28 September 2012


You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone!

It is night.  I can hear rain blowing against glass, smattering my sleeplessness.  I was dreaming of Field Marshal Montgomery in a white beret, his smile damaged by a long cigarette holder.  The rain dribbled down his face, rusting it red and slowly it washed away to course down a rough street, past darkly decaying houses and over sandalled feet as legionnaires marched.  I heard the bleating of sheep and the rattling of chains and reached for the light.  Very little happened, though slowly a dim glow began to illuminate a flocked wall.

I turn on more lights and slowly dawn breaks.  I am not Terry Waite.  I know I am in Room 6.  Room 6 is bigger than Room 5, where the desk and chair were separated by a large and immovable bed.  Room six even has a trouser press.  But Room six has the same picture over the bed as Room 5 did.  A picture of two sheep chained by the horns.  One looks at me, as if I am in the wrong place.  The other looks out the window, as if she is in the wrong place.  In both Room 5 (where I was last night) and Room 6 the sheep have a forlorn look and I sense they do not like the wallpaper, especially when it is reflected in the mirrors.

I am here on business, but my business does not start for an hour.  Indeed nothing starts for an hour, so I wander down the empty stairs to the empty breakfast room.  Outside the giant chess set on the lawn has been beaten down and scattered by the storm.  No check.  No mates.

Outside, someone left their pint on the table, in the rain.  It is not tempting.  It was there yesterday.

The gardens are better kept than the House, but both tell a story of past wealth and power.  The House was once, according to Bulmer's History & Directory of Cumberland, 1901, "The Flosh, the seat of David Ainsworth, Esq., J.P. and D.L., a handsome mansion of stone. The grounds, three acres in extent, are tastefully laid out, and contain conservatories, orchid houses, vineries, etc. The farm attached, is noted for its breed of prize Leicestershire sheep."  The Ainsworth family made their money from the Flax Mill, which in 1901 employed some 600 people.

The Flax Mill later became the home of the Kangol company, which was founded in 1938, taking its name from silK, ANGora and woOL.  Montgomery of Alamein became one of their top models, but lesser well known is the white anglo-basque with a satin lining made especially by Mary Tomlinson from nearby Frizington for Bette Davis to wear in one of her films.  You can see, and hear, Mary's story at:

In 2009, the same year that the River Ehen burst its banks at Cleator, near to the Kangol factory, flooding fields and a number of residential properties (300mm of rain fell in Cumbria on November 19th), the factory was closed and the company, now owned by Sportsworld, moved their manufacturing base to China.

Since the Second World War the house has had mixed fortunes, being at times Council Offices and at times empty and derelict.  Its career in hospitality and catering began when the Truepennies family took it over to make it a B&B in 1981.  It's on Wainwright's Coast to Coast Walk as well as a National Cycle Trail, but this enterprise did not flourish.  In 1990 it became the Ennerdale Country House Hotel and since September 2006 it has been part of the Oxford Hotels and Inns group.

I wander down the Roman road (15 feet wide, and formed of cobbles and freestones) that is now the High Street. 

The cottages lining both sides of the street have a particularly Irish look to them, and there may have been a large influx of Irish looking for work when the works of the Whitehaven Hæmatite Iron and Steel Co., Ltd., were opened at Cleator in 1842.  The iron ore of Cleator district is that kind known as red or kidney ore, and is thus described by Mr. Dick in "Iron Ores of Great Britain," Part I: "Compact red hæmatite; easily scratched by a file; lustre earthy; colour, purplish grey; streak, bright red; fracture, uneven; containing cavities lined with crystals of specular iron; and containing, in some cases, quartz."  Other companies opened iron ore (and coal) pits here and the Catholic Church, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Our Lady, a handsome structure in the decorated style, was erected in 1853 at a cost of £6,000, raised by subscriptions.  In 1901, according to Bulmer, there was even a Benedictine Priory with three monks attached to the church. 

As I realise I am late for breakfast, and late for work, my disturbed night, and crazy dreams, begin to make sense.  I hurry back to join my colleagues.

Then, bags packed and clipboards at the ready, we take our leave.  As we cruise down the High Street, without stopping to admire the Grotto, modelled on the Grotto at Lourdes; without time to visit St Leonard's Church, with its 12th century chancel; without the stomach to admire Ehen Hall and its 8 acres of grounds, once the property of Jonas Lindow (who prospered from ownership of the Glebe Pit); and we don't even stop to enjoy Longlands Lake, on the site of the former Longlands iron ore mine, nor nearby Clints Quarry Nature Reserve, a scheduled Site of Special Scientific Interest and of considerable botanical and geological importance. 

Much as we would love to stay......  We have to leave......

2 September 2012

TESSERAE - 5 - One night in Trevignano

“Oh, when the saints....!”

The party was due to begin at 8.00pm.  Being Italy, we knew it would be late, so, exercising British decorum, we make our way to the cobbled heart of Trevignano Romano at about ten past eight….. To our surprise, however, the jazz band is in full swing, rattling out “Muskrat Ramble” and every seat is taken, with only jostle room in the tiny piazza below the village church.  It just shows – Italy always can never be taken for granted!

Truman Peebles, the man of the moment, sits regally in the front row, his weathered Stetson proudly signalling his presence.  This is a very special occasion.  Despite the grumblings of 97 year old Salvatore, who cantankerously claims that he is the oldest man in the village (having been born there), this is Truman’s night.  100 years old and still going strong; sharp of mind if a little slow of foot; fêted by the whole village, with old friends and family gathering from all over the world. 

Truman came to Italy with his young family on the SS Lucania in 1951, as a founder member of the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome.  Then, when he retired, he moved out to Trevignano, fifty kilometres north of Rome, to share a house with the writer Victor von Hagen, since whose death in 1985 (about when we first met him) Truman has lived on his own, sallying forth several times a day for coffee at Ermete’s bar, or a meal at La Grotta Azzurra, where he dines with owner Nazzareno every Thursday.

The band, a group of Roman friends, launch into “On the sunny side of the street,” with gusto.  Two tiny great grandchildren start to dance, provoking a tirade from the leader who proclaims that children should never be allowed. Ever! Truman stands to take applause as they break into their finale, “Oh! When the saints….” cornettist Aldo giving a fine imitation of Louis Armstrong, with a Roman accent (Ah! Whan ze scentz….) 


Truman with Roisin (on his right) and Dympna

Then the music ends, and the crowd presses forward to shake Truman’s hand, kiss his cheek, wish him long life…..  In the adjoining piazzetta, outside his house, trestle tables have been set up, piled with goodies, and we join the throng.  Typically, there has been an attempt at control and many hands thrust forward tickets.  But the authority soon gives up; we have no tickets, but, with smiles all round, I come away with plates of rigatoni and pizza, hunks of foccacce, and tumblers of vino.  

Around 11.00 the Mayor arrives, flanked by splendid officials, and presents Truman with an engraved plaque commemorating his centenary.  A belly dancer appears, and is joined on stage by assorted revellers.  The sky is inky, the ochre walls echo disco music and glow with summer warmth and orange light.  We sit with Truman on the steps outside his flat, the crowd fluttering by like starlings, until, way past midnight, it is time for us to make for our beds.  The old man waves goodnight.

I want to be in that number…..!”

TESSERAE - 4 - Spoleto, Umbria


I am standing in the middle of a major road, the SS3, five hundred metres from the mouth of the tunnel under the Castle at Spoleto.  A set of traffic lights has just turned red and nothing appears to be coming toward me.  I seize the opportunity to walk the concrete ribbon and snatch a photo of the castle from a rare standpoint.

t’s not the greatest view, but it is not a conventional one.  The road, a modern carriageway though bearing the name of the ancient Via Flaminia, burrows into the hill above the dry Tessino river bed, shafting straight under the fourteenth century Rocca (castle). 

It is eerily quiet.  The light still red, nothing oncoming, I sneak forward to improve the view.   A cowled figure, angular, grey, fleeting, seems to beckon me toward the mouth of the tunnel.  He calls out, but I cannot catch the words in the silence, the idle engines blurring the edges of the call.  I step forward, the road inviting me under the hill, and like a fox I am there, sniffing the dark, padding forward into the gloom.

A scent of sweat and musky blanket precedes me; a stair opens into the rock and the pungency of wool and rope entices me upwards.  The stairs are narrow, dank and slippery, but I can hear the slap of leather sandal on stone above me, and then I am in a cave, a room, a glorious opening, with angels spinning round me in a canopy of blue.  God himself kneels, not for me, of course, but to bless the virgin, his right hand held upright with fingers ranged in benediction,. His left hand gently lowering a golden crown, the very image of his own, onto the virgin’s brow.  His hair and beard, uniformly white but combed and trimmed, connects the jewelled red mitre with the jewelled red coat, his cuffs adorned with gold and precious stones.  His shoulders are kept warm by a green mantle, itself held in place by a golden chain.  The girl is decked in finery beyond the reach of mortal purse, her hands in prayer to beg pardon for her unworthiness.  Gold, pearls, opals, topaz, amethyst – the sheen of silk and lace glittering into the golden sun behind.

The freshness of the paint overcomes me, but Filippo steadies my arm and leads me up the wooden scaffolds, past guttering wicks, and into an enclosed garden, with a tiled patio.  A golden haired angel in a red robe kneels before a doorway, a white lily in the left hand.  From a cloud above a white haired and bearded figure lasers down a message that strikes through a grille and pierces the shoulder of a delicate girl in red and white who sits demurely with her fingers intertwined in shy confusion.  It is the remarkable announcement of an imminent birth that prefigures ultrasound by two millennia. 

We pass through into the crowd, and move past the priest, the mourners and the praying women; past the ashen faced corpse with her delicate hands clasped above a rich orange coverlet; I pass Filippo himself with his angelic son Filippino then I pass the green hills and rocky mounts,

until I stand behind a young woman kneeling before her infant, which lies passively on a cloth on the stony floor, his father humbly musing at his head, a cow and a donkey gently smiling down from behind wicker hurdles. 

I step gingerly on, past a wooden saddle and through an arch in the crumbling wall.  The path leads back down, into a cave, down the slippery steps and I find myself back in the tunnel, hurrying to my car. 

I didn’t notice that the lights had changed.

1 September 2012

Trevignano Romano

Bar Ermete Dal 1931 - Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 8, Trevignano Romano

No one knows precisely how many people live in Trevignano Romano.  When we lived there in the eighties and nineties the received wisdom was that around 2,500 people lived there in the winter and that that figure might rise to as many as twenty thousand at times in the summer.  The most recent (2008) census figure was 5,819 but many of those will not be permanently resident.  Since we left, about fifteen years ago, there has been continual building, but sites have closed, with unfinished villas scarring the landscape, property sales have flat lined for many months now, and affitasi (to let) signs flutter like flags on many balconies.

The sun going down from La Casina Bianca

Trevignano Romano is a picturesque village about fifty kilometres north of Rome.  It sits on the shore of Lake Bracciano, a bottomless (some 170 metres deep, but even Jacques Cousteau failed to find the deepest point) lake which fills a 30 kilometre round volcanic caldera.  The village is dominated by the remains of an Orsini castle (destroyed in 1496 by one of the Borgia family) and a forested volcanic cone, known as the Rocca Romana, to commemorate the shrine the Romans created on its top.  Volcanic activity is still very much present in the area, with a derelict hot-spring spa at Vicarello (about three kilometres from the village) awaiting multinational corporation agreement on its redevelopment.

The wonderful traditional trattoria at Vicarello

Until the second world war Trevignano was little more than a fishing village, and metalled roads did not reach it.  Then, in the fifties, market gardening flourished and the villagers prospered by getting up early and trucking their produce into the Rome central markets in the early hours of the morning.  The fertile volcanic soil was perfect for tomatoes and salad crops, beans and leaf vegetables.  For a while, until the coastal strips to the north and south of Rome caught up, there was a boom. 

La Chiesa dell'Assunta - with 16th century frescos from the School of Raphael

When, inevitably, that faded, the village was on the map, Gianni Agnelli’s Fiats were everywhere, the roads had been tarred, and Trevignano became a desirable place for holiday outings, then second homes, and then even commuters.  Instead of being a tight jumble of close-knit dwellings around the church, with the occasional villa along the shoreline, cement began to pour, and the march of apartment blocks away from the medieval centre began.

A Carnival Parade in Trevignano - Italia da vero!

It is still lovely, much lovelier and much less sprawling and overcrowded than Anguillara and Bracciano, the two other lakeside towns (both served incidentally by a railway line into Rome) and we remain very much attached to it.

Celebrating a centenary

We have come back for a few days to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of its favourite citizens.  Although American by birth, Truman Peebles has lived there since his retirement from Rome’s Food and Agricultural Organisation forty years ago.  His long white hair and flowing beard make him stand out from the crowd, and when our children were little his resemblance to Father Christmas was too good not to exploit.

Truman Peebles - 100 years young

In those years, we used to meet him on his daily jog along the shore, or see him swimming in the morning in the stillness of the lake.  Nowadays, although he still lives alone in a first floor flat in the heart of the centro storico (historic centre) he moves a little slower, and jogging has slowed to a gentle shuffle.

Hey, that's my wife!

Old friends greet us in the piazza, and in their shops.  My anglo-saxon reserve is surprised by the number of kisses I exchange, but it is all wonderfully friendly.  I have my hair expertly cut by Alberto; discuss photography with Loretta, property sales with Pietro and Mimmo, politics with journalist Paddy (whose wife Dympna has become involved with local campaigns) the flux of tourism with Nazzareno, the expectation of grandchildren with Sandro, and the passing of the older generation with the family at La Casina Bianca.  Amanda has a lengthy and involved conversation with her friend from the shoe-shop, which includes him telling us about how modern tomatoes don’t taste like they used to, how he and friends once feasted on an enormous capon with skin like leather, and concludes with him showing us a pair of boots his father made, specially adapted to the unpaved streets at the time.

My father's boots!

During our stay, on this occasion in a beautifully positioned Bed and Breakfast, (http://www.laterrazzasullago.com/), which really does have a splendid terrace overlooking the lake; we laze on the beach, swimming every so often to keep cool, climb to the castle remains, and through the hornbeam, turkey oak and chestnut woods to the ruined medieval chapel at the 612 metre high summit of the Rocca Romana(the village is at 173 metres above sea level).   From here you used to be able to see a panorama of the lake, including the castle at Bracciano and the aeronautical museum at Vigna di Valle (where flying boats on route to Egypt and India from London used to dock for Rome in the 1930s), but the trees have grown and it is only sparkling glimpses now.  Man’s best endeavours are only temporary; the world of nature reclaims its own. 

Hornbeam growing from a volcanic bomb

Next to the chapel is a great concrete slab, with four rusted iron sockets set into it.  Here it was once intended that a great cross would stand; I hear the words of Shelley in my head, “Look on my works….” But I do not despair.

The medieval chapel atop Rocca Romana, arising from a Roman shrine

We descend, and dine with Truman at La Grotta Azzurra, one of the oldest and best restaurants in the village. 

It is a perfect evening and with a full moon rising, a glass of local wine and a plate of royal perch nothing could be finer. Under these conditions, 100 years seems nothing.  It doesn’t really matter how many people live in Trevignano.  It matters how people live – and like this, you could live forever!

Tramonto over Lake Bracciano



Truman in 1991 (that's him on the left!)