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.

A Magical Time of Year

Christmas 2019 is now just a fond memory. But if, like me, you like shiny things then you are in for a treat. During a recent trip to Europe, we travelled by train from Frankfurt in Germany, to Salzburg and Vienna in Austria, and lastly to Budapest in Hungary…. to see the Christmas markets. These are bucket-list destinations and easily accessible, given how close the cities are to each other. There are so many markets available… some cities have twenty or more scattered around various plazas. We managed to take in just a few but some cover many acres, Surprisingly, each one was different. Be prepared to have all your senses working full time with the sights, sounds, aromas and tastes.

On this trip, we were in search, specifically, of snow and struck it lucky in Salzburg. Coming from years of excessive heat and drought in Australia, the sight of a very cute miniature snowman in a park; crisp, white snow settling on Christmas market stalls; and snow-dusted mountains seen in the distance from Salzburg castle, added so much to our experience.

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I had thought the crowds might be too great but they were manageable especially if you went late afternoon before revellers had hit the glühwein stalls and in time for an early dinner of tantalising street food. In winter time, it gets dark early. Usually by about 4pm, the twinkling lights beckon.IMG_0202 (2)

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You might be wondering how this topic fits into a medieval theme but these markets, and others like them, have an historical pedigree: some, going back to 1294 as in the case of Vienna. Medieval life was often dominated by death, disease, war and famine. Frequently, life was hard and short. People sought solace and structure in religion and aspects of the religious calendar were celebrated with gusto.

It is fascinating that countries in modern times are now in the throes of the Corona Virus and the threat of disease, as in medieval times, reminds us lives can be brutally cut short and lifestyles which we accept as a given may also change beyond recognition. Another serious threat has been terrorism which has seen events, where vulnerable crowds gather, cancelled.  I wonder how the years ahead will pan out and how lovely family festivals such as these will be affected. I am certain though, despite overt commercialism and these significant threats, the Christmas message of peace, love and hope will continue to resonate.

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Now the festivals are a place where artisans sell their wares and food sellers work extra hard to summon up huge supplies of grilled sausages and meats, stews, traditional sweet treats such as stollen and gingerbread, and if you fancy rooster testicles (??) then you are in for a treat!

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We found the markets to be uplifting and fun, also great places to buy unique Christmas gifts.

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In the towns, streets are lit up and many stores remain open to entice meandering family groups. Everywhere, people are laughing and sharing, casually strolling along taking in the lights above and around them. Nearby in the commercial streets of Budapest, we saw these enterprising Christmas decorations reflecting local wares.

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One of my favourite things is to visit covered market halls and the one in Budapest was exceptional. Christmas decorations light up the cavernous spaces above as you explore the food stalls below. Stall holders entice you try their local produce and a favourite memory was trying freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, just the thing to fight off winter sniffles.

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This experience offered so many distinct memories to savour: the unique quality of these regional Christmas markets and the opportunity to experience a joyous European wonderland, and yes, lots of shiny things!

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Festival Time in Edinburgh

It’s a real treat to wander the streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival in August. Normally I would prefer a quieter time but the crowds and the casual street performances electrify the medieval atmosphere.  There’s so much to see and if you have the time to check out the well organised, full programme of comedy shows; you certainly won’t be disappointed.

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I was fascinated by these amazing actors, who appeared to be suspended  in mid air.

But the playful nature of these characters changes as you wander up Castle Hill. On your right, you will find a poignant memorial to the Scottish witches who were murdered on this site. Now it is a bustling place during the day, and at night, the Tattoo works its magic on the crowded stands of temporary seating. For many people, the spectacular military and musical display of the Tattoo holds a ‘bucket list’ significance.

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After being singled out for their healing or heretical differences, hundreds of generally innocent women, and men, were condemned to horrific deaths by strangulation, burning and drowning down in front of the castle – during a period when fear and persecution reigned supreme. This happened in many parts of the world but the anti-witch fervour seemed to take root, fueled no doubt by the written works of King James VI of Scotland who believed himself a victim of witchcraft.

So beneath all the light-hearted frivolity of the festival,  it pays to remember the dark past of this glorious city. For it is here, right before the great castle, you are literally walking  in the footsteps of the dead… and, I expect, the very angry dead!

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Newbattle Abbey

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DSC01344Not far from Edinburgh, there are ghouls and ghosties galore at an ancient Cistercian monastery. Now the ruins have been incorporated into an educational college, but there are reports of a Grey Lady and spectral monks wandering the grounds – 125 acres of parkland with swathes of ancient forest, the remains of a prehistoric settlement and a bridge thought to be of Roman origin.

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In 2000, sewer workers discovered 135 medieval skeletons. Once the archaeologists had left, these were reburied. Perhaps one of those long-departed souls was the Grey Lady – thought to be the spirit of a young girl who was killed when she fell in love with one of the monks.

The Abbey had a long association with the kings and noble families of Scotland. King David 1st established the abbey, having brought Cistercian monks from France as part of his attempt to improve life with religious enrichment, economic development, hostelries to protect the traveller and infirmaries for the sick and dying. The royal association did not end with visits from Alexander 2nd and his Queen Consort, Marie de Coucy, who was subsequently buried there, and in 1296, King Edward 1st, Longshanks, visited as well.

Despite success at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce found the anticipated rewards and recognition of Scottish independence not forthcoming. There were still many opponents to his crown, and at a wider level, neither the Pope nor King Edward 2nd recognized him as king. In fact, the Holy Father had called for a truce between Scotland and England, hoping they would unite and support another crusade to the Holy Land, providing necessary funds and manpower. To offset these developments, Robert summoned a council of nobles to Newbattle Abbey. And it was here three letters were drafted – from the king, the church and the nobles respectively, to be sent to the Pope in Avignon. One of these documents, known famously as the Declaration of Arbroath, was subsequently formalized by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, and signed by a large number of barons: it upheld the legal and philosophical case for Scottish independence with an explanation of Scotland’s foundation and ancient past.

Another royal link came about through Robert the Bruce’s son – King David 2nd and Catherine Mortimer, his mistress who died a violent death, when an assassin stabbed her, probably at the behest of some dissatisfied nobles in the royal court. She is said to have been buried upright in one of the abbey’s walls.

Sometime during the 14th century, the abbey was attacked by English forces and burnt. It took some forty years to repair the damage.

Around 1520, the Abbey was de-established; and when one of the lay abbots, Mark Kerr, rejected Catholicism and became a Protestant, the abbey then passed into private hands, remaining with the Kerr family, the Earls of Lothian, for many generations.

An interesting story refers to another of the Kerr family: the second earl of Lothian, Robert Kerr, who was said to have consulted witches and magicians.  Apparently overcome by his accrual of great debts, he barred himself in one of the chambers, and stabbed himself several times, before slitting his own throat. This unhappy chap, along with some of the famous Douglas family, were buried in the grounds.

Eventually the abbey ruins were incorporated into the Kerr family home. In the 1930s, it was gifted to the nation – an educational training facility for the disadvantaged – and was also registered as a Scheduled Monument.

Today, the house holds treasured items such as the baptismal font of Mary Queen of Scots and the grand entrance retains one of Scotland’s only water-powered organs but it is the original abbey which ignites my imagination.

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For the monks of Newbattle were granted the right to mine coal nearby, which possibly makes them the first formal coal miners in Scotland. They also had numerous granges where sheep were reared, and a lucrative income obtained from local saltpans. Road building and the development of ports to export wool, hides, timber and salt would have fallen within their mandate.

The abbey offered a guest complex for visitors, lodging for the abbot, and a substantial infirmary with a medicinal and kitchen garden. Around the monastery, a small village would have housed lay personnel, as well as all the shepherds, masons, wrights and artisan builders who contributed to the upkeep of the abbey.

Because it was used for royal councils, there would be an expectation of finery, ample good food and wine, with appropriate security. In its heyday, Newbattle Abbey was a wealthy and influential institution.

Today, Newbattle Abbey remains a purposeful environment offering facilities for educational purposes such as conferences as well as community events.

Some years back, we attended a concert there by The Battlefield Band. This raging Celtic group of fiddlers and bagpipers certainly would have woken any slumbering ghost and ghoulies. Down in the shadowy vaulted under croft during the interval, volunteers served warming soup from tureens.

Even now, I recall that strange tingling sense that we were not alone.

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One of My Favourite Inns

Today we’re in the pretty village of South Queensferry which has ancient royal connections. Back in the eleventh century, it provided a ferry service at the request of Queen Margaret Canmore to transport the faithful to her chapel at Dunfermline. Many of the early medieval Scottish kings and their royal parties would have made the crossing from this point in all weathers.

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Nestling beneath a famous Scottish landmark – the Forth Railway bridge, Hawes Inn has played its part assisting the travelling public since its inception as a coaching inn. In 1886, one of its renowned guests, Robert Louis Stevenson, is reported to have begun writing his novel, “Kidnapped”, and the inn features in the story’s plot.

Sir Walter Scott also found inspiration and possibly libation, there.

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Nowadays, visitors can still enjoy the views across the Forth whilst partaking of the traditional fare. Relaxing beside the fire in the dining room, we have enjoyed the roasts and sumptuous fish pies on offer here.

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As a small waterside village, South Queensferry has many features notwithstanding its accessibility to Edinburgh and various points north, as well as the stone buildings lining its main thoroughfare. These reflect its ancient heritage as well as its unique history.

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Archaeologists discovered the remains of a previous dwelling, lived in some 10,000 years ago. From the food samples, they believed it was only used on a temporary basis so perhaps a Mesolithic holiday home to fit in with changing seasons.

On the High St, one building was owned by a sea captain. After he was lost at sea, his maid was accused of paying a beggar woman to cast a spell leading to his ultimate demise.  Both women were subsequently burned as witches.DSC02023

In more current times, ferries take tourists out, past the seals, to Inchcolm Island with its ghostly ruined monastery. Some of these visitors might also come for the festivals and to witness the strange annual procession of the Burry Man. With perhaps a nod to Pagan times, his outfit, complete with eyeholes, consists of the hooked fruits of the burdock plant attached to completely cover his bodily undergarments. It’s such a treat to see his mysterious figure, complete with  a sash and a cute floral hat. On our last visit, his two attendants led him along the High St, offering him, from time to time, whisky supped through a straw. Excited children followed collecting money for a local charity.

But some of the sadder residents lie in the local cemetery where a large number of Royal Navy graves lie, holding the casualties from the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Perhaps if you were to visit South Queensferry on New Year’s Day, you might be surprised to see folks tentatively jumping into the freezing Forth as part of the ‘Loony Dook’. Originally designed as a hangover cure, it has become a great favourite with tourists and residents alike and is another way to raise much-needed money for charity.

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I’m sure you’ll agree this tiny village offers so much. With the characterful Hawes Inn, its cafes and old pubs set beside the gently lapping waters of the Forth and the imposing bulk of the railway bridge, it would make a great base for your next visit to Scotland.

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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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