Our group took a two-day side-trip into Serbia to visit the railway museum at Mokra Gora. This is a restored ten-mile stretch of the old East Bosnia Railway, a long narrow-gauge line closed in 1975 that formerly connected Belgrade with the Adriatic coast. The line was a delight, but so were the other local attractions, including a thought-provoking village created nearby by the film director Emir Kusturica.
Here's our charter train awaiting departure from Mokra Gora station. This short line is actually a part of the Serbian State Railway, and runs tourist trains to a regular timetable.
Here's our train near Mokra Gora village, climbing through a steep rocky landscape. Over the course of ten miles, the line climbs a thousand feet with several spirals and nineteen tunnels. At a number of places our charter train stopped for us to take photos, backing up and running past then stopping for us to board again.
At one point there are four levels of railway one above the other on the hillside. There is a station in the middle allowing trains to pass, facilitating this photo of ascending and descending trains on adjacent levels. After taking photos here we had to walk a few hundred yards through the forest to reach the station where our train was waiting. It lingered long enough for us to have a quick drink at the station café.
Tunnel followed tunnel. From the open balcony of the first carriage, the experience was dramatic, steam and sparks showering back as the locomotive worked hard uphill. Anticipating this, I had brought goggles. Around two miles of the ten mile route was in tunnel.
The view from the back of the train was gentler. Riding the rear balcony usually is a civilised experience. A comfortable chair and a cool drink would go down well.
The other main attraction near Mokra Gora is Emir Kusturica's almost surreal village of Kusterndorf. It's an extensive work, occupying a rare relatively flat area amidst the peaks and cliffs of this wild karstic landscape.
The famous film director built this architectural assemblage of traditional buildings following the Balkan Civil War after his Serb family (along with many others) was ethnically cleansed by Muslim Bosniaks from their historic home of Sarajevo. Fortunately Kusturica had the vision and resources to create a new home for his family, and what a wonderful place it is.
In the village cinema (complete with Balkanised spelling!) we watched Kusterica's celebrated film Underground. This epic (which made me think of a Balkan Apocalypse Now) showed me the absurdity of the civil war, but also its inevitability after decades of communist deception. It showed me how ridiculous was the West's search for black-and-white explanations, even though Hollywood has conditioned us to seek one obvious villain. As Rumi wrote, 'let us meet on a field beyond good and evil'.
Serbia fascinated me. I'd like to visit this country again. It's beautiful, relatively efficient by Balkan standards, and intriguing. Unfairly demonised by antagonistic commentators who fail to understand (or wilfully ignore) the reasons for recent ill deeds, Serbia merits exploration. Given that Croat Ustase fascists - condoned by the Vatican and whitewashed by some who ought to know better - exterminated much of the Serb intelligentsia, Church and political leadership within living memory, today's Serbs have done well to create a civilised country where most things seem to work reasonably well.
I've just returned from a week in Bosnia, plus a couple of days in Serbia. I joined a trip to see the last steam locomotives in Europe, though I was also interested to experience two countries that I hadn't visited before. For this post I will concentrate on Bosnia.
We found the final few steam locomotives. There were five big German locomotives left behind at the end of the Second World War and still in daily use seventy years later, a couple of small shunting locomotives, and a handful of narrow-gauge locomotives. In one way, not a lot to see, but hugely significant nonetheless - the end of an era not just in this small country but for the whole world.
Here's one of the German war-service locomotives, which turned out to be well designed and constructed despite the original intention that they would operate for just a few years. I watched one haul a train weighing a couple of thousand tonnes from the loading towers towards the power station with little effort.
There were very few horses to be seen. By sheer good fortune a pair turned up pulling a cart just as we were waiting to photograph a steam-hauled freight train. The horse on the left looks reminiscent of a Haflinger. The cart follows the same simple, flexible design that is found across the Balkans and up into Romania. The basic harness follows the basic common model too. For downward grades the cart has a screw handbrake operating on the rear axle.
Here's a narrow-gauge locomotive at a nearby mine. It's hauling coal from an opencast pit to a washing plant (needed because the local brown coal is very dusty) from where it will be loaded onto standard gauge wagons and road trucks for onward transport.
Here's a Yugoslav-built copy of an American shunting locomotive supplied to Europe in large numbers at the end of the Second World War, now used to move coal wagons along a rickety line between a mine and the national railway system.
So, I've seen the last steam locomotives in commercial use in Europe, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside China where a few remain. I've returned with photographs, memories and the ability to say 'I was there'. Will I go back for a second look? Probably not, even if these steam operations linger for another few years.
Why not? Well, I found Bosnia depressing - a chaotic, corrupt failed state where almost half of the working-age male population is unemployed, crumbling infrastructure is inadequate for what little economic activity does take place, and there is little heritage beyond a few well-known centres. Bosnia felt as if it is lingering in suspended animation. Yes, there is Sarajevo, and I'll post about that fateful city shortly. There is Mostar, with its famous bridge. I did meet a few kind, hospitable people, though the accommodations we stayed at were soulless and bereft of the concept of service. After a week the dismal side of Bosnia had begun to weigh me down and I was glad to get home. Maybe someone will pull me up for writing this paragraph? Perhaps I've missed something? Well, I did travel hopefully, and I've written honestly about my experiences.
May is here, bringing a little warmth and a lot of daylight. We got out to ride near Marlborough, requiring a trip of twenty-five miles by trailer. That's just enough to get through a complete CD in each direction - Kate Rusby on the way out and Gillian Welch on the way back.
The drive out was peculiar. I felt quite detached from the world, sufficiently so to pay particular attention to driving. Last week I spent an exhausting three days on a residential training course together with a couple of full days in the office. Last night I slept nine hours solidly then drank a couple of mugs of very strong coffee to wake up, so weird feelings aren't a great surprise. But the training concerned psychology, reinforced by analysis, group discussions and a session with role players. It did feel as if I was being probed deep within. Liberated fragments of my unconscious were bubbling near to the surface. So it will probably take a few days to reach a point of relative normality. Expect some vivid dreaming.
On the hills we crossed a racehorse gallop. The sign warns that racehorses gallop between dawn and mid-day. We were later than that. The rails enclosing the gallop have sliding sections to close the trail when the racehorses are coming. Presumably someone drives up at the appropriate moment to do this. Previously we've seen racehorses pass at speed from just beyond the barrier, so I know that Brena can be trusted to remain calm.
Cattle grazed in the bottom of the valley of the rocks, lying down to chew cud amongst the ancient sandstone blocks. Most had calves, which lay close, many flat out asleep. We walked quietly along the trail, taking care not to disturb the cattle, knowing that cows can become aggressive in defence of their calves. A couple of cows languidly clambered to their feet but otherwise the beasts ignored Brena and I.
A sign at the gate where the trail entered the valley warned that a bull was in the field too. I spotted him relaxing on his belly, larger than the cows and even lazier. Normally bulls aren't permitted on pastures crossed by public trails. At least in the case the farmer had fixed a helpful notice to the gate giving practical advice, which chiefly involved what to do (and not do) if one happened to be walking a dog. Most people walking out here would have come from nearby towns, and their kind tend to be quite ignorant about the ways of livestock.
The valley of the rocks never ceases to amaze me. It's such a remarkable place, ancient and unique, timeless, bleak but beautiful.
The character of this strange survivor changes with the weather: mysterious in the mist; harsh in the rain; enthralling in sun. In every circumstance it nourishes the imagination.
This old landscape is scattered with fragments of a deep, distant past. Rock-strewn meadows, tangled woods, dry ravines, prehistoric earthwork, exposed ridge tracks and grassy drove roads: they are all found here. There are so many places to explore, and so much variety to absorb through successive visits to each location. The coming summer will be busy.
Today I received tranquillity most of all as we traversed trails where no-one else seemed to be walking or riding. I think that was just what my soul needed after the turbulence of the past week. A quiet point on the turning world. A still backwater along a tumbling river. A sheltered stretch along a rough and stormy trail. It was a good ride, a therapeutic ride.
The talisman of spring here is white Hawthorn blossom, crowding the hedgerows like surf upon the rolling green hills. Suddenly the spiky bushes, stout denizens of windswept slopes, are flooded with foamy petals. It's a lovely sight, raising spirits after a long winter. The wind may still blow and the air may be chill on a grey morning, but the blossom stands proud reminding the traveller that the joy of a warm summer is to come.
On Friday I got off work early and took the train around 4pm to get to the music. There’s a train every hour but it’s better to travel before commuter time. So I got to the nearest station to the folk venue around 5.30pm, took a taxi to the top of the hill (that’s a ride of a couple of miles, most of it sharply uphill) and walked the last mile on the level and downhill through the woods to the cottage. We had dinner outside looking across the valley, which is mainly pasture leading over to more woods, then started music around 8pm. We went on to 4am. I got to play and sing early on as not many of the experienced musicians had arrived and also my friend L (she’s about my age, a musician too, and the girlfriend of the warden who manages the cottage) hadn’t yet arrived. Usually I like to play earlier then drink a glass or two of wine and catch up with the friends who have turned up. So I played some nice songs, and so did the others, then L, her sister and I talked, cooked a big round block of camembert until it bubbled and ate it with fresh bread, then went back to dance. It was Beatles time by then, and we had a lot of fun dancing. This time we were careful that no-one collided with the ceiling - there was an unfortunate and very amusing mishap of this type at the last event. I woke groggy at 8am, way too early, and slumped off half-awake for the train home.
Back at home I aroused myself with strong coffee, rode for a couple of hours, went to bed until 9pm, and then set off for the Orthodox Easter service. We use the Eastern Calendar so this is our Easter weekend, not last week like the public holiday. The main service runs from 11pm to 1am and is joyful with a beautiful liturgy. There are many people in that service, all with lighted candles, and we do take care with these so as not to singe our fellow worshipers. Back at home I ate my first piece of meat in a couple of months (also there was almost no alcohol consumed for two months, except at a couple of music events which somehow were accorded a quite non-religious exemption) and slept from 4am to 10am.
Then I went out to ride. My friend S, who is an Air Force officer, keeps a horse with Brena. She had booked us onto a ride organised by the local foxhunt. This was a leisure ride without chasing of vermin so we rode half an hour to the start, booked in and set off, rode a varied ten mile course over fields, and through woods, then rode the half hour back to the barn. In total we were out four hours and it was a faster ride than I am used to. I gained a rosette for my efforts, and we joked that it was for keeping rider, horse and ground in the right order. We got to ride across some land where there are no public trails, and that was a rare pleasure. We have a lot of public trails around here, however a bit of variety is welcome, and we did get through some remote and pretty woodland and across some fields where we could gallop. (As you can see above, some helpful people put some direction signs in the woods. This did not stop some town-people on their horses getting lost.) There were optional jumps set up, with a clear track alongside, so some of the way S jumped whilst I just cantered. Brena hasn’t been trained to jump, and I’m not really interested in jumping. It was all a lot of fun, and now my back is a bit sore, but I don’t mind because that kind of a ride sends me home euphorically happy. It's a silly happiness, simple and memorable, the sort that usually requires wine.
And now I have a half shoulder of lamb in the oven, which smells very pleasant and which I shall enjoy eating from that later in the evening. Roasting does tend to put the waiting back into wanting. But it's worth the wait.
Inviting trails across the green hills. Expansive views across an ancient countryside. Places to canter, and spots to stop and look about. Warmth and sunshine. Thriving trees and flowers. The immediacy of experience, and history to soak up. Familiar trails to enjoy, and new ways to explore. And now these joys lie just around the corner.
Irrespective of the change to the clocks, copiously moulting hair tells me that Spring is here. It's coming out in handfuls and it seems to get everywhere. Brena is glad to be brushed and particularly likes attention to her itchy forehead which is shedding vigorously.
It's Easter weekend for most people around here, though not for me as I'm working to the Eastern Calendar which places Easter a week later.
The grey drizzly weather is not redolent of Spring. It's just the default weather for a temperate island at the shoulders of Winter. Perhaps because of that, the trails were quiet: I passed just one runner in three hours. (I passed her because she was going in the opposite direction, not because we were going fast!) A public holiday ought to be busier.
Perhaps some birds will be building nests despite the weather? If so, that shed hair will be put to good use. Grooming debris does seem to disappear, whether or not there is wind to blow it about.
A peculiar spectacle unfolded on the big field, too far away to be captured by my compact camera. That's what Brena is staring at. She's good at alerting me to slight movements far away. It was odd. A lithe brown hare chased a crow in circles, the jet-black bird fluttering just above the ground without making any real attempt to escape. Then a kite swooped down on broad wings and chased the hare, which ran about the grassy fallow space. Moments later the hare was back running after a crow before being chased off by the kite. The hare gone, the kite took to making repeated passes just above two landed crows, which paid little attention to the larger bird aloft. Hares are not carnivorous and kites hunt nothing larger than a small rodent, so it looked almost as if the creatures were playing.
We rode on across the partly-tilled field. Thought it isn't clear in the photo, we were heading downhill to the bottom of a dry valley. In the chalk hills most valleys are dry. Occasionally a wet winter leads to standing water, otherwise there is no natural water for livestock, hence the weed-choked remains of dew ponds here and there.
The trail heads down the middle of the field, then heads off at an angle to the right, probably following the line of a long-vanished lane. Perhaps a century ago the trail would have been bounded by hedges. Like highways, these trails are defined in law with set routes and widths. Then the crop grows, the farmer is obliged to maintain a clear way for trail users. There are miles of trail like this crossing broad fields, and many too that run still between hawthorn hedges.
It was a very pleasant ride, and I arrived back full of that special euphoria that a couple of hours with a good horse can give. We'd been across open tracks and plunged into mysterious woods. Up a forest track we galloped. Wild creatures we saw, and the quiet we drank in. Troubling thoughts fled, replaced by clarity and tranquillity. Such rides are a welcome gift.
Friday brought a partial solar eclipse, which we observed in the office using a home-made pinhole camera and recorded using the camera on a phone. I suppose that my team must have stopped work for the best part of half an hour. Each of us needs to release themselves to wonder once in a while.
The eclipse wasn't total so far south in Britain. However the sunny morning darkened to a level; of illumination more like a heavily overcast winter day. I witnessed a total eclipse back in 1999, in southern Romania, an amazing experience that submerged the land in a peculiar blue-tinged near-darkness. Birds landed and animals stood transfixed as I watched the corona through a home-made viewer absorbing the unforgettable atmosphere.
Now it's back to normal. Today brought the first outlier of spring, a bright afternoon that felt warm in the sun. Now the bare fields are being ploughed and harrowed, exposing the rich nuances of a chalky soil.Tractors grumbled across the hills trailing clouds of dust. There's one on the middle of the next picture. In a matter of days a brisk breeze has dried out the mud, leaving the trails firm and the slopes friable.
It was a good day to be out. A day to ride and forget one's cares. From the valley we cantered up the turf of a quiet trail, both of like mind to enjoy a little speed. On a day like this Brena gives out a particularly positive energy, as if she is happy to be out and about. Traversing a ridge I gazed westward across a shallow valley where nothing was happening, the fields gently rolling towards the horizon beneath a veil of silence. I could have remained up there for hours, such was the tranquillity of the scene. However the sun was dipping. The shadows were long and deep when I returned to the barn, carefree and happy. Brena, like many a good horse, possesses the magical ability of being able to strip away worry.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies (1871-1940) from Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)