Monthly Archives: April 2011

On Syria

How much do tourists look, but not see?

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. I returned from a visit to Syria on 14 March. Quickly after that, protests erupted against corruption and demanding reform, initially in the southern city of Dera’a but spreading quickly to major towns and cities. If the story has followed a similar pattern to other uprisings of the Arab Spring, the response of Syrian authorities has been more repressive than others. The few images that have made their way out of the country have made for grim viewing. At the time of writing there’s no end in sight as the country’s hardline military regime takes a hard line against protestors.

All of this feels a long way away from the Syria that I saw. I spent much of my trip visiting the so-called Dead Cities, Roman-era settlements set among the limestone massif of north-eastern Syria that are so well preserved you expect the locals to wander out, wearing togas and sandals, greet you in and then go about their business. I loved the country, and was delighted that I’d visited despite suggestions from friends to the contrary that I reconsider given events elsewhere. My Mum didn’t really approve. Frankly, I didn’t give their concerns a second’s thought when eating pistachio ice cream in Damascus’ souq, strolling the battlements of Krak des Chevaliers – possibly the best castle in the world – or hitching a lift on a Bedouin farmer’s motorbike. If I’m being honest I’ve never felt safer anywhere in the world.

Given what’s happened since then, reconciling these two views of Syria have proved difficult. Which is real, the grainy images of a country in turmoil, or my own experiences, of a beautiful, little-visited land that felt every inch like the next big thing in travel?

Looking back, there were a few clues about the people and place. A Kurdish taxi driver took me to his village close to the Turkish border outside Aleppo. It was remote and poor, but the neighbouring town was noticeably more prosperous. He said with a wry smile that this was where the police lived, who were the richest people in the area due to the back-handers they took. In Damascus at Friday prayers a heavy police presence materialised, noting who was doing what on exiting the Ummayad Mosque. They obviously suspected that not everyone was planning to admire the jaw-dropping mosaics. And on several occasions young Syrians I was speaking to would look around urgently during conversations, like they were conscious of being watched.

None of this made a huge impression at the time. Rather selfishly I was relieved the country appeared peaceful and didn’t ask too many questions. While that’s wise practice when it comes to politics in many countries, it’s left me with a feeling that I had my head in the clouds. I have mixed feelings about the trip, especially as I came away feeling that the country was not on the verge of revolt. Whether this is naivety or a sign of the careful planning that has gone into the protests, I’m not sure.

Despite the unease I feel when I see Syria on the news, my visit there has made me care more deeply about what’s going on. I find myself reading traveller’s updates on the Thorn Tree daily to see what it’s like currently. I’ve also emailed some of the friends I made to ask if they are safe but have had no replies.

Next time I take a trip like this, though, I shall try to look harder, as however much I loved the country, I can’t escape the feeling that I missed a big part of the picture. I suspect many of us, flying in for a few weeks or less, then buzzing off somewhere else, are doomed to do the same. Tourism’s value, to individual and host, only goes so far.

A grand theft at Westminster Abbey

The eyes of the world are on Westminster Abbey, the pivotal location in the history of royal London, England and Britain for over 1000 years. So old is the Abbey that England did not exist when it was founded in the era of Mellitus, Bishop of London from 604-619. It was built on an island that is no longer extant, known as Thorn Ey or Thorney Island, created by the dissipating channels of the now-buried Tyburn river. Fancy a dip in the Tyburn today? It’s waters tip into the Serpentine, site of open-water swimming at the 2012 Olympics and open to the public for bathing during the summer months.

Westminster Abbey: built on cheerless marshes

The Abbey’s handsome west towers, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1722 and 1745, are one of the more recent additions to this Gothic wonder that, rightly, ranks highly on most London tourist itineraries. Like other icons of the capital, many Londoners pass by frequently, vowing one day to brave the crowds, then never do. They’re missing a treat. Monarchs like Henry V, Richard II and Elizabeth I are interred here, along with Chaucer, Newton, Kipling, Handel and Dickens. An afternoon in the company of the greats of Britain can only be a fascinating one.

Sir Walter Besant, Victorian novelist, historian and a great Victorian who lived all but one year of his life (1836-1901) under the Queen’s reign, had plenty to say about London, and Westminster received special attention in his 1895 book of the same name.

A review of his biography of Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington noted “Mr Besant is an enthusiast about London, and revels in its archives, its traditions, its historic associations and its literary memories. He loves the town, not exactly as Dr Johnson loved it, but somewhat in the manner of Leigh Hunt or Charles Dickens.” That’s not a bad epitaph.

I’ve tried and failed to find a digitised copy of Westminster online, but found one at a second hand book sale and hid it from a lurking old man with a beard who was admiring it. That, reader, is how I have it now and how I can bring you this marvellous anecdote from it. I should point out that I did, at least, pay for it.

Inside is an anecdote which reaches through the centuries from 1303. At the turn of the fourteenth century Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots and the man who built the Eleanor Crosses along the route of the funerary procession of his wife Eleanor of Castile was King of England and had just signed a peace agreement with France which allowed him to focus on whacking those north of the border. His treasure trove, the Royal Treasury, was kept at Westminster Abbey, and was a pretty hefty hoard, having been built up to pay for his Scottish campaigns.

Edward I: not someone likely to be delighted to find out someone’s walked off with his treasure

Things were not going quite so well for Richard de Podelicote, a merchant, “probably”, Besant notes “an unsuccessful trader in foreign wares.” Unsuccessful, but not without cunning. Besant picks up the story:

“…he observed that the small gate in the wall which led from the Palace to the Abbey (at the door now by Poet’s Corner) was unwatched and neglected. At this time the King himself with a great army was on his way to Scotland: the palace was therefore deserted…the strictness of the rules about watching those who entered or went out was relaxed.”

The Chapter House at the Abbey

Podelicote broke in by placing a ladder against the Chapter House windows and, possibly with the assistance of whatever night-watch was in place as an accomplice let himself into the Cloisters. He proceeded to pilfer silver cups from the Refectory and, having reversed his route, hid for the rest of the night simply walked out of the Palace-Abbey complex the following morning. He spent the proceeds and came back hunting for a greater prize.

A bag of swag from the Refectory was one thing, but the Royal Treasury was, as Besant notes, “a far more serious job…the Treasury was a chamber with stone walls of great thickness, cemented firmly, only to be dislodged by being taken away piecemeal with infinite labour: and to carry out whole sacks and hampers full of treasure was impossible for one man unaided.” Then again, given the ease with which he pilfered the Refectory it can’t have been too hard to rope others in.” Besant goes to lengths to question whether the monks of the abbey were involved, and though there’s no evidence it would be remarkable, given what he was up to if he hadn’t at least paid a few of the residents off

This grand theft took place over several nights at the end of April 1303, exactly 708 years ago, the climax of months of diligent work to access the Treasury. His confession noted some of the booty: “pitchers, cups with feet and covers…a pitcher with stones…three pouches full of jewels…a great crucifix and jewels…two little pitchers of silver….spoons, saucers, spice dishes of silver, crowns, girdles and other jewels.” He took all this “out of the gate near St Margaret’s Church and left nothing behind within it.” And nobody stopped him!

As is sometimes the case, the facts of the discovery of Podelicote’s brazen theft of the finest treasure in England is not clear. Edward Longshanks, it can be assumed, was far from happy when he learnt about it in June. It must have been an interesting task for the messenger who broke the news to one of the most fearsome monarchs in history to do so.

Westminster suggests that “many of the criminals were caught in actual possession of the spoil.” but also says “the history of this wonderful case is unfortunately incomplete. The fate of the ringleaders is unknown…it is, however, quite certain they were hanged, most likely with pleasing additions to hanging which prolonged the ceremony and gave it greater prominence.” A load of monks were sent to the Tower of London.

With that, the doors of history slam shut and Podelicote exits stage left. Perhaps Princess Kate should watch that his ghost doesn’t whip the tiara off her head.

The first swim of the year

Highgate Men’s Pond, as a breathless entrant into the water said to himself within my earshot as he puffed away from the jetty one late summer’s day last year, ‘always delivers, never disappoints.’

Today (April 6) I achieved my earliest entry into the water yet. Walrus men with iron constitutions and tiny trunks swim year-round, mostly at or during dawn, but I plan to build up to that gradually over the next forty years or so. After a long, cold winter though, the first truly sunny and warm day of the year happily coincided with a day working from home.

I was excited and a little nervous about what promised to be a frigid plunge, but I shouldn’t have been. The pond may always deliver, but it also has an unchangingly magical air and at atmosphere at once unique and timeless. If you’d have walked in on a day like today at anytime over the past half century or more you’d have found knots of men, some old friends, some regulars, some new acquaintances, chatting while drying off in the sun. Next door, a smattering of naturists make good use of the only public nude sunbathing area in London.

The chalk-board greets swimmers with various notes, and, casually tossed in, the water temperature: 10c. Not warm, but at least double figures.

Walking out onto the jetty with a walrus man close behind I quickly realise I now have to jump into the dark green depths of the pond, where non-swimming types fish for huge pike which, when caught, often make the front page of the local paper. A quick dive in and the rush is instant. As I splash along, breathing like a hippo but grinning maniacally my surrounds come into focus. A colourful bird (sorry I can’t name it) swims nonchalantly next to me. The trees ringing the pond are not so green as later in the summer, a reminder we are still in Spring with a whole season to look forward to. Walrus man is swimming much better than I am.A few minutes is enough, then a couple of dives back in, then off again. Another walrus comes out for his dip. He must be 70, and I wonder if he’ll ease himself in. Silently he hops onto the diving board, bounces once and then smashes, from about eight feet in the air, into the water.

My internal organs glow all the way home.

Heaven is in London, and it is here on the Heath, when the sun shines.



Syrian snaps

It feels a little incongruous to be looking at these pictures I took in Syria, still much less than a month ago, when there are such significant events taking place in the country.

Despite that, I would recommend anyone to visit this friendly, fascinating and beguiling country. If not now – and care is needed both not to recklessly recommend a visit nor to put off would-be visitors when many places can be safely visited- then certainly, hopefully soon. I would return in a heartbeat.

Here are some photos I took. I’m not a great photographer but hope they give a flavour of the trip.

Mushabbak: a Roman church close to St Simeon's shrine, north-east Syria

My classy wheels around the limestone massif, north-east Syria

Lovely, remote Qasr ibn Wardan, complete with Spring greenery

Swag-carrying Crusader Guy de Lusignan, one-time Latin King of Jerusalem, prostrate on the rear of a statue of Saladin, Damasus

Krak des Chevaliers looking moody in mist and rain

Madrasa Halawiye, housed in all that remains of the sixth century Cathedral of St Helen, Aleppo

London, 1802

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour;
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

William Wordsworth