Friday, 15 April 2011

English Bluebells

Near Guildford, Surrey

One of the great pleasures of walking through the English countryside in April-May is to come across spectacular carpets of bluebells stretching endlessly in some woodlands.

Emmetts, Kent

Sadly the Common Bluebell, also known as the English Bluebell, is under threat. One of the reasons behind its decline, apart from the destruction of its natural habitat and climate change, is the hybridisation with the paler and larger Spanish Bluebell. Cultivated as a garden plant, this type of hyacinthoide spreads easily beyond flowers beds and invades the hedgerows and deciduous woodlands where the Common Bluebell is traditionally found. As the hybrid species tend to be more resistant, over time they can wipe out the native flowers.

Near Edenbridge, Kent

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Bobby Bollard, London

Bollards come in many different shapes but this must be one of the most unusual. This bobby stands guard outside the former Gerald Road police station in Belgravia.
Until the early nineteenth century this part of London was still covered with fields but from the mid-1820s it was rapidly developed by Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster. Construction of Belgrave Square began in 1825 and the first mansions on Eaton Square emerged two years later. The streets to the south of Eaton Square were laid shortly afterwards and it was in one of them, Cottage Row, that a police station opened in 1846. The name of the street was changed to its present one, Gerald Road, in 1885. Over time the officers based at Gerald Road became responsible for enforcing law and order in an area bound by Exhibition Road, Hyde Park Corner, Victoria Station and Chelsea Bridge. By 1978 though, the Metropolitan Police was considering closing it down and merging it with Rochester Row police station. After years of debate, the police left the building in 1993 and moved to the newly-completed Belgravia police station. The Gerald Street building was renovated and converted into a residential property. One can imagine this bollard was placed then, as a reminder of the building's original use.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Air Mail box, Windsor

There may be many different models of Royal Mail letter boxes but, apart from a few pre-1874 Penfold hexagonal boxes in green or bronze-green, the immense majority is painted in just one colour: red. Therefore this blue George V box outside Windsor Castle really stands out.
Such blue boxes first appeared in the streets of the main British cities in 1930 for the sole purpose of posting air letters. However they were painted in Air Force blue rather than the darker navy blue used when this one was last repainted. Additionally they displayed on top an oval sign with "Air Mail" written on it. Having separate air mail boxes alongside the usual red ones proved to be too costly and in 1938 the Royal Mail decided that the public could use any box to post air letters.
This one has been placed next to the spot where Windsor Post Office once stood (built in 1887, it was demolished in 1966) and commemorates the first United Kingdom aerial post. On 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel took off from Hendon aerodrome with a 23 pound mail bag celebrating the coronation of King George V. Twelve minutes later his Blériot XI powered by an Anzani motor landed in Shaw Farm meadow, Long Walk, Windsor. This was slightly further than the planned landing site and the postman had to jump on his bike to go and get the delivery but at least, in spite of the strong winds, the flight had been a success. It is said that during that short journey Hamel managed to write a postcard to the King. The correspondance carried on that occasion consisted of envelopes and postcards especially printed for the occasion and bore the inscriptions "A.D. Coronation 1911 - First U.K. Aerial Post by Sanction of H.M. Postmaster General" and "To be forwarded by aeroplane from London to Windsor. The Postmaster General is not responsible in case of loss, damage or delay."
Between 9th and 26th September, Hamel and the other pilots of the Graham-White Aviation Company Ltd, which was running the service, made 21 flights with either Blériot XI or Farman III aeroplanes and carried a total of 130,000 letters. However such impressive figures hide the fact that several setbacks occurred during these days. As it was reported, "the official verdict of the experiment was that the airmail would have no scientific value, but it might under favourable conditions permit of more rapid communication than by any other means of transport, but that it was too dependant upon weather to be of use as a regular and ordinary mode of conveyance." Indeed flights had to be delayed or cancelled because of fog, on a few occasions the pilots were unable to reach their destination, and on 11th September, Huber Latham fractured both his legs in a crash. When Hamel heard the organisers did not want to compensate Latham, he went on strike. He only resumed his series of flights on 25th, when the Postmaster General agreed to pay the injured pilot £500. Still, the operation of the world's first scheduled aerial post made a profit and the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor was presented with the sum of £1,000.
Following this event, Hamel became extremely famous and participated in many public displays and a few publicity stunts. However he disappeared over the Channel on 23rd May 1914 while flying the brand new Morane-Saulnier he had just acquired in Paris. As for air mail services, they became well-established in the 1920s thanks to improvements in aircraft design and the boldness of former First World War pilots.

As a commemorative item, this special blue air mail box does not accept letters, and nowadays neither does the more recent Elizabeth II red pillar box next to it: its aperture has been sealed because of alleged terrorist threat.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam

The western side, facing towards Sanssouci.
The Church of St Peter and Paul, built in 1867-1870, rises at the end of the Brandenburger Straße.

While many people are familiar with Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, few may know that Potsdam also has a monumental entry of the same name. However contrary to its Berlin counterpart, which announced the demise of the Baroque style and the dawn of neoclassical architecture in Prussia, Potsdam's Brandenburg Gate was built twenty-one years earlier in 1770 and is a typical baroque construction.

Potsdam's first city gates were built in 1722, when the Soldier-King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered the construction of a wall around the city. This 3.7 metre-high barrier had a dual purpose: to facilitate the collection of taxes on products entering the city, and to prevent soldiers from deserting. Potsdam housed the barracks of several regiments of the Prussian army, and some recruits tried regularly to escape the harsh discipline enforced by the king and his officers. Demographic pressure and economic expansion during the following decade forced the crown to authorise the construction of new quarters outside the original perimeter and this was followed in 1733 by the extension of the city wall and the construction of new gates. One of these was the Brandenburger Gate, located at the western end of the recently-extended Brandenburger Straße (so called because it led towards Brandenburg). Like the other four gates, its design was simple, with only a couple of decorative elements. However if that suited its function, such a gate was not fit for a king.
Indeed since 1660 Potsdam had become the second residence of the rulers of Prussia after Berlin, and the Stadtschloß (City Palace) rose in the southeastern part of the city. Friedrich II, the third King of Prussia, was particularly fond of Potsdam and four years after his accession to the throne in 1740, he rebuilt the Stadtschloß in the rococo style (it was severely damaged during the Second World War and its ruins were pulled down in 1960). One year later he embarked on the construction of Sanssouci, his summer residence, in a vast park just to the west of the city wall, and in 1763, following the victory of Prussia over Austria in the Seven Year's War, a grandiose baroque palace, the Neues Palais (New Palace), emerged on the western side of the Sanssouci park. As no new gate was opened at the end of the grand alley that ran through Sanssouci, from the Neues Palais to city, the court had to pass through the Brandenburg Gate when it travelled between its city and country residences. This explains why in 1770 Friedrich II commissioned the architects Carl von Gontard and his former pupil Georg Christian Unger to design and build a new monumental gate in lieu of the original one.
For the new Brandenburg Gate, Gontard and Unger drew their inspiration from the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The result is a grand triumphal arch, which symbolises the military might of Prussia and the king's recent victories, but while the message is obvious on the western side, designed by Unger and seen as one enters the city centre, it is less so on the eastern side, designed by Gontard and seen as one leaves the city towards Sanssouci.
The western side with its four pairs of columns topped by Corinthian capitals is the more impressive one, and is a celebration of Friedrich II's military power indeed. Above the central archway, two angels blow their trumpets to the glory of the king, whose initials framed by vegetal ornaments appear between them, while stuccoed crested helmets, flags and spears, together with garlands, ornate the sides between the pairs of columns (originally the pedestrian archways did not exist. These were added in 1843). Still it is the sculptures that rise on top of the arch that really conjure up that power. The central one represents the Prussian eagle in a medallion surmounted by a golden crown and surrounded by statues of Mars, the god of war, and Hercules, with flags behind them. This is completed, above each pair of columns, by war trophies composed of armours, crested helmets, flags, weapons and fasces seized from the enemy.

The eastern side, facing towards the city

While spoils of war also dominate the side of the arch facing towards the city, these are far less elaborate. Actually the whole side is a much more sober affair. Pilasters have replaced the fluted columns and only a helmet surmounts the central archway (similar helmets were added in 1843 above the newly-opened pedestrian archways). However it is the two stucco panels on each side of the archway that are particularly interesting. The one on the left displays objects traditionally associated with war and power - a shield, swords, spears and fasces - while a knotted ribbon hangs above them and passes in front of the shield. As for the panel on the right, it illustrates two of the leisure activities pursued by a king: hunting, with arrows in a quiver, a bow, spears, and an axe, and music with a lyre wrapped in the falling part of the knotted ribbon. This illustrated not only the more leisurely life that awaited Friedrich II in his private retreat at Sanssouci, but also that politics - and in particular war - could not be forgotten altogether.

Albeit fit for a king, the Brandenburg Gate was still primarily a control and tax collection point and remained so for ninety years. By the 1860s the city had expanded well beyond the wall. As it no longer facilitated the collection of taxes and had become an obstacle to further development, the decision was taken to tear most of it down. Portions of the wall remained around the Brandenburg Gate for a while longer but these were pulled down in 1900, nine years after the demolition of the two small buildings, which used to house excise officers.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Great Tit, Wimbledon Common

Spring must have finally arrived in south west London. In spite of the cold temperatures some daffodils have been in blossom already for a couple of weeks, the first buds and leaves are appearing, and a few mimosas and Japanese cherry trees are bringing a touch of yellow and pink to some sheltered streets and gardens. Yet, for me, the clearest indication the new season is upon us is when, after a long and quiet winter, the woods of Wimbledon Common begin to resonate with birdsong. Among the myriad birds, Great Tits, with up to forty types of calls and songs, are some of the most vocal.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Yulong River, Yangshuo

No picture can do justice to the absolutely amazing scenery of the Yulong River valley in the northeastern part of the Guangxi region in China. Hundreds of impressive karst peaks covered with lush vegetation rise above this 35-kilometre-long tributary of the Li River. Paddy fields, small plantations of citrus trees, and fishing ponds alternate along its banks, while water buffaloes can be seen grazing here and there.
Even though water levels can rise extremely rapidly during the rainy season, the Yulong River usually flows quietly. Indeed over the centuries several weirs have been constructed to control its flow. They also used to provide safe crossings for people and cattle.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Stopham Bridge

The location of Stopham Bridge, on the river Arun just to the west of Pulborough, could hardly be more idyllic. Yet let's not fool ourselves: cars and lorries passing on the new bridge built a few yards upstream in 1986 can sometimes sploil this peaceful picture. Back in 1965 Pevsner and Nairn, in the volume on Sussex of the The Buildings of England series, were concerned the construction of a new bridge would destroy the quiet atmosphere surrounding Stopham Bridge and to a certain extent they were right. Having said that, the new bridge certainly helped to preserve this six hundred year-old structure, which was damaged by passing vehicles on numerous occasions, and visitors can now take time to appreciate the best preserved medieval bridge in Sussex without having to dodge vehicles and seek refuge in the recesses over the piers.

The current bridge was most certainly built in 1422-23, in place of an early fourteenth century wooden bridge. Before a permanent structure spanned the River Arun people had to use a ford but that was only possible as long as water levels were not too high. That's why a ferry, known as Estoven or Eastover Ferry was introduced. It belonged to John de Stopham "at the Ford" and ran until the wooden bridge was built.
Like many medieval bridges, the one at Stopham is a pretty massive and solid structure. It consists of seven semi-circular arches -six with a span of 11 ft 9 in. and a central one with a span of 12 ft 9 in.- resting on fairly wide piers. Such sturdy piers were needed because the arches were built one by one. Therefore they had to be able to withstand the thrust of one arch before the next one was in place. This had both advantages and drawbacks. Should one arch be destroyed or be partly damaged by wear and tear and need to be replaced, the rest of the bridge would not collapse. However the spans were so short and the piers so wide that flood waters could barely pass, increasing the risk of washing the bridge away. This problem was only partially solved by the blunt cutwaters, which reduce the pressure on the bridge and damage to the piers caused by floating objects. At Stopham they rise the whole height of the piers and form triangular recesses on the north side. As there is less pressure on the south side -Stopham is at the tidal limit of the River Arun- the cutwaters support above the level of the arches half-hexagonal buttresses which form larger recesses where pedestrians could retrat when a wider vehicle crossed the bridge.
During the Civil War one arch was destroyed. It was replaced by a drawbridge until permanent repairs were carried out in the 1630s or 1650s but that did not change the general appearance of the bridge. However one cannot fail to notice that something happened to the central arch. Indeed it was raised in 1821-22 to allow the passage of higher barges on the Arun navigation. Small boats had been able to navigate along the Arun until Pallingham Quay, north of Stopham, since 1575 but in 1785 Parliament authorised the improvement and extension of the navigation until Newbridge, near Billingshurst. In 1816 the Arun & Wey Junction Canal, which extended from Newbridge to Stonebridge just south of Guildford, was completed, making it possible for barges to travel all the way to London. The volume of goods carried on the Arun navigation increased but Stopham Bridge prevented the use of larger boats. Therefore the decision was taken in 1821 to alter it. It reopened on July 7, 1822. The original materials were reused for the new arch but the piers were rebuilt using red bricks instead of Bargate stones.
The only other modifications to the bridge were carried out in 1865, when it was extended at both ends, with the addition of an extra arch for flood relief at the west end, and the western approach was realigned not to interfere with the alley leading to Stopham House.
As long as traffic was sparse, this medieval bridge coped well. However it suffered extensive damage during the Second World War, when heavy army vehicles passed over it. It was repaired after the war but was further damaged by lorries in the following decades. The parapet on the curvy approaches was hit on several occasions but the impact they had on the structure itself was more worrying. Additionally, being only 12 ft wide, the bridge often created a bottleneck on the Pulborough - Petworth road. This explains why a new bridge was finally built in the mid-1980s.
At least it is now possible to enjoy a pint and some food in the gardens of the White Hart and to look at the bridge without breathing the fumes of the passing traffic.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Trams under the rain, Lisbon

After negotiating the steep, narrow and winding streets of the Mouraria and Alfama districts, tram 558 has an easy run through Baixa, the lower part of the Portuguese capital rebuilt to a grid pattern after the 1755 earthquake. On that rainy evening, it was on the last stretch of its circular journey to Praça Figueira.

The first tram service, pulled by mules, opened to passengers in November 1873. Over the following years, the Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa (Carris, the municipal operator of transport services since then) extended the original line and opened new ones but animal traction limited operations to the flat parts of the city. From 1884 several funiculars (Lavra, Glória and Bica) and the Santa Justa lift began serving some of the hills around the centre. Five years later steam traction was introduced between Cais do Sodré and Belém, along the bank of the River Tagus. In the 1890s three cable tram lines were opened in the hillier part of Lisbon. However it was only with the introduction of electric tramways in 1901 that most natural obstacles were overcome and over the following six years, the network expanded rapidly. The 1910s and 1920s witnessed few developments, with the exception of the replacement of the cable trams, the relaying of some lines, and the extension to the suburbs of a couple of lines. The most important change took place on July 1, 1928, when Portugal switched from left-hand to right-hand drive. By then the trams supplied by Brill during the first decade of the century were showing their age and Carris took the decision to renew almost entirely its fleet. In the 1930s the population of Lisbon grew at a rapid rate and new lines were built to serve the new suburbs. Actually the period 1929-1960 corresponds to the golden age of tramways in Lisbon. The first regular bus services were introduced in 1944 but at least in the beginning they complemented rather than competed with the trams. It was the inauguration of the first subway line in 1959 that dealt a serious blow to the tram network. Indeed the two branches of the subway competed directly with two of the four north-south lines at the very heart of the tram network. These became rapidly redundant and were closed although two new transversal lines were built to feed the subway. In other parts of the city throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, road improvement schemes led to the replacement of tramways by buses.
The "Carnation Revolution" of 1974 and the sudden rise of oil prices in the second half of the 1970s halted temporarily the decline of the tram network. The growth of the capital was another element. To keep people moving, Carris needed all the resources it had at the time, including its ageing trams.
However in 1990 Carris decided to close almost entirely its tram network. Several reasons explain this move. As standards of living improved, many passengers switched from public forms of transport to cars. At the same time, the authorities had not anticipated the growth of traffic on the roads and as a result, the main thoroughfares of Lisbon became some of the most congested in Europe. Stuck in traffic, tramways were unable to move. Additionally improvements in the design of motors made buses cheaper to run.
Nowadays only five tram routes are still in service. While modern articulated trams run on route 15, the other four, 12, 18, 25 and 28, are operated by historic vehicles built in the 1930s and renovated in 1995-96. These small yellow and white trams (when they aren't covered with ads) provide more than just an essential service for the inhabitants of the higher parts of Lisbon (but not necessarily an adequate one since only 45 were restored and some are regularly out of service): they have become one of the city's main attractions.

Route 28 is certainly the most popular one as it passes by or near some of the city's most famous sights and districts, including from east to west the Graça viewpoint, the castle of São Jorge, the Alfama, the Santa Luzia viewpoint, the Cathedral, Baixa, the Bairro Alto, the Portuguese parliament and the Basílica da Estrela. It is also, with its steep climbs followed by abrupt descents, the most spectacular journey.

A packed tram on route 28, on its short flat run along
an empty and wet Rua da Conceição. At the corner with
Rua dos Fanqueiros, shortly after a downhill ride
from the Cathedral, it crosses the tracks of route 15.
Soon it will take its passengers uphill towards the Bairro Alto.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Granary, Whitchurch

Scattered around Whitchurch in Hampshire are several reminders of the town's agricultural past, including this eye-catching timber-framed granary from the eighteenth century. Originally it stood on the grounds of Chalcot Farm nearby but was later moved to a meadow by the River Test, where the weathered red brick infilling and half-hipped red tile roof contrast nicely with the surrounding vegetation. In common with many granaries, it stands about two feet above ground on mushroom-shaped straddles designed to prevent the vermin from reaching the grains stored inside.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Monument to Charles Cook, Walberton

In the churchyard of St Mary's, Walberton - a small village in the coastal plain of Sussex between Arundel and Chichester -, stands quite a remarkable headstone commemorating the death of Charles Cook and his wife Sarah. Charles met an untimely death at the age of 30 on the 20th of March 1767, when he was crushed under a falling tree.
This tragic event is recorded in the lower part of the splendid baroque carving that crowns the headstone: the body of Charles, with his tricorn hat nearby, lies under the branches of an uprooted tree. Judging by the clothes of the deceased - and the fact that his family was able to afford such a monument - one can assume Charles's family was wealthier than the majority of people in this rural parish. Standing behind the tree, a man raises his right hand while holding an axe in his left hand. His other tools, a pick and a spade, are by the roots of the tree. Was he the one who discovered the body and is in shock? Or was he responsible for Charles's death and, by raising his hand, acknoledges his role in this horrible accident? On either sides of this scene, a skeleton pointing an arrow at the dead and a rather young Father Time with a scythe and an hourglass remind the living that their time on earth is counted and death will come. The scene of the accident is dominated by the figure of God in a semi-circle of clouds. Here He is represented not as a bearded old man but with a cherub-like face holding a book and what looks like a sword. The scales on which Charles's deeds on earth will be weighed hang underneath the clouds. On both sides inverted cornucopia and cherubs blowing their trumpets complete this carving.

The lettering of the inscription below is equally fine, especially the first line. The part on the left narrates how and when Charles died, while the text on the right tells that Sarah, "relict of Charles Cook" died on November 6, 1788, aged 58. Barely visible at the bottom of Charles's part is a short poem:
"How many ways there are to take away your breath
One most uncommon fell to me and lodg'g me in pale death
My wife most dear did mourn and fear and loth to part with me
I said don't grieve for I believe that I shall Glory see."

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The castle of Ecoyeux

Although Ecoyeux, between Saintes and Saint-Jean-d'Angely on the Via Turonensis (*), is only a small village, it boasts not one but two castles.
The old one was built in the twelfth century next to the fortified church in the centre of Ecoyeux. However in 1614 the lord of the manor, Louis de Polignac, decided to move to a new residence on the edge of the village, overlooking the surrounding woods and fields. For reasons unknown, the new castle, pompously known as the Castle of the Princes of Polignac, was never completed.
In the 1840s the main building, with the exception of one bay and a small polygonal staircase tower that leans against the east front, was demolished and a new one with a tiled roof erected. A projecting kitchen wing was also pulled down. Thus as one approaches from the west, the only part from the early seventeenth century that can be seen is the unusual pentagonal tower with its steep slate roof. The plan is that of a square with a projecting triangle on the northwestern side. Originally, this triangular part, being the furthest away from the main rooms of the castle, housed the latrines.

(*): the Via Turonensis is one of the four French Ways of St James. It runs, as the name indicates, from Tours and passes though Poitiers and Bordeaux. At Ostabat, near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, it meets the Via Lemovicensis from Vezelay via Limoges, and the Via Podiensis from Le Puy. After crossing the Pyrenees, they meet at Puente La Reina, in Spain, the Via Tolosane from Arles.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Chinese New Year

Since last Thursday, Chinese communities around the world have been celebrating New Year. Dragons are an essential part of the festivities. These mighty and auspicious creatures not only fend off evil spirits but also bring good luck, fertility and wisdom to people.
Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Vinegar Bible

As printer to King George II and to the University of Oxford between 1711 and his death in 1742, John Baskett was responsible for printing many fine books. However his name is remembered above all for his 1717 imprint of the Holy Bible. This particular edition, which contains many neo-classical engravings by James Thornhill and Michael van der Gucht, could have been one of the highlights of Baskett's career. Instead so many printing mistakes were made that people referred to his Bible as a "Baskett-ful of errors." One of the most famous misprints occured in the page heading in Luke 20:9, where "The Parable of the Vineyard" became "The Parable of the Vinegar", hence the nickname of 'Vinegar Bible.'

Only a handful of copies of the 'Vinegar Bible' still exist. Sadly, because of their high value among collectors, two copies were stolen four years ago from the churches of Twyford in Hampshire and Clyst St Lawrence in Devon.

Many past editions of the Bible are riddled with mistakes. A favourite of mine must be Robert Barker's 1631 edition of the King James Bible, known as 'The Wicked Bible' because the word 'not' was omitted from the Seventh Commandment, leaving one to read "Thou shalt commit adultery." Earlier editions of the Bible by Barker were also full of typographical errors but this time the offence was so serious he was fined £300 -a pretty hefty sum at the time. Most copies were recalled and burnt, although around a dozen survived.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The covered market, Melle

The three Romanesque churches of Saint-Hilaire, Saint-Pierre and Saint-Savinien are undoubtedly the main attractions of Melle, a small town built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Béronne in the French département of Deux-Sèvres. Several attractive late Medieval, Renaissance, and early nineteenth century buildings can also be found while walking through the narrow streets. However today's building belongs to a different period altogether.
Melle's present covered market was built in 1903 by Paul Antoine Mongeaud, the département's architect. It is located just outside the town centre on a vast square created in 1779 when the castle of Melle, which had suffered extensive damage during the Wars of Religion of the second half of the sixteenth century, was finally pulled down. A document from 1681 indicates a covered market, which belonged to the barons of Melle, stood originally close to it. It is possible it survived the demolition of the castle and that it was this wooden L-shaped structure that was dismantled and rebuilt on the site of the present market in 1836 by the architect Antoine Bizard. A picture taken before it was demolished shows a wooden frame supporting a flat-tiled roof. Although this open-sided building had its charm, it offered relatively little protection to products. Meat, poultry and fish in particular could deteriorate rapidly. Additionally, even if the market was cleaned regularly, germs proliferated in the porous ground and cracks of the wooden stalls. By the mid-nineteenth century it was becoming increasingly clear that this type of structure was partly responsible for low standards of food hygiene. As a result new covered markets appeared throughout France during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many replicated Victor Baltard's design for the pavilions of the Paris central market. Built of glass and iron, with openings under the tiered roof to ventilate and regulate the temperature, they were considered as some of the very best at the time.
In the département of Deux-Sèvres, a brand new covered market built of glass and iron opened in 1871 in Niort, the main town. Similar structures, albeit smaller, were then built across the region. Although Melle, with a population of nearly 3,000 (75,000 with the villages around), was an important town, the decision to build a new covered market was only approved in the late 1890s. Paul Antoine Mongeaud, who had drawn in 1896 the plans of the new market of Coulonges-sur-l'Autize nearby, was given the task of designing it. Follwing the rejection in 1900 of his first design, which combined market and village hall, he submitted a second one for a covered market only. It was built by A. Cayer of Niort while the cast iron posts were supplied by the Marfil foundry of Ruffec. Coloured bricks and glass fill in the space between the cast iron posts of the outer frame and two pairs of monumental doors in Beaux-Art style give access to the market. While the coat of arms of Melle adorns the gables of the smaller western and eastern entrances, the letters "RF" in a roundel surrounded by foliage are inscribed above the more impressive northern and southern entrances. "RF" stands for République Française. Within the context of the period, this was a powerful political statement!
Albeit not in the latest style -that would have been Art Nouveau- the covered market looked incredibly modern (actually an Art Nouveau portal which was added to a house nearby looks out of place in this small provincial town). In a town where virtually everything is built of limestone, the glass, bricks and iron used for its construction clearly set it apart. With such a building, the inhabitants of Melle certainly felt they had entered the twentieth century.

The covered market was restored in 1993 and is still used every Friday morning.

The north side of the market with the initials "RF" (République Française) inscribed above the entrance

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

More snow in Sosa

Everything is set for a perfect winter day: immaculate fresh snow, frozen trees, sun, and of course a warm house where, after a long walk, one can sit by the fireplace and taste a whole range of delicious cakes from Cafe Richter.

The picture of Sosa posted on Christmas Eve was taken a couple of years ago, when relatively little snow had fallen around Christmas. By contrast, this winter has seen some of the heaviest snowfalls in nearly two decades.

Many garden sheds and garages have almost completely disappeared. Everywhere piles of snow are rising by the day as people regularly take their shovels to clear paths and pavements. As for those who went away for a couple of weeks over the Christmas period, they will barely be able to see their front door when they return!

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