Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Woods Of Trugh

Walking home the other evening after work I found myself humming an old song, a traditional Irish ballad that I hadn't thought about in decades. Even more remarkably, with a few hesitations and a little searching through my mind, I found I had the whole song. It's now been following me around for a couple of days.

Usually with traditional ballads it's impossible to know when they were written or whether the events actually took place. In this case a little judicious Googling will tell you that the events almost certainly happened much as the song reports them. The song was composed in 1646, probably in late summer or early autumn. I wouldn't mind betting that it was first performed at a wedding later that year and that the composer was the harper employed by one MacMahon of County Monaghan in Northern Ireland. How can I be so certain? The lyrics give all the clues:

The Woods Of Trugh

Out from the shady Woods of Trugh M'Kenna rides at noon,
The sun shone brightly, not a cloud darkened the sky of June,
No eye had he for nature's charms, they don't annoy his brain
As by flowery hills he makes his way and never drew a rein.

Until before him stands the tall grey tower of Glaslough Castle old
That bears a treasure in its walls more dear to him than gold,
For in it dwells his fair young love, the dark-eyed young Maureen,
Who yet, he hopes, may bless his home in the Woods of Trugh so green.

"I have come," he cried, "to see you, love, for tomorrow I must go
With my bold troopmen to Benburb, there to defend Owen Roe.
"I've come," he cried, "to see you, love, and to hear your accent sweet
Lest I might in that battle fall and we might never meet."

"Go forth, my love, my blessings, go and smite the Saxon horde,
When you return I'll be your bride without another word."
With a fond embrace they bid adieu as the evening sun went down
Behind yon western wooded hill that o'erlooks Glaslough town.

M'Kenna lightly mounts his steed at the twilight of the day,
Over Dasser Hill to Trugh's green woods he quickly makes his way;
That night he'll lead his valiant men o'er the dark hills of Tyrone
For to meet the army of the North at Benburb on the Roan.

Right well O'Neill was pleased to see these gallant mountaineers,
Who had held the Saxon wolves at bay in ancient Trugh for years,
And well they fought on Benburb's plain as the English flag went down,
And few that night escaped them toward Carrickfergus town.

It was in the autumn of the year with the berries ripe and red
M'Kenna and his fair young love in Glaslough church were wed
And never in her father's hall a fairer bride was seen
Than MacMahon's only daughter dear, the dark-eye young Maureen.

Now isn't that a nice old song?

Take care.

Monday 30 January 2012

Puddles And Pavements

After a period of rain I often find myself gazing at reflections in puddles - yes, I suppose I still retain my boyish desire to paddle and splash through them! Here's one near some building development, rendered in glorious monochrome.

And a city pavement after a shower of rain.

An upside-down image of St Botolph's Church in Cambridge.

Another monochrome, this time of the shadow of wrought iron gates lit by the evening sun.

It's always worth taking notice of the most mundane little puddle...

....it may, when coupled with a low angle of view, have the power to transform the place where you live into some kind of Venetian wonderland!

Take care.

Saturday 28 January 2012

King's College Chapel Revisited

A few lesser known facts about the Chapel...

Milne Street

The approach to the Chapel

Approaching via Senate House Passage to the North Porch is a slightly odd experience; the road simply comes to an abrupt end at the iron gates. You are standing on one of Medieval Cambridge's main thoroughfares, Milne Street. When Henry VI conceived his grand plan for his new foundation he probably had no idea of the geography of the town and certainly had no regard for the feelings of the townspeople - he simply had the Chapel built right across the street thereby blocking it off.
It was of course not a wise course of action to oppose the monarch's word and unsurprisingly nobody dared to do so. But you can bet there would have been lots of private mutterings. It was not the first time that the University had behaved in this high handed way and it certainly was not the last. Did Town v Gown rivalry begin as soon as the colleges were founded?

The windows

One cannot but be overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of the windows in the chapel. They constitute the most complete set of stained glass windows from this period. Many artists were employed in designing and making the windows but there is nevertheless a unity of design. The top half of each window represents a scene from the Old Testament, while the lower portion shows a scene from the New. In medieval thinking every event was seen to be either a prophesy or the fulfilment of a prophesy. So the story of Jonah emerging from the whale after three days is seen as a parallel to Christ rising from the dead after three days. Each central light bears the image of a Messenger carrying scrolls, while those to the sides contain images from the story.
If you have time to spare, or want to get your money's worth from the entrance fee, I can recommend taking along a small pair of binoculars and sitting down to examine at least some of the windows in detail.


The Chapel took almost a hundred years to complete and in that time different monarchs were on the throne, fashions altered and building know-how increased, and the building reflects this.

The stone used in the building changed, probably to keep the cost down. Here at the East end of the Chapel only the bottom portion is of white limestone while the rest is in the later honey-coloured stone. As was the custom in those days the eastern end was built first and was at a much greater height when the change of building materials was made. This has an interesting result which can be seen on the buttresses.

Henry VI was a pious man who wanted his chapel to be of plain design, hence the undecorated buttresses at the East end of the Chapel. Later kings, particularly Henry VIII, had rather more swagger and wanted everything decorated with symbols of their power. And, as you can see, they got their way!

Inside the ante-chapel can be seen the royal coat of arms, the Tudor rose, a lion rampant, the portcullis and greyhound which were symbols of the Beaufort family as well as the superbly carved crowns. The choir of the Chapel is less decorated with stone carvings.

When the Chapel was first planned it was almost certainly going to have a lierne vault. But, as work progressed, the fan vault was developed and the plan was changed. This caused a problem in that the windows had been completed in readiness for a lierne vault and the new ceiling was going to be a different shape. The compromise that was reached meant having an area of 'dead wall' above each window; not an entirely satisfactory solution. Despite all these anomalies the Chapel exhibits a power and unity which transcends any minor flaws.

But what's a lierne vault, John?

Well of course I can't show you what wasn't built, can I? Lets step outside and wander round to the West end of the building where there is a fine doorway flanked by roofed niches. Peer up into one of these tiny ceilings and you'll see something akin to a fan vault....

....but in the other is a lierne vault....

....you'll see it is a complex arrangement of straight lines rather than the radiating curves of the fan vault. I've no idea why these niches have these two different designs or indeed what possessed me to peer up into them to discover this oddity.

An old Romantic?

The great carved screen which divides the Chapel was a gift from Henry VIII and its rich carving deserves a long examination. But lets just point out this little detail, H & A, for Henry and Anne Boleyn.

Take care.

Friday 27 January 2012

King's College Chapel

If you saw the last post of the weird reflection encountered in King's Parade then you might have guessed that I was on my way to King's College Chapel. This was supposed to be an introduction to that building, and indeed it will have to serve as such, but through my over familiarity with my subject I now realise that I've omitted to take some of the more obvious shots! Anyway here's one obvious picture I did manage to take:

King's College Chapel
flanked by Clare College on the left
and the Gibbs Building, part of King's, on the right.

You enter through the north porch, which it must be admitted is rather like going into a house via the tradesman's entrance. This approach however has an interesting story, which is one of several "not a lot of people know that" disclosures which will be in my next post.

The North Porch

The Chapel was conceived by the founder of "The King's College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge", King Henry VI. It was supposed to be for 70 scholars drawn from poor backgrounds, but when he drew up instructions for a Great Court to be built he clearly wanted something which would exceed in grandeur every other college in Oxford or Cambridge. In the end of Henry's grand vision only the Chapel was built, and that was not completed in his lifetime.

The West window

One enters into a space of light and magnificence, especially when a bright day brings life to the great windows. 

The ceiling is a wonder of Tudor masonry, its huge fan-vaulted expanse being the largest that had ever been attempted at that time. The mathematical ingenuity and engineering expertise required to construct a ceiling at this height can not be over estimated.

And the huge weight of the ceiling appears to be supported by just windows and slender shafts.

The sun streams in through the stained glass and throws a rainbow of colours on to the stone pillars. Or else throws gentle light on to a small statue in a side chapel...

...although it's temping to always look up it's also worth casting an eye on to the stone steps worn by centuries of footfall...

The dark oak Screen, which houses the organ, divides the choir from the ante-chapel. The Screen was built during the reign of Henry VIII, who eventually saw the final work completed on the Chapel nearly a century after it was begun.

The ornate carving on the Screen is continued on the choir stalls....

...it is possible to attend choral evensong in the Chapel on almost any day during term time. The voices of the choristers soaring up to the vaulted ceiling is a truly moving sound.

Moving outside again, having seen not only what I've shown you but also what I've neglected to include (!), we can see the great buttresses which actually bear the weight of the ceiling rather than the narrow columns visible from inside the building.

Or you might just stare up and marvel at the sheer size and audacity of the construction. Is it a perfect building? Tune in to the next post!

Take care.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Mysterious Happening On King's Parade

Strolling along King's Parade in Cambridge
when I caught a glimpse,
a fleeting flash,
of a strange, alien street
oddly familiar.
I turned back and peered at
a window,
a reflection,
a dreamscape.

I don't know what's going on here and I can't work out how many images are
 superimposed on one another. What you see above is a straight photo with just a little sharpening and cropping. Just goes to show there's nothing as bizarre as reality.

Take care.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Geographical Studies

Back in the early seventies I was studying Geography at the University of London. There was much excitement at Easter as we had a field trip organised to Scotland. Images of self, striding across the rocks and heather, stopping only to partake in a wee dram in some Highland inn, all in the company of some of the more attractive female geography students. Sadly it didn't quite work out like that.

After travelling up by the overnight train from Euston, watching dawn break over the Southern Uplands from the train window, we met up with Ron Johnson, the lecturer who was in charge of the trip. "Tomorrow - urban survey. You'll be dropped off in pairs. You'll note down land use, date of buildings (estimated), any history you can discover. You'll be given a map. You'll fill it in. I'll meet up with you during the day. Any questions? No? Good."

Next morning was greyer, wetter and colder than anything ever experienced south of Hadrian's Wall. Phil and I sat at the back of the coach as each pair were turned out into the freezing Airdrie rain. We were the last pair to be evicted. We stood shivering beneath a bus shelter. The windows in the shelter were all broken allowing the wind and the rain to unleash its full fury on us. "We can do the survey from here," enthused Phillip, "Date of buildings - old. Land use - derelict. Interesting historical background - deserted by Picts in 8th century!"  Eventually we took the map out from the plastic bag, thoughtfully provided to keep our work dry, and wrote down a few sparse details, estimating the date of the pub opposite as about 1850 and noting down some of the shops we could see through the veil of rain without getting ourselves drowned. 

A terrible coughing sound came from the pub door and was closely followed by a grey-faced man unlocking the doors for the morning. "We could always..." I said to no one in particular: Phil was already half way across the road. We bought a pint each and sat at a corner table. Three men came inand stood at the bar. Number One: a huge, brawny man with a face like an over-mature Stilton cheese. Number Two: a tall, angular man with greasy hair and a scar. Number Three: a small man of advanced years with an even more experienced cloth cap. "Ye don't come from roond here" stated Cheesehead in a menacing tone. We explained we were from London. "Why would ye come here then?" asked Scarface. We tried to explain about the survey, field trip, geography, maps, that sort of thing. "Show me" demanded The Cap. So we did.

"Pub was built in 1847, not 1850" said The Cap as if he remembered it well. "Rest of this street is bookmaker's, tobacconist, pet shop, chip shop, grocer, pawnbrokers, then Mackay's car repairs. Used to be owned by his dad, Angus, mended bikes. And before that his father, also Angus, shoed horses." Scarface and Cheesehead also helped out filling in all the adjacent streets and after an hour, and a beer or two, our map was complete, with a fine collection of anecdotes about every boozer, bookie, barbershop and baccy-shop within a two mile radius. In fact Cheesehead had continued our map by drawing with spilled ale in the dust on the bar and he strategically placed beer mats, ashtrays and crisp-packets to represent pubs and other important buildings which our map could not accommodate.

We hurried back to the bus shelter to meet with Ron Johnson at the appointed time. Ron whistled, "My goodness, you've done brilliantly; everyone else is soaked to the skin and their maps are all sodden." "We used this" said Phil, brandishing a completely dry plastic bag. "We sprinted from one doorway to another" I added hopefully. "Lets convene to the pub" said Ron. It seemed a splendid idea till we realised that we were heading back to the bar we'd just left. 

Our new friends looked up as we entered. They'd never been to university, but I bet they'd bunked off school a time or two and with an instant grasp of the situation they turned back to their drinks without a word. Our mentor never said anything to suggest that he'd suspected anything amiss either. "It's supposed to brighten up this afternoon," he remarked, "if you'd like to explore the area further....." We remembered that a football match, Airdrieonians v. Berwick Rangers, had been mentioned in the course of our morning researches, the afternoon suddenly looked a little more promising.

In a tutorial a year later, when another student was discussing some of the difficulties of doing surveys, Ron turned towards me and winked, "More than one way of doing surveys though, isn't there, John." 

Take care.   

Saturday 21 January 2012

Things To Do On A Rainy Day

A day spent indoors yesterday. Cups of tea; listened to plenty of music; watched a few birds on the feeders; a bit of dusting; cooked a curry; read some interesting blogs; solved a Sudoku or two; and fiddled around with some photos while being thoroughly disgusted with myself for not going outside in spite of the weather....

....still trying to figure out how to use that setting known as "polar co-ordinates". This started off as a photo of the gate of King's  College. I also found a nice shot of the Chapel. One day, hopefully quite soon, I'll take you inside King's College Chapel. Many of you will have been there but I think I can show you some things you might have missed.

I'm always attracted to the odd and the untidy places in the world. A house I photographed back in the summer fitted both categories. How about this for an outside feature....

...and meanwhile in an auction house I came across this bizarre furniture arrangement...

...makes you wonder why more people don't have a rocking chair on top of their sideboard. Is that Colonel Custer? I also tried to get something different out of some rather straightforward shots of autumn foliage....

...but never found enough variety to make a series of pictures. And while snapping away in Mill Road, Cambridge I wandered into the cemetery, an evocative old place with a kind of Gothic-Victorian atmosphere - sort of Burke-and-Hare-meet-Hound-of-the-Baskervilles...

...and then another cup of tea; a tune on the squeezebox; cheese on toast; a little Mozart and an hour of Charles Mingus; a glass of port; and so to bed.

Take care.

Thursday 19 January 2012

A Riverside Ramble

I recently mentioned that some former agricultural land beside the River Cam is being returned to a wetland nature reserve. The land will be allowed to flood during the winter months and should provide a feeding ground for many species of birds. The land is already taking on a more natural appearance but with the naked eye I wasn't able to see if any birds were present last week. So I returned yesterday armed with binoculars....

Flooded fields on the far side
of the river

...well, not much to see even with the extra magnification! Several Rooks, some Wood Pigeons and a Pheasant. But the natural river terrace where I was standing will make a splendid viewpoint  when more birds find their way here. Two Snipe flew in while I was watching.

The land set aside for the wetland amounts to around 70 acres (31 hectares). Historically it used to be grazing land but has grown crops for many years, though it flooded every five years or so and crops were lost. I remember one winter in the late 1960s when the water was deep enough to take our punt right across these fields.

I walked along the river bank. Moorhens, Mallards and Little Grebes were all present on the water. The late afternoon sun broke through and made the male Mallards look magnificent as the light caught their iridescent plumage.

A little further along a line of willow trees on the far bank sparked some memories and made me feel very ancient indeed! You see, I remember how these trees came into being. The story I heard was that one of the tractor drivers on the farm had not seen the edge of the river here and had ended up in the water. Shortly afterwards a line of stakes were driven in along the bank. Whether it was the intention that these would sprout leaves and grow into trees I don't know, but that is exactly what happened.

On past deep corners which were favoured by fishermen and where we once moored a punt for an afternoon and drank rather too much red wine while Andy played his guitar and I fooled around trying to play blues harmonica. Where long philosophical conversations, about subjects we didn't fully understand, rambled on long into the twilight.

That was all in summertime of course. Now the wind was getting colder as the sun declined to the south-west and I made my way, wrapped up in warm reminiscences, to the city of Cambridge.

Take care.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Frosty And Fine








Take care.