Writing Portfolio

16.7.17

A chapel with my name on it

If there’s one thing that’s more or less guaranteed to get me to notice a church, it’s the name. My name, specifically, for if a church is dedicated to St Nicholas then it’s done the hard part as far as grabbing my attention is concerned. Shallow? Me? Sometimes.

When I was a child and we used to go down to Sussex, I recall being quite fond of a little chapel by Pett Level beach, next to the lifeboat station, and looking back on that I think I may have liked it because of its name – St Nicholas. Last month I was down in Cornwall, visiting places like Falmouth, Boscastle and Tintagel. And St Ives. In addition to being named after a fifth-century saint to whom the main church in the town is dedicated (St Ia, a holy woman who according to legend floated across the sea from Ireland on a leaf), St Ives (which is usually included in any list of the top ten seaside towns in Britain) also has a stone chapel out on the headland that lies at the end of the town, with the sea on three sides.


This headland, which is known locally as the Island even though it is not an island, has had a chapel on it for a very long time – ‘from time immemorial’ according to the plaque on its walls, meaning that no-one knows how old it is, just that it is old. It pre-dates St Ia’s Church (itself a fifteenth-century building), and it is dedicated to St Nicholas. In a place which for centuries made its living from the sea, sailors would have worshipped there, which explains the dedication for St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors (among others). As well as being a place of worship, the chapel has also been used as a lookout point, both by customs men looking for smugglers and for smugglers keeping an eye out for customs men! During the Napoleonic Wars it was the storage area for a nearby gun battery (the site of which is now occupied by the coastguard lookout). In the early twentieth century the War Office tried to demolish it, but following local outcry it was saved and restored in time to commemorate the Coronation of George V in 1911; further restoration work took place sixty years later.


I had to go and take a look, what with the chapel having the same name as me. This was despite the heat on the day I was in St Ives (despite being on the coast, there was no sea breeze). Down into the town from the Trenwith car park I walked, then through the town (stopping off for lunch in the form of a Cornish pastie on the way, for it just seems wrong to go to Cornwall and not have a Cornish pastie, whatever the weather) and out onto the Island. 



I’m glad I did. It’s a pleasant, modest little single-room place topped with a couple of Celtic crosses (it is in Cornwall, after all) with a whitewashed interior. 


A nice place to go for a spot of quiet contemplation away from the numbers in a town that can get very busy, and as a bonus it has some great views of said town.


7.7.17

Tintagel

To Tintagel, a village on the rugged, spectacular northern coast of Cornwall which is mostly famous for its castle. Having previously visited Tintagel in February on a day when said castle (owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, administered by English Heritage) wasn’t open, I was very keen to have a look round when I went back there on a trip to the West Country last month.

The first thing to note as you approach Tintagel is that the castle is not the castle-like building on the hilltop – that’s a hotel which was built in late nineteenth century in anticipation of a branch-line of the Great Western Railway which was never actually built. Why were they considering a branch-line? Well, there was (thanks to the likes of Lord Tennyson) a big interest in all things relating to the myths and legends of King Arthur in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and King Arthur is still the main reason for Tintagel’s appeal. In the village there’s a King Arthur’s Café and a (fairly decent) pub called the King Arthur’s Arms, while a few miles inland there is a hamlet called Slaughterbridge that claims to be the site of one of his battles (the last one, although quite how a wounded Arthur was able to get from Cornwall to Glastonbury is a puzzle). Perhaps inevitably, the souvenir-shops of Tintagel do a good line in Arthur-related tat.

According to the legends, Tintagel Castle is the place where his life began. The story goes that Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) was an enemy of Gorlois, a warrior who lived at Tintagel Castle. Uther quite fancied Gorlois’s wife, Igraine, but as Gorlois kept her at the castle, which was impregnable on account of it being on a rocky headland that could only be accessed via a narrow and tightly-guarded causeway, he couldn’t get anywhere near her. So he decided to cheat; he got his friend, Merlin the wizard, to cast a spell that made him look like his enemy. This served not only to trick the guards into letting Uther into the castle, but also to trick Igraine into letting Uther into her bed. Thus was King Arthur conceived; setting aside Uther’s rather questionable behaviour, this does pose the inconvenient notion that the Once and Future King of the Britons was illegitimate, a notion that many a writer has got around by adding a bit about Uther subsequently killing Gorlois and marrying Igraine.

Adultery also features in another of Tintagel’s legends, the story of Tristan and Iseult – a tragic tale of forbidden courtly love which is rather similar to the story of the relationship between Arthur’s loyal knight, Sir Lancelot, and his queen, Guinevere. Iseult was the wife of King Mark, presumably a client king of Arthur’s. She fell in love with Tristan, variously described as either one of Arthur’s knights or Mark’s nephew (sometimes both). He felt the same way about her, and the pair went to various lengths to keep their relationship a secret until, perhaps inevitably, her husband found out.

We know, thanks to archaeological discoveries at Tintagel, that the castle – located on the afore-mentioned rocky headland that can only be accessed from the mainland via a narrow causeway – was a high-status settlement of some sort in the fifth and sixth centuries which means that it was in use at the time when King Arthur is believed to have existed, and that it could well have been used by the kings of Cornwall (and in the Dark Ages Cornwall did indeed have its own kings, although if truth be told they were actually client kings of the post-Roman British kingdom of Dumnonia and later the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex; the last one died in or around 875). In 1998, archaeologists found pottery and glass fragments from the fifth and sixth centuries there, along with a 1,500 year-old stone bearing the Latin inscription Patern[--] Coli Avi Ficit Artognou, translated as ‘Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made this’. This discovery led to much speculation that ‘Artognou’ could perhaps have been Arthur himself.

The present-day ruins of Tintagel Castle, though, date back to the thirteenth century. It was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall – a younger son of King John who probably decided to build a castle there on account of the area’s Arthurian connections (which were by the thirteenth century very well known, thanks mainly to chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth who popularised the Arthur legend in his largely fanciful History of the Kings of Britain). It was of little strategic value – Earl Richard, not the last royal to become infatuated with the Arthur legend, appears to have had it built in such a way that it looked older than it actually was. By the early fourteenth century it was already a ruin, although in the 1580s the government considered fortifying it when England was threatened with invasion by Spain. It became a popular tourist-destination in the mid-nineteenth century thanks to a revival of interest in all things Arthurian, and it still draws in the crowds today.

From the village, it’s a steep walk down to the sea although in the summer months English Heritage does lay on a shuttle service. Once you’ve paid your entrance-money, it’s a steep walk up to the causeway across to the island itself. 



After perusing the ruins of the keep, I followed a narrow path down to the Iron Gate, a (not iron) wall with an opening that formed part of the castle’s small harbour, allowing it to be provisioned from the sea (the island itself a several natural springs, so in the event of a siege they wouldn’t have been short of fresh water).





Back up on the top of the headland (which has a windswept feel to it, although when I went there was very little by way of breeze), there’s a ruined chapel (dedicated, apparently, to St Hulanus, although some sources say St Julitta; little appears to be known about either) and a walled garden (believed to date back to the time when Earl Richard built the castle, and heavily associated with the Tristan and Iseult legend). 





There are the remains of various settlements from the Dark Ages, plenty of places to stand atop the cliffs looking out to sea or back to the mainland, and those who follow the paths to the extreme end of the island are rewarded with the slight of a knightly statue.




And the views! 



The visitor to Tintagel Castle cannot complain about these; out to sea and back to the mainland, with vistas of that rugged north Cornish coastline, atop which my attention was drawn to St Materiana’s, the parish church of Tintagel which stands somewhat isolated from the village it serves. I wonder why? Another mystery to consider…


5.7.17

There's something about Rachel

Last year, work took me first to Rotherhithe and then to a farm outside Rickmansworth. By ‘work’, I am in this context referring to being a film extra; Rotherhithe was where I went for the fitting and Rickmansworth for the filming. The fitting was done in under an hour, as is usually the case, and the filming – rather unusually – was over before lunchtime. Such was my very modest contribution to the movie My Cousin Rachel, and for what it’s worth a mere couple of seconds of the scene I was in made the final cut.

[Spoiler alert: if you have neither seen the film My Cousin Rachel nor read the novel of the same name, be prepared to have key plot details (including the ending) revealed to you if you continue reading this blog-post. You have been warned.]

Naturally one feels obliged to go to the cinema to see the films one is in (or in this case the films one might have been in, had the director decided that the flashback scenes required a couple more minutes than they ended up getting), and as My Cousin Rachel is based on a novel I also felt obliged to read said novel. So, for the first time in my life, I sat down and read a Daphne du Maurier novel. I’ve seen and enjoyed film versions of her work before – Rebecca, The Birds, Don’t Look Now – but I’d never read one of her books. Until last month. For the record, My Cousin Rachel was first published in 1951 and this is not the first time it was made into a film (that was in 1952, and I have not seen that version).


“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” 

The opening lines both grab the reader and give the first hint of murder, and hints of murder are what this story is all about. The opener is followed by a description of a decaying body (that of a convicted murderer) encased in a gibbet, and after the first few-dozen pages one of the main characters is dead in what are presented as suspicious circumstances. Ambrose Ashley is central to the plot despite being dead, for it is the manner in which he died that is at the heart of My Cousin Rachel. He is the one who raised Philip – his orphaned cousin, the novel’s narrator – on the family’s Cornish estate in a curiously female-free environment; a man content with avoiding the company of women and yet one who suddenly decided to marry his other cousin, the titular Rachel, when he met her when he went to Italy for his health. His death not long after marrying Rachel is the event that drives the rest of the novel.

It is young Philip who, via a rather alarming letter and an all-too-late trip to Florence, has to come to terms with Ambrose’s death at the same time as coming to terms with the existence of this mysterious female cousin on whom he has never laid eyes. Rachel, of course, comes to Cornwall and Philip’s feelings towards her are confused enough before he receives further communication from the late Ambrose in the form of letters or fragments of letters that surface throughout the novel. Philip’s only friend, Louise (the rather sensible daughter of his rather sensible godfather and the girl who everyone appears to have assumed he would one day marry), can only stand by and occasionally provide the voice of reason as he veers between feelings of hatred and infatuation towards his beguiling, enigmatic cousin Rachel.

It’s one of those books that has stayed with me since, mainly due to the ambiguity over the central question: Did Rachel kill Ambrose? Well, did she? Du Maurier does well to keep the reader guessing even after the end by providing no definitive answer. Even at the end, we do not know for sure. At first I was convinced that she had killed him, then I wasn’t so sure, then I was absolutely certain and then at the end doubts resurfaced once again.

Rachel, of course, is not the type to do something as rash as incriminate herself – assuming, of course, that she has anything to incriminate herself about, she being to all intents and purposes the grieving widow who has come to see her late husband’s estate that he was always talking about. Therefore, all Philip has to go on are the afore-mentioned letters which occasionally appear and his own gut instinct, and neither of these can be considered to be entirely reliable. The reliability of what cousin Ambrose says in his letters about Rachel trying to kill him is brought into question by Rachel herself, who tells Philip about his deteriorating mental state prior to his death; but then, if she did indeed kill Ambrose she would of course have a vested interest in making sure that the content of his letters is discredited as the ravings of a diseased mind. As for Philip’s gut instinct – well, he’s a bit of a fool is Philip, first building Rachel up to be an evil murderer before he meets her, and then making an idiot of himself as he falls for her despite what he thinks about her supposed role in his beloved cousin’s death.

A good farmer and a competent manager of a country estate he may be, but boy is Philip Ashley useless when it comes to interacting with a woman (the shortcomings of Ambrose’s unconventional way of raising him become clear as events take their course). Philip presents a string of pearls (a valuable family heirloom) to her as a Christmas present, only to be forced to take them back. Although Ambrose left the estate to him and not Rachel, he signs everything over to her despite being advised not to. He then becomes convinced that having sex with her equates to a successful proposal of marriage; this turns out to be particularly humiliating as he doesn’t bother to clarify the situation with Rachel before telling everyone that they’re engaged. The involvement of Rainaldi, the shady Italian lawyer who Philip mistrusted on sight in Italy and who over the course of the plot turns up in Cornwall, adds to Philip’s frustration and confusion; rather like Doctor Watson and Bertie Wooster, he is not so much an unreliable narrator as a narrator who doesn’t have all of the facts to hand (but unlike them, he has no Holmes or Jeeves to explain things and put things right).

It’s only when Philip himself falls ill, with symptoms not unlike those that affected Ambrose, that he (on recovering) veers back to his original hypothesis regarding Rachel’s involvement in Ambrose’s death, and for good measure it looks as though she might have been trying to do away with him too. All that tisana that she insists on making for Philip looks rather suspicious (a special brew just for him?), but he and by extension we cannot be sure even though there is strong circumstantial evidence (those laburnum seeds, “poisonous to cattle, and to men”) to suggest that this may have been the method by which she did for Ambrose.

But enough doubt remains. Rest assured, though, that we readers and viewers are not the only ones in the dark. A revealing line in Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall shows that the author herself wasn’t entirely sure about Rachel’s guilt: “I have often been asked whether Rachel was really guilty of murdering Ambrose or whether it was in Philip’s mind. I cannot answer the question. One moment I thought, ‘Well, I wonder if she is?’ and the next moment I was not at all sure. What is certain is that our past will not be buried, for it is alive, with us and within us.”

As My Cousin Rachel nears its climax, one of the characters is on the same wave-length as the author, and it’s not the narrator: “‘If there is no proof,’ said Louise, ‘you cannot condemn her. She may be innocent. She may be guilty. You can do nothing. If she be innocent, and you accused her, you could never forgive yourself. You would be guilty then, and she not at all ... I wish now we had not meddled with her things.’”

This makes Philip’s actions at the end all the more questionable. Although he cannot be sure of Rachel’s guilt, he is nevertheless prepared to send her to her death by encouraging her to go for a walk in the terraced garden without warning her that the newly-installed bridge is merely decorative and not in any way load-bearing (in the movie, he encourages her to take the horse for a ride on the top of a cliff that he knows to be dangerous; the effect is the same). With Rachel dead, the question of her guilt must go unanswered; suspicion is and was always tempered by doubt. But it does raise the issue of Philip being responsible for Rachel’s death; does him sending her out into the garden (or onto the cliff) without warning her of the dangers make him guilty of murder? It’s tantamount to manslaughter at least, and Louise clearly suspects worse (“‘What have you done?’ she said; and apprehension came upon her, conviction too.”).

What is not in doubt is the fact that My Cousin Rachel is a thoroughly engrossing read; the question of whether or not Rachel is a murderer is frustratingly left unanswered, but conversely that is in itself what makes the book so fascinating; had du Maurier provided a definite answer one way or the other, I suspect it would not have remained in my mind some two weeks after I had finished it.

And the film? Well, it was well-acted (especially by Rachel Weisz as Rachel) but it had a predictable feel to it that the novel did not. In addition, I wasn’t overly impressed with the way in which the film-makers contrived to provide Philip with a happy-ish ending (marrying Louise, no less) after the death of Rachel, rather than the ambiguity concerning his fate that du Maurier provided by repeating those haunting first lines at the end; as a reader I was left with a very real sense that, for all the question-marks about Rachel murdering Ambrose, there is much in those last few paragraphs to suggest that Philip’s fate is to be thought of as the murderer of Rachel; why on Earth would Louise or anyone else marry such a man?

So there we have it. Much to my surprise, I find myself at the age of 38 teetering on the brink of becoming a fan of Daphne du Maurier. Naturally I will have to read some more of her books before I can be sure of this new departure in my literary tastes, and following a recent trip to Cornwall which involved stopping at a certain old coaching inn on Bodmin Moor I have an idea about what the next one will be…


29.6.17

Florence - in, up and under the Duomo

When in Florence, the first thing that jumps out at you is the cathedral, known as the Duomo. Yes, there are many famous pieces of art as well, but when you look out onto the city from a vantage-point like the car park at the Piazzale Michelangelo (the location of one of several Davids) on the hill to the south of the Arno, it is the Duomo with its red-tiled dome, bell tower and marble façade is what grabs the eye. That is what dominates any view of the city, one of Italy’s finest.



Strictly speaking, it is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore (the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower); built to replace an old church on the same site, work began on it in 1296 and it took around 150 years to complete, although the neo-Gothic marble façade on the western end was added in the nineteenth century. The famous dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the key figures of Renaissance architecture, between 1420 and 1436; he modelled it on the Pantheon in Rome, and used over four million bricks to build both the inner and outer octagonal domes. Glimpses of his great work can be spotted throughout the city.



That said, I do think that Peter Moore is onto something when he points out (in the excellent Vroom with a View) that it, and Florence in general, has space issues:

“There’s just no sense of space. Take the Duomo, for example … smack bang in the centre of town and topped by the red-tiled dome that is to Florence what the Opera House is to Sydney. Here we have one of the most amazing buildings of the Renaissance, clad in white, green and pink Tuscan marble. It was designed by Brunelleschi to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Rome and Greece, but you only have to walk 10 metres before you hit another building. The dome is the largest of its time built without scaffolding, but there’s just no room to appreciate its size. And what little room that’s there is filled with thousands of people trying to get into the cathedral and just as many Senegalese hawkers trying to sell them fake Louis Vuitton handbags.”


Rather than consider such matters, though, we wanted to explore the Duomo itself, along with everyone else who was visiting Florence on a hot day in June. Getting into the cathedral itself is free (all you have to do is queue), but the rest – the bell tower, the baptistry (separate buildings, as is the case with several other Italian cathedrals), the crypt and the top of that famous dome – are places you have to pay to get in, up or down to. A €15 ticket, valid for 48 hours, covers the lot.

After paying my €15 and acknowledging that climbing the dome was out because it was already fully booked (not that I minded, as I’d done the dome of the Duomo before, on a previous trip), I made my way up the campanile, as the bell tower is known. Designed in the mid-fourteenth century by the architect Giotto di Bondone (usually known simply as Giotto, just like his fellow-Florentine Dante Alighieri is usually just known by his first name), this slender square tower is slightly shorter than the cathedral dome (Giotto’s plans had included a spire which was to have made it 400 feet tall, but he died before his great work could be completed and his successors decided against the spire, leaving the tower just under 280 feet tall). It has 414 stairs. I am not usually one to turn down the chance to climb a tower, and despite the heat (the mercury was over 30°C for most of our short trip to Tuscany, an unusual occurrence for June which has the wine-growers rather worried about how their 2017 vintage is going to turn out) I was up for this one.



I climbed up the steep stone steps, sometimes stopping to let people coming down go through (unlike the dome, which as I recall has separate ways up and down, it’s just the one staircase for the bell tower). Yes it was warm but it could be worse – ten years ago I went up the one at Pisa, which was a precarious experience not because it leans but because the steps of that one are made of marble, and it was raining at the time. Climbing the Florence campanile, there were occasional views out of the small windows – not just the cathedral dome, once again putting in an enticing appearance, but also the similar (albeit smaller) dome of the nearby church of San Lorenzo. 



I was grateful for the stops at the various levels. One had a view up through which you could see the people two levels above us standing on a metal grate; when I got to that level I naturally made sure to stand on said grate – which, I’m happy to report, has no problems with supporting 13-odd stone of English tourist.



Up top, I was not surprised to not that us successful climbers were encased in a metal cage through which we could look out over the city – most high towers have cage-like structures on the top. 


I could see across to the dome, which in my opinion makes the view from the bell tower a nicer one than the view from the dome, because by looking out over Florence from the dome you’re seeing Florence without its most famous landmark (rather like seeing Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, when you think about it). There was also the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce (the big representation of the Star of David on the front of that church has a theological message – a six-point star formed of two interlocking triangles is an old symbol of creation, expressing the eternal nature of the Holy Trinity which is itself sometimes represented by an equilateral triangle), San Lorenzo and all those red-tiled roofs of Florence stretching out to where the city ends and the hills begin.






After making my way down, I joined the queue to get into the cattedrale itself.


A church or a cathedral is usually a good place to visit on a hot day as it’s usually fairly cool inside, and it looked as though quite a few others had had the same idea. It seemed fairly spartan inside, with any effect the high altar might have being off-set by the construction work going on behind it. 


The crowning glory of the Duomo’s interior, of course, is seen by looking up to the inside of Brunelleschi’s dome with its large depiction of the Last Judgement; Brunelleschi, apparently, envisaged it as being gold in colour, but after he died it was simply whitewashed and it fell to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, one of the Medici dynasty who ruled Medieval Florence, to decree that it be painted with a very big representation of the Last Judgement, a project that took 11 years to complete (it was started by two artists, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, but after the former died six years into the project the latter got help from several others).


Down below next, for entry to the crypt was included in the €15 ticket. The crypt was excavated during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and contains remains going back to Roman times although for the most part it has the remains of the previous church that stood on the site of the Duomo, a (smaller) fifth-century church dedicated to St Reparata (a third-century Christian martyr) which was, apparently, in a somewhat parlous state by the time the Florentines decided to build the present-day Duomo. The old church was apparently where two eleventh-century popes were buried. A look around yielded several slabs from old tombs as well as the grave of Brunelleschi himself, buried (like Wren) underneath his greatest achievement. In a roped-off section there was also a recess in one of the walls containing what I took to be a saint’s relic of some sort, although there was nothing to indicate which saint; St Reparata, perhaps?



Back outside, there was one more thing to do and that was the baptistry. The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) dates back to the eleventh century although bits of it are thought to be much older than that – there are Roman columns inside and it’s thought to have been built on the site of a Roman temple. The first thing to marvel at, before you even enter it, are the three sets of bronze-relief doors, the most famous of which are the eastern ones which were the work of one Lorenzo Ghiberti who won a competition to design them in 1401 (actually, he won it jointly with the afore-mentioned Brunelleschi, although the latter withdrew in a fit of pique because he hadn’t won outright). Michaelangelo was so impressed with the east doors, which depict scenes from the Old Testament, that he dubbed them the Porti del Paradiso (‘gates of paradise’) although the ones we see today are replicas, the originals being in a museum; Ghiberti, by the way, also did the north doors which have scenes from the Gospels as well as depictions of eight saints.

What’s truly impressive about it once you get inside is the glittering dome mosaics, the oldest of which are from the mid-thirteenth century. Even more impressive is the fact that pews are provided so weary, sweaty visitors (what can I say? It was a hot day and I’d already climbed the campanile!) can take a load off and look up at the mosaics without leaning back too far and falling over. I marvelled at the big depiction of the Last Judgement before trying to figure out passages from the Bible the other panels depicted (there was a fair bit from Genesis before the artists decided to skip to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and – appropriately enough, given the building’s dedication – John the Baptist). 





Then I looked around the rest of the building, and wondered why it is that the font is tucked away to one side, almost as an afterthought; given that this was a building constructed specifically for the purpose of baptism, I found that odd.


Another oddity, or at least something I perceived to be an oddity, is that the Baptistry has a tomb. While the crypt is believed to have been the place where two eleventh-century popes were buried, the Baptistry is most definitely the final resting-place of a fifteenth-century antipope. Baldassare Cossa is known to history as John XXIII, although he is not to be confused with the actual, twentieth-century pope of the same name and number. Although he was elected as pope in 1410, history does not regard him as a real pope because his (sort-of) papacy occurred at a time when there were three popes, each claiming to be the one true pope and each being recognised by different countries! This unholy mess was known as the Western Schism, and it was eventually sorted out at the Council of Constance, which declared that all three popes should abdicate so that a new, single pope could be elected. John’s lasting contribution to papal history, and the reason for his burial in Florence, is that it was he who enabled the Medici family – those Medieval rulers of Florence – to get into papal banking, which was what made them very rich indeed. Burying him in the Baptistry after his death in 1419, and getting Donatello to sculpt his tomb, was probably the least they could do as a posthumous thank-you.


And on that note, it was time to leave the baptistry and go off in search of some gelato. Well, we were in Florence, and it was a hot day.

27.6.17

The swifts overhead

As I write, I have a sunny view over a valley in the heart of that part of Tuscany which is sometimes called ‘Chiantishire’. The village we are staying in is called Panzano-in-Chianti, and it is located on the road known as the Chiantigiana (although on the maps it goes by its numerical designation, route 222, which runs from Florence to Siena). Lunch later today will be courtesy of the local butcher, and there are no prizes for guessing what the wine will be. For now, though, the principal sounds are the bells of the church (Santa Maria, located at the top of the hill), the cicadas and the shrill calls of the swifts circling overhead.


There are a lot of swifts, and they do a lot of flying. From a superficial perspective these dark-coloured yet fascinating summer visitors look a little bit like swallows and martins but they are in fact more closely related to hummingbirds. Their wings are much bigger in proportion to their bodies, which is appropriate as they spend most of their lives in flight – so much so that the ancients believed that they didn’t have any feet (actually they do – they have very short legs with which they can cling to vertical surfaces – although their Latin name, apus, derives from the Ancient Greek a pous, meaning ‘without feet’).

They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing. They fly higher than swallows and martins, and for great distances in a matter of days – once, a bird ringed in England was found in Spain four days later. They are fast, too; the hobby, another summer visitor, is one of few birds of prey that can catch them. They do land to nest (usually in tall buildings nowadays, although holes in trees and cliffs are also used), but unlike swallows and martins you’ll never see them perched on telephone wires.

These airborne symbols of summer can be seen in towns and rural areas all over Europe and Asia between April (May in places as far north as Britain) and August; they winter down in sub-Saharan Africa. It is most likely because of their association with summer that I find it pretty hard not to smile when I look up and see the swifts.