30 October 2012

Shandy Hall

The Marbled Page

My wife, Eliza, and I, having recently returned to England from India, desired to visit the north and so, given that I knew of Eliza’s earlier interest in the writer, Parson Sterne, I resolved that, time permitting, we would pass by to meet the gentleman.

We had been away from this country for many years, and time had changed many things.  Our journey was swifter than anticipated and we were able to alight from our carriage in the late morning at the Fauconberg Arms, a modest inn just near St Michael’s Church, where our man was parson.

St Michael's Church, Coxwold

It was an easy walk, a quarter mile, to Shandy Hall.  I have to admit to apprehension and Eliza said perhaps we had better not.  She seemed confused, as if her youthful indiscretions were finally disturbing her.  We proceeded, and entered a yard next the coach-house.  The Hall seemed small, and almost as if it had been composed in different times, by differing means.  Although I thought I heard someone whistling Lillabullero, we could see no one but a cat, which led us to the kitchen door, which was ajar. 

There was no response to my knock, nor to my call, and yet I thought I heard the same whistled tune somewhere within the interior.  It would be a shame, I thought, to have come so far and not to complete the tryst.  I smiled at my joke – a triste tryst, to be tristramed in this way.  My wife held back, but I drew her in, and we stepped into the kitchen, where a fire smouldered in the grate, the deep ochre of the great surround warmer than the ashes.  It seemed a spacious house, as if it were larger inside than expected from without.  The cat, tail aloft, sailed on through the door to the right.  We followed, and found ourselves in a small study, books upon the table, ink blots hurried dabbed on paper, a portrait of himself over the mantelpiece.  A lamp feebly lit the gloom but I could read the words, “Viva la joia!” on the page, and underneath, “Fidon la tristessa!”   Someone had been here recently, and a glass of wine, half full, half empty, stood still warm by an open book of sermons.

Shandy Hall - the great fireplace end
We went through to the green panelled dining room, where I noticed that the clock had stopped, and thence into the comfortably furnished but cold parlour.  We found no-one, and continued into the garden, past the sweet pavilion and round to the sundial overlooking the countryside.  But even the sundial had stopped, as the sun itself had gone.  Eliza seemed relieved, and begged that we may return to the inn.  I myself had lost my earlier will to encounter my rival.  Something about the place, the way the garden wrapped around the house, the worn red brick of the Garden Front, the gentle cosiness within, the homeliness of the place endeared me to its master and I remembered his aphorism that, “True Shandeism…..makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round.” 

The Garden Front
Then I heard a snatch of Lillabullero again, this time approaching, and I prepared to confront my wife’s correspondent.  But it was not Sterne, nor Shandy, Trim, nor Toby.  Not even Slop, nor indeed Yorrick..  It was in fact a gentleman without a wig or jacket, who bore something shiny in his right ear.  He had high cheek bones and bore a strong resemblance to a painting I had seen of the Reverend Sterne by Joshua Reynolds.  But he was not Sterne.  He introduced himself as Mr Patrick Wildgust, a curate for the Hall, who enquired politely what our business was.

The unwound sundial
When I explained that we had made a considerably lengthy journey to encounter Mr Laurence Sterne, he welcomed us warmly, but he needed to inform us that Mr Sterne no longer lived here, nor indeed anywhere, as he had contracted pleurisy and passed away in London, in 1768.  My wife turned pale, and searched for a kerchief to catch her tears.  I felt the journey had suddenly become too sentimental; the immortal Sterne was now mortalised and there was no turning the clock back, now his time was past.  We thanked the kindly Mr Wildgust for his information, and turned away, somewhat relieved, though somewhat triste as well. 

Shandy Hall - the Front Door

Before we regained the inn, we entered the churchyard and walked up the rise to the door.  The yard was full, but there was not a soul in sight.  A simple stone stood against the wall to commemorate the life and works of one whose ambition had been to write, “a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good – and all your heads too, - provided you understand it.”.  Within the porch an older stone, transported from St George’s, Bayswater, was engraved with an affectionate eulogy.  Then inside we stood for a moment by the box pews, where many a congregation would have heard him preach, and breathed the timeless air.

St Michael's - the view from the pulpit
Eliza, my dear wife, whom I had married when she was seventeen, took my arm, her shoulders convulsing in her sadness.  Back at the inn we asked for food and drink to revive our flagging spirits.  I would have a shandy.  No, make that two, please.  Two halves of bitter shandy……

Alas, Poor Yorrick!

Si quid urbaniusculè lusum a nobis…. Oro te, ne me male capias.

Daniel Draper
The East India Company

28 October 2012

Brian Bennett


From Coombe Hill

Brian Bennett is an Old Master. At least, he is one of my old masters. For thirty years from 1957 he was Art Master (Director of Art) at Berkhamsted School, throughout which time, and beyond, he was also a great friend of my parents. Now at 88 he surely qualifies for the epithet old, but with all the veneration Old Masters deserve. 

Ivinghoe Hills, Winter 

Brian read History at Magdalen College, Oxford, but the inspiration of his English teacher at school, Peter Greenham R.A., led him to become a painter.  I paint in oils with a knife, he explains, mostly landscapes of the Chilterns, where I live, concentrating on wild flowers that grow on the chalk and on the wide panoramic views from the escarpment.  In 2001 he published A Painter's Year: 12 months in the Chilterns, which contains over 80 reproductions of his work.  He is also the author of Oil Painting with a Knife, published by Search Press, as he paints, almost exclusively with a painting knife (not a palette knife) which I modify to my own requirements….. Large and more studied work may require pencil sketches to confirm the composition, but generally I brush a few compositional marks with very dilute paint on the canvas before I begin, in earnest, with my knife.

Sowthistle and Knapweed

This knife work is clearly evident on close examination, but the overall effect is one of bright detail, sharp definition and living contrast.  His foregrounds often show the umbels of wild carrot or beaked parsley, the heads of bristly ox-tongue or knapweed, or the delicate spikes of wild orchids.  May blossom, silver birches and young beech leaves enlighten his landscapes, and distant views of church towers or farm buildings create perspective and add touches of red or white angularity. 

Ivinghoe Hills, Winter - (Detail)

The Chilterns and the Vale of Aylesbury are where he concentrates today, but his work is not limited by locality.  He has travelled throughout Europe and the British Isles, and one of my personal favourites was painted on the beach at Charmouth in 1962, showing Golden Cap.  The deft knife work captures the day, from the children paddling to the flash of gold gleaming on the peak.  A photograph could have brought home the scene, but it would have been a record of a moment, not the impression of an afternoon, with individual choice in each tiny fleck of colour and selection of detail.  

I know; I was there.  And I am still there whenever I review the picture.

Golden Cap, 62 – Private Collection

Brian has had a distinguished career as a painter.  He was elected as a Member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1973, was their President from 1987 – 1995, and was subsequently elected as a Fellow.  He was a Governor of the Federation of British Artists from 1990 – 1996 and has exhibited at The Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Society of Marine Painters, the New English Art Club, and the National Society as well as at the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters at the Mall Galleries in London.  In addition he held solo exhibitions for many years in Berkhamsted and now for twenty-one years he has been associated with the Hawker Gallery in Old Amersham, where his current show is on display.

Cymbelline's Mount

In 2011, Brian’s exhibition at the Hawker Gallery was inspired by the proposed High Speed 2 rail link (HS2) between London and Birmingham, which will, if it goes ahead, destroy a great swathe of the Chiltern scenery as it shaves some fifteen minutes off the journey time between the cities.  Since the government’s appalling miscalculations over the West Coast Mainline franchise it is impossible to trust their judgement over this project.  Yes, it would create jobs in construction; but that brings to mind the only thing my economics teacher ever impressed on me, which was that it would make sense to build a battleship and then immediately sink it.  Sinking a battleship in deep water, however, would not quite leave the same mark on the landscape as brutalising an entire countryside.  Yes, it might shave a few minutes off getting from outer London to outer Birmingham, but it would also shave 15 million years off our heritage.

Chiltern Landscape

Anyway, Brian’s paintings are there to celebrate and preserve the scenery in case the madness prevails, but they also demonstrate to all comers just what we would lose.  

Ashridge, Autumn

And this year’s exhibition is not, in essence, different.  Its focus is on slightly different tracts of land, but it covers the same principle, and illustrates the changing beauty of the Chilterns.  If we do not look after what we have, his paintings will become Old Masters, windows on a lost world, like Hobbema’s Avenue, or Constable’s Haywain, and if one thing is for certain, as W H Auden said, About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters…..  Brian’s paintings are a joy to behold, now, but one day they may be reminders of a certain suffering.

 Wild flowers - detail from Private Collection

As Brian explains in the brochure to his current exhibition: My underlying ambition is to paint a landscape that will convey not only my love of the Chilterns but also to create something really meaningful for the viewer.  I strongly recommend a visit so that you can see for yourselves.....

The exhibition is running until November 14th (2015) at:

The Hawker Gallery, 
The Maltings, off School Lane, 
HP7 0ET, 
tel: 01494 724850 

And this year is a celebration of the special relationship Brian has had for twenty-one years with Michael and Michele Hawker, who share his ideas and commitment to the local landscape.....

Brian and Margrit Bennett
Another Special Relationship

All pictures copyright; reproductions by kind permission of the Artist

Dublin 3


I was spellbound.  His head was tilted back like a sword swallower’s, and from his throat issued the sound of steel, a blade of pure sound, not sharp, perhaps, nor shiny, but fashioned and worn and used and honed and hefted and crafted and wielded and powerful and strong.  His hair, curls and frizzes of coppery coils, shook back down his neck, darker against the thin shine of the spotlight.

In the gutted Georgian building on Lower Mount Street, then “The Ould Triangle” folk club, Luke Kelly was cold fire. No one stirred.  His voice cut the dark, retelling ballads as if they were personal.  In the pauses I could hear my Sweet Afton burning, the crisp crackle of tobacco and paper like a bonfire.  “Oh, come all ye Tramps and Hawkers…..” “ Joe Hill”  and “On Raglan Road…..” [And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day”] and songs I had never heard before, and have not heard since.  He had a great repertoire of folk song, partly following several years in the early sixties in Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham, and some time with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in London.  Many of the songs Luke sang dealt with social issues, and his passionate left-wing position was uncharacteristic of the time.

The club was celebrating its second birthday; it was Wednesday, August 16th, 1967 and I was with friends because Jim Trayner, who I’d met in Kinsale, was playing there.  I was introduced to Luke in what might have been the kitchen.  It was late, and the pubs had closed, but pints were still flowing in the club.  He was charm itself, and in no hurry to turn away.  We talked of the Dubliners and their coming tour of the UK, and, with Gerry O’Grady, of Irish music, banjoes and song.  It was 3.30am when we got back to Deirdre’s house and Jim and I sat up until dawn, alight with the spirit of the occasion.

After a night in Phoenix Park, the jumper the colour of "buff coloured puke"

The trip to Kinsale had been accidental; when hitch hiking you accept lifts and advice ad hoc, and having taken the 7.00am ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, I had exhausted any concrete plans, so when a kind driver recommended the Folk House in Kinsale, that’s where I ended up.  And from there I found myself in company and next thing was I was camping out in the vast ruins of Charles’ Fort, which once dominated the approach to Kinsale harbour. 

Jim Trayner was a housepainter by trade, but a singer and guitarist by inclination.  On the battlements over the sea he taught me to play Tom Paxton’s “Last thing on my mind,” one of the few songs I still know by heart.  Also there was Joanna O’Dwyer, a Dublin girl with skin like the collar on a pint of stout and hair the colour of butter.  Jo had been taught at school by Ronnie Drew, and told me, I think, that he had been an interpreter for David Lean on location for “Lawrence of Arabia” and had nearly caused a riot by insulting the Arabs.  This may be true, but it would be more likely that Ronnie was in Spain when David Lean shot “Dr Zhivago.”  Anyway, I was taken by her light smile and lively chatter and when we went separate ways I was drawn inexorably back to Dublin, as Bantry, Limerick, Cavan drizzled by in the grey.

I kept a (admittedly sketchy) diary of the trip, and what amazes me now is the ease with which we moved about the city, from Dun Laoghaire (where I stayed with Deirdre and her brother Paddy while their parents were away) to the centre, to the O’Dwyer’s house where mother was untrusting, suspecting me to be much older (insisting on Jo’s little brother being chaperon) to the National and Municipal Art Galleries, to St Stephen’s Green to hang out, to the Guinness Brewery at St James’ Gate, to one of the many Forte’s restaurants on O’Connell Street, to O'Donoghue's in Merrion Row, and so on, and so on.

And people were so friendly, so hospitable.  In my diary I wrote: “Mr and Mrs McMahon v nice people.”  They were indeed, as Paul had taken me back home one night, and his mother fed me and prepared my bed for the night; in the morning, after a full Irish breakfast, his father gave us a lift into town.

And the party we had at Deirdre’s was mad.  Paul turned up with a six pint kettle full of Guinness, and Jim came from a recording studio with a jacket full of miniature bottles of whiskey.  Guitars and songs provided the entertainment.  It was grand.

I saw Joanna once more after that.  By some chance, three years later, we both happened to be at the Spaniard in Old Kinsale.  She was travelling with a boyfriend and on her way, she thought, to the continent.  I was heading to Mayo and my cousins in Westport. So, like ships in the night?  Anyway, a few days later, totally against all plans, our paths crossed once more in the flurry of Grafton Street in Dublin. A chat, a drink, a flash of a smile.  And then nothing.  Less ships in the night; more the Lusitania and a torpedo.  She had had a murmur on her heart:  I wonder does it murmur yet?

The Quays, 1970/71, where Phil Lynott got the look

And I never saw Luke Kelly in person again.  The Dubliners toured the world, but Luke collapsed in 1980 with a brain tumour, which finally silenced him in 1984.  He was 44.  Since then the other original Dubliners have died; Ciarán Bourke in 1988, Ronnie Drew in 2008, and Barney MacKenna on April 5th 2012.  There are still plenty of people in Dublin, but they are not all Dubliners as of yore.

Christy Moore recorded a tribute to Luke Kelly written by Michael O’Caoimh, which refers to the “power and passion” of his voice, soaring heavenly above.  It ends:

“For memories are all we have
When we think of you today
Your name we’ll always honour, Luke
We’re glad you passed this way.”

Amen to that.

27 October 2012

Dublin 2

The Literate Liffey

It’s funny how the past slips through your fingers.  Just when you think you are at the moment, it’s gone.  Only the other day I was in Neary’s writing something (or other) when who didn’t buy me a drink?  Well it wasn’t Brian O’Nolan, 101 years old and still assuming the name of Sir Myles na gCopaleen (the da).  Oh, the number of times we haven’t spoken!  Incipit Crusculum Lan!

Well it was his round.  I would have bought him one in Peter’s Pub (sadly since much changed), another of his haunts, when I was first exploring Dublin bars in 1967, but he didn’t turn up.  And the excuse?  He’d died the year before?  How often have we heard that one?  And I had just spent the night on a concrete slab outside the public toilets in Phoenix Park.  And yes, the jumper I wore did bear a strong resemblance to “buff-coloured puke.”

So it was in 1971, on one of my many happy returns, that I purchased a copy of the Irish Times which I still have today, yellowed and creased into the folds of my copy of “The Best of Myles.”  It still seems only the other day.  Time plays those tricks.

I was, in those years, enamoured of Irish Literature, and felt that the Quays on the Liffey could open the doors to enlightenment.  “The Book of Kells,” one page turned a day, was a must to see in the Old Library of Trinity College.  “Ulysses” was a must read (and the Bailey in Duke Street a must see, as they held the front door of Bloom’s house at 7 Eccles Street there – though now it’s at the James Joyce Centre and the Bailey has been transformed) and the Martello Tower at Sandycove a must visit (though the Forty Foot was actually a must avoid…..)

I took Joyce’s conundrum to cross Dublin without passing a pub at its literal value, and never passed a pub.  McDaids still echoed to the laughter of the Borstal Boy, even though he died in ‘64.  Fluther Good was playing cards in “The Plough and the Stars” (“Keep a sup for to-morrow?  How th’ hell does a fella know there’ll be any to-morrow?”)  Brian Friel’s “Lovers” were playing at the Gate Theatre – I know; I saw them (August 21st 1967) – and Siobhán McKenna was Juno (at the Gaiety in ’66 and at the Abbey in ’80), with the whole worl’ around her in “a terrible state o’ chassis.”

I even ventured into the Celtic Twilight, romancing in Stephen’s Green and Phoenix Park, sighing at the Wild Swans at Coole, (“Their hearts have not grown old,…..”) visiting Thoor Ballylee, climbing the winding stair, seeking the stare’s nest.  Later I attempted to pay my own tribute by directing Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” but fear it was inadequate, especially when the second performance ran fifteen minutes shorter than the first – perhaps subconsciously trying to recreate it’s first ever staging, when it met with serious disapproval?

There was an atmosphere then, however, that has since passed away.  The Quays were dilapidated, with at least one shop window itself a chronicle of times past, and the General Post Office pillars bore the scars of the Easter Rising (as they still do in fact).  Street markets were untidy, scrappy affairs, and one pub I knew was illuminated by a single, bare light bulb dangling over the bar.

Somehow, however, in a tenuous but real way, I felt connected.  A friend (admittedly an old one) had once spent a night in jail with Maud Gonne MacBride, and also offered to introduce me to Micheál Mac Liammóir (I passed on that one).  Whether it was a coffee in Bewley’s or a glass of stout in Kehoe’s, there was a literacy in the dark air, with words spinning webs through the smoke. And through the city centre was the Liffey, the river of life, an Life, Anna Livia Plurabelle, inspiring bridges to carry the names of heroes.  And behind the Georgian façades, “that old triangle/Went jingle jangle/Along the banks of the Royal Canal.”

Dublin was famous for its exiles, and not just the old guard of Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and followers; it was a hard place to make headway.  The puritanical past was still there, and the church, and poverty, still ruled.  I was refused service in a lounge bar in Dun Laoghaire because I was attempting to buy my friend Joanna a drink; it wasn’t because I was only sixteen, it was because women were not served.  On another day, Deirdre scandalised the neighbourhood for going to Mass in her bare feet. 

Brian Friel, quoted in “A Paler Shade of Green” in 1972, said that he was, “uneasy about the future of the writer in Ireland.  Ireland is becoming a shabby imitation of a third-rate American state…..  We are rapidly losing our identity as a people and because of this that special quality an Irish writer should have will be lost.  A writer is the voice of his people and if the people are no longer individuals I cannot see that the writer will have much currency.”  I am sure that there will be plenty who do not take this view, but a change was certainly happening.

In 1966 Nelson’s pillar at the bottom of O’Connell Street, was blown up.  Such was the pride in this that at least four pubs subsequently claimed to have Nelson’s head in their back parlour.  Also in the 1960s, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, Patrick Kavanagh, and Flann O’Brien moved on. For them I quote from the archives of the Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché (“a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing”):
“And of what nature is their loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.”

Oh dere.  Ah hoy!  The past begins to slip away again.  In Davy Byrnes, musing on opportunities lost, and found, I savour a ball of malt.  I am struck by two men at the bar, East Europeans perhaps, who by the tilt of their hats and the laces of their boots might be characteristic of the changes in Dublin society today.  They lean in silence; a long silence.  Then one of them says:
“That passed the time.”

And the other replies:  “It would have passed in any case.”

To which his friend responds: “Yes, but not so rapidly.”

21 October 2012

TESSERAE - 6 - Monte Amiata, Tuscany

Monte Amiata

They say there is no such thing as an extinct volcano.  Italy has its active ones – Etna, Stromboli, and (?) Vesuvius – and so it is reassuring to come across one that is at least tame, and almost extinct.  Monte Amiata, the highest mountain in southern Tuscany (1791 metres), is just that.  There is sufficient activity to run a geo-thermal power station at Piancastagnaio, and to heat the baths of Bagno Vignoni or nearby Saturnia, but not enough to shake the flanks of this mighty mountain.

It’s a mountain for all seasons, too.  Not too far up the Via Cassia from Rome, but far enough to put it firmly in Tuscany, the twin summits are well-equipped for skiing, and there are several good hotels to stay in, where log fires, strong food and a range of grappe provide comfort at the end of the day.  There are all the attrezzi you need for fun skiing or tobogganing, but the woods are also suitable for off-piste.  If you are not a skier, there are views to be had from the iron cross, rebuilt in the forties after German troops had destroyed the original, which has a platform, from where, on a clear day, you will glimpse far away mountains and recognisable landmarks, such as Monte Venere that overshadows lake Vico, or even the Gran Sasso (and even, believe it or not, Corsica).  There is also the Madonna of the Boy Scouts, who perches above tumbled volcanic rocks, adorned by votive offerings of neckties from zealous scouts.

There’s a choice of bars and food stalls and huts selling kitsch, but not so much as to offend.  The beech woods, that cover much of the higher slopes of the mountain, are serene at any season, whether it’s snowy and cold or you are looking for shade and cool in the hot summer months.  At several points on the roads that entwine the shoulders there are parking spaces and barbecues, and there is room for all.  It’s a vast area of unspoilt woodland full of funghi when the weather is right, and occupied by all kinds of wildlife throughout the year, from deer to wild boar, buzzards to tree-creepers, snakes to porcupines.

Lower down the hillsides, the forests become chestnut woods, and here the autumn is the best time to explore, as the colours are wonderful.  Plumes of smoke rise from fires where contadini have cleared the undergrowth, as it is still a part of the annual rhythm of life.  Things have changed, of course, and where the braying of donkeys was a familiar sound in the morning and at home time, now the sound is the mechanical chugging of mini tractors.  There’s not so much agricultural activity on the mountain either, as the younger generation has slipped off to find work in the building trade, or to live in the cities.  It doesn’t pay to scrape a living off the land any more in this region, unless you own big fields of olives or are lucky enough to have a decent vineyard.

It’s this last that has brought the area most fame.  The name of Brunello di Montalcino is not quite Monte Amiata, but the town of Montalcino is only a few kilometres to the north.  Built by exiles from the just visible Siena (also to the north) the inhabitants of the area found that their San Giovese grapes just happened to grow bigger and better than they had done in the Chianti region, and that the rich red wine they produced kept ever so well in oak barrels.  With practice they learnt to produce one of the world’s great wines, and nowadays to qualify as Brunello the wine has to be kept for a minimum of five years in botte di rovere.  There are dozens of different versions to choose from, and many can be bought direct from the producers, though do not expect it to be cheap!  If you would like to taste, you can try the Bar Caffè Fiaschetteria at the heart of the town in the Piazza del Popolo.  This café claims to be the first wine bar in Italy, having opened for business in 1888.  For another sophisticated experience you might like to seek out the Borgo Hotel at the Castello Banfi, where you can try a variety of wines in the fairy tale medieval castle, and, in addition, you can stay in one of their suites (prices starting from about €600 per couple per night, five course dinner with six Banfi wines, bed and breakfast).

There is now a rival name in wine just next door to Montalcino, though it is a relative newcomer.  You will see yellow signs to the Strada di Vino di Montecucco, and if you venture to the Castello di Potentino you can sample this.  This castle, which is almost a village in itself, was until a few years ago falling into ruin, most romantically.  Rumour has it that even Prince Charles expressed an interest at one time, but it has been taken over and completely restored and here you can also acquire fine wines an olive oil (and also rent a small apartment).  In the same region, one of the brand names now found in foreign delicatessens is Seggiano.  This is something of a con, perhaps, as the cheese factory in Seggiano went bankrupt and closed some years ago, and there are nothing like as many pecorino-producing sheep on these hills as there once were.  It is good cheese, however, and certainly some of it is local. 

If you are looking to buy yourself a Tuscan retreat, you need look no further than the paese of Seggiano.  This classic hilltop village, with pink and ochre buildings leaning towards the morning sun and a precipitous scarp falling to the north towards a gurgling river, is rapidly changing hands.  Once proud of the fact that it did not even have a petrol pump, it is now almost completely devoid of shops, except for a bar, a trattoria and a ferramenta on the main road.  Curiously, where there once was a bar at the top of the village, there is now a bank.  But where once there was a post office in which you could also drink refreshing white wine, and a butcher with home made wild boar sausages, there are now padlocks and dry leaves.  It became almost a ghost town, with the permanent population down to reportedly only one hundred.  It has a wonderful position, with great views of the imposing mass of Monte Amiata, but its people need work and they’re moving away and at the moment they are being replaced by foreigners, many from Albania.

If your time in the area is brief, however, make sure you visit the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, which is on the road from Seggiano to Montalcino.  In a hollow in the hills, surrounded by olives and wheat fields, this Romanesque church literally glows with light and beauty.  It is almost a thousand years old, linked in history with the troops of Charlemagne; it is built of a honey coloured stone, some of which is alabaster, and it has windows of slivered onyx.  Inside the proportions are perfect with slender columns and a rounded apse.  A small community of Regular Canons, who draw their inspiration from the Premonstratensian Order (founded by Saint Norbert in the 12th century and from the Rule of Saint Augustine) have taken charge here, where once the custodian had to come rolling down from Castelnuovo dell’Abate, puttering on his moped, fuming two-stroke mix, tobacco and wine.  This most beautiful of churches was in a state of quiet abandonment and many years ago I saw a Roller nesting in the cypress tree by the campanile.  There many visitors nowadays and the church is thronged on Sundays, or for weddings, so such a rare bird will not find peace, but the cypress is still there, and peace is still the keyword.

Back up the mountain, there are a number of places to stay, either near the ski runs or in the busy town of Castel del Piano.  But between the two, at 750 metres above sea level and with one of the best sunset views in the world, is the hamlet of Pescina where you can stay, and eat, at the family run Albergo La Scottiglia where the Magini family has been catering for visitors to the mountain for getting on for 200 years.  Their home made pasta is superb!  You won’t want to leave!  And if you want proof, just arrive a little early for lunch or dinner.  You will find the family together, from aged aunts to the youngest grandchild, at table together in the Dining Room, the view sweeping away towards the Maremma and the sea, plates of local produce and Tuscan traditions before them, glasses of deep red wine chinking in conviviality.  Even if the ground began to shake and lava began to flow, you really won’t want to leave!