatively low risks. Provided they hadn't taken any belonging from the dead, such as jewellery, body snatchers only faced a fine or imprisonment as stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour and not a felony. Additionally the authorities considered this to be an unavoidable evil if medical knowledge were to progress and often turned a blind eye.
However the general public and church authorities became extremely worried and took different actions to prevent recently deceased parishioners from being dug up from their graves. Relatives of the deceased would keep watch over the grave for several days, until the corpse was too decomposed to be of much value. Those wealthy enough would pay for a heavier table tombtone, install railings around the grave, or bury the dead in a vault or a mausoleum. Such was the despair of some families that they would ask undertakers to soak the body in vinegar or ammonia to make it unusable by professors and students. In 1816 the first mortsafes -extremely heavy iron and stone cages- appeared in churchyards near the Scottish medical schools of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Throughout Britain groups of volunteers were set up to protect the churchyards at night and in several places church authorities actually paid watchmen to keep an eye on the graves.

With only a couple of buildings in the proximity of the churchyard, pasture-land all around and the waters of Chichester Harbour not far away, Warblington was certainly a good spot for body snatchers. Most of the parish inhabitants lived in Emsworth, a thriving little town two kilometres to the east, but burials still took place at St Thomas à Beckett as the chapel of ease built there in 1789 did not have burial rights until well into the nineteenth century. Coffins had to be carried or brought by cart along a footpath to be buried at Warblington. A few more houses were located along the Porstmouth-Chichester road, to the north of the original settlement.
How many corpses were stolen from Warblington is something I have not found but the problem must have been serious enough for the church to build two watch huts: one in the northwest corner of the churchyard, by the main entrance, the other next to the east entrance. Originally both buildings were similar: a square structure of flint and red brick quoins with a pyramidal slate roof. The door and windows have pointed heads, giving them a distinctive -and more attractive- appearance. Each hut also had a central fireplace. Needless to say, the watchmen certainly appreciated the warmth of the fire during the long, cold and wet nights. The light might have discouraged some from entering the churchyard as well. The northwest hut was enlarged at some point and the fireplace removed in the process.

The watch huts remained in use until Parliament passed the Anatomy Act 1832, which regulated medical reseach establishments and made it easier for them to obtain corpses, which were no longer spoilt by earth and other elements. Actually the Act was passed because of growing public outrage, especially after several people were murdered by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and the London Burkers in Shoreditch, who sold the fresh bodies for a higher price. After 1832, people could donate their bodies to science -although in practice not many did- and for a fixed amount, medical schools could buy unclaimed dead bodies, in particular from prisons or workhouses. Poor Law Guardians welcome the move as it provided an additional income and several medical faculties established close links with them in order to get a relatively regular supply of corpses. As a result, the despicable practice of body snatching came to an end.

Nowadays few churchyard watch huts still survive. This makes the two at Warblington all the more special.

The east watch hut

Monday, 1 November 2010

Wangfujing Dajie (2): Dong An Bazaar

Above one of the entrances of the Sun Dong An shopping mall is a reproduction of a late 1910s engraving depicting the old Dong An Bazaar, a reminder of what was during the first half of the twentieth century one of the main attractions of Wangfujing Dajie, and Beijing's greatest market.

The transformation of Wangfujing Dajie in the early twentieth century (see previous post) affected some of the surrounding streets. Dong'anmen Dajie in particular, which runs between the commercial street and the Dong An (or Donghua - East Prosperity) Gate of the Forbidden City, was also improved. Over the years many small vendors had established themselves along this street. When work started in 1902, the authorities relocated them to a former military ground at the junction of Wangfujing Dajie and Jinyu Hutong. This site rapidly became one of Beijing's most important markets and large crowds flocked to Wangfujing Dajie on a daily basis to buy a wide selection of goods or sample some of the food on offer. Until then fairs were held in and around temples at important religious festivals but there was no permanent market in the Chinese capital. Needless to say, the establishment of the Dong An Bazaar, as the market was called, filled a need.
In 1912 a fire devastated the market. Soon after a brand new structure, inspired by modern market halls and department stores found in Europe and North America at the time, rose from the ashes. Under the glass roofs supported by steel and iron columns and in the shops, customers could find nearly everything, from rare and expensive jewelry, antiques, paintings, and second-hand books (some of the finest pieces came from the Imperial Palace and the mansions of the nobility ransacked after the fall of the Qing dynasty) to clothes, shoes, hats, flowers, medicines, or even goldfish. Cheaper goods and food from all parts of China could be bought in the open air sections of the market. Barbers, dentists or photographers also offered their services within its walls. Thanks to the heterogeneity of goods and services available at all prices and to the good reputation of the sellers, Chinese and foreigners from all walks of life gathered at Dong An Bazaar.
The range of entertainment available at Dong An Bazaar also attracted many people. For a few coins acrobats, jugglers and magicians would amuse the crowds. In the afternoon, groups of singers performed in the different tea houses while drums could be heard later in the day. Yet two of the most popular venues were the Huixian Billiard Club, located within the Bazaar itself, and the Jixiang theatre, next to its entrance. The latter showed Beijing opera as well as western movies.

Following the victory of the Communists in 1949, shops and stalls selling products considered unsuitable or whose owners had supported the Nationalists were closed. Although its activity was declining Dong An Bazaar remained for a few more year a very busy place. However the expulsion of all foreigners in 1954 was a severe blow to the market and the shops found along Wanfujing Dajie. Two years later the government nationalized the many small-scale enterprises running the shops and stalls and converted Dong An Bazaar into a state company selling Chinese goods at a fixed price. By the late 1950s, because of the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Dong An Bazaar became a shadow of itself. As production collapsed and food rationing was introduced many of its stalls laid desperately empty. During the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, the name was changed to Dong Feng (East Wind) Market as the reference to the eastern gate of the Forbidden City was considered to be counter-revolutionary. The death of Mao in 1976, which put an end to the Cultural Revolution, and the launch by Deng Xiaoping of the Open Door policy in 1978 failed to revive the good fortunes of Dong An Bazaar. As low quality good continued to be sold in its outdated facilities, shoppers deserted it in favour of other venues in Beijing.

By the late 1980s the Beijing authorities opened the Chinese real estate market to overseas investors. This was followed in the early 1990s by the opening of the retail sector. Around the same time the municipality decided to revamp Wangfujing Dajie and turn the area into the front window of modernity in the capital. One of the first projects selected was the complete redevelopment of the site of the Dong An Bazaar at a cost of US$300m. In October 1993 the old glass, iron and steel structure was demolished to make way for a twelve-storey shopping complex financed equally by state-owned Dong An Group and Sun Hung Kai Properties of Hong Kong. When Sun Dong An (New Dong An Market) opened its doors in 1998 it was the largest shopping centre in Beijing. Even though its designers have included a few glazed-tile roofs and red-lacquer columns, this is sadly another post-modern mall, like so many around the world...

Click on the image above to enlarge it.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Wangfujing Dajie, Beijing (1)

Wangfujing Dajie, a couple of blocks east of the Forbidden City, is Beijing's main shopping street. Its name reminds us that a well was located along this street that ran through an area reserved for princes and other high ranking nobles: 'Wangfujing Dajie' means 'Well of the Princely Mansion Street'. Yet this was between the 15th and the early 20th centuries and even if Wangfujing Dajie is now once more geared towards those who have been benefiting most from the country's impressive economic growth, it is no longer 'princely'.

The evolution of the street since the beginning of the 20th century mirrors the political and socio-economic history of modern China, with all its tensions and upheavals. What had been until the early 20th century a muddy lane was transformed after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 into a fashionable street where all kinds of luxury goods could be found. Indeed following the failed siege of the foreign legations established under the 1860 Tianjin Treaty, foreign powers increased their presence in Beijing. Permanent military forces were stationed in town and growing numbers of English, French, German, American, Italian and Japanese traders came to the city to cater for the expanding foreign population as well as for wealthy Chinese willing to acquire foreign goods. These traders settled close to the foreign legations, along Wangfujing Dajie.
As a result, Wangfujing Dajie became one of the first streets in Beijing to be paved, and later asphalted, and one of the first parts of the capital to be lit by electricity. These first electric lights and the basic neon signs installed by some shops drew crowds of bewildered Chinese.

Hundred years later, Wangfujing Dajie is still for better or for worse at the forefront of modernity and with its countless colourful lights and adverts, it is a favourite destination for a stroll at night.

Many of these lights may look quite tacky to unaccustomed western eyes. At least the changing colour displays on the facade of the Intime Lotte Department Store are much more restrained. This joint venture owned equally by the Chinese Intime Department Store and the South Korean retail group Lotte Department Store is one of the latest additions to Wangfujing Dajie.

Opened in August 2008, Intime Lotte targets high-end consummers, who can find within its walls all the latest Chinese and foreign luxury goods. After lean times under Chairman Mao, Wangfujing Dajie is back where it was in the early 20th century.

To be continued...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Jugendstil bat, Aue

Inspired not only by sculptures found on Romanesque and Gothic buildings and on their nineteenth century revival versions, but also by recently discovered antique ruins and artefacts from Assyria to Greece, as well as by a whole range of legends and tales, many Art Nouveau - Jugendstil architects allowed animals and fantastic creatures to stand guard by the entrance of their buildings, creep on their facades or keep a watchful eye from their roofs. If some looked fearsome, others were simply grotesque, playful additions to buildings that were breaking away from Neoclassical and Historicist architecture.
When it comes to grotesque creatures, this female bat -Batwoman?- which stands on top of a town house in the small industrial town of Aue in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) may well top the list.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Port-d'Envaux station on the Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire narrow gauge railway line

The grand houses built by ship owners along the western bank of the River Charente in Port-d'Envaux, France, testify to the importance of the river for the local economy. For centuries barges and ships carried local products such as stones, ceramics, salt, and foodstuff upstream towards Saintes or downstream towards Rochefort, where goods could be loaded onto seagoing vessels.
However in 1867 the Compagnie des Charentes built the Angoulême-Cognac-Saintes-Rochefort railway line, which followed the eastern bank of the River Charente. Its opening led to the rapid decline of inland navigation. Still, since the nearest station was located a few kilometres away on the opposite bank of the river in Taillebourg, a few boats continued to sail in and out of Port-d'Envaux for a while.
The isolation of Port-d'Envaux and its hinterland from the railway network came to an end in 1904 when the Chemins de fer Economiques des Charentes built a narrow gauge line between Taillebourg and Saint-Porchaire. Shortly after leaving Taillebourg station the railway crossed the Charente by means of a metallic bridge. The first station was Port-d'Envaux. Then came Crazannes, Plassay (a halt only) and finally after a 13 km journey, Saint-Porchaire. Like many rural railway lines with small levels of traffic and low returns on investment (if any), it was built as cheaply as possible. Apart from the bridge over the Charente, the only major engineering works were a short trench spanned by a road bridge followed by an embankment between Port-d'Envaux and Crazannes, and a couple of very short stone bridges over streams. As the station of Port-d'Envaux above illustrates, the company did not spend much on buildings either. One half was used to store the equipment needed to run the railway, from shovels to lanterns, while the other half housed the railway office. From the beginning three mixed trains a day ran in each direction. They usually consisted of two or three passenger carriages and six or five wagons pulled by a 0-6-0T built by Corpet-Louvet. The maximum speed was 20km/h.
The First World War had a dramatic impact on the railway. Traffic and maintenance were reduced to the bare minimum and part of the rolling stock was requisitioned and used on the networks near the front line. The Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire line never really recovered. Facing increasing competition from cars, buses, and trucks, it laid moribund for a few more years. Finally in 1925 the railway company received the autorisation to close this loss-making line.
The Port-d'Envaux station is the only one that survives. It was restored a few years ago and is used by a local association.

The trench with the bridge carrying the Route de la Garenne. The stones at ground level on the right of the track bed are part of a small bridge over the local stream.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Devil's Punch Bowl

As September approaches, the heathers start to blossom and the east side of the Devil's Punch Bowl and nearby Hindhead Common in the southwest corner of Surrey turn from light to deep purple.

This beautiful area, which until the nineteenth century remained relatively isolated, has been at the centre of many stories and legends, including two that give a different explanation about the name of the valley.

One particular legend links two of the most famous natural landmarks in the southeast of England: the Devil's Dyke above Poynings in Sussex and the Devil's Punch Bowl. One day, while standing on top of the South Downs, the Devil, or 'the Poor Man' as locals used to call him, realised that more and more churches were being built in the Weald. Outraged, he swore he would drown them by digging a channel from the coast through the South Downs, between sunset and sunrise. Even though St Cuthman (or St Dunstan, depending on the version of the legend) begged him to spare the lives of the inhabitants of the Weald, the Devil began digging, throwing great lumps of chalk in all directions and by doing so created Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, Rackham Hill, Mount Caburn, and even the Isle of Wight. He was just about to complete his task when an old woman in Poynings was woken up by all the noise. She got up and lit a candle to see what was going on. Thanks to St Cuthman the flame gave out such a glaze that all the cockerels in the village woke up and started to crow to greet the new day. Thinking the sun was about to rise, the Devil fled, jumping across the Weald and leaving a deep valley as a footmark where he landed: the Devil's Punch Bowl.

The southern end of the Punch Bowl

However, according to another legend, the valley was created when the Devil, who was living at the Devil's Jumps near Churt, dug up lumps of earth to throw at Thor, who lived nearby in Thursley, during a quarrel between the two.

Hindhead Common

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Morris & Co window by John H. Dearle, Gloucester

The contribution of John Henry Dearle (1860-1932) to the artistic development of Morris & Co has long been a matter of debate. Throughout most of the twentieth century a majority of art historians and critics considered that his work was more often than not a mere "pastiche" of the firm's two leading figures: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. In their view, Dearle, who rose to the position of Artistic Director and was responsible for the design of many of the firm's wallpapers, tapestries, woven and printed textiles, and following the death of Edward Burne-Jones in 1898 of its stained glass, barely went beyond reusing designs created by Morris and Burne-Jones. Such opinions were undoubtedly unfair to Dearle and over the past thirty years his work has been reassessed, with many seeing him as a key figure behind the success of Morris & Co.
Some of the harshest critics were levelled at his stained glass windows. These may have been excessive, as Dearle contributed to the design of many windows when Morris and Burne-Jones were still alive, many of which are held in high regard. Additionally reusing particular designs had been going on at Morris & Co since 1862. Yet it is true that people's faces on Dearle's windows are less vibrant and clear than those drawn by Burne-Jones. It is as if they were largely emotionless, contrary to the characters created by his predecessor. As for the foreground and background, they are less complex, often consisting of simple, but at the same time more realistic, floral elements. What one cannot deny though is Dearle's ability to use colours to the best effect, and in particular the deep green, blue and red that make Morris & Co windows so easily recognizable and attractive.
Dearle may not have reached the standards of Morris and Burne-Jones but that does not mean that his work on textiles and wallpapers was not excellent. And even his windows are very fine pieces, as the Wilton window designed in 1924 for the cloister of Gloucester Cathedral illustrates.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hammer and sickle floating in Vientiane

Thirty-five years ago today the communist movement Pathet Lao seized power from the royal government of King Savang Vatthana and declared the Lao capital Vientiane "officially liberated". The King formally abdicated on 2nd December and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party as the only legal political party. This put an official end to decades of civil war, even if Hmong tribes continued fighting the new regime for years to come. Actually the victory of the Pathet Lao owed much to the intervention of foreign actors in Lao affairs, namely North Vietnam and the US, rather than to its own fighting capacity or popular support. Indeed, although the Lao civil conflict had its own roots, the country became engulfed in the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese troops channeled aid to the Vietcongs through Laos and supported the Lao communist rebellion, while US planes dropped illegally an estimated 260 million bombs, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Following the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the withdrawal of the US from the Indochina peninsula, it became clear Cambodia and Laos would be the next dominoes to fall, to use Eisenhower's expression.

Nowadays Laos remains a communist regime. Even if from 1986 onward it moved towards a free market economy, economic liberalisation was not accompanied by political reforms. Therefore Laos is one of the few countries in the world where one can still see myriads of communist flags not only on public buildings but also on the windows and balconies of people's dwellings as this picture taken near the corner of Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Khoun Boulom illustrates.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pule Si, Chengde

In 1703, during a hunting expedition towards Manchuria, the land of his ancestors, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty passed through Chengde, by then a seven-day journey from Beijing. He liked this mountainous area so much he had a hunting pavilion built there. Thanks to its pleasant temperatures, Chengde -or Rehe as it was then known (literally 'Warm River')- rapidly became the favourite summer retreat of the imperial court and over the next 89 years the extensive Bishu Shanzhuang (literally 'Mountain Resort for Avoiding the Heat') and adjoining buildings were built to accommodate the emperor and his suite of 10,000 dignitaries, soldiers and civil servants. The Mountain Resort prospered under Kangxi's son Yongzheng (1678-1735) but it was under his grand-son Qianlong (1711-1799) that it reached its peak.

Over the summer, tribes living on the frontiers of the Chinese empire came to Chengde to pay tribute to the emperor. In order to welcome and at the same time awe them, twelve temples were built in the vicinity of the ten kilometre-long wall that enclosed the Mountain Resort. At first sight these temples were copies of places of worship these tribes would have been familiar with, such as the Potala Palace or the Sangye monastery in Tibet. However a closer look revealed many Chinese architectural and decorative elements were incorporated to convey a clear message: the supreme authority of the Chinese emperor over all these tribes and their land.

Pule Si, or 'Temple of Universal Joy', is one of the smallest of these outlying temples. It was built by Emperor Qialong in 1766 to receive Mongol envoys. Once they passed through the entrance pavilion, they found themselves in a narrow courtyard enclosed by a drum and a bell tower on each side and the Tianwang Hall or Hall of Heavenly Guardians. Having paid their respect in the latter, they entered a larger courtyard surrounded by the Shangyin Hall on the left, the Huili Hall on the right and the Zhongyin Hall or Hall of Ancestors in front.

Zhongyin Hall

Beyond the Zhongyin Hall rose the main part of the temple, composed of three square terraces on which stood the Dawning Light Hall, a circular structure surmounted by a double-tiered conical roof. If the Dawning Light Hall is reminiscent of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Beijing's Temple of Heaven, the design of the whole structure is actually based on a Tibetan mandala. Mongol tribes, who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, would have been familiar with the mandala symbol both architecturally and spiritually.

Dawning Light Hall

Originally a gallery surrounded the first terrace but it was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Access to the upper levels was through stairs fitted within the masonry walls and which emerged in little pavilions. On the second terrace, a series of colourful stupas with religious inscriptions awaited the visitors.

The second terrace

Once on the third terrace Mongol envoys were about to enter the heart of the sanctuary. Behind the elaborate lattice windows and decorated teak was a large wooden Tibetan mandala shrine. In its centre, the sexual act performed by the multi-armed god Samvara with his consort Vajravarahi ('The Diamond Sow') symbolized the connection between wisdom and compassion. However when the Mongols raised their eyes, they would have noticed that the ceiling above the mandala was decorated with a dragon, the very representation of the Emperor of China. With this, Qianlong, who had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Manjusri, a Bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom, was not only positioning himself at the very centre of the Buddhist world, but also asserting his authority over the Tibetan Buddhist tribes that populated the frontiers of his empire.

External decoration of the Dawning Light Hall

Pule Si, like most other buildings in Chengde fell into disrepair after 1820. That year Emperor Jianqing, the son of Qianlong, died while staying at the Mountain Resort. Some claimed he was struck by lightning but others believe he died of a stroke. In any case, the death of the emperor was interpreted as an ominous sign and for a few years the court stopped coming to Chengde during the summer months. Jianjing's grand-son, Xianfeng, returned to the Mountain Resort to escape the summer heat of Beijing but he also died there in 1861. After that the imperial palace was abandoned and the twelve outlying temples ceased to serve the diplomatic function they had been designed for. Nowadays only eight survive. Together with the Mountain Resort, they are on the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

Putuozongsheng Temple (left) and Xumifushou Temple (also known as Temple of Sumeru, Happiness and Longevity, right), two of Chengde's eight remaining outlying temples seen from Pule Si.
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