Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Bouncing Queen

See her jump on the trampoline, oh yeah! Next stage of our UK travels take us to Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, to the residence of my old friend from university, Nick, and his family. As at my brother's house, a trampoline features in the garden. Here is Monika airborne over a field full of cows above. Below: Nick's cottage, rendered in the style of a 1930s Frank Newbould railway poster.

Monday, 30 July 2007

A propos of stained glass, rainbows and floods

This stained glass window in Tissington Church brings together a few strands recently visited by this blog; rainbows, floods and the importance in life of hope.

Click for link to recent stained glass window entry.

(Below:) Tissington church, an excellent example of Norman architecture, dating back to the 12th Century. The oldest tombstone we found was dated 1617.

Tissington Trail

Daughter Monika (above right) and her cousin Hoavis making their way up the Tissington Trail from Ashbourne to the beautiful Derbyshire village of Tissington (below). Today was the second day in a row with no rain (the first such days since leaving Warsaw over a week ago).

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Memory and comfort

Today we visited the Polish church in Manchester to pray for the recovery to health of my father-in-law, Tadeusz Lesisz. He designed the interior of the church, including the stained glass windows, most of which have a patriotic theme. The above tryptich, dating back to the 1980s, quotes poet Adam Mickiewicz: "Thus you will miraculously return us to our fatherland's womb". And indeed so it was that fate ordained that our family would move from London to Warsaw, capital of a free Poland. Note the three crosses of the Gdansk Shipyard in the left hand panel.

Over the Peaks by Bus

Next stop Manchester. Eddie (in rear view mirror, above) and I hopped on an excellent bus service, the TransPeak, which joins Nottingham to Manchester via Derby, Matlock, Buxton and Stockport. An all-day ticket for this entire route for one adult and one accompanied child - a mere £7.80. The bus journey was a delight - not least for the stirring scenery of the High Peaks and the lovely stone architecture of the Derbyshire Dales towns. Everyone on board was polite and friendly, the driver helpful and informative, the bus was comfortable and punctual.

Having taken the trip one way with Eddie, I returned the next day by the same bus from Manchester to Duffield with daughter Monika, Eddie having been seen off to Polish cub scout camp in North Wales. Below: Between Buxton and Matlock

Friday, 27 July 2007

First factory

Ten miles or so up the Derwent Valley from Duffield is Cromford, home to what is considered the world's first factory, where the industrial system was created by Sir Richard Arkwright in the 1770s. Today we visited this UNESCO World Heritage site, and the preserved canal and railway infrastructure surrounding it. Right: the mill race that powered the water wheels that drove the machines that spun the thread in the factory buildings behind - built over 235 years ago. Industry - source of the wealth of the British nation (well that plus slavery and empire).

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Rainbow of hope

This evening my brother and I attempted again to go for a walk - with his younger son we drove to Belper to see the River Derwent (above) which had burst its banks a few weeks ago. The sky was glowering, the rain beginning to threaten; as we returned to the car, the clouds cleared the west, and low, strong sunlight illuminated the valley. (Below) The resulting rainbow, beautifully framing Belper and the Derwent Valley. Let's hope the passing of the rainclouds means some better weather tomorrow. My sister-in-law tells me that full rainbows are often visible from their house in the evenings - as indeed they are from our house 1,200 miles away. The rainbow was the same size and intensity as this one.

"Wettest since records began"

It's official. Since the British began keeping detailed meteorological records nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, there has not been such a wet summer. It's thoroughly miserable. We were about to go out for a late-afternoon stroll, all equipped in wet-weather gear, when the heavens opened and we had to turn back. I am reminded of the words of a white Rhodesian farmer at Heathrow, fleeing Mugabe's regime: "Miserable grey little island - I cannot live without sun or servants".

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

More thoughts on rural suburbias

My brother and his family live in Duffield, some eight miles north of Derby. It's an idyllic village that has retained much of its 19th century charm. Surrounded by the Derbyshire Dales (below - view from outside my brother's house), it possesses attributes entirely missing in Mazowsze. Firstly - lots of decent old architecture. Wealth going back generations. Secondly, rolling scenery. But the concept is similar - leave the sprawling city and live where the quality of life is immeasurably better. Question for the planners - is this lifestyle for everyone?

Best fish'n'chip shop in England?

George's Tradition, in Belper, Derby- shire, must be in the running. The cod is superb; the chips, drenched in condiment, give off that wonderful chippy aroma; mushy peas; dandelion and burdock to wash it all back with. Eddie (right) with his cousin Hoavis, wait to tuck into a veritable feast. Who says England has no culinary excellence? And all for seven quid a head.

The Road, UK-style

Heading north to my brothers' family in Derbyshire, my father driving. Up the M1 as far as Junction 25. Britain's road network does not give me the same atmosphere as the Polish road; something's missing in terms of character, the scenery. Here, it's all traffic cones, contraflows, roadworks, queues, cameras... the romance of the road has gone. I am not put in mind of the two-lane blacktop, of Route 66, of the essential 1950s-era freedom that I feel as I drive around Poland.


London fascinates with its ability to change yet remain constant; new buildings amaze, old buildings maintain the capital's dignity; buildings from which the Empire was run. (Above:) The London Eye, with the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey in the background. Click here for a view of the same subjects taken from 3,000 ft. The Science Museum is a perfect example of this; grand Victorian architecture, inside are the mechanical exhibits I remember as a a boy, side by side with new, computer-driven interactive exhibits aimed at today's children. Quite which do the better job of explaining the technological world is a moot point.

Below: A Hurricane and Spitfire on display on the third floor of the Science Museum, just as they were 40+ years ago when I'd visit with my father. These two aircraft - their shape and markings - inspired me greatly.


Above: Eddie at my parents' house. Having flown into London, Eddie and I head for Ealing and the house where I spent my teenage years. Memories flood back, every time I return to my parents' house it's like I've never been away. Below: View of my parents' house from the bottom of their garden, where I'd play with my brother. Most of the houses on their road have had their gardens sold off to property developers; my parents' house is quite unusual in having a full-length garden with full complement of mature trees including a willow with a tree preservation order. Apples and plums grow too; this year promises plenty of fruit. The lawn is remarkably green for this time of year too!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Waiting for the summer rain

What a magnificent storm passed over Warsaw this evening! Just the thing to clear the hot, sticky air. Sadly, from a photographic point of view, it was too early - too much daylight still around - so despite catching up to five flashes in a single 30 second exposure, the contrast was too weak. Still, the photo above captured at least two distinct flashes.

The storm front rolled on to the east; as it passed it in its place left a magnificent fiery post-sunset sky (below).

July sunrise

I woke up early to catch this magnificent sunrise from my bedroom window. Moderate cloud cover makes for optimal skies with nicely varied tones picked out by the rising sun. Click on photo to enlarge for best emotional effect!

Tomorrow we are off to the UK for three weeks holiday. The weather there, I am informed by family, friends and business colleagues, is uniformly awful. Fields underwater, mould and fungus everywhere. I hope for at least a week of sunshine while we are in North Wales - pics and impressions from there to follow. [Supplementary: exactly what we got! See Jul/Aug posts]

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

On the road again

Compared to my last two road trips around Poland this month, my trip to south-west Poland was marked by blazingly hot sunshine and a heatwave touching +40C. Driving alone meant I could wind down both windows, crank up the stereo to max and bawl out the words to my favourite songs. Over 14 hours behind the wheel in two days, 850km (530 miles) travelled. Above: the road out of Warsaw, passing Okecie airport to the left

(Above:) The road beyond Belchatow, nice clear stretch. Playlist included Toots and the Maytals, James Brown, Miles Davis, Count Basie. Below: final destination, Wałbrzych, only 40 miles from Wroclaw though quite different in every respect. Lacking the self-confidence of Lower Silesia's capital, still hit by high unemployment, this drab former coal mining town still waits for things to come right. A bright spot is the special economic zone, which has attracted several large employers, like Toyota, to the town. Landscape this far south-west is not reminscent of the United States, the hilliness and architecture create a far more European look and feel. On the road back, I sunburn my left wrist. It is in the sun for seven hours!

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Vrots love

More and more Poles are saying that when it comes to beauty, Wroclaw has Krakow beat hands down. Plus it's a more dynamic place - a huge building site that will come good in three to five years.

On a hot July day, the visual feasts that Wroclaw imparts to the eye are manifold. The architecture is stunning, and brought into sharp relief by the strong sunlight. Less spoilt by the tourist crowd, this is a indeed a fine city to spend a day or two in - business or pleasure.

Since the floods and Papal visit of 1997, the city has turned itself around amazingly. Cranes are everywhere, employers can't find people - sure sign of a boomtown, a city enjoying its new-found self-confidence.

The best bits of Wroclaw are the old town square, and the Ostrów Tumski island which must be home to the highest density of clerical buildings outside Vatican City - several churches, a cathedral, pilgrims' hostels and a seminary school packed into a few streets.

A lack of bars and restaurants means it's less crowded with tourists. To the north lies the botanical gardens, which sadly I did not have time to visit this time.

Best pub in Poland?

Several years ago, another Warsaw-based Anglo-Pole called me on my mobile asking me where I was. "In the best pub in Poland, mate," I replied. "Ah," said Peter, "You'll be in Spiz, in Wroclaw!" "Right in one!" I said. Located in cellars beneath the historic Town Hall (ratusz), Spiz (pron. 'Speezh') is a brew-pub specialising in fine beers, such as the Weissbier which is my favourite here. Served with gherkins pickled in brine and brown bread-and-dripping sandwiches. All beers are unpasteurised. The chap in green (in picture above) is the house brewmaster, taking a peek to see how the latest batch is faring.

Ciocia Dziunia

On a business trip to south-west Poland, I take the chance to stop off and visit my mother's oldest sister, Jadwiga, to us, 'Ciocia Dziunia'. She is a lively raconteur of times gone by, and remembers far more about those years than her younger sisters. Their childhood in Horodziec, their deportation to Siberia, their wanderings across wartime Russia, she recalls in great detail.

To me, the most thrilling tales concern the vast forests that lined the Horyn River - and the character of my maternal grandfather, Pyotr Stepanovich Bortnikov. He was a Russian, born in Odessa, and fought on the side of the Whites in the Civil War, ending up in eastern Poland after it ended in victory for the Bolsheviks. He worked as the forest estates manager for a Belgian magnate, de Pourbaix.

Ciocia Dziunia corresponds with old friends from Horodziec (today "Gorodyets" in western Ukraine). Below is a snap of a photocopy of a rare pre-war photograph of the de Pourbaix palace in Horodziec. Today, nothing remains of either the palace or of the its estate manager's house where my mother and her sisters grew up.

Monday, 16 July 2007

The summer sublime

After the day's sultry heat, the evening brings cool relief. With the sun low and the water sprinklers on, this is indeed earthly paradise and once again I find myself overcome by gratitude to my Maker. After a fortnight's rain, the arrival of proper summer heat is welcome.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Golden Time of Day

In the afternoon, the sun eventually peeped out from behind the clouds, weather turning nice though somewhat humid. But by the evening, however, it was lovely - the 'Golden Time of Day' (second meteorological reference to a song by Maze in a week!). And so we walk to the end of the road, setting off an hour and half before sunset. It is beautiful. I thank God for creating this place and for letting us live here, for giving me life itself.

(Above:) A meadow halfway along ul. Trombity. (Below:) A flock of barn swallows brooding on telephone lines. The national bird of Estonia, they represent 'free blue sky and eternal happiness'.

(Below:) Home again - evening light on ul. Trombity, a scene of summer contentment.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

July continues glum

Well, weather-wise, anyway. After a few hours of sunshine this morning, the clouds gathered again. Still some time before sunset, the darkness encroached. But the north-west wind rolled back the clouds for a few minutes before the next bank rolled in.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Peacocks wow tourists in Lazienki Park

Not far from my office is Warsaw's Lazienki Park. I often stroll across the park to get to business meetings. Today I chanced upon this proud peacock showing off to tourists. The photo (above) shows not only the huge size of the peacocks, but also how tame they are - and how much they love showing off!

Below: Later today the sun emerged as I crossed the park for a dinner engagement. I caught this guy hanging out. Like the peafowl, completely relaxed about passers-by.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Sunshine and rain

Sunshine and rain, as Frankie Beverly of Maze so appositely observed, are like joy and pain. The weekend, stretching into Monday, has been thus. The view from the upstairs bathroom window on Saturday afternoon says it all (right). Much of last week was just plain old sopping wet.
Another road trip beckoned on Sunday, this time up to the Lithuanian frontier - 680 km (450 miles) there and back - to drop off our daughter Monika at girl guides' camp. We set off in sunshine at 05:30; half an hour later we were in Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula river. Here, shafts of early-morning light illuminated the Orthodox Cathedral (below). As we left Warsaw, the sky clouded over.

North-east Poland has had the worst of the recent rains. As we left Mazowsze and entered Podlasie, rivers were swollen, fields had standing water on them, storks looked bedraggled and mud-streaked. This pair (below) look decided unhappy with the situation.

I felt sorry for the scouts and guides that had spent the last week under canvas; the forecasts look little better. The camp itself was at the end of a 2km grass track through fields and forest. It was so wet that twice our Yaris was threatened with being stuck in axle-deep mud. We made it there, I barely made it back out. The camp reminded me of a Warsaw Pact version of Kit and Holly's forest hideout in Badlands. Monika (below, left, pink top and jeans) was pleased to join her guide group, which was just having tent inspection as we arrived.

The camp being a mere 5km from the Lithuanian border, I decided to take a look before heading back for home. The road to the border (below) was unchanged from 1939; overgrown cobblestones. This being the former Polish-Soviet border, the lie of the land was quite different to the Polish-Czech border we visited in May. There were no houses within 5km of either side of the border. Arriving at there, I saw signs saying 'No photography'. The border guards said there was nothing to photograph anyway - just trees. The border itself was marked by a 60m wide ploughed strip. Although today there's no barbed wire, dogs or mines, the atmosphere was far more intimidating than at the Czech border, despite this being a common EU crossing. Our Yaris emerged triumphant despite a caking in mud and a clattery ride over broken road surfaces.

Heading back to Warsaw, I chose the more direct though narrower road through Lomza. The landscapes quite different from the Lublin road, travelled on Thursday, somehow the trip home was less joyous. However, the road again creates associations with America, a constant theme running through this blog like Route 66 itself.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Lublin and The Road

Went to Lublin on business today, a drive of 100 miles (160 km) from Warsaw. Lublin's Old Town is still relatively unmodernised and its old tenements, arched passageways and cobbled squares exude a strong, though sad, historic atmosphere that you'll be hard pushed to match elsewhere in Poland. Kraków's Kazimierz had it but has become too developed in recent years.

The Road beckons. The Road is my Muse. Since early adulthood, road movies have been a favourite cinematic genre of mine. So load up with good music and a camera, and capture the spirit of the road. Above all, take your soul. (Below) Somewhere between Ryki and Garwolin. An avenue of trees, beyond them, ripening fields of wheat, tobacco and maize.

July has started wet and stormy. (I got utterly soaked cycling home from work on Tuesday.) The sky continues to be pregnant with rainclouds. As Warsaw got closer on the run home in the early evening, the sky turned darker, brooding and more threatening. (Below:) Near Kolbiel.