Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Silbury Hill stands out in the landscape like nothing else. The largest man-made mound in Europe, we encountered it as we left Avebury. You couldn’t miss it. That it was made around 2500BC is doubly impressive. It was dated by the broken antler picks left behind by its builders – that means it was built around the same time as Egypt’s pyramids. And to this day it remains a mystery.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

It stopped me in my tracks so that despite the rain I just had to stop and grab a photo. One thing I found remarkable is that although I was probably close to a mile away (1.6km) on a road leading over an adjacent hill I saw an indent near the top which suggested that a previous top – now a terrace-like feature – would have placed the hill top at that time in direct line with the horizon line from where I was standing. That is some serious engineering and surveying!

It was long assumed to be a larger version of the burial barrows in the district – but no burial chamber has been found despite three tunnels being dug through its centre.

  • The first tunnel was built in 1776 by a team of miners hired by the Duke of Northumberland and Colonel Drax. They sank a shaft from the top of the hill.
  • Then came an Archeological Institute dig arranged by Dean Mereweather in 1849. This tunnel went in from the side.
  • And finally, in 1968 the BBC and Cardiff University dug another tunnel close to the second one.

Assuming it was a burial chamber for a great chief, they were each chasing treasure – hopefully on an impressive scale. But to date none has been found.

What has been discovered is how it was built. First a layer of gravel covered in soil and surrounded by a ditch. The hill was raised several times, with each successive phase filling in the ditch and recutting in around the new base.

Today the base covers more than two hectares – 5 acres – and as the hill was enlarged, the soil was stabilised with sarsen boulders from the district incorporated into the soil.

Unfortunately, there is no public access to the site as it is unstable – in 2000 a portion collapsed into the first tunnel which had not been properly filled in.

But as a triumph of human ingenuity and tenacity to build something greater than themselves, the Silbury Hill is an impressive piece of work.


Nantes, France – quirky botanical gardens – Review

What does a big bird, a big potato-head, a big face, and a big bench have in common? Well, they’re all big – and you can see them all in Nantes’ jardin du plantes/botanical garden.

We knew already that this town had a reputation for artistic endeavours and the botanical garden is no exception. And what a delight it is to walk around and find surprise after surprise awaiting us around the next corner.

There was a children’s maze grown in place and woven like a basket as it grew from live bamboo.  Then there was a giant head peeking through the ground

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

As we went a little further there was a series of benches – ever larger until we encountered one that formed a bridge over the path

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

This one even had a giant basket of knitting in place

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

then there were the birds…

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

These were planted on grass trees

And finally there were the potato heads.

 

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Botanical garden, Nantes, France

Sharon and I could hardly contain our delight at finding these and many more surprises as we walked through the park before catching the train back to Paris. The botanical garden is one of the most visited sites in Nantes – and for good reason!


Les Machines de l’Ile, Nantes, France – review

Getting there
Two hours by TGV from Paris’ Gare de Montparnasse there lies a treasure hidden in the Loire Valley. Some go to Nantes because it was author Jules Verne’s birthplace, others for the quirky botanical gardens, but for something unique, take the tram on line 1 from the station to the Chantiers Navals stop (translates as ‘naval shipyard’) and cross the Pont Anne de Bretagne bridge to the other side of the river. There you will find Les Machines. 

This is a remarkable project led by two theatre designers who have taken a disused shipyard and turned it into a Jules Verne-inspired universe with giant mechanical puppets, including a four storey elephant that can take 50 passengers for a ride around the precinct to a giant heron, an mechanical inchworm and a fantasy tree stretching tens of metres. There are carousels and marine creatures and it is all created in front of you – you can see the craftspeople at work sculpting the next generation of machines.

The designers, François Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice place performance before engineering and as a result the place takes on a wonderful narrative form. They have worked together for over 20 years in street theatre and urban performance. They produced giant puppets for the Royal de Luxe troupe and saw an opportunity when the shipyards closed in 1987. A street theatre company was formed in 1999 and the first machines were animated in 2007 with the inauguration of the Great Elephant and followed soon after with the Marine Worlds carousel.

The Great Elephant
The Great Elephant is 12m high 8m wide and 21m long. It comprises 48.4 tonnes of steel and wood (American tulip wood) and it is powered by a 450hp motor driving the beast 1-3km/h. As you will see in the video below, it is highly articulated, driven by 44 hydraulic cylinders, 6 pneumatic ones and 10 gas ones. the trunk is highly segmented and snakes in all directions, blowing air and water at the will of the driver. The ears flap, the eyes blink, the mouth opens and closes and the legs walk in synchronised fashion as it takes its load of passengers on a tour of the grounds.

It is said that being on the back of the elephant is like being on the 4th floor of a travelling house with a great view over the whole place. There are movies on how the machines are made – many go on tour worldwide – and everywhere you see designs and other machines in their environment.

The Machine Gallery
The Machine Gallery is a performance space – open since Feb 2012 – which houses a wealth of plants and machines revolving around the Heron Tree project. Real plants combine with mechanical ones in a dazzling wonderland. The machines are explained by the machinists who built them – in French – and performers interact with the machines providing mini shows for students and adults alike.

How to visit
There are various modes in which you can visit – the ‘discovery mode’ is the one we chose, so we could wander through the galleries and machines and workshops. You can take a ride on the Great Elephant and/or you can take the ‘fairground’ mode in which you get to ride on the carousels and explore the marine world more deeply.

Here is a sample of our experience and what you can expect to see:

The place is continuously being developed so more attractions are being designed and added as time goes on. For something completely different and only in France – this is well worth the visit.


Paris – Nuit Blanche – resisting the winter with art

October 5 2013.
Paris’ ‘Nuit Blanche’ festival started for us with a bang – you really couldn’t miss the massive conga line of around 50 African drummers marching and dancing down our street with a crowd of a couple of hundred tagging along behind clapping and whooping in time to the music and the call-and-response chants.

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

Literally ‘White night’ – it is an arts event in which major galleries and government buildings and many smaller galleries open their doors for free – many of them until dawn. It is a final resistance to the inexorable shortening of the days into Winter, and it is quite the celebration. The Marais district comes alive and people stream out into the open spaces in front of the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville).

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

The Hotel de Ville is lit up in spectacular fashion

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche – Hotel de Ville

and it becomes a meeting place for Parisians of all ages

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

Even the spiders have their own light show

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

We visited a small photographic exhibition at around 11.30pm – interesting concept, buildings photographed, along with what lies behind, and the building then partially erased as though transparent to show what lies behind in a partly fractured image – always ‘under erasure’ or as the French would say: “sous rature‘. Obviously we couldn’t photograph in the gallery – but this was from their poster – and shows just a little of the interesting concept behind the work.

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

It was great strolling across the bridges and seeing people out and celebrating life

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

And of course the light show went on well into the night

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

It was as unexpected as it was delightful – and what a wonderful concept to throw open the city for one night of the year 🙂