Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Steam Trains

I love steam trains. As an engineer I love the sheer beauty and impressiveness of the engineering of the things, the power and the mechanics of it all. On a different level however, I love them because the are so “real”. With all their hissing and sissing and chunting and blowing they are like live animals and they are not “just” a piece of machinery. My last house in the UK was at Horsted Keynes Station on the Bluebell steam railway, every weekend throughout the year and every day in the summer, steam trains went past my front door. We got to recognise the sounds of each engine and when we heard a new engine go by, we would rush out to see what it was. Stepney was my favourite, he had such a friendly sound, “pip-pop, pip-pop” and the day he fell off the end of the line (OK the day he was driven off the end of the line by accident or by incompetence) we and the neighbours were out with Land Rovers and tractors helping him to be hoisted back on on to the rails again, and hoping he wasn’t too damaged to be up and running soon. The photo here is of him taken from the Bluebell line website and it is as I remember him. He was overhauled last year and I have seen that he has been repainted in a rather too sophisticated “black with red lines” which in no way matches his homely sound, so I didn't want to use that photo.

Imagine my surprise and excitement when I moved to France, 20 years after leaving the UK, to discover that for the first time in years steam trains had started to run on the national railway lines not too far from here. Well to be honest just one train was running, the 241P-17 which is a huge monster of a steam train built in Le Creusot by Schneider and lovingly restored by volunteers based in and around that town. It was one of the most
prestigious locomotives of its day, capable of travelling at exceptionally high speeds - a running speed of 120 km/hr. When we heard about it, we headed to the nearest vantage point on top of a bridge and watched it rush underneath us, maybe slower than a TGV, but in my opinion much more impressive. This huge powerful engine was charging down the line, literally breathing fire on those standing above it on the bridge.

Today when doing our shopping in Cluny, I saw the headlines of the paper saying there had been a train accident and it was none other than the 241P-17. It appears that there was a sudden leak of steam into the driver’s cabin and 8 of the 10 crew members have been injured, 2 seriously. The locomotive generates steam at 290 psi which will be about 215 degrees Celsius and that is more than enough to kill. It isn’t exactly clear what has happened, one report says a “steam leak” another says a “steam leak caused by over pressure”. The whole story took me back to my time as a chief engineer in industry and to be honest I wouldn’t want to be the one who was responsible for this engine at this very moment - some serious questions will be asked about the weld quality and inspection procedures and rightly so.

In any case the most powerful steam locomotive still in use in Europe is now in dock and is waiting for inspection and repairs. Hopefully the injuries to the crew of volunteers is not too great and hopefully they will recover quickly, but it does bring home the power of these beasts and the might of engineering and to be honest it does slightly make me itch to get my hands on some machinery again. On the other hand , maybe I will just stick with repairs in the gîtes and on the campsite – a lot safer me thinks !

La Tuilerie Website

Sunday, 28 August 2011


My Mum has been with us for the last two weeks, she arrived during a thunder storm and left during a thunder storm with dry, dry days in-between with temperatures up to a suffocating 38 degrees in the shade. The first few days we managed some time in the garden, but then all we could do was find the coolest spot possible and sit and read.
What is better reading material for such hot, dry weather than Jean de Florette. The crux of the story is about water, our need for it, our battle to find it and control it and about the lengths some people will go to, to get hold of this life giving liquid. As the story tumbles to its inevitable conclusion where one man and his family is destroyed by the lack of water, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky we are to live in a place and time where we really don’t have to worry about where the next drop will come from. Yes - water has been scarce this year, yes - we have been banned from washing cars and using hosepipes, but that doesn’t come anywhere near to the struggle some people suffer every day in their search for the stuff. So as I looked out of the train window on my way back from London, whilst passing the water tower in Ameugny and the tents of Taizé drenched by rain, the prospect of having to shut the campsite for a few days, due to it being too wet to drive on, didn’t seem like a hardship any more.

La Tuilerie Website

Monday, 22 August 2011

Making Mandalas

Last week was the 17th celebration of Himalayan Buddhism in Burgundy. The Temple of a 1000 Buddhas - Dashang Kagyu Ling, just outside the village of La Boulaye, was hosting a visit of some monks from the monastery at Gyuto Tantric University in the Dharamsala home to His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. These monks had come to take part in the annual mandala making.

Every year we say we will go and see the making of the sand mandala and every year we miss the festival for one reason or another, but this year we were determined and so off we went on the last day of the festival to see the afternoon session. Apart from during the “services”, this is one of the few occasions that you can actually enter the temple itself, the gallery is always open to the public in the afternoons, but the temple remains firmly closed - another reason for getting our skates on and making the visit.

When the gong sounded to open the temple doors, we went in barefooted. Turning to the right we saw the part-made mandala on a slightly raised platform and there we waited for the monks to arrive. Two monks then sat on the platform and prepared to work. They filled long metal cone-like devices with coloured sand and then placed the tip on the mandala where they need that particular colour. Using a metal stick they then rubbed the side of the cone (which seemed to be ridged) to create just enough vibration to deliver grains of sand one by one to the right place. There is little room for error in this task and the concentration was obvious. A third monk chanted gently in the background, most probably blessing the work as it progressed.

The mandala was started on Tuesday morning and was scheduled to be finished in time for
the closing ceremony at 17.00 on Thursday. When the mandala was finished, it would be carried to the banks of the river Arroux and all the sand would be washed into the river. This ceremony is believed to promote happiness and peace in the world, however, I couldn’t help think of how heartbreaking it would be to see three days worth of concentrated work destroyed in minutes.

The temple is always interesting to visit, its incongruity with the Burgundian landscape is fascinating, but the rare opportunity to look around the temple itself and closely inspect the huge Buddhas and other statues, whilst watching the painstakingly detailed work of the monks, made this a very special visit.

La Tuilerie Website

Friday, 12 August 2011

Making Pottery Bowls in Cluny

In Cluny at the moment there is a pottery exhibition running entitled “A chacun sa créativité” - “To each his own creativity”. The exhibition has been set up by 66 potters to celebrate the 90th birthday of one of their own - Frère Daniel of Taizé. Frère Daniel is a very accomplished potter and led the way for the creation of the Taizé range of pottery as well as branching out and making some quite stunning individual pieces of his own. He is very well respected in the potters’ community round here as well as throughout Europe. Many individuals and groups come from far and wide to follow courses led by him.

The exhibition centres around the thing that all potters will have made at sometime in their life, the bowl. This exhibition is unique in that it shows the work of all 66 potters and their creative approach to making bowls. More than 1000 bowls are on display and are available for sale with each one being a unique piece and each one showing the individual creativity of its maker.

To compliment this exhibition three discussions groups have been organised (one for each month of the exhibition) on the subjects of creativity and the development of personal creativity with both Frère Daniel and Jean Cottraux (a psychiatrist and behavioural psychologist who’s book inspired the title of the exhibition) being present. Over and above the discussion groups, there is the opportunity for anyone to make a bowl themselves, in one of the makeshift potters’ studios.

Well I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make my own bowl. When talking to a friend the other day, I discovered that she had done it the week before and she was very enthusiastic about it. You can’t just walk in to the bowl-making sessions, you have to sign up for them (even though they are free) and after a wait of a couple of weeks, our day came yesterday.

So at five o’clock on the dot, there we were ready to make our bowls. Fully expecting to be shown to a potter’s wheel to throw a lump of clay on it and make a mess, we were to be disappointed - no potter’s wheel in sight. Our first task was to squeeze a lump of damp clay in one hand and a dry sponge in the other and when we released both hands, the sponge returned to its normal shape but the clay was squashed. We were told that this demonstrated the special properties of clay that will be used to create our bowl. Clay can be manipulated into a shape. Now this might go down well with a group of pre-school children but I found it a tad patronising and I will not repeat what Cees said to me in Dutch at that moment !

Sadly I think this kind of event is very dependant on the person guiding you through the process and our potter-guide was tired, bored and not very inspiring, leaving us wondering why we had missed “Question pour un Champion” to do this.

In any case, I made two round bowls one by sticking my thumb in the middle of a lump of clay then squidging the sides to make them grow upwards and one by winding a sausage of clay round in circles until the sides grew. I also made a small square-ish bowl and a butterfly as I too was drifting off into the same bored dream-like state as our “leader” and had totally lost interest in the finer points of clay sausages. My masterpieces have by now been recycled for the next group, but I do have the photos to show for it, which is just as well as I won’t bother to try my hand at pottery again.

Summary - excellent exhibition, some nice bowls on display, the bowl making session could be a lot of fun with the right person in charge, sadly we did not have that person.

La Tuilerie Website

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sunday in Chalon

When you have visitors to stay what do you do around here on a Sunday? Chalon-sur-Saône has a wonderful market scattered around the old town and it is really worth a visit. On the way to the market Cees’ son had to be shown where his father had stayed for 3 weeks a couple of years ago during the “great pace-maker escape” of 2009, see photo and arrow. By the way, if you ever have to spend time in the cardiac unit of Chalon hospital, make sure you get a west facing room, there are lovely views of the cathedral from that side.

On to the market. The market is centred around the cathedral, but it seems to change streets every time we visit it. This time the market meandered around some streets we have never visited before and culminated in a very attractive small square. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of “organic” vegetable stalls this time, but the usual goats’ cheese, dried sausages and roast chicken stalls were also present in abundance, giving the whole a very appetising aroma. After spending the best part of an hour and half wandering round listening to the street musicians and enjoying the atmosphere, we made our move to lunch at the Indian restaurant Bollywood. Either we are getting less fussy or this restaurant is getting better every time we visit and this time was no exception - now that’s what I call a good Sunday lunch.

Chalon is the birth place of Nicéphore Niépce said to be the inventor of photography and it houses a museum detailing his achievements and housing several exhibitions per year about cameras and/or photography. When we visited this afternoon, there was an exhibition on family albums from the late 1800s up to the 1990s, just random family albums that have somehow come into the hands of the museum. It felt a little voyeuristic looking at family holiday snaps and baby photos from people you do not know and will most probably never meet, but I found them fascinating. Sadly though, the layout was such that it didn’t seem to grab every visitor’s attention.

The second exhibition was of a Swiss photographer (Karlheinz Weinberger) who took pictures of teenage “rebels” in the early 1960s, the photos must have looked intimidating and they would have been shocking to the general Swiss public in their time, but they look rather quaint in the 21st century. Having said that they were well taken and gave an interesting view of these Swiss gangs.

The supposed highlight of the museum was what I can only describe as an excessively long film explaining what was meant by calling Nicéphore Niépce “the inventor of photography”. In fact as far as I could tell from the story, although he never made a penny out of his invention, he was the first person to manage to get an image (be it a copy of a picture, an imprint of a leaf or a “photo” of his back garden) to be reproduced by using light from the sun. He did not produce photos as we know them, he used a chemical layer on a sheet of metal to cause the metal to be etched with the image just using sunlight, this metal sheet was then inked and used in a conventional press creating a reproduction. It could have been a very interesting film, but the length and the repetitiveness of the content left us all yawning.

So all in all I would say that the museum had lots and lots of potential, it had cameras galore, photos galore and information galore, but it didn’t seem to hang together, all in all it was sadly a missed opportunity.

Then it was home to Chazelle for a long sit in the back garden, feet up enjoying a glass of beer. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a Sunday.

La Tuilerie Website
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