These pictures of the Chilean volcano were sent to me by Eric and Jean
In this blogposting…
*In Praise of...Gateshead
*Letters to Local Councils
*Old Men Chatting
Now read on...

This is what a recent Guardian editorial had to say about Gateshead…

‘The title of the Hippest Street in Britain sounds suspect in the media world of dodgy polls and tiny ‘public votes’. But Gateshead's triumph in Google's Street View Awards is thoroughly deserved.

The reinvention of the Tyne's southern bank as South Shore Road, the street that took the crown, is a triumph for the smaller half of the famous Geordie partnership. Many talk of going to Newcastle to see the Angel of the North, the ‘winking eye bridge’, the BALTIC gallery or the Sage concert hall. They can indeed see all four from Newcastle (although the Angel only on tiptoes) but all were commissioned by, and have their feet firmly in, Gateshead.

To say this is not to incite Geordie divisions, but to emphasise the regenerative reach of cultural projects right across the north-east. Far away in Venice, this year's biennale is a tribute to the flair of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside; crowds are flocking to work contributed by Newcastle's Laing art gallery and Locus+ arts commissioning agency, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Sunderland's National Glass Centre.

This is no flimsy successor to the engineering masterpieces associated with all three rivers: the history of pioneering art in northernmost England embraces the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Ashington painters, the engravings of Thomas Bewick and the wild, apocalyptic landscapes of John Martin.

It is good to see Northumberland's little Alnwick in the Google awards, too, for Britain's best shopping street at Bondgate Within.

After art, what better than a little retail therapy?’

Well said, Guardian. And well done, Gateshead - and ‘little Alnwick!’

Next...a couple of titbits to make you smile. They were sent to me by Dave Shannon.

* It's the dogs mess that I find hard to swallow.
* I want some repairs done to my cooker as it has backfired and burnt my knob off.
* I wish to complain that my father twisted his ankle very badly when he put his foot in the hole in his back passage.
* Their 18 year old son is continually banging his balls against my fence.
* I wish to report that tiles are missing from the outside toilet roof. I think it was bad wind the other day that blew them off.
* My lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?
* I am writing on behalf of my sink, which is coming away from the wall.
* Will you please send someone to mend the garden path. My wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant.
* I request permission to remove my drawers in the kitchen.
* 50% of the walls are damp, 50% have crumbling plaster, and 50% are just plain filthy.
* I am still having problems with smoke in my new drawers.
* The toilet is blocked and we cannot bath the children until it is cleared.
* Will you please send a man to look at my water, it is a funny colour and not fit to drink.
* Our lavatory seat is broken in half and now is in three pieces.
* I want to complain about the farmer across the road. Every morning at 6am his cock wakes me up and it's now getting too much for me.
* The man next door has a large erection in the back garden, which is unsightly and dangerous.
* Our kitchen floor is damp. We have two children and would like a third, so please send someone round to do something about it.
* I am a single woman living in a downstairs flat and would you please do something about the noise made by the man on top of me every night.
* Please send a man with the right tool to finish the job and satisfy my wife.
* I have had the clerk of works down on the floor six times but I still have no satisfaction.
* This is to let you know that our lavatory seat is broke and we can't get BBC2.
* My bush is really overgrown round the front and my back passage has fungus growing in it.
* He's got this huge tool that vibrates the whole house and I just can't take it any more

‘Sixty is the worst age to be,’ said the 60-year-old man. ‘You always feel like you have to pee and most of the time you stand there and nothing comes out.’
‘Ah, that's nothin," said the 70-year-old. ‘When you're seventy, you don't have a bowel movement any more. You take laxatives, eat bran, sit on the toilet all day and nothin' comes out!’
‘Actually,’ said the 80-year -old, ‘Eighty is the worst age of all.’
‘Why?’ asked the 60-year-old. ‘Do you have trouble peeing, too?’
‘No, I pee every morning at 6:00. I pee like a racehorse on a flat rock; no problem at all.’
‘So, do you have a problem with your bowel movement?’
‘No, I have one every morning at 6:30.’
Exasperated, the 60-year-old said, ‘You pee every morning at 6:00 and crap every morning at 6:30. So what's so bad about being 80?’
‘I don't wake up until 7:00.’

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

Le Vieux Cannet des Maures: part of the view from the village square
The board explaining the view was painted by Yvon and his partner

(For ‘the story so far’, take a look at blogpostings 279, 280 and 283)

Le Vieux Cannet (vieux means ‘old’) is a small and very ancient village perched on a tiny clifftop at the end of a long promontory. This promontory juts out into a vast plain of low-lying land; it’s what used to be called a ‘heugh’ in north-east England.

Of necessity, the village is tiny; its clifftop plateau is very small. There’s a dusty village square with houses on two sides, the church on the third and, on the fourth side, a sheer drop to the valley way below. As I discovered on my post-breakfast wander the next morning, the view south from here is astounding. The vast verdant plain below the village is neatly laid out with vineyards and wine-making farms. It also acts as a conduit for those joint necessities of modern European life - the motorway and the high-speed train line.

The hills in the far distance are the hinterland of St Tropez and the Cote d’Azure; Nice, Cannes and Monaco aren’t too far distant - which partly explains why the motorway and railway are so busy.

Our journey, though, lay in entirely the opposite direction. It was time for us to venture north-west, into that famed part of Provence known as the Luberon. I’d read a lot about it - although not, at the time, the most famous book of all: A Year in Provence, written in the late 80s by Peter Mayle and hugely popular ever since (although the tv series adapted from it was, by all accounts, ‘weak’).

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t read it before I went there. It would perhaps have coloured my expectations too much. Reading it after I got back, on the other hand, served to confirm the opinions I’d formed of my own accord; clever me - and clever Peter Mayle for drawing such a funny and affectionate portrait of the Luberon.

But I’m ahead of myself…

It was sad to say Goodbye to Yvon and his splendid home. Blogsters will know that he has already been foolish enough to invite me back - he obviously doesn’t know me very well - and I hereby accept his invitation (with what may be regarded as unseemly haste) before he reconsiders and withdraws it.


We travelled west, back towards Aix-en-Provence (which, by the way, is pronounced Ex). Many guide-books sing its praises as one of France’s chic-est university cities, but we didn’t have time to confirm or refute those reports. The heart of our holiday lay to the north, and that’s where we wanted to be.
Le Tambour d'Arcole
Our first stop was at the pretty wayside village of Cadenet, where we paused to assess progress by scrying our map - and to catch sight of Le Tambour d’Arcole (The Drummer-Boy of Arcola'). Legend has it that this brave young fellow waded into the river at the Battle of Arcola in 1796, thus inspiring Napoleon to march onto the bridge and subsequently win the battle. A bit like the legend of our own Jack Crawford, whose memorial stands in Mowbray Park in Sunderland. Funnily enough, young Jack’s escapade also took place during the Napoleonic campaign, so it’s Cadenet 1, Sunderland 1.

I can’t quite figure out the French attitude to Napoleon and, to be brutally honest, I’m too intimidated to ask. I haven’t come across a Rue Bonaparte or an Avenue Napoleon yet, although I’m sure they must exist, given the French predilection for naming important streets after important people. Almost every village has a Rue Charles de Gaulle - including the village where Serge lives. Naturally, it’s the main road.

Napoleon, though, seems to have had several thick veils drawn over his memory. In wondering why this should be, I’ve decided to read up about him rather than pose what may be a double-edged question to the French people I know.


Just a couple of miles ahead of us lay our dramatic entry into the Luberon - the Combe de Lourmarin - a winding, narrow lane that leads deeper and deeper into an extraordinary gorge, with the cliffsides closing in as you drive higher - and motorcyclists risking their lives and yours by hurtling directly towards you and swerving away on a tight bend at the very last minute. It seems to be some kind of informal motorsport which, being English, I did not find remotely amusing.

At the top of the combe, you are on the southern hills of the Luberon. You are in what many people - especially thanks to Peter Mayle, English visitors and expats - consider to be the ‘real’ Provence.

We took a side road that should have pointed to Heaven.
It wound up through woods, olive groves and vineyards to the captivating - and very busy - twin villages of Bonnieux and Enclos-des-Bories ( - I found out what bories were a little later on). The view from the main street of Bonnieux was stunning; low hills - the ones we had just driven through - lay to our left, wildly wooded and be-vined. All else was hilltop villages, wide valleys, chateaux, fields and farms. We could see for miles as we wound down the streets of the villages and emerged on the valley floor.

We drove through Lacoste, famous to many, I suppose, as the (purely coincidental) name of designer clothing which people of a certain moribund stupidity would kill to get their hands on. Much more interestingly, though, Lacoste is also where the wonderfully pervy Marquis de Sade had his chateau.

I’m not sure how much time he was able to spend here, though. After all, he was in prison for 32 of his adult years - during which time he wrote most of the books which would ensure his immediate re-arrest on release. Nevertheless, and depending on your level of interest (or of your ‘sadism’), his Provencal hideaway is there to be visited.

The steep-sided hill of Petit Luberon - an enclave all of its own - was still hugging the road when we reached Menerbes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the village near which Peter Mayle and his wife settled in the 80s and where he wrote his famous book. If I’d known, I would have made a special pilgrimage to the house, the painstaking restoration of which is central to the book. (He would have been in no danger: he now lives in Lourmarin, and we’d passed through there already.)

We drove deeper into the valley and were astonished to see a village that looked as though it was built onto a ledge on the mountain-side. This was Oppede-le-Vieux ( - I hope you’ve remembered what vieux means - ) and our eyes had not deceived us. It really was built on that ledge. A lane ran tightly onto the smallest village square I’ve ever seen - and out again. There was no room to stop the car and get out - so I still haven’t seen one of Provence’s weirdest mysteries: The Magic Square of Oppede.

Here it is…
It’s called a Sator Square and - as a little close inspection will show you - it’s a perfect palindrome. It can be read backwards and forwards, downwards and upwards, from left to right or right to left. A possible translation is, apparently, ‘the sower Arepo holds the wheels at work’ but I suspect that what it means is very much secondary to why it exists at all.

I’m told that nine of these mysterious Sator Squares - which are thought to be linked with very early Christianity - have been unearthed from the ruins of ancient Europe. Even more mysterious: the one found in Manchester may be the earliest evidence of Christianity in England.

Our next destination was clearly visible from Oppede-le-Vieux; it lay just a few kilometres away on a hilltop across the valley: the truly astonishing village of Gordes.

Like Le Vieux Cannet, Gordes sits at the end of a long, high promontory. Because the hill is altogether bulkier, though, it can accommodate a much larger village, complete with a small chateau in the market square.

When you first see Gordes it is genuinely - and quite literally - unbelievable. It looks as though it was designed, as a piece, specially for that site and no other, by a group of the world’s foremost village-designing architects. Everything looks perfectly in place - and not just the buildings which drape themselves (a little self-consciously, it must be admitted) over the promontory’s top and sides. The lanes and steps, the gardens and trees and tiny squares, the chateau and the church - they all contribute to an overall picture that is extremely easy on the eye.
There’s a viewpoint from the road entering the village, with well-worn paths to scary cliff-edges where even better views are obtainable. I could easily imagine generations of French tourists encouraging each other to ‘go back a bit’ (en arriere un peu) and plunging helplessly into the valley below in the cause of photographic perfection. Gordes is the sort of place where you would seriously want to take your best shot ever.

I couldn’t help wondering, though, what the place must be like in the summer. In August, the entire population of Paris, and several other European cities besides, descends on the south of France. And a goodly number of them must end up here, pushing each other over the edge, literally and metaphorically, to get a better photo. Local doctors and gendarmerie have probably already identified a condition they call ‘rage du Gordes’.

(As if to prove the point, you can see more photos of Gordes on Serge’s blog: spepere.blogspot.com)

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Rugby League player Gareth Thomas (with the ball) has made history; he is the first professional sportsman in the world to 'come out' at the height of his career, rather than safely after it has ended.


It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to you to be told that I’m not a big sports fan.

At school, my Wednesday afternoons were spent on ignominious ‘cross-country runs’ - seven or eight bespectacled nascent librarians denting the pavements as they lumbered from Crossgate Moor to (appropriately enough) Earl’s House Hospital halfway along the road to Witton Gilbert. (Be careful - pronounce the G as if it’s a J.)

The only game I really enjoyed at school was shinty. It’s played with a ‘ball’ that might as well be made of concrete and every player is armed with a mahogany hockey-stick chipped, it seemed to me, from Dunston Staithes.

Shinty is unforgivingly brutal. It’s like that unforgettable hockey match in The Belles of St Trinian’s - punches are not pulled and no prisoners are taken. I understand that the game is still extremely popular in the remoter glens of Scotland, which does not surprise me in the least. You could significantly reduce the height of Ben Macdui by playing a game of shinty on the top of it.

Ironically, though, I wasn’t allowed to play it because I wore glasses. The only game I have ever actively wanted to participate in was denied to me because I wore milk-bottle-bottom specs; not your trendy, wafer-thin lenses, worn mostly (I am convinced) for effect but genuine Charles Dickens windows that have been distorting my world since I was 4.

I was allowed to wear my glasses in the gym, though.

As a matter of fact, I used to quite enjoy the gym at school. But my enthusiasm was usually deflated because I couldn’t master any of the equipment in it. If I leapt onto the wall-bars, I could feel them inching out of their brackets. Where other lads would mount the gym’s hanging ropes like demented lemurs, I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground. Neither of them.

As for the vaulting horse...it almost whinnied and made for open country and the comparative safety of Earl’s House Hospital whenever I even looked at it.

For me then, most sport - and most of the enormous coverage it gets - is not even worth ignoring. The effete and pretentious pantomime of football - mired in its cesspit of corruption and self-importance - is matched, in my eyes, by the dreary predictability of motor-racing, which milks its veneer of excitement for all its worth, the vacuity of golf - an interest in which is the clearest possible indicator of personality disorders - and the self-serving and smug obtuseness of cricket, lower than which it is not possible to sink without resorting to darts, a pastime truly beneath contempt.

That BBC commentators have the gall to call golfers and darts players ‘athletes’ beggars belief. They should be taken to court.

I am not, however, totally immune to the excitement of sporting achievements, or to the grand occasions which often surround them. When I was young, I used to watch the Gand National along with almost everyone else who otherwise couldn’t tell one end of a horse from the other - although I went off it in a big way when I became a sensitive, poetry-writing student and realised how cruel it was.

I also joined the rest of the population to watch the Boat Race - another event followed avidly by folk who wouldn’t recognise a two-man scull if it stood up in their soup.

And I still very much love watching athletics. The Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and the World Championships (coming up later this year) find me glued to the haunted fish-tank. Not literally, of course.

Stephen Fry ‘use-of-English’ warning!

Have you noticed how BBC sports commentators - and now journalists and tv presenters as well - are increasingly using ‘literally’ to mean its exact opposite? I’ve mentioned this before but my complaints have gone unheeded by the powers-that-be. So we are still being told that ‘before the free kick, the Stoke team literally built a wall across the goalmouth’ or that the United manager ‘literally flew off the handle’, which would have been worth seeing.

Thanks almost entirely to the BBC, ‘literally’ is starting to mean ‘metaphorically’.

Other presenters use it as ‘narrative filler’ - a kind of vague emphasiser. Jamie Oliver loves using it this way. ‘All you do is literally take the onions and chop them finely.' Count his literallys the next time you are unlucky enough to watch one of his cheerier-than-thou programmes. The exercise may stop you being sick.

Jamie’s endless repetition of it means that ‘literally‘ is also being used to mean literally nothing at all. Literally.

End of Stephen Fry moment. Back to athletics.

There’s something truly ‘basic’ - almost animalistic - about athletics. In most of its guises, it’s simply a straightforward contest to see who can run faster - or jump higher or longer or throw something further - than anyone else. The sheer power, energy and stamina of the human body exercised and demonstrated in an uncomplicated and mesmerising way.

(The fact that the decathlon - along with men’s gymnastics - is also the most testosterone-supercharged and erotic event in the history of sport, and recruits to its numbers men of unparalleled physical perfection, is entirely beside the point.)

But I don’t derive pleasure merely from watching the events themselves. My sense of humour also has a weakness for the hopelessly bland and predictable questions that athletes are asked by trackside interviewers. Barely able to breathe, having just crossed the line third, the runner will be asked to ‘talk us through the last 400 metres’. They will be asked ‘how pleased are you to have got through to the next round?’ Duh.

The commentators deserve medals, too. Brendan Foster and Steve Cram can, famously, talk non-stop throughout the entire London Marathon. They will tell us how each athlete is feeling and what they’re thinking every step of the way - for hours and hours.

And, as the British runner in the 100,000 metre steeplechase staggers in last across the line, Ron Pickering, with breathtaking perspicacity, will tell us that ‘he will be disappointed with that performance.’

When I’m watching rugby league, though, the commentators may as well be speaking Greek. This is because it’s not the majesty of the back-and-forth flow of the game that impresses me. Nor is it the skilful set-piece moves, the cheerful enthusiasm of the crowd or the significance of the match in the great scheme of rugby league things.

RL is unadulterated, undiluted maleness in a way that table-tennis or beach volleyball (God forbid) can only barely aspire to, whatever else their attributes might be. Along with Aussie Rules, it’s one of the few sports in which men are shamelessly allowed to demonstrate and display that old-fashioned assertive masculinity which has now almost disappeared under a welter of weedy metrosexuality of the type so effectively marketed by David Beckham and his ilk.

RL men have power, spirit and rough edges. And, on a slightly less elevated level (as it were), they have thighs to die for and are allowed to show them off in shorts that are the length shorts ought to be.

(If you'd like to know more about the astonishing courage of Gareth Thomas - pictured above - in deciding to reveal his homosexuality, Google him - or just ask me.)

I notice that I’m at serious risk of bringing this otherwise erudite diatribe down to my level.

And in any case, much though I enjoy the Olympics or the Challenge Cup Final, I love Wimbledon even more.

Ah, Wimbledon!

There’s really no need to list the cliches and steretoypes associated with it. Its blissfully unchanging magic seems to be woven into the fabric of the English early summer. It makes all the other Grand Slam Finals look like disorganised knockabouts in municipal parks.

Wimbledon is green.

The buildings are green, the century-old ivy that smothers them is green, the ballboys and ballgirls are dressed in green, the scoreboards are green and the grass is very, very green. Even the fact that the game is played on grass at all elevates The Championships above the vulgar concrete and clay of all the others. Grass is natural and unpredictable - and fast.

I love the way that appearance is still of paramount importance at Wimbledon; that the players must wear ‘predominantly’ white - and happily agree to do so, temporarily consigning the garish outfits they usually wear to the back of the fire.

I love the quietly accepted authority of the umpires, John McEnroe notwithstanding, and the way that, when they ask for ‘Quiet Please!’, any tumult from the crowd fades away to silence at once. Other tournaments are bear-gardens compared to this.

I love the BBC’s coverage, too. Over the years, it has kept pace with improvements in technology and presentation; Wimbledon was the first major event broadcast in colour and I can remember how amazing that was. That it still is is a credit to the BBC’s engineering and development teams, who, each year, seem to tweak some element or other of the BBC’s presentation of Wimbledon to make it look ever better.

I love the fact that there are no sponsorship hoardings anywhere to be seen at Wimbledon.

At a time when virtually every other sporting event of this status is drenched in tawdry and demeaning advertisements all round the playing area (and even painted onto the grass itself at the ‘RBS‘ Six Nations rugby games), Wimbledon obstinately refuses to sell out to the Big Money. All that you can see, displayed proudly and discreetly, is the tournament’s (unsponsored) logo - two crossed tennis rackets and the words ‘Wimbledon: The Championships’.

And, of course, the tournament is not held at a tennis complex supported by Emirates or Reebok or Adidas or Umbro. Or even Slazenger. It is held at the headquarters of the wonderfully-named ‘All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’, an institution that deserves our gratitude and admiration. For 125 years - almost since the game was virtually invented there - it has resisted the temptation for tatty populism, garish commercialism and the kind of universal mass sponsorship that makes great world sporting events seem so bedraggled and corrupt.

So, if Wimbledon really is run by moustachioed retired colonels from the Home Counties with dreadful wives (as I suspect it may be) then let's all raise a refreshing glass of sweet sherry to them. Let's all munch a cream-draped strawberry in their honour.

I’ve no idea how long the obvious and awe-inspiring anachronism of Wimbledon can continue. Fortunately it shows no sign of weakness just yet.

But you never know.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
*Blog Problems
*The Five Surgeons
*National Anthems
En avant!

Over the last few weeks a number of devoted and loyal blogsters have tried to leave thoughts of typical truckshunter profundity in the Comments box reserved specifically for that purpose - and failed. (By the time I got to the end of that sentence, I had to go back and remind myself of how it started. I hope you’ve managed to take it all in unscathed.)

As far as I can tell, the comments have appeared eventually. But this is hardly a satisfactory situation.

I’m not sure what’s going wrong. This site is owned by Google, who have a good operating record. My computer is a Mac and therefore equally faultless. The inevitable conclusion is - Heaven’s forfend - that the error must lie in something I am doing myself.

Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue what that might be. The truckshunter blog has worked more or less without a hitch for years so I am unused to seeking assistance or guidance about it. And when I have - because of these latest regrettable hiccups - the FAQ page of the site is spectacularly unhelpful.

Which is why I am compelled to appeal for outside aid. If you have any idea what might be at fault, please get in touch. Preferably, by email (see below) - if you put your thoughts into the Comments box, you might be defeating the object of the exercise, after all.

And, in the meantime, please continue to add your other comments as usual. Experience shows that they do appear in the end!

Here’s another tall tale from Eric and Jean, who run The Commercial in Tantobie - and who appear to have become our resident suppliers of Clever Stories With A Moral.

Five surgeons were discussing who were the best patients to operate on.

The first surgeon said 'I like to see Accountants on my operating table because when you open them up, everything inside is numbered.'

The second responded 'Yes, but you should try Electricians! Everything inside them is colour-coded.'

The third surgeon said 'No, I really think Librarians are the best; everything inside them is in alphabetical order.'

Then the fourth surgeon chimed in 'You know I like Building Workers. Those guys always understand when you have a few parts left over at the end, and when the job takes longer than you said it would.'

But the fifth surgeon shut them all up when he observed 'You're all wrong. Politicians are the easiest to operate on. There's no guts, no heart, no balls, no brains, and no spine, and there are only two moving parts - the mouth and the arse - and they are both interchangeable'.
Two photos from Serge's visit to the market at Montmerle-sur-Saone
Serge’s blog appears to be expanding exponentially. He’s recently spent a lot of time enlarging and embellishing it, with colourful and creative results.

Last Saturday, there was a typical morning market in the village and Serge went along to take photographs. Yesterday - Sunday - he popped over the river to the lovely little town of Montmerle sur Saone (Montmerle is ‘Blackbird Hill’). It’s one of my favourite places locally and I always love visiting the Sunday morning market there.

So take a look at Serge’s blog and find out what real, tourist-free, rural French village markets look like. You could even practise your French by trying to translate Serge’s descriptions and experience of them!

Click on his icon in the ‘Followers’ box on this page; in the window that appears, click on his blog name (‘spepere’).

Or Google Search for ‘spepere.blogspot.com’ (no ‘www’ and no ‘@’).

Here are the stirring opening lines of ten of the world’s less celebrated National Anthems. They are ‘less celebrated’ for good reason...

*We swear by the lightning that destroys… (Algeria; the rest of it is just as violent and bloodthirsty.)
*Bolivians! Propitious fate has crowned our hopes…(Er...Bolivia.)
*Against the humiliating bondage of a thousand years… (Burkina Faso; experts in such matters suggest that Burkina Faso’s National Anthem is by far the most boring in the world; the third line talks about ‘neocolonialism and its petty local servants’.)
*Sun, sweat, verdure and sea…(Guinea-Bissau; another depressing anthem; the second line is ‘centuries of pain and hope’.)
*Where slow you see the Alzette flow…(Luxembourg; there's a picture of the Alzette flowing slowly through Luxembourg above; be warned - the second line sings the praises of the Sura.)
*O Lord, protect for us our majesty the Sultan…(Oman; one of very few National Anthems that extols a person rather than the country itself; ours is another.)
*To the peoples of unhappy America…(Paraguay; yet another anthem that depresses rather than uplifts; it also gets quite bloodthirsty later on.)
*Everyone strum your koras…(Senegal; plenty of opportunities for double-entendre here: the second line is ‘strike your balafans’.)
*The three principles of democracy our party does revere…(Taiwan; it’s difficult to see how anyone could come over all patriotic with a first line like that.)
*Eastern landsmen! Our country or the tomb!…(Uruguay; one of many anthems that threaten their singers with death or worse if they don’t sing louder.)

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France is big. Surprisingly big, you might say. It’s the largest country in the EU and over twice as big as England. Which is perhaps just as well, because France is also the most visited country on Earth; over 82m people come each year to sample its delights.

And, being so big, its delights are many. Its coasts are buffeted in the north by the refreshingly bracing waters of the English Channel, in the west by the treacherous currents of the Atlantic and in the south by the effete and tepid Mediterranean, which washes the scented skin of Nice, Cannes and Monaco.

France’s great rivers - Seine, Loire, Rhone - are long and languorous. They are broad and deep and dangerous long before they reach the sea. And her mountains are high - if you were so inclined, you could fit our own beloved Scafell Pike into Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest mountain) five times.

The Alps, the Jura and the Pyrenees are as adorned with ski-slopes as France’s interior is with vineyards, orchards, forests and farms.

So where to visit?

England has its well-worn tourist trails; you are much more likely to find camera-clad visitors ooohing and ahhhing in, say, Bath or Chester or York than in Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough or Plymouth (God forbid). Narrow country lanes are much more likely to be clogged with sightseeing tour coaches in, say, Gloucestershire or Devon than they are in County Durham or Essex.

France, too, has its historic honey-traps. Languedoc, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy - and its mountainous borders with Germany, Spain and Italy. They are visited by so many, I suppose, because of their dramatic and uplifting scenery, much as the Lake District or the Cotswolds are here at home.

And - again, just as here at home - this leaves vast, empty stretches of landscape free for the rest of us. We have the windswept loneliness of the Wash or the Northumberland coast to escape to; the French have long, low, level Biscay sands - as well as the area we headed for on this third day of our holiday: the Camargue.

Even though I only caught a glimpse of it, I know already that I want to go back to the Camargue to explore its vast, windy emptiness. 360 square miles of salty, marshy swampland straddling - indeed, forming - the delta of the River Rhone, which divides into two broad, sluggish streams to make its way to the sea.

The Camargue is, then, the largest river-delta in Europe; a horizonless plain of salty lagoons, cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes. All of which forms a habitat for three wildly differing types of animal…

Camargue bulls are bred here, mostly for export to Spain’s bullrings but many for use more locally in the bullfights at Nimes and Arles.
And our own local wild cattle are mirrored in the Camargue, too. Its wild, white horses have roamed this lonely area for millennia; the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans all appreciated the hardy and fearless qualities of these mysterious and intelligent animals - and they have been painted, to full dramatic effect, many times (as you can see).

Finally, the Camargue is home to more than 400 species of bird. Its brine ponds provide one of the few European habitats for the greater flamingo. I’m not sure if I was meant to be surprised by this, but I was. To me, flamingoes are far too exotic and tropical to be native European birds. You learn something every day.

If you’re not careful, you will also learn that the Camargue is also home to the most vicious mosquitoes in France. They are, apparently, even more vindictive than their Highland Scottish counterparts, which means they must be positively murderous. A good reason for me not to venture too far into the Camargue and to head instead to its ‘capital’, the lovely old city of Arles.

Once again, we found ourselves wandering along narrow lanes and through the tight squares of an ancient and well-preserved French city - with yet another Roman amphitheatre standing to its full height and still in use for theatre and (non-lethal) bullfights.

I spent quite some time in Arles just sitting doing nothing. This wasn’t an expression of my genetic indolence but rather of serious artistic research.

For a start, French composer Bizet - he of Carmen fame - wrote the incidental music for a play called L’Arlesienne (‘The Woman of Arles’). The play was awful and the music was damned by association. This is a very great pity, as it’s as happily tuneful as Bizet’s other ‘greatest hits’.

It was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Beecham about 70 years ago and is now, thankfully, back in the popular repertoire. I’ve loved it for years and sat respectfully in the town square quietly humming it to myself and remembering the unrecognised genius of M Bizet.

But that wasn’t the only artistic endeavour in which I was engaged as I sat in the sunshine.

Van Gogh painted what many regard as his finest pictures here in Arles, including many of his famous sunflowers and the beguiling painting of the interior of his lodgings.
Van Gogh: 'The Red Vines of Arles'
He loved Arles, he said, because of the unique quality of the light. Being as artistically challenged as I am, I couldn’t identify its special qualities at all, though - no matter how long I sat and looked at it.

By mid-afternoon, the heat in the city was becoming a little oppressive (as they say in all the best Victorian novels) so we pointed the car east, drove out of town and onto the autoroute. After all, for the first and only time on this holiday, we had a date…

We had arranged to spend the night with a ‘friend of a friend’ - who lived in a very special village far over in the east of Provence, in the hinterland of St Tropez.

The village is called Le Vieux Cannet and if you Google it for ‘images’, you’ll see lots and lots of pictures - not only of the village but of our host, too.

Yvon Kergal is a painter and sculptor of international repute. He is also the only person I have ever known - or am likely to know - who lives in a converted monastery. Over the decades, Yvon has transformed it into a sumptuous dwelling-house on at least three floors, full of his artwork - paintings, sculpture and wall-decor. There wasn’t a square inch of it that I didn’t like.

(You can find out more about Yvon from his website: yvon-kergal.com)

The chief glory of the house for me, though, lay outside. The wide open views of the valley far below us were framed in one of the most luxuriant gardens I’ve ever seen. This was no cleverly and carefully manicured English garden. This was riotous French gardening gone mad. Arboreal alleyways, tunnels, turns, steps. Rises and falls, dead-ends, quiet corners, shady terraces - even the remains of the cloisters.

And all of it festooned with the green lushness afforded by the Provencal climate. And inhabited by at least one ageing cat and 27 enormous aspidistras.

I’d never seen anything quite like them. In my experience, it was the most awe-inspiring collection of aspidistras in private hands anywhere in the world. (The best collection in public ownership must be the one I saw in the grounds of the Alcazar in Seville.) I wanted to get lost amongst them; to finally indulge my lifelong affection for this neglected, mocked and forgotten element of Victorian houseplantery.

Each plant was 100 leaves strong and thriving. No sign of the dusty, fly-blown and sad examples that once languished in draughty English parlours; here, their dark green, spear-shaped leaves grew and arched with grace, vigour and profusion. They knew they were loved.

Anyone who loves aspidistras this much gets my vote. Yvon - paintings and sculpture notwithstanding - gets my vote.

In a shady bower of ivy and vines, we ate tapanade, a traditional Proven├žal dish made of finely- chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil which you spread on toasted baguette slices. This was followed by the tastiest, home-made ratatouille in the entire history of cuisine.

And all of it washed gently down with the delicately refreshing Spring-like taste of good, local Provencal Rose, to which I am now hopelessly addicted.

If I told you that this dream-like evening was rounded off when, for the first time in my addled life, I slept in a four-poster bed, you just wouldn’t believe me, would you?

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In this blogposting…
*England’s Grass Roots
*Getting Older: The Importance Of Walking
Now then - nice and slow…

...took place as planned yesterday, June 12, in Newcastle.

In faithful attendance were Hildie (naturally) and myself (equally naturally). Adorning the AGM with his irresistible presence was none other than J Arthur Smallpiece, the Poet Laureate of the Honorable Society of Truckshunters (whose real name - Gerry Rawlings - ought to be far more widely known in poetic and literary circles).

Excellent though that threesome undoubtedly is, the AGM was graced, for the first time, by my old friend Brian, whom I’ve known since my salad days and who was visiting me for the weekend.

Brian is a ballet-master of some considerable international reputation who has thankfully retained an ability not to take himself too seriously. Nevertheless, we were compelled to forego a public demonstration of his skills, which would have attracted far too much attention from the crowds thronging the continental market - and may very well have got us barred from Pret a Manger forever.

A splendid time was had by all. BIG thankyou hugs to Hildie, Gerry and Brian.

Mystery emailer Miles - whose wonderful list of ‘Useful Advice’ you can find in posting 278 - has been in touch with me again. This time, his message was of a different order altogether.

His email says that, in a book he read recently, he came across this eloquent description of ‘England’s Grass Roots’ which he thought we might like.

I certainly like it - and I hope you do, too.

‘In typical English weather, April is the moment of the ‘spring flush’ of grass growth; when, winter over, grass - suddenly conspicuously greener - starts growing crazily. It’s a crucial moment because - be in no doubt - grass is what Great Britain’s greatness rests upon.

Grass is the root of the wool industry, by which Britain became a great trading nation, by which the Industrial Revolution was underwritten, and by which we built the largest empire in modern history. It’s not hard to make the case that it’s only for the sake of grass that, for five centuries, our navy ruled the waves.

The grass of the British Isles is like no other grass. ‘The fineness and almost perpetual greenness of our turf cannot be found in France or in Holland,’ notes the diplomat and essayist Sir William Temple in 1685 (thus dismissing, at a stroke, our two supreme trading adversaries).

He is right, of course. In a general sense, grass is what makes our land so green and pleasant; it’s why the overwhelming sensation, on returning to Britain from abroad, is one of greenness.

Even setting aside the wool trade, British culture has always been grass-rooted: from the roast beef of ‘olde Englande’ to the dairy herds that make the best cream, butter and hard cheese in the world. What other country has fresh milk in every local shop?

And what other country has a velvet sward so perfect that we’ve had to invent things to do with it? (Football round 1100, bowls by the thirteenth century, cricket from 1300 or so, golf by the 1400s, rugby around 1823, croquet in the 1830s, lawn tennis in 1874 and hockey by 1849.)

Grass is what makes Britain beautiful - an observation not wasted on 18th-century landscape gardeners such as William Kent or Northumberland-born ‘Capability’ Brown as they set about ‘tweaking’ our verdant landscape, with lakes and clumps of trees, into scenes of romantically idealised pastoral beauty; ‘England’s greatest contribution, perhaps,’ observed the architectural historian Christopher Hussey in 1948, ‘to the visual arts of the world.’

And directly descended from these pastures green is that centre-piece of every English garden, that shorn turf ‘so delicious to the sentient bootsole’ (Henry James’ words) - the English lawn.'

A little bit of ‘excusable nationalism’!

Thanks Miles; I’ll never think of grass in quite the same way again.

As a kind of follow-up to Hildie’s useful exercise regime, described in posting 281, here are some comments sent to me by Eric and Jean, from Tantobie.

‘Walking can add minutes to your life. This enables you, at 85 years old, to spend an additional 5 months in a nursing home at £2,000 per month.’

‘My grandpa started walking five miles a day when he was 60. Now he's 97 years old
and we have no idea where on earth he is.’

‘The only reason I would take up walking is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.’

‘Every time I hear the dirty word 'exercise', I wash my mouth out with chocolate.’

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In this blogposting…
*Exercise For People Over 40
*A Joke
Proceed with caution...

...will be held at 1100 this upcoming Sunday 12 June at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle - despite Vivienne’s absence, for which there will be a minute’s silence (if we can manage it).

Apart from that, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

I recently received this extremely useful email from Hildie, who sensibly realises that, after we get to a certain age, some sort of repetitive exercise is good for us. Follow these recommended instructions carefully and you can’t go wrong...

1 Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of
room at each side.
2 Then, with a 5-kg potato bag in each hand, extend your arms straight
out from your sides and hold them there for as long as you can.
3 Try to reach a full minute, and then relax.
4 Each day you'll find that you can hold this position for just a bit
5 After a couple of weeks, move up to 10-kg potato bags.
6 Then try 50-kg potato bags
7 Eventually try to get to where you can lift a 100-kg potato bag in each hand and hold your arms straight for more than a full minute.
(I'm at this level.)
8 After you feel confident at that level...

9 ...put a potato in each bag.

Good advice Hildie. Thanks.

This lovely joke was sent to me by an otherwise unknown emailer who signed him/herself ‘good4alaff’. I like it a lot, although I’ve had to change some of the language for fear of offending those of a nervous disposition.

A bloke is driving around Northumberland and sees a sign in front of a house:


He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the back garden. The bloke goes into the garden and sees a Bedlington terrier sitting there.

"Do you talk?" he asks.

"I certainly do," the terrier replies.

"So, what's your story?" asks the bloke.

The terrier looks up and says, "Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the MI5 about my gift, and in no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one thought a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running.

"But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger so I decided to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredibly important drug dealings and was awarded lots of medals.

Then I got married, had a load of puppies, and now I'm just retired."

The bloke is amazed.

He goes back into the house and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.

"Ten quid," the owner says.

"Ten quid? This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?"

"Because he's a liar. He never did any of those things."

In the last couple of blogs, I’ve described the first two days of my recent holiday in southern France.

You can see more pictures of the holiday (including a video of me cooling off at the Pont du Gard), and find out more about some of the destinations, if you take a look at Serge’s updated blog. Just click on his picture in the ‘Followers’ box here; then, in the pop-up window, click on his blog name.

Or type ‘spepere.blogspot.com’ (no ‘www’ and no ‘@’) into Google’s search box.


And finally, a deeply touching story that I’ve just found in my pile of newspaper cuttings.

‘An eight-year-old swan is besotted with a tractor, according to hotelier Hermann-Josef Hericks in the village of Velen, in Muensterland, north-west Germany.

The mute swan - called Schwani (Swanny) - is allegedly so obsessed with the blue machine that, every time the engine starts up, he waddles over to say hello.

‘Ever since we bought the tractor three years ago, Schwani has been following it everywhere it goes’ Hericks told a national paper.

Veronika Schwill, who works at the hotel, said that Schwani also found diggers and other machines on the building site next door ‘interesting’’

If anyone has more information on this beguiling story, I’d love to know more.

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In this blogposting...
*La vie en France / Life In France
*1,001 Buildings
Et maintenant...

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Sunday 12 June at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all - so if you’re not there, you only have yourself to blame.

(For a description of the first day of this holiday, see blogposting 279)

In a suburban garden in Newcastle’s West End lie a few rectangular stones which form a square on someone’s front lawn. The square has the footprint of a small garage and is all that remains of the temple of Antenociticus, a Romano-British deity worshipped over 2,000 years ago by both the invading Romans and by the local people they conquered.

It’s not easy to find; the giveaway is the small English Heritage board by the garden gate. Once found, it isn’t particularly rewarding, either. It really is just an oblong of stones on someone’s front garden and gives the onlooker little or no idea of what the temple looked like or what happened there.

One of the closest places to Newcastle where you can see what a fully-fledged Roman temple looked like is in the southern French city of Nimes (founded by the Romans, who called it Nemousos). The temple stands in its own square in the city centre and looks now exactly as it did when the Romans finished it in about 2 or 3 AD.

It is not a reconstruction. Nor is it a ruin or a vestige; these are not ‘the remains’ of a Roman temple. This is a temple still standing to its full height, walled and roofed.

It is one of the finest complete Roman buildings still in existence; it was in the first list of ten ‘Buildings To See Before You Die’ (for the latest, see below) and when you first see it, you realise why. It quite takes your breath away.
It had already been in use for 50 years when Britain was invaded by the Romans. When Hadrian started building his Wall, the temple at Nimes was already well over 100 years old.

It’s almost 86ft long, 50ft wide and the roof’s apex is almost 56ft up. It’s no baby.

Looking at it when we first arrived in the city made me wonder exactly what it is about classical Greek and Roman architecture which still speaks so loudly to us today. The lines are clean and crisp; there is ‘unity of design’ - everything seems to fit together like a jigsaw so that the buildings of that era look ‘just so’; and somehow, the grandeur and nobility, the grace and the ‘presence’ of the building, never seem to be overdone.

The Maison Carree (‘Square House’) - as it is now known - exemplifies these characteristics to perfection. It is the essentially human scale of Greek and Roman architecture that is so appealing to the senses. The repeated columns, capitals, plinths, lintels, pediments and rooflines each seem to have a satisfyingly mathematical and geometrical relationship, one to another - and to the smiling onlooker, too.

The Maison Carree was, on reflection, the first complete Roman building I had ever seen and it was worth making the journey to Nimes to see it.

Not that we’d travelled very far. Avignon is the gateway to the Rhone delta and we had simply driven down the wide, flat valley of the Rhone for a few kilometres from Avignon to Nimes.

To give the journey some non-motorway spice, as it were, we had deviated from the (always distressingly busy) main road up into the hills in an attempt to find a rather peculiar monastery I’d read about: the Abbe de St Roman. Apparently, its monks decided that simply building their abbey with rocks in the conventional way did not glorify the Lord quite enough and decided to hew it out of the rockface itself, thus producing Europe’s only troglodyte monastery.

All we found, though, was the car park. Two unfriendly-looking and very dusty old Renaults were parked there, alongside a camper-van (which the French call a ‘camping car’ - kompeeng kahrrr) outside which three tired-looking women were slurping red wine. It looked inexplicably intimidating so - my British stiff upper lip having gone limp decades ago - we scarpered for the safety of the main road again, and on to Nimes.

It is unexpectedly difficult to explain to a Frenchman why - along with its Roman history - Nimes has claimed a place in the sartorial and philological record-books as well. During the 1849 gold rush in California, a certain Levi Strauss was manufacturing trousers for the miners. Looking for a tough, hard-wearing fabric, he began importing the traditionally blue ‘serge de Nimes’ cloth from here.

De nimes. Denim. Geddit?

Unfortunately, the French themselves do not call this cloth ‘denim’; they call it ‘jean’. They therefore did not even begin to understand me as I pointed more and more frantically at my jeans and then waved my arms at the Maison Carree. ‘See? Denim! Denim is ‘de Nimes’! See?’

They plainly did not see. The looks turned from puzzlement to indulgence to despair. ‘The English!’ they must have been thinking ‘are truly and genuinely mad. It must be the heat’.

The pedestrianisation of most of France’s historic towns and cities is a mixed blessing. The typically winding, narrow - and invariably traffic-free - streets are wonderfully calming and tranquil to wander round. But the price the natives pay is high: insufferably crowded and stuffy ring-roads - peripheriques - to which all traffic is banished. You have to negotiate them to get into or out of town and progress is without exception slow, smelly, noisy and bad-tempered.

Which makes the centres all the more blissful when you finally arrive. And Nimes was blissful indeed. We were now deep in the south of France, where Mediterranean ‘cafe culture’ predominates. Countless tiny lanes winding away in front of you, tempting you to follow them - usually to intimate little town squares lined with tables and chairs.

As in so many French towns, almost none of it had changed or been altered since the streets were first laid out. The atmosphere in the city centre was relaxed, slow and friendly - as well it might be, with such an enchanting maze of streets to meander around. (The French call this aller en vadrouille - ‘going for a wander’.)

And if you wander purposefully, you eventually find yourself gazing with disbelief at the second of the city’s Roman marvels: the amphitheatre (or ‘Arenes’).

Incredibly, this is the best-preserved amphitheatre in the entire Roman Empire. It was built in about 100AD to seat 24,000 people who really were entertained by all the bloodthirsty ‘attractions’ which the Romans thought were so much fun. It’s unsettling to report that, to a certain extent, they still are. I was surprised (and disappointed) to learn that there’s a very strong tradition of bullfighting in this part of France and that the annual Feria is very well supported.

I didn’t let that cloud my judgment, though. Nimes’ amphitheatre is a truly awe-inspiring monument. I suspect that it would not have surprised its builders one iota to know not only that it was still standing after 2,000 years but also that it was still in regular use.

It’s amazing.

It was dark when we eventually found our way back to the Maison Carree. It was splendidly floodlit, almost inviting you to sit down and take another look at it - perhaps with an evening digestif or two.

So that’s what we did.

Time once again for the next ten ‘buildings you should see before you die’, as recommended in the lovely book I got for Christmas.

The buildings in the book are in chronological order. This list brings us up to 1360.

If you’ve seen any of them, or plan to, please get in touch. I’m delighted to say that, with numbers 72, 75, 77 and 79, my tally has gone up to thirteen!

71 Hospital of Santa Naria della Scala, Florence, Italy
72 Lincoln Cathedral, England
73 The Buried Church, Jutland, Denmark (pictured)
74 Great Enclosure and Chief’s House, Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
75 Notre Dame de Paris, France
76 Ightham Mote, Sevenoaks, England
77 The Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy
78 Alhambra, Granada, Spain
79 Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy
80 Alfriston Clergy House, England

Three of the buildings in this latest list are in England - and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen Ightham Mote or Alfriston Clergy House.

National totals so far are:
Italy 16, France 7, Egypt 5, England 5, China 4, Ireland 3, India 3, Spain 3, Syria 2, Croatia 2, Iraq 2 - then 1 each for Afghanistan, Armenia, Cambodia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Isreal, Japan, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, USA, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

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In this blogposting…

*Life In France / La vie en France

OK so the Bowes Railway will be closed AND it would be a shame to hold an AGM in South Shields when Linda won’t be able to be there.

So let’s see now...any suggestions apart from Newcastle Quayside? On a Sunday, with Paddy’s Market in full swing?

Respond! As a matter of urgency!

But whatever - don’t forget the time and day. 1100 on Sunday 12 June.

And remember, above all else, that a splendid time is guaranteed for all…

Let's get one thing clear from the start. I don’t really believe in ‘nationalism’.

Jingoistic, flag-waving national ‘pride’ has, it seems to me, almost always caused more problems than it solves. At its best, I suppose it’s merely an expression of how glad the flag-waver is to be British (or Belgian or Brazilian or Basque) but, at its worst, it’s surely an insidious and disreputable appeal to narrow-minded xenophobia cloaked in ‘patriotism’ (‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’).

It can also lead to the regrettable stereotyping of one nation by another; to the English, the Irish are congenitally stupid, as the Belgians are to the French and the Czechs are to the Germans. And these stereotypes can be just as inaccurate even if they are not as malicious; not all Welshmen or Italians sing and by no means all Frenchmen are great lovers.

Anyway, that’s my opinion and you’re entitled to it.

Having laid out my stall so emphatically, I’m now about to contradict myself in a monumentally unforgivable way. And that’s because my frequent trips to and fro across the Channel lately seem to have shown me that, national stereotypes notwithstanding, there are some things which seem to be ‘typical’ - and typically at variance - in the two countries.

French tv is uniformly dreadful (except for the adverts, which are much, much better than ours). French town- and city-centres have been much less ravaged by post-war ‘development’ than ours. The French seem to be incapable of laughing at themselves whereas the English seem to quite enjoy it.

And also amongst the countless little things I notice whenever I step off the plane or the train at either end are road-signs. Yes, road signs.

It may seem churlish or even trivial to hold up road-signs as a cogent and pertinent example of English ‘superiority’ but they are, nevertheless. I’m talking here not about ‘Stop’ or ‘Sharp bend ahead’ boards: these are common to most European countries. Rather I mean direction signs; those big hoardings you see at roundabouts and road junctions that tell you where the roads lead to.

Our system was developed in the late 50s and 60s by various government committees and they did a breathtakingly good job. What they devised - and what we take so much for granted - is a model of clarity and good design. The colouring (white on blue for motorways, white on green for main trunk roads, black on white for other roads) and style and size of typeface are elegantly simple, as most good functional design ought to be.

Mixing upper and lower case was a stroke of genius; a place-name on a direction board is oddly easier and more restful to read than if it was painted in CAPITALS throughout.

Our road-signs minimise possible confusion, they facilitate decision-making at speed - and many of them are simply nice to look at.

I know that sounds a bit silly - but try looking at a few big, important ones and you’ll see what I mean. They are proof of how crucial the design of everyday objects is.

I would happily wave a Union Flag in support of them. Especially if I was standing in front of a French equivalent - confusing hotch-potches of mixed typefaces, inconsistent colours and jumbled signage. You need satnav, a good atlas and a first-class degree in geography to find your way around France because the road signs offer little or no help at all.

This was brought home to me in a big way last week, when I went for my first extensive road-trip in France. We travelled over 750 miles along motorways, dual carriageways and country lanes and - in fairness to the holiday - the ghastly and inferior road signs were about the only elements of the week that didn’t quite come up to scratch.

The rest, though, was sublime.

Whenever I go to France, I only really see one small part of it: Beaujolais. And, lovely though that is, I was anxious to explore more of this surprisingly big and varied country. I wanted to see more of its towns and villages, more of its monuments and more of its landscapes. Well, those boxes can now be ticked - at least as far as one part of Provence is concerned.

We set off down the infamous autoroute de soleil - 'motorway of the sun' (so-called because it links Paris with the south coast) - and, within an hour, we’d passed Lyon and were on our way towards Montelimar.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t understand nougat, which I quite deliberately and obstinately insist on calling ‘nugget’. Montelimar has been the world champion maker of the stuff for centuries and, although I’m supposed to like it - it does, after all, contain almonds - I just don’t. It’s like eating MDF that’s been dipped in washing-up liquid. It tastes like powdered wall or chewable gravel.

So we gave Montelimar a miss this time and headed further south towards a monument I’d wanted to see for years: the Pont du Gard.

Living in north-east England, I don’t need proof of how ingenious the Romans were. But, if I did, the Pont du Gard would be it. Take a look.
It’s an enormous aqueduct flung across the River Gardon to carry water to the thriving Roman city of Nimes. The lower level has six arches, the second level has eleven and the third has 35. The water channel on top is 275m (300yds) long and stands 50m (165ft) above the river. It carried 20,000 cubic metres of water every day and the aqueduct’s heaviest blocks weigh in at over 4 tonnes.

And it’s been there - functional and graceful - for over 2,000 years.

It has to be said that the Pont du Gard makes Hadrian’s Wall - scenically magnificent though it is - look like a pile of stones in a field. And later in my holiday week, there was more - much more - to come.

But, in the oppressive heat of this stifling Monday afternoon, I could only sustain my awe for a limited time before I succumbed to the temptations of the river itself. I stripped off and waded in. It was heavenly. And I discovered that, if you thoroughly soak your shirt in cold water and then put it on, you can stay cool (if also very wet) for an hour or so.
This is a picture of me doing my 'Angel of the North' thing in front of another bridge altogether - and an even more famous one, to boot. This, dear reader, is the bridge at Avignon - the one in the nursery song. You know the one: soo lay pong, soo lay pong, too lay donsa, too lay donsa…

Even though only half of it remains, tourists like me flock to it to have their photos taken next to one of the few buildings in the entire world enshrined in a nursery rhyme. And, needless to say, the French charge you to walk on it.
Avignon is a splendid city, encircled (like York and Chester) by its mediaeval walls. And it has a peculiar history, too. Between 1309 and 1377 the Popes lived here and not in Rome; Avignon was the seat of the Catholic Church, no less. The gigantic Papal Palace (which see) still dominates the city centre - although the predictable accordionists who plague the square in front of it detract a little from its magnificence.

As I sat in Place de l’Horloge (‘Clock Square’) enjoying the best bowl of spaghetti with mushroom sauce I’ve ever tasted, I couldn’t help but wonder how the people of Avignon managed to dance sous (under) the bridge rather than sur (on) it...

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