The First Mainland Air Raid on Britain in World War 2



Indifferent to the grey sky and mizzle, our son scampered on the wet sand. The only family on Portobello beach with the only sandcastle. In front, the River Forth, behind, just yards from the beach, the solid sturdy stone of Towerbank Primary school. Memories of 1960s school days and that feeling of sand in my shoes occupied my thoughts. More than 20 years before me, another Towerbank pupil played here.

Nine year old Richard builds sandcastles with his younger brother on Portobello beach: close by eight year old Cameron plays with his friends in the field behind his house overlooking the Firth of Forth; Margaret, a newly qualified primary teacher walks along Portobello high street; A few hundred yards away Joe and his mate Frank are painting a house in Abercorn Terrace. They are all enjoying an Indian summer in October. Fourteen year old David is staring through the sunroof of his father’s Austin 10 as they travel back to Edinburgh from Dunbar; meanwhile two boys, Frank and Edward have just boarded the 2.30 p.m. Edinburgh to Dundee train which will shortly cross the the Forth Bridge. Portobello is seconds away from taking an unexpected theatre seat in a display of gladiatorial fighting to the death. The stage will be the sky.


It’s the16th October 1939 and the phoney war had come to an end. Group Commander Helmut Pohle has left Westerland on the German island of Sylt, off the Danish coast. He is leading his 12 Junkers 88s to Rosyth Naval Yard using the unmistakable Forth Rail Bridge as a guide. They are hunting the British battle cruiser HMS Hood. German Intelligence- reported earlier by two reconnaissance Heinkels- has, however, mistaken HMS Resolve for the Hood. Reich Marshal Goering had summoned Pohle to Berlin to relay Hitler’s orders that the Hood must be attacked in open water to avoid civilian casualties. This short lived restriction was not a sign of the Fuhrer’s humanity: he still believed he could come to an agreement with the British people. Among the hand picked pilots Lieutenant Sigmund Storp, aged 25, was a veteran of the Condor Legion, whose Stukas caused such terror during the Spanish Civil War. So far they have been lucky. At 12.25 p.m. a power cut had disabled Drone Hill Radar station so there is no air raid warning and they had been assured by intelligence that were no Spitfires based in Scotland. The first confict with Germany in British airspace of World War Two is about to begin.
Their luck is about to vaporise; HMS Repulse is docked so, mindful of Hitler’s orders, they attack the light cruisers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton together with the destroyer HMS Mohawk. At 400 miles per hour, the stress of the 17 ton dive on the ju88 causes Pohle’s cockpit canopy to fly off. At 2.35pm he releases their 500kg bombs on HMS Edinburgh, then circles above to observe the second wave of bombers. At 2.38pm Storp’s plane drops a bomb which hits the Southampton but travels through the decks of the ship and exits sinking the admiral’s barge and a pinnace lying alongside.


The Galasheils Observers Corp. have triggered the scrambling of the 603 (City of Edinburgh)from Turnhouse and the 602 (City of Glasgow) squadron based at nearby Drem. The elite Luftwaffe are about to be met by the “weekend flyers”, the auxilliaries, in particular a farmer, a solicitor and a plasterer. As Storp pulls the plane up the spitfires arrive. The first burst of fire knocks out his left engine and kills the rear gunner. Three spitfires including Patrick Giffords, a flamboyant 29 year old solicitor chase and pepper the plane as it heads east with only a brief respite as they pass over Edinburgh’s city centre. Finally the elevators are hit and moments later at 2.45 p.m. Storps plane hits the water. It becomes the first German aircraft to be shot down over Britain in this war. Seconds before he had managed to eject and release himself from the seat, and now surfaces above the water. Two other crew have also survived, before the plane with Obergefrieter Kramer sinks.
Pohle’s Ju88 is also in trouble. A burst from a Spitfire’s Browning machine guns hits the cockpit wounding radio operator August Schlicher and the rear gunner. He desperately heads for the open sea where a disguised waiting German trawler is waiting and could rescue them. There is no escape – George Pinkerton spots the plane emerging from the cloud and attacks. Flight Lieutenant Pinkerton, a quiet fruit farmer is joined by 27 year old plasterer’s assistant Archie McKellar, in the chase along the Fife coast. The second engine is hit and Pohle ditches the plane into the sea off the village of Crail and hits his face off the contol panel. It’s 2.55pm.
He thought he had downed the first aircraft of the war. In fact ten minutes earlier Patrick Gifford had shot down Sigmund Storp’s plane four miles north of Port Seton; three of the four crew had managed to bail out and were rescued by a fishing boat. A newsreel shows the fishing yawl, Dayspring arriving with the three airmen who were rescued. Storp, Rohnke, and Heilscherwere picked up by the captain John Dickson and his crew. The fisherman addresses the camera and tells how Storp gave his Luftwaffe gold ring to him as a souvenir for saving his life.
Although the first waves have been scattered by the spitfires, the fourth wave of three bombers attacked the Southhampton and the escort Mohawk as they move upstream. Twelve of the HMS Mohawk’s crew were killed; the wounded Commander Jolly refused to leave the bridge, until the ship was back in port . He was taken to hospital but died the same day.
Overall the Royal Navy suffered 16 killed and a further 44 wounded.
Two boys Edward Thomson and Jack Thomas are enjoying the view of the fleet from their train which is crossing the Forth bridge. Suddenly they see a waterspout as high as the bridge and the admiral’s barge alongside it rise into the air. Edward Thompson’s later account seems without fear. Not so others who assumed the bridge was the target. The train came to a halt while the bridge’s painters ran for shelter. The train then continued unharmed. In Portobello they are unaware of the air raid as no sirens have sounded. The German planes are desperately trying to escape. Marjory Morton Shaw, a primary teacher is walking along the High Street:
Suddenly I was overtaken by the war in full blast in the form of a ground hugging bomber heading for Rosyth and hotly pursued by a couple of Spitfires each with eight machine guns blazing and showering brass cartridges over Portobello High Street and the power station a quarter of a mile further on. It all happened very suddenly of course. First from the East a rising crescendo of aircraft noise and gunfire then the sight of a bomber so close that I could clearly see the face of one of the German airmen in it! A Luftwaffe communique stated the following day “ Our bombers were flying low enough to see Scottish peasants waving to us!” Perhaps that was me! I was stunned!
On the beach, Richard hears the drone of the Junker followed by the roar of the Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin engines:

We watched this burning plane coming towards us. It looked like a dragon. I could see the German pilots inside, it was so close. Then, suddenly, the sand was flying around us like little golden jewels, and we realised there was a Spitfire behind the plane, shooting it down. If we’d been hit that would have been it.

They collected up the still hot metal shrapnel before returning home with his brother to receive a “walloping” from his horrified mother.
Richard seems to have been more terrified and bewildered by his mother’s reception than the combined fire of a Spitfire and a Junkers 88s.
In Abercorn Terrace Joe McLuskie, a painter and decorator, is up a ladder supported by his mate Frank Flynn. Seconds after hearing the bomber and spitfires he is hit in his stomach and rushed to Leith hospital for emergency surgery. It was assumed that the bomber shot him in fact the bullet that was from the pursuing Spitfires.
Confusion over the events continues to this day. Many still believe this was an attack on the Forth Bridge. It was not. The target was the Hood . Civilians caught up below a dogfight thought they were being attacked, in fact the bullets that hit Joe Mcluskie were from a Spitfire. Some sources claim he was the first civilian to be killed in a raid. First casualty perhaps, but he did survive and received compensation payments while in hospital. Many witnesses and reporters thought the attacking planes were Heinkels and reports of the number of planes varied. How many were shot down? The day after the raid Hansard records that in response to a parliamentary question by Clement Attlee, Neville Chamberlain replied, “Four enemy bombers were brought down, of which one was shot down by gun fire.” The same day New York Times reported that the British claimed four and the Germans two. The Germans were correct but wrong in claiming two Spitfires. Some anti-aircraft gunners still believe they hit one of the planes. Arguments as to which pilot shot down the first enemy aircraft into British waters in World War Two took years to resolve.
Two bodies were recovered. The Daily Record reported in 2009 that Under Officer Kurt Seydel, and his Observer August Schleicher were 19 and 17-year-old respectively.In fact they were not teenagers. Kurt Seydel,was born in the city of Leverkusen on the 27th of September 1913 and August Schleicher was born in the village of Abtsroda on 28th April 1917.


There followed an extraordinary response from Edinburgh’s women. Perhaps mindful of the shocking WW1 losses together with their own sons’ recent enlistment, they empathised with the mothers of the German airmen. These were the first enemy airmen to be shot down and the Edinburgh public, particularly the mothers applied pressure for the men to be given a full military funeral with their coffins draped with swastikas


Four days later ten thousand lined the route to Portobello’s St. Philip’s Church. Pipers from the squadrons that had downed them played Over The Sea To Skye. Their coffins draped in the swastika were even allowed in the church itself. Two wreaths were laid. One message read: “To two brave airmen from the mother of an airman”, and “With the deep sympathy of Scottish mothers”


The squadrons Padre officiated. A few days earlier he had fired an anti aircraft gun at the Junkers. He admitted later that he had secretly written to the mothers in Germany in an attempt to comfort them.

portobello nazi burial2

And what of the little boy playing on the beach? Surviving the Junkers, Spitfires, and his mother’s wrath, Professor Richard Demarco O.B.E., C.B.E., now 82, became an artist and theatre director. He co-founded the Traverse Theatre,and ran the Demarco Gallery. He is still a leading figure of the Edinburgh Festival and became Scotland’s most influential figure in contemporary art.
George Pinkerton survived the war, rising to the rank of Group Captain, returning to his farm in Renfrewshire. He died in 1993. Pinkerton and Gifford visited Storp and Helmut Pohle in Edinburgh Castle’s hospital, later sending him sweets and cigarettes. The two farmers, Pinkerton and Pohle kept in contact with each other after the war.
In September 1940 Helmut Pohle was sent to the officers’ POW camp in the Lake District’s Grizedale Hall where he helped other POWs to organise a tunnel escape.
Storp became friends with the fishing family that saved him and maintained contact post war.
All four ships met their nemesis between 1941 and 1942: the Mohawk was torpedoed by an Italian destroyer off Tunisia without loss; the battle cruiser Repulse was torpedoed by Japanese planes off the coast of Malaya losing 508 men; the Southampton was sunk by stukas off Malta with 81 men lost and the Edinburgh was torpedoed on the 28 April 1942 while escorting a Russian convoy with the loss of 58 men.
The first pilot to shoot down a German plane in World War Two was Patrick Gifford who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and left 603 to lead a Squadron in November 1939 in France. Six days later, he was killed. His body was never recovered.
Archie McKellar of 602 Sqn was shot down over Kent in 1940.

Twinset and Pearls


Less than ten minutes walk from Princes Street an elegant  Georgian terrace stands in Edinburgh’s  New Town.

As a schoolboy in 1970 I worked part time in Thornton’s  Sports shop in the centre’s Hanover Street.  In addition to pay, the owner would give us a luncheon voucher for each full day we worked. One day I settled on spending it in the nearby bar in Rose Street called the “White Cockade”, now the site of the Rose Street Brewery.

Although busy the restaurant upstairs served good food at a reasonable price. By the time I had finished my meal a very long queue of waiting diners extended along the wall of the congested dining room. Spotting a prim old lady complete with fur coat, twin set and pearls,and leaning on an elegant stick, I rose, approached her, and gestured towards my seat. She gave me a delightful smile and thanked me in what I thought was a posh English accent. Then, to my astonishment, she raised her stick and with a flourish pushed it against three young women behind her.  With a motherly firmness she said, “Girls, let the young gentleman past.” A number of customers raised their heads and as I squeezed past the girls, each in turn smiled at me in a benign sort of way. I reached the till and handed over my luncheon voucher. The middle aged waitress took the slip of paper and said with a straight face “Aye . . . ye’ll be getting  a discoont next time you go roond.” What was she on about?

I returned to Gordon Thorntons and, still bemused I told the other shop assistants about this . Within minutes my tale had spread; everyone was laughing and teasing me with comments such as, “Its amazing what you can pack into a lunch hour. Three was it? ” Later in the afternoon they put me out my misery: I discovered that I had encountered one of Edinburgh’s most famous citizens. Some might say that I should call Dora Noyce “infamous”, but 35 years after her death she is still remembered with something approaching affection by the Edinburgh public.

Dora Noyce was Scotland’s best-known madam, running a brothel in the heart of Edinburgh’s  New Town  at  17 Danube Street, Stockbridge. Much has been written about Dora both in newspapers and on the internet; to this day you can hear her quotes repeated in Edinburgh bars.

Born in the same road as our encounter, Rose Street (a much sleazier area in 1900), her real name was Georgie Hunter Rae, the daughter of a cutler.  She grew up here and somehow managed to develop a refined Morningside accent. Georgie or Dora began working as a prostitute but soon used her intelligence, her fledgling management skills and her charm to open a very profitable brothel (she did not like the latter word and preferred to describe her establishment as  a “YMCA with extras” or a “house of leisure and pleasure”.  She opened the establishment in 1946 and although she was charged 47 times for living on immoral earnings, it was not until 1972 that she was given a four-month sentence at the age of 71. Once released, she carried on as normal, running the establishment until her death in 1977, aged 76. Concerning the custodial sentence, Dora a firm believer in private enterprise and Conservative Party values, told the press, “Really, that was very stupid of the court. I was just a burden on the ratepayers and, goodness knows, they have enough to put up with already.”  How did she manage to stay in business for almost 30 years in the same residence?  There are probably a number of reasons. She was on extremely good terms with the police and would greet them with, “How nice to see you! Business or pleasure?” and was thought to provide them with useful information about Edinburgh’s underworld.  Always the self-publicist, she was a favourite with reporters; in Deacon Brodie’s pub on the Royal Mile she provided them wonderful copy with her witty remarks, adding at the end of the performance, “Just make sure you get the name and address right!”. If the address was an open secret, the names of her customers were not; she expected her “girls” to be discreet. Her clientele consisted of all social classes and professions. Her fifteen permanent employees worked from the basement while Edinburgh’s establishment and other special guests were entertained upstairs and would be greeted with glasses of wine and some choice nibbles . She shopped for these refreshments locally, addressing shopkeepers with the line, “I do like to support local businesses. Don’t you?”

In a recent blog campaigning  for the erection of more statues of famous Edinburgh women it was  claimed that the present ratio was 200 men to just two women. One reply to the site quipped that, “Dora Noyce is worthy of a statue – perhaps in recognition of her devoted service to the politicians, church elders and lawmakers of the day . . . ” I suspect Dora would have liked that. My favourite, and her most outrageous claim, that: “she claimed that while her busiest time was during the Edinburgh Festival, the two weeks of the Church of Scotland General Assembly ranked a close second.” On these occasions she would employ another 25 girls.

Perhaps her success and fame became too much for the law to ignore. There are many accounts of the day that the US aircraft carrier John F Kennedy docked at Leith, when queues of sailors snaked along Danube Street’s pavements and around the corner. The commander is said to have stepped in and declared the house off limits saving Edinburgh’s blushes but not before a reported £4000 had been taken.

In 1977 She defended her profession in the Scotsman by saying that she “offered a necessary social service.”

Her local MP got her support whether he liked it or not and to his horror she turned up at Conservative Party garden fetes and displayed in the window of number 17 a poster with the slogan: ”Life is better under the Conservatives.”

Today in contrast to Glasgow, the Edinburgh City Council tolerates the sex industry in the guise of 15 licensed “saunas”. The advocates of this liberal policy claim that it keeps women off the streets and provides a safer regulated environment. However, objections to the renewal of the licences have been lodged recently, making closures a real possibility.  The objections have been met with statements from local politicians with incredulous though legally and politically astute statements that range from complete denial of the sauna’s actual activities to those citing a lack of evidence.

Dora Noyce would not know what a spin doctor was, but she would have been in her element.

Flotteurs of the Yonne


A ripple seizes my attention. A V-shaped mass of vegetation is moving at a steady rate against the flow of water. As it nears, a small mouth and face are revealed. The water vole takes a left turn, dipping below the canal bank timber to reach riparian safety.  I wait expectantly but my privileged glimpse is over.  I must move on to complete a 70 kilometre section of the Nivernais Canal from Auxerre to Clamecy.

Paris’s booming 16th century population demanded firewood, their own surrounding timber supplies having been exhausted. The forests of Morvan had an abundance of oak, beech, hornbeam, and elm but transport by ox and cart was too slow and expensive. In the river port of Clamecy a statue of Parisian trader Jean Rouvet commemorates his system of “flottage”  that made it possible to float huge rafts of wood to Paris. This was achieved by regulating the Yonne river using weirs, reservoirs, artificial flooding and the pertuis (the pertuis being a mini dam in which wooden slats could be inserted to raise the water level on a weir).  In fact, the man who organised the first successful raft to reach Paris from Châtel-Censoir was Charles Leconte, two years before Rouvet, in 1547. For 300 years Burgundy would supply the majority of the capital’s firewood and provide thousands of Burgundian families with work. Building the 180 kilometre canal began in 1784 and it opened in 1843.

It’s six am on a promising July morning. Humans and boats are slumbering; the silence on the canal heightens awareness allowing the detection of the smallest ripple on the water or the slightest flutter of wings.

River and canal conduct a seamless dance, deftly changing positions; the natural and the unnatural may be a few metres apart, moving as one or swinging away from each other, their steps gently oscillating across the landscape. Boulevards of water, lined with trees, shade the ghosts of bargemen in their labours while two huge weeping willows cascade their branches into the canal, creating a mirror image on the still water.

 Above the door of the lock-keeper’s cottage the raised letters of the cast iron plate are large enough for canal users to read both the lock number and location.  I take only cursory notice of the next cottage.  However by the third lock I begin to realise that they are not identical – each occupier has stamped their mark on their small dwelling: freshly painted red, yellow and sky blue nameplates, a flaking navy plate and a neglected ferrous rusted plate, a window box of crimson and white primulas amongst variegated ivy, a prim flower garden, a compact vegetable plot with cauliflowers and runner beans standing in military rows, a stack of logs, children’s toys and the surreal sight of a garden gnome in charge of  farm animal figurines lining the canal bank. 

Earlier I had begun to build up a mental identikit of a typical lock-keeper.  Bearded and smoking a briar, he would have a bargeman’s cap or even a beret and some very practical grease marked trousers. Perhaps a pair of folded down rubber boots. Now I wasn’t so sure.Two locks on I finally spot a boat waiting. In the distance a figure emerges. As I approach, I see the lock-keeper is winding the lock handle. Surely not!  An attractive blonde in her twenties dressed in a low cut blouse and shorts is operating the lock. Nonplussed, and chiding myself for stereotyping, I quickly pass by.

During the winter months the loggers of the Morvan felled trees and stored them. On the first of November the previous year’s logs were auctioned ; a unique stamp of the appropriate broker was hammered into both ends of each log, then stacked on the banks of the Yonne or one of the tributaries feeding it.

As the sun rose, iridescent dragonflies hovered and darted displaying their metallic bodywork. A Small Pincertail, Onychogomphus forcipatus  rested on the path allowing solar energy to warm its ectothermic body. I pause to admire its black veined gossamer wings, the thorax and abdomen’s diagonal patterns of yellow and black and its large green eyes. 

I rounded a bend into a maelstrom of small blue-black birds with white undercarriages: house martins displaying their aerial acrobatics with their short pointed wings and forked tails. Here is an instance where a mass killing can be described as beautiful, as we marvel at the swoops and dives, but for the insect world this is terror from the skies. Perhaps they will be returning to those nests I spied the previous day in Chatel-Censoir. Underneath the eaves they cluster, like a village of upturned mud huts, tiny black white faces wearing black caps peered down at me. Gardyloo, I jumped out of the way of the droppings. I indulge myself in a little anthropomorphism and hope they do not catch my basking dragonfly.

In mid-July stacked and marked logs were thrown into the water to await the “the small stream”- a flow created by releasing water that had been held back behind the logs. On arrival at each pool on the banks of the Yonne a quota would then be “pulled” on to the bank, moved by wheelbarrow and stacked. Later these would be released back into the 22 pools to await the “great flood”.

A bell tolls. The extent of the sound waves represented a village’s aural domain; once you heard another bell you were in a different community. Graham Robb in his book The Discovery of France writes that “the number of bells and the size of the bell tower often give a fairly accurate measure of population density.” Today the churches seem disproportionate to the village size. The effects of almost a century of decline  is evident: empty streets, a couple of basic shops,  cracked wooden doors and shutters that have been deprived of varnish, partially plastered walls and commuters who work in Auxerre.


Spring water from the melted snow fed into the Yonne and was held back creating reservoirs. The first Grand Flot took place on a specified day in March. Men, women and children of Clamecy, employing hooked and spiked poles pulled 700,000 cubic metres of timber from the water and stacked them according to their markings. Having left home in the darkness, women and children would then stack the logs until darkness fell. Being crushed or suffering hypothermia were constant risks.

A field of sunflowers- thousands of hippies packed together, facing east, listening to an invisible concert.  Beside these spectacular American cultivars, on this side of the fence, a mosaic of colours: forked purple thistles, clusters of grape-blue Willow Gentian, golden marigolds, azurean wild asters and . . . I wish I had brought a field guide.





An infrequent boat, sporting a Swiss flag, throbs its way under the bridge. The proud owner gives me a magisterial wave.  A grey heron opens its wings and ascends in pursuit of quieter fishing.

Entering Clamecy, I spot two small boats, one red and one blue, remnants of the 14th of July celebrations. The 300-year-old water jousting tournament takes place here. Eachteam’s jouster is mounted on the front deck, the boat being manoeuvred by two rowers and a coxswain. Armed with a cushion- tipped pole the jouster tries to knock his opponent into the water. The winner, known as King Dry or King Sec, becomes a spokesperson for the workers for one year- an interesting way of choosing a trade union leader.

Late summer marks the period of raft building. It takes six skilled men a week to build one raft 75 metres long (the length of five city buses) holding 200 cubic metres of wood.  Once launched, a man at the front and a boy at the rear guided the raft. On reaching Auxerre the young flotteur would walk back to Clamecy. The elder completed the two-week, 150 mile journey to Paris, then walked home. Parisians eyed them with suspicion: wild in straw hats and wolfskin coats, speaking in a distinctive dialect.  Black Burgundian hoods identified the accompanying women seeking temporary employment as wet nurses.

In 1843 the Nivernais Canal linked the Loire valley to the Yonne and the Seine. Barges could now carry wood, stone, cereals, wine and ominously . . . coal from Decize to Paris. Coal and trains supplanted wood and barges; the last raft left in 1923 and the last commercial barge in the 1970s. National and regional governments saw tourism as a way of resuscitating the area and began renovating the canal for pleasure boats, laying down a cycle path and protecting the habitat.

By the beginning of the last century it was clear that the victor was not King Sec but King Coal. Today the Yonne and the Nivernais support a cornucopia of flora and fauna including over 180 bird species. Welcome the new king, he who is carved into the vaulting, tracery and corbels of Autun’s Cathedral, Vezelay’s Basilica and many of Burgundy’s churches . . . The Green Man.



Hotel Dieu part1


The  Hôtel-Dieu  Part 1

Perhaps I had made a mistake in settling on Beaune rather than Autun: there was only time to visit one town and Beaune fitted my rail itinerary. Once inside the town walls, the medieval streets were choked with tourists. What a contrast from the previous five days of walking along the Nivernais Canal, visiting  small villages, which I suspected were under a twenty four hour curfew together with a past visit from an aggrieved pied piper.  Locating a shop for basics had been exasperating and a cafe as easy as finding a vineyard in Belfast.

In Beaune they know how to mine the rich seam of tourists and have honed their entrepreneurial skills to chip away at wallets. The town is dominated by vinification; wine shops, museums, tastings, bottling and cellars where visitors emerge into the light clutching cases of liquid gold.  A glass of wine to accompany lunch may cost the equivalent of a main course.

The next morning however, my disappointment turned to delight, when I discovered the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospice . . . a palace for the poor. This unique institution has been funded since the 15th Century by the practice of philanthropy through wine. By the end of the morning a story was unfolding which made me glad I had come to Beaune. The story  isnot only one of philantrophy but also of political corruption, religious dogma and medical professionalism.

The plain exterior of this rectangular complex gives little indication of the treasures it holds within.

The polychromal roofing  is stunning.  But all is not what it seems. The guide book informs us that “the polychromal roofs and colours were the result of a strictly personal interpretation” by the restoration architect in 1901. In fact the original roofs were slate.

In 1435 the Treaty of Arras was signed, ending the spat between the Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Good and Charles VII, King of France. Philip held Charles personally responsible for assassinating his father, John the Fearless. His response was to form an alliance with the English.

However, the Duke now recognised Charles VII as King of France and abandoned the English, while Charles recognised Burgundy as an independent state, apologised for the murder and handed over several border towns to Burgundy. Burgundy was bigger than today, taking in present day Belgium and parts of Holland. The Hundred Years War was drawing to a conclusion and by 1453 the English would be driven back to Calais. For Burgundy the expected peace and prosperity did not follow: hoards of their disbanded army roamed the countryside terrorising, looting and committing atrocities. The disruption to agriculture was aggravated by poor harvests. To add to the famine, the plague returned. All four riders of the Apocalypse had arrived.

Enter Nicolas Rolin (1376–1462), Duke Philip the Good’s chancellor. A brilliant diplomat and architect of the Treaty of Arras, Nicolas had practised as a lawyer in the Paris parliament, spent 20 years as legal advisor to the Duke of Bugundy and 40 as chancellor. By 1422 this made him the second most powerful man in the Burgundy. A power of which he took full advantage. Imagine Prime Minister, Chancellor and Foreign Minister, all rolled into one.

The Duke’sown administration time seems to have been limited due to his other commitments including patron of the arts, leader in fashion, running a lavish court, and 24 mistresses, fathering 18 illegitimate children

Rolin’s first marriage had been a package deal in which he, his widowed mother and his brother took part in a triple marriage. Widowed, remarried and widowed again, each marriage presented new opportunities  for Rolin to gain more money, power and influence. In 1424 he married Guigone de Salins. Rolin’s intelligence, ambition, industry and eventually power were not enough. This was not a meritocracy: he was not born a noble and that would dog him throughout his career. In this rigid class system the Chancellor amassed wealth, lived like a noble but could not buy noble blood. That Rolin was the only non-noble at the Duke’s top table made him the target of bitter jealousy.  George Chastelain, a comparatively poor noble and official court chronicler, took every opportunity to slight Rolin including “He always harvested on earth as though earth was to be his abode forever.”  I’m drawn to Guigone de Salin’s portrait, pious, perhaps but to me she looks intimidating. For Rolin however she was the perfect match, a noble with lucrative salt mines included in the dowry.  Aged 21, she was 27 years younger than him. Together with Guigone they decide to use his vast wealth to build a hospice in either Autun, his birthplace or Beaune.  The astute Rolin decided on Beaune for its concentration of wealthy potential benefactors, fortifications and the site of the Burgundian parliament. As chancellor he arranged future tax breaks for the venture.There is no doubt that the population of Beaune had huge problems: contemporary surveys show a 20% drop in the population and that 90% of the area’s households were in dire poverty. Rolin employed master craftsmen using the finest of materials. Eight years later in 1452 he introduced six Flemish nuns and their first patients.

Discovering the mistreatment of the staff by the Mother Superior, Rolin’s audacious response revolutionised the administration of hospitals and the role of nurses, serving as a model which spread through France and beyond. Rolin managed to persuade the Pope to grant him a range of privileges permanently exempting the Hôtel-Dieu from the control of bishops. Known as the “rule”, patient care was now to be carried out by lay-women who were accountable to Rolin and were prohibited from taking holy orders or to marry whilst employed by him.  The pharmacy was taken over by the lay-women and they took an oath to uphold the “Beaune Rule”.

Their esteem grew, and so did the demand for their services throughout France. The “Beaune Rule” travelled with them. Following Rolin’s death in 1462  there were numerous attempts, including one from Rolin’s own son Cardinal Jean Rolin, bishop of Autun, to reverse the rule. First the formidable Guigone de Salins and later the lay-women themselves rallied and defeated all attempts to return them to holy orders.

Hospices were originally intended t provide travellers to receive hospitality rather than medical care. Here there was medical care, but spiritual care was considered more important.

We may find it disturbing that medical attention was secondary to that of preparing the patients for the hereafter, but consider what was on offer from physicians. Galen’s theory that disease was caused by an imbalance of humours prevailed. When asked by  Pope Clement VI to explain the cause of  plague, the medical faculty of the University of Paris, blamed it on the alignment of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in the constellation of Aquarius which had occurred on  20th of March 1345. This distant phenomenon caused a” deadly corruption of the air”, causing an imbalance of the humours,   Programmes of treatment including phlebotomy -bloodletting- would take account of the stars. There were rules as to the areas that could be bled e.g. Aries –“Avoid incisions in the head and face and cut no vein in the head”; better to be a Scorpio, “Avoid cutting the testicles and anus.” Emetics and enemas worthy of the witche’s scene in Macbeth were also administered. The less invasive measures of John of Burgundy to combat plague included avoiding fruit, vinegar and over-indulgence in food. The eminent surgeon and physician Guy de Chauliac believed the plague could be contracted simply by looking at  a sufferer. The medieval Catholic Church was suspicious that this nonsense was a bit too close to paganism and witchcraft. This threatened their own demands for the suspension of logic. Physician’s measures were largely ineffective and, worse, likely to cause harm. Improved chances of survival were more likely due to better nutrition, warmth, sanitary conditions and rest brought about by the work of the lay-women.

A glass panel on the floor reveals the flowing water of the river Bouzaise that was diverted to carry away the hospice waste.

The well was from a protected source and its use was restricted to the hospice.

Why then was there so much emphasis on spiritual help?

Baptism wiped the slate clean as far as Original Sin was concerned, but  those committed during one’s  lifetime had to be dealt with before departure; otherwise they had to be sorted out in an unpleasant way in purgatory before entering Heaven. This did not apply to mortal sins . . . you were going to Hell if you did not confess and recieve absolution. Works of charity such as founding a hospital could speed up the passage through a temporary stage called Purgatory. This was a place of purification beforejoining God and the saints. This offshore penance avoidance scheme involved persuading grateful patients to intercede on behalf of their patron in the form of prayers. Hospitals were expected to care for your soul as much as your health. Illness was often seen as a punishment for sins committed. It was not uncommon for benefactor’s paintings or plaques to be prominently displayed in the hospital, to encourage patients to show their gratitude by praying for their souls to speed its way through purgatory.

Most considered that those people who suffered on Earth with diseases such as leprosy were going through a living purgatory:  suffering in this life because of their sins. Logic would suggest that by serving their time on earth it would fastrack them through purgatory, reaching heaven ahead of their benefactor: if they were grateful to their benefactor they could put in a good word.

What sins might have been troubling Nicholas Rolin?  The official guide book declines to speculate . . .  self-glorification, egotism, an attempt to influence his afterlife, to move to the right hand side of Christ(see “The Last Judgement”) have all been ascribed as motives.

To have created a palace for the poor, he must thought he had huge sins to cleanse. There was cynicism as to his motives for his grand project and suspicion as to how  he had amassed so much money. When Louis XI heard about the scheme he said “It is only right that Rolin after having created so many poor people during his lifetime, prepare for them an asylum before dying”. Rolin had made many enemies. Nobles resented this bourgeois upstart and there were whisperings of misappropriation of funds. Not the Duke: Rolin is said to have presented Phillip the Good with a list of presents he had received, offering to pay them back. The Duke refused and quipped that there was still some room on the piece of paper for more.  While in the Duke of Burgundy’s service, during his skilful drafting of the treaty of Arras, Rolin accepted a bribe from Charles VII equivalent to todays £4.8 million. When the Burgundy army captured Joan of Arc, Charles would not buy his own saviour, but the English paid an outrageous £10,000. It is likely that part of this reached the Chancellor’s pocket.

 An upper class medieval male who survived childhood had an average life expectancy of around 49.  Nicholas was 66 when building began and 74 on its completion. He stipulated that the building should be completed in five years. It took eight and he immediately opened it. Under the influence of the pious Guigone, he must have been impatient to atone for his sins. Rolin applied the same determination and administrative genius to smoothing his way through Purgatory.

Rolin persuaded the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Good to allow and encourage bequests of their property to the Hôtel-Dieu, the first of which was an eight acre vineyard. Today the institution has 148 acres of high quality vines. The famous wine auctions started in 1794 and continue to this day. In 2009 this one auction raised over eight million dollars for the modernization of hospital equipment and buildings. The Hôtel-Dieu building itself continued to dispense medical care until 1971.



Yet another coach rolled up, full of schoolchildren shepherded by their history teachers. Langemark German cemetery is much visited and is on the standard Ieper bus tours. The students are respectful and well
behaved, but I would have preferred a quieter time to visit one of the most
poignant First World War sites in Flanders. Fifteen minutes later they depart to continue their whistle-stop tour of the Salient.

My thoughts return to a July morning two years earlier on the other side of the Franco-Belgian border. I’ve lost count of the number of world war sites, including cemeteries that I have visited on my walks– but this one was different.

That morning I set out from Albert at seven o’clock and started a circuitous walk along the beautiful country lanes towards Poziers. En route I reached the small village of Fricourt. Judging by their modern spacious houses and pretty gardens, the five hundred residents are prosperous. But I was passing through Fricourt to visit some of the other residents with a population thirty four- times larger. Just before the road sign indicating that you are leaving Fricourt, there is a steep grassy bank on the right hand side of the Poziers road. On top of the high bank is a continuous dense
hedge and a screen of trees. Inside the perimeter other trees are spaced out, but it is not an orchard; it conceals a German military cemetery – but seems more like a fortification discouraging entry.

This is a far cry from the light-reflecting citadels of the British fallen –their rows of Portland white stone gleam and sparkle and can be seen for miles in the distance.

Climbing the steps that bisect the steep bank and hedge, I enter a different world. Passing through the wrought-iron gate, I see the plain metal box set into the stone wall containing the cemetery register.

In 1920 the French authorities began the grim
task of collecting the remains of German soldiers from the twenty nine
locations north of the Somme River. Nine years later, the German War Graves Commission started landscaping the cemetery. Work was stopped in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. Not until 1966 were the Germans allowed to return to France to finish the building and landscaping. Unlike in other countries, maintenance of the German war graves is undertaken by a charity, with much of the work done by German youth volunteer groups.

At the top of the steps, a sea of black metal Germanic crosses appears beneath the trees. Among the black crosses are fourteen individual stones and curiosity draws me to one of these. As I approach, I realize it is a Jewish grave and I stand staring at the little pile of small stones sitting on top of the headstone. I have seen this before and know that it is evidence of earlier visitors paying their respects to a Jewish soldier.  Even if you do not know the deceased, it is the custom is to place a small stone on the grave using your left hand. I place a small stone on the miniature cairn. Ludwig Wehrmann had given up his life for the fatherland, oblivious to the ordeal his relatives would face some twenty years later at the hands of his fellow countrymen. However, here all men are equal.

The Red Baron had been repatriated years ago and, the War’s most famous combat pilot, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, had been shot down five months before the end of the war. In 1925 his body was exhumed and reburied in Berlin. But, in this site, space isat a premium and his grave in Fricourt is now occupied by a soldier, Private Sebastian Paustian. Those that have their own grave must share a cross among four. Two names on either side.

Many do not have their own grave. At the rear of the cemetery, four communal graves are marked by five stones – five rough hewn squat crosses. The light strikes the red stones revealing rashes of small lichen patches.

Five thousand names packed onto metal plates. The remains of 11,970 soldiers lie in the four communal graves. Of these, the names of 6,477 remain unknown.

The German volunteers’ well meaning efforts to create a low maintenance, natural environment that blends in with the surrounding area,
through planting dense bushes and trees, have only served to make the
atmosphere more sinister. These trees are brooding and sombre. Green foliage casting shadows over the horror. In some areas the flickering shadows pockmark the ground, giving a mottled appearance which shimmers.  In other areas, shadows of individual branches point at the carnage below – moving on to new groups of graves as the sun orchestrates the grim light show. Below lie the fallen fruits, the bitter harvest collected from the Somme battlefields, the hedges constraining the ground to prevent it from bursting its gory seams. My head swirls with numbers that I can’t visualise or comprehend.

Taking refuge on a sunlit area of warm grass, and still alone in the cemetery, I sit down and begin to study my notes and guidebook. It isn’t long before I stretch out, leaning on my elbow still pondering on the sheer

Then something happens that has never happened before or since
on my travels- I fall asleep.

A short time later I wake up and, opening my eyes skyward, remember where I am. This creates a chain of emotions   First, horror – have I caused offence?  I look around – then relief that I am still alone. It then occurs to me that I am the only one who could wake up amongst the 17,000 men.

If the trumpet – or would it be a bugle – ever blew on the Resurrection Day, what would this small area look like – an army of field grey soldiers?

I step back into my pleasant country lane, leaving the grey army to their sleep.  Stones, crosses, mass graves, no matter, all the victors and defeated are now equal.

Belgian cafes


The Langemark Bar I should have visited

A weird pattern was developing. I enter a village bar/café in the morning during my walk and basically the same scenario plays out. Four customers, usually men are sitting around the bar. Unlike a cafe or bar at home, they do not sit together but are spaced out, so the Flemish conversation forms a necklace round the bar. As I enter, the customers, together with the landlord/landlady stare at me like a scene in a cowboy movie where a stranger who has just rolled into the peaceful law-abiding town enters the saloon and there is a sudden silence. I always asked for coffee because for me, beer and walking don’t mix, especially in the morning. In the first of the Poperinge bars (four men and a landlady) into which the stranger had stepped out of the rain, the answer from the stern landlady was a definite no. At the second cafe,(three men and one woman and a landlady) I got the usual stare treatment ,though she eventually warmed to the wet figure in the corner of the bar, and I received a smile and a coffee with two cinnamon biscuits.

That’s another thing about cup of coffee in Belgium. Even if you have wandered into some really grotty area you are still going to be given a biscuit with your coffee. In one cafe I was given a piece of cake and a biscuit though my favourite(in Passendaele village), was where a tiny bowl of what I took to be cream was placed beside my coffee. On further examination I realised that it was far too viscous and yellow to be cream for my coffee Making sure that no one was looking, to avoid looking stupid,I dipped my teaspoon into the delicate little dish. The taste was fantastic – a tiny bowl of what I would call creme Anglais -a beautiful cold vanilla custard. Early one morning I was walking up the Broodenside ridge, a much fought over village which during the war had been reduced to virtually nothing but mud,when I spotted an open cafe bar. I had been looking out for a chateau which housed a museum that I hoped to visit on my way back. In I go -yep four men and a middle aged landlady. However the stare factor lasts only thirty seconds and the coffee and bicuits are on their way. I ask the landlady about the location of the museum nearby and whether she thought it would be open since it was a Belgian public holiday. Unknown to me the four men were listening in. One of the men brought over a museum brochure and the other had already used his mobile phone to confirm that yes, the chateau was open all day.
Langemark broke the numbers trend.  It was nearly lunchtime. I had finnished my walk and walking through the village spied a board offering snacks. Eating out in Ieper was very expensive so I thought I would pop in and have a cheap lunch of macaroni cheese. Once inside, my audience consisted of only a young man,his wife and a landlord. He looked in astonishment when I asked for macaroni.”We only serve food at weekends”. Completely non plussed by the fact that he had gone to the trouble of putting out a chalkboard on the pavement, I forgot myself and ordered a beer!



Poulnabrone: “The Hole of the Sorrows”           Glen Banna


    “Enjoy yourself . . . and  don’t be writing all that miserable stuff.” 

    “That’s not fair,” I protest. “Writing about my interest in the First World War is bound to seem a bit gloomy.” 

    “Well at least he won’t find much about that at the Burren,” chips in one of my offspring, still mentally scarred from childhood holidays interrupted by detours to “interesting” historic sites.

    Armed with the task of writing something upbeat and cheerful, I studied the itinerary of  the writing course being held at Ballyvaughan in the Burren and quickly settled on . . . the visit to a burial chamber at nearby Poulnabrone.

     This portal tomb is the most visited site on the Burren and originally contained human bones carbon dated between 3800 to 3200 B.C. though it is thought the site continued to be used for rituals well into the Iron Age.

 The megalith consists of a single chamber, the entrance flanked by two portal stones three inches taller than the average five foot seven Neolithic man. There are two orthostats, an end stone and a sill stone, the latter partially closing the entrance and facing North, whilst the heavy capstone slopes away. The low oval cairn provides more support for the side stones. In 1986 Dr Ann Lynch carried out an excavation of the site and in 1988 one of the portal stones was replaced when its deterioration threatened to cause the collapse of the monument. An additional orthostat was added for extra support. Inside the single portal chamber inhumations were found together with grave goods. 

    Having consulted a number of texts on Neolithic archaeology, I realised that I would have to use some of the archaeologist’s technical terms such as: “perhaps”, “one theory”, “a number of theories” or when desperate we could employ “it is not known” or the more daring “unguessable”.  

Empirical measurements, descriptive details and meticulous drawings are not enough to satiate our thirst for an understanding of the use of megaliths, thus allowing everyone, including myself, to take the experts at their word when they say “we may speculate”. As Stuart Piggott wrote in 1937 in his Prehistory and the Romantic Movement:

“What more could one need to satisfy one’s romantic desires? A Druid’s cell, ivy-clad and dank, was really almost as good as that other romantic but rheumatic retreat, a hermit’s grot, so beloved of the period … It has been the fate of the megaliths, particularly the great stone circles, to be the victims of Romanticism up to the present day.” 

    Today, coaches expel their tourists. Information boards – beside the lone enterprising Neolithic man, grey-hooded and doing a nice line in Celtic jewellery – do their best to inform, but it is the iconic photograph they want  

    The portal tomb’s prominent position opens up the possibility that it may also have been a territorial marker, warding off potential occupiers: any community that could lift a five tonne capstone represented a force with which to be reckoned. 

    Why were so few members of the community interred here?  It is likely that those found in the tomb were of a high status indicating that theirs was a hierarchical society. The excavation uncovered a puzzle of objects including the bones from at least sixteen adults together with those of six children. These were deposited in the fissures known as grikes in the limestone floor. From a later era a lone new-born infant from the Bronze Age was inhumed just outside the tomb.

    The bodies had not been cremated and studies of the bones – now held in Clare Museum – show that great care was taken to deflesh the corpses. However, the absence of cut marks rules out the use of scrapers and excarnation by scavenging animals can be discounted since small bones were present. The likely method in this locality was that the bodies were buried elsewhere then carefully exhumed and disarticulated before being transferred to the portal tomb.  

    If these bones were from high status individuals it does not reflect well on the health of the rest of the community. Only one adult was over the age of 40; most of the others died before they reached 30.  

     Their dentition confirms a diet of stone-ground cereals. The transition from hunter gathering to  pastoral settlement supported a larger population, but may have come at a cost; there is evidence that the change resulted in the average human height decreasing, supporting those who believe that the cereal based diet was inferior to that of the hunter gatherers. Most of the adults suffered from arthritis. Why such levels of arthritis in such young adults? Was it due to continual crouching at stone “saddle” querns grinding einkorn or was it caused by carrying the weight of stones and timber? The children – between the ages of five and fifteen – displayed signs of malnutrition.

    Yet the grikes also revealed cattle, pig, dog, sheep, hare and bird bones. Harder to explain are the stoat, pine marten and mouse bones. Perhaps some of these were sacrificed, perhaps the tomb was a wildlife microhabitat. Despite the small sample, there is evidence of violence. A tip of an arrowhead was found embedded in the hip bone of one individual, but there was no sign of either healing or infection –  suggesting the wound was made at the time of his death, though curiously it was not considered serious enough to have killed him. Fractures that had healed were found in one of the skulls and a rib, another sign that these farmers were not living in idyllic pastoral peace.  

     Among the grave goods was a polished stone axe. By now, I was warming to this type of burial and metaphorically sizing myself up for disarticulation – I wonder what would I have taken with me. My hammer?  No, it will have to be more impressive than that. My lawn mower? – too big.  I narrow the choice down to my electric drill or the chain saw. Since stone axes were vital for clearing trees for agricultural land, I plump for the electric chain saw. Just as I start to ponder on the availability of 240 volt sockets in the hereafter and whether a travel adaptor would be worth considering, I remember reading that Neolithic polished axes may not be all that they seem. The Ulster Museum holds the famous Malone hoard of 19 polished porcellanite axe heads. Their aesthetic beauty is obvious, but they are too large and heavy to be of practical use. Just how many un-used axes does a man need? Ruling out the possibility that the finders stumbled on a Neolithic tool shop – don’t laugh, they did exist – they are almost certainly symbolic objects, reflecting religious power, wealth and status.

    Two stone beads, a triangular bone pendant decorated with drilled holes, mushroom-headed bone pins and two quartz crystals might suggest that bodies were adorned. The rest of the grave goods consisted of shards of coarse pottery, a hollow-based chert arrowhead, two leaf-shaped chert points, and three different types of scraper. Useful perhaps… but could they really be regarded as symbols of status or did these items represent a Neolithic survival kit for the hereafter? Scrape hides to make clothes and then pin them. Hunt with arrows and cook with pottery. Should I think about being buried with my potato peeler?

    The fact that the bones of individuals were not discrete suggests that these people wished to emphasise the importance of community structure. The contents of the grikes within the tomb themselves represent not only a biography of the land and community, but also an archive of ancestry where individuals, their possessions, other animals, could be visited, examined and revisited.

    The archaeological findings show that “there was no evidence of material culture outside of the burial chamber”. Perhaps not, but there are sculptures in the limestone karst. 

    The sculptors arrive from the skies. Cohesive forces bind the molecules together into silvery spheres and, descending in their millions, they lose their neutrality.  The sculpting may now begin. Invited by the merest concavity they will gather and dissolve the limestone, producing holes or kamenitza. The acidic rain spills over and soundlessly chisels channels known as rillenkarren across the stone. The natural sculptures delineated by green foliage speckled with dog violets, spring gentians and purple orchids huddle in the grikes. Deeper still, wood violets hide between the clints.  

    The limestone is predominantly grey calcium carbonate from a variety of sources including ancient zooplankton, corals, crinoids and brachiopods.  However, the limestone sculptures adopt a myriad of subtle tones and textures. Nature has produced pigments worthy of an alchemist: shells of microscopic algae; thin layers of mudstone; layers of silica based chert; the phosphate rich bones and teeth of fish and clusters of yellow white calcite veins. The colour schemes are not static, continually changing hue with the day’s varying light conditions.  

    The sculptures can now be viewed.  As in a Rorschach’s inkblot test, where the psychologist’s subject is given free rein to see what they want to see, Today I catch sight of a massive beached whale, its  broad arched back and horny, fringed baleen; a flatfish floundering on the karst; a reptile with limestone scales and a giant snail lying on its side – carved from an erratic that a glacier has casually dropped on its relentless journey from Connemara.

    A “Hole of the Sorrows”? I don’t believe it. That solitary Bronze Age infant is laughing and giggling at those animal antics. 

    The French tourists have been told, “You must return to the coach in 20 minutes.” These hunter-gatherers’ sights are fixed on the megalith. As I pause, trying to imagine what ceremony the ancients carried out, I watch the coach party. Most begin stalking the megalith by walking anticlockwise round the stones, but some walk in an inner concentric arc; then, armed with their cameras, they edge inwards to compose and freeze the stones in time. This innermost circle starts to rotate: the hunters are determined to catch every angle.

    What is causing this vortical flow? There is little difference between the Modern and Neolithic man’s brain and sensory organs: they consist of the same retinas, optic nerves and cerebra. Perhaps we can’t see the wood for the stones. We could speculate. Perhaps I am watching the megalith exerting its control of the day’s rituals. Theurgic or just innate human behaviour?

    The coach party departs with hundreds of pictures of the cause, but possibly are unaware of the effect.


The Sycamore Tree

The Sycamore

There was little of interest at the top of the sycamore on this March morning though my attention was drawn to the tree’s base.  Refusing to be constrained by pavement, tarmac and three intersecting hedges, venous blue interlocking buttress roots have, over decades, constructed a hillfort.  Hollows between the buttress roots have created small occupied islands; humus filled niches for grasses , bluebells and an unloved dandelion. Kneeling down, my probing fingers uncover a scene reminiscent of King Kong, revealing  spiders, their crustacean woodlice cousins, and a variety of insects all fleeing in panic.

A member of the maple family, the sycamore is not a British native, the earliest being recorded in  1578.  Honestly how long do you have to reside in a country to be regarded as a native? Introduced into estates in Dublin and Cork , by 1731 they were abundant enough for making barrels for the export of butter, tallow and fish.  In later centuries, violins, furniture and dance floors followed.

Moving upwards, the smooth root buttresses give way to the reptilian scales of fissured bark, streaked with pleurococcus.  Little of the trunk can be seen as its modesty is covered with a verdant dress of ivy. The epiphyte has thrived and spread up past the point of bisection of the main trunk, its  water  supplies and minerals relayed by meandering cables of adventitious roots.  Above, two hundred square metres  of tree canopy spans the road.  Clearing the leaf litter in later months puts the cat’s tray into perspective.

My apprehensions concerning the responsibility for the wellbeing of the tree and that of those who pass below it have decreased with time; it has survived the great storm of 1998, the winter of 2010 and may even have shielded the house by absorbing the shock waves of the bomb which exploded nearby  in 1988.

In a show of arboreal independence It straddles the garden and pavement, contending that neither the Council nor I have ownership.  For the last three weeks it has flown a blue and white standard, the Tesco bag beyond my reach.  Waiting for its cone shaped buds to open one delinquent juvenile branch wiles away the time playing chicken with my neighbour as it stretches his telephone line as if drawing a bow.

Can a tree have a sense of humour?



The Rakes Progress

The Rakes Progress

The kitchen window opens, “You’ve been staring at those leaves for twenty minutes”

The sycamore and I have been acquainted for almost twenty years and annually it sets me the same loathsome task.

“Leaves were never meant to be picked up” I said. “Anyway more will fall tomorrow. What’s the point?”

I know I’m on a loser and head to the shed to fetch the rake. On my return, I stop once more at the pile of soggy cornflakes, surrounded not by milk but by shale black tarmac with flecks of rose coloured stones glistening  in the rainwater.

Leaning on the rake, I realise that each of these victims of senescence is an individual. A progression of different stages of decomposition.  A coloured collage of the dead and dying, some still with traces of chlorophyll, though sooty spots betray the progress of microscopic fungi in ever increasing circles.

The dying leaves flail etiolated stalks tinged with flecks of cochineal and coral. Jaundiced yellow leads to sorrel. Near their end, the veins of the Havana brown leaves lack the strength to contain their structure.

The tree has shed its workforce” Sorry but we have to let you go. Oh and please leave the organisation’s potassium and nitrogen behind”. These redundant, once skilled, food producers are not alone.  The odd invader has infiltrated the sycamore’s ex workforce. Exposed by their shape, privet, daisy ,and even the wind damaged  pale bamboo foliage, join the doomed ranks..

I shout through the kitchen window “Any chance of a cup of coffee Pauline… this is hard work.”

Ploegsteert Wood



The creation of paths is a collective act shared with those we have never met and often could not, previous contributions having been made in a different epoch.  Now we may walk along a path for pleasure, but most were formed for trade, droving, war or even smuggling. Unlike the car or bike, our feet are in direct contact with the earth, with speed being secondary to experience; to tread paths is to feel the past. The environment has altered, but research and imagination can help us extrapolate what previous travellers saw and felt. In the past so much time was spent walking that observing nature was unavoidable, though in this wood many did so as an escape from reality.

Remove the entire natural landscape from around a track over four years, then put it back again. Not a forest fire . . . artillery fire.

Ploegsteert Wood on the Ypres salient once sheltered one million men. “Tommies” corrupted “unpronounceable” Belgian names, thus Ypres became Wipers, and so Plug Street Wood.  I walk the track that would have been familiar to serving soldiers and future prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.

Henry Williamson, mystical nature writer and author of Tarka the Otter, participated in the Christmas Eve Truce on the edge of the wood in 1914. The nineteen year old’s friendly encounter with young German soldiers in no man’s land confirmed his view that the war was driven by greed, bigotry and false patriotism.

Williamson’s experiences ignited a belief that he was at one with Nature. Existence was a link in an eternal chain that reached back into ancient history. In 1919, influenced by the writing of the19th Century English nature writer Richard Jeffries, he became convinced of the existence of a union between the eternal sunlight and the earth’s past.

”This sunlight linked me through the ages to that past consciousness. From all the ages my soul desired to take that soul-life which had flowed through them as the sunbeams had continually found on earth.”

He likened the ground to stirred Christmas cake mixture which, with rain, turned to porridge; the wood could not recover in less than fifty years. However in 1928 he returned to the Salient.  Dug outs had subsided; rifle barrels, machinery, holed helmets and minenwerfer cases had rusted. He delighted in observing plants, frogs and recognised a dozen different types of bird song.

Anti-war, anti-industry, to Williamson truth and peace lay in beauty and the open air. Surprisingly he made a catastrophic misjudgement in embracing Fascism, admiring the Fuhrer, extolling the Hitler Youth, visiting Munich and becoming a Blackshirt.  In 1940 he was briefly arrested for suspected spying. Post war he refused to believe that the holocaust had happened. Over eighteen years he wrote  fifteen volumes of “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”, the early books dominated by his experiences in the trenches.

A century later, I look up at a diverse canopy of twisted oaks, round crowned hornbeams, elders with fissured bark, chestnuts, pollard willows, elms and hazel. Beneath the leaf litter lie men and vast quantities of artillery shells. The wood’s beauty belies a formidable army of biomass that is far more powerful than the products of men’s folly. Their weapon: seamless integration of decomposing fungi and bacteria, plants and animals and time. In the long term they are unstoppable. Together with their allies’ oxygen and water they will reduce ordinance into minerals, pull down bunkers, rot leather and military webbing, fill shell holes and remove the dead. Plant root hairs absorb and assimilate. No propaganda, no rhetoric, just unrelenting action. True their action is slow, but if life on earth is represented by an hour on the clock, then our existence consists of two seconds. We tend to adopt a humancentric appreciation of time.

Nineteen year old Oxford scholar Roland Leighton, the fiancé of Vera Brittain, left a lasting legacy of letters. Escaping the blue pencil and containing some unusually frank descriptions, nature notes are intertwined with horror. A short letter describes trees, primroses and bees, then abruptly mentions one of his regiment being shot in the head. In another letter he enclosed violets, followed later by a poem referring to a decomposing body he found in the wood:

Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood –
Think what they have meant to me –
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.

He died the day before he was due home on leave on the 27th August 1915. Vera, who also lost her brother, served as a VAD nurse and then returned to Oxford, where she became a feminist and pacifist, writing the influential anti-war book “Testament of Youth”. She married in 1925. Her daughter Shirley Williams became Labour Minister for Education and a founder of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

By 1918 the artillery had reduced parts of the wood to scenes such as those painted by Paul Nash in his depiction of the nearby “Menin Road”.

Roland Leighton wrote his poem in the spring 1915 but my July walk was devoid of flowering violets.  Instead rose-pink Red Campion watched the Lords and Ladies dance with orange berries in their gradual progression to toxic signal red.

But my eyes were fixed on one of nature’s sirens, one that cast me back to childhood and a mother’s warning: Witches Gloves, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Finger, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Thimbles. Today we know it as the foxglove.

Glove, obvious, but fox?  Richard Mabey dismisses the idea that it is a corruption of folksglove, a name recorded in England in the 12th Century, referring to folk or fairies which inhabit the woods, though I don’t find convincing his suggestion that it is because they are found in “foxy” places. True, I didn’t spot any fairies … perhaps the wrong time of year.

I sat against a slanted horse chestnut, the bark coated in an emulsion of translucent pleurococcus chased by ivy. The sinister deep green leaves concentrated with chlorophyll compensate for shady living. Above the algae, glade light reveals the bark’s reptilian blue scales, gulches flecked with cinnamon.  Between mature trees saplings jostle and fight their way to the sun like stretching nestlings.

The drone announces the twelve thousand beats per minute motor.  Did Roland watch this bumble’s ancestor? It enters one of the lowest of the foxgloves bells.

But this is not Wildean aesthetics. This is business, the commerce of nature; the oldest air transport firm has arrived for the latest transaction in a one hundred million year trade agreement. Air freights of pollen receive instant payment.

A single spike lifts the foxglove cluster skywards, tapered purple bells open with curled lips. Inside the tangerine anthers await. Smudged white ovals with purple spots strew the corollas floor. Why should such natural architecture have such imperfections – blurred spots in such a random pattern?  Perception is the key.

I see the “imperfections” because in the eye of this beholder, light is received by three types of receptors or cones. Sensitive to red, green or blue. Combinations of which are stimulated -result- I see purple foxgloves. Bees also have three types but substitute ultraviolet for red. Our purple is their blue. When we see white, our apine counterpart perceives blue green. So important is UV light that if artificially deprived of it the bees refuse to forage.

Patterns of ultraviolet light emanating from the corolla are processed by the on board computer and act as a ground control for the incoming pollinator to negotiate the landing strip to reach its payload and reward.

In flight wings build up static electricity on the hairs of their gaudy hymenopteran jumpers which act like magnets causing pollen to leap aboard. Marking each tube visited with scent ensures co-workers do not visit them.

Grazers beware . . . all parts are toxic. In 1785 William Withering employed digitalis to treat congestive heart failure. It has a dangerous reputation amongst doctors, the margin of error between medicinal and lethal being narrow.

I Visited Williamson’s fallen colleagues in Rifle House Cemetery, before exiting the woods via “Mud Corner”. Even here when setting up a gun emplacement, Lieutenant R.B.Talbot Kelly had one eye on nature

“My section had a forward gun on the edge of the wood near Mud Lane. The pit lay in a verdant thicket of little willows and blackberry bushes.”

I realised I had not encountered another being in the wood. Ancient sunlight, fairies, witches gloves . . . the real magic of the wood lies in nature’s power of regeneration. From the farm track I looked back at mixed ranks of beech, oak and sycamore sentinels – they had regained their domain.

“I saw that bare country before me … the miles and miles of torn earth, the barbed wire, the litter, the dead trees. But the country would come back to life, the grass would grow again, the wild flowers return, and trees where now there were only splintered skeleton stumps. They would lie still and at peace below the singing larks, beside the serenely flowing rivers.”

Capt. J Campbell 1918

Finding John Skinner

Arguably the most famous soldier in the 29th Division was a Glaswegian, John Skinner. He seems to have been a bloody minded hard man straight out of a war film.  Joining the army in 1900 at the age of 16 he had been wounded three times in the Boer War.

The objective was the intensely fortified village of Langemarck and the German defences concentrated along the Langemarck-Weidendreft road. The infantry were slowly learning how to overcome the pillbox threat but it remained dangerous and costly to overcome them.

“The three blockhouses were spitting out a terrific fire and we were obliged to take cover and move forward gradually by squads in quick rushes. At this period, Company Sergeant Major Skinner and I crawled as near to the blockhouses as possible and succeeded in disabling two of their guns by rifle fire. CSM Skinner, after we had got within about 70 yards of the blockhouses, crawled forward on his own initiative, while I covered his advance with my rifle. After ten minutes he succeeded in reaching that on the extreme left, and going round the back of it bombed the team of gunners with Mills bombs and compelled the garrison to surrender. The second blockhouse he put out of action by inserting bombs in the loopholes where the guns were mounted. By this time I had passed for the company to advance, and we succeeded in reaching the third blockhouse. CSM Skinner’s haul was six machine guns, about 60 prisoners and a few trench mortars.”

Captain A. H. Currie, I st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers

Skinner was awarded the Victoria Cross. After the investiture by King George he was given the customary 14 days leave. On returning to Folkestone, he engaged in a massive drinking binge,even though he still had a head wound from the action. He was ordered to go to hospital and then travel to a reserve battalion in Edinburgh. Perhaps the Glaswegian in him didn’t fancy Edinburgh: After two days in hospital he disobeyed orders and risking court-martial, he returned to his unit, the 1st battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in the Ypres Salient. Skinner escaped disciplinary action because he was a legend amongst the troops of the 29thDivision. After being wounded eight times he placed a bet with his friend CSM Ross that he would get his ninth wound before Ross, who also had also been wounded eight times.On March 1918 Skinner won his bet attempting to rescue a wounded man in no man’s land, but could not collect his winnings as his ninth wound was a bullet between the eyes.The funeral was delayed so as to assemble 6 other VC holders from the 29th Division.

The day I planned visit his grave on my walk to Poperinge I woke up feeling under the weather, but I decided to force myself to start. I had planned to avoid the two dangerous main roads to Poperinge but getting onto the quiet roads proved more tricky than I had expected. Eventually I found the sort of back road I enjoy walking

 I reached the village of Vlamertinghe and asked various locals where the military cemetery was. Amazingly, they did not know. Perhaps they were commuters. This was eating up time and it was unbelievable that I could not locate it in such a small village. Eventually I stopped an old man and although he could not speak English he and I communicated in sign language. I was quite chuffed with my impression of a crossroads, which was worthy of Marcel Marceau. When I reached the signpost it was pointing towards someones back garden. Was the mischievous John Skinner playing tricks on me? Was the sign correct? I gingerly walked through a private garden, passing the kid’s toys and the vegetable patch and there it was- The “New Military Cemetery”.

On  the 19th of March,1918 , in pouring rain,  Skinner was given a heroes funeral in which his body was brought by a gun carriage drawn by a magnificent team of horses to the Vlamertinghe Cemetery and was then carried by six VC holders of the 29th Division.

I tried to imagine the scene on that day with the team of horses and the six VC holders. I left the cemetery and started to follow the road to Poperinge when I noticed something disconcerting heading towards me.