Moving on and moving in

We presume that most people who are reading this saw last week’s blog on the South African tragedy which took the lives of three good friends. In fact that blog got taken up by A Rocha International (see their blog) and we’ve been grateful for all the kind comments. We are still coming to terms with the loss. It’s a clichéd phrase in every organisation that ‘we are a family’, but it is far truer than most with A Rocha. It’s a deeply felt loss. But we continue to move on and Chris is currently engaged in looking at the future and funding of the work in the Vallée des Baux which until now has been centred at Les Tourades, near Arles. It’s a strategic locality at the very edge of the Camargue and we would love to be able to continue to do conservation in the area. Anybody want to fund it?

More now on the house move.

The ‘take-home’ is that it has gone extremely well. It can be perhaps summed up in the quiet murmur of our tried and tested electrician as he checked out the electrics for us the other day: ‘Bien, bien. Ah, c’est bon. Parfait.’ Almost the sum of his recommendations was that we replace a dozen bulbs with LED ones. That’s the sort of news you want to hear. In fact there really is an extraordinary amount of electrics: electric gates, electric swimming pool cover, underfloor heating and even a serpentine complexity of boxes, wires and pipes for automated garden watering.

The move on the 23rd of October went very well despite heavy rain, but we are still busy sorting things out and the garage and part of the house are still piled high with boxes. The great thing has been that there so far we’ve made no unpleasant discoveries. On the contrary: almost all the discoveries have been positive. So for example, it’s a wonderfully well-lit house and its slightly curious shape means that there is an angle that is a sun trap in winter. (And yes for summer there’s a roll out blind for that – electric of course.) It is also delightfully and extraordinarily quiet. One real plus point is that it is just 15 minutes’ walk into the centre of Lorgues which means that when you go out for a meal you don’t have to ask that awkward question ‘so who’s driving back tonight?’ (Contrary to rumour, French drink-driving laws are strict, and rightly so.)

The garage full of boxes (and a garage door which needs replacing, but that’s another story)

We didn’t expect that the swimming pool would be tested but unusually warm weather at the very end of October encouraged one of our hardy sons and his family on a brief visit to explore it. We watched and shivered but it met with considerable approval. (There are pool lights, a pool cleaning ‘robot’ and a pump for making a current: it’s that sort of a house.)

So we are very pleased with the house. There is still a lot more to do although we think we have made our last visit to IKEA for a long time. Mind you, we did buy prayerfully and carefully. The great challenge in house buying in France (and of course elsewhere) is whether you buy with the head or the heart. The particular problem in France is that there are some stunning properties that you can fall in love with in a moment and afterwards afterwards regret for years . So far, no regrets. None at all.

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A bad week and good memories

This was going to be a good week. But it wasn’t. We were beginning to enjoy the new house and also had our younger son and his family visiting. Then midday Tuesday, the warm Provençal sun spilling over us, we received the appalling news that a terrible car accident in South Africa had taken the lives of our old A Rocha friends Chris and Susanna Naylor and with them Miranda Harris, leaving her husband Peter recovering in hospital. The background to this appalling event and some of the testimonies to them is given in various webpages, of which we give three here:

Miranda’s death is deeply felt. She was a truly memorable woman who embodied Christian grace and was someone who cared for and valued everybody she met. Yet we want here to talk about Chris and Susanna and put down something about the part they played in the conservation of the Aammiq wetland and founding of A Rocha Lebanon. In order to avoid confusion with names let me, Chris W., recount the story in the first person.

Peter and Miranda Harris at an A Rocha leaders conference in 2015

Alison and I first met Chris and Susanna at a social event in Beirut in October ’95. They had newly arrived as Christian workers in the Bekaa valley and it soon became obvious that both of them were keen naturalists and sympathised with our ideas of trying to get something going in the way of environmental conservation. We knew of A Rocha but they had only faintly heard of it. We met again at the end of the year and there was a lot more discussion about the environment and for the first time we talked about Aammiq, an area in Bekaa valley that had been a great wetland of international significance – it had Ramsar status – before the Civil War started in 1975, but had since become degraded. (I had been told by one leading environmentalist in Lebanon in 1995 that Aammiq was ‘finished’).

It wasn’t finished but it was critically endangered and after visits by various people including Peter and Miranda Harris it was realised that something could be done and the Naylors – who lived only 10 km away – were the people to lead the work. And lead it they did and very soon there was something that we were beginning to call ‘A Rocha Lebanon’. (As the second project it was also significant in seeing A Rocha go beyond being a local organisation based in Portugal to an international one.)

As doors flew open in quite literally a miraculous way and the extraordinary Aammiq project evolved we became closely involved with both Chris and Susanna. Inevitably, I spend more time with Chris either out in the marsh or in meetings in Beirut, but we were well aware of Susanna’s role as mother, homemaker and patient host in the excitable, inquisitive and often frustrating village of Qabb Elias in the Bekaa.

Chris and Susanna outside their flat in Qabb Elias in April 1997

It was not the easiest place to live. For one thing this was in an area of Lebanon that the British Embassy considered unsafe for UK citizens to visit, let alone permanently inhabit. The rumbles of artillery from the southern Bekaa were a perfectly normal background noise and Israeli air raids on the various ‘military targets’ in the valley were not uncommon. It was also bitterly cold in winter with thick snow and baking hot in summer. The road over to Beirut – which climbed to well over 1500 metres – was legendary in its difficulty with Syrian army checkpoints, snowdrifts in winter and an unnerving tendency to be accident prone.

The wetland itself was challenging. Uncontrolled hunting was common and it was hard to work out which landowning family owned exactly what. For the first few years a line of south-facing Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles marked the northern edge of the wetland.

Looking down on the Aammiq wetland (taken in 2003)

Yet in this unpromising environment Chris and Susanna achieved an enormous amount. They had studied Arabic and worked hard to develop their skills with the colloquial form, and through it made many friends and contacts. Chris was remarkably gifted at getting alongside people and soon won the friendship – and certainly the respect – of the landowners, hunters and the often volatile mixture of individuals in Qabb Elias. There was a gentle grace about him that placated even inevitable men with automatic weapons who either had – or claimed they had – authority in this part of the Bekaa. Chris’s ability to make friends was also apparent in the endless meetings with landowners, the various ministries in Beirut and with other concerned NGOs. When I was with him I always came away impressed with his courage, wisdom and grace. In a culture which depended on the creation of links, loyalties and obligations, the way that Chris and Susanna displayed an open and unshakeable integrity was impressive. Everyone knew they could not be bought or manipulated: and that meant that they could be trusted.

Chris was a fine naturalist; he had a first-class scientific mind (I may be corrected but I think he had a first from Cambridge), a rich store of knowledge, boundless energy and a delight in the natural world. He was not simply a good field ecologist; he had a profound desire to understand the bigger picture, how everything from geology to agricultural practice worked together.

There is much more that could be said about what Chris and Susanna did and one can hope that there will be a memorial book to them. They played a remarkable role in hosting any number of visitors, whether birders, or environmentalists or just the curious. They were important in encouraging churches to consider their duty to the preservation of the natural world. Without in any way hiding their own Christian commitment they build strong links in to many communities across the still deep sectarian divides that had exploded brutally in the 15 years of the Civil War.

In the end, Aammiq was saved. Although A Rocha now plays only a little role in its management today it is legally preserved and with a popular eco-restaurant overlooking the wetland is now seen, with the biblical cedars, as one Lebanon’s natural riches. That it was preserved is in large measure due to the labours of Chris and Susanna.

Aammiq in spring, looking towards the snow-capped Mount Hermon (taken in 2003)

Chris mentioned something of what they did in his book Postcards from the Middle East but as those who were there, let us record that Chris’ characteristic modesty lead him to underplay both the achievements and the difficulties that he and Susanna faced. And difficulties there were. Yet Chris and Susanna knew what they were involved in, what the risks were and what challenges they faced. Theirs was a clear-eyed, intelligent and thoughtful commitment to Lebanon, to its people and to its natural riches. To the casual visitor, Chris and Susanna seemed to be impermeable to the wearying frustrations, perpetual crises and profound tensions that characterised the Lebanon whose civil war was recent (and possibly repeatable) history. Those of us who knew them were aware that what they were doing came with a cost. Yet there was a profound and deep Christian sense of calling and a trust in Christ that kept them going through and above it all.

Alison and I kept in touch after we left in 1998 and Chris, as ever ably supported by Susanna, continued to build friends and develop the work at Aammiq and indeed give A Rocha Lebanon a national presence. On their return to the UK, we were delighted to hear of his new role with A Rocha International and we continued to meet and communicate regularly.

Ourside their house near Oxford in 2011

It is tempting to think of what Chris and Susanna could have achieved had they been granted length of years. It is better perhaps to celebrate what they achieved in the time that was given them. Out of a sense of Christian calling, Chris and Susanna chose to bury themselves in one of the most difficult places in the Middle East. What they achieved there however is astonishing. It was not just the preservation of Aammiq – how many people get to save a Ramsar site? – but the way that they touched so many lives, encouraged so many individuals and demonstrated to all that there is a consistency with being a committed Christian and caring for the environment.

Chris and Susanna’s lives were well lived for God and for his creation. What more – or better – could be said of any of us?

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We have successfully arrived and are busy unpacking. At the moment we haven’t been able to set up the Internet so here are just a few photos.

Other end of the living room
IKEA sofa waiting to be assembled
Kitchen chaos

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As we have mentioned a couple of times in previous blogs, we are moving. Not very far, about 5 miles away (if you still use miles) and a couple of hundred metres higher, to Lorgues.

Lorgues from just above our new house

The rationale for the move has been that we realised that we either do a substantial amount of work on our present house, or we sell it and buy something more suitable for the long term. After endless discussion, it became apparent that no modifications to our present house would remove two key problems: a shortage of space (all those books!) and the steep and winding stairs.

Boxes and packing materials…

Although we have greatly enjoyed being in Taradeau it doesn’t have a lot of facilities and you need to get in a car to get a dentist, a doctor, a choice of restaurants or a pharmacy. Lorgues is much bigger and has multiple doctors, dentists, pharmacies, a good bookshop a cycle repairman as well as probably about 20 restaurants (some of which we are never going to be able to afford to go to). It’s also a very different kind of town, partly because it has so many visitors and resident foreigners that a lot of people have second-language English (in Taradeau, if anyone hasa second language, it’s Provençal).

Buying and selling is complicated here, so the game plan is that on Monday at 7 am the removal company is coming to take everything up to be stored in the garage of the house we are moving to. On Tuesday we clear up and sign to sell our present house. On Wednesday we sign to buy the new house. All being well we will show you pictures of the move next week. It’s going to be a busy few days!

Street in the older part of Lorgues
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Filling in the gaps

Last Saturday we made the almost obligatory trip for people who are about to buy a new house, and went to IKEA in Toulon. We were happy to find that their restaurant opens a quarter of an hour before the store and you can get a coffee, juice and croissant for the princely sum of 1€. Concluding our purchases (to be delivered in just under two weeks time to the new house) with remarkable speed, we braved the Toulon tunnel and went on to the other side of the great bay of Toulon to Seyne sur Mer where we popped into a the annual Fête de la Science (someone we know is involved in the organisation). It seemed a good opportunity to go a bit further round the coast and in particular to try a route which is closed to traffic in the summer due to fire risk.

We cut across the northern edge of this peninsula earlier in the year when we visited Sanary (top left). The road has a lot more bends than either the blue line or the map show!

Climbing up from Les Sablettes, we found a good road and breathtaking views.

Looking out to sea eastwards to the peninsula and island off Hyeres
The great harbour of Toulon and Mont Faron

Dropping down from the hill on the other side of the peninsula, into Six Fours les Plages, we discovered a bay full of of windsurfers. In fact it was so gusty that many of them had problems turning and seemed to spend a lot of time in the water.

Looking westwards to the towering limestone cliif of the Calanques near Marseille

Our final stop was at Cap Negre, which is part of a park and a preserved natural site. There is a rather fine fortification there to guard against the seemingly endless enemeies who wanted at one time or another to lay waste to this part of the coast.

Hexagonal basalt, just like Giant’s Causeway, in the Mediterranean. No wonder they call it the black cape.

This probably marks an end to various excursion photos for a bit. We are moving on the 22nd to 23rd and that is going to be worthy of recording!

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One of the many attractions of France is that there’s so much of it. There are countless delightful villages, ravishing hamlets, scenic gorges and splendid vistas. This was brought home to us when, having an afternoon free in Lyon (see previous two blogs), we had a look at the map and decided to drive out to a village unknown to us (and it seems almost everyone else), called Crémieu.

Looking down on Crémieu from the hillside, towards the Rhone valley. The large rectangular roof in the centre is the fine market hall (see below)

We wandered around for a couple of hours, climbed up to the inevitable ruined castle, and had two very generous ice creams. Probably there are all sorts of significant historical events which happened here, and any manner of architectural oddities, but I’m afraid to say we simply enjoyed the place. We don’t think we bumped into any foreigners and the impression we got was of a perfectly normal large village. There are probably hundreds like it across France. Enjoy the pictures!

At the end of the street is the hill from which the previous photo was taken.
The spendid market hall was built in 1434.

Just a footnote: all being well we are moving in the third week of this month and so far, everything seems to be going ok, although the house is filled with, at the last count, about 85 cartons. We will be glad to have successfully completed the move. Watch this space!

Crèmieu artisan houses and medieval fortified gateway
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Lyon 2

Last week we promised you more on historic Lyon, which we visited for Chris’ A Rocha France meeting. The really old part of the town lies along the bank of the Saône: the hill of Fourvière seems to have been a settlement for a couple of hundred years before the Roman conquest in the first century BC. What is fascinating about the older parts of the town is how they are integrated into the newer ones, with medieval streets lying next to much more modern buildings.

A 19th century church and mini Eiffel Tower look down from the hill of Fourvière on the 13th-14th century cathedral and the medieval streets hidden behind the ‘newer’ buildings on the edge of the Saône

As Lugdunum, Lyon was the capital of Roman Gaul, and as such has a long Christian heritage, starting with records of around 40 Christians being martyred at the end of the 2nd century. The present cathedral of St John the Baptist, is the successor to much earlier buildings, though like them, it has suffered from the turbulent history of France. It lost many statutes, both inside and out, in the 16th century Wars of Religion, was neglected during and after the French Revolution and damaged when the retreating Germans blew up bridges across the Saône in 1944. Today inside is light and welcoming, without much of the clutter of so many French Catholic churches.

No trip to old Lyon would be complete without taking the funicular to the top of Fourvière, from where there’s a great view over the town. Just below the summit is the museum of Roman Lyon, next to the two Roman theatres.

Lyon funicular
Part of Lyon from Fourvière: the nearest river is the Saône, the line of green trees in the centre marks the course of the Rhone.
Still impressively big despite the theatre having been quarried for stone in the post-Roman period

And finally, old Lyon is renowned for its narrow streets and traboules, narrow passageways which connect two streets by going through and between blocks of houses and courtyards.

Its a fascinating city and we barely scratched the surface of all that there is here. But give Lyon’s central location there will be other A Rocha meetings there and further excuses for visits.

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