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!

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