Here’s a Question…

What’s older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ireland?

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Set in the Boyne Valley in County Meath – close to the site of an important medieval battle, the formidable stone passage tomb of Newgrange presents a mystery.

Built by ancient Stone Age farmers, this monument has impressive dimensions. Its  circular mound is ringed by ninety seven kerbstones, engraved with Neolithic art.

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Within its centre, an internal passage leads into a stone chamber with three alcoves.

And it is at its core, that its meaning becomes clear…

For on the longest night of the year – the Winter Solstice to be precise, the morning sun illuminates this inner chamber through a portal cut into the stone cavern.

Was it an ancient temple – a repository of ceremonial, astrological or religious significance?

How was it constructed? The amount of time and labour involved suggests that the stone age people who built it, and the thirty five surrounding smaller mounds, must have lived and worked in a complex, well organized society where specialized groups were responsible for specific tasks…

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All these stones brought to this site. What a phenominal effort! And not to be outdone, the Victorians built even more structures close by.

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To visit Newgrange is a breath-taking experience for any traveller. But for those who enter the dark chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice, it must be a spiritual, life-enhancing event.

No doubt, many people would relish such an experience, and hundreds do arrive on the day just to stand in awe outside the imposing bulk but if you wish to participate in the inner chamber, there is a free annual lottery. From the many thousands who enter, only sixty are picked.

All of this would be wonderful, providing the weather gods cooperate and the sun shines.

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Ireland, a trip to Newgrange requires some planning for there is no direct public access. You can only attend via a two hour guided tour which begins at the Visitor Centre, and involves a walk over a nearby stream and a shuttle bus to the tomb.

But on our recent trip, we jagged a last minute booking for a tour, which took us into the inner chamber to recreate the Winter Solstice experience. You stand shoulder to shoulder in the dark for some minutes with a group of strangers, an eerie experience in itself, then a light from the portal streams into the cavern… a spark of the supernatural, a sense of rebirth within an ancient womb.

There’s a collective gasp, hands reach for the damp solidity and certainty of the cold stones behind us. Breath expelled, we tramp out through the narrow passage, ducking under the low lintel, to return to the murk of an Irish day and our lives, which seem a little ordinary by comparison

For me, it was a highlight…. a fanciful forging of a link back to the ancient ones – a gentle touch, perhaps even a comforting hand on the shoulder – a visceral shrinking of time… a memory which will not be forgotten.

And afterwards…well there’s the Visitor Centre with its delicious Irish specialties.

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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.

What a Corker!

County Cork in Ireland holds many treasures.

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At Ardmore on the coast, you can walk in the footsteps of medieval monks. A cylindrical stone tower – a much-needed sanctuary – stands guard over the site of an old monastery.

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The Viking raiders are long gone, but when the wind moans through the ruins of the old cathedral, perhaps St Declan himself still wanders amongst the graves.

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In need of some nourishment? Then you’re in luck, for nearby is the home of one of Ireland’s most celebrated cooks.

356A pioneer of the Slow Food movement, Darina Allen is the creative force behind  the Ballymaloe Cookery School which is based on the foundation of a sustainable food programme. You’ll love discovering the organic farm and gardens which stretch across forty hectares.

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The kitchen potager, and herb and fruit gardens – my favourites – were inspired by the magnificent Villandry garden in the Loire valley.

 

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And there are plenty of fresh eggs on hand and a happy home for those hard working chooks…

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The gardens provide the freshest produce for the cooking programmes, whilst the Celtic maze and pleasure garden offer tranquil spaces to explore.

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There’s a folly too…a tiny gothic house tucked away near the herbaceous borders, decorated with the shells from the mussels and scallops consumed in the kitchens on site. It seems nothing is wasted in this productive wonderland.

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Maybe, like me, you won’t have time to participate in one of the daily cooking classes but there’s always time for coffee and a delicious slice of lemon tart from the café.

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Given its strong principles, you might be fooled into thinking Ballmaloe is a serious place  – their 12 week cookery course is of course – but I can asssue you this lovely part of Ireland is seriously quirky and a great boon for all the senses.

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I’d love to go back one day… maybe I’ll see you there?

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A Walk Through Time

If you have a spare day in London, a walk through the British Museum will not disappoint.

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I always make a bee line for the medieval and Iron Age sections where ancient shields that have lain at the bottom of the Thames and other rivers, now see  the light of day.  Some were purely for decorative or ceremonial purposes – offerings to Gods perhaps – for they were not strong enough to survive the ravages of battle.

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The Iron Age forts’ early thatched roundhouses look quite sound and sturdy – able to hold off the damp english weather – but not invading armies.

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You can imagine traders burying their treasure – gold hoards, decorative arm and neck torcs and the like, in the event of an impending attack.

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House hold items like this decorated bronze mirror (50BC -200AD) might have been left behind  by a fleeing family for it was found in an isolated pit by a the side of a Roman villa.

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This gleaming gold horned helmet from 150 to 50 BC languished beneath Waterloo Bridge and is the only Iron Age helmet found in Europe.  The Victorians imagined the Vikings wore them and the idea took hold – especially in Wagnerian opera, but most  historians would disute their use except for ceremonial purposes.

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When Anglo-Saxon England split its land. with the Vikings taking Daneland in East Anglia,  many items were imported from Scandinavia so tortoise shell brooches and arm and finger rings became common finds. Imagine digging in a field or weeding your vegie patch to unearth something like this!

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I particularly like this relinquary head thought to represent St Eustace, all the way from a Cathedral in Basel in Switzerland. Love the jewelled headband!

And there’s more… inside its wooden core were found the relics of saintly bones.

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Engraved pillars once told tales of the life and times of the people.

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Moving into the early medieval period, this glorious french wine jug with its decorative bird motif is a favourite of mine. I wonder who used it? How on earth did it survive all these centuries? Wouldn’t last too long in my house!

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And this gorgeous sculpture… can you guess what it is or what it was used for?IMG_0603

When the English kings inherited the wealth of Aquitaine, it’s no wonder they fought so hard to hold onto the wine-rich lands. In1308, 5 million gallons were imported to England in a single year. And here we are still enjoying a similar tipple today.

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I’ve always loved medieval tiles and this one’s a beauty. Imagine all the people who have walked upon it…perhaps even St Bernard!IMG_0597

These items are just a tiny snippet of what you might find. So I’m sure you’ll agree the British Museum is the perfect place to lose yourself midst the treasures of the past…

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Unexpected Treasures

One of the joys of visiting London is finding unexpected treasures whilst wandering about. A visit to the busy, colourful Borough Market, just a stone’s throw from London Bridge is a must.  Having survived a brutal terrorist attack, its stall holders are to be commended for their courage and resilience. Today is a peaceful, happy day.

Nestled on the banks of the Thames, the area yields some surprising historical gems. Tucked away from the crowds you’ll find some sparse but remarkable ruins.

Winchester Palace once welcomed the great and good of England as its guests. Built in the 12th century by a powerful bishop, Henry de Blois, brother to King Stephen. Its Great Hall witnessed the wedding feast of James 1st of Scotland when he married Joan Beaufort in 1424. Today, little remains of the lavish palace compound which included a tennis court, bowling alley and pleasure gardens.IMG_0620

IMG_0615Further on is another intriguing find, especially if, like me, you’ve ever wondered why prisons are referred to as The Clink… then you’ll be surprised to find the remnants of one such place.IMG_0623

The Southwark area, once a place of poverty and prostitution, has witnessed a reformation of sorts and is now a most desirable place of residence.

Continue through the maze of narrow lanes and you’ll come across a replica ship from the days of Sir Francis Drake.

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IMG_0618His exploits brought him fame and fortune and the gratitude of Queen Elizabeth 1st with his strategic conquests in her war with Spain, and the economic and political impetus to explore and conquer the world saw him circumnavigate the globe on her behalf.

Meandering always makes me hungry so it’s time to follow the delicious aromas and return to the market for some delectable treats from the array of stalls.

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Perhaps we should also thank Sir Francis and the many other explorers of the time for the ‘foodie’ treasures they discovered and brought back from the New World which enrich our culinary world today.

Endings and Beginnings

 

As 2018 slips into 2019, I thought it fitting to explore the theme of change. My destination today is Rotterdam, originally just a muddy, Rhine village settlement at the turn of the first millennium. Now it is the second largest city within The Netherlands.

We were fortunate to be able to explore this ancient city which remade itself after a catastrophic bombing in WW2 virtually destroyed its medieval heart. When Nazi Germany invaded Holland, a threat was made to bomb its cities if the country did not accede to the enemy’s demands. Reluctantly, the government acceded… but the bombers were already airborne when the Dutch army capitulated.  Thousands died in the inferno that followed.

I thought to find this city, known for its port and important commercial harbour, battered – a sad place, harsh on the eye, lacking colour and design.

Instead I found a city which has remade itself with some breathtaking architecture. The glorious city of Amsterdam is only a train ride away. After just a twenty minute stroll from Rotterdam train station, you will find the amazing Markt Hall and beyond it, the bright yellow cube houses designed by architect Piet Bloom.

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IMG_0734 (2)The Markt Hall is unusual … an aircraft hangar shape. Into its curved internal and external walls nestle a multitude of windowed residential apartments. Within the Hall’s centre, a busy indoor market flourishes with over one hundred food stalls, cafes and restaurants on several levels. Most astounding of all are the massive artworks – The Horn of Plenty – massive, brightly coloured flowers and insects – sprawling across its interior ceiling. Some describe it as The Netherlands’ answer to the Sistine Chapel. I loved it!

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IMG_0740 (2)Beyond a nearby park, your eye will seek out the contortionist Cube houses – one of which is open to the public. Just behind, you’ll find a picturesque portion of the historic old harbour offering safe mooring to ancient-looking boats and waterside restaurants.

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Not far from Rotterdam’s centre, only a short train ride away in fact, you’ll find a cluster of windmills, that are also worth visiting, mainly because they are off the tourist trail. One has been transformed into a restaurant.  Time restrictions prevented us from eating there, though we partook of the Dutch Gin (a very different beverage to modern gin) on offer at the bar. Though the sails are now quiet, the shadowy interior with its aromatic wooden walls adorned with old photos and paraphernalia must have borne witness to many dramas. These surviving sentinels offer an appealing peak into The Netherlands’ history as a maritime trading nation, its ingenuity and ability to overcome challenges.

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We left Rotterdam, hopeful of a return visit sometime in the future… a tribute to this resilient city which has faced down a painful past to make something new and wonderful and unexpected. Such is the transformative power of change…

 

 

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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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