Bordeaux from the Gironde estuary

Think of something that mesmerises you. It might be a moment visualised vertically instead of part of a horizontal continuum, one that probes and reveals. Time passing might be visualised like a weft of horizontal threads weaving through the taut, upright threads of the loom – the warp. The upright warp punctuates them, immobile.

When I visited Bordeaux a few years ago and stood on the southern shore of the Gironde, the wide estuary that separates the two towns, I sensed the weave of centuries: the movement of our human ancestors from the rift valley in Africa through the present-day fraught territories Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and there separating: eastwards to China and across the Bering Straits, then part of the same landmass, into the Americas, or westwards along the parallel rivers flowing east to west in the south of France.

Some must have been navigated by those cave dwellers who left some of the earliest, even the greatest, cave paintings. A legend has it that the Christ child sailed to Glastonbury in England. He was taken there by Joseph of Arimathea, the figure who shapes the great Florentine Pietà, sculpted by Michelangelo to be his tomb monument. He was the trader who is said to have paid for Christ’s tomb.

Around 310 BC a Greek explorer, Pytheas, discovered tin and copper in alluvial deposits in Cornwall. It was known in the Roman world for these metals that formed bronze, and bronze resists corrosion. Across the Gironde estuary on the northern shore are the ruins of an earlier Roman town on an even earlier settlement. If Joseph of Arithemea did sail with the Christ child from the Gironde to Cornwall, did he travel to this estuary from Jerusalem overland along the river valleys in the south of France like our ancestors from the rift valley in Africa? They may have whiled away the long winter nights by painting the animals they needed to hunt on the walls of the caves – a way to capture in imagination the prey they needed for their own survival? Their art might give them a better chance of success in their hunt for survival.

Joseph of Arimathea is an enigmatic figure that intrigues. A generation after the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, he made his legendary journey with the Christ child to Glastonbury in the ‘leg’ of Cornwall that sticks out into the sea in the west of England. Christ is said to have touched the thorn bush there which flowers miraculously in winter – another intriguing thread in the tapestry of history.