Category Archives: Postcards

France, Soissons and Making Sense of Unfortunate Nicknames

Soissons,_veduta_con_la_Cattedrale

It was too early to book into our holiday accommodation which was only just a few miles away so after a surprisingly good IBIS Hotel breakfast we set out to explore the town of Soissons.

The place was unusually quiet for a Monday morning and many of the shops in the town centre were closed (maybe it was a public holiday or perhaps they just don’t open on a Monday) but we didn’t let that bother us, we hadn’t come for the shops but rather to do some sightseeing.

It is a peaceful town today but it has had rather a turbulent past and on account of its strategic location was once a much more important place than it is today.

I was amused by a passage in a guide book which read – “The election of Pepin the Short took place in Soissons in the 8th century and in 923, following a battle outside the town walls, Charles the Simple gave up his throne in favour of the House of France”

I mention this because if I had been a King at around this time I would have taken great offence to names like these and would have preferred something like Andrew the Brave or Andrew the Wise, something altogether a little more flattering.

This is Pepin the Short…

Pepin The Short

Although in fairness rather like the unfortunate Pepin I wouldn’t have been able to effectively dispute the title Andrew the Short.

A quick look at Royal history reveals that the French had a habit of giving their monarchs uncomplimentary appendages, Louis II was the Stammerer, Louis V was called the Do Nothing, and Louis VI was known as the Fat!

My research throws up what simply has to be my all-time favourite – sometime in the late thirteenth century, Ivailo of Bulgaria was called the Cabbage! Rather like the England Football Manager Graham Taylor (1990-93) who was unflatteringly branded Turnip Taylor after a run of disappointing results and failure to qualify for the Football World Cup Finals.

turnip

I couldn’t help wondering if they were aware of these nicknames or if they were like school teachers who were all given names behind their backs by the students. Come to think about it now however, although we always thought that they were secret I am inclined to believe that each and every one of them knew exactly what we called them.

We used to have a geography teacher called Nogger Hickinbotham, a woodwork teacher called Plod Barker, an art teacher called Tap Underwood and a French teacher called Pluto Thompson but I am afraid that I am completely unable to explain the origin of any of those ridiculous names.

In the first year at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby my younger brother Richard helpfully recorded all of these names for posterity in the 1969/70 school Year Book…

Dunsmore School Teacher NicknamesDunsmore Staff 1970

Back now to Soissons.

During the Hundred Years’ War, French forces committed a notorious massacre of English archers stationed at the town’s garrison in which many of the French townsfolk were themselves murdered. The massacre of French citizens by French soldiers shocked Europe and Henry V of England, noting that the town of Soissons was dedicated to the Saints Crispin and Crispinian, claimed to avenge the honour of the Saints when he met the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.

The last big upheaval in the town was during the First-World-War (1914-18). In the German Spring offensive of 1918 Soissons fell into enemy hands but after massive bombardment by the French in July the town was recaptured. When I say town what I really mean is what was left of it after repeated attacks the centre including the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed and had to be almost completely rebuilt in the post war years.

soissons 1919

During the battle the Allies suffered 107,000 casualties (95,000 French and 12,000 American), the Germans suffered 168,000 casualties and the French High Command justified the deaths and the destruction on the basis that Soissons was an important strategic town that protected invasion and occupation of Paris. More about this later…

An interesting fact about the Battle of the Soissonnais and of the Ourcq is that during the campaign Adolf Hitler, the future Führer of Nazi Germany was awarded the Iron Cross First Class at Soissons on August 4th 1918.  More about him later…

Anyway we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the streets of Soissons, the Town Hall, the Cathedral (every French Town has a mighty Cathedral) and finally the ruins of the Abbaye de St-Jean-Des-Vignes. The Abbaye is a magnificent place even today but could have been even more magnificent but for the fact that in 1805 the Bishop of Soissons approved its demolition to provide building materials to repair the nearby Cathedral – there was no UNESCO World Heritage Committee to prevent this sort of thing in 1805.

We completed our walk and finished the morning with an ice cream at a pavement bakery and with the clock ticking towards check-in time we left and made our way the La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite where we still a little bit early so we waited patiently for our lodge to become available and while the children swam in the swimming pool I acquainted myself with the poolside bar facilities.

Does anyone have a favourite memorable nickname?

France Countryside

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Ireland, West County Postcards

County Clare PostcardGalway IrelandCounty Mayo ostcard MapCounty Sligo Postcard

Ireland, Postcards of the Towns Visited

Galway Ireland PostcardDonegal PostcardSligo Postcard

Ireland, Sligo – The Town and the Poet

Sligo Postcard

“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.

W B Yeats Sligo Statue

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.

Sligo Irish Famine Statue

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.

Sligo abbey Detail

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.

Strandhill Beach Sligo Ireland

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.”

Yeates Grave Sligi Ireland

Ireland, Street Art

Ireland Street ArtIreland Street Art MusiciansIreand Street Art iddlersStreet Art Sligo Yeates

Ireland, Croagh Patrick and The Irish Famine

St Patrick Croagh Patrick

On account of the previous day rain and fearing the worst I was somewhat reluctant to draw back the curtains to reveal the weather but as promised the sky was blue with just a smattering of cloud and just a few miles away I could see the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain and major Pilgrim magnet.

I was pleased about that because that is where we were planning to go today.

The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over five thousand years from the Stone Age to the present day.  Its religious significance dates back to Pagan times when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season.  Today, when there aren’t so many Pagan visitors, Croagh Patrick is best known as a Pilgrimage site in honour of Saint Patrick for it was on the summit of the mountain that he fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down ever since over the generations.

Croagh Patrick Wesport Ireland

Each year, The Reek, as it is colloquially known, attracts about one million pilgrims. So many in fact that the pathway is becoming loose underfoot, unstable and dangerous. On ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, over twenty-five thousand pilgrims visit the mountain which makes it rather congested.  At the top, there is a modern chapel where mass is celebrated and confessions are heard.

We set off immediately after breakfast and at mid-morning found the visitor centre car park which was already quite full and we could see ahead of us a line of people tackling the arduous climb.  A  lava stream of kagools and backpacks making steady progress up and careful progress back down.

The first part is quite straight-forward, a set of steps that ends at the first stopping point where Pilgrims stop to photograph a statue of St. Patrick statue erected in 1928 and paid for by funding from Irish ex-pats in the USA.

Here he is, St. Patrick, the original Fidget Spinner…

St Patrick Fidget Spinner

After that the going quickly began to get really tough because let me tell you this is not an easy climb up a steep glacial valley littered with boulders and sharp stones which makes it difficult to keep safe footings. It is hard enough in a stout pair of shoes but on pilgrimage days some people prefer to climb in the traditional way – bare-footed. Nothing on earth would persuade me to do that I can tell you!

Ireland-Croagh-Patrick-holy-mountain

The climb has two stages. The first ascends up a rocky foothill covered in heather and moss with a narrow stream running next to the well-trodden path. It took us about forty-five minutes to complete. Apparently it gets even more difficult after that so rapidly running out of enthusiasm for the project, we collectively agreed that we were not sufficiently adventurous to try and find out so after a short debate we took our photographs and made our tentative way back to the car park and going down is harder than going up believe me!

I decided that if anyone ever asked me if I have climbed Croagh Patrick I could genuinely say yes just so long as they didn’t specifically enquire if I got all the way to the top.

Back at sea level we visited the ruins of a medieval abbey and walked for a while on a long sandy beach and then visited the National Famine Monument which is a powerful piece of sculpture which depicts a Coffin Ship with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Irish Famine.

Ireland National Famine Memorial Westport

In terms of human tragedy, the famine was probably the single most important event in modern Irish history but to a certain extent they brought it upon themselves.    It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day, that’s almost two tons a year or about an average sized hippopotamus, about sixty golf ball sized tubors every day – that is a lot of potatoes, to put that into perspective that is roughly equivalent to about two hundred and fifty standard size bags of potato crisps and that is a lot of crisps (chips if you prefer).

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, chips (fries if you prefer), dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!  The Irish however were so fond of potatoes that they ate it to the exclusion of anything else; they didn’t grow vegetables, keep chickens for eggs or catch fish from the rivers or the sea.  They just grew potatoes!

Potato Recipe Book

Unfortunately not only did they rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  It was rather unflatteringly called the ‘Irish Lumper’ which was a heavy cropper even in poor soil and wet conditions but by all accounts didn’t even taste very nice and was described as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.”  It was also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-five of US Presidents have claimed Irish ancestry.  Not Donald Trump by-the-way, who has a German heritage.

In complete contrast to the previous day the weather was glorious now so we stayed for a while and had a Guinness and then made our way back into Westport.

Ireland Westport Beach

Ireland, Galway to Westport

Galway Ireland

Almost as soon as we returned to the car and drove away from Knock it started to rain and by the time we reached the city of Galway we were very glad of underground parking facilities at the hotel so that we didn’t get soaked through getting to reception.

This wet weather came as something as a surprise. We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast, a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast and in 2016 visited Cork and the South Coast. Despite Ireland’s reputation for dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed sunshine and blue skies on all three occasions.

So good was the weather in fact that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so she was especially dismayed to see the grey skies and persistent rain.

Northern Ireland Blue Flag

So persistent as it happened that we were unable and unwilling to step out of the hotel and walk into the city centre for evening meal and made do with the hotel restaurant instead.

Overnight there was no improvement and in the morning a peek through the curtains revealed a dismal view of steel grey sky and bands of drenching rain swooping in from the Atlantic Ocean. Kim ventured outside for an early morning stroll but was very soon forced back inside to the shelter of the hotel.

Our first day plans were in tatters. It had been our intention to spend the morning in Galway, a city that we had really liked on our first visit in 2014 but the rain was so bad there seemed little point taking to the streets that we had enjoyed in brilliant sunshine at that time. A good job that we had been there before then because if this was my only visit it wouldn’t be on my going back to list that’s for sure.

Galway Ireland postcard

Several countries claim to be wettest in Europe including Switzerland, Norway and Scotland but I have visited Ljubljana in Slovenia which has the dubious distinction of being the wettest capital city in Europe and at fifty three inches that would certainly take some beating.  Before I knew this I would probably have guessed that it would be Cardiff, in Wales, because that is fairly damp as well but the Welsh capital city is left way behind at only forty inches or so.

We were going to drive along the coast but with the road shrouded in mist we abandoned that plan as well and took a more direct route alongside Loch Corrib towards our far west destination via Joyce Country and the Connemara National Park. After an hour or so the rain eased off to a light drizzle so encouraged by that we eventually made for the coast and the fishing village of Roundstone.

I like this picture. There is a saying “Only in Ireland” and I suggest that only in Ireland would you find gas bottles stored next to the petrol pump…

Roundstone County Galway Ireland

At Roundstone there was minor improvement as we drove in and parked the car and by some small miracle, which I attributed to having visited the Holy Shrine at Knock, it had stopped raining and were able to take a walk around the harbour and the streets without a rain coat or an umbrella.

It didn’t last long however and soon it started to rain once more. Our outline plan for this holiday was to roughly follow the west coast route along the Wild Atlantic Way through Counties Galway, Mayo and Sligo and for a few miles we followed a lonely coast road that weaved its way through a landscape of giant boulders and heathland which struggled to look at all interesting in the sweeping rain.  We were heading now for our two night stay in the holiday town of Westport.

Wild Atlantic Way Galway to Westport

In Connamara National Park we looked for The Twelve Pins a mountain range of apprimately two thousand feet high which should have been easy to spot but the cloud was so low and the rain so steady that it was impossible to find them so we just drove on through the damp town of Clifden until we arrived at a windswept car park that a place that commemorated two important events.

First this was the site of a previous transmitting station where Marconi sent transatlantic radio messages to Glace Bay in Newfoundland.  Grainy photographs reveal the huge scale of the building, with the large condenser house building, the power house with its six boilers and the massive aerial system consisting of eight wooden masts, each over two hundred feet high. It is long since gone of course there is nothing very much to see even on a good day.

Marconi Radio Station Clifden Ireland

Secondly this is the landing site of the first non-stop transatlantic flight piloted by British pioneer aviators Alcock and Brown who landed at this place in June 1919 although looking carefully at the photograph below that looks more like a crash to me rather than a landing and judging by the heavy overcoats it was probably as cold on that occasion as it was today and we stood and shivered in the rain for only a few moments before returning to the car and making our way to Westport.

Alcock and Brown Clifden Landing Site

We spent a damp evening in Westport but the owner of the B&B assured us of good weather for the following two days so were optimistic about that and the other good thing is that it doesn’t rain in pubs and we finished the evening in a bar where local musicians entertained with traditional Irish music.

As we walked back to the B&B we were happy to see that the sky was definitely clearing away to the west.

Westport Pub Irish Music

Richard and Pauline had been to this bar twelve years previously and he sent me this picture to prove it.  Goodness me, they were the same musicians…

Matt Molloys Westport Ireland