A strange night. I have a long, continuous dream about breaking into a mysterious building to get something for nothing. But what? I’ve no idea. And there are noises from the room next door, of furniture moving, water running, a mercifully short bout of headboard banging followed by brief giggles and then a door opening and closing. This is a youth hostel!
Walking across to the dining room, in sunshine, I feel it so much warmer. The forecast for Saturday is 33ºC
I find my way out of Amiens okay, along a road busy with trucks heading for the motorway. I soon turn off at Dury, where there is a sign for the Battle of Dury, 1870. It was a minor skirmish in the Franco-Prussian war. There was also a battle of Amiens in 1870, as the Prussians advanced from the south. The main encounter was at Villers-Bretonneux. The defeated French fled north across the Somme. It reminds me again of the layer upon layer of flux and warfare in this area, recorded from the Romans on. And how strong was the shame of 1870, a shame reflected in the vengeful Treaty of Versailles.
It is a day of enjoyable cycling, in warm sun along minor roads across the rolling plateau of Picardy, great unhedged rectangles of fields stretching away: dark green wheat, blue haze of flax, blue-green peas, yellow-green maize, brown earth spotted with the dark green leaves of potatoes, green winter barley already edging gold. And among these prairies, in valleys and under protecting slopes, are tightly-knit, English-looking villages, with trees, pasture, cows, farmsteads.
There are several wind-farms, turbines in lines, turning slowly. What to think? Should I be against them, as subsidised blots on the landscape? Or for them, as the cheapest form of renewable energy? Are they ugly, metal intrusions in an organic world, their turning a dissonant regularity? Or are they beautiful, sleekly-dynamic aerofoils that respond to and register wind direction and speed, visible tracings of the invisible that may stir the soul? Why are we nostalgic for old, noisy wooden mills, when these subtle masterpieces of design and technology are howled against? They turn slowly, together, but never quite at the same speed; in sleepy synchronicity, as if they are linked to the same dream deep underground, but each dreaming differently. Deep underground the cables linking them are prickling with the electricity that is wound slowly through them, bringing to life distant machinery, illuminating distant rooms. I stop where they are in a line, so I can see only the front one, while all the turning arms are visible. Is there pattern? Will it ever happen that these five turbines are a perfect fifteen-point star? What would that moment be like? Or all exactly together, like a Mercedes badge …? I feel it important not to have an opinion, now, at this moment. For opinions are like table-tennis balls lofted up on water jets, up in the head, that chattering realm of contrary voices, and needing effort to keep them aloft. Now. Look. Experience. Feel. Have perceptions that slip slowly down, like coins through isinglass, until they reach their equilibrium point, by displacement, deep inside me, and are still.
Every innovation, new technology, social situation, needs a new poetics, with new metaphors, new techniques, and technics to incorporate (as the Impressionists incorporated boulevards and leisure, the Futurists, modern warfare); only then, once incorporated, judge.
Heading south-east I cross the Meridian at Ailly-sur-Noye, and look along a tree-lined lane; and again, tacking south-west, near Paillart. Neither has a sign.
The road climbs slowly, I reach the top, and there below is Beauvais. Illuminated by the sun, the town is a purple shield, with the cathedral the pale boss (in Greek, omphalos) at its centre. Downhill, with wind behind, I’m soon there.
Beauvais I arrive in Beauvais at three in the afternoon. It is a tightly-knit town, crammed within a wall. Its narrow streets, busy with pedestrians, are traffic-calmed or pedestrianised. It was destroyed in the German advance of June 1940, and rebuilt in blandly functional form, on the old street pattern. Gone is the solid stonework of the bank, the decorative tiling of the fishmonger, the grocer’s shop with inlaid ‘épicerie’, the bar with Suze painted on the end wall. The bland buildings are anonymous containers, of functions that are interchangeable. Usually in a town you can see the past by looking up, above the new shop fronts. But none of the past is here. Which makes it feel oddly like a film set, where the shop windows are filled with standardised goods, and the busy, intent – perhaps too intent? – shoppers are well-trained extras, concentrating on acting normally and not looking at the cameras, while the director’s instructions are fed to them through earpieces. The Trueman Show effect. More and more I feel people are acting the role of shoppers, rather than – shopping. Perhaps it is the accumulation of conditioning by advertising and media. Perhaps it is the ever-increasing reflexivity of our lives. What would happen if I stopped someone? Do they even see me?
These thoughts vanish as I pass a cross street and glimpse, so briefly I’m not sure what I saw, an enormous, pinnacled, heaped-up edifice. So out of scale, so apparently overbearing, and yet so ignored by everyone that I think I must have dreamt it. But I see it again and again, at each cross-street. Each time it is bigger in actuality than it is in my memory. At first I imagine myself in a sci-fi story in which the oppressed people have ceased to see that which oppresses them, the castle, the tower, the presence. But of course to them, living here, it is just – the cathedral. And now, there it is, in front of me.
Beauvais Cathedral really is bonkers. At first, white in the sunlight, it is an enormous Disney creation in a Sleeping Beauty world, reaching up into the clouds, step by step, so huge and out-of-scale is it. And yet, on its own, with its pyramidal form, its boat-like rounded apse, its spray of flying buttresses, its ever upward reaching, it is – magnificent. When 4.9 metres were added to the height of the choir in the 1260s, in order to overtop local rival Amiens, it took the Gothic, literally and metaphorically, to new heights. It has never been surpassed. And it created something qualitatively different: a new and mighty grandeur. The combination of pointed arch and flying buttress had enabled a reaching up that is almost, in itself, overreaching. Like the new music, spinning out from grounded plain chant to spiralling polyphony.
That those tremendous, soaring buttresses are held together, and apart, by metal rods gives a clue to what happened next.
The choir was built in two phases, from 1225 to 1272. In 1284 part of it collapsed. It was then rebuilt, with modifications, possibly including these very iron bracing-rods. Two centuries later the transept was built. And a tower. Which then collapsed. At this point they gave up any idea of building the nave, and connected the giant choir and transept to the nave of the original tiny Romanesque church, ‘like an elephant confronting a mouse.’ (Grant.)
It has been taken ever since as a prime example of hubris, of what happens when materialist ambition replaces spiritual transcendence. And of the Gothic overreaching itself, its aim exceeding its technical possibility. As the moment when the Gothic faltered, having either reached the limit of its technology (Viollet-le-Duc’s view), or lost its nerve.
I enter, through the great, magnificently-carved south transept doors, look up, and – it takes my breath away. The choir soars and soars. Window above coloured window (so high it cricks my neck to look up) fill the chancel and apse with light. It reminds me of the exaggerated drawings of Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey; in fact all such Romantic ‘Gothic’ exaggerated drawings. But this is no exaggeration. It is so. There is no nave, it doesn’t exist, it never happened. All there is is the mouse of the Romanesque church. But the choir and transept rise and rise in a defiant upreaching. Even as it is, supported and wedged up with great baulks of timber, it is touchingly magnificent, ‘untidy, unfinished and unstable, bold, brilliant and beautiful, it soars triumphantly above its almost fatal flaws.’ (Grant.) It is stunning, incomparable. I turn and turn, move through its vastness with head up, trying to absorb its size. But it is one of those places (Delphi is another) that is always greater to the eye than in the memory, bigger in reality than the imagination can invent. Close your eyes and it shrinks. Open them and there it is, itself. Murray calls it ‘the architecture of transcendence’. Grant adds, ‘Few sights in France are more ridiculous, more touching, or more splendid. Its parts are very interesting, but the whole is overwhelming, and for that you will need a plane ticket.’ It has to be experienced.
Picardy in the twelfth century was very wealthy, more populous than today, its wealth based on the revolutions that, with heavy plough and horse power increased agricultural production especially of wheat, and with wind and water power added new sources of energy. Wheat and textiles were hugely profitable. The cathedrals ‘represent the financial investment and the aspirations of the ecclesiastical aristocracy, and the local magnate families from which they were drawn.’ (Murray.) The clever trick on the church’s part was to get the wealthy families to spend that money, in the thirteenth century, on cathedrals. (As the clever trick of the ‘military-industrial complex’ of the 1950s was to get the US government to spend tax ‘surpluses’ on rocket ships and travel to the moon.) Beauvais has been called ‘the swan-song of the ecclesiastical aristocracy’. Not because the Gothic had reached its technological limits, nor from a loss of nerve, a fear of having gone, in God’s eyes, ‘too far”. But because of the costs and effects of the Hundred Years War and the Black Death in the fourteenth century. It represents not a limit of an idea, or of a technology, but a high point of wealth.
And yet. As I escape from the rush hour traffic, and cycle, in the long-shadowed light of a June evening, towards my bed for the night, along the quiet road beside the Thérain flowing its soft, chalk-stream way between willows and grazing cattle, I ponder again the Gothic.
I understand why Edward Thomas writes that, when in a cathedral, ‘I feel I know why a dog bays at the moon’. And lines from two songs come into my head as I cycle: ‘They’ll never reach the moon, at least not the one we’re after,’ and ‘Man has invented his doom, first step was touching the moon’. Wasn’t the Gothic as spiritually egotistical as the moon landings were intellectually egotistical? Isn’t there something both overweening and illusory in the pointed arch’s reaching up, in not accepting the round arch of the firmament, the circle of the heavens, the stars as scintillations of the beyond, in equating physical light with spiritual light? Dante could not have written his Commedia in the Gothic North.
It is, of course, the argument between those who see man’s restless questing as his great gift: that he should exercise to the full, that if he thinks it, he must do it, the earth (and the heavens, and even heaven itself) his laboratory and estate; a process in which mistakes will be made, but can be rectified by the same process that made them. And those for whom his questing is, if not his curse, at least a very mixed blessing – that the problem is not man’s power but his judgement, his discernment, his inability to stop, to say ‘no’. That he (we) should be, both mentally and physically, working to find his (our) ‘place in this world’, rather than forever inventing new worlds. Raised with one view, temperamentally inclined to the other, it is something I have yet to resolve.
I am cycling, in this evening light, along the valley of Thérain, just after its junction with the Avelon, south east on the Eagle Line. Robert Coon developed the image of the flight of an eagle from Glastonbury Tor to Spread Eagle Hill at Shaftesbury to express a geomythic landscape connection between the two towns. I noted that the line, continued on the same bearing, arrives at Delphi, the spiritual centre of ancient Greece, the omphalos, the navel of the world. Delphi was where two eagles released by Zeus from the ends of the earth, met. Close to my night’s stop the line crosses Robb’s Celtic Meridian (click on Meridian tab at the top of this page) at Mont César, ‘a major oppidum of the Bellovaci tribe, and almost certainly the tribal capital.’ I pass the ancient dolmen of la Pierre aux Fées, the stone of the fairies.
Lindy Grant, reviewing Stephen Murray’s Beauvais Cathedral in Speculum.
Edward Thomas, The South Country, p5.
Robert Coon, Spheres of Destiny.
Robb, The Ancient Paths, p76.