Archive for November, 2011

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

There is a man in north Norfolk who owns a watermill. It doesn’t have any water but it’s a nice place, in a shallow, verdant valley not far from North Walsham alongside the North Walsham and Dilham canal which was once a part of the Norfolk Broads navigation.

The canal was a 19th century – ie late – product of the rush to canalisation for the shifting of heavy goods at a time when roads weren’t worth the name and the trains had yet to arrive.

Of course, when the trains did arrive, they took all the business and the canals gradually fell into disuse until their 20th century recognition for the great recreational resource that they are. Sadly the North Walsham and Dilham couldn’t be part of that resource because a breach had emptied the upper section in 1912 which is why the mill no longer has water. The lower stretch did carry a few cargoes into the 1930s but much better roads were by then taking business from the railways and canals were well off the pace. This one filled up with weeds and, later, trees.

Laurie Ashton bought his watermill 17 years ago and, being a mechanically minded sort of bloke, gradually got around to refurbishing the wheel and gears still in situ and then rebuilding the tail race. Eventually, and naturally enough, he started to wonder about water and so last year, he bought two and a half miles of the canal, including the dry section upstream, and since then, he and his mate, John, a retired bricklayer, have been rebuilding the lock adjacent to the mill with a view to refilling the canal and getting water back through the wheel. A big project? Sure, but as he says, “It’s like all these things. If you actually look at it and think “Cor, I’ll never do that”, nothing gets done.”

So getting done it is. Read all about it in the November/December issue of Anglia Afloat.

There, you’ll also find the latest instalment of Ancient Anglia Afloat which covers the 19th century – wherries, Black Sails in the Sunset.

Then, back in October, I took the shots for a record of this year’s – the second – Cromer and Sheringham Arts Festival – CASAF. Never heard of it? What? Where have you been? Among the many striking acts was the stuff by Gaia Shaw, print maker and artist. Check out a couple of shots here on the Landscape page, but better still, look at her site:


Meanwhile, what of Spain?

What indeed – nearly three months ago and still being digested. The highlight of the 1200 mile anti-clockwise perambulation from Madrid west/south-west through the Gredos mountains and then south through Extramadura, was probably Serradilla.

 “This is Serradilla. Why are you here?” said someone early on. And in the overall scheme of things, it was a fair question. This is a village of 2000 or so people with nothing much to distinguish it among a thousand Extremaduran villages, all broadly uniform in nature and texture. It sits at the foot of a ridge in cork oak and cattle country – the dahesa – which is undulating and expansive with outbreaks of rocky hills and low mountains and, in spring, a riot of colour. But then, in late August, after three months of mid-30s C, the flora was two-tone – the deep green of the oaks and the straw colour of everything else – against which villages like Serradilla with their tightly clustered houses, white-walled and red-roofed, stood starkly out.

There are three ways to get there but the best one, if you don’t mind the dust and potholes, is the unmade road from the general direction of Plasencia to the north-east. It takes you for an hour or two in third and sometimes second gear from the end of the tarmac into the essence of western Spain, The cork oak runs away on either side, the trees 20 or 30 yards apart with poor-soil pasture, occasionally rotated with cereals, underneath, and the re-growable cork bark is still in demand despite being increasingly superseded as a wine stopper by plastic (ten times more environmentally expensive) and aluminium (25 times).

Eventually, the road begins to duck and dive more sharply until, from a final east-west ridge above an escarpment, the dahesa opens up properly, rolling away 25 miles and more to a horizon blurred by the summer heat. And down to the right, at the foot of the slope, and probably missed initially in the face of the bigger view, sits Serradilla.

Why did we stop there? Well, serendipity,  (Serradipity?) though initially for a cold beer. After 40 miles of bad road in nearly as many degrees, the need was for a phlegm cutter as they say in Australia in similar circumstances. But in one of the two bars visible on arrival, both (because over two days, we got to use both) littered as these places are with a sprinkling of sugar packets, tooth picks and dropped tapas, we saw a poster for the Grandes Festejos Tourinos  beginning the following day.

 Bullfighting, eh?  Love it or loathe it, this would be part of the essence and at grass roots, too. We found a place to stay.

 Except that it wasn’t really bullfighting – or even cow fighting – so much as torment before slaughter, and all cattle are eventually slaughtered. There were no picas nor banderillas nor swords; no weakening of the beast by bloody reduction until it stood still enough for the final, hopefully precise, thrust as can be seen during festivals all around the south and west and interminably on TV during the season.

First of all, Serradilla doesn’t have a bullring. They use the village square, covering its paving with earth, blocking the four corner exits with high metal barricades and lining its sides with stands of seating above frames of vertical bars between which tormenting lads and lasses can retreat as the beast gets near. Most barely emerge from that cover, and anyway, on the first day – our only day – most of them watched with reflexes shot through by a 7.00 am finish after a night of street dancing to a show-band on a truck trailer stage complete with digital backdrop. As the band’s opening medley (at 12.30 am – it’s cooler then) had incongruously reached “It’s Not Unusual” sung in barely accented English, the Jones boy’s neatly bearded face smiled out briefly, eight feet high, from behind the guitars and horns. It was after the medley, as the band regrouped and middle-aged couples who had pulled some nifty salsa moves returned to their tables under the stars, that a gaggle of teenagers overheard us and collectively posed the question. “You are English. This is Serradilla. Why are you here?”

 To which the answer has to be that if any of them had stumbled upon Morris Dancing or Gloucester cheese rolling or Norfolk dwile flonking, they might also have stopped to look.

Except again that bullfighting carries heavier baggage now. A few days later in Cordoba, when we idly asked at the Tourist Information if there was anything happening at the bullring, the lady suddenly became dismissive. It’s partly the culture clash between city and country as Tony Blair found with fox hunting. And yet while the mood in Spain generally might be moving against it, that’s not the case in places like Serradilla where the mood was that of a Texas or Queensland rodeo.

 The Festejo started with a morning for the kids when white-clothed, red neckerchiefed blokes with large, wheelbarrow-style plastic bulls heads chased them screaming around the arena and then Mickey Mouse turned up to lead community singing and throw sweets from the stand. The real action was in the afternoon and evening when first a couple of  big-horned heffers and then two bulls were released in turn from a truck a street or two removed, each to gallop in a sort of one-beast running-of-the-cattle and enter the arena through a gated corner. On its sighting, young men and women scattered to the safety of the metal bars, none of them having run the streets, though an 80-year old was apparently knocked down outside and ended up in Plasencia hospital with a shattered knee – what did he think he was doing?.

 There was a bit of cape work and plenty of shirt work from lads practised in the art of evasion; one jumped right over a charging bull and landed on his feet to applause all round. And then as each animal became exhausted, someone in the adjacent clock tower tolled a bell, a horn ensemble in the stand struck up a tune with terminal overtones and the beast was lassoed, hauled over to the bars where a hand-held captive bolt emerged to dispatch it. And there was no team of horses with jingling bells to remove the carcass as in the rings of Madrid or Seville but an ageing John Deere tractor with front mounted shovel into which the corpse was rolled to be lifted and driven away.

 Torment for entertainment? Certainly. Heartless? Maybe. But cattle farming is necessarily heartless because in the end they’re all dead and rarely of old age. And compare those energetic exits with the mortal fear apparent in the abattoir paddock or on its ramps and walkways where death has a smell and no casual audience. Serradilla’s way was certainly no worse.

 Even so, one day was enough for us because with no gorings to spark things up, a certain boredom set in. The following morning, we headed south across the  dahesa.  George streamed his phone through the radio: “Gimme Shelter” which – and the intro in particular – fitted the landscape.