A Walk in Wales, Seeing an Ancient Roman Aqueduct

When I did my summer trip, after seeing my parents in Spain I went to stay in England and the area where I grew up (a little town near Chester called Neston). As well as seeing friends and family there I wanted to re-establish my connection with the familiar places and especially the walks and the countryside that I remembered from when I lived there (not all that long ago - I don't want to sound too whistfully romantic here!). Neston is near the border with Wales, which is rural and hilly. Just to give you a sense of the place, I thought I would post some photos of one of these walks; but also there are interesting parallels here between this walk and one that I did in Spain (I wrote about this in an article posted on 6th July). First is the existence of laws of 'right to roam' and 'public right of way' on private land. In the UK there are public footpaths across farmland, which require the farmer to maintain for the common good. Second and even more specifically, for part of this walk, one of the reasons for this public access is that we can follow the line of an old aqueduct. The idea of the common good and access to private land here.

The Spanish aqueduct  was built by the Moors, this one was built by the Romans. The Spanish one was in a good state of repair and still used to irrigate olive groves, this has fallen into disrepair and is now a toepath along a muddy ditch in the woods because it is not needed for water any more. My guess here, because you don't need irrigation channels in rainy rural Wales, is that the Roman aqueduct would be used to provide drinking water for a town, perhaps Chester (Roman name Deva). Drinking water supplies have changed - no longer would people drink redirected stream water taken from a mountainside and so there is no reason to have kept it operable.

As you follow the path described below, remember this: the enjoyment and direct contact with farmland and farm animals is possible because of what remains of the traditional application of an idea that comes from Catholic social teaching, that land is a common good. We are crossing privately owned land, but still in the UK there is the understanding that with that privelege comes the responsibility of making it available to all in as way that doesn't stop the owner from cultivating it.

So the first step was for my friend Jim and I to take the car up to a ridge on the Clwyd hills in Wales (pronounced 'clue-id'):

From there the ridge path goes off in two directions, one through grazing sheep:

And the other up a more developed path that takes you up to the highest point on the ridge, Moel Famau (pronounced 'mole vamma') a mountain about 2,000 ft above sea level, so not very high. We took this one. It's a popular destination so the path is well maintained:

The terrain here is, like the whole of Britain, man created. In this particular area, sheep grazing stops the growth of trees, and this hilly terrain is low woody plants of dark heather (which has bright purple flowers) and lighter billberry (a small and not-so-sweet version of the American blueberry) grows wild here.

As we look down into the lower parts, some copses and naturally growing trees are allowed to remain, but much of the wooded area is planted for commercial reasons, for wood. There are also bare patches where the trees have been harvested and no ground cover has yet grown.

After several miles we turn right, climb over a stile and down into the valley below. The gate to left which can be raised is for people to walk their dogs through.

We gradually descend until we hit a level part in the valley below:

We continue until we descend again into a tree-filled broad gully. This has a stream running it, and running parallel above it, but still in this wooded gully, the aqueduct. This is known locally as 'the Leet' (or 'Lete'). I do not know why it has this name.

When we hit the Lete we turn left and walk along the gully alongside it for about two miles.

It looks like this for about another two miles until we emerge into farmland and little village called Cilcain. We stop at the pub for lunch. The red, white and blue balloons are there because this was the Monday after the recent Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

And we admire the cottage gardens across the road from where we sat eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.

Then we headed out of the village back up to the ridge from where we first descended, through low hills first, past grazing sheep again, then on to the ridge itself, now several miles further along from where left it this morning.

And once at the ridge path, we turned left once more, to complete the final phase of the circular walk along the ridge and back to the car.

Footnote: if anyone who is not used to the spelling of Welsh words found the pronunciation of 'Clwyd' difficult to fathom, then have a go at this name of this place, also in north Wales (it really is a genuine place name):

It is the railway station in the town of 'Llanfair p g'. I grew up in England so wasn't native Welsh speaker at all. However, we used to enjoy learning and then reeling off the pronunciation as party trick. For the curious, this what it sounds like:

A walk along an ancient aqueduct in southern Spain

When I was in Spain in May, some neighbours of my parents offered to take me on a walk that followed the line of an ancient aqueduct built by the Moors centuries ago. Phil and Brenda took me to a spectacular route that started in the town of Canillas (about an hour from Malaga). The aqueduct was a small channel providing water for irrigation and drinking water for the town. It is about a foot square in cross section and open topped. It weaves its way around the hills through olive groves and wild flower meadows, climbing at a rate only slightly greater than a contour line. This lead us eventually up high into a fast running stream in a narrow gorge, which was the source of the water.What was interesting was that this was still the means of irrigating the olive groves on the hillside. So in some sections, where the Moorish stonework had begun to leak, the channel had been mended. Somtimes with stone and cement, and sometimes even with sections of black plastic pipeline. From time to time, there would be small sluice gates that could be dropped into the channel, blocking it off and then directing the water onto the fields below that section. I have spoken in the past, here, about how there is a 'right to roam' in European countries. It's exact form takes different shapes, but for the most part, provided you don't take produce or destroy property and respect the land and personal rights of those who own it, you are entitled to go onto privately owned land. It means that in Europe that those who live in cities and suburbs and are not landowners, nevertheless have access to the land and have a sense of connection with it. People can also experience the peace and see the beauty of well managed agricultural land which has a very different effect on the soul than seeing 'wilderness' - land unaffected by man. New-world countries, such as America, Australia and New Zealand do not have such laws and so it is much more difficult to get access to agricultural land (as opposed to wilderness parks). Ironically, this means that even in New Zealand, a country in which perhaps 30% of the land is preserved as national parkland, there is still a greater sense of being deprived of contact with the land than you would have in a western European country. The reason for the difference between old and new worlds is that the new societies, driven by Enlightenment ideas of individualism that started to take hold in the 18th century rejected the traditional idea, which comes from Catholic social teaching, of land being a 'common good'. The traditional idea is that landowners balance their privelege of ownership, which is necessary so that the land can be cultivated in an ordered way, with certain responsibilities towards the community as a whole.

In Britain, which is a land of walkers (perhaps because the temperate climate is so condusive to it) there is a modern application of the custom, which has resulted in a network of public footpaths across its length and breadth. My guides Phil and Brenda, who were great company for the day, explained to me that because so many Brits live permanently in Spain now (about three quarters of a million), that the Spanish government has begun to establish British style footpaths through scenic areas and promote them to attract yet more people as tourists. Its not clear whether the Spanish people themselves are yet as enthusiastic about walking. It seems that perhaps Noel Coward was right, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

An irrigation channel seems to me an example of a project that is intended for the common good and requires each landowner to acknowledge this in allowing it to be built on his land and in the way in which he uses it. Once this was built if the landownder wanted to act against the common good he could and use all the water for himself: nobody below him would be able to stop him taking it. Taking what is necessary for himself is in accordance with the common good, because this is how he grows food for the community (which includes himself of course). Maybe a historian out there could help me, but I don't think this would have been built by the central government buying the land through compulsory purchase order on the land. My guess is that there has been a cooperative process between landowners.

Any, enough of the discussion, here's the walk -  we start by filling up the water bottles at the public drinking fountain:

And then gradually climb our way up, through olive groves and some pine groves, pausing occasionally to look back at the town below. In time the trees clear and we can see the gorge ahead.



Here, below, is a sluice gate (it's on the end of the chain only partly visible). This is a simple metal plate which is dropped into the channel at this point, directing the water out through the opening which is visible above the waterline, bottom, left. This allows the farmer who owns this part of the land to irrigate his olive groves in the hillside below. We would see these periodically as we climbed. Clearly, there is mutual trust here and an assumption that no single landowner is going to abuse the privelege of access to the water and deprive everyone else of a share. Subsequent photos show the flourishing olive groves (note how the hillside is stepped to enable access when the olives are to be picked).


Round a corner, below, and things take a turn for the spectacular:

We can see the gorge in the distance which is the source of the water for the aqueduct, you can see the it cutting across the hillside halfway up on the left:

If we walk on an turn back, we can see, below, how precarious the path is in some places:

On the photo above you can see the aqueduct cut into the cliff face on the near part. In the distance to the left you can make out the line of the road through the hills, which follows the old Moorish trading route through southern Spain. It is seen more clearly in this photo:

Then we walk up into the gorge and to the mountain stream that is the source of water:

The very start of the aqueduct is on the left in the photo above. The manmade channel has water running in it, but it is not obvious in the photographs because it is so clear.

We stopped for a drink of water at a small waterfall in the stream above this point:

And then returned to Canillas retracing our steps. The day ended with a late lunch in the village square: Spanish coffee, which is a strong and milky, and tapas.
















Geometric Tile Patterns in Andalusia

  Here are some photographs of decorative tiles that I took on my trip to Andalusia. These designs are commonplace in Spanish towns here and will be seen on both old and new buildings. They are obviously derived from those of the Islamic Moors who ruled this part of southern Spain for nearly 800 years. The last Moors were defeated and surrendered the Alhambra - the palace in Granada - in 1492.  These were taken in two villages Alcaucin and Canillas de Aceituno about 20 miles inland from Velez-Malaga on the Costa del Sol.

The photo above is of the public drinking fountain in Alcaucin. What I found delightful about these villages is the effort made to decorate details of the exterior. For example, you will see here some steps, small interior parts of doorways. I have included some street scenes of the villages to give you a sense of the villages, and not all of them have geometric patterns.





Wild Flowers in Spain (and Possible Implications for Population Control and the Culture of Death)

During my visit to friends and family in Europe, I spent a a few days in Spain (during the last week of May). My parents have retired there (along with another million Brits). I was lucky in that the time of my visit was just the time when wild flowers are in bloom. I am no plant expert, but I did recognise a lot from my memories of my parents' garden in England when I was growing up. So I asked them if they would help me identify some of the plants and we set off to high meadows to photograph and identify them. Also, I am trying to plant an English style perrenial garden in the farm that will be the new Thomas More College campus in Groton, Massachusetts. (I say 'will be' because we have to raise the money to build. This is not easy in the current economic climate, so please if anyone feels like donating, don't hesitate to contact us!) We have been following the planting scheme of the English garden designer Gertrude Jeckyll. From my first spring of planting here in the US, I recognised that many of the Spanish plants are in American gardens too. The photo above is of a thistle called echinops. We bought three to plant and they look pretty lonely at the moment while we wait for them to flourish and multiply. Here in Spain, there is a whole field of them next to my parents' house just growing wild.

The terrain in this area around Spain is man made. Even the areas where the flowers grow and seem uncultivated would be completely tree covered if they had not been cleared by man. It is dry, shrub filled landscape common in Mediterranean areas called 'maquis'. Very often the flowers flourish most on road or field edges in the areas where the soil has been turned over by human activity but it has not been paved over or planted with crops. A common plant in the maquis terrain is the broom. There are two common varieties here: Spanish broom and genista (French broom) which has smaller flowers, both are bright yellow. The photo below shows some genista growing on the edge of a cultivated olive grove. In the distance you see a ridge of mountains with pass, appearing as a notch cut into it. For our flower hunting expedition we headed for that pass. There is a footpath there on a disused railway line which allowed for great views and a great variety of species.

The fact that the whole terrain is formed by man raises a question in my mind. What is the natural environment for wild flowers? Would these flowers be here at all if it weren't for man? If there were no man affected areas, would there be any terrain for them to grow in? Certainly, the ones I saw don't grow in the areas that are wooded, only on the edges made by man. Perhaps there are some plant experts out there who can answer these points definitively. What I can say is that these flowers are flourishing in those areas affected by man. If this man-affected terrain is the natural environment for wild flowers, and wild flowers are considered part of the natural world (along with the insect life engendered), then we would have to consider man's activity natural too.

Some extreme environmentalists that I have come across tend to assume that man's activity is unnatural and always detrimental to the ecosystem. I'm guessing that there others who object to the activities of modern man, but would consider a pre-industrial revolution, agrarian society (which would still create the landscape for wild flowers) as the natural form of activity for man. The first group would like to see man's effect on the world eliminated altogether, the second vastly reduced.

The reason that this is important to consider is that the degree to which we consider mankind's activity natural or unnatural affects whether or not we consider the the growing human population of the world a good thing or a bad thing. In both the cases cited above, that is if either we consider man's activity necessarily unnatural; or, taking the less extreme position, we consider the work of modern man unnatural and only that of primitive man's activity natural, it makes sense to advocate population reduction in the world. The few examples of modern man there are, the less unnatural behaviour there will be. The next step is to push for population control via the use of contraception and abortion.

The traditional Christian view is different. For the Christian man is the crowning glory of creation and his activity is not only natural but, potentially, the greatest of all life on earth. In fact, to the degree that his work is inspired, man can actually raise the natural world up to something higher, creating something closer to what it ought to be and to what it would have been prior to the Fall. This is not deny that man's activity can be highly destructive also. It depends on how wisely he makes use of his God-given freedom to cultivate the land.

When we have the Christian outlook, the way to deal with polution and mismanagement of the environment, is not to reduce the amount of human activity (by reducing the population), but to seek to transform human activity into something that is in harmony with creation. This is possible (at least partially in this life) only through the Church and this takes us again to the question of cultural transformation and liturical reform. Two connected themes I have spoken about often in this forum.

Anyway, we have now reached the high meadow and start to walk along the path through the notch:

We surveyed the scene, book in hand:

And then we started to look more closely. You can see the red poppies and yellow daisies in the meadow. But as you look at the limestone rock outcrops there are more to be seen, for example wild tyme:

Orchids and wild irises:

 Here is another iris amongst a cluster of flowers of helianthemum, the rock rose, a common plant in the the garden.

In our day out, we did take time step back and enjoy the view of rural Spain from this elevated position.

Where irrigated, the ground is extremely fertile. This part of Andalusia exports fruit and vegetables. The view below is of the area beyond that notch in the ridge. There is a high fertile plain hidden away. The old railway track that we were walking on was built to carry the produce down to the coastline (near Malaga) for distribution. Now the transportation is by road you see trucks driving down the winding road all day during harvest time.

The examples of the flowers shown are as bright and beautiful as the garden varieties. There were many more that I could show, and will perhaps keep for another occasion. Many of these while beautiful in the wild, are not precisely what you would see in the garden, which would be hybrids. This again raises the question of what is more natural, a hybrid developed by man or a wild variety? Anyway, that's one for a future blog post.

Gardening in England and Spain

My parents are both keen gardeners and their love of beautiful gardens has rubbed off on me. (Although, sadly, the knowledge of how to do it hasn’t. I feel I ought to know far more than I do.) Gardening is a great British enthusiasm. Britain is an island so there is plenty of rain brought over by the Atlantic winds; and it has a temperate climate, which means that is rarely either very hot or very cold. The absence of prolonged extremes means that a surprisingly large number of varieties of plants will flourish, including plants that one wouldn’t perhaps initially associate with Britain. For example, you see palm trees in Western Scotland, where the gulfstream hits the coast.  Once, when I visiting my brother who lives in California, I was surprised to discover that the ceanothus, a beautiful blue shrub that I remember from our garden at home in Cheshire, was growing wild in the hills above the Bay Area. It is indigenous to the region. I was told once several years ago that there are upwards of 100 common varieties of ceanothus available to gardeners and approximately 70% of them have been cultivated in the British Isles.

Mum and Dad are now retired and they spend the winter and much of the spring in Spain (along with several million other expats). Several years ago, once the four children had left home, there was no longer any need for the large house that I grew up in. This was sold and they bought a smaller one nearby in England, and taking advantage of the much lower property prices another small place in southern Spain (in common with many British retirees). This left them with the task of developing two small gardens.

The English garden is planted out with shrubs and herbaceous borders and although only about three years since they moved there, it is beginning to look established now. It is the planting of the little Spanish garden though that I find particularly interesting.

Many of the British people who have moved to Spain in the last 15 years, have tried to establish gardens there too. Their approach is to try to recreate a bit of English garden. But an English garden is always thirsty. So when I visit I see neighbours of my parents out every evening holding hosepipes that trail back to a tap on the house as they water annuals such as petunias copiously. If they did not do this, everything would die. My parents approach was slightly different. It was designed like at English garden, which is what they knew, but planted with indigenous plants, so that they would flourish without watering. My Dad explained to me that usually they have to water when they put the plants in, but once each plant is established, it just takes care of itself. This means also that there are no worries about the plants dying when Mum and Dad are back in England and can't care for them.

As a result, people in Spain have started to ask my Dad for advice. And its not just the expats – its the Spaniards as well. They are not used to seeing a garden like this, which is the English cottage garden style, so they are curious.

Pictures below are first, of the garden in England (graced by Mum, sometimes taken by surprise!) and the second set are in their garden in Spain.

and now Spain...

The view from the garden, over the olive groves to the mountains in the distance...

And just in case you didn't believe me... here are some palm trees on the coast of the west of Scotland, further north than James Bay in Canada