Perennial Perils and Pitfalls of the Weather

Whilst the US and Canada flounder under enormous layers of snow and temperatures drop to record levels, parts of the UK are on flood watch. In the southeast of Australia, the country surges towards yet another scorcher. Despite all our technology, the weather controls our lives. Today, we hear a lot about weather events – an unusual choice of language! Natural disasters in the making are tracked and those lucky enough to have access to this information and the necessary resources to get to safety are able to save themselves. For those who don’t have such access, it must be very much like medieval times.

You would only have known of a storm when the clouds brewed themselves into a dark mess and the skies boomed and crackled overhead; a storm surge – when it washed away your home, and you and your children with it. Excesses of the weather were perceived as a dark force, a punishment from a vengeful God. Many cultures feared the serpents beneath the seas as well which sucked down ships and their crews. So often, ships set sail beneath sunny skies only to be lost somewhere on their journey. But the seas were the highways of the time. So much of our current political and cultural heritage would not have occurred if captains and sailors had not taken their courage in their hands and boarded ships in good faith that they might make it to  journey’s end.

Winter must have been a fearful time – a dark time, a time for consuming carefully-hoarded supplies.

What must it have been like in the Great Famine of 1315-17? For two hundred years, the weather had been quite balmy – peppered with storms, of course, but these were not enough to deny the growth of crops and the supply of grain. Temperatures began to drop: only by a degree it is said, but that was enough. Then the rains came. The first year was disastrous. Harvests failed but most villagers could fall back on reserved stores. It was the second and third years which caused death and disaster. With increasing cold and continuous rain, floods followed and crops failed. People ate grain contaminated with mould. Some were affected by the fungal poison, Ergot, which brought on irrational behavior and reduced the capacity of immune systems to fight off illness

With heavy cloud cover, salt could not be produced by evaporation in the salt pans within the estuaries. Without salt, meat could not be preserved. When the oxen and other animals died of starvation and disease, the fields could not be ploughed. Without animals, the fields could not be manured reducing the fertility of the soil and viability of future crops.

Wars don’t necessarily stop because of a few failed harvests or storms. Vital resources were diverted away for military purposes. Across northern England and Scotland, devastation was wrought by both sides on the people and land. In Ireland, the Scots sought to enlist the aid of the Irish in defeating the Anglo-Irish lords. Had there not been a famine, they might just have succeeded.  In Europe, the situation was even worse as industries failed and scarce food supplies were diverted by warring kingdoms.

More periods of famine occurred in the following decades until the Black Plague decimated the population. Much later in 1360, an English army was struck by a storm: men and horses were killed by huge hail stones. The warring parties accepted this as divine intervention and sought a peaceful resolution.

Now we have a greater understanding of the vagaries of the weather. It may not be divine judgement as such but certainly our actions as consumers have contributed to changes in weather patterns.

Thankfully, in this day and age, we are more likely to survive periods of intense weather.  I wish all those who are suffering in these current conditions, a safe return to normal life.

A Medieval Journey

Fancy a drive? Not far from Conwy in northern Wales, the road curves along a lush river valley. Soon, you come to a village nestling beside steeply wooded hills.

Trefiw holds a slice of magic for me with its lovely stone mill still in operation beside a raging stream, complete with a cafe. But my fancy is taken by a tiny church. Inside St Mary’s, you’ll be taken aback to find a life-size knight kneeling at the altar. Just who is he and why is he here?

IMG_1165 (1)

Storyboards explain the mystery…

Centuries past, Prince Llewellyn the Great, a medieval warrior and knight – the Lord of Snowdon, rode along the same path with his family and entourage to visit his hunting lodge. His wife found the existing church, high up in the forest, too difficult to access so the prince built another one on the valley floor.

IMG_1169 (1)

IMG_1163

You can almost hear the exhausted pleading in her voice and the Prince’s deliberations and efforts trying to please this, his much younger wife who was relatively new to her demanding royal duties.

I think this place is special for there are not many sites in Wales where you can walk in the footsteps of the Prince. His adversaries succeeded in their attempts to obliterate his memory, knocking down palaces, slighting castles and destroying the priories which he set up.  Why is greatness attributed to him and why was he such a threat to his English neighbours?

IMG_1160

Known for his military victories  – a master of diplomacy and strategy, he also made many changes to aspects of Welsh life.  Not all his initiatives were welcome, especially around the medieval rules of hereditary accession, but literature flourished under his rule and he was a generous religious patron. Trying to modernize his country, he implemented aspects of the Magna Carta, changed laws, settled internal disputes and built castles to counter the aggression of the Marcher lords over the border. All this is in a country of farmsteads rather than towns; no roads to speak of, only bridal pathways within a wild mountainous landscape blessed with an unforgiving climate.

IMG_1167 (1)

IMG_1158

St Marys has been rebuilt a number of time but its footprint remains unchanged. Walking into this slice of welsh history, there is a palpable feeling of times past… a whispered love story between Llewellyn and Joan (the illegitimate daughter of King John) whose tragic tale is well documented in Sharon Penman’s Welsh trilogy.

We stayed nearby. The warm and welcoming Groes Inn offers a cosy muddle of bars and beams. After a scrumptious meal and a tasty wine or two, it’s a comfortable place to reflect on your journey.

IMG_1157

 

IMG_1156

 

A Bit of Welsh Magic!

Take a step back in time to the kingdom of Wales and one of my favourite castles.  Dolwyddelan is reputed to be the birthplace of Prince Llwellyn the Great but it also held great strategic importance, guarding a  mountain pass through the Vale of Conwy. So much happened here during the Welsh struggle against an aggressive neighbour. It didn’t end well…

Eventually it was captured by King Edward, and garrisoned by an English army. Lewellyn ap Gruffydd, grandson of the prince, was murdered in the mountains nearby,  bringing the Welsh dream for independence to an end. But the magic still remains as the wind whistles around the ruins of a magnificent castle.094

 

 

090

081

080

091

083

 

084

086

078

A Welsh Treat

Fancy a slice of yeasty, buttery goodness, enriched with tea-soaked dried fruit, spices and warmed marmalade? Just out of the little market town of Llanwryst on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, you’ll find a gem of a tea house, nestled beside an old stone bridge on the edge of the River Conwy. Once a residence – later a courthouse and now managed by National Trust, it is a perfect place to relax and indulge in a home-made Welsh treat – Bara Brith or “speckled bread”. My idea of heaven!

119

121

 

116122

 

123Include an ancient chapel, a short wander way, and you have the perfect day! For inside the musty confines of St Gwrst, there lies a stone sarcophagus, thought to be the coffin of Llewelyn the Great –  perhaps just a little hard to believe given the treatment dished out by the English to the abbey where he was buried further north – but who knows? Add some intriguing carvings, and I’m a happy traveller, wandering the misty by ways of history….

109

 

106

108

107

111

112

This area of Wales on the edge of the Snowdonia National park is breath-takingly beautiful, and it is no wonder its native people fought so hard to keep its heritage, ancient culture and language intact. But the Welsh princes were weakened by internal division – royal sons fighting amongst themselves for a share of lands and patrimony – and the external might of the Plantagenet kings, succumbing eventually to King Edward 1st whose stone castles stand testament today to those brutal times.

101

Llanwryst, too, is a pleasing place to wander about, owing its quiet, steady, well-to-do air to a trade in wool, clocks and harps…

115

Back over the bridge and the briskly flowing Conwy, the tea house is a quiet spot – just the place to reflect on Wales’ shadowy, violent past whilst enjoying a slice of its peaceful rural heritage.

118

 

 

A Castle Too Many

The northern borderlands of England and Scotland proved a bloody ground for its inhabitants. Once a part of early Scotland, a village at Warkworth grew up around a motte and bailey timber castle after the Norman invasion.  By the 12th century,  its keep and walls were built of stone and the fortress stood watch over a strategic loop of the River Coquet.  The powerful Percy earls, enemies of The Bruce, received the gift of the castle and surrounding lands and  played host to King Edward 1 in 1292. With the Scottish Wars of Independence in full swing in the early 1300’s, vain attempts to force a political settlement saw the lands of Northumberland and Yorkshire set ablaze.  By virtue of its location, Warkworth experienced the horror of being placed under siege, twice, by the forces of Robert the Bruce. And with the arrival of Sir Jamie Douglas and his raiding war parties, the villagers must have run for their lives from those hard-bitten warriors on their sturdy ponies.

But when the Scottish and English crowns were joined, there was less demand for such strategic strongholds in the north, and the great fortesses of Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, and Alnwick knew a measure of peace from the Scots. Still the land was not at rest whilst alliances grew and tumbled with the Wars of The Roses.

It is hard to imagine the ordinariness of family life in a castle but Warkworth Castle’s smaller size apparently made it more suitable for a domestic residence leading the Percy earls to prefer it as a family home rather than the stiff grandeur of Alnwick Castle. In more recent times, the earls of Northumbria gained possession. Now the castle is in the care of English Heritage and its picturesqe ruined structures hold only memories.

So if you are travelling through the awesome countryside of Yorkshire and Nothumberland, stop off at Warkworth’s pretty village just a short distance from the coast. Enjoy its beauty and peace but spare a thought for the families, now long-gone, who must have endured immense hardship trying to survive the political and social upheavals of the times.

175

174

179

191

183

188

189

192

176

180

 

Beaumaris Castle

Fancy a visit to a tiny Welsh town on the Island of Anglesey? Back in the late 13th century, King Edward I, that all-powerful English king, chanced to build a castle there, his last as it happens in his efforts to subjugate the Welsh. Fortunately he was strapped for cash, probably due to those pesky Scots in the north and his endless warring with the French.

Sited on the Menai Straits, Edward knew any troops besieged at Beaumaris could be sustained with supplies from his ships. The castle was constructed to refute any land-based attack as well with its moat and state of the art concentric castle-within-a-castle technology. Edward’s legacy of massive stone castles in Wales is a stark reminder of the man’s energy and determination… dark days indeed.

200

198

 

196

201For the modern traveller, especially for the history lover, there is much to see in the area and the town which has grown up around the castle. It’s some time since I was there last but my memory is of a clean, quiet village. Having not long read Sharon Penman’s fantastic series on the medieval Welsh princes, I was keen to retrace elements of that period and had been looking for the Priory of Llanfreas where Prince Llewelyn had imprisoned his wife, after her affair with the ill-fated William de Braose, a Norman Marcher lord. He was hanged for his treasonable act; Joan and her prince eventually reconciled until her death a few years later. Given such a layered, complex relationship – of love, a very public betrayal and retribution, and reconciliation – Llwellyn was inconsolable. Joan’s sarcophagus was reputed to lie in one of the churches though her remains had disappeared and the stone vessel used as a horse watering trough. Today, as so often happens, doubt has been cast upon this legend. The priory which existed to the north of the town was destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries and Joan’s remains with it. Where she lies remains a mystery.

224

Undeterred, the town of Beaumaris and its castle proved a fine consolation….just a short walk from the castle, I was happy to wander the ancient streets admiring a fine range of quirky buildings, even stopping for a dram along the way.

211

199188185

191

194212The foreshore was a dog walker’s paradise and a picturesque spot to absorb the beauty of the mountains across the waters of the Straits. Not for the first time I wondered at Joan’s imprisonment within sight of,  but so far from, her home.

Of course, King Edward’s plans for his castle had not even been thought of then and the town of Beaumaris didn’t exist.

Poor Wales – all that darkness and destruction came much, much later.

 

202

208207

With all there was to see, I missed the puffins… maybe next time! Perhaps I’ll see you then?

209

Saint Malo

IMG_0107One of my favourite reads, ‘All the Light You Cannot See’, is set in the ancient French port city of Saint Malo. The Author, Anthony Doer, charts the impact of the war on a six-year-old blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werther, a young German lad. The story so poignantly drawn, made me want to walk the streets of St Malo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and took decades to reconstruct.

So, one morning earlier this year, I left our hotel to wander the streets of this stunning town. You could almost sense residents stretching, yawning, awaiting their café au lait and croissants. Beams of sunlight slid down the tall elegant buildings, chasing away the shadows of the narrow-cobbled streets. Shutters clanged. Dogs sniffed at tell-tale signs of activity from the previous night.

IMG_0106

From the walls of the Citadel – solid, stalwart battlements of granite, I watched the tide depart, exposing sandy stretches of beach, connecting this spit of land to nearby islands. The cathedral dedicated to St Vincent remained closed as did the many cafes and restaurants that feed the many French and English visitors, who come to enjoy this delightful city.

IMG_0099

IMG_0065

IMG_0097

Over in the port, ferries deposit folk from the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. These islands share, in part, Saint Malo’s history – links with early Roman invaders from the first century, and the Celts who slipped across the Channel to escape the early Saxon and Viking incursions.

IMG_0070

Saint Malo became home to bands of corsairs, who sheltered their vessels in the nearby riverine estuaries. During the medieval and late medieval periods, French kings endorsed piracy and raiding, particularly against the English whose ships were made to pay tolls for using the waters of the Channel.

IMG_0113

From its port, explorers set sail. One of its famous sons, Jacques Cartier, sailed the St Lawrence river and charted new territories, naming Canada as a French province. Around 1590, Saint Malo even declared its independence from France and Brittany, and saw its fair share of internal strife before control was resumed under the French royal flag.

IMG_0111The city is full of surprises: one of the interesting buildings I came across was the International House of Poets and Writers in Rue de Pelicot. Established in 1990, under the auspices of UNESCO, writers of all nationalities, known and unknown, are welcome to attend the organization’s literary programmes to support creative endeavours.

IMG_0103

One writer, whom I could imagine attending, might have been Jules Verne whose grand tale ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ comes to life in Anthony Doer’s novel. It plays a thematic role allowing the children to escape for a brief time from the horrors of war. Though Verne was a Breton native from Nantes, the city of Saint Malo seems to have welcomed him as a second son. Indeed, his exploits may have resonated with the resilient and adventurous Malouins.

IMG_0085With this in mind, we were pleased to be able to stay at The Hotel Nautilus – one of the few buildings which escaped the bombing in WWII: the Allies believed the city to be filled with enemy soldiers when in fact, only a few hundred remained to man the Anti-Aircraft facilities. Today there are no signs of the devastation and the exquisite reconstruction is a testament to the proud people of St Malo, both past and present.

Of course it is not all about the past and galleries display a quirky sense of fun with their art works, adding another layer to this fascinating city with its unique history. Sadly, my visit to Saint Malo was all too brief but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and look forward to going back one day.

IMG_0083

IMG_0084

IMG_0082

IMG_0100

 

IMG_0090

IMG_0104

 

 

IMG_0112

Come on a Journey with me…

 

Come on a journey with me…a short trip by ferry from Poole in southern England; the journey – back in time, to one of the larger islands within the English Channel – its layers of history will amaze and delight. The islands’ situation, so near to both Britain and France, has resulted in a unique blending of cultures and, at times, a shared history.

Guernsey’s position close to the shores of Brittany and Normandy in France made it a strategic stronghold luring traders and settlers from as early as the Iron Age period. Dolmens and strange statue menhirs dot the island. Beneath the harbour waters of the main settlement at St Peters Port, a Roman trading vessel rests. Early Britons, Celts and Christian missionaries, escaping Saxon raiding parties, soon called it home. Viking raiders followed and, when Normandy passed into the hands of the Northmen, the islands were annexed by the Duchy of Normandy. Since then, ownership of the islands has been held as a possession of England. However, in the 13th century, King John lost his Angevin lands in Normandy, whilst somehow retaining the Channel Islands. From around 1259, the islands have been governed – as possessions of the English crown but were never absorbed into the Kingdom of England.

At the entrance to the harbour of St Peters Port lies the medieval Castle Cornet which saw off an invasion by the French in 1338. IMG_0017

IMG_0032

IMG_0033Edward III granted a charter confirming customs and laws and allegiance to the English crown. Richard II confirmed the charter which gave exemption from English tolls, customs and duties. Much later, during the wars between royalist and parliamentarian forces, battles and sieges took place, and the loyal islanders benefited from the confirmed economic rewards of freedom from external taxation.

IMG_0030

IMG_0029n 1483, a Papal bull decreed the islands would be neutral during times of war and this neutrality allowed the islands to trade with both England and France up until the 17th century when it was abolished. IMG_0028The Channel Islands were caught up in the religious wars of both England and France. In 1556, three women were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, one even giving birth to a baby boy in the flames. Later a frenzy of witch trials and persecutions took place.IMG_0045

In the 1640’s, Charles II, exiled in Jersey, gave George Carteret, Bailiff and governor, a large grant in the American colonies, later named New Jersey. Exhibiting their strong entrepreneurial spirit, many of the islanders acquired business interests in the North American colonies as well as fishing rights in the rich Newfoundland waters. By the late 18th century, the islands gave refuge to wealthy French emigres fleeing the French Revolution. Aspects of French culture remain, particularly on Jersey.

Today, on Guernsey, those battles of old are commemorated with the daily ritual of a midday firing of a cannon by volunteers in ceremonial dress.

IMG_0017IMG_0047

We enjoyed our time in the busy, elegant town of St Peters Port. A short walk along the harbour walls takes you to the castle and a delicious lunch. I loved the tomato soup – tomatoes being a major crop on the island.

IMG_0048

Not too far away, a local museum explores the troubles experienced by the islanders in more recent times with the islands having been the only British territory occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945.

Prior to the landing of enemy troops on 30 June 1940 after some indiscriminate bombing, young men hurried to leave the islands to join the Allied armed forces. Many children and women were evacuated to England and Scotland. Later, 2000 islanders – some of whom were Jewish or those involved in the local resistance movement – were deported to Germany by the enemy command. Alderney, one of the smaller islands was the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil. With the islands blockaded, and thousands of slave labourers brought in to build underground tunnels and buildings, hunger brought the local population to its knees, requiring ingenuity to survive the privations.

Eventually, a Red Cross ship made it to Guernsey relieving the dire strictures. For those left behind, the Guernsey shore still held many dangers. Post-war bomb disposal engineers dismantled some 69,000 mines. Even to this day, reminders of the war remain – huge concrete anti-aircraft structures still dot the landscape.

IMG_0040

IMG_0041

 

IMG_0018

 

IMG_0036

 

IMG_0039

On 9/5/1945, the islands were liberated. After three years of separation, many of the evacuees returned but had difficulty reconnecting with families.

More recent history holds an interesting Scottish connection, when one of the major marmalade producers, moved their production to the Channel Islands for economic reasons. Once the sugar tax was removed, production returned to Britain.

Today, the Channel Islands benefit from its historical economic status, being part of, but separate from the United Kingdom. We were fascinated by the use of the donkey as a symbol of Guernsey – only to learn that it represented the people’s hardy, stubborn spirit.

I have just scratched the surface of this fascinating place. There is so much more to learn…

IMG_0037

IMG_0035