Have Bag, Will Travel
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Just over forty-five years ago when I was about fifteen I bought a fascinating book called ‘The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’.
The book was an almanac of random stories with tales of the supernatural, mythical beasts, feats of improbable strength, a glimpse into the future and was divided into chapters such as “Strange customs and superstitions”, “Hoaxes, frauds and forgeries” and “Eccentrics and prophecies.” There were actual photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, Sri Lankan fire walkers and “O-Kee-Pa, the Torture Test,” where young men of the Mandan tribe of Indians endured a brutal and horrific rite of passage that culminated in chopping off their own little fingers.
I learned that people sometimes spontaneously combust, and that an Italian monk named Padre Pio suffered Christ like wounds in his hands called stigmata that never healed. There were weird facts such as pigs being flogged in medieval France for breaking the law, and that the entire crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared one day, leaving the ship to float empty around the Atlantic. I became acquainted with Anastasia, the supposed Romanov survivor; and Spring-Heeled Jack, a demon who leapt about London in the nineteenth century, spitting blue flames in the faces of young women.
I acquired this book during my Ouija board occult dabbling days and the chapter on the supernatural I read over and over again. I was interested in the paranormal and here now was a book bearing evidence that ghosts were real and to prove it there were photographs of writings they’d scrawled on walls. You can’t dispute evidence like that. There was an article on the most haunted house in England and in another a photograph even showed how some ghosts could actually present their reflection on tiled kitchen floors.
I used to love this book, much to the despair of my dad who considered it to be a collection of useless false drivel that was distracting me from studying for my ‘o’ levels and he was right of course because I should have been concentrating on Shakespeare and Chaucer but for some reason Henry V and the Canterbury Tales were just not as interesting as ‘The night the Devil walked through Devon’!
I mention all of this because just last week I was on the island of Malta and came across a mystery of my own which would be worthy of inclusion in the ‘The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’.
Have you ever noticed that wherever there is freshly laid concrete someone manages to walk in it? I have always considered that to be rather stupid, dogs do it but they are extremely stupid of course (when they are not being dangerous) in fact the combined brain cells of all the dogs in the World would still not equal that of the dumbest cat, but returning to the wet concrete, I have always wondered why people do it?
Anyway, I was rather perplexed by this bizarre example that I came across in Malta just recently. Here is a slab of concrete measuring roughly six foot by three and right in the middle of it is a single footprint. Nothing before and nothing after and nothing to either side and almost impossible to leap into the middle and back out again without losing balance unless you are a World Champion Hopper, surely a curious mystery equally as mystifying as ‘The night the Devil walked through Devon’!
Is this perhaps the mystery of the Night the Devil walked in Malta but only managed one single footprint? Who or what I wonder passed this way?
The campsite where we were staying in the village of Berny-Riviere was about a mile away from the nearby town of Vic-Sur-Aisne. Not many people from the campsite seemed to go there because everything that a family needed was provided for on site.
I didn’t want to go on a trampoline, or a rowing boat, go fishing or play laser-quest and I didn’t want to pay for Wifi when it should be free so I got into the habit of after breakfast taking myself off to the town where I found a rather agreeable bar with pavement tables and free internet access. After a few days my granddaughter Molly began to join me and I liked that.
Vic-Sur-Aisne turned out to be a rather interesting town. During the First-World-War it was almost permanently on the front line with fighting never far away. It sits equidistance between the major battle sites of the Somme to the north and Verdun to the east. What made it important was that it was a major railway interchange where troops would be transferred back and forth to the battle lines in between front line duty and periods of rest or to be hospitalised.
This meant that it came under regular enemy fire and even today the older buildings in the town show pock-marked battle scars where shells and bullets had picked away at the stones and the bricks. A few years ago I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in old Yugoslavia and twenty years after the civil war I wasn’t surprised to still see the evidence of fighting in damage to the buildings but here in France I was somewhat taken aback to be examining shrapnel damage from a hundred years ago.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is situated on a linear historical site called the Ligne Rouge, which is a walk (a long walk) or a drive along a route which more or less represents the approximate Front Line of the war. Approximate because it did move back and forth a little bit over the four years of the conflict. Every village has a war memorial which honours the fallen in both World Wars and every village has a military graveyard gruesomely disproportionate to the size of the village.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is no exception, it has a population of under two thousand but in the military graveyard there are over three thousand memorial white crosses as headstones. I visited the graveyard one day to pay my respects. On another day I visited the nearby graveyard at Ambleny where there are nearly eleven thousand graves and I was struck by the enormity of the War and the appalling number of casualties.
Ambleny is the largest military graveyard in Picardy and contains the graves of two French soldiers who were caught in civilian clothing in a bar and were shot as deserters to set an example to others. There was no such thing as PTSD in 1917. They were posthumously pardoned in 1923. I bet they were glad about that!
I liked the town of Vic-Sur-Aisne, I liked the Wednesday street market where I bought Toulouse sausage to make a cassoulet, I liked the friendly local people in the bar who made me feel welcome, I liked the boulangerie that sold tempting pastries, I liked sitting on the pavement outside the bar beneath the tower of a medieval castle where I daily reflected on the history of the region and thanked my lucky stars that I have never been involved in such horror as previously took place here.
I daily thanked the soldiers that died here protecting freedom and democracy so that one hundred years later it was possible to come here with my family and friends to enjoy a lovely holiday…
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats
“In a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.” – W.B. Yeats
I confess to being disappointed when we first arrived in Sligo. It appeared rather austere and grey and subdued and dull compared with the colour and vibrancy and the vivaciously energetic Westport that we had left behind. There were no gaily painted houses and no effervescent floral displays, no pavement tables outside the pubs and no evidence of any bubbling street entertainment.
But, I have said before that it is wrong to be too hasty and make a premature judgment about a place and this proved to be the case in Sligo because a walk into the town centre revealed its hidden charms. Now and again you have to scratch the surface a little to find what you are looking for. Sometimes you need a crowbar but in Sligo we only needed a toothpick.
There is a strong association in the town with the poet W. B. Yeats (William Butler) and although he wasn’t born there he lived there for a while as a youth and according to his wishes is buried in a church yard nearby. The town has connections with Goon Show star and writer Spike Milligan whose father was from Sligo and the boy band Westlife was formed there in 1998.
There is a statue of Yeats (not very flattering, in my opinion) but not of Spike Milligan or of Westlife, well, not that I could find anyway. Down by the river quayside there was another famine statue, one of a family comforting each other at a spot where thirty-thousand people emigrated between 1847 and 1851. I am beginning to understand that no Irish city or town is complete with a Famine Memorial. As it happens there are also quite a lot in USA and Canada and one or two in Australia as well.
Although the streets were rather sombre in their appearance there were some interesting places in the town centre and it was nice to see individual traditional shops rather than modern chains. There was a pleasant walk along the banks of the river where people were enjoying the unusually high temperatures by standing in the doorways of the pubs and cafés and at the far end of the town was Sligo Abbey, long ago abandoned and ruined of course but still worth the entrance fee for a poke around inside the walls.
Interestingly it features in two short stories by W. B. Yeats – The Crucifixion of the Outcast, set in the Medieval times and The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows describing its destruction in 1641. I made a note to look them up when I returned home. Sligo Abbey was sacked and destroyed by the English and this is a recurring story in Ireland. You need a thick skin to visit Ireland if you are English but at least the Irish people seem to have a forgiving nature even if they might not forget.
After the walk around the town we took the advice now of the hotel staff and drove five miles west to the coastal village of Strandhill to a wonderful beach and a raging sea. I liked Strandhill straight away because there was free parking all along the front. I always compare this with my local seaside resort at Cleethorpes where the Council charges exorbitant fees to park up even in the Winter and Cleethorpes doesn’t get anywhere near comparison with Strandhill I can tell you!
When it comes to parking the priciest resort in England is Brighton, which charges £30 a day making it one of Europe’s most expensive destinations for leaving a car on a small strip of tarmac. Next is Bournemouth at £18 – still more than millionaires’ playgrounds Monaco and Sorrento charging £15 and just under £18 respectively.
There was a good walk to be had along the pebble littered sand and we strolled along past the beach people and the brave surfers but there were no swimmers because everywhere there are warning signs saying that swimming is forbidden because although it looks inviting the sea is especially treacherous here. It looked relatively safe and benign to me so I enquired of local people what the problem was. Apparently the way the tides and the currents enter the bay produce savage hidden rip-tides which make this place especially hazardous.
As we looked out over the Ocean and admired its natural beauty it was hard to imagine that it could be so dangerous.
After an hour or so we left and as we drove away I was certain that Strandhill could easily force itself into a list of my top ten favourite Ireland beaches.
We returned to Sligo now because our plan now was to head north towards Donegal, the most northerly of the Southern Irish counties but we found time to stop on the way in the village of Drumcliff, just about five miles out of Sligo because in the cemetery there is the grave of W. B. Yeats with a headstone inscribed with the poet’s famous self-penned epitaph:
“Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.”