Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky

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Jackson Browne Late for the sky in vinyl from 1973 with white earlyChevrolet
My well used cover of Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky 1974

Jackson Browne  –  Late for the Sky

It would be fair to say that Jackson Browne has for me brought out more feelings about life and all that it can throw at you than any other writer. He is my go to songwriter if I want to feel better about just about anything. That may seem strange as he is to some perhaps viewed as a slightly melancholic writer. True in part, but for me no one captures the human spirit and condition better than he does. For a writer to do that from such an early age is astonishing, as shown with his mature writing of ‘These Days’, one of his first compositions.

‘Late for the Sky’, released in 1974, actually the day prior to me seeing CSNY at Wembley Stadium, a concert that opened for me by hearing ‘Take it Easy’ blasting out over the sound system as I entered the arena. That song would be my first introduction to his work. For the next couple of years my knowledge and love of his work would be hearing covers of his songs, such as Joan Baez recording ‘Fountain of Sorrow’. Of course, also, there was his association with the Eagles and visually on the ‘Desperado’ cover. It was though Jackson’s appearance on the BBC ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1976 that finally prompted me to start becoming more familiar with his work. ‘Late for the Sky’ was my first addition to my vinyl collection of his work.

It has become one of my most played and loved of albums. That is not to say it is perfect. I find the two up-tempo numbers slightly out of sync with the mood of the album. I could happily listen to a whole album of easy melancholy. Also some of his writing on here can be a little apocalyptic for some but looking back from 2023 with the state of the world you could argue he was over optimistic. Having said that it may be that when he wrote ‘Before the Deluge’ he didn’t expect there to be a 2023.

The album was low budget and completed with familiar band members and David Lindley playing anything that was thrown at him. The result is a harmonious, beautifully played collection. I have not come across another album that has such an all pervading atmosphere, constructed around Lindley’s sympathetic arrangements. The overall feel is melancholic but at the same time conveying a feeling of hope, that all will be well. Lindley’s violin is at times haunting and then softly joyous. The harmony of the musical score set around, but not intruding into, the stunning poetry of Browne’s lyrics is breath-taking. It is an album to listen to in solitude, with no other distractions.

It opens with a song that could leave you having to pull yourself together to hear the next offering. It is the title track ‘Late for the Sky’, surely the finest ‘break up’ song. He expresses the dawning realisation that they are not who they hoped to be, the pain of seeing it end being played out without words being needed or possible. The hope is still there in the mind, but they are not the ones they need, it must come to an end. They are together but alone, drifting alone for some time and close to the end. Late for that plane, but it must be caught. I can appreciate how some have said they cannot listen to this without being reduced to tears. It is an incredibly powerful piece of writing. Musically also it is perfection as distinct instruments underpin the melody and complement Browne as he comes to a realisation that the relationship is gone.

He follows this with another relationship song ‘Fountain of Sorrow’. The theme is similar to ‘Late for the Sky’ but perhaps this one has the feeling that they can still be friends. I appreciate that it is said to be about Joni Mitchell, and the last time I saw him in concert he left you in little doubt with his intro that this was the case. However, I feel the speculation is irrelevant. Like most of his writing it can be about who you want it to be and generally that is you or someone close to you. It takes a special writer to be able to draw you so into the music. When a dear friend of ours died a few years ago I used his lyric from ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ in a posting in tribute to her. Yes, at that moment it was about her, in the photo I posted there was a trace of sorrow in her eyes. It takes a special talent to write in such a way.

Rear cover of Jackson Bowne Late for the Sky vinyl album
Rear cover of Late for the Sky

‘Fountain of Sorrow’ takes you through a relationship that has a sense of joy and love but ultimately is not going to work out. The sorrow is there as the writer feels regret because there was so much to love about this relationship. It has gone but the photo in the drawer conveys the sorrow of what could have been. Can he go back. Clearly not, but the warm memories linger on.

When someone asks what is your very favourite song they would generally expect you to come up with some joyful up-tempo number – ‘Take it Easy’ for instance, although I doubt they were expecting you to reference Jackson Browne anyway. I was asked this question during a long evening of food and wine on a holiday away with several close friends. Our mellow wine induced mood should not really have produced ‘For a Dancer’ as my answer to that question, but it did, and it is true.

To explain my reasoning I found the lyrics on my phone and just asked my friend to read them. Fighting back tears she said simply – ‘OK’. A song about death is rare. Not many have attempted it. Jackson does and he gets to heart of the matter in a way that no one else has achieved. We are dancers, we go through this life affecting people in ways we do not always understand. The final dance is solo, and he conveys that in beautiful, but disturbing words. He does not give us any answers but somehow once again the melancholy gives way to hope. For a song about death, I feel positively uplifted when I hear this. Yes, go on, throw those seeds, let your life be a positive influence on others.  A remarkable song that expresses the human condition better than anyone has attempted before or since. Last time I saw Jackson in Manchester, England just a few years ago he was in a taking request mood. A man in front of us called out rather loudly: “For a Dancer”, and Jackson nodded and headed to the piano. I tapped the guy on the shoulder to say thank you. Music can be a truly special experience and that was one of the best.

Vinyl record on Asylum Records of Jackson Browne Late for the Sky album

I rather like ‘Before the Deluge’ despite its rather apocalyptic sentiments. Somehow though it still sounds hopeful, a tribute to the amazing atmosphere created by him and David Lindley that permeates the whole album. Looking back from our time it doesn’t seem that he called it too far from the reality we see today. I can’t help feeling we have seen the magnitude of her fury in the times we live in. He calls out the glitter and the rouge as not a worthy addition to our musical journey. I never went down that road thankfully and continued to find music I love permeated with meaning. Maybe he was right in doing so, the genres look tame now, but they opened the door to anything goes in ‘music’. Some of these genres I am convinced would leave the world a better place had they not come to birth. ‘Before the Deluge’ fits the theme and texture of the album perfectly.

I could say that I would probably have eventually bought this album for the cover alone. Surely one of the great album covers. In some ways it is a pity he didn’t call the album ‘Early Morning Chevrolet’. Would have been a great photo quiz question. The cover theme runs a thread through the whole album. If ever a cover depicted an album atmosphere it is this one.  Late for the sky indeed.

‘Late for the Sky’ sets out the stall for Jackson Browne’s future writing. The themes and indeed the musical style he will return to again and again. Check out ‘Naked Ride Home’ and compare the heart beating alone with ‘Late for the Sky’. I find he always reaches the depth of the emotion of life in clear and beautiful language. It was my introduction to his work, and it has enriched my life and record collection ever since. If you get the chance to see him live make sure you take it – he is just as, if not more, capable of reaching your heart on the concert stage. You won’t forget it.

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My musical loves – a Vinyl collection

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A NEW French Journey by Photography – Take a tour

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Abbesses Metro station Paris France

All the photography was taken by myself on our visits to Paris and the French regions. I hope you enjoy them and please look up my stories of our travels on Amazon.

My new book is a tour around France starting in Normandy. I hope you will come with me and be inspired to travel a similar path. I hope it will inspire you to travel to France or at least enjoy it in your imagination from home.

Paris in springtime with couples sharing moments on the banks of the Seine behind Notre Dame

Neal is an established and extensively published French Travel writer with an aim is to impart his passion for France to his readers. Neal has travelled extensively in France with his family and friends and acted as ‘tour’ guide to others over the years.
Neal lived and worked in Lancashire, England and found the joy of travel later in life after a conservative travel upbringing that stretched only as far as stopping the car falling into the sea at the English coastline.
He now lives in Somerset close to his granddaughter and family and on the wonderful South West coastline that we enjoy so much. Neal loves the English game of Cricket, which he plans to write about soon, golf, soccer and photography. He has a great love of History and that is reflected in his writing.

Paris the 7th Arrondissement – or life beyond Rue Cler

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This chapter is from my book A DREAM OF PARIS available on Amazon

At the outset I have to make it clear that some of my best friends are American, as indeed are a good number of my wife Niamh’s extended family – the Irish get everywhere. However it seems to me that even you adventurous American tourists are complaining about the number of your compatriots that populate Rue Cler in the 7th Arrondissement, a now famous street within sight of the Eiffel Tower. It is as so many of you point out – the Rick Steeves effect. So is it worth going to this area of Paris or is it devoid of a true Parisian experience?

I have to say that I like Rue Cler even though it has something of an ‘American in Paris’ theme about it. If that comes across too strongly for you then be assured there is life beyond Rue Cler in this fascinating arrondissement. I hope you don’t mind but this part of the book will veer towards reading a little more like a guide book but I think this area of Paris repays a little more exploration than seems to be given to it by many visitors. Anyway, dining especially is a serious business in Paris. Like anywhere that is popular with tourists Paris will always have areas that certain groups will congregate in. Montmartre may be an area where more English tourists will find accommodation. You may find that the Japanese will gather more centrally in Paris. It has to be said that Rue Cler is most certainly an American enclave just as Lourmarin in Provence is a place they love and gather. The English in Provence will head for Menerbes, the village that Peter Mayle called home in ‘A Year in Provence’. On Rue Cler you have two cafés in particular that have become American clubs in reality – Café Du Marche and Le Central. It is true that some restaurants on Rue Cler have dumbed down their menus and are providing very standard unambitious fare, photos provided for the timid visitor. The waiter you will see is languidly placing the change on the table, his eyes looking elsewhere for another victim, daring the diners to pick up the change but also making it clear that the coins should be added to, making a larger tip before leaving. There are however places to eat even on Rue Cler that can be very satisfying and authentic.

Le Roussillon is one such establishment situated at the corner of Rue Cler and Rue Grenelle and is a bistro where we enjoyed a most enjoyable lunch with attentive service.  Where Rue Cler scores highly is that away from the congregated throngs around Café Du Marche there are so many authentic Parisian shops. Wine and cheese stores, vegetable and grocers shops, butchers and delicatessens and of course the regular street markets. You will really get much more out of this area however if you look beyond Rue Cler and these are a few places we have found and enjoyed over the years in this popular neighbourhood of Paris. The very first time we stayed in this arrondissement the hotel we chose was located just behind Rue Cler on Rue Valadon at what is now Hotel Valadon Colors. It has been completely refurbished from the time of our stay and has changed in its character but is still rated very highly. Rue Valadon is a quiet street, a virtual cul-de-sac, so is an excellent choice for the area. When we stayed we had a room with an Eiffel Tower view so it is certainly a place to consider. Just at the top of the street around the corner is a most wonderful cheese store and even if you do not go inside you will find the shop window itself is worth a few moments of your time.

My interests in any arrondissement in Paris are always connected to food, finding a fine restaurant in Paris is one of the utmost joys in life. Also you may have gathered I have a great love of history and that is well catered for in this area. Recently we made what can be viewed as a slight mistake in visiting Paris in August, the very time that most Parisians leave Paris and that includes many waiters and restaurateurs. We were very limited in our dining choices and did not really want to eat at the popular spots on Rue Cler. We were staying just around the corner from Rue Cler at the Hotel de la Motte Picquet and the clue to its address is in the name. This is a lovely unpretentious three star hotel that gives excellent friendly service, clean rooms and welcoming public areas with interesting views on to the lively Avenue de la Motte Picquet. It does not however have a restaurant so it is always a case of dining out for the evening. We passed the boisterous tables and bars of the upper end of Rue Cler, giving thanks that we were not eating there. There was the thought that there appeared to be little else on offer –‘les vacances d’été’ were in full swing and the closed signs were out in profusion.

Farther along Rue Cler we reached Rue de Grenelle and going to the left you come to number 167 where there is a small Italian restaurant called Le Den. It was open and it had three tables out in the street and on a balmy evening this seemed like an oasis in a dining dessert. This super little restaurant also seems to double as a deli. It serves wonderful Italian food including pizza of course, food made with fresh seasonal ingredients. It was in total contrast to the mainly conveyer belt tourist food just round the corner on Rue Cler. We were given lovely service from the young ladies who coped smilingly as extra tables were spread out along the street to accommodate all the diners that kept on coming. You did feel a little like you were an advertisement for the restaurant as people stopped to look and admire the dishes on the tables. The raviolo especially was wonderful and I would also encourage you to try the risotto. The panna cotta was definitely the dessert to go for and the house wines are a cut above the standard you may have expected. This was a very popular place and will be more so if they get the name confusion sorted out on the awnings and shop front. I am not quite sure where Le Den comes from as a name but if you are searching for it that is the name to enter in Google. So it is a case of going early or making a reservation. We ended up on our three night trip dining here every evening and we don’t usually do that on our travels. Yes I would have to make the point that it is on a fairly busy street but it still has a great ambiance especially as the light fades and you feel that you are in an authentic Parisian neighbourhood. We found this to be a hidden gem of a restaurant in this touristy part of Paris.  You can also book on Le Fork which is always a bonus.

If, unlike ourselves, you are sensible enough not to visit Paris in August when the heat is humid and sensible Parisians have abandoned the city, then you have some exceptional choices of eating venues. There are two in particular that are the epitome of classic French restaurants, in different ways as perfect a Parisian dining experience as you will find. They are also very close to one another just a short stroll from Rue Cler across Avenue Bosquet. The first one is the most charming (and petite) restaurant Le P’Tit Troquet at 28 Rue de l’Exposition, a quiet virtually car free cul-de-sac of a street. Think of going to someone’s home for a meal, a table spread modestly but attractively and you are the special guest to be fussed over and pampered. This is Le P’Tit Troquet. On the occasion we dined there we went with two friends who trusted me that I would make a memorable choice for them and they were not disappointed. We walked into the small dining space set out with a few tables, a scene that seemed to be out of a French movie, so intimate and welcoming. The first and obvious impression we gained was that all the tables were occupied and as I had booked in advance this was a little disconcerting. The lady in charge of front of house (and it is a very small house) came over offering us a large beaming smile of welcome and led us through the tables to an even smaller room at the back of the restaurant. This room had only four small tables which were all beautifully prepared. This was exactly like someone’s dining room at home and the feeling that you were a welcomed guest was enhanced every time you had an interaction with the lady or the waiting staff – a special place indeed. The menu is classic French cuisine, beef bourguignon served temptingly en cassolette, steak, duck, monkfish, sea bass and vegetarian options. The desserts are classics with a twist, Rum baba, chocolate mi-cuit and a Crème Brulee which does not have a twist – pure classic French. The wine is expertly chosen and complimentary to the meal. The room feels as if it is unchanged from seventy years ago. A room that could double as a film set from the war years and just after. Probably in those days totally smoke filled and each table occupied with romantically involved couples. It is a quite captivating ambiance and one exploited to the full in this intoxicating restaurant by the welcoming owners. Not to mention a chef with a repertoire steeped in the fine culinary history of France and Paris. He is a craftsman producing dishes that are firmly in context with the restaurant and the atmosphere of this super little establishment. As we left that evening, my companions found it very difficult to find words that fully expressed the experience they had just savoured. We noticed for the first time a small galley type kitchen to the left – I do mean small. There was the chef and one assistant who incredibly produced this classic French feast in such a tiny space. He smiled as we peered inside, confident that all was well with the dishes he had sent out to our table. He was totally justified in that confidence as we bid him good night and stuttered our grateful thanks.

Classic but on a slightly different scale and setting is the popular La Fontaine de Mars just at the end of the same street at 129 Rue Sainte Dominique. This restaurant has entertained presidents and celebrities but is not in the least pretentious. Again the classic French theme is portrayed by the red checked tablecloths and the wood panelling around the bar and inside the restaurant. It is a restaurant that in summer becomes open plan and spills tables out onto the street. The service is warm and friendly but it is very Parisian and just as you would expect in such a restaurant very rooted in its tradition. The menu is not experimental, just straight out of the French cookery school manual. Steak of course, duck confit, coq au vin, blanquette de veau, Burgundian snails, sole meuniere, foie gras if you wish and desserts following the same tried and tested traditions. All accompanied by wine by the glass and all the traditional aperitifs and digestifs on offer. It is relatively expensive but not overwhelmingly so. If you wish the wine list does stretch to some eye watering levels and if Chateau Petrus is your desire then you will find it here at a price. On the night we dined there I had the special on the menu which was a gorgeous fresh loin of cod with a perfect aioli sauce and simply cooked turned potatoes. To follow it was that most perfect of French desserts – Iles flottantes ‘Fontaines de Mars’ and very fine it was. Eating on a table outside and virtually on the street is not without its challenges though. On the night we were there the restaurant and surroundings were ‘entertained’ for a while by a fairly inebriated beggar who was making a nuisance of himself by going back and forth along the street hoping for a few coins to be tossed in his direction. He wasn’t aggressive but a bit loud at times and lacking in tunefulness and not really helping any romantic atmosphere that some were certainly hoping for. It all ended by the loud sirens of a police van that screeched to a halt and instantly ‘scooped’ him up into custody. At last peace reigned but as with any city Paris sadly does have its darker side and there are many unfortunate people that do not have the luxury of dining in the way we have been able to do this evening. The whole episode was a little comedic in how it was enacted and unfolded but still left you dismayed and sad that in our society there are ones reduced to this state. From a historical or architectural standpoint you cannot avoid the fact that this area is totally dominated by one structure and that is the large tower at the end of the Champs de Mars.

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Eiffel Tower Paris before a storm

Once you are at the tower and you have taken all the photos from every angle and perhaps gone across to the Trocadero and taken the shot from the vantage point of the Palais de Chaillot, a view that I feel gives the most dramatic -aew of the tower as you look through it down to the Ecole Militaire and Les Invalides then take a moment to find some more recent history. A pause for thought and reflection. If you go to Bir Hakeim Metro station which is to the right of the tower looking from the Trocadero you will find a monument to a tragic time in French history – a memorial that was only erected fairly recently. It is a statue to commemorate the appalling events of July 16/17 1942 – the “Vel d’Hiv” raid – the roundup of over 8000 Jews (Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv) to the Vélodrome d’Hiver that stood near to this spot. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that this crime against humanity was carried out mainly by the French police and not the Germans. This was only recently fully acknowledged to be the case and remains deeply controversial in France. In slight mitigation it was also clear that a few brave police did try to give an advance warning about the action and some also allowed a very small number to make their escape from the Vélodrome but the stain on French history remains. I always find these places in Paris very poignant and I make no excuse to returning to this theme throughout my writings about Paris. I feel that you can only understand this amazing city by taking time to reflect on its past and the recent history of Paris in particular. Take a reflective moment to make that connection and remember these people and events.

Alt="Invalides courtyard Paris France scene of Dreyfuss court martial"
Invalides courtyard Paris

The natural progression from here is back to the tower and to walk up the Champs de Mars to the Hotel des Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb. France of course still reveres Napoleon (strangely enough he inspires a good deal of respect in England) and he possibly alongside De Gaulle is the most dominant figure in French history. Of course if you are reading this sat in the sunshine and holding a glass of Dom Perignon you may want to make a case for him as well. And then there is Joan of Arc ……. Anyway back to Napoleon. Or rather another event that Les Invalides is notoriously famous for and that is the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. This Jewish army officer was erroneously and wilfully  convicted of espionage and treason – another event that although occurring over 120 years ago has not disappeared from French consciousness. Admittance to Les Invalides is free of charge although you have to pay extra for viewing Napoleon’s tomb and the main area around that. Entering from the gardens on the Rue de Grenelle you make your way into the main courtyard. This is the area where Alfred Dreyfus was humiliated in front of his peers by having his sword ceremonially broken. He was then dishonourably discharged from the army prior to his barbaric incarceration in exile before being ultimately exonerated and released some years later. The British TV personality Davina McCall was featured in a ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ episode relating that she had a family connection to one of the men who fought and ultimately succeeded in proving his innocence. If you can find it online or procure a copy it is a fascinating insight into one of the most controversial events in relatively recent French history. In any case take a moment to visualize the scene in that parade ground and reflect on an innocent man in this standout case of deliberate miscarriage of justice. Around the courtyard you will see lines of heavy cannon. It is quite a display and they date back over some 300 years or so. I can set you a small challenge. Walk around the perimeter and look at each cannon and somewhere you will find that one of them has a spelling mistake in the casting. When you find it just spare a thought for the man who cast that vast lump of iron, hoping that it just resulted in a fleeting embarrassment for him rather than him being sent into exile or worse. Unfortunately it was not too fleeting as we can still clearly see it today. At the far end of the courtyard you will find a small church or chapel. Again up to this point it is free admission. If you go inside this building you can at the far end get a sense of how Napoleon’s tomb is laid out and it gives quite a dramatic effect without actually having to go inside the tomb area itself. When you leave Les Invalides by the same route you may wish to go to the right and then right again alongside the buildings and here you will find the Rodin museum which also includes sculptures in the garden area. This is a place that is often missed by the casual tourist but Rodin is very important to the French in art history . It is worth a look if you have any interest in French art and culture. I always smile at the mention of Rodin because of that amusing scene in ‘Midnight in Paris’ where Gil argues a point about Rodin in favour of the tour guide (Carla Bruni) over the pompous Paul played by Michael Sheen.

Perhaps I can now take you back to Rue Cler via Avenue de la Motte Picquet and return to my theme of the time of the occupation of Paris. Before heading to your hotel and getting ready for a fine meal in this endlessly fascinating and rewarding arrondissement just stand and reflect in front of the Elementary School on the Rue Cler side of the road. Pause and read (in French) the black plaque on the school wall. Like most of the schools in France some young pupils were forcibly taken from this school never to return, part of the over eleven thousand children that were taken from throughout France. There is no shame in shedding a tear and you will no doubt leave the scene as you return to your hotel with a deeper relationship and understanding of Paris.

Taken from my book ‘A DREAM OF PARIS’ available on Amazon

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The Angels Share – Wine Tasting in Beaune France

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Tour France with me

Burgundy – The Angels Share

 Our stay in Beaune as the centre point of our introduction to Burgundy was at the Hôtel Henry II Rue du Faubourg Saint-Nicolas, 21200 Beaune and a fine place to stay it proved to be. Beaune centre was a short stroll away and this would become a town that not only would we become very familiar with but immediately it would become a favourite ville in France. Once settled in the hotel we struck out on our own to explore the ancient streets of the wine town but never as yet finding the confidence to go into the many shops filled with the wines of the region. Especially intriguing are the bottles originating from the Hospices de Beaune with their hefty price tags – we still had a great deal to learn and we needed assistance. The ancient town of Beaune is the hub of the wine trade of Burgundy. Beaune as an appellation is an excellent one in its own right but of course is surrounded by many very famous village and commune names. Beaune is a beautiful town, full of attractive and interesting architecture and you need to explore inside the ancient walls of the town. Take time to walk along the many cobbled side streets, taking slim entrance ways to seek out the numerous fascinating narrow passageways before concentrating on the main event in the centre of the town – L’Hôtel Dieu.

the hospice de Beaune is the scene of the yearly wine auction of Burgundy wines
Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune

This charitable hospital was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Philippe le Bon. Rolin is a name you will still see associated with winemaking in the Côte d’Or vineyards. This building is of high gothic architecture, it reflects the strong bond between Burgundy and Flanders. Its multi coloured polychrome roofs along with the golden colours of the Last Judgement altarpiece by Rogier Van der Weyden have made this standout building famous. This medieval hospital also contains a multitude of other treasures including the great “Salle des Pôvres” with its highly sculpted and decorated ceiling, a gothic chapel, the pharmacy housing a collection of pewter and earthenware, the kitchen boasting an automated rotisserie. The Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction has taken place annually here at the Hôtel since 1859, and falls on the third Sunday in November as part of a three-day festival purely devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy – a festival known as Les Trois Glorieuses. The parcels of land relating to the hospital itself are owned as a non-profit venture and the wine auction can set high prices that go to charity but also become the benchmark guide as to the prices expected for that particular year’s vintage. The three days are a joyous but highly prestigious occasion and to partake in the bidding would not be for the fainthearted. We would be wined and dined in Beaune on these next few days and also on other occasions in the future when we revisit but although I have been inside the Hospital I have not as yet had a table at the November festivities.

Place Carnot in Beaune Burgundy France on an early morning
Early morning in Beaune

Around the hospital are many fine wine retailers and the bottles in the window displays are a who’s who of famous names. One unusual one is the label on a bottle from a piece of land on one of the best vineyards, that of Grèves. A small parcel of that land is called L’Enfant Jesus and you will see bottles of that name in the shops. This rather colourful name came from the early wine producing monks and apparently it is derived from the expression that the wine ‘goes down like little Jesus in velvet trousers’. I can only assume that was thought up after one too many late-night drinking sessions in the local taverns or the crypt in the abbey.

Beaune in BUrgundy has old streets that are great for photography - a beautiful Burgundy wine town
Early morning stroll in the old town of Beaune Burgundy

On this visit our party group would be an eclectic one and we were to enjoy some interesting and stimulating company for the most part, but there were other parts also, believe me.

There was an older couple called John and Sylvia who were stimulating company. They have an equally interesting son who is familiar as a resident expert on the Antiques Roadshow on the BBC.

Jack and Hilary were from California and had made the long trip over to France especially to be on this tour. He was the epitome of a Silicon Valley executive and she a lady of many charitable causes, but they were easy company and Jack did not talk about computers once on the trip.

There was Roger who was undoubtedly a man that engaged in espionage in a former life, such a John le Carre character, a loner who must have had tales to tell but they remained discreetly hidden. The few words he offered were always interesting although they would never lead to a conversation, but he savoured his wine with a knowledgeable air of contentment.

Alistair was also a loner, very public school, highly educated but with an undeveloped personality that made it painful for him to engage with people. So, you wondered why he had put himself through this ordeal of a socialising group experience. He was a harmless, good natured soul, extremely polite and impeccably mannered. He latched onto me from the start and was always by my side but I didn’t mind as it eased him into the tour and he loosened up a little as time went on. He did love his wine and if you could prise it out of him had an extensive knowledge of French wines, far ahead of my limited scope.

Frank and Angela were elderly, in fact in their mid to late 80’s – a more mismatched couple it would be hard to find. I felt so sad watching this pair who had been together for so long and even at this late stage of their lives were in total torment at being bound together. Well, that is not quite true as it was Frank that was in torment. I have rarely seen a man so mentally battered and beaten by this most obnoxious of women. She was oblivious to him as she did whatever she required without any consideration for him. He meekly accepted his non-role in the relationship and took the abuse, as it has to be said did the tour guide. The poor man also latched onto me to a degree if she was not around. He thoroughly enjoyed one day of touring when his wife stayed behind, for which he and everyone else was truly thankful. His joy that day seemed to say it was the happiest of his life which was dreadfully sad to think he had probably hated the previous fifty or sixty years.

Then there was Emma and Richard and they were so memorable that I have given them a chapter to themselves later on in the book, I promise I will not refer to them again in this chapter but they were shall we say – special. There were of course many others but most kept a discreet distance with only brief interaction, it was never going to be party time for most but in the main it was a friendly collection of people that in a lot of ways had only a love of wine in common. Barriers were constantly broken down as the tour progressed although my Northern accent prevented full interaction on many occasions.

Here also were two people on the tour who stood out from the rest of the party as they were clearly not as concerned about the tastings but more focused on the technical aspects of the production and the viniculture. They were also the only people on the tour that we had encountered previously and that meeting was in fact only a few weeks earlier. On a visit to Cornwall just prior to the tour we had paid a visit to – Camel Valley Vineyards, Nanstallon, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL30 5LG. We had heard about this English vineyard (Oh, and nobody laughs anymore when you say that) from a feature on television by Rick Stein. Rick was a friend and supporter of this vineyard which is located close to his empire in Padstow. The tasting and welcome we received was a real unexpected pleasure. The wines and especially the Champagne style sparkling wines including a gorgeous rosé were as fine as any we would taste in France. The vineyards are on a gently sloping hillside, very reminiscent of France. A perfect location to attempt what most people thought impossible – produce quality wine in cold, wet England. We were more than happy to purchase a couple of cases and it was not just in sympathy to try to support an English venture. These wines were genuinely superb and could hold their own in any blind tasting, which in fact we did around our dining table with some knowledgeable friends – Camel Valley won that night.

As we were leaving the Cornish vineyard, carrying a couple of cases, walking back to our car, a man drove away from the house in an open topped sports car giving a cheery wave to us both. This was the owner, Bob Lindo, an ex-RAF pilot whose career came to a dramatic end when he was seriously injured ejecting from a mid-air collision close to Helmsley in North Yorkshire, the recovery from which he modestly downplays.  Bob started the Camel Valley vineyard about three years later with his wife Annie and the success of this venture is taken forward by his son Sam and the awards have continued to flow – even from the French. On the ferry over to France at the start of the tour I was in the same queue for a cup of tea as Bob. I said to Niamh that I knew this man, perhaps I had come across him in my career, maybe someone in IT that I had used in the past. It was not until we had got well into France that I realised who he was and in fact we had only ‘met’ him very recently. At the autoroute services he and his wife Annie were walking around outside, so I intercepted them and said that I knew who he was. After explaining how we saw each other in Cornwall he remembered the day we had visited. He was also I think a little taken aback that he had been recognised as I believe that he would rather have remained incognito as a man on a mission to spy on the French. Later, on the coach the wine guide announced that we had a couple of famous wine makers on the tour and his occupation was well and truly out in the open, but I can assure him that it was not me that informed the party in any way, I appreciated what he was trying to achieve on this visit.

Bob, on each domaine visit would ask quite technical questions and was always, as was Annie, keenly interested in walking into the vineyards and examining the soil, the terroir, learning all the time something new to put into practice if possible in English conditions. I recall one particular occasion when Bob had asked a producer something that no layman could possibly have needed to know and was met with total silence. French secrets were for the French and years of tradition and expertise were not going to be proffered easily to the cunning English. Time for a tasting as he quickly moved on, ignoring the question.

Bob and Annie were an incredibly interesting couple as well as being the most delightful company although obviously Bob was lost in his own thoughts at times as he pondered on something he had seen or discovered. The vineyard back at Camel Valley has gone from strength to strength as we have seen when returning many times over the years. Surely something of the French know how has seeped back into the English terroir from his visit to Burgundy.

The Cote D’or is the most stunning of landscapes, gently sloping rolling countryside that leads up from the plain that heads south. Miles upon miles of fertile vineyards stretch up these slopes and the higher they go, the closer to the sun, the more these parcels of land are valued and the price of the finished bottle reflects its location of birth. It is also a region that for the novice is extremely difficult to understand and purchase wine with confidence. The appellations here are fixed in time and no one is going to allow a change to the way things are done here, tradition and terroir are paramount and that includes the labelling of the bottles. Back home we are now so used to a bottle in the supermarket being labelled – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot etc… that to arrive here and be confronted by bottles that only have the name of the village and possibly the grower or négociant is to say the least very confusing. To observe the array of bottles in a shop, sorry boutique, window with some carrying astonishing prices makes any purchasing decision a leap of faith. The first visit today puts us right in the centre of that minefield, to a producer that is right at the top end of quality and one that does not need to advertise, in fact there is not even a sign outside the door.

Wine domain of Lucien Boillot in Gevrey Chambertin Burgundy
Domain Lucien Boillot in Gevrey Chambertin

In the small but internationally famous wine village of Gevrey-Chambertin we are guided discreetly along the narrow streets to an unprepossessing house and taken to a side door. I sense that really we should have been blindfolded as well but an exception has been made for les Anglais. We have arrived at – Domaine Boillot Lucien & Fils, 1 Rue Docteur Pujo, 21220 Gevrey-Chambertin but please don’t turn up without an appointment and in fact as far as I can tell they don’t even bother to have a website.

We will be shown around with great pride by a younger member of the family, Pierre Boillot, a very knowledgeable wine maker who knows intimately the parcels of land in the villages providing the grapes for his high quality wine. Villages whose names are a famous roll call of French wine such as Volnay, Pommard, Fixin, Nuits Saint Georges, Beaune and of course Gevrey Chambertin. These are all names famous around the world and all on the easy-to-follow Route des Vins that takes you around these gentle slopes. The wines for tasting here are chiefly reds, much deeper, fruitier, more complex and richer than the reds of Northern Burgundy. We have a generous and fascinating tasting, encountering wines that are at the high end of the possibilities of production from these famous lands. They taste expensive, they are not wines that will be offered on some ‘25% mix six bottles’ reduction back in a supermarket in England; these stand on their own and are sought after by connoisseurs around the world and they hold a high price. Pierre is a generous man as he makes his wine affordable to our party although the downside of that is in having to purchase younger wines that will need to be kept for some time before drinking to allow them to taste close to the very fine samples provided by Pierre in this ancient cellar deep in the village of Gevrey. I still have a bottle of his Pommard 1st Cru Les Fremiers (1999) and probably by now I should have drunk it. Not only is it a reminder of a wonderful visit but I just don’t know if it is at perfection, there is a danger it is past peak perfection so I must open it soon. Pommard is one of the best known appellations in Burgundy and you find the vineyards themselves just south of Beaune going on to Autun.

The tiny village of Pommard is a place you will drive through in the blink of an eye. This is a pleasant spot with vineyards either side of the road, lovely stone walls of the region surrounding the fields. There are some character properties to view and also the large Château de Pommard, a magnificent domaine dating from 1726. Wine tasting and other experiences are available here but it is not a degustation establishment for a simple call in when you are passing. We bid a reluctant farewell to Pierre, another step in our wine education is complete and we are learning fast. I for one have learnt that you must never go into a wine shop in Beaune unaccompanied, try and keep an expert close by you in this region. Our second visit of the day would lead us nicely into our evening meal also. The domaine we were visiting is in the village of Santenay, south west of Beaune. The journey takes you through the Montrachet villages of Puligny and Chassagne, beautiful gently unspoilt landscape and architecture.

The wine domain of Prieur Brunet in Burgundy makers of superb red wines
Domaine Prieur-Brunet

Here we stopped at – Domaine Prieur Brunet, Ch. Perruchot rue de Narosse, 21590 Santenay. It is worth pointing out that if you are following some of the addresses in the book that Prieur Brunet has been acquired by the négociant Louis Jadot and tastings and purchase at this domaine may no longer be possible. On this day the tasting was generous and long with a tour of the vineyard itself as part of the treats on offer. At the side of the domaine property there is a huge mural on the gable end of a building showing the extent of the domaine and a view into the cellar where a tasting is being enjoyed. We too would now enjoy such a tasting in a characterful exposed stone walled room with old wooden barrels providing a backdrop. We are seated at a long oak table and provided with information about the domaine and the wines on offer but it is the tasting we are interested in and it soon gets underway. The Santenay reds are a little lighter than the Gevrey Chambertin examples of the morning and it is here that we first get a real sense of what the whites of Burgundy have to offer and their chardonnay white Burgundy is honey rich and mellow. The presentation of the tasting is a little technical in structure, there is a desire to help you to appreciate how the wine is produced, an explanation of the inevitable terroir and certainly a sense once more of the family tradition. We are learning a lot and the confidence this type of visit will give us holds us in good stead in the years to come.

It was here that Bob made his first serious attempt to interrogate the owners with some searching questions that obviously were not coming from any casual drinker of Burgundy. He got a reluctant answer to a couple of them but they got increasingly technical and the owner became protective and defensive and the subject was changed to something a little more simple like the bouquet of the wine. Bob was not to be discouraged and headed off into the fields to make a study of the vines and the soil. He is a very enthusiastic wine producer and eager to keep learning and I am sure he took a lot away from his visit to Burgundy and his wines now stand shoulder to shoulder with excellent wines from France.

We have not yet finished with Prieur Brunet as tonight we are to dine at their restaurant in Santenay – Restaurant Le Terroir en Côte d’Or, 19, Place du Jet d’eau 21590 Santenay. The restaurant today perhaps has no actual connection with the domaine especially after the Jadot takeover but on our visit the food was a showcase for the wines of Prieur Brunet and would be long remembered, although for Niamh it was an evening of discovery she would rather forget. The restaurant is housed in a fine old stone building in the village and very attractive it is, immaculately furnished inside with crisp white tablecloths and shining cutlery and glasses. Outside there is a tempting terrace that looks out onto the village square with a large fountain dominating the space. You can look through the spray of water to the vineyards gently sloping on the hillside beyond.  As Jane Austen would say: ‘It is happily situated’. I can be quite specific about our menu tonight as it was so enjoyable I have kept a record of it:

Salade de saumon cru marine a l’huile d’olive

Filet de loup de mer son lit de fin legumes, sauce chardonnay (Prieur Brunet)

Assiette de fromage: delice de Bourgogne, epoisse, citeaux

Parfait glace au marc de Bourgogne

The Prieur Brunet wines complemented the meal superbly and it was a lovely, relaxed evening in a setting that enhanced the whole occasion, a real taste of Burgundian hospitality.  Sadly, Niamh found out that she had an allergy to samphire and spent an uncomfortable night with a stomach cramp reaction starting immediately she ate the samphire as an accompaniment to the fish and these symptoms got progressively worse until morning. It was nothing too serious, but a lesson learnt to avoid this particular vegetable in the future. She was up and ready for more wine tasting in the morning however.

The domain of Maison Champy is a wine producer located by the old walls in Beaune Burgundy
Maison Champy by the ancient walls in Beaune

Our last morning in Beaune was a real treat and a privileged visit to one of Beaune’s well known wine houses located in an atmospheric side street just by the ancient town walls – Maison Champy, 5 Rue du Grenier À Sel, 21200 Beaune. Champy has a boutique in the centre of Beaune close by the L’Hôtel Dieu but we were able to go to their site in town where they have cellars under the ancient streets. Maison Champy have been wine producers in the region since 1720 and the cellars as we will see certainly reflect that history and tradition in the old town. Champy has access to some of the finest sites in the Cote d’Or and Cote de Nuits. The list of named wines available from their cellar are from the top quality villages in the region. We were in expert hands here and this morning would really add to our knowledge and understanding of this most complex of wine regions. The tasting room is dominated by a very large old wooden barrel stood on its end and into which two copper bowls for spitting the wine are secured – I have to say our party does not waste the wine and these are never used. Our host for the tasting was an immaculately dressed young lady who knew her subject down to the finest detail. The French take their wine and the presentation of it very seriously in these grand old wine houses. By contrast in the countryside you may get the vigneron himself breaking away from his work in the fields, dusting himself down and grabbing a few bottles to happily give you a degustation.

Here in Beaune at these important maisons of wine everything is gleaming and crisp, our young host presents herself as befitting the status of the wines she will show us. Hanging on her every word our party enjoys a superb tasting and it does seem that the soft and delicate tones of her French accent actually elevate the wine in your mouth to another level – maybe I am being a bit romantic about that but the wines are extremely fine, at the top of the range in quality. The prices as expected reflect that but there is no way that people are not going to leave without a bottle or two. I feel sorry for our American friends who cannot take very much back with them, but they purchase a fine bottle to pack into their suitcase for home. We content ourselves with two wines – a 2001 Chablis Premier cru Cote de Lechet and expensively, a treat for our friends around the dining table, is a 2001 Corton Grand Cru. The reds of course are relying on the pinot noir grape and back in the UK we tend to associate that with some fairly unremarkable and relatively cheap imports from around the world. The level of quality that the French in Burgundy elevate it to is a totally different wine and these wines available in Maison Champy are never going to be a cheap import. The tradition and terroir are there for all to appreciate and once again it is a chance to see the difference between villages that are producing the same grapes and even the difference between parcels of land in the same village.  It is also an opportunity to really grasp how age affects a wine and the effect of weather conditions in any particular year – we are learning a lot and it is all very interesting and I want to learn more and so we will.

Very old vintages from the 18th Century in the wine house of Maison Champy in Beaune - Pommard Chambertin Volnay
Vintage wines in the old cellars of Maison Champy in the old town of Beaune

Our visit here is not restricted to a tasting and we are handed over by the young lady to a man who is dressed a little less beautifully – we are off to the cellars deep below the cobbled streets and this is a rare privilege and one of the benefits of being on a guided tour in this more inaccessible region. The cellars here at Champy are truly astonishing and steeped in the long history of this wine house. It seems that nothing has ever changed down here, the wooden storage racks that appear to have fossilized to stone are from the 18th century. The walls are musty and full of spreading wine mould. There are cases of wine all along the passageways and hidden in dark alcoves beneath the low ceilings. The really astonishing part is looking at the loose bottles down here in the cellars. Some of these are very old vintages and it is not surprising to see many bottles still available from between the wars. Actually when you start to explore further down the passages these bottles are in fact relatively young. We come across an 1898 Volnay, 1875 Pommard and oldest of all a Chambertin from 1858 – this is a real treat to see and we are all in awe at what is down here. There are old 20th century vintages set in antique wooden racks. These bottles are completely encased in dust and mould and would require much attention and relabelling to get ready for sales to someone who would have to be a very serious collector with bottomless pockets. As we emerge back above into the light we all feel a long way removed from being home and selecting a bottle in the supermarket or wine store. We have seen a totally different side to wine and its production and indeed what can be done with the noble grape.

under the streets in Beaune are old cellars located at Maison Champy in Burgundy
The ancient cellars under the streets of Beaune at Maison Champy

Life will never be the same again but I will continue to refuse to become a wine snob which you could so easily do. It is time to leave Beaune and move on to Beaujolais where we will stay in the village of Villié-Morgon and the Hotel Villon, finding more new gems in an area that is relatively underrepresented in the UK other than the Beaujolais Nouveau that of course everyone knows.

Enjoy the rest of our tour of French Vinyards on Amazon – available also for Kindle Unlimited

The full story of our Wine touring around French Vineyards on Amazon

Photography of Porthleven Cornwall

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Louvre Paris from the Tuileries Gardens

Porthleven in Cornwall is a thriving harbour town overlooking Mounts Bay. The South West coastal path goes either side of the harbour taking in some breathtaking scenery.

These photos can be seen enlarged by clicking on the photograph.

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Lavender in Provence – Where to find the best views

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This is taken from my book ‘Thyme for Provence’ which is a collection of experiences over a twenty year period of touring Provence driving from the North of England.

Lavender fields on the road out of Banon Provence France for French travel guide books for Kindle Unlimited
Lavender Fields near Banon Provence France

I write of the remarkable expanse of lavender around the Abbey at Senanque just north of Gordes in the chapter ‘Our week in Provence’ in my book ‘Thyme for Provence’ but it is worth briefly pointing out some other areas that should be on your ‘must see’ list if you are a lover of this beautiful fragrant plant.

Viewing the lavender in the fields below the village of Banon in Provence France
Lavender fields near Banon Provence

I appreciate that there are many people for whom a visit to Provence must be made in the lavender season as it is crucial to their experience of the region. My wife Niamh is one of those people. Our old friend the village of Banon is a good starting point for a lavender tour. Around the village are some magnificent lavender fields and a climb to the church at the top of the village will reveal them in all their stupendous glory. If you briefly go out of the village on the D950 in the direction of Forcalquier you can turn off to go down one of the minor roads on your left, experiencing driving as if through a lavender field. There are some glorious photo opportunities. After that you can then go back through Banon and take the D950 in the opposite direction to Revest du Bion.

Hot air balloons over the lavender field close to the village of Banon France
Heading North from Banon through the lavender fields

I am afraid in writing this section on Provence’s most famous and beautiful product that it is difficult to stop using all the usual clichés but this route is truly spectacular at this time of year. It is also not a busy route and is usually missed by most of the lavender tourists. Moving on by the D950 over the plateau to Sault we passed alongside mile after mile of fragrant lavender fields. You will find little here in terms of civilization but then you may suddenly come across a roadside stall that begs you to stop. These stalls will be selling honey and specifically lavender honey. Be warned the produce is not cheap but quality of this standard has to be paid for and it will be a delight to you.

Roadside market stall near to Sault in Provence France selling local honey
Lavender Honey for sale by a Provencal roadside

This is a spectacular drive via Reveste. However you can also experience more of the same sights and smells going around via St Christol and these routes should not be missed. Sault, perhaps the unofficial lavender capital, is the most incredible destination for views of the lavender fields because you can easily attain the height needed to look down on the patchwork quilt of fields. This road though – the D950 and the area to the south east of Banon – are I feel probably as good as it gets if you are a lavender junkie. Most generic tourist guides will generally prompt you to go to Sault if you want to see the lavender and that is certainly true but this lesser known and very quiet route of the D950 is quite stunning. Field after field of vibrant colours, the air heady with lavender scent.

Lavender fields just north of Banon Provence France

The expanse of lavender carries on endlessly on the D34 to St Christol and on to Lagarde d’Apt. Quite a quantity in this area also grows wild so your conscience stays clear when you find some lavender to pick and dry for home. This route and region are not to be missed and despite being there at the height of the tourist season we barely passed nor saw any other vehicle on the drive around this circuit. Dropping down from this high vantage point (around 3000 feet) to St Saturnin displays the most stunning panorama and instills a deep sense of thanks for being inside your car as you pass the exhausted cyclists breathing in from oxygen cylinders on their way up.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque Provence – as fine a display of lavender as anywhere in France

Before leaving the subject of the area around Sault I would also mention that if you have the time or inclination there is the most dramatic of gorges on the way back down towards Mazan from Sault. It is well worth a detour at any time of the year. There is no lavender on this route but it will give you an interlude you will never forget. Instead of staying on the D1 take the D942 towards Monieux and onwards and you will find this lesser known gorge – Gorges de la Nesque. It is barely mentioned in guide books but I will not attempt superlatives about this gorge but just encourage you to take this route if you have a head for heights and a love of spectacular scenery. Also along the roadside back on the main road from Banon to Sault you have the finest of provencal herbs, drying in the hot sun in the parched ground. This is the finest ‘Thyme in Provence’, the most wonderful ingredient to cook with back at your gite or indeed to save for winter cooking. Heady scents they most certainly are.

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Lavender fields near Banon France

The area I mentioned south east of Banon going towards Forcalquier has another claim to fame for you lovers of all things fragrant. It is the interesting site that is used by L’Occitane to gather and distil their lavender as used in the products that grace their outlets around the world. It is very old worldly in appearance, like an old farm in the American plains and not seeming at all to be high tech. If you stumble upon it be sure to get out of your vehicle as you will get the most intense concentrated aroma of lavender that you will ever experience. There are as Niamh unfortunately discovered no free samples on offer. You can find lavender all over Provence but for us this area I have described is the best you will experience and you can for the most part enjoy it in solitude. It is worth a special trip in its own right.

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A NEW French Journey by Photography – Take a tour

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Abbesses Metro station Paris France

All the photography was taken by myself on our visits to Paris and the French regions. I hope you enjoy them and please look up my stories of our travels on Amazon.

My new book is a tour around France starting in Normandy. I hope you will come with me and be inspired to travel a similar path. I hope it will inspire you to travel to France or at least enjoy it in your imagination from home.

Paris in springtime with couples sharing moments on the banks of the Seine behind Notre Dame

Neal is an established and extensively published French Travel writer with an aim is to impart his passion for France to his readers. Neal has travelled extensively in France with his family and friends and acted as ‘tour’ guide to others over the years.
Neal lived and worked in Lancashire, England and found the joy of travel later in life after a conservative travel upbringing that stretched only as far as stopping the car falling into the sea at the English coastline.
He now lives in Somerset close to his granddaughter and family and on the wonderful South West coastline that we enjoy so much. Neal loves the English game of Cricket, which he plans to write about soon, golf, soccer and photography. He has a great love of History and that is reflected in his writing.

Paris in Black and White

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Paris in springtime with couples sharing moments on the banks of the Seine behind Notre Dame
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Rue Sofflet in Paris close to the Panthéon
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One week in a Somerset Winter

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View across the estuary at Uphill Somerset looking out to Brean Down

February is often thought to be the bleakest month of winter, the last throes of poor weather before the onset of spring. Not so this year. After a mild and fairly damp winter we have been treated to a beautiful week or so of sunny weather that produced the most amazing sunsets over the Bristol Channel. These photos are of that week and are taken mainly at Uphill where the River Axe estuary meets the channel. Alongside these are photos taken at the National Trust property of Tyntesfield House near Bristol. WE have been treated to some gorgeous colours that were vibrant and deep culminating on the magical display at the end of the days.

As a Northerner used to bleak mid winters this has been a treat to have winter shortened as it moves into spring.

Hope you enjoy these scenes from Somerset in February 2023

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Fairport Convention – History of Fairport Convention

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History of Fairport Convention Cover from 1972 with family tree

Fairport Convention – History of Fairport Convention

Original attached logo for the Album

I wish I could tell you definitively how Fairport Convention became such an important part of my musical life, but I cannot explain it. No one I knew had ever heard of them let alone had an album to share with me. I suspect it was my friend Chris’s guitar playing brother who left this album lying around. I don’t think it could have been his as he was into introspective guitar playing songwriters. Maybe Sandy Denny prompted an interest. However it happened, one day this album found its way onto our shared turntable and for a time rarely left it – I bought my own copy shortly afterwards.

It was not trendy to be listening to Fairport. I should by all accounts have been captivated by all things Glam rock, the ‘glitter and the rouge’ as Jackson Browne put it, but that was not the path I followed. I suppose I must have something of a stubborn streak to have been so determined to seek out music I really like rather than following a fashion or trend. I am glad that I did.

This album enthralled me. It was like nothing I had ever come across. Particularly with the early songs featuring Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews sharing vocals. I found the atmosphere created was unique. Musical differences caused this to be a short-lived collaboration, but they had a magical quality together than was quite ethereal. ‘Book Song’ is a gorgeous example of this. Produced by Joe Boyd he extracts an amazing musical and vocal mix that is captivating.

The band seem to effortlessly switch from this tender vocal to heavy folk-rock and instrumentals. This was mind blowing and a musical style to lose yourself in. What I had not realised was that this ‘History’ was not of a single band unit but a band that over only five years appear to have had about 500 members flitting in and out of the band. The giveaway was the band family tree on the cover that was more extensive and varied than the Royal Family. What was difficult to understand was who made up this band now.

Two members of the early band would become musicians that became part of my musical make up – flowing in my DNA. Richard Thompson would supply enough sad songs to keep even me engaged, along with being in my mind at the very pinnacle of great guitarists. Then of course Sandy Denny, that singer and writer blessed with an overflow of talent and an interpretive voice that is without peer. She is the finest English female singer of the 20th Century and I refuse to discuss that further. Sandy was still alive when I heard this album but somehow her performances are haunting, and you can sense tragedy in the air. Her death a few years later touched me as much as any in my life.

The album contains “The most favourite Folk track of all time” – ‘Who knows where the time goes.’ In the notes contained in the accompanying booklet the quote is made that ‘you cannot see any world class group of musicians matching this performance.’ You cannot. It is perfect. It is a deeply sad, unsettling track, showing Sandy’s vulnerability laid bare. It became even more melancholic with her death, almost as if at the age of 19 when Sandy wrote this, she felt that life would be short, the time was passing and would be fleeting. It is Love and Loss at its most potent. The vocal by Sandy is just gorgeous and the playing by the band sublime and sympathetic, almost as if they are entranced by this song and vocal as they follow Sandy through this spiritual journey. Nothing before or since in this genre comes close to this and Sandy’s brief body of work tries to reach this high spot and she often comes close, but she peaks with this song and performance.

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A page from the accompanying booklet to this Fairport album showing Sandy Denny and her famous track

Sandy Denny dominates this early incarnation of Fairport for me, but you have to also step back at times and realise just what an amazing set of musicians these are. Two tracks that feature Sandy are in the ‘Folk rock’ idiom – ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘A Sailors Life.’ You can apply that quote about untouchable performances to these two tracks also. You feel that with these two tracks the genre comes of age – the interplay on ‘A Sailors Life’ by Dave Swarbrick on his extraordinary electric violin and the self-taught style of guitar playing from Richard Thompson reach new heights. You sense they are chasing each other around the studio to soar and weave their solos into a breath-taking sound. Sandy’s vocal fights to rise above this performance and she ultimately triumphs to leave the stage clear for Swarbrick and Thompson to battle it out to a conclusion. Swarbrick was not meant to play on this track and was somewhat unsure of this mixing of styles, but he did, and the rest is history. One other detail stands out in the mix of ‘A Sailors Life’ and that is the drumming of Martin Lamble. Now I am a great Dave Mattacks fan and his contribution to Fairport is enormous but there is something special about the early drum playing of Martin Lamble. What an incredibly sad loss he was with his untimely early death shortly after recording this track.

And then there is ‘Sloth.’ Sandy Denny is gone from the band. Is there life after her? Well yes, and this track is up there with the finest folk rock recordings. I love the comment by a critic about a moment on here being worth inventing the electric violin for. As Richard Thompson ends the line ‘She’s runaway’ Swarbrick comes in with that moment. One of the finest short solos committed to posterity. Go and listen to it – go on please. Again, this is another track that ends with dualling guitar and violin with bass and drums beating a path behind them. It ends with the band coming in with sublime vocals underpinned by Swarbrick that leave you stunned and in awe. Go back and play this again and just concentrate on Thompson’s guitar – follow that through the track and it will give you some indication of his genius.

As I write this, I am playing the album, and nothing has changed my initial view of this work – They were for that five inspired years the finest musicians on the planet. What is so amazing is how they maintained such a level of performance and interpretation with band members seemingly coming and going at will. Despite my biased leaning towards the ‘Sandy Denny period’ what is clear is that after she had gone the male band left behind somehow raised their game to a level that it is fair to say was unexpected. It makes that five-year period covered by this retrospective album a complete whole where the quality does not drop off whoever is in the band.

My first ever live concert was Fairport Convention in early 1973 at the Albert Halls, Bolton. A group of us went over the moors from Darwen on the local Ribble bus. The excitement of this I cannot put into words. The first experience of live music that would live with me forever and form a desire to see everyone I loved in music in a live setting. We went with not the greatest of expectation – we had not got a clue who was going to be in the band. Dave Mattacks had left. Richard Thompson was on his solo journey. Simon Nicol also gone. What we got was the most exciting and inspiring performance that had us reeling with joy and admiration. Wow – Dave Mattacks had come back, he was there on that drum kit. Swarb stalked the stage, cigarette in hand and one in reserve on his violin. Dave Pegg statuesque and powerful in his squire of the manor riding boots. Gerry Donohue proving a fine substitute on guitar. But the one you couldn’t take your eyes off, someone I had never heard of, was Trevor Lucas driving the band as frontman and tying them all together. Once again this line up would not be long lasting but I am certainly glad to have seen them for my first concert. I could not have asked for more – except Sandy Denny.

Going back to this event in 1973 you have to appreciate what a exciting departure from normal life this was for us young people. We had no transport – who did back then. But we needed to get home so in the interval after the support act (Bernard Wrigley – The Bolton Bullfrog) we piled into the row of public telephone boxes in the entrance to the hall to try and persuade someone to come over for us later. As we did the doors to the hall crashed open. In came Fairport, Swarb in the lead, cigarette between his lips and carrying that priceless violin. The others followed and they bustled through the crowd. We could have fainted with excitement – but did they always leave it this late. I suspect they were just finishing a pint or two in the pub around the corner and knew they could produce the magic at will.

Sandy Denny came back into the fold not long after this album but the magic had gone and this compilation pays testament to their greatness that could have continued but musical differences and conflicts finally took their toll on the quality. By all means enjoy the later works, Fairport will always have merit, making a niche market that has endured to this day. But, this showcases what was and indeed what could have been had there been ongoing stability. Then again, we would not have had Richard Thompson in his solo pomp. Can’t have everything.

Alt="Track listing for History of Fairport Convention"
Track listing for History of Fairport Convention

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Alt="French travel book series and Collioure harbour photo"
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