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  • A Ravello cosmology

    d90bdef7d7adb48f05426defcccb2f3b.jpgViolet Trefusis urged: 'be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but live the gamut of human experiences: build, destroy, build up again! Let's live as none ever lived before, let's tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back'

    Some of her wickedest and most intrepid moments may have been at the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Italian Amalfi coast, where I took a recent holiday.

    Trefusis (1894-1972) partied there with her lover Vita Sackville-West. Other guests in this medieval fantasy villa were Forster, Strachey, Keynes, Woolf, Lawrence, Henry Moore and TS Elliot - and even Garbo conducted an affair here. The marvellous garden is thought to be partly Sackville-West's work. Villa Cimbrone was built in 1905 by Ernest Beckett, 2nd Lord Grimthorpe, with the help of his tailor and valet, Nicola Mansi, who went on to become the village's mayor.

    d1de9a92f007692ce367b899482206e4.jpg Gide said Ravello was 'closer to the sky than the sea'. The centre of the village is perched on a ridge of volcanic tufa which rises 335m above the sea. Inside the duomo we saw a phial of St Pantaleone's blood. In a letter Cadinal Newman wrote in amazement that "the blood of St. Pantaloon... is not touched—but on his feast in June it liquefies. And more, there is an excommunication against those who bring portions of the True Cross into the Church. Why? Because the blood liquefies, whenever it is brought". In the garden at the Villa Cimbrone we took a long walk through tall umbrella pines - the 'Alleé of Immensity' - to the 'Belvedere of Infinity': a stone parapet with white statues and a dazzling view of the entire bay of Salerno. In 1917 Grimthorpe was buried close by, beneath the temple of Bacchus he created.

    Celebrity connections with Ravello don't stop at the Villa Cimbrone. On an inaccessible ridge directly below it is La Rondinaia, built in 1930 by Mansi for Grimthorpe's second daughter. Until infirmity forced him to move back to the US, it was Gore Vidal's home. A local told us how he used to sit in his wheelchair in Ravello's main square, entertaining visitors with his wisecracks and belying his local reputation for cantankerousness.

    5b4a0aa366df70d6ef113767404b5fa1.jpgWe ate lunch in the garden of the Villa Maria, one of three hotels owned by Vicenzo Palumbo. The patron himself was in orange trousers, idly tending flowers while his staff ran the place for him. With two others he has bought La Rondinaia, reputedly for more than £10m, and plans to turn it into a Vidal museum and luxury hotel.

    Set below La Rondinaia is a church dedicated to the twin saints Cosmas & Damian. We visited on a long walk from Amalfi. I took no photos inside, since this was so evidently a living church: we passed two frail women walking with difficulty up the steps to the church for the evening service.

    Cosmas & Damian practised as doctors in Asia Minor in the third century, and taking no money for their cures, drew many to the faith. During Diocletian's persecutions they were tortured to death. Their relics became popular with pilgrims and in Ravello many have left ex-voto offerings in gratitude for medical cures attributed to the patron saints of medicine.

    e9f3ebaeac0ac4df25b61c2a63ccffe5.jpgHundreds of silver plaques represent every part of the body thought to have been healed by the saints: legs, and arms, teeth, and breasts, hearts and brains all cut out in silver and hanging on red silk in glass cases.

    Besides the Villa Cimbrone, Ravello's other jewel is the Villa Rufolo, also with gardens designed by a Briton. Rufolo is a half-ruined 13th-century palazzo, the venue for highly successful arts festivals. The garden inspired Wagner's dream of a magical garden in Parsifal.

    On our last night on the Amalfi coast we heard a clarinet and piano recital at the Villa before walking down the hillside to our accommodation in Minori, right by the sea. The twisting path took us down steps through lemon and olive groves, across the echoing porchways of several ancient churches and finally past Minori's necropolis, glimpsed through high gates, each decorated with skull and cross-bones.

    563082b9cbdfb6a7ea4df493b4ba66ff.jpgThe walled cemetery was bathed in blue light. Three terraces, one stone slab set into the wall for each family, lines of slabs stacked so high that a ladder is needed to look after the photos and flowers and the little electric light that burns night and day on each. With the scent of ripe figs and the tufa grey soil in the air we descended happily to the moonlit sea.

    One evening just before dusk I walked down to the beach at Minori. The passegiata would soon be in full swing: that special time in the evening when ordinary Italians dress up and go out for a stroll and to chat. On the beach a few kids kicked a football about, but I was the only swimmer. The sea was warm, the surface calm. I swam out 100 metres or more from the shore. Just above the town a blue neon cross marked the cemetery and beyond I saw the line of white lights - like a string of twinkling pearls - marking the path all the way up to Ravello. Higher up there were lights at SS Cosmas & Damiano, too - an orange glow that floodlit the cliff above. Higher still I could even see La Rondinaia - floodlit with a steady bright white light - and thought I caught a glimpse of the fabulous belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone.

    82cab754f31585c33b9a9565686f42c9.jpg On the beach, feeling a cool breeze, I showered and changed. Someone asked me if the water was cold. 'Not at all - it's warm!'. Feeling content, I suddenly remembered Homer's magical line about the 'wine-dark sea' and watched an almost full moon shimmering silver on its surface.

  • Crematorium loses organ


    On the other side of the river used to live a retired Doctor who made good money as a Crematorium Medical Referee. He gave permission for thousands of cremations until it was his turn to go up in smoke. A friend's father was a worker there, once the electrically operated curtain closed around the coffins. Another friend had a summer job at the Crematorium, cutting the grass on the remembrance lawns. He joked about the corpses rising out of coffins as the furnace lit, and the taste of ash in his mouth as the mower trimmed the grass. The crematorium is a smooth-running production line, twenty minute slots, one entrance for the bereaved, another exit, the next party already lined up outside.

    While some make their living out of it, most of us like to avoid thoughts of death. In plague-ravaged 15th century Europe people felt differently. Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) was the most popular block-printed book. It gave simple instructions on how to meet death, avoid temptation, and make a triumphal entrance into Paradise.

    People often say how quiet it is at night here, since we are less than three miles from Reading town. But the night is far from silent: aircraft into Heathrow, motorbikes along the main road, and late night trains, slicing the air, tearing down into Brunel's great cutting, four years to build and four lives lost.

    At around 3.30am these sounds fade. This is the 'dead of the night'. On a windless night, you may just hear the clock on the church tower strike the hour. Most nights there is only the river, falling five feet over the weir. This is white noise, indifferent and unchanging, seemingly endless - the roaring sum of all sound and the sound of nothing.

    In the crematorium chapel, there is a different kind of quiet, almost solid silence, stifling. Dark oak, the lectern and pews, and an organ. At my aunt's funeral a friend played Jerusalem for us at the end of the short service. William Blake's words, written in 1804 as a preface to his epic poem 'Milton'. Blake recalls the myth of a young Christ in Glastonbury and looks to a second coming when paradise will be attained. The music by Parry, for a rally of the votes for women campaign in 1918, with orchestral elaboration by Elgar.  The organ played loud and strong, drowning our voices, making our hearts pound, filling the silence, and for a moment, there was hope.

    What a pity it would be if the authorities were to strip out the organ and replace it with a juke box for hymns.

  • Walking away the past on Dartmoor

    4f0befed01ba6c68904076a87ee8b763.jpgThe three of us are walking on Dartmoor on a dull day in early September. We climb up from Burrator Reservoir, with its moss covered boulders and lichen covered trees, to a spot high on the bare moor where we picnic beside Crazy Well Pool.

    249e642156492e48a1cb7d7411c64854.jpgThe local legend says that the icy water is bottomless and that an attempt to plumb it once caused the loss of not only all the bell ropes of the local church (they had had been knotted together) but also of the church bell.

    Edward II's favourite Piers Gaveston is said to have concealed himself there: "Where lags the witch? / she willed me wait / Beside this mere at daybreak hour, / When mingling in the distance safe/ The forms of cloud and tor. She comes not yet; tis a wild place - / The turf is dank, the air is cold; / Sweeter I ween on kingly dais, / To kiss the circling gold;" (from a 19th century poem by the Revd John Johns). They also say that early in the 20th century a young soldier drowned in the Pool and that it whispers the name of the next person from the parish to die. No wonder that under a grey sky, the water looks uninviting, almost viscous, only faintly rippled by a strongish breeze.

    One of us remembers other times on Dartmoor. He’d taken countless parties of schoolchildren on this exact route. Once they'd been stalked for an hour or more by squaddies, playing a stealthy game of peekaboo behind the trees, always just out of sight behind them, until they’d revealed themselves at this very spot.

    Beyond the lake we walk along a fast running leat (or stream). The map shows it improbably following the hill's contour lines. This is part of a scheme started by Sir Francis Drake to provide Plymouth with drinking water. Channelled and embanked, the leat rushes down to an aquaduct before the water is directed through a pine wood to feed the reservoir in the flooded valley below.

    cdb528c56218b4cd6642e90ca8df27a0.jpgThe walk back breaks away from the stream and follows a roughly paved track through forest. There is a clearing where the River Meavy races over granite and limestone boulders beneath the ancient Leather Tor Bridge. Two massive slabs of granite form the bridge’s central pier, and like other clapper bridges, the whole structure is held together by its own weight. Roughly shaped boulders, some now locked together with iron staples, make a parapet. Where once there was a ford, there is a wide expanse of shallow water beside the bridge.

    As the afternoon light fades, the ex-teacher sits and remembers his last time at the bridge. Listening to the water rushing and gurgling, wrapping itself round the stones, it is almost as if he hears the children’s voices again. High cries as the kids dash across the bridge and down to sandy spot ideal for paddling. They’d been told not to go in the water – and of course they had. For the briefest of moments, the early evening’s uncertain light is transformed into bright sunshine, a dozen or more children seem to climb excitedly over the old stones of the bridge, calling to their friends in the water below.

    d465a6fe2c1d06c729f6591cf7de2330.jpgIn a draw somewhere, other photos record the scene: the children happily playing and the staff, freed of their charges, chatting in the sunshine. But now there is a faint chill in the air, and it is time to drive home.