A brief History of Toulouse

Toulouse sits in the region of France now known as the Midi-Pyrenees, halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It is an ancient city with a long and proud history.

France, Toulouse, TravelstripeBridge over the Garonne, Toulouse

The first Toulouse was established at a ford on the banks of the River Garonne long before Roman conquest. At the time of the Roman Empire it was the third largest city and the intellectual centre of Gaul.

After the fall of Rome and after the rise of Charlemagne, as the County of Languedoc, the region enjoyed a long period of peace, prosperity and independence from the rest of France. Toulouse retained its reputation as a centre of culture and learning from the 5th to the 13th centuries and its courts, which were considered the most civilised in Europe, gave rise to the literary and musical traditions of Languedoc and the Troubadors.

In 1229, threatened by the Toulousain Cathar heresy, which they believed was a result of too much freedom of thought and independence, France invaded and brought the region under its heel. With the Treaty of Paris in 1229, it became a French Territory. In 1271, to quell further heretical tendencies and to promote orthodox religious philosophy, the French Inquisition established Toulouse University, which is now one of the oldest in Europe.

Toulouse and its surrounds were largely untouched by the upheaval of the industrial revolution and it remained, until the 20th century, a somewhat isolated, tranquil centre of agriculture and culture. It was not until after Clemont Adler made the world’s first aeroplane 20 kilometres from Toulouse, that the region made its first venture into industry. It established an aircraft factory. France’s first flight was made from Toulouse by team of fliers including native Toulousain Antoine de St Exupery, who also continued the region’s literary tradition with his famous works Vol de Nuit and Le Petit Prince.

Today, Toulouse has a population of 117,000. It is the 5th largest city in France and the largest in the Midi-Pyrenees region. It has grown out from that ford on the Garonne and spread along, away and out from the river on all sides. The aerospace industry is thriving. Toulouse is now a major centre for the European aerospace development and is the headquarters of the Airbus and of the Galileo positioning system. With the aerospace boom has come enormous growth. Between 1960 and 2000, the population doubled and the city developed into an impressive modern metropolis.

Still, the Garonne still flows quietly under old arched bridges of pink stone. Fish jump in the bright green water and on the flat grassy banks patient fisherman watch for a twitch on their lines. Boats full of tourists and commuters chug slowly along the river and the canals which cut across and through the city.


Greyfriars Bobby

Edinburgh is a city rich with stories. Its ruins speak of lost glory days, its castles of the might of great kings, its solid city buildings of prosperous commerce, its narrow winding streets and rows of terraced houses whisper with the histories of ordinary folk and its monuments tell of heroes great and small.

Grayfriar's Bobby
Grayfriar’s Bobby

While Greyfriar’s Bobby is probably Edinburgh’s smallest hero, he is also one of its most famous. Bobby and his story are known across the globe and have inspired countless other dog stories, books and films, including such classics as Old Yeller and Lassie. Bobby is often the yardstick against which many of the worlds’s smartest and most devoted dogs are measured and “S/he’s another Greyfriars Bobby”, “s/he’d leave Greyfriars Bobby for dead” and “s/he’d give Greyfriars Bobby a run for his money” are often heard phrases in canine appraisal.

I must confess that until I spotted his statue outside the Greyfriars Bobby Bar, I hadn’t known that Bobby was an Edinburgh dog. Furthermore, when I thought about it, I really only vaguely knew his story. It’s a poignant, moral tale and one worth the telling.

John Gray came to Edinburgh from the country, with his wife Jess and his son John sometime in 1850. Unable to find a job in his usual work as a gardener, he became a night watchman for the Edinburgh Police and was assigned to the area around Greyfriars churchyard.

As nights on the beat were long and lonely, John took as a companion a little Skye terrier which he named Bobby. Over the years, Bobby and John became known to everyone in the streets around Greyfrairs and in the local Coffee House where they were daily customers.

Sadly, in 1858, John died of TB. He was buried in the churchyard which he had patrolled for the past eight years. Just as he had been John Gray’s constant companion in life, so Bobby continued after his death. Day and night, he lay at his master’s grave-side, moving only at the sound of the 1pm gun, when he would run to the Coffee House for a meal. For weeks the keeper of the graveyard tried in vain to take Bobby home with him. Finally, he realised that the dog would never leave his master, so he built a makeshift shelter beside the grave and this became Bobby’s home.

Bobby’s story spread throughout Edinburgh and every day at one o’clock a crowd would arrive at the gates of Greyfrairs Churchyard to watch him dash off to the coffee house for his meal.

In 1867 the Edinburgh Council introduced a by-law that required all unlicensed dogs to be put down. Bobby, it seemed, was doomed. But the Edinburgh public immediately rallied to save him. Sir William Chambers, then Lord Provost paid his license and presented Bobby with a collar fitted with a brass disc on which were inscribed the words “Greyfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost, licensed in Edinburgh”.

Bobby kept up his vigil at his master’s grave for fourteen years. He finally passed away on the 4th of January, 1872. Bobby was denied a final resting place next to his master in the consecrated ground of Greyfriars but was buried instead outside its gates within sight of the grave.

The monument to Bobby was the initiative of Angelia Georgia Burnett Coutts of the Ladies Committee of the Edinburgh RSPCA. Its inscription reads “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all”

The story of Greyfriars Bobby is not just a story of a loyal and devoted dog; it’s also a story of the generosity of spirit of the people of Edinburgh at the time and the value they placed on loyalty and devotion.


Lightning Weekend in Edinburgh

The trouble with lightning weekend visits is that there really isn’t much time for anything. This is a shame when the place is one you’ve never visited before and will probably not have the opportunity to visit again. It is a double shame when the place is peopled by kindred spirits and is as historically interesting and as dramatically beautiful as Edinburgh.

Edinburgh city is small, featured by imposing stone buildings, glimpses of distant steep green hills with jutting rocks, expansive green parks with spreading trees, ancient ruins, spectacular monuments and castles.

A piper on Edinburgh's Royal Mile
A piper on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Edinburgh is hilly, with labyrinths of lanes and passages with worn stone steps. The best and the best way to explore it is on foot

We took the touristic walk up the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace at one end, to Edinburgh Castle at the other, missing one extraordinary Edinburgh opportunity after another as we went.

There wasn’t time to see the weaving exhibition at the Tartan Mill and a run round two of its four floors threw up a dozen or more fabulous knitted and woven wonders that we couldn’t possibly carry in our limited luggage. Over at the road at the Whiskey House, we just missed the tasting tour. We didn’t have time for the tour of Edinburgh Castle and missed the famous Tatoo by a month.

We did our best to re-cap at least one lost experience and ducked into a bar half-way down the hill to sample some real Scottish Whiskey. Highland Park was the recommendation of the Texan Barmaid and a very good recommendation it was too.

With a wee bit of fire in our bellies we wound off down the hill, passing a statue of Greyfrairs Bobby and a bar of the same name, through the Grassmarket and Fountainhead and finally to hallowed Rugby Ground at Murrayfield.

A hint of the village in Harpenden

Just 40 minutes from frenetic St Pancras Station, lies peaceful, picturesque Harpenden.

Harpenden High Street
Harpenden High Street

It is a sizable town, with all the trappings of modern urban life – supermarkets, chain stores, phone shops and consumers to go with all of that. Yet, on my visit to Harpenden I discovered places and people that make me think of the kind village life I had found in novels a long time ago on the other side of the world.

When we arrived at mid-morning on a drizzly late autumn day, Harpenden Station was completely deserted. We set off down a sloping, curved and empty street towards the town, coming to rest in the first lit and populated shop – the Oxfam Store. Racks of damp-smelling tweed and stout shoes, glass cases crammed with one-short sets of sherry glasses and shelves stacked with travel books suggested that the good folk of Harpenden are fond of winter walks and arm chair journeys with a fortified wine. They are also painters, or at least collectors of paintings and it was near a pile of gloomy oils that I met my first Harpenden character. Carelessly groomed and shabbily chic in shades of peat and moss, with a voice like the Queen, she was commanding a bemused young lass to authenticate a dark, foreboding landscape. When the girl shook her head helplessly, she left the shop with an exasperated snort and slammed the door behind her.

We ambled on down to the corner, past the post office, past rows of small, old world buildings, where modern businesses had taken a tenuous hold – Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants, dress shops full of shiny stuff, a gelati parlour and a boulangerie/pattisserie – and from which idle personal stared vacantly at the street.

Round the corner in the High Street, we found the church and in the church, a cafe, offering morning teas Monday to Thursday and lunch as well on Friday. It sounded cosy, almost “villagey”. Inside a matron in a floral apron served us piping hot tea and buttery scones. At table near the counter, a tiny old lady, with a booming voice that belied her frail, stooped frame, shared a postcard with the vicar.

A few doors down from church we came across a piece of old Harpenden, a piece, in fact, of a lost world – the tobacconist. Dark, small and with a deliciously exotic mixture of smells, its corners were crammed with stands of canes, shelves of cigarettes, cases of cigars and packets of sweets.

Further along, Sainsbury’s holds half the block. Here, we came across the Oxfam art connoisseur again. She was shouting at a shelf-stacker. Across the road a Café Nero had the corner. We headed into the back streets where there were quiet cottages, greens, graceful manors.

Harpenden, as we had already half guessed from the racks in the Oxfam shop, is the departure point for some wonderful walks. One follows the Ver River, another skirts the Moors and another crosses the Common. They all follow routes marked with fascinating names, like Sopwell Nunnery, Smug Oak Lane, Frogmore Pits and Jack Williams’ Wood. Unfortunately we were unable to tramp out these paths. We discovered them at the Harpenden Library, under the sharp gaze of a stern-faced Librarian in brown tweed and brogues, just before our 5.30 train left for London.