Virtual Tour De France #1: CALAIS

01 - Calais

Last Spring, barely two months into The Pandemic That Still Isn’t Anywhere Near Over, I was so anxious about not being able to travel back to England or anywhere that I developed an insatiable wanderlust. I literally wanted to go everywhere. At this point I wasn’t even going to downtown Davis, I was Staying At Home, Sheltering In Place, Locking Down. So I travelled all over the entire island of Great Britain, something I’ve always wanted to do, and drew it all in one sketchbook, and then wrote silly things about it on here like you do. It wasn’t a real journey of course, same as everything it was Virtual, all done by exploring Google Street View. 66 sketches, because 66 has some magical significance in Britain, or some parts of it anyway (I was hoping 21 might supersede it but oh well). I explored a lot more than I actually drew. You can see an album of the whole thing here. Anyway it was such a fun journey of discovery of my native island that I decided I needed to do another one. This second one was done last summer, much shorter, all around Dublin, home of my forebears and countless distant cousins. That one is here. “So where next?” I thought. I wanted to do a tour of the whole of Europe. Maybe it would be narrower, following only the places I visited on my 1998 round-Europe-on-the-trains trip. That’s a really good idea actually, I might as they say “put a pin in that one”. (Why do they say that? Do they want to burst their balloon?)  But no, I have always dreamed of doing a proper tour of France, or “Tour the France” as they say. Great idea, I thought, and I can finish it by the time the real Tour De France starts and then post the whole thing with stories of my Virtual journey, mixed in with real stories of my own experiences in the Real France, not just the Made Up France (like Emily in Paris). I have a bit of ‘histoire’ with France, although it’s hardly ‘Year In Provence’ stuff. Except no, I did actually spend a Year In Provence, so maybe it is? Maybe – definitely – I don’t really know what I am talking about most of the time, but who does? Peter Mayle? I’m also called Peter, I’m also Male, so maybe I have more in common with him than I thought. I’ll tell you something though that I’ve not thought about in years – I started drawing again while I lived in France, and part of that might have been that I enjoyed the sketched illustrations in the copy of A Year In Provence that I owned at the time that I wanted to draw more myself. So anyway, I plotted out a doable tour of France that would fit into one single sketchbook. I wasn’t going to use the same format as before – these would all be bigger, maybe more detailed drawings across two pages, same dimensions, so that they would all connect. Great idea, I think I will be done in about a year. Where to start? The Great Britain one started in London, ended in John O’Groats, but you can’t start a Tour de France in Paris. You have to end in Paris, cycling up the Champs-Élysées with a sketchbook and a baguette under my arm. For someone from Britain, there is only one place to start, and that’s Calais. So that’s where we begin our tour. And just like passport control and customs checks since the B-word happened, it’s taken us a very long wait to get here.

And of course, today is le 14 juillet, 14th of July, known to us as Bastille Day. No better day to start a tour de France than the French Fête Nationale.  

CALAIS, the first stage of the tour, actually used to be English. That is, it was ruled by England for a couple of centuries until 1558, before “Coming Home” to France (“England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away…” they sang). They called it the “jewel in the English crown” for some reason. Seriously the English monarchs loved it, mostly for its hypermarkets and duty-free ciggies. The area around Calais is called the ‘Pas de Calais’, which I assumed when I first learnt French was because it was the area that was ‘Not Calais’, like this bit’s Calais, this bit isn’t. I thought, surely the whole of France is Pas De Calais? Or the world? Or everything in existence? Those school day-trips to northern France with me were long, I can tell you. We never actually came to Calais on a school day trip, we did go to Boulogne though. I’ll talk about Boulogne next time. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually came to Calais, walked around, asked “où est la boulangerie?”, not once in my life, but I have passed through it so many times. When I used to come back and forth to Europe on the old Eurolines bus, I passed through Calais so many times on the way to somewhere else. That’s what Calais is, a wayfarer’s stopping off point. That bus would get off the ferry at Calais from Dover, the ferry I took so many times, early in the morning, late at night, middle of the afternoon, and the thing I remember most those first few times was the feeling that I was actually abroad. I had passed through the magical barrier from the usual normalcy of England, and now everything was in French, the signs were different fonts, the service station toilets were all different, and of course everyone spoke French, really fast. Not slow, like in Mr. Smith’s French class at school. There were water towers dotted around the Pas De Calais countryside, all unusual shapes and sizes. I will admit, I had no idea what they were for years. Its something you see in America all the time, but not something you come across too often in London. In northern France though they were exotic space-age sculptures saying “you are very, very far from home“, when in fact I was nearer home than if I went to my aunt’s in Norfolk. (though Norfolk always felt very, very far away when I was a kid, so not a great analogy). The thing that stood out in my memory of passing through Calais though was the unusually large clock tower, posing over the town and flexing its stocky neck muscles as it looks out towards England, 27 miles or so away. So that is what drew, the Hotel de Ville, a tall ‘tour’ for the first stop on the Tour de France. 

Once the Channel Tunnel started becoming the route of choice for coaches going over the English Channel, the days of me taking the ferry like in the 1990s were numbered. Now if I go to mainland Europe from London I fly, or take the Eurostar train. I will be honest, I will probably never visit Calais, jewel in English crown or not, it’s always in my mind been a place to go through to get somewhere better, even if the next place on this tour is Boulogne (which I always thought of as the less cool little brother to Calais, the Folkestone to its Dover). I miss the ferry though. It was a real transitional journey, seeing those mossy green White Cliffs get smaller and smaller, sitting in that big area with the bar and the comfy seats while your Eurolines bus driver recognized you from the bus and asked if you could carry in a couple of boxes of ciggies for him so he didn’t have to pay duty on them (actually happened; I told him “no I don’t think so mate”), going up on deck to feel the English Channel air on your face while someone nearby vomits either from seasickness or one too many G&Ts from the ferry bar, going back down to the vehicle deck when it was time to go and looking for where your bus was out of the seemingly hundreds down there, choking on carbon monoxide, yeah no I don’t miss the Dover-Calais ferry as much as I thought I did. Ok, so that is Calais – next stop Boulogne-sur-Mer…                 

oakland on sunday

Oakland Tribune tower

Despite living here in northern California since my twenties, I had never been to Oakland. Never! Well, I’d been through it on the BART, on the way to San Francisco, but that’s not the same. And we flew out of and back into the airport once. or was it twice? Also, on my very first trip to the US, way back in 2002, my future brother-in-law took me to a baseball game at the Coliseum, where we watched the Oakland A’s play against the Cleveland Indians. That was back when the Indians had their old ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo. It was the first time I had experienced American sport, and it was completely different from going to the football in England. There were families there, they all did this ballpark song after about the seventh innings, you spent most of the time getting food and beer, but they had TVs in the food line and the toilets so you could see what was going on, and then there were the garlic fries, an experience I’ll never forget. So anyway that was my only experience of Oakland, and since living in Davis, I had never actually been to Oakland proper, walked around, sketched. Why not? I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t go down to the Bay Area very often and usually just go to San Francisco, and occasionally Berkeley. Oakland was never talked about as “oh you should go to Oakland, yeah”, more “oh you should not go to Oakland, yeah”, usually making references to the murder rate. So I had just never been. That’s not that unusual really, I wasn’t actively avoiding it, just never got around to it. There are places in London I’ve never been. I’ve never been to the Thamesmead Estate. Bad example, actually, that’s hard to get to from north London and has a bit of a crime-y reputation. (So maybe it’s a good example?) Ok, well I’ve never been to Fulham. I’ve never been to Richmond Park. I’ve never been to Putney, supposed to be nice there, I’ve never bothered going. Further afield, I’ve never been to Wales. I’ve never been to Bournemouth, or the Peak District, or Hadrian’s Wall. So Oakland is just another place that’s just there, it’s not going anywhere, and I’ve just never really gotten around to going to. So a couple of weeks ago I decided fairly spur of the moment to put that right. I got on a train to the Bay Area (see my previous post if you don’t believe me), jumped on the BART at Richmond (and it was a very modern BART, much has changed in two years), and got out at 12th Street Oakland. It was a Sunday lunchtime, and was pretty quiet. You had the usual characters shuffling about that you get in any big city street, no more than Davis really, the fact it was a Sunday meant it felt a little bit empty of usual foot traffic. Not a lot of people come to hang out in downtown Oakland on a Sunday, like many American cities actually. I knew I wanted to go and sketch the tall tower of the Oakland Tribune (‘Tribune Tower’; not really used by the newspaper any more) so I found that, stood by a bus stop and sketched the top of it. I didn’t know what to expect of downtown Oakland, so I thought I could maybe draw this, look around, and if nothing else seems interesting I’d just jump back on the BART to Berkeley, which I at least already know. I ended up staying the rest of the afternoon in Oakland, just exploring a bit, and I’m glad I did because I found a few gems, and a vibe I don’t find in San Francisco, and certainly not Davis.

Oakland Fox Theater

I wandered about, not exactly sure where to go, having no real orientation for the area. There’s nowhere in downtown Oakland that anyone has ever recommended to me to go and sketch so I was climbing free solo. Ok, I wasn’t climbing free solo, I was walking around a few streets within a block or two of a BART station, I’m hardly doing the Appalachian Trail. I followed my nose though. I drew a fire hydrant (below) because they look a bit different, and you have to capture one wherever you go. Then I found the beautiful Fox Oakland Theatre, with the big Oakland sign, and found a doorway with some shade across the street to draw it in. It opened in 1928, but as the sign says it has been ‘dark’ since 3/13/20, that fateful day when These Unprecedented Times began. I always struggle to capture the grandness of a tall ornate theatre on a small Moleskine page, but it was too sunny to stand beneath it and draw with a sense of perspective so across the street in a shady doorway I hid. The building closed in the mid-sixties and was used only occasionally for a number of years, and in the mid-seventies they nearly tore it down and put up a parking lot. But Oakland knew what they had before it was gone, and so plans to Joni the Mitchell out of that old building were scrapped and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Eventually it was restored and refurbished, and reopened in 2009 as a concert hall. Now of course, still closed during the pandemic… but that’s changing, and on their website it looks like shows have been announced from September, people like Wilco, Judas Priest, and… Madness! Apparently Madness will be playing there next May. Wow! Might have to look into that.

oakland hydrant

I got hungry. I had passed a sign for “Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken” earlier, and that sounded good. I mean it’s World Famous so it must be good, right? I ain’t joking – best decision ever. I got a three piece meal of white meat chicken, and WOW it was huge, and absolutely delicious. This was no KFC, no late-night London pre-night-bus chicken, this was a lot of tender meat with the most amazing batter, spicy with the hot sauce but with refreshing coleslaw to offset it. I sat inside the restaurant (good choice, this would have been too big to eat out on the street), and the server was really friendly.  Made the whole day trip worth it. Gus's Fried Chicken Oakland

I wandered about some more. There are lots of murals in downtown Oakland, particularly in support of black lives matter, and black rights movements in general. Oakland is a well known African-American community city and many prominent black figures have come from Oakland, such as Ryan Coogler, the director who made Marvel’s Black Panther (the opening scenes of that film are set in Oakland) as well as Fruitvale Station. MC Hammer is from Oakland. Oakland is also the birthplace of Vice President Kamala Harris. I wandered around a few blocks, looking for something to draw. Outside a bar there was an open sir seating area fenced off, with loud music playing. I saw that there was a drag artist singing (actually miming) and dancing along to songs from Madonna and the like, putting in brilliant colourful performances. It looked like there were several performing one after another, not to a big crowd, just a few seated people drinking, but it was pretty magnificent to watch. It’s Pride Month, I think it was related to that. So I listened to the music and drew nearby, this old building on the corner of 15th. Further down the street, I came across a small gallery that was closed, but the name jumped right out at me: “Burnt Oak Gallery“! It was clearly meant to be. I didn’t have a lot of time until my BART back to Richmond (they aren’t too frequent on Sundays), and I got the train back to Davis having finally checked Oakland off my list, and I will be back for more of that fried chicken.

Oakland 15th and Franklin 060621

(36) Cambridge, (37) Norwich, and (38) Skegness

GB 36-38 sm
I’m not doing East Anglia any justice. It might not be as dramatic as Wales or as culturally diverse as London, but there are lots of places to explore, immense amounts of history and legend, and despite geographically not being that far from London it sometimes feels far away and distant. At least that’s how I usually felt when going there as a kid, but even now Premier League football teams in London will often fly to games in Norwich rather than take the coach. So in this virtual tour I am really rushing past this important part of England, just stopping off at a couple of places to say hi before heading into the north of the country.

First up is Ely, a small cathedral city in Cambridgeshire. Ely might be small but the cathedral is huge, and I’ve always wanted to go back there and draw it. The first time I was in Ely was in 1995 visiting my friend Jacki for the day, looking at the cathedral, the river, Oliver Cromwell’s house, the shops, and the Woolworth’s, but not the Little Chef which I had heard a lot about, before I caught my train back to King’s Cross; I think I stopped by Ely again briefly a year later, but memory fails me a bit. I do have a few sketching friends in Ely now and have wanted to get back there for a while to draw that cathedral, but I’ll have to make do with virtual sketching for now. The Woolworth’s is long gone, as is the Little Chef I expect. Ely is in the Fens, and the name probably comes from the “isle of eels”, or so I was told at the time. The Fens are a flat and marshy landscape, spreading out across northern East Anglia right up to The Wash. They bring to mind the great Anglo-Saxon hero Hereward the Wake, who held out against the Norman conquerors (who probably called him “The Wake” as an insult like online trolls now dismiss people as “Woke”). Hereward the SJW led a virtue-signalling rebellion (or was it a radical left riot?) against the freedom-loving Normans who had come to England in 1066 to create jobs (building castles, chopping heads, harrying norths). They didn’t have Twitter in those days, just scribes who used no punctuation whatsoever (so a bit like today). It was here in Ely that Hereward made his stand against William the Conqueror’s Normans, who even brought along a Witch, an actual Witch, in a tall mobile wooden tower to try to freak the English out with magic and spells, though that didn’t work and the English just set fire to the tower (true story). The isle of Ely (as it was an island in those days) ultimately fell, and Hereward escaped to live as an outlaw in the Fens, with his brothers Thereward and Everywhereward (not a true story).

So that’s Ely, now it’s time to head into Norfolk. I decided to miss out the Suffolk part of East Anglia, which is a real shame as the countryside is really nice there. Think Constable, Gainsborough, and the others. I needed to get to Norwich, the biggest city in East Anglia and a place that has a lot of childhood memories for me. My aunt Pat lived in Norwich when I was a kid, in a house next to the big Heath with lots of my cousins. We’d visit them from time to time, this house with what seemed like so many rooms, even a basement (I still get excited when a house has a basement). When I was seven I spent a few weeks staying up there with my aunt when my little sister was a baby, mostly playing with my cousin Daniel, speeding down the steep slope of the Heath on bits of cardboard box, playing Star Wars, going to see Superman III, eating out at a place called Zaks. My cousins were Jehovah’s Witnesses so I remember bedtime stories being stories like Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, which didn’t give me nightmares but made me really wonder about the physics of that. I think I still have the book of those stories my aunt gave me somewhere. Speaking of salt, when I was visiting as a kid my cousin Daniel decided to pour loads of salt into my orange squash, to see what would happen. I remember saying, this tastes funny, and he told me what he’d done. Oh ok, I said, and I kept drinking it, assuming it was some Norfolk thing. Then we sat down for breakfast and I erupted in vomit like Mount Vesuvius, all over my older cousin Debbie’s nice leather jacket. Daniel got in trouble, I just kept throwing up, but the lesson learned was don’t put salt in orange squash. The last time I visited Norwich was when I was 15, we popped by to see my aunt and to my cousin Denise’s. I still have a lot of family around Norwich and Norfolk, I wish I had the time to pop by and say hi to them all, and Norwich would be a fun place to explore and draw. I chose to draw Jarrold’s, the big department store in the centre of town, I vaguely remember my cousin telling me about it when I was a kid, but I don’t know if I ever went there.

And finally in this spread, we leave East Anglia but stick with the flatter Fen counties, going into Lincolnshire, on the other side of the Wash. This is the coastal town of Skegness, traditionally seaside holiday spot on the North Sea. Since I missed out all the other east coast seaside spots like Clacton, Walton-on-the-Naze, Great Yarmouth, Caister, Sheringham, I had to include Skeggy, though I have not been there myself. I drew the clock tower on the seafront, and you can see in the background there are several fish and chip shops. There seem to be so many chippies around here, and that is a very good thing, I think you always need a good fish and chip shop nearby, it’s a requirement. Being northern and by the sea the fish and chips are bound to be pretty good. When I think of Skegness, as with many coastal towns, I think of chalet parks, caravan parks, chip shops, arcades, bingo, sticks of rock. We used to stay in chalets at holiday parks in Caister as a kid, and we would go further north on the other side of England to the Pontins resort in Southport, near Blackpool. We would also go to a caravan park in Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, and occasionally to Camber Sands on the south coast. But never to Skegness, always just a bit further away, most Londoners wouldn’t head that far, again unless they went up to Blackpool. “Skegness” as a name sounds very “Danelaw”, and the name does come from Old Norse, with Skeggi either being the name of a Viking or just a word meaning “beard-shaped”, with “Ness” being a coastal headland. What’s the Danelaw? That’s the portion of England that was cut diagonally across the country in late Anglo-Saxon times that was effectively taken over by the Vikings, in short. You’ll find a larger number of place-names of Norse origin, lots of -thorpes and -bys and -holmes and -nesses. Looking at the map as I take the virtual trip I see a lot more of them popping up the further we travel up this way.

But next up, we are heading west again, to Lincoln and further inland.

a couple of days at cal

UCAAC 2017 sm
Recently I went to Berkeley for the annual UC Academic Advising Conference (UCAAC). I’ve been going to this conference most years since 2007, which was hosted by UC Irvine at the Disneyland Hotel. Each year a different UC campus hosts the conference and this year Berkeley got the chance. I sketched the opening remarks at the morning breakfast, before the break-out workshops began (fun note: I won a Starbucks gift card for this sketch!). The theme this year was ‘Building Bridges’, because, as you know, lots of bridges near here. The Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Carquinas Bridge, loads of bridges. But yes, yes I kept thinking if Ian McKellen’s Magneto delivering his Magnetoesque line from X-Men: The Last Stand: “Charles always wanted to build bridges.” He said that as you know just after ripping the Golden Gate Bridge from its base and dumping it on Alcatraz for some reason. I love Magneto.
berkeley bancroft ave may2017 sm
This sketch of Bancroft Avenue was drawn early in the morning, after getting off the train. There is always a lot to sketch in Berkeley.
berkeley sather gate may2017 sm
Such as Sather Gate. This is a very ornate gateway on campus, and I did draw it many years ago, but wasn’t happy with it at the time, so I’m pleased to report, I like the newer version. There were quite a few students in graduation garb walking around taking photos, as you do. It was that time of year. Below, I drew a detail of the gate. Making a heart.
berkeley sather gate detail sm
I did those between workshops, but I also did a bit of sketching after the final workshop on day two, when I wandered campus a bit after lunch. Below is the University Library, which is just a massive, grandiose epic structure. A lot of UC Berkeley is like this, full of grandeur, far more than UC Davis. Berkeley is Davis’s parent school of course, with UC Davis being founded as Berkeley’s offshoot University Farm. Our library is also massive, but this one looks far grander.
berkeley uc library may 2017 sm
Below is the Sather Tower, the large campanile (bell-tower) at the heart of the Berkeley campus. It’s nice up the top of there by the way. I just had to draw it again.
berkeley sather tower may 2017 sm
And the fire hydrants. Like in Davis, the city has a different colour hydrant from the campus, but unlike Davis, it’s the campus that has the yellow hydrants while the city has the white ones. I know! You don’t care! But I think that is funny. The yellow one there is outside the Playhouse on campus, while the short white one is on Shattuck Avenue next to that discount bookstore.
berkeley yellow hydrant may 2017 smberkeley hydrant may 2017 sm

not something distant and unfound

aix: place de l'hotel de ville
Day two in Aix, and I awoke to the sound of thunder and rain. A big storm was washing over France, and while the rain stopped the moment I stepped out of my hotel (thanks, rain!), the air was soupy. My head was a bit soupy too after going to O’Sullivan’s the night before, but after a pain-au-chocolat and an escargot (the pastry, not the actual snail) I felt right as, well, rain. I had avoided sketching the clock tower outside the Mairie in the Place de l’Hotel de Ville the day before, mostly because I ran out of time just saying that sentence, but I wanted it to be the first thing I sketched in the morning. It’s the iconic view of Aix, it may even be required for all visiting artists to sketch or paint it at some point. This spot is just around the corner from where my then-future-wife lived when we started dating, so there were lots of happy memories walking up there. The three flags outside the government building incidentally are the French flag (in the middle), the flag of Provence (red and yellow), and the flag of the European Union on the left, which at the time of writing still existed. I’m jesting of course, but all this talk about the Eurozone falling apart brings back more Aix memories. I was living in Aix at the time of the changeover, when we all gave up our Francs and Deutschmarks and Lira to take up the exciting new Euro. It was exciting too; while my bank account had been formally in both Euros and Francs for a while (as it had been when I lived in Belgium a couple of years before), now we could get to use the real thing. The first thing I noticed, prices tended to get rounded up. We all knew the rate between the Franc and the Euro but with new coins, well, makes sense monsieur. Secondly, no fake money. I probably came across a counterfeit Franc at least once a week before January 1st, 2002, but in the first months of the Euro everything was real, or at least nobody knew how to spot the fakes yet. Thirdly, on trips to other Eurozone countries, no more exchanging currency. It was a happy, innocent time. On this trip however, I was having a great time with the Euro being so weak against the Dollar. I came back to the US thinking, man I should have spent more. But my time was short, my bag was small, and so I spent time on sketching.
aix: cathedrale st sauveur

This is the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence. I love to sketch a cathedral, but I hadn’t planned on sketching this one because, my ratioanl went, I had drawn it already, about thirteen years ago. Never mind that I draw things again all the time and quite a lot has changed about my drawing in the past decade or so, I just didn’t fancy it. And then I got there and I’m like, well if you must. I love this building. It is gorgeous inside, dating from the twelfth century, but there were prior churches and maybe even a Roman temple on this site long before. It’s up the hill from the old town of Aix, nearby to where my wife was studying when I met her. There are a lot of visiting American students in Aix, especially around here. I did go to a party not far from here once, at an American frat boy’s apartment, though I had no idea what a frat boy was at the time. There was a lot of drinking, but I studied in England so that was hardly unusual (I thought them relatively sober in fact). For some reason I remember having a conversation with someone about how Robert de Niro is a terrible actor, and the guy who hosted had a map on his wall where every visitor could put a pin in the place where they were from. Fuzzy memories.

aix: forum des cardeurs
Do you see that sky? Do you see how dark it is? That’s what happened, all of a sudden, as the storm clouds rolled back in. No rain, just heavy, ominous skies. I decided to skip eating lunch at the Forum des Cardeurs, a long sloping square full of restaurants and old rooftops where I used to eat quite regularly. Sketching before eating I’m afraid; well, Prima Pasta, whose seafood pasta dishes I always enjoyed, have big covers over all the outdoor seating now to make it feel more ‘indoors’, so no nice views to sketch while waiting to eat. I made do with a Quick later on instead (that’s the French fast food place, and nice it is too). Those clouds did look ominous though. While I sketched, two guys in their car got blocked in the square by another car which had decided, in typical southern French fashion (yes, you know what I’m talking about) just park directly in front of the only exit to the square, as if, huh no biggie. These two guys honked their horns patiently, quick toot at first, then a longer one, then a seriously-come-on one, then repeatedly, until when nobody came they just got out, exasperated, and looked at the offending car over and over. No car owner came. Shoulders were shrugged, ladies and gentlemen, shoulders were shrugged. They didn’t think to call anyone to remove the car. Now if this was England, there would have been a lot of swearing, letters would have been written to the Daily Mail, LBC would have been phoned in, the license plate would have been named and shamed and if the owner ever turned up it would have been curtain-twitching at twenty paces. Well the driver did eventually saunter by, a very earnest “oh, désolé“, another shrug, and the two stranded blokes just casually waved it off to say, no problem, you’re here now. And that was it, all very laid back. That little scene pretty much summed up a lot of how I remember people here in Aix. Time just happens, and that’s that. My barber in Aix, who famously never gave me what I wanted but always came up with a better variation on my very unimaginative hairstyle, used to spend half the time cutting my hair and half the time chatting away to people passing by in the street. Time is different here.
aix: bechard calissons, cours mirabeau
That said, time was getting on. I had time enough for one more sketch before getting my bus to the TGV station. I went to the Cours Mirabeau and sketched Bechard, the Calisson makers. Bechard is a lovely sweetshop which specializes in Calissons d’Aix, small almond-shaped sweets made from almonds and dried fruits, similar to marzipan but a bit nicer. This is the traditional Aix candy and yes, I brought some home.
place d'albertas
And then it was goodbye to Aix! Well, au revoir. An all-too-brief trip, but a nice reunion. I don’t know anybody here any more, but I still know the city, and that is enough. Aix-en-Provence was the city that changed the direction of my life, set me on the path I am now on, both personally and artistically. It’s so far away now, but still there, for when I need it. I got on my bus to the TGV, and within seconds the heavens opened with an enormous downpour – perfect timing you might say! It could have been a bit more perfect though – my bus got stuck in absolute standstill traffic on the autoroute, caused by the thunderous storm. Panic set in. Sacre bleu, I thought, I’m going to miss my train to Strasbourg. Traffic wasn’t even crawling, it was just stopped. But thankfully I made it, and the train itself was delayed – more fortuitous traveling. I settled onto the packed TGV, and zoomed north through the impenetrable grey.
DSC04554

Next up: Strasbourg!

Actually no, next up is a map of Aix plus a little post comparing Aix sketches from twelve or thirteen years ago and now…

the mother of all parliaments

parliament square sm

Parliament Square! Click on the image for a closer view. After sketching the Royal Court I went back to Westminster, and stood in Parliament Square to sketch a panorama of the Palace of Westminster, that is, the Houses of Parliament. I know what you’re thinking, I spent a lot of time sketching the tourist attractions this time and not enough time sketching little newsagents or hidden side-streets, but they are all to come, don’t worry. When I passed through the frankly impossible Parliament Square I thought, well why not. There really is a lot of traffic around this square, and not many crossings to get into the middle; it’s never been one of my favourite places. But in the golden sunshine, what a spectacular view! When I was a tour guide I loved the turn into this square, it was almost cinematic with Big Ben (yes I know it’s the bell) and centuries of history unfolding all at once. We’ve had a parliament here since the thirteenth century, though most of the Palace of Westminster – including the Clock Tower (that houses the bell Big Ben), now officially called “Elizabeth Tower”, being renamed in 2012 after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee –  was built in the 1800s by Sir Charles Barry after the old palace burned to the ground. The oldest part of the building is Westminster Hall, built by King William II (William Rufus) in around 1097. That’s the part with the big sloping roof.

The square is, naturally, a popular place for protest movements. On the left is Parliament Street which leads to Whitehall, many of the British government buildings are located here. Westminster Bridge leads off, over the Thames; in the distance there you can see the Shard, tallest building in Europe. I’ve included the statue of Winston Churchill which, I was told when training as a tour guide, is actually electrified with a low voltage to prevent pigeons from sitting on his head. “We will fight them on the statues.” It’s hidden away a bit but you can just make out the statues of Oliver Cromwell, former Lord Protector, a strange choice for a statue outside Parliament because despite leading Parliamentary forces in defeating the Royalists in the Civil War, he did also shut Parliament down as and when it suited him too. On the right hand side you can just about make out St. Margaret’s Church, the parliamentary church; on my old tour I would joke that it was a place where Tory and Labour MPs would go and pray together but not the Lib-Dems because they haven’t a prayer, tee-hee, well times have changed now haven’t they. This church backs onto Westminster Abbey.

parliament square bigben sm

Here’s a close-up. I worked in Westminster Hall once back in the 90s, serving tea as part of a catering job I was working on (it if I recall rightly a Jewish single’s night organized by the MP Oona King). I remember walking about the amazing building, seeing where William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace was tried before his execution, wandering about the old stone corridors and hearing voices echoing down the stairwells. I went to the toilet, and remember the booming sound of Big Ben making me jump, opening the window and seeing the large clock face right there. I do love this old building.

Here’s a map showing whereabouts I stood. After this, my drawings were done for the day, and I spent the rest of the afternoon mooching around bookstores.

westminster map

high time for chocolate

SF Ghirardelli Square
Here’s another from San Francisco. After sketching the Balclutha, I stood on the corner of Beach and Larkin to sketch the sloping view up to Ghirardelli Square. You’ll know Ghirardelli as a famous chocolatier, and they do make really nice choccies. I even treated myself to a delicious hot fudge brownie sundae after this drawing, setting me back a cool $10 but ermagerd, it was good, so good. This place is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. I coloured this in later – I had stood there long enough, and there were plenty more things to draw. I also added a map into my sketchbook showing the locations of my sketches so far – there it is below. You will see a lot more of these maps from now on, as I have decided to paint little maps accompanying my pages. Let’s see how long that idea lasts. anyway, I do have more San Francisco sketches to come, I have just been very lazy with the scanner…
SF map

empire building

courthouse santa rosa

I hope you are all having yourselves a Merry little Christmas. Mine has been very nice, one long Lego-building bonanza. We’ve been over to Santa Rosa a couple of times to visit family, and on one afternoon before Christmas I went downtown to do a bit of afternoon sketching. It has been quite sunny here lately. This is the Empire Building in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, built in 1910. Christmas shoppers bustled about getting those last minute stocking stuffers.

all around the clocktower

crouch end, london

A bigger, more complicated drawing for the previously mentioned amazing pen. This is Crouch End, an area of London we lived in for three years. This is the clocktower at the junction of Crouch End Broadway. This took a while. The Old Crown pub one I drew before took just under an hour, while this took several hours, spread over a couple of evenings and a lunchtime, but it’s bigger and more ridiculously detailed. I haven’t drawn a mega-tiny-detailed street scene in a while, and of course I’m playing with (and draining all the ink from) this incredible pen. It’s like the elder wand of pens, it just feels so nice to draw with that i want to keep drawing.

Drawn with uniball signo UM-151 on Canson classic cream drawing paper (first time i’ve used it since getting it at last year’s portland symposium), size is a bit shy of  8″x8″. I think I’ll do some more of these.