Plan B – The Final Mystery

It’s our last full day in Edinburgh. Our original plan was to visit Holyrood House Palace at the bottom of the Royal Mile, but those pesky, omnipresent royals decided to use their vacation house in Scotland and thwarted our entrance. So unable to see the bedroom where David Rizzio was murdered by Mary Queens of Scots’ husband Lord Darnley, we went to plan B which proved to be an excellent summary and climax to our magical mystery tour.

                    Rosslyn Chapel

Plan B was a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, a mystery in itself, which is but a few miles outside of Edinburgh to the southeast. The chapel is associated with the mysterious medieval Knights Templar and with freemasonry. It figures in the climax of Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code as the location of the Holy Grail. It is a small chapel, founded by the St. Claire family in the 15th century. Over the years it has attracted a variety of interpretations of the enigmatic sandstone carvings that decorate the interior. There are symbols that seem to connect with the rituals of the Knights Templar and with the free masons along with more traditional medieval iconography, i.e., the seven virtues and vices, the dance of death, and stories from the Bible (the nativity, Lucifer’ fall, the crucifixion, etc.). A musical theme runs throughout, with angels playing lutes, pipes, violas, even bagpipes! There are images that appear to be maize (corn) which was not known in Europe at the time of the chapel’s construction (1456).

The crypt has not been opened for fear a legend is true that the chapel will self-destruct if the crypt’s earthen wall is breached. This leaves it open to speculation about what secret is hidden there. Is it the mummified body of Jesus, the head of John the Baptist, the Grail, the treasures of the Knights Templar, the Virgin Mary, Elvis? Who knows. It remains a mystery. The last one on our journey through the mysteries of Britain. From the building of Stonehenge to the crypt at Rosslyn, with wizards and witches in between, we have come to the end of our own grail quest, and as the Grateful Dead once sang, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Stool Tossing

Last night was filled with ghoulish stories of horror and the macabre, panic attacks and shrieks of terror. It was like a night with the Kardashians. The guide’s cryptic wit was sharp as a graveyard shovel. Our students were flogged, hanged, terrified and entertained. No it was not a class with Charlie Reed. It was the Mercat Ghost Tour of the vaults beneath the city.

             Outside St. Giles Cathedral

Today we recovered from the poltergeists for a visit to Saint Giles, Scotland’s national cathedral where we saw a statue of John Knox, a window commemorating Robert Burns, a bronze relief sculpture of Robert Louis Stevenson, the marvelous Thistle Chapel, and the stool that Jenny Gaddis threw at a minister who was reading from a revised Anglican leaning prayer book that was unacceptable to the staunch Presbyterians in the congregation. Jenny’s stool heave ignited a riot in Edinburgh which spread to the entire country, raised the hackles of Charles I’s government in London, and led eventually to a parliamentary response that produced a civil war that ended with the execution of the king.

Listening to the Choir. Stool in background

A very important stool. While oin the chapel we rested for awhile listening to a choir practicing for a future performance in the cathedral.

From St. Giles we walked past the café where J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, past the statue of Grey Friar’s Bobby, the dog that was faithful to his master long after his death, to the National Museum of Scotland with its informative history of world cultures. Students spent the evening scattered throughout the town looking for venues with local music.

Auld Reekie

We left Oxford early Sunday morning for our two-hour coach ride to Birmingham to catch our train for Edinburgh. While we were waiting in the station for our train, a drunken sot left over from the revels of the previous night attached himself first to Davis and then to Kayla and ultimately followed us onto the train. He smelled of Southern Comfort and was quickly given the less than affectionate nickname “SoCo” by the group. He first bedeviled the part of our group in coach F, and then he found his way into coach D where Kayla and Davis and others were sitting. After two stops, Davis managed to have the conductor throw him off the train.

In Durham, SoCo was replaced in Coach D by a group of loud, beer-swilling revelers continuing their bachelor party from the previous night. By Newcastle they had calmed down and members of our group engaged them in in a quiz game about what part of the states we came from followed by a discussion about how we have different expressions for the same thing, like chips and fries. This brought us to Edinburgh and a tough slog with our bags up a hill to our Hotel. It was a bright day and the Scots were a-feared of us having never seen people with dark glasses on. Little did we know but we were in for 4 days of sunny weather.

Edinburgh was once known as “Auld Reekie” because of the stench that arose from the stagnant water in the marshes between the hills on which the town is built. In fact Edinburgh is built on seven hills (not unlike Rome). A nearby town, Dunbar, is known for its whiskey and is said to be built on seven stills. But that is another matter. Actually the folks in Edinburgh prefer to be called the “Athens of the north” because of the many cultural delights the city has to offer.

             Hogwarts in Edinburgh

Right now, it is perhaps better known for J.K. Rowling  and Harry Potter. We didn’t leave Harry back in Oxford; in fact, while in Edinburgh we found the Elephant House Café where Rowling wrote much of the first Potter book, and we saw the college that was the inspiration for Hogwarts as described in the books.

On our first day we toured the Castle, perched on a volcanic slab high above the city to the west. From this castle the Scots have defended themselves against Celts, Normans, English kings, Oliver Cromwell, and Mel Gibson. The English took the Castle on several occasions and ruled Scotland from the site. In the castle we saw the oldest building, the Chapel of St. Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III (1076), the crown jewels (including the Stone of Scone only recently returned to the Scots by the English), a massive cannon, and a dog cemetery for the regimental pooches when they die.

Leaving the castle, we began our walk down the Royal Mile, stopping first at the Writers’ Museum where memorabilia of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson are handsomely displayed. Further on we took note of Deacon Brodie’s Tavern which is named for the notorious councilman who led a double life as a house burglar and inspired Stevenson’s split personality mystery novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From here we could see the Mercat Cross next to St. Giles Cathedral where we are to meet this night for our Ghost Tour of the vaults beneath the city.

Last Call

From the birthplace we walked through the town and saw the grammar school Shakespeare attended and the site of the house he bought and lived in after retiring to Stratford around 1610. The place (New Place it was called) was torn down in the 18th century by an irate occupant who was angered by all the tourists who came to pay homage to England’s greatest author.

From here we walked past the Royal Shakeseare Company’s theatre on the river Avon, and then to Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried. According to tradition he died on April 23, 1616, the same day he was born. A group of students paused for a picture outsde the church, and then for another at the grave site.

We returned to Oxford in the late afternoon via the Rollroight Stones, a circle of stone locally connected with witchcraft. Legend has it that a Lord and his knights were walking the Cotswold hills and a witch told him if he could walk a certain number of paces and see the village in the valley below he would be king of the country.He tried, and a mound rose up to obstruct his view. So the witch turned him and his knights into the stones we now see. And it is reported that if you count the stones and ever get the same number three tmes, evil will befall you. Here is the poem the witch recited to the unfortunate Lord.

“Seven long strides shalt thou take, and
If Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be.
As Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick, and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an elden tree.

Queens Gets into the Act

After lunch in Stratford, we met at the Shakespeare birthplace on Henley St. for a tour of the house. It is a large four gabled affair, cross-timbered like many of the other structures in Stratford, with a number of rooms on two stories. Shakespeare‘s father was a successful businessman (a glover and beer maker) and an important member of the town council. The house reveals his wealth and position, both of which made it possible for Shakespeare to attend the fine Edward VI grammar school in town.

In the house we saw a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, other works of the period, and pictures that flesh out the historical context of Shakespeare’s life. We saw the bedroom, placed purposefully over the kitchen on the foirst floor to provide more heat.  In the room was a ittle rocking crib in which the future bard went beddie-bye.

The real action was in the garden area at the rear of the house. Here several thespians in period costume were prepared to regale us with scenes from the plays. It turned out to be an interactive affair with our group taking part in scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream and Davis offering a speech from Hamlet. Marcus played Pyramus and Ann played Wall in a bit of “Pyramus and Thisbe” from Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Then Davis held forth with Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech from Hamlet.


Ann Hathaway

At age 18 Shakespeare himself was married, to Ann Hathaway who, before Batman and Les Miserables, was just a country girl like the Bard’s mother. At Ann Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery, a mile from Stratford, we learned the origins of many common expressions. The cottage is constructed of crossed timbers and a plaster made of dab (a combination of mud, cow manure, and water) which was thrown at the waddle (a cross-weave of oak and willow branches) to fill it and form the wall. The dab often penetrated the waddle being secured by a workman on the other side, giving us the expression “Here’s mud in your eye.” The ceilings of these early buildings are low and their doors head bumping affairs because heat is more easily contained in small rooms. The early English were not a height challenged race as even their beds might lead us to believe. The beds are short because the folks slept upright propped against what we today call a “head board” in order to avoid the illness of consumption. The pillows on the beds were made of straw in a coarse woven bag and were softened by a good whacking before one retired for the night. Hence the expression “hitting the sack.” The straw mattress was supported by ropes which after a few nights with a heavy load, tended to sag. A screw on the frame could be turned to draw the ropes up, giving us the old saying, “sleep tight.”

In the kitchen we learned that the bread of a meat pie was purposely burned on the bottom to provide a plate for the diner. A dog would consume the burnt portion while the diner enjoyed the “upper crust.” To clean the chimney, our ancestors tied a rope to a rooster’s leg and thrust the poor bird down the chimney; the flailing of his wings served as a feathered chimney sweeper. There is no etymology tied to his practice, just thought you’d want to know.

Shakespeare was only 18 when he married Ann who was 8 years his senior and in a family way at the time. After their marriage they moved to the family’s house on Henley St. in Stratford. This was our next visit on Shakespeare Day.


The Famer’s Daughter

This Is our day in Stratford-upon-Avon. We first visited Mary Arden’s farmhouse in Wilmcote. Mary was the daughter of a wealthy farmer and the mother of Will Shakespeare. On the farm we played with the animals, especially the horses, sheep and the owls which we saw do their thing in an exhibition of fowl hunting. We learned about the living conditions and the habits of the 16th century English, including the use of owls in the marriage ceremony. Our own Kelsey and Marcus joined the exhibition as a bride and groom who are brought their rings by a “fly-over” owl.

In Harry Potter’s world, owls were used as feathered e-mail messengers. In Shakespeare’s world, they were used for hunting. Hunting by falcon or owl, we learned, had certain restrictions. Depending on social status, one could only send their attack bird to prescribed heights, which gives us our expression “rising above your station” if you violated the rules. Several of our group took turns holding their very own Hedwig.

John Shakespeare was an employee of Mary Arden’s father. After John and Mary were married, they moved to a house on Henley St. in Stratford where little William Shakespeare was born, as tradition would have it, on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1564.

Tolkien’s Oxford

We are now in Taruithorn (Tolkien’s elvish name for Oxford), the city of spires and the land of scholars, town and gown squabbles, Alice of Looking Glass fame, and shooting locations for movies like Young Sherlock Holmes and several of the early Harry Potter films.

In our Tolkien tour of the Oxford Colleges on Wednesday we visited Pembroke College where the Hobbit-maker was a professor of the Anglo-Saxon literature which so influenced his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then we dropped into Exeter college to see a bust of the author. Exeter is the home of the Tolkien Society in Oxford.

We then made an obligatory pilgrimage to our sister university in Oxford, Queen’s College (founded 1341), which, like our own Queens University of Charlotte, is named after a British queen, Philippa of Hainault, the wife of King Edward III, while our queen is Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, wife of George III. Queen’s College Oxford is famous for its Boar’s Head Gaudy, which was the Christmas Dinner for members of the College who were unable to go home over the Christmas break between terms, obviously the source for our own Boar’s Head Dinner before Christmas break. This night Avery, Amanda, and Chelsea took part in the trivia game at a local pub…. And won!!! They survived a playoff when they correctly answered a question about how many Popes there have been. It’s 66 in case you didn’t know.

On Thursday we had our Harry Potter tour of the colleges and visited Christ Church college where we saw the dining hall that inspired the hall at Hogwarts and places at the college where several scenes from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were filmed. We also visited the magnificent chapel where Rose and Lindsay had attended evensong the night before. We then visited the Divinity School where undergraduates sit for their exams and where the dance scene from Goblet and the hospital scene from Philosopher’s Stone were filmed. Then on to New College where we saw its magnificent choir screen and the courtyard where a scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was shot. In it Harry and Draco Malfoy are having it out and Mad Eye Moody intervenes to transfigure Malfoy into a white ferret. Our guide set the stage and gave out parts to re-enact the scene, with Sarah as Harry, Kayla as Mad-Eye Moody, and Avery as Malfoy. It was a sight to behold. Kayla kept her Mad-Eye squint for the rest of the day. Avery changed back into Avery.

Tomorrow we are off to Stratford-on-Avon and the world of Shakespeare.

Glastonbury, Arthur, and the Grail

Yesterday we visited King Arthur‘s birthplace; today we’ll see where he might have lived, where he is buried, and where he will return as the “once and future king.”

After a two hour drive from Plymouth we arrived in Glastonbury, the Mecca of new age enthusiasts and “once and future” hippies. The place has been the center of spiritual activities for thousands of years, pagan and Christian. For early Britons, the Tor (hill) just outside town was the entrance to the Celtic underworld (Anwn) from whence at the winter solstice a pack of white red-eyed hounds emerged to collect all who had died in the past year and whisk them off to the hall of Nudd, the Lord of Death. In legend, King Arthur fought Melwas the King of the Summer country on this site when rescuing Guinevere. From the Top of the Tor one can see Cadbury Hill, the possible site of Arthur’s Camelot. The Tor is where Arthur will return when his country needs him again.

Glastonbury is the site of the first Christian church in England, built, according to legend, by Joseph of Arimathea who is said to have planted his staff in the ground from which a thorn tree grew that blooms every Christmas and Easter. Joseph is also believed to have brought with him the chalice that held the wine of the Last Supper which gave rise to the legend of the Holy Grail sought by King Arthur’s knights, Monty Python, and Indiana Jones. The grail, some believe, was buried in the vicinity of a well and spring whose water runs red due to its iron content. Known as the chalice well, the place is now a beautiful garden sanctuary for meditation and contemplation. Here members of our group took a moment for quiet reflection at the Chalice Well.

Most importantly King Arthur is believed to be buried in the abbey. Joseph’s church was a small affair, but by the 12th century Glastonbury Abbey was one of the grandest and wealthiest religious establishments in all of Britain. It was in fact King Arthur and the monks‘ “discovery” of his tomb on the grounds in 1191 that put the abbey on the road to fame and fortune. In the 14th century as the abbey and the legend of Arthur grew, the bodies from the original tomb were moved to a spot before the high altar of the church. We gathered for a group picture at the site.

And another, just for good measure.

Glastonbury’s great wealth is why in the Reformation it was a major target of Henry VIII when he dissolved all the monasteries and commandeered their properties for his treasury. When the Abbot of Glastonbury resisted, Henry had him hung and beheaded (presumably in that order), then drawn and quartered and all his parts sent to different corners of the shire. Once relieved of all its wealth, the abbey fell into ruins with its stones being used for local building projects. We heard about all this from a very humorous and animated guide we picked up along the way. Here is our loquacious guide leaning on the marker for the initial burial site of Arthur and Guinevere.

And a final word frlom Davis and Kayla.

Tintagel – Merlin and King Arthur

This is our day for King Arthur, witchcraft, and horses. A day like all other days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our time, filled with monuments of past greatness – mute testimonies to the mortality of us all – filled with adventure, filled with rain!!

Lindsay and Merlin’s Cave

Two hours out of Plymouth on the west coast of Cornwall, battered by the Atlantic, lies Tintagel Castle, a finger of land jutting out into the ocean, once a Roman outpost engaged in tin trade to the Mediterranean, later the legendary birthplace of King Arthur and Merlin’s Cave. According to early chronicles of English history, Merlin transformed King Uther Pendragon into the likeness of Gorlois, the master of Tintagel, so he could sleep with Gorlois’ wife Igraine. The result of this tryst was Arthur who was spirited away by Merlin to be fostered by the father of the future Sir Kay and later to free the sword Excalibur from the stone.

A thousand years later the site was occupied by the Duke of Cornwall whose castle provides the remnants we see there today. After an heroic climb up one side of the promontory on rain drenched steps hewn from the rock of the cliff’s face, we arrived at the first level of the ruins, where Davis and Kayla broke into a umbrella-sword fight. Then they gave us an error-filled introduction to the place.

 The rain was constant but so was our determination to reach the upper levels of the site. Coming down we noticed that the tide was going out, making Merlin’s Cave accessible so down went a group of stalwart adventurers into the wizard‘s den where it was actually dryer, with less wind.

                                            She Turned Me Into A Newt!

From Tintagel we drove a mere 3 miles up the coat to Bowscastle where we had lunch before visiting the infamous Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in preparation for our later encounters with Harry Potter in Oxford and Edinburgh. We followed the signs reading “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to a strange house on the outskirts of town. The Museum displayed everything witchcrafty from mummified cats to mandrake roots with excursions into pagan rituals and tales of local witches and their covens.

After the Witchcraft Museum, we drove back to Plymouth though the eerie wasteland of Dartmoor, the setting for Sherlock Holmes’ adventure of “The Hounds of the Baskervilles.” Along the way we left the coach to  mingle with the famous Dartmoor ponies. Here is Liz Westfield offering some grass to a little colt

and Anna contemplating the gloom.

We left the barren moor just as a heavy fog rolled in.

Tomorrow we are off to Oxford and the worlds of Tolkien and Harry Potter.