The water is high in El Tajo and roars beneath the Puente Nuevo, dropping to the lower gorge in a ragged chute where the valley opens up below me into an open vista, ringed by mountains – gloomy today but spot lit here and there by a half-hidden sun. I’ve come down to stand on a ledge in the cliff side and wait for the light; sunbeams on the horizon edge closer as the heavy cloud cover oozes overhead. I want to catch it as it passes over the arches of the bridge, illuminating them in golden light against a backdrop of stormy, dark grey sky.
It happens for me eventually – a less-than-perfect result, not as impressive as the image I’d created in an expectant mind’s eye, but worth the wait. When I photograph I spend a lot of time like this: waiting, walking, chasing the light, letting it come to me. If I don’t get the shot I’m after I get another one, or just some time to be still and unwanting. When I get this one I walk further down to the base of the two hundred and twenty year-old bridge – the newest in town – and pass underneath it. The gorge is as dramatic, looking up from here, as it is looking down from up there and the river is loud – the lulling cacophony of big water, rushing through its looped and syncopated rhythms.
I’m glad to be down here because although I’m a fairly regular visitor to the town I’ve never made the descent on this side. My mental map of the place is expanded; I feel as if I’ve got to know it a little better. This isn’t a typical visit – I’m here without K and in the company of two English lords, two English ladies and a gaggle of their offspring. Three generations of nobility from the sceptered isle. As the soul of discretion I couldn’t possibly disclose my connection with their lordships, but I will say this: in keeping with my standing amongst these two families they have requested that I be ‘unobtrusive’. Since I’ve been exactly that for a full forty-one years I’m happy to comply. Problem is, when it becomes an imperative it’s a little like being asked not to think about the colour red, and that’s another reason for me to enjoy being alone down here, breathing a little easier while they go off to dinner.
Not that they’ve been anything but civil towards me. Lord F is, quite literally, adorable and may well have been written by Evelyn Waugh. His personal style was evident from the outset as M introduced us.
“Lorf F, can—“
“Can I present R—“
“Splendid. Very good!”
“He’ll be taking—“
“Yes. Very good.”
“…a few photos—“
“Will he?” looking at me.
“You are clever. You won’t take too many, will you?”
“Very good. Well done!”
And that was that. From then on, whenever he spotted me he would either tell me how clever I was or how well I was doing. A kindlier man I have never met and it would be wrong of me, I suppose, to caricature these people or tar them with so coarse a brush as the ineloquent ‘posh’.
But I will say this – on the train south tomorrow a conversation will take place in which names like Catherine Howard and Ann Boleyn are bandied about as if they were old friends of the family. “Battle of Blenheim!” someone will exclaim fondly, as if it had been a lovely day out. Most of us, I think I’m safe in assuming, would draw a distinction between the history of kings and queens on the one hand, and social history – the study of what life might actually have been like for real people in the past – on the other. For this family, it’s pretty much the same thing.
There are three bridges that span the gorge. The one I’m standing beneath is the most impressive, joining old Ronda with the newer, larger town close to El Tajo’s highest point. Further back are the Roman and Arab bridges – lower, smaller and older. All three will have played crucial roles in their time, both providing access and limiting it. Once the Puente Nuevo was completed in 1793, the town was free to burgeon on the other side where today the visitor will find most of Ronda’s amenities – the shops and schools, the fire house and health centres, the outlying industrial estates, the parks and stations.
On the original side of the bridge is the old town, tiny and visually intact. Another world, its narrow streets and pleasant squares persist, enduring as the world changes around them. There probably isn’t a prettier town in Spain. My experience with the lords and ladies makes an apt comparison – here I am in the company of a family who seem to me so redolent of the past and yet here they are, hopping on and off the bus on guided tours, planning meals (or having them planned) and buying souvenirs. For a couple of days I have access, though limited, to what is for me another world, and they emerge from what I’m sure are the most rarified of circumstances for a trip down the tracks of their family heritage. There’s a beautiful old railway that links Ronda to the coast. This family built it.
Quite something, then, to join them on the train as it trundles south. On the platform, M will explain to Lord F that I’ll be taking my leave of them in Algeciras and that I’ll send a link to an online album of photographs over the next few days. The patriarch will look at me in astonishment.
“You really are a magical fellow, aren’t you?”
“Wonderful thing of course, technology,” he will add as he turns back to the family, “as long as you can get it to work.”
In Algeciras they’ll wish me a very gracious farewell and deposit me back in my own life. They’ll be off to a gala dinner to celebrate the reunion and I’ll be off for a frozen pizza with K. It would be too easy here, of course, to take a parting shot at their cloistered and gentrified customs.
But I will say this – their meal will be coat and tie and it turns out they refer to the seating plan as the ‘placement’ (French pronunciation) which amuses M and I no end. Back in Tarifa I’ll still be feeling a little disorientated as I sit down to my quatro quesos with K.
“Very good!” I’ll tell her.
[tweetmeme source=”@RobinJGraham” only_single=false]Follow @RobinJGraham