2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!

 

Yuletide Label Artwork for 2018

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The image above is artwork that I just completed for the return labels on our 2018 Yuletide cards. As you can see, this year we’re going to have a “Downy Woodpecker” theme!

As with last year’s artwork (seen here), I used Corel Draw to create it. I should perhaps explain that, when it appears on the actual labels, the drawing is much reduced in size (less than one inch wide), so there’s no point in adding too much detail to it.

I had already created the main card artwork before I started working on this label graphic, to ensure that the card design would be sent to the printer as early as possible! I’ll post that artwork on my blog as soon as we send out the cards, which hopefully will be during this week.

I must admit that my own photographs of Downy Woodpeckers are not very good at all, because the birds have a frustrating habit of hiding around the back of the tree just when I’m ready to take the picture, as shown below.

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

Fortunately, I have several books describing California birds, and the internet is a rich source of reference photos, so it wasn’t too difficult to find images that are more helpful than mine!

[Update 12/9/18: After reducing the size of the artwork to fit the return labels, I noticed that the stylized tree in the center was unrecognizable. Therefore, I adapted the design to show a stylized cracker. I realize that many outside the UK may not be familiar with crackers, but it is more seasonal! Naturally, the artwork on the labels does not include the copyright notices.]

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Thanksgiving in Sonoma (Again)

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Yesterday, we traveled again to Sonoma for Thanksgiving dinner, which is how we’ve celebrated the occasion for the past few years. My photo above shows Sonoma Plaza lit up for the holidays. The large red letters spelling “LOVE” are a new addition this year.

One other difference that you may notice, relative to my Thanksgiving post last year, is that the roads in the photo above are wet. The rainy season started late this year, but we’re very glad that it has finally arrived, to wash away the lingering smoke from the Camp Fire, and also hopefully to extinguish the remains of that terrible fire.

The photo below, taken from our bedroom window earlier in the day, shows a mixture of sun and rain as showers passed overhead. The view was brightened by the fact that the leaves on our ginkgo tree have just turned yellow. Unfortunately, the view was also marred by the work going on around the park (on the left) to remove and replace trees.

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Sonoma’s Historic Plaza

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Sonoma is today a rather small and quite sleepy city, but was once the military center of Mexican Alta California. It was probably for that reason that it became the hub of the Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s becoming independent of Mexico, and then soon after joining the United States.

I took the 2 photos below yesterday evening, with the wet roads reflecting the street lights. The first photo shows the northwest corner of the Plaza. On the right is the Swiss Hotel, which dates back to Mexican colonial days, having been built circa 1836 as a home for the brother of General Vallejo, who was one of the last Comandantes of Mexican Alta California, and went on to become a prominent citizen of the new US state of California.

Immediately to the left of the Swiss Hotel, where now stands the apartment building shown below, stood the main military barracks.

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

The second photo shows the north end of the Plaza itself, which until 1890 was the site of the city’s railroad depot. The main line ran along the road on the left, and the locomotive turntable was in the square, approximately where the tree lights are in the photo. Local property owners sued the railroad, and eventually forced the removal of the tracks and the depot several blocks northwards. The depot building was physically dragged all the way from this location to its present site.

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I hope you had an enjoyable one this year! If you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving, then I hope you enjoy your Black Friday, which now seems to have been embraced in many countries outside the US!

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

Ruins of Yorkshire

 

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

The photo above, which I took during a visit in 2010, shows the still-impressive ruin of the West Front of Byland Abbey, in Yorkshire. Prior to its destruction, the most impressive feature of this facade would have been a huge rose window, the lower outline of which is still visible here. Apparently, that was the inspiration for a similar rose window in York Minster, which remains intact (although it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1984 fire, and required substantial renovation, as described here).

For my Yorkshire Day post this year, I wanted to draw attention once again to the remarkable assemblage of monastic ruins that exist in that county. There are, of course, also many military ruins, such as Scarborough Castle, but the religious buildings are perhaps less well-known.

Just to avoid any confusion regarding my intentions, I should make it clear again that I have no interest at all in religion. My interest in these buildings is and always has been architectural and historical.

I’ve mentioned my early experiences with these ruins in previous posts, and I must admit that I tended to take them for granted when growing up. I just assumed that there must be huge ruined churches lying around everywhere, and it was only later that I realized that this was a rare environment.

Illustrating the degree of integration of these ruins into the landscape, the photo below shows the modern remains of Byland Abbey’s gatehouse, the surviving arch of which stands over a public road.

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

A Long-Forgotten Social Disaster

The process by which all these huge religious institutions came to be abandoned and ruined is fairly well known, as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536-40. The event occurred because King Henry VIII picked a fight with the Pope, over his desire to divorce one of his wives. The key to success, as he saw it, was to crush the power of the Catholic church in England. All the monasteries owed allegiance to the established church, so it seemed to him that abolishing them would not only be a way to reduce the church’s power, but also to grab the land and valuables owned by those institutions, and the income streams created by them.

As the extent of the remaining ruins suggest, the monasteries in Yorkshire formed a major part of the local economy and social organization, so their abolition and deliberate destruction must have been catastrophic. Although the King was able to seize the land and the monasteries’ treasures, his hoped-for income streams never materialized, because he had destroyed the organizations that were generating them! Henry sold off most of the seized land to his favored nobles, and then squandered the proceeds on his wars.

Rievaulx Abbey, also in Yorkshire, built one of the world’s first blast furnaces for iron, and it has been suggested that, if it had not been for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution would have begun in Britain a century before it actually did.

In State Care

Following the Dissolution, the institutions’ land and buildings passed into private hands, and stayed that way for centuries.

Many abandoned religious buildings that were close to settlements gradually disappeared, as they were stripped for building stone. It was probably the relative isolation of the Yorkshire abbeys that permitted the survival of significant portions of the structures.

At the start of the Twentieth Century, the British Government began to take an interest in preserving what was left of the ruins, and eventually took most of them into state ownership, by purchasing them from the private owners.

Fountains Abbey: a Spectacular Setting

While the ruins of Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys are impressive, perhaps the Yorkshire ruin with the most ideal landscape setting is Fountains Abbey.

The photo below shows the ruin of the church at Fountains, in its breathtaking setting in Studley Royal Park. This was taken during a visit in 1977, and the individuals in the foreground are my mother and her friend.

Fountains Abbey, 1977

Fountains Abbey, 1977

In those days, the visitors’ car park was at the Studley Tea Rooms, which necessitated quite a long (but pleasant) walk alongside the River Skell to the actual ruins. The modern car park is closer to the ruin.

Fountains was somewhat unusual in that it was not purchased by the Ministry of Works at the same time as most of the other sites. It remained in private hands until 1966, when it was bought by the County Council. In 1982, the estate was transferred to the National Trust, and is now maintained by English Heritage.

If you’re visiting Yorkshire, and if the weather is reasonable, then all these ruins are well worth a visit!

Happy Bastille Day 2018

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Happy Bastille Day! This year, trying to avoid predictable views of Paris, I decided to post the photo above, which shows a fascinating map that still exists in the Great Hall of the main railway station in Bordeaux (Saint Jean). This huge wall plan was created by the Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Midi, presumably at the time of the station’s construction.

I took the photograph when Mary and I were passing through Bordeaux station in 2014, on our way from Paris to Saint Cyprien. We had just arrived from Paris via TGV, and we were changing trains for the TER service to our final destination.

The photo above doesn’t reveal that that afternoon was extremely hot, and only small parts of Bordeaux Station are air-conditioned (ironically, the area near the McDonalds restaurant)! Mary and I thus spent most of our time there trying to find places to keep cool, but even in those circumstances we didn’t consider the idea of eating at McDonalds.

Back to Paris

The photo below shows me in Paris Montparnasse Station, in front of the TGV that had just brought us back from Bordeaux on the return leg of our journey.

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

In fact, the train route between Paris and Bordeaux has changed since we made our journey, because the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line has been opened all the way through (as shown here). When we made our trip in 2014, we could only use the high-speed line from Paris to Tours, and then the train used the existing route to Bordeaux.

Historic Rail Maps Survive

The rail map in Bordeaux station immediately reminded me of the tile maps that England’s North Eastern Railway placed at most major stations on its network, the surviving examples of which were a regular sight when I was traveling in Yorkshire as a child.

The photo below shows the map at York Station, and was taken while I was changing trains there a few years ago.

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

There’s an additional modern notice at the right-hand side of the map, warning potential passengers that they can’t necessarily take a train to all the locations shown on the map!

In fact, there are a few locations on the NER map that you could never get to by rail, because the lines shown were never built. On the whole, though, the maps provide an impressive record of just how extensive the European rail network was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.