Death and Alabaster

It is hot July in England. The dusty scent of harvesting and the silent dancing of brown butterflies amongst the tired grass informs my senses of where we are in the universal round. Quiet lanes take me deep into the Norfolk countryside to a place I discovered many years ago and then lost the knowledge of where to find it again. A recent interest in photographing the churches of the County led me back to the small church at Stratton Strawless; lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

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This unexceptional country church holds a true treasure inside its musty, cool interior. Along the southeast wall are two very creepy, tombs….or are they beautiful, poignant memorials to the great landowners of the parish?

The first that you see at the end of an aisle of secondhand books is the memorial to Thomas Marsham who died in 1638.

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He struggles to rise in his shroud and this, according to my research, is the first time the resurrection was portrayed on a memorial. His high position in the heirarchy of Freemasonry is carved below and a hideous collection of bones and dried hands seemingly press against a grill at the base of the memorial, creating a feeling of claustrophobia as I imagine myself thus imprisoned with the dead.

There are many memorials to the Marshams down the ages in this church but the only one to match that of Thomas is the tomb and memorial to the family of Henry Marsham. I feel instantly and extremely sad as I view the pale family praying to a God whose plan and will Henry presumably accepted as his family was destroyed one by one.

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The first of his family to die is Henry’s daughter Margaret at the age of one year. The dead, wrapped child stands like some weird pupa beside her mother. Henry’s wife Anne dies in childbirth with an unborn son in the June of 1678 and his son Henry junior follows at the age of twelve, being taken in the November of the same year. Henry dies in 1692.

I am unable to find out who the creators of these memorials were. Their work is highly skilled and accomplished, rendering in perfect realism the subjects. This I admire greatly and admiration begins to overcome what were feelings of revulsion mixed with fascination and sadness. These works are from an age so different from ours, telling us of their beliefs, their fears and imaginings, their story and perhaps of the requirement to be remembered in a way appropriate to the position they held in society.

The sculpted material is Alabaster, not marble as I had previously supposed. Alabaster is softer and easier to carve. It has a beautiful transluscency unlike marble but can be very carefully heated in boiling water to reduce this quality to produce a fake marble called Marmo di Castellino. Alabaster is porous and can be easily dyed to give it a more marble-like appearance, such as we see with these memorials. The memorials were restored in 2007 after the iron supports had rusted away and threatened to break up the Alabaster.

To the amateur historian and geneaologist of England’s past the Marsham memorials are a treasure. The necessity for great artistry to be used in order that the memorials were spectacular and would be beautiful to behold in ages to come means that they are undoubtedly works of art and ‘beautiful stuff’. However, one should never forget that within them lie what remains of people who lived and so can properly be used as a focus for a one-way communication with them. Is that not the true purpose of a memorial?

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Thomas Marsham resurrecting

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The Masonic symbols on Thomas Marsham’s memorial

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The sculpted skulls and bones on the Thomas Marsham memorial

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Henry Marsham junior’s epitaph

Herring Boats in Overstrand

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I imagine Overstrand in England’s late 19th century. It is winter. The grey North Sea can be heard crashing its rollers on the beach below the cliffs. The cry of gulls on the gale add but more wildness to the day. In the cottages here on the remote coast of North Norfolk, candlelight illuminates the dish of herring that form the evening meal of the population. This is a horsedrawn world, quiet, non-electric, non-digital, with time to think and ponder your life. Your heroes are the sailors who bring home these silver fishes for your dishes, the seamen, your relatives and friends, who brave the storms in their sailing boats – and latterly powered by steam engines – in order to harvest the great North Sea of its bounty. Death is always near; if not from drowning, he visits with disease and injury in a time long before our National Health Service. Such a different life from ours today!

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My imaginings were prompted by what I had just discovered on a hot, Summer’s afternoon whilst walking past an old cottage atop Overstrand’s cliffs. My eye had caught the exquisite rendering of herring boats – “drifters” – carved into the brickwork of the cottage wall. Each boat sails upon a sea of cement below the brick. The gaff-rigged sails, steam chimney and upward angled prow of the vessel speak of a deep knowledge of the subject.

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I feel a connection to a person now dead who took the time to scratch these important images of their life into the bricks. What was the purpose? Was it simply a love of the boats? Was it hero worship or some deeper, spiritual ceremony to bring luck or success in the hunt for the elusive shoals? All I have to work with is this evidence on the cottage wall. The rest is conjecture but nevertheless, I am in a culture now past. I gulp and a tear rolls. I am deeply moved.

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Here’s to you! Fishing here was your life; all consuming, necessary and endless. You were born, you fished and you died. Occasionally you would carve another boat on that cottage wall. Did you do it for me? Were you seeking some form of immortality? Whatever your reasons – thank you.

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Ben Wilson: “Chewing Gum Man”

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I have little left of my day in London. I hurry past the Black Friar pub and find the north end the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge. It is busy. Like everyone else, I am determined to get to the Tate Modern that beckons from the south side of the river. I want to see The Clock.

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In the middle of the bridge there’s guy lying down next to an open tool box. His clothes are daubed with paint of every colour. I say hello. He’s very friendly. I ask his name. “Ben Wilson.” He replies with a broad smile. “But people call me ‘chewing gum man’!”

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Ben is relaxed and chats to anyone who stops. He’s not obviously chewing gum. I ask him what he’s doing. It’s clear he’s been asked this a thousand times. “I’m painting the chewing gum!” I gawp. I look down around my feet and along the shiny aluminium walking surface. I see there are thousands of stuck-hard pieces of discarded chewing. The penny drops. Ben’s canvas is the chewing gum! “It’s a great day for painting.” he says. “It rained last night so the gum’s clean!”

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Using acrylic and enamel paints he has created hundreds of beautiful little fantasy designs scattered along the full span of the bridge. They include humanoid, animaloid and all sorts of -oids. Each is unique and intriguing. Some bear the names of visitors. I crouch to take photos. People trip over me; Tate-goers are too polite to curse me. Ben cheers me on.

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Ben is an exhibited painter and sculptor. This work, for which he is apparently well-known in London, was inspired by his distaste for any kind of rubbish on the streets. It is a truly imaginative initiative. However, he has generated controversy. Is this vandalism? He was once dragged down to the local police station for painting public property. Clever lawyers argued that he is not defacing private property but merely painting rubbish and therefore is breaking no law.

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Ben’s project requires an extraordinary dedication. It is as original and unexpected as it is opportunistic. I am totally uplifted. This has made my day. I skip down the steps to the Tate Modern where, I’m sure, the surface of the bridge will one day be exhibited.

Take a look at more of Bens work.

Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland, Scotland

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I first walked the stalkers’ track near Scourie in Sutherland, Scotland in 1982. Each return is a nostalgic and near-spiritual experience. This ancient and glaciated landscape is home to red deer, adders, tiny frogs and countless bird species including an occasional golden eagle. The lochs teem with small brown trout. The only sounds are the wind and the mournful call of golden plovers. That same wind carries a peaty fragrance with hints of heather and bog myrtle. This is a place that fills the senses and lifts the soul.

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For some reason, maybe to look at a wild orchid or one of the small carnivorous plants that can be found here, I step off the track. I notice a wonderful little dry stone bridge that I must have walked over twenty times. I have never thought about how the track, that must have been laid at least one hundred years ago, actually crosses the multiple small streams that flow off these hills. I am fascinated. My canine buddy tells me I should look at this from the other side.

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Just fabulous! To think, through its existence, this cementless structure has withstood floods and snow drifts together with the weight of human traffic whether on foot, horse and carriage or landrover.

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A kilometre along the track, I find another but with a single span. I notice these hardy little bridges are constructed from stones available on the spot. Large stones are stacked and stabilised with small stones wedged in. Maybe flatter stones were hauled in to make the cross pieces but it is difficult to look at them closely; they have been here for so long that they are now covered with heather and are just part of the track. As with the dry stone walls in this part of the world, I admire the skill and plain hard work of the unknown master crafts(wo)man/men who created these little gems.

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These bridges have a rustic, aged beauty accentuated by how they are now integrated into the environment. I find a third; it is so overgrown that, to see it, I have to step into the stream bed. My day just gets better.

Who else has noticed the dry stone bridges of the stalkers’ track? I wonder if I have happened upon a long-forgotten little bit of antiquity. Does or should some kind of preservation order apply in the event of maintenance or upgrade of the track? I try to contact the office of the estate concerned but without success. An internet search reveals nothing about these bridges (but I find there are courses on how to make one!) Is there an engineer-historian out there who knows about them? It would be great to hear from you.