In Praise of Swanage

P1050705They say that you know when it’s summer in England because the rain is warm. This pretty much sums up our summer break in Dorset, at least from a meteorological point of view. The evenings, however, were cold enough to merit a fire in the stove and the purchase of second-hand pullovers since none had been packed. However, such mild creature discomforts pale into insignificance beside the occasional highlights of our sojourn, one of which was the discovery of Swanage.

I had always assumed Swanage was in Wales, confusing it with Swansea, so the signposts to Swanage around Corfe Castle came as something of a surprise. We dropped in on this charming Victorian seaside resort after a brief “Rip-Off Britain” stopover at Studland Beach – £3.75 for a tiny bottle of weak beer in the café and colossal parking fees that made us feel, on returning to the car before the ticket had expired, like sitting in the car to enjoy the rest of our temporary lease on this five-star carpark. 

What was remarkable in Swanage was that nothing was spoilt. The English are so good at spoiling things architecturally, that it is a small miracle that this place has been overlooked. Once a fishing port, then an export port for Purbeck marble, Swanage has been a seaside resort since the mid-19th century and has the usual avenues of stately B&Bs and Guest Houses, and a long frontage with clock-towered wooden bench-shelters, deckchair rentals and cafés. The narrow beach was well-frequented when we were there, though with only the most intrepid dipping their toes into the water, and the two amusement arcades were doing a roaring trade. We played the coin cascade machines – machines which, by some obscure law of quantum physics, never deliver the teetering cliff-edge of coins and interspersed five-pound notes that appear to be perpetually on the point of cascading. 

One of our reasons for coming here had been to enjoy some fresh seafood – oysters, mussels, winkles, whelks and shrimp. Despite a sign strapped to a lamppost announcing a “Shellfish Festival” at a place called the New Inn, there was no address on the flyer and the pub in question proved impossible to find, as did another pub that was recommended for its fruits of the deep. There was one café on the front that served seafood but the prices suggested that the clientele was composed entirely of Russian billionaires. 

We wandered past a cocktail bar that seemed to accommodate the entire population of 30-somethings in Swanage, and an old pub that literally had no customers whatsoever on a Sunday afternoon – despite the doors being wide open – perhaps something to do with the “bar staff wanted” sign in the window. We ended up in a little pub off the beaten track called the Red Lion which was remarkable for the cheapness of a round. In Rip-Off Britain where two pints and a half, with a couple of bags of cheese and onion crisps, can set you back nearly 20 quid, the Red Lion managed to charge half that – while also offering a folksinger of doubtful merit who had been consigned to a courtyard shelter in the rain. The pub had little signs where now-dead customers had once sat, one of which, after naming the deceased and providing his dates – one Lenny Deamer, who joined the celestial congregation in 2005 – read “Elvis Has Left the Building”. Was he an Elvis impersonator? Was his dog perhaps called Elvis?

The quest for shellfish was abandoned, as it nearly always is on the English coast these days. I can remember seafood stalls along English seafronts stocked with everything, or the days when seafood sellers would come to London riverside pubs with baskets of cockles and shrimp. In central France, where one couldn’t be further from the coast, seafood galore is available for the asking. So what happened in England? We nevertheless enjoyed splendid fresh fish n chips on the front – washed down with Piddle Premium Ale (its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy) – served by an incredibly emaciated young Bulgarian immigrant who bowed down and wrung his hands as he spoke, exactly like Uriah Heep in Dickens, perhaps in a fit of post-Brexit grovelling for extended residence rights.

A little research into Swanage didn’t teach me much, other than that there’s a crater on Mars named after it, Basil Fawlty was supposedly born there, it is called Knollsea in Thomas Hardy’s novels, and Paul Nash, the painter, enjoyed a spell here, composing an essay called “Swanage or Seaside Surrealism” in which he describes the town as having something “of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place.” One such incongruity is a monument on the seafront to King Alfred’s naval victory over the Danes in 877 AD. It consists of a stone column topped by three stone cannonballs, looking more like a pawnbroker’s sign. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but there weren’t any cannonballs – or cannons, or gunpowder – around in those distant days. However, for the sake of surrealism, let’s just say there were…

Swanage also has a little steam railway that actually runs, with one stationery carriage at the station where cream teas are served, coin-op telescopes and a touching sign over the Tourist Office that reads “Please Bring Lost Children Here”, which seems to me a splendid idea. We definitely loved Swanage!

Get Me Out of Dear Old Blighty

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 12.57.31From 38 degrees C in Touraine, to 20 in Dorset, the English Summer once again lives down to direst expectations. However, it was masochistic British fun, reminiscent of schooldays and corporal punishment, to cycle this morning round the abandoned Tarrant Rushton airfield – with its concrete runways, perimeter road and hangars – in pelting rain and glacial winds. The airfield was used for glider operations in the Second World War, launching the famed Pegasus Bridge operation on the eve of D-Day. The pilots who left from here were the first to touch French soil on D-Day. The previous day we had left French soil via Brittany ferries, with machine-gun-toting soldiers patrolling Cherbourg and every passenger subjected to body searches and exhaustive luggage searches. Nazis, jihadists, migrants… still going strong, this fortress built by Nature for herself. 

Yesterday, a fête in Blandford Forum was washed out by rain, then the entire town forced indoors by a horrific stench of manure that suddenly wafted in like a Biblical plague from surrounding fields. We took refuge in Tesco’s. At the fish counter, we reached for two little bags of overpriced mussels only for the spotty white-hatted youth working there to stop us and point at the notice saying that service on this counter stopped at 7 pm, and it was now 7.02 pm. On a previous visit to the same fish stand, we asked for oysters and had to explain to the girl serving there what oysters were: this time, they had some – 10 miserable little molluscs arranged in two lines, 50p each. Ah, this royal throne of kings, this Brexit isle…

In the words of the great francophile Orson Welles, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.

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An Evening at Les Wagons

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.52.10Les Wagons, at Saint Branchs in Touraine, is a unique theatrical space composed of three former SNCF freight wagons, welded together. It can accommodate an audience of up to 110 people. The venture began in the early 2000s, launched by Thierry Tchang Tchong and Anne-Marie Renault, and every month the theatre hosts shows by professional artists, musical or theatrical, and is also a place of cultural exchange, including writing workshops based on short stories and poems. I was honoured to be asked by Anne-Marie Renault and Annie Parot to present myself and my writing on stage, on Friday 3 June 2016. Despite transport strikes and continued flooding in Southern Touraine, there was a good turn-out. However, the musicians who were supposed to perform in the second half of the evening didn’t show up because their instruments were stranded in a flooded basement somewhere. As a result, we held the fort – with a very lively and entertaining exchange with the audience, and a vin d’amitié at the end. Little theatres like Les Wagons have difficulty surviving financially, with very few subsidies, so I wish them well. The venue reminded me of the Norfolk bungalow my family used to stay in when I was a child, which was also composed of three former railway carriages. My thanks to Anne-Marie and Annie for the invitation and a very stimulating discussion.

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Ruined Ruins

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When my daughter was about seven, we were at a loose end one day and decided on a Magical Mystery Tour. I opened up a map of the local area and asked her to shut her eyes and point. Her finger landed on “Fontenay”, apparently a tiny hamlet near Saint Baud in Touraine. We drove there and were thrilled to find a ruined château, dating back – as I later discovered – to the 15th century and last occupied at the time of the French Revolution. We trudged round it, battling through dense undergrowth, and explored the moat and ruined tower. Some kids were playing there and had seen us. They were hiding, but we could hear their fake animal calls. The place was charged with atmosphere and reminded me of a poem I wrote when I was about 16, the subject being a ruined manor house called “Thistledown Hall”, but also of the château in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes which, though not ruined, was an equally mysterious domain full of magical phenomena. 

Yesterday, I was driving around looking for a place to stop and walk the dog when, by a circuitous route, I found myself beside the Fontenay château once again. All of the undergrowth had been cleared, the centuries-old trees chopped down, and the 15th-century tower appeared to be occupied, with proper windows and curtains, while the later 18th-century part of the house was being restored. Three workmen were on high, building the timber frame for a new roof, steep and tall. I was so surprised that I stopped the car and stared. The workmen seemed equally surprised and stopped what they were doing to stare back at me.

When I got home, I told my daughter about this, saying that it was nice that the château had found someone to bring it back to life – half-heartedly trying to convince myself that I actually believed this. She was crestfallen and said that no, it was a tragedy, because we loved it the way it was. I had to admit she was right. It may be a hangover from Romanticism to love ruins, but there is something wonderfully doomladen about human edifices being gradually eroded and engulfed with vegetation, the victory of nature over the works of man. Does everything have to be “saved” and “restored”? Can’t we just let a few secretive châteaux take on a new, overgrown life, a home to foxes, badgers and crows rather than boring old human beings?

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Francis Poulenc’s Garden Table

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 15.36.15It started with an ad on, a French small ads site. The table looked like just what I needed for the garden. Four people could easily eat at it, but for me it was more of a breakfast table for two, to put outside the kitchen. It was old, with a classic perforated design, S-shaped decorations on the four legs, and a few innocent spots of rust. I phoned up and arranged to drive the 39km to Noizay, north of Amboise, the following day. The address I was given was in the Chemin Francis Poulenc, in the heart of the wine-growing area beside the Loire.

When I got there, the house was splendid and a big plaque beside the entrance gate announced that the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) had lived there – with spells in Paris – from 1927 until his death. I was greeted by two of Poulenc’s nephews, and the wife of one of them. We looked at the table and talked about Poulenc, and how they remembered that when the weather was fine he liked to take his meals or drinks at this very table on the terrace. The terrace overlooks a small Italianate garden and has a breathtaking view over countryside, with no other houses in sight. This is Vouvray land, vineyard country, with many troglodytic habitations – and indeed this house had cellars that disappeared into the rock.

After much struggling, we got the table into my car with not even a millimetre to spare, I paid the 100€ they were asking, and they invited me into the house, part of which dates back to the 15th century. There was disarray everywhere because they were selling up and moving, but Poulenc’s music room was untouched. There were pictures of him with many famous people, from Max Jacob to Stravinsky, on the walls, an upright and baby grand piano, and a bookcase full of his compositions (see photos below, plus period photos of when Poulenc was alive). One of the nephews enjoyed practising his English on me, and we drank a glass of white wine from their own vineyard, just below the house. It was what they called “un vin tranquil”, a non-sparkling Vouvray, and we discussed how we would translate that very French expression into English. We also discussed how the pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc was founded by the same family. 

It was sad seeing the great man’s possessions being parcelled up and moved or sold off, but when I left I promised that I would not forget the history behind my new item of furniture. An hour and a half earlier, when I set off in the car, I had no idea that I’d end up the proud owner of Francis Poulenc’s garden table!

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CPCL, 50th Anniversary Event

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 16.47.46On Saturday 12 March 2016, the Camera Photo Club de Loches celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Espace Agnès Sorel in Loches – with an exhibition, a buffet, interactive events, a huge programme of film projections, speeches by local mayors, and special guests talking about their experiences of film-making and photographing for virtual reality walkthroughs. Click here to view a little video I made to commemorate the event!


© 2018 Adrian Mathews