It has been almost 20 years since I first traveled away from America, my first real vacation anywhere. Certainly it was the first one I had planned, and the first one as an adult. It was a lot better than trips to Disney, even as a ten year old!
In 1996, I took my first trip to the British Isles.
I am attempting to write this trip report ten years after the fact, from my memory and about 6 hours of video I took while there. Bear with me!
I had always loved anything to do with the British Isles, be it an Irish accent or British food (really!). However, as a student I was always on a tight budget, and never really thought I could go over there for a visit.
One day I was browsing a local metaphysical store, and came across a flyer advertising a trip to England. Not just a trip to England, but a ‘Week getting in touch with the Mystical land of Britain’! (They are still doing this, for information click the above link) Well, that was right up my alley! And when I looked at the price, I realized it might actually be doable after all. Soooo, I started the planning. I’d never traveled on my own, not even to Disneyworld, so this was quite an undertaking. There wasn’t a lot of internet information available in 1996, either!
I ordered some brochures from British Airways, Brennan Tours, and Virgin Atlantic. I decided that I could do one of the Fly-and-Drive packages through British Airways, and that would get me flight, a rental car in Ireland for three days, as well as B&B vouchers for that time, and a couple days in a London Hotel. The other week would be taken at the Earth Spirit Centre for the official week tour that started this all.
I got my passport application done, and started saving the cash for the trip. I was really going!!! I had a boyfriend, Andy, but we couldn’t afford both of us, so I was on my own.
I ended up getting the package together, getting all the details taken care of, and I would be flying out of Miami on a Friday night. WOOHOO!!!
Friday, August 2nd
The flight was relatively uneventful, on British Airways. I was greatly impressed by the quality of the airline food at the time, having heard such horror stories in the past about it. I was very happy to get scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam in the morning – it tasted heavenly!
Saturday, August 3rd
Once I was in Heathrow, I immediately got on the plane to Dublin, as that was where I was starting my journey. In Dublin I rented a small car (very small!) and plunged into the world of European driving. No one told me then that Dublin was a bad place to learn, so I just jumped in. I was able to make my way from the airport south into the town, find a convenient parking spot near Trinity College, and go!
My first order of business was lunch, but I don’t recall now where I went – probably some lunch counter or pub. I have a vague recollection of a pastry and sandwich shop somewhere near the statue of Molly Malone, but I could be wrong :
I believe the next thing I did was go by Trinity College, to see the fabled Book of Kells. I was rather nervous, as this was the first time I’d see a true historical artifact up close. I wandered into the college itself, and noted the crowds of students littered on the grass, around the ‘do not sit on grass’ signs.
The building housing the Book of Kells starts with a gift shop (of course!) and leads you into an incredibly well-done museum recounting the way the book was made – the inks, the paper, and the incredibly detailed art. I was duly impressed by the Celtic knotwork blown up to about 30″X40″ – even at that side it was delicate… the original being about 4″X6″!
I wandered around that area for a while, drinking in the wonderful information and rich visual displays, and then went through for my glimpse of the actual books, which is kept under glass, with a different page displayed every day. After the book room, you were led into the incredible Old Library, which had two stories of books just crying out to be read. The antiquity of the place covered you like a velvet curtain of fine dust – it was lovely! I was getting a shot of the old Irish harp (oldest one existing) when the guard told me I couldn’t film in there. Ah well, I got a good shot of it before that happened. It’s one of those places that book-lovers dream about for when they win the lottery… the place calls to my literary soul. I liked the library more than I did the book of Kells :
I wandered around the campus some and took note of the differences between this campus and that of my college at home, Florida International University. This was Ireland’s oldest college, begun by Elizabeth I, and it showed in the architecture. The students were much the same as anywhere, I suppose – though a lot more bike riding could be seen. I remember especially being impressed by the monument in the center, and its cupola architecture.
I went out to explore the city and decided to take one of the hop-on/hop-off tours of Dublin to get my bearings, and see what the place had to offer. I rode through the close-packed streets of Dublin, seeing modern buildings next to Georgian townhouses, ivy and glass becoming roommates. The day was sunny and bright, quite warm really. The sweater I had put on early that morning spent the rest of the day around my waist.
The streets were labeled with their names in both Irish and English, and the pronunciations sometimes sounded similar when you said it out loud. The spelling was never even close!
The river Liffey, at low tide, is little more than a mud flat. However, as this is a tidal river, it is teeming with brown when the tide does come in. There are several lovely bridges crossing it, including the Ha’penny Bridge.
We passed row after row of identical Georgian houses, all with different brightly painted doors and rounded window arches. The story is that men were too drunk after a night at the pub to know which door was the right one unless it was painted a bright, strong color (red, blue, etc.). I don’t know if the story is true, but it certainly makes sense!
The tour continued on into Phoenix Park, where we saw the Wellington monument, the place where the Pope visited in 1979, with 1.2 million Irish, and the Phoenix zoo. The park was incredibly large, and I, being used to the sorry excuses for parks in Miami (who needs a park when you have a beach?) was fascinated.
We passed the Guinness storehouse, though I wasn’t interested this trip in such a tour. We went by Christ Church and St. Patrick’s cathedral – a beautiful structure. I discovered my love for European churches at that moment! Looking up into the flying buttresses and elegant leaded windows, I knew this was true beauty.
Then, in the graveyard, I saw my first Celtic cross, and I felt at home. OK, so I’m morbid – I love graveyards. No, I take that back – I love gravestones.
I waved at a truck driver when we stopped, and he smiled and waved back : As the bus passed by pubs and tourist traps, restaurants and statues, churches and people, I realized I was really there – I was in Ireland!
Amid the noisy motorcycles, the shush of busses, and the singing of brave birds, I found the magic of Dublin.
Oh, and for those that doubt it, there really IS a pub on every corner!
I had to drive north of Dublin into the suburbs to find my B&B, but that took all of five minutes. Dublin itself is a rather small city, for the capital of a country, but the suburbs sprawl out. It’s dead quiet out there, though – and my B&B was no exception.
It was a small house on a row of identical red brick houses, but it was a room with a bath down the hall, and that’s all I required. It was on a one-way dead end road, not far from the coast. Of course, at low tide that coast is again a mudflat – I got good film of this.
I went back into Dublin that evening, and stopped off at the place where they help you in genealogical research. I don’t recall the name of the place, but the waiting room had one wall covered in family crests, while the display tables housed antique armor, weapons, and documents. There was a very impressive regalia of the Order of St. Patrick, complete with cape, sword, seal and all the accoutrements. There was even a crown for it, with little shamrocks in gold around the rim.
The genealogist couldn’t help me much, as most of my Irish ancestors were from centuries ago, before they had consolidated records, but I enjoyed my time there, and appreciated his help greatly.
I don’t recall where I had dinner, but I likely had something while I was still in Dublin. Tomorrow I was heading north!
Sunday, August 4th
I headed up the M1 going north to tonight’s destination, Navan. The road was two lanes each way, and surrounded by farmland. I stopped and gazed out at the ocean a couple times as I drove up, seeing quaint cottages and listening to 1980s music. The towns and villages were always centered around a church steeple, and the buildings were usually painted in bright or pastel colors. I got stuck in one town in a traffic jam, mostly caused by lunch time traffic and a church wedding on the ONE street out of town (it was evidently surrounded by river). I think it was Drogheda.
I stopped on the way to visit Newgrange, and got a ticket for an hour and a half hence. Therefore I went ‘next door’ to visit the other Neolithic mound site of Dowth/Knowth. I said hello to several sheep who were studiously ignoring my attempts to make film stars out of them, and amused myself by filming very old farmhouses and incredible vistas of rolling, gentle farmlands. Oh, I filmed my car, too.
In Knowth, you were able to actually crawl into some of the stone mounds, and it was quite cool and very quiet there. You could almost see the people that used to live there, hiding their food in hidden holes, carving their marks on ancient stones. Some of the marks resembled serpents, and are said to be representations of the River Boyne that winds through that valley.
When time came for my venture into Newgrange, I went back to the site. I was a bit early still, so I explored the surrounding grounds, including the small stone altar circle to the south, and the beehive style hut behind it. The hut itself was partially underground, and the colors of the stone amazed me. Living in south Florida, I’m used to coral and limestone, not good colored granite, sparkling with bits of mica in the summer sun.
The entrance stone to Newgrange, which many have seen in photos, is massive and ancient. The swirling designs make you realize that this wasn’t just a curiosity to the ancients. It took days, weeks of time to carve that complex design, at a time when time spent not farming meant not eating.
The actual chamber inside was very narrow, and not for the claustrophobic. Only about 10 people can comfortably stand, and it’s single file in the passageway. The stones are rough cut, but precisely engineered in placement, with a corbelled roof. The center chamber had several side chambers, possibly used for sacrificed ashes.
After exploring Newgrange, I went up to Slane Abbey, a ruined abbey I found just by driving by it, and seeing the spire reaching over the trees to peek at me. In America, a site of this age would have been covered by signs, a gift shop, a guide (which you had to pay for) and a video about the history of the place. Here in Ireland, you could just walk through the gate and explore. It was around 5pm, and the sun was just beginning to drift towards the horizon. I spent about two hours climbing the tower, reading the gravestones. The only sounds were my feet on the gravel and my cheesy Irish accent dictating to the video camera.
I climbed up the central tower, and remember feeling quite nervous about the tiny, wedge-shaped steps. They were part of a circular staircase, and appeared to have nothing supporting them but themselves. I made it (out of breath!) and was rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside, a bread basket of green blankets.
The abbey was surrounded by a low stone wall, made without mortar, and it looked like bones had been laid around the place, keeping the ghosts within. The roof I was on was rather curved, so I made sure to be very careful walking up there.
I made my way back down and explored the abbey itself, finding a half eaten apple and an empty can of soda in one of the monks’ niches. Evidently a recent occupant in the ruins!
By the time I finished my explorations, it was beginning to head towards twilight, so I figured I had better find my B&B (in Navan) and check in for the evening. I found the place, a lovely old farmhouse in the country, checked in, and met the dog while I walked the grounds. There was a barn and a perfect garden, and I felt rather alone – it was deadly quiet. My room was on the second floor, and had a lovely view of the field beyond it. It had two twin beds, as well as a sink for morning ablutions (the bathroom was again down the hall). It was a bit pink and frilly and lacy for my tastes, but I wasn’t consulted, so I smiled and went to town for dinner.
As I recall, I had dinner at a pub that had a restaurant upstairs, and it was rather good Italian food. I don’t recall WHAT I had, just that I liked it. I went downstairs to have a Baileys at the pub afterwards, but it was rather crowded and rowdy, with loud jukebox music playing, so I decided to go to the local shopping center to pick up some gifts. After that I retired back to the B&B for the evening.
Monday, August 5th
Tara and Powerscourt
This morning I awoke fresh and well-rested, and headed south to the Hill of Tara, where ancient Irish Kings have been crowned for millennia. I was there early, before any other tourists, and the place was magical.
Here is a quote of mine that was reprinted by Fodor’s in their Ireland 2006 Travel Guide:
“As I am fascinated by all history, but Celtic history in particular, the Hill of Tara was a must. I arrived early, around 9:30am. There was no one around, so I walked up to the hill and earthworks. I could see what looked like the whole of Ireland spread out before me, like a giant bowl of patchwork green farms. Warning: Here is where I go hippie and mystical! I could feel the power of the land coursing through me, like I was a conduit for the lightning of the island traveling into the sky. It was incredible!”
Again I was struck by the lack of commercialism that surrounded such a site, in contrast to how it would have been in the US. The hills themselves used to hold castles and forts, but were now merely earthen snakes upon the grounds, showing where there had been giants.
When the tour did start in about an hour, we were shown the different mounds, and their uses were explained. The Lia Fiall was there, a stone that was supposed to screech when the perfect king of Ireland passed over on his chariot. The king had to be perfect in mind and body, and when the guide mentioned this, one of the tourists opened his hands as if to say “well, here I am!” and everyone laughed. I also managed to get some rather good footage of my left breast, as I put the camera away (on my fanny pack) forgetting to turn it off.
After visiting Tara, I drove down into Wicklow county, and ended up driving through the mountains there. At one point, I was behind a logging truck, going uphill, which was a rather harrowing experience, as bits kept dropping off onto my car! I gave him a little more space.
The mountains themselves were serene… they were rounded on top, rather than rugged, old mountains worn by time and people. They had peat on them, as well as patches of grass and heather. I drove down, just choosing a road at random, and was delighted with the path I chose. I ended up at Powerscourt Falls, and had a picnic lunch there, with many of the locals. It was a beautiful place, with green trees and laughing children making the brook babble in answer to their cries of delight.
The narrow roads and sunshine playing on the mountain tops made me sad to live as a lowlander in Miami. I listened to the news in Gaelic and wished myself a life here.
I stopped by the side of the road to contemplate a waterfall under the bridge I just crossed, and saw the roof of a house close enough to touch with my hand. The house was built on such a steep slope that the ground it was based on couldn’t be seen through the greenery. Then I had to wait for the sheep to get out of my way on the road :
I made my way down to Glendalough, which has since become my favorite place in Ireland. Nestled in a valley in the Wicklow Mountains, St. Kevin knew what he was doing when he chose this place as his monastic retreat. The place was a centre of learning for centuries, and the grounds were covered in ancient gravestones, a round tower that rose like a beacon to the surrounding hills, and a lively river running through it all.
The graves that I could read were no older than the 1700s, but many were merely slabs of stone, leaning heavily against each other as if weary from the centuries. There is a huge rock covered in moss and bushes near the entrance, and it reminds me of a giant, eyeless muppet with its mouth open, ready to say ‘hello’ in a goofy voice.
I loved Glendalough, and have been back once, so I know it’s not a one-time love. It is serene, peaceful, and heavy with age. I go back whenever I can.
It was interesting seeing the gravestones as slabs on the ground, or propped up on ruined abbey walls, echoing the faint arch still seen in the broken stone. The magnificent Celtic crosses that dotted the landscape here gave mute testimony to hundreds of years of Celtic Christianity, surviving against invaders of all types and times.
After I left Glendalough, I realized that I needed to get up at the butt crack of dawn for my 7am flight from Dublin to London, so I decided I needed to get a small alarm clock. Unfortunately, I realized this in the late afternoon, and the area I was in had nothing resembling a general store to carry such a thing. I drove back towards my B&B, which was in Dun Loaghaire tonight, stopping at any possible place to find one. Finally, in Dun Loaghaire, there was a mall that was open, and I managed to secure a small, but functional alarm clock. Then, checking into my B&B, I found a perfectly serviceable one next to my bed. Ah well, better prepared than not!
Dun Loaghaire struck me as a quiet, quaint little seaside town with nothing much going on, but I enjoyed it as my last night.
I spent the evening on the shore, looking out over the rocks at the sunset. I watched a couple dogs playing down there, while I sat on the sea wall and contemplated my much-too-brief stay in the Emerald Isle. I didn’t know how London would compare, but it surely wouldn’t be as magical as Ireland. Would I be able to love it as much?
Tuesday, August 6th
When I arrived in London, I took the Heathrow Express over to my hotel, which was the Cumberland near Marble Arch. It was a very nice hotel, and I was happy to have gotten it at $90 a night through the fly-and-drive deal with British Airways. Having a landmark like the Marble Arch helped me always find my way home, as well.
After checking my luggage into my room, I wandered out a bit, checking out the local shops and breathing in the sense of the city. I went to Piccadilly Circus, decided that there was a reason that I wasn’t a fashion horse (prices!) and contented myself with window-shopping and people-watching.
Medieval Banquet at Hatfield House
That evening, I was slated for a very touristy Medieval Banquet at Hatfield House, but that’s alright – I was indeed a tourist. They collected us from a hotel around the corner from my own, and off we went in a tour bus. The guide spoke in both English and German, and translated back and forth throughout this tour and the one tomorrow.
The show itself was fun, and I had to keep reminding myself that, unlike our renaissance festivals in the US, they didn’t have to fake the English accents to perform! There was an actress playing Queen Elizabeth, one playing Sir Francis Drake, and people singing and telling stories while the tourists ate game hens and drank mead. The mead went to many people’s heads, and the gentleman across from me (and his wife) got very tipsy. They were from New Zealand, and were very nice – he got up on stage when they called for volunteers, and ended up kissing the Queen’s hand. For his troubles, he got a red ribbon in his hair.
Hatfield House itself was very impressive, made with red brick and half-timbered interiors. The wood carving on the furniture was intricate and amazing, as were the beautiful tapestries of hunting scenes, faded with the years from their formerly brilliant colors. I was a true renaissance festival-goer though… I paid attention to the costumes and fabrics!
As the drunken sots… uh, the tourists… made their way back to the coach, I saw the house glittering with lights, and realized we had just supped in the house Queen Elizabeth grew up in. I felt that weight of historicity again, tickling my sense of reality.
Wednesday, August 7th
This morning, I was able to take the hop-on/hop-off tours of London, again to take my bearings. The sites to see! This was LONDON, the center of the civilized world for centuries. This is truly the city that never sleeps. I was excited, nervous, and HERE.
The tour took to the normal sites, such as Big Ben, Parliament, the Globe Theatre, etc. I don’t remember much of it now, except noting where the American embassy was when we passed by, in case I lost my passport at some point. I soaked in the modern and the ancient, side by side in this conglomerate of culture. We drove by the Ritz, by the famed Harrods, and whizzed by historical architecture and green parks alike. The Georgian facades of houses weren’t as prevalent here as in Dublin, and more modern buildings peeked in through the aged stone works of Roman and Norman alike.
Thursday, August 8th
Stoke Poges, Windsor and Hampton Court
I took one of the black cabs to our tour collection spot, and chatted with him a bit about what it took to become a London Cabbie. Once there, we got on our tour bus, and headed out for a small church with our German/English tour guide. I wasn’t sure at first if the person was male or female, but decided she was female after listening to her a bit. I don’t recall now what tour company this was with, but it was an add-on through the British Airways package.
We first went to a small church where a poet had written some of his work, called Stoke Poges, (http://www.stoke-poges.com/ )on the edge of Buckinghamshire. It was a very nice little church, and the leaded windows let light shine upon the family crests adorning the walls and pews. Since I knew nothing of the poet ahead of time, I was somewhat lost when the guide started talking about him, as she assumed everyone was familiar with his work.
After Stoke Poges, we went on to Windsor for an exploration of the castle. We took a river boat cruise up the Thames, and they even cooked lunch on the cruise, which was actually quite good – grilled chicken, salad and veg. We went through several locks, and were able to see vacationers waiting on the other side to come through (including one with an almost-nude male sunbather on the roof!). We puttered by the half-timbered mansios of relatively famous people, and many others, as we traveled that watery highway.
Once at Windsor, they let us have a couple hours to wander, and I went down into the town and had my portrait taken in a sepia-toned photo, dressed in Victorian garb. That was fun, and I still have that photo! I wandered the quaint, cobblestone street and watched the girls in Victorian garb as they directed tourists to the sites. Windsor itself was majestic. They were still restoring sections of it after the fire 4 years before, but most of it was open, and very impressive. Being a collector of dragons, I derived considerable pleasure from striding through St. George’s gate, since it had a dragon above it (of course!)
I skipped on the long line leading into the Queen’s doll collection, and instead ogled the gardens, the guards, and the lovely weapons adorning every available surface of the walls. They are arrayed in geometric splendor, sometimes the weapons themselves cut or truncated to fit the spaces aesthetically. It impugned upon my sense of honor to see weapons abused in such a way, but I realized that the British Crown had plenty, and could use them as they saw fit, I suppose. Towers and towers upon towers, between towers!
The walls were incredibly thick and solid, and as I looked over the treetops and the river Thames, I imagined what it had been like, looking over this area to see an army advancing upon my stronghold. I felt humbled and insignificant compared to history, yet at the same time empowered by my physical position over the land.
After Windsor we went to Hampton Court, passing an equestrian class on the way there. We were given two hours to explore, and were basically told we could tour the kitchens or the house and the grounds, but there wasn’t really time for both. I was tempted to forgo the journey back and stay and explore, but I wasn’t brave enough (yet) to attempt the journey back on my own. There were three great courtyards in this place, each one a world of its own, and very impressive. I was most impressed with the clock within one of them, it had days, hours, minutes, seconds, months, phases of the moon, location of the constellations, everything you could think of. The sheer variety of wall coverings and drapery solutions amazed me!
I also saw a great family tree of the Stuarts, and endless wood paneled rooms, tiny four-poster beds, and paintings of hunting scenes and dead noblemen (and women).
I searched all the paintings I could find for one a friend had told me about – Sir Thomas Strange. This was an ancestor of hers, she believed, as when she saw it on display; she burst into tears for no reason. She thinks it may have been someone she knew in a previous life. She had known where things were in the place, without having been there before, so perhaps that was true. I couldn’t find her painting, but saw wondrous things all around me – from painted fresco ceilings with cherubim and fluffy clouds, to medieval bedchambers with raised four-poster beds and curtains – designed for people 5 feet tall.
I wandered the maze gardens, and enjoyed myself getting lost, and filming myself getting lost. It was great fun, and I was thoroughly lost when I realized I needed to get unlost rather quick, or my anxiety of finding my way home alone would become a reality. I managed to find an exit, and made it back to the bus with moments to spare.
That evening I went and had dinner on a boat that was moored in the Thames, just south of Big Ben and Parliament. I could see the glow of Big Ben’s clock face increase as the sun set and the darkness rose. The food was pretty good, but very high priced. However, this was my ‘splurge night’, and I just didn’t care! It was terribly lovely on the river, thinking I’M IN LONDON!
The next day I was off to an icon of London history, the Tower of London!!! What can one say about the Tower of London that hasn’t already been said? One’s own observations pale in the sheer impact of age, tragedy, history and power that this edifice exudes. This is where countless prisoners, political and criminal, literally lost their heads, some languishing for years before the final blow. This is where lions lived, and lovers met for the last time. Are there enough Ls now? :
I took the Yeoman Warder’s tour around the grounds, and thoroughly enjoyed their amusing anecdotes and cheerful delivery. I flirted with one of them down in the green, and then toured the tower that housed the torture devices. What fun for a medieval enthusiast! I giggled at the suit of armor that had space for the royal stiffie, and cringed at the ‘scold’s bridle’, thinking of how the sharpness of my own tongue would have landed me in that many times. I also noted how similar Henry VIII looked like my friend Lou :, I was incredibly impressed by the detail in the scrollwork and etching on the pieces of ceremonial armor – even that for the horses!
The crown jewels were less impressive, I think, because of the conveyor belt passing you buy, allowing you little time to gaze at the sparkling splendor. I tried to film it with my video camera, resting it on my stomach as if it was off (there are no lights on the front indicating it is on), but the angle was wrong and I only managed to capture the tops of the occasional royal scepter.
I wandered around a bit after that and imagined myself as a princess, locked in the Tower for some unimaginable offense, such as being on the wrong side of a civil war in the 15th century, and gazed over the grounds. I considered what it would be like if this was the extent of my allowable domain for years at a time, and counted myself lucky to not be so imprisoned.
After exploring the tower and every room in it I could reach, I went over to the underground ride on the history of London. It was cool, but for someone weaned on Disney, it paled somewhat in comparison for the quality of the dioramas. Of course, the historical information was far superior!
Saturday, August 10th
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
OK, it’s touristy and cheesy. OK, it’s expensive. OK, you usually have to wait a long time to get in. I didn’t — I breezed right in with only a couple minutes wait. I had never been to a wax museum, and was having fun getting shots of Mel Gibson and Henry VIII (and his wives). I enjoyed the horror chamber below, with the Jack the Ripper tableau, though I didn’t recognize many of the ‘inmates’ from British criminal history. I liked how they had the French Revolution area done, and the guillotine demonstration did startle me quite a bit!
After Madame Tussaud’s, I took a London Black Cab drive back to the hotel, just to say I’d taken a ride in one. The driver obliged me by chatting away about the sites, how long it took to study and pass the test to become a driver, etc. He was very friendly and garrulous. Then I had lunch at the hotel and wandered out to Hyde Park for some ‘down’ time. I people watched for a while, and met a young Algerian man who sat and talked to me for a while. He was had lived in France for a number of years as a cook, and was now working at a local restaurant as a chef. He was very nice, and we agreed to meet later to go dancing. Yes, I had a boyfriend, but I wasn’t out to do anything but have a fun night out!
I went back after more people watching and changed for the evening. We went to, of all places, a Brazilian Salsa bar and danced the salsa. Coming from Miami, I wasn’t exactly enchanted with this idea, but I had a great deal of fun, and then the young man walked me back to my hotel, where I thanked him for the evening, and collapsed in my room.
Sunday, August 11th
This was the day I leave London for Somerset, to join up with the other folks in the Mystical Tour of Britain group. I was to meet them at Heathrow, so I took a bus into town and found the place where the tour busses find you. Unfortunately, I forgot to call the tour-organizer, Eileen, and remind her that I was going to be there. See, I had shown up a week before the rest of the tourists in the group had, and they may not realize they needed to find me. So I was looking at each bus, getting more and more panicky, until about a half hour after the appointed time. Then I called the place I was supposed to be spending the next week (the Earth Spirit Centre), since this was before anyone had cell phones. I managed to leave a very panicked and heart-stricken message for the owner, and told him I would try him again in about a half-hour.
When I called back, David answered, and was a wellspring of calm and clear-headedness. He told me to simply take a bus out to the town he lived near (Street), and he would pick me up. I thanked him for being so kind and generous, and went to the bus depot.
The trip was very scenic, though a bit lonely, as I had counted on having this time getting to know the other folks on the tour. However, it allowed me to gaze at the landscape as it flowed by, getting more rural very quickly, with occasional bumps of towns and cities as we passed through the centres. There was one place where I had to change busses, but that was not a big deal, as the next bus left just 20 minutes later. I got to wander around the interior of the Bristol bus depot, woohoo!
As I waited for David at Street, I saw the cute symbol on the side of a bus – a cute little badger.
Oddly enough, when I arrived at the town, I was somewhat early, and it took David a little while (about a half hour) to arrive. I had just about decided to try to find a phone and give him another car, when he came striding towards me from a small red car, blond haired, young, blue-eyed, and smiling. He gave me a hug (I had sounded, and been, VERY distressed on the phone!) and welcomed me to the tour. I rode back with him in patent relief at having made it on my own, and got a small tour of the place before everyone else had arrived. You see, they stopped for lunch so got there AFTER I did : The village was called Compton Dundon.
When I arrived at the Earth Spirit Centre with my Knight in Shining Armor, David, I was very happy. It was a big farmhouse in a small town (just had one pub) that had been converted into a house for lots of folks. The upstairs were ‘dorms’ for about 8 people, and the outbuilding also had beds. The main house had a small kitchen (I think there was a larger kitchen in another outbuilding), a shower stall (with limited drainage!), a main big double room, and a meditation room. The grounds had small gardens and sitting places as well as a barn and a garage.
The main room had a hearth and several couches on one side, and a huge dining table on the other side. Above the hearth was the feature I liked most… a large green dragon made of papier mache coming out of the painted background of the wall. It was great! I sat dumbstruck for a while. After all, my name was Green Dragon – how else was I to feel but welcome?? The head and arms were 3-dimensional, while the wings, body, back legs and tail were painted on the plaster, in a scene of rolling green hills and blue cloud-studded skies. There were other dragons decorating the place, especially in the meditation room that was strewn with sitting pillows. The place was peaceful, rambling and welcoming, with stone exteriors and plaster/timber interiors. Some places, like the small pond garden, had wisteria tumbling over the roof into it.
After everyone else arrived, I got to meet Nigel, who was our bus driver, a very funny, dry-humored sort. I met the rest of the group, about 18 people – 7 women around my own age (mid-twenties to mid-thirties), 5 ladies of a more mature generation, 3 younger guys and 3 older gentlemen. We also met David’s German wife, Anna, and learned she would be doing all the cooking for the week (vegetarian cooking).
The girls that I was staying with were Maria from California, Rosie from Fort Lauderdale, and Cynthia from Fort Lauderdale. We stayed in one of the upstairs rooms with four beds, and decided to go exploring the area after we settled in and got to know each other. We wandered down the block and up to the church at the crest of the hill, noting on the way the thatched roofs and decoy ducks on the way.
This is when I first noticed the Brits obsession with gardens, and how each house seemed to have a perfectly manicured, brilliantly colored garden, no matter how small the space available would be. Lawn seemed to be a foreign concept here! I loved the smooth buttered shape of the thatched roofs, and the scattered, winding roads through the village.
We reached the church (St. Andrews) and were at once amazed by the massive, ancient yew tree in the church yard. A plaque on the wall of the church said the yew tree was estimated at being around 1800 years old! It was incredible, with ropy branches reaching down into the soil around the base, in the manner of banyan trees. The leaves were odd, though – they looked like pine tree leaves, with small green shoots from a main branch, in a row, rather than deciduous leaves. Part of the interior of the tree seemed to be rotted away, and had a space big enough for people to get inside for a rather thin person.
The church itself looked to be several centuries old, and the gravestones were very delicately and intricately carved. Several were obviously new, and had flowers adorning them from well-wishing relatives and friends. A few had this odd green gravel or glass in the front of them, perhaps for decorative means. Many were ‘table’ graves that looked like benches rather than gravestones.
Panning around the countryside and surrounding lands, you saw rolling hills, farmhouses, trees of all different colors dotting the land. It was a wonderful golden land in the late afternoon sun, with the shadows creeping farther and farther as we watched.
One tree in the graveyard seemed to rise up out of the ground like volcanic ash under the sea, bubbling up at an angle, with rounded leaves and branches. There were a couple gravestones that seemed to lean against its base for support against the ravages of time.
That evening, the younger generation decided to check out the pub – which was about a 20 minute walk downhill. We didn’t want to think about how fun it would be to walk UP the hill afterwards! 5 of us went down to the Castlebrook Inn, and I got my first taste of Somerset Cider!!! Ah, the golden nectar! Now I’ve never been a big fan of the bitter taste of beer. However, cider has recently become most popular. It wasn’t so at the time, in the States – this was my first taste of alcoholic, carbonated cider, and I fell in love pretty hard – especially trying to stand up after one!
We did some lip-syncing to Frank Sinatra, (the juke box was a bit historic), met some local chaps, and got relatively toasted. Debbie was sitting on one local’s lap, while singing ‘My Way’ into her thumb. Cynthia was giggling uncontrollably whenever one of the locals asked when we were going off to have sex. Rosie laughed out loud when they invited us to a disco. Not laughing at THEM, mind you, but at Debbie. Evidently she had actually packed a dancing dress, just in case.
They found out we were staying up at the hippie place, and they drove us back home to save us the walk back up the hill. We had had a blast, and were glad we could sleep in a bit the next morning.
Monday, August 12th
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and we met the resident dogs for some exercise before we were off on our first day of true sight-seeing. We all climbed onto Nigel’s tour coach, bags in hand to go see our first ‘mystical site’. We met our host, R.J. Stewart, http://www.rjstewart.net/, who was a published author of several books on Celtic Mythology, as well as a tarot deck. He was a rather short, stout man, with a great hat and walking stick that made him seem like a figure out of his own mythologies.
Our first trip was up to famed Glastonbury, ancient site of mystery from pre-Christian times to now. This is where King Arthur is supposed to be buried with his wife, Guinevere, and where fairies are supposed to reside under the hill of Avalon.
The group made their way up the hill (the short way!) and after many breathless steps (some more breathless than others!) we found ourselves at the summit, gazing at the chapel to St. Michael, built by the Christians to try to banish the pagan gods from their ancient shrine.
In all honesty, wonder at the site itself aside, it seemed rather pedestrian and touristy to me. Perhaps it was because tourists were literally crawling over the site, complete with picnic baskets and squalling children. Perhaps it was because I got stung by nettles as I tried to find one of the ‘hidden entrances’ to the underground passages. Perhaps because I was just bloody tired from the climb up the bloody hill!
I will admit, though, looking out over the landscape and realizing that it was called the Summer Country because it flooded into marshland during the winter made me feel rather humble, and seeing to mountains in the distance made me feel tiny. The patchwork of farms and trees, the occasional sheep dotting the hills, and the sheer vista of storm clouds and history made me feel breathless (not just from the climb)!
RJ and Nigel gave us lots of interesting information on the site, the history, the legends and the myths associated with the place. We went down to see Dion Fortune’s house and grave on the hillside (she’s an early Wiccan author).
Afterwards we went down to the Chalice Well and gardens, and enjoyed wandering the place for an hour or so. This was an incredible place, and I HIGHLY recommend a visit! It was utterly serene and peaceful. There are several different garden areas you can go to, each with their own feel and theme. The chalice well itself has an intricate ironwork design on the cover, with mystical symbolism in it. The water from the well is high in iron and you can taste the metallic infusion, and see it in the rust-stained fountain near the front of the gardens. Definitely a great place to go!
The next day was another adventure :
Tuesday, August 13th
Next we went to Wookey Hole, an ancient cave complex that has revealed several ancient Celtic artifacts, and is said to be haunted. There was an incredibly cheesy ‘witch’ shaped spotlight that was played across the ceiling of one cave while we were there, complete with tour-guide puns and commentary, but the limestone caves themselves were ‘sublime’ (OK, I did my own pun there!) The stalagmites and stalactites were slickery and slippery and all sorts of subtle colors. The layers of history formed beautiful designs, speaking to us from across millennia. This was my first venture into a real cave, and I enjoyed it a lot.
After the cave there was a paper factory and a little carnival room, with video games and tourist trap written all over it. The paper factory was actually rather cool, as they had a huge dragon made out of paper, in 3D on one wall. OK, so I’m a sucker for dragons!
After the spelunking, (well, walking along the wooden walkway in the cave) we drove up to Avebury Stone Circle. We wandered around, stone to stone, feeling each one. After making the circuit of the mile-wide circle, we found a place called the Devil’s Armchair, a network of tree roots that formed a throne shaped indentation. The wind was very strong through these trees, but despite that, RJ managed to play some very haunting tunes on his tin whistle, adding to the impression that we were wavering between worlds on the windswept hillside.
We also went to the fairy chaise, a stone that is supposed to transport you to the land of fairy if you fell asleep on it during midsummer’s eve. Not being the right time of year, none of us were able to test this theory, and I don’t think any of us would have been brave enough to try!
Avebury is a pretty amazing place, though I still felt much more inspiration and power while standing on the hill of Tara. Perhaps it was the village that is built within the circle, or the roads driving through the circumference – or all the people that were there with us. The stones are massive, though, and felt wonderfully alive.
Wednesday, August 14th
The next morning was Maria’s birthday, and we had a small get together for her before our daily adventures. We had breakfast and then moved on out. I must say here, by the way that the cooking throughout was very tasty. It’s the best lasagna I’d ever had, veggie or not!
We went into Bath today, and got to explore the spa a bit, but also had a chance to go shopping in town. Several of us decided that we needed some meat, and got sandwich fixings and some other meaty snacks. I noticed a gentleman playing the saw on the sidewalk, as well as some playing guitars in the street. I also struck up conversation with a tattooed sailor who was all too willing to flirt with me… and literally shoved a boy aside to be filmed on my video camera, the ham!
The spa itself was sumptuous, filled with exquisite carvings and ancient symbolism. RJ pointed out where he used to live when he studied the place, and we got to feel the heat from the pressure-heated water that formed the basis of the hot springs there. There were all sorts of artifacts that had been excavated throughout the complex, including offerings to the gods and curses/blessings left by supplicants to the shrines.
It was getting easier to believe that I was standing where generations of Romans and Britons had stood, enjoying the steamy swirls of sulfur-rich water on my face. Again, one could see how iron-rich the water was from the rust-colored stains on the rock faces.
At this point I’d like to mention RJ Stewart’s lovely wife, Josephine. She was of Irish Gypsy stock, and a fiery devil she was – I liked her instantly. She was a very strong woman, though all of 5’2″ I believe!
Thursday, August 15th
We had a local pagan artist come by with a lot of her prints for sale, and a lot of ‘locals’ joined us for the weekend festivities (mostly people from Britain, I mean – the original 18 were American). That night we were going to be treated to a slide show of the artist’s work and inspiration, but first some of our own – a beautiful, vibrant rainbow, across the full grey sky, decided to give us a visit. There was a hint of the double rainbow next to it, and it was quite beautiful. I think I even saw a triple! After that I filmed Nigel dancing and singing in the rain with his umbrella :. He reminded me a bit of Eric Idle.
I worked on the calligraphy for a new sign for the Earth Spirit center that afternoon for David. The bright day-glow green coloration should be very attention-getting!
Most of the local artist’s work was very symbolic rather than realistic, and I liked it a lot. However, as an artist myself I am usually unimpressed by another artist’s work – an annoying conceit on my own part. Her work was evocative, though, and inspired me a little bit.
Late that night, David, Maria, Cynthia and I chatted and listened to one of David’s friend’s Celtic music tape, and got a bit drunk on fine wine and good company. I rather regretted that I was attached, and so was David :
Friday, August 16th
We all woke up bright eyed and busy tailed (yeah, right!) the next morning, and were ready for a day of relaxation and meditation.
I think this day we were out on our own a lot, though there was a led meditation scheduled in the late morning, and individual tarot readings available with RJ Stewart. I enjoyed that a lot, and he let me video tape it so I can still look back and see how accurate he was 10 years later.
Tonight we were having a talent night that night, a bardic, so some folks were practicing their entertainment skills. We socialized and played with the resident dogs, wandered around the village a little more, and met some local horses on the way. They were very friendly, but quite indignant to realize we hadn’t brought them something sweet as a peace offering of good will.
The talent evening was a great mix of RJ Steward playing his 80 string concert psaltery, storytelling, guitar music and singing, etc. One gentleman told a gripping story about a group of war veterans after WWII doing dares at a sacred site – and regretting it!
Saturday, August 17th
This morning we decided to go up on a fairy hill to do some meditation work up there, and were rewarded with a fantastic vista of the surrounding hills. This area of England is truly beautiful and sublime, with greens and browns and all shades in between competing for dominance everywhere you look. The hills are soft and rounded by thousands of years of subjugation by humans.
After our morning fairy hill session, we went back down to the yew tree, and Andy managed to get himself inside it – giving truth to the rumors that druids used to live in trees. I wonder if that is how the story got started? Of course, not all druids would be as skinny as he was!
I was beginning to say my goodbyes to the area… to the tree, to the Earth Spirit Centre, to the friends I had met there that week. I had had a wonderful time meeting these folks and looking at the land with new eyes, and I would never forget my time there. I am ashamed to say I don’t remember everyone’s names, but I remember most of them, and remember their faces and personalities – laughs and fun.
We made one more trip down to the village pub on our last night before heading back to London, and proceeded to get toasty once again on Somerset Cider. Maria decided she was a cat for the evening, and snarled and clawed at everyone – the men were enchanted, I believe.
The bus ride back to London was rather uneventful, and I managed to get another day of site seeing in before my flight left the next day, taking another bus tour around the city, again goodbye to the ancient city of wonders, the center of the world for centuries, the place where my heart thrived and lived, London.
Sunday, August 18th
The trip back I have no memory of. The one thing I do remember was my first encounter with the hot, sticky, humid, thick air of Miami summer when I returned – like getting hit in the face with a hot, wet blanket as I got off the plane. Ugh! It was hot in London, but dry – not this sauna!
I yearn to go back. I have gone back several times, and keep yearning again and again. It is my soul’s home, and someday I will stay there, but don’t tell my husband that!
Don’t miss information on Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips, and hidden places, in my travel books.
– Stunning, Strange and Secret: A Guide to Hidden Scotland
– Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland
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