Friday, March 8, 2013

Travels in England -- North Cornwall and Glastonbury, Somerset

Tracking Ruthie on her travels in England (and soon in Wales), I know the first stop she and her companions were going to make was Lanhydrock House close to Bodmin, Cornwall, and later, Port Isaac, Cornwall, better known as "Port Wenn" in Doc Martin. Farther north for a short drive, also on the beautiful, wild Cornish coast, is Tintagel. Unfortunately, no photos survived the wind on the day I visited a few years ago. My travel companion was Fooh, a small, English bear, from Salisbury. Quite shy because of a disfigured ear (chewed off by the family Labrador at the Old Mill B&B, before he was graciously offered to me), he is slowly warming up to the idea of cross-country adventures with a crazy American lady 'who keeps bumping the left wheels of the car against the curb'.
~ ~ ~

Excerpts from "Crazy American Lady: Adventures through England and Wales" by A.S. DeWitt MacAngel

Old proverb says too much on plate
Rewards the pig but makes you late.

17th century gatehouse at Lanhydrock estate. The house, now a
rebuilt Victorian after an 1881 fire, has a few remainders of the
 "new" 1620 Tudor house--this includes the long gallery over
the original earlier farmhouse.
  Over the wide, low-rolling Bodmin moor to the wild north coast, we are reminded that prehistoric humans roamed the moors and there are burial chambers amid bleak landscapes with the occasional welcoming farmhouse. Walkers go forth!
   Tintagel is very busy and I don’t even know where the castle is. I finally park and have coins for only one hour. As it is freezing cold and the wind almost knocks me over, I won’t be going out to any old ruins out there somewhere. Funny, I now turn them into ‘any old ruins’ when faced with the prospect of drudgery...these old ruins have been a major focal point of my travel plans!
  Fooh opts for a tourist-watching experience, so off I go to the old Tintagel Post Office, the oldest cottage in town: quaint and rocky with tiny stairs, low ceilings, adorable deep windows, built in the 1300s and on. It grew from a medieval three-room-through passage house, open to thatched roof, to a 1600s house with parlor and chamber above, to a 1900s with more fireplaces, porches, lean-to, barn, and front and back gardens. It is thought that the other early houses here were burned to clear plague infection. The wonderful undulating rag-slate roof is caused by being built with green timber, which subsequently twisted like my own 2006 Idaho Fir deck.
   The ladies point me in the right direction for the castle I have time on the meter? No, but am I game for taking a chance? Yes.
   As I head out the peninsula, following a stream with a path leading steeply downward and the wind blowing like an ice bear, the Mists of Avalon are pulling me closer toward Igraine (i-göe-na), Gorlois, Merlin and the treacherous and exciting rapist, King Uther (yu-ther). The path dips deeper and I keep thinking walkers could just as easily have headed straight out the peninsula, instead of down and then what...up to the castle? At the end, the sea is a frenzy of foamy waves, whipping the cliffs and rocks.
   There is a tearoom and I ask, ‘Where is the castle?’ ‘Up there! But they won’t let you on the island.’ I think, what island? Are they nuts? I have to climb straight up and up and up, til I reach a cage, where three men are hanging onto the metal bars. There is a bridge that leads to the ruins, which they won’t let me walk on. ‘You’d get blown away!’ they shout.
    Disappointment reigns big here on the cage and I wonder why it’s called an island? They explain that the water, over the years, has eaten away the land in-between one part of the castle and the headland part. With high tide, it becomes an island. Merlin’s cave used to be down there and the castle was built across it. This ruin is a later medieval castle, built over the earlier (Arthur) one.
   They tell me I can climb up the stairs to the landside of the ruins. So, with my small backpack blowing sideways to unbalance my climb and me gripping onto the frozen metal bars, I step-by-step drag myself up to the top, all the while thinking how exciting this is, that in the 400s, the knights would have experienced this wind and water and wave. The people arriving by boat would have climbed up this way from the beach. Miraculously, I get to the top and walk about in a dream-world. Here I am in the Dark Ages, feeling the chill as Igraine and her ladies sit and wait for the men...spinning, talking and themselves dreaming. They aren’t wearing the skin-revealing dresses they wear in movies—they are wrapped in hand-dyed woolens and un-dyed homespun, and I commiserate with their slightly frozen fingertips, like I have all winter in my Idaho house. When they go to the bathroom, they must somewhat bare their bottoms to a chill, especially with that wind creeping in through every cranny.
   The wind sucks my breath as I imagine the men riding the isolated, rugged moors toward the castle, in bleak cold. I almost gave up this quest...but something pulled me here...I needed to experience that ancient way of survival on the Cornish coast ~
  Running late and afraid of getting a parking ticket, I do a difficult uphill half gallop, half lumber up to the street. No ticket, possibly because Fooh says when he saw the meter maid, he jumped up and fussed about like he was getting ready to go. I tell him he may prove to earn his chocolate biscuits if he keeps this up. We spend the rest of the day running to properties across north Devon to Somerset and spend the night in Glastonbury...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Specter of a druid had roamed from the Tor to Glastonbury Abbey.
  Glastonbury Abbey is first on my excursion list today and Fooh tucks himself into my pack ‘just for the ride’. A pleasant monk directs me around the well-presented exhibit on history and archeological finds then we’re out the door to see the ruins. Glastonbury was originally recorded as Glestingaburg, referring most likely to a monastic enclosure. I believe the earliest name was the old Celtic Ineswitrin, named by the grandson of the early fourth century Welsh leader, Cunedda  (Kun-aytha). The old record I come upon later is in Latin, which I can barely decipher. So, the early name I get is Unigutrin (Glass Isle) and later, Glastigbri, from the Celtic Glastinco, which I think was someone’s name.
   King Ine of Wessex endowed a monastic community and had the church built in 712 CE, the foundations of which are here in the west end of the nave.
  When the Normans took over, there were some bloody shenanigans committed near the altar. The Domesday Book of 1086 names Glastonbury as the wealthiest monastery in Britain and those shenanigans may have had something to do with that wealth—they often did. The town grew around the abbey and depended on it through the Middle Ages.
    King Arthur legends are connected with this area and during the medieval times, monks claimed they found the grave of Arthur and Guinevere; the grave and relics were misplaced during the dissolution of the monasteries, but there is a site near the old abbot’s kitchen which is marked as the found grave. Fooh suspects, along with others, that the monks made it up, as relics in those days brought fame and fortune to an abbey.
  Somerset itself means summer settlement, as the levels around the big Tor were too wet in winter to live here. A network of tracks connected settlements that were sometimes built on crannogs, man-made islands. The Sweet Track, constructed around 3800 BCE (Before Common Era), has been discovered west of here. This ancient causeway was built of wooden poles, each crossed into a Y and driven into the marshy soil to support half planks of oak, flat side up, to walk on. The reason this has been found is the peat is drying out and since medieval times, at least four meters of peat-cover have been lost. At this rate, other tracks and ancient sites will be exposed to air and decay.
The Tor
  I have some fat to work off, before it goes to my hips, so we set out for the Tor. The ancient town center is intriguing but noisy, with a lot of vagrant teens and early twentiers, who look like the sixties...runaways, unwashed, druggy and hungry. This is a witchy and mystical place, and Fooh is intrigued with the crystals, purple and gold sorcerers and baubled wands in the windows.
   I get onto a path, with several stiles and gates, which lead us out of the village and into trees and grassy knolls. The walk up is steep and made especially difficult by the steps, which they want me to stay on. My knees hate stairs after awhile...I like to take little upward hiking steps, bent over in a squat. Beware the stairs and sneak if you must—it’s not that busy—and mark that this is the steep side; there are two paths.
  There is a serious reason to stay on the steps though. This was a rolling sandstone plain where dinosaurs romped and took their sweeties to the local watering hole, an artesian well that has been flowing at 25,000 gallons a day for 65 million years. The water of the well is rich in iron and as millennia passed, the water flowed downward, spreading into a cone over the area of sandstone directly underneath. The iron water imbued this sandstone with a strength that the surrounding sandstone lacked. As the softer sandstone eroded, the hardened, iron-rich sandstone remained, until the Tor stood high and alone.
  There are other small tors, but this is the granddaddy. The crux of this matter is that the wider bottom of the tor is of softer sandstone than the top, which is why the top gets pointier and to preserve the tor, the lower sandstone should not be disturbed.
  Here is the tower of St. Michael’s, which lends a Christian rather than pagan atmosphere. There is the tale of Joseph of Arimathea erecting a wattle chapel on the Tor; then Arthur built a fort. This second may be more to the point, because I believe Arthur would have been a pagan. I suspect it was pagan here for a long time and has certainly attracted them since it no longer holds an active Christian church. It is said that the stones of Arthur’s fort were used to build the first St. Michael’s; it fell down and was built again. In 1275, it fell during an earthquake and the stones were used for the abbey. Over the years, there has been postulation as to why the church kept collapsing.   
  There are too many people milling about here, but the Tor is wonderful. It used to be surrounded by water and is still boggy. You can see far off around the Somerset countryside. No matter where we are in this country, it seems we won’t have to go very far to get into a small village and be surrounded by farmland.
  A woman named Whinni befriends me and says, ‘The willows (Whinni of the Willows?) that grow all along the rhines below are “pollarded” and the withies are used to weave anything—baskets, lampshades, and wattle for fences.’ (Wattle, withies, willows, Whinni, weavy...I contain my mirth but can hear Fooh’s tittering behind my ears).   
  Whinni and Mag tell me that archeologists have unearthed the foundation of what looks like an ancient circular temple. The Tor has traditionally been considered a bridge between earth and sky, where the veil is the thinnest between the two. It is not surprising that people of many faiths and philosophies have found the Tor to be inspirational.
  As we take the longer, easier path down toward Wellhead Road, the seven terraces that encircle the Tor are more evident. I realize it is oval, not round, and the tip of the cone is way off center. These terraces have been traced to at least Neolithic times and it is not known if they were an ancient ritual labyrinth or created by its gradual watery birth.
   Through antiquity, the original well spring seeped its way from the top of the Tor to its lowland position beside it and here is the literally ‘old-as-the-hills’ ancient Chalice Well, ensconced in a beautifully landscaped and fenced garden. It has been capitalized on and of course I can’t help contributing to the loathsome scam. I buy a bottle of magic well water for my daughter, Rochelle, or 'Woo'. For future reference, I have called her Woo from her childhood and it’s not going to change now, even though she is over forty. So even though this is a woo-woo place, be forewarned that Woo is different from woo-woo.   
    I sit by the well, imagining the big, magical Oak that might have been here in 300-400 CE. The magic well has been fitted with an ornate iron-hinged door, which locks. It has many myths, usually associated with the red of the water. Naysayers now emphasize it is just the iron content, but my tube of water is not red. So what do they do—filter the water before they sell it as magic? I like the tale of the blood from the Holy Grail that has been buried here or the red blood flowing from Mother Earth. Fooh shows his practical side by saying perhaps the three quid they charge to see it would go down better if they simply left the iron alone or dyed the water so we could believe it is something.
   I take a few photos of it and some magical sheep on the meadow above and go away thinking that it’s difficult to get a sense of a holy grail in a magic well under a magic oak when they are set in a fenced, perfectly landscaped theme park, but there is always a schmuck like me who desperately wants the romance of the stories to be true ~

. Copyright © 2012 by A.S. DeWitt Angel.

No comments:

Post a Comment