Saturday, June 28, 2008

York or Jorvik?

Since Sandy studies Vikings, she has always wanted to see Jorvik, the main Viking settlement in England. So we headed there first on our swing through England, after two weeks in Scotland and Ireland.

The first thing we headed for was the Viking Jorvik exhibit. It is located underground, where a lot of the remains of the Viking settlement are located. It is set up as a time travel ride through the Viking village. Sandy enjoyed the animatronic folks gossiping to each other in Old Norse. The ride is pretty good, but more oriented to school groups than academics. My favorite part was the the educational re-enactors doing various tasks, like making coins from copies of original dies that were found. My second favorite part was the opportunity in the gift shop to buy a set of Viking god heads. After some deliberation, mixed with giggles, we decided to pass on that one.

I am also interested in York since it was a major site in the English Civil War. After a prolonged siege by the Parliamentary army and a major lost battle at nearby Marston Moor, the Royalists surrendered the town at this gate which is pretty much the first thing you see coming up from the train station.

York also has what may be the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, the York Minster. It certainly is spectacular, as you can see in the photo below of the nave. We stayed to hear the Anglican Evensong service, with a choir that was amazing. In the long run, I prefer a more participatory church service, but it was fascinating to see one done, and done very well, as a performance by well trained people. It was also striking to sit in a choir area that went back to the middle ages and hear music that went back almost that far, too.

We stayed in a notably quaint hotel, Lady Anne Middleton's in the historic Skeldergate, which you can see in the next photo.

All things considered, York was a real highlight of our trip. I had heard about the Viking antiquities, but had not realized how much else there was in the town, including a an excellent city history museum that particularly covered the Victorian era, the English Civil War, and somewhat oddly, England of the swinging 60's.
We also really liked the city center with many medieval and renaissance buildings, some of which you can see in the last photo.

ride through Wales

We spent a lot of time on this trip riding in a Backroads Touring company minivan. So this view of Wales through a windshield was both familiar and exciting with new countryside.

After we dropped my brother Jack, his wife Shirley, and my sisters Carol and Nola off at the Dublin airport, Sandy, Chris and I kept on going down to London with Mark, the Backroads guide and driver. We caught a ferry to Holyhead in the north of Wales.

Then we drove quickly but scenically through the mountains of Wales.

Here are several photos of those mountains. I would love to go back and do a walking tour to have a closer look. But our road trip was a nice teaser to give us a sense of what the scenery looks like.

Monday, June 23, 2008


We ended our tour around Ireland with a day in Dublin. First, all of us walked over to Trinity College, just a few blocks from our hotel on Stephen's Green, to see the Book of Kells. When Sandy and I saw it last time in 1990, the library just had the book itself open to a page which changed every day. Now there is a whole exhibit, with a lot of enlargements of images and a lot of background. Very nice but also now a major exhibit that has an admission charge. Here is an image from the book.

After that, we all went to the national archaeological museum to see exhibits on Celtic and Viking Ireland. Full of amazing stuff stuff like the Tara Brooch, made around 700 AD, shown here. Celtic Irish design from that early Christian era is still delightful to the eye and impressive in craftsmanship today.

After lunch in the museum and a quick trip the the national art museum, we split up. Sandy, Chris and I wanted to race around town and the others wanted to take it a bit easier, after two long weeks of touring and walking around.

We walked to the River Liffey, which you can see here.
We walked around to see statues like the one of Molly Malone and crossed the Halfpenny Bridge, shown here.


Sandy and I visited Ireland once before in 1990, for my annual ICA convention and a bit of touring around afterwards. One of our favorite places was Glendalough.

St. Kevin went there to be a hermit after 500 AD and a community grew around him. One of those Irish guys who helped save Western civilization. I think that argument a bit strong, but Irish Christian monks did keep a remarkable tradition of learning and art going when a lot of the rest of western Europe was falling apart, post-Rome.

The first photo shows my sister in law Shirley at the entrance to Glendalough.
This photo shows Sandy walking toward what is called St. Kevin's kitchen. But he probably lived in cave like a proper hermit and this was probably a small stone church. Very early construction, not dissimilar to the beehive cells we saw on Inis Mhór in the Aran Islands. Even the roof is made of stones stacked up in an arch that meets at the peak -- more like 3200 BC Newgrange than what people would build now.

The Rock of Cashel

Going between Cork and Dublin on a misty, moisty day, we visited -- surprise -- more ruined abbeys, monasteries and churches. Irish Catholics built a lot of them and the English, particularly under Cromwell during his fairly brutal foray into Ireland after winning the first part of the English Civil War in England, pulled quite of few of them down, particularly if they looked like they could be fortified and defended.

In 1647, Cashel was sacked by English Parliamentarian troops. The Irish Confederate troops there were massacred, as were the Roman Catholic clergy. The troops looted or destroyed many important religious artifacts.

Still an amazing amount of the architecture and even some of the art, in terms of sculpture, carvings, and even some fresco paintings, survived. A big building of stone was hard to completely destroy in 1647. Here is an example of a stone carving that reflects Norse interlace motifs.

We really liked the place. Here is a picture of Sandy and me in the main cathedral nave, whose roof was pulled down in the 1700s for some reason. So we are all hooded and hatted against the rain.

the ruined church tour

Going across Ireland from Kinvara to Cork was a veritable tour of ruined churches, with church yards still actively used. And as you can see, in this picture with my sister-in-law Shirley, some lovely views across the rural countryside.

We got to be great connoisseurs of gothic and other windows in ruined churches. Sandy in particular loves gothic arches in churches, especially the windows. Here is a particularly fine window from Ennis Friary.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Burren

After we left Kinvara, on the way to Cork, we drove upwards through a rocky highland called the Burren, apparently the same basic rock formation as the Aran Islands, probably once linked by a causeway. Here is a photo of some flowers by a ruined church wall at the bottom of the hills.

We stopped at one scenic point where Chris and I scrambled to the top of a hill in search of a rock cairn that was on the map. We found it! And here you see Chris lurking inside, if you look really carefully. Chris seems to like crawling inside of small spaces and caves -- he spent most of his time at Blarney Castle crawling around these caves underneath it that were used for dungeons.

On top of the Burren, there were several neolithic portal tombs. People are still arguing about whether they were primarily tombs, or maybe more general places of worship, where people happened to get buried, not unlike a church and churchyard today. Which brings up another interesting thing. Most of the ruined churches we saw had not been used for centuries as churches, but the church yards are mostly still being used for burials by the people who live around them. Interesting union of past and present.

Here is one that we stopped to look at.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kissing the blarney stone

Although it is probably one of the corniest bits of all lore about Ireland, we did indeed go to Blarney Castle, which is actually rather impressive. You can see it in back of Chris in this photo.

Only half our group decided to climb all the way to the top of the castle where the Barney Stone is located. My brother Jack, Sandy, Chris and I all trucked up a very narrow, windy circular stair to the top. Sort of standard fair in tall castles, but this one seemed even narrower than most. Ironic since it gets among the heaviest traffic.

Once we got to the top, there was quite a line of people waiting to kiss the famous stone. Fortunately the view is nice.

At that point, both Sandy and Jack opted out of the actual stone kissing. It involves lying on your back, leaning out over the edge of the castle downwards and backwards, holding on to a couple of nice metal handrails, and trying to kiss the silly stone. However, it was fun. One of those 99 things to do before you die.

Palatial living near Cork

We stayed two nights between Blarney and Cork in the most amazing place, Maranatha House, a few miles from Blarney Castle. It is easily the grandest house I have ever stayed in, now working as a B&B. Our hostess was named Olwen, like a heroine of medieval Welsh romance. (How few Olwens one meets these days.)

Here is a photo of Sandy by the bed of our suite, with a jacuzzi in the background -- a bit anachronistic for an 188os manor house that is otherwise all decorated in grand Victorian style, but nice.

Here is my sister Nola in the room she shared with my other sister Carol.

Here is a view of the outside of the house from its lawn and garden. It is not quite as spectacular on the outside as the inside, but together with the grounds, it was quite impressive. Made me think I was temporarily living in some English country comedy of manners set or something. But lots of fun for a change.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kinvara and Aran Islands

We stayed in an unbelievably quaint village south of Galway called Kinvara. This photo shows the front of our hotel, the Merriman, and the main street of the town.

During the day we went up to Galway, to catch a bus, to catch a ferry, to go to the Aran Islands, which Sandy had always wanted to do. After we got there, we signed on for a mini-bus tour around the island, which at about eight miles long, is a bit too long to walk, and some of our party are getting on a bit for doing it by bicycle. Since we were the first people on the bus, we could specify a bit what we wanted to see. So we asked for the Beehive huts, some very primitive rock huts from before 1000 A.D. that Irish religious hermits lived it. We had to walk through a series of cow pastures, dodging cow patties, to get there. But they were pretty cool as you can see here.

They really weren't too bad. Here are Sandy and Chris standing in one. At least you could stand up in it. But your heating, cooling, and lighting options were pretty limited.

The other most famous thing on the island is a large, very old ring fort at the top of a mountain. It was used by several different groups since 1000 BC to after 1000 AD. Here is Sandy standing quite a bit down hill from it as we climbed up.

The fort used to stand on the edge of a cliff. Here you can see the cliff, which drops over 300 feet -- enough to make me nervous and I am not particularly afraid of heights.

But the cliff has sheared off several times over the years, taking parts of the fort with it. Here is a picture of Chris standing where the wall of the fort meets the edge of the cliff now. Pretty breath- taking drop.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trim Castle

Heading west across Ireland, we drove through the Boyne Valley. Here is a view of the Boyne in Trim. There, we also came to Trim Castle. Apparently one of the biggest Anglo Norman castles, it was used as background for some of the scenes in Braveheart, which was supposed to be in Scotland, but that's Hollywood.

Here are my sister Nola and Sandy striking a pose in front of it.

Newgrange in Ireland

One of the most amazing things in Ireland is nothing Celtic or modern but the neolithic tomb site at Newgrange, built around 3200 B.C. It is a huge tomb built by neolithic people that we know little else about.

Here you can see Shirley my sister-in-law, Sandy and Chris standing about 50 yards in fron the huge structure.

One of the most interesting things about Newgrange is that it is designed so that only at the winter solstice, sun comes in through the upper transom you see here and illuminates the inner chamber for a few minutes. That seems like remarkable scientific knowledge for stone age people in 3200 B.C.

Here in front of the tomb entrance is a lintel stone carved in mysterious spirals that no one knows what they mean, but that many people have guessed about. Inside the tomb there are many other carvings, including a triple spiral that shows up on a lot of the jewelry that they are trying to get people to buy all over Ireland. I guess it is supposed to give the jewelry buyers an idea that they are getting in touch with their ancient, pre-Stonehenge, pre-Pyramids ancestral shamanic selves.

Snarkiness about commercial exploitation aside, it is a pretty cool place.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Giants' Causeway

Here is Chris striking a pose at the site of an old Led Zeppelin album cover. (Houses of the Holy for those of you who care about such things.) Otherwise known as Giants' Causeway, the main tourist attraction of northern Ireland.

It sits on a magnificent headland on the north coast of northern Ireland, which you can see here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Road to the Isles, Green Wellies

The Duke of Argyll, head of the Campbells, still lives in this castle, Inveraray. We visited, had lunch in the tea shoppe, took photos, admired the extensive collection of family portraits by famous artists, the enormous china collection, and lots of spears, claymores, pole-arms, etc. The complete lived-in-castle experience, in short.

After that we drove through a lot of Scotland, headed toward Glasgow. We saw many lochs, lots of mountains, and even more sheep. We stopped for a break a Green Wellies car stop, which seem to favor green rubber Wellington boots as their symbol. Even Green Wellies had a lot of white woolies in back of it, as you can see in the photo.

As we approached Glasgow, I was reminded of something that Sandy found on the Internet even before we left for Scotland. The ancestral village of Bulgley Renfrew, where Gardners lived for a couple of centuries before coming to the U.S. is now underneath the Glasgow airport. You can see a freeway sign right after the airport for what is left of other parts of Renfrew.

Sic transit gloria ancestral village.

High school band in Scotland

I wonder if it would be more fun to be in high school in band in Scotland, where you could really torture the passersby with a bagpipe.

Wandering around after dinner in Oban on the coast we ran into a high school pipe band practicing marching on the street. It seemed really exotic until I saw a really familiar type to contextualize it a bit -- a band Mom holding a plastic bucket for contributions. The high school band fund-raiser may transcend all cultural boundaries after all.

Castle Stalker, ruined churches and Oban

We discovered in Scotland that we were pretty much all suckers for romantic ruined castles on lochs, which are fortunately a Scottish specialty. This is Castle Stalker, which we made our tour guide and driver, Mark, turn around and go back to so we could have a good look at it. Some clever boots had put a restaurant and gift shop on the best view point, so it was a welcome rest stop anyway. We have been putting lots of miles on the small van he is driving us around in, so leg stretching, castle viewing breaks are always welcome.

We kept going after Castle Stalker, on to another Scottish specialty ruins of churches and even cathedrals. Here are Sandy, Chris, and my brother Jack exploring the ruins of the chapel by Castle Dunstaffnage, close to Oban, where we spent the night.

Chris was feeling his oats after a long day in the car, so here he is hamming it up in a window of that same church.

Oban is beautiful little town on the west coast of Scotland, where you can take ferries out to the Western Isles. This is the view from our hotel there.

Canals, rivers, lochs, locks and Loch Lochy

We drove down the Great Glen in Scotland a couple of days ago. It is a long valley with a whole series of rivers, often with canals alongside, connecting into lakes or lochs.

Here is a canal, with a whole mixed bag of people using it, from kayakers to bicyclists on the tow path, not to mention actual ships, mostly pleasure boats that cruise the lochs and canals. The various boats and ships get from lochs to canals via locks, which raise ships to a higher level of the canal about 15 feet at a time by closing a gate behind the ship and raising the water level with hydraulics.

Here is a picture of one we explored. You can see a ship about ready to get raised up to the next level. You can also possibly see my brother Jack, the engineer, looking on with interest at the top.

To complete the linguistic silliness, this ship is leaving Loch Lochy to get raised up to the canal. The Loch was the scene to a nasty clan battle hundreds of years ago, but it looks placid enough in this photo.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Loch Ness, Castle Urquhart

After we left Inverness, we headed back down south through the Scottish highlands past Loch Ness. Chris and I had fun skipping rocks on Loch Ness as you can see here.

I found the highlands combination of lochs/lakes and mountains incredibly evocative. They reminded me in many ways of the Norwegian fjords, which are some of my favorite natural sites on the planet. The next photo shows just one example.

The next photo shows Urquhart Castle, on Loch Ness.

It is the ultimate winner for best romantically distressed ruin of a castle in a dramatic setting. We tramped all over the castle, with Chris doing his best imitation of a young mountain goat, leaping about on the rocks, giving Sandy fits.