Sunday, July 25, 2010

Castles: Hever and Arundel

You know, the UK has some terrible weather, but this summer has been a ripper so far. It's been hot and has hardly rained. This is what I signed on for. I've got quite a good tan going, if you can believe it.

This is Hever Castle, which is one of the 3 "Kent castles" to the south of London. I went there for a day out with my friends D & T, ponst whose floor I slept when I first arrived in England.

Hever Castle

It was a wonderful, sunny day, but the castle was pretty quiet. That may've had something to do with England playing Germany that afternoon in the World Cup. I possibly enjoyed that day more than anyone else in the country.

Hever was the former home of Anne Boleyn. It has a hidden chapel, dating from when Elizabeth I was persecuting the Catholics. Having grown up on Enid Blyton novels, I'm fascinated by the idea of secret passages hidden in old buildings. This wasn't exactly a traditional "priest hole", but it was pretty cool.

A more recent addition is the water maze, which is a maze on raised stone slabs that trigger water jets when stepped upon.

After that, we rented a row boat and sploshed around on the lake. It was quite idyllic. Great day.

Last weekend, there was a special deal on train tickets heading south, so I took a trip down to Arundel Castle which is near the south coast. Hever is a bit of a toy castle, but Arundel is huge.

Arundel is the historic home of the Howard family, which included ... Anne Boleyn. Yeesh, that lass got around more castles than moats.

Arundel began as a fairly typical round Norman motte and bailey keep after the Battle of Hastings (1066).

However, it expanded dramatically over the centuries.

The day that I went happened to be Pirate Day, so I watched some displays of sword fighting and musketry, and saw "the Shadow", who is a highwayman. I wonder if she hates squirrels?

The Shadow

The castle was cool, but at 16 pounds, it was pretty damn expensive and large sections are inaccessible because the family lives there. The information is very much focused on the Howard family, while some sort of national context to the history might be more relevant to most visitors.

After I'd finished at the castle, I went to Arundel Cathedral. It's pretty big but I was unimpressed by the interior. In the foyer, they had an interesting biography of the current Pope, but it strangely skipped mentioning what he was up to in 1939-45 and in the 1980s. I wonder what Ratzinger was up to then? I'm sure it was something selfless and beneficial to mankind, but due to his modesty he doesn't want it mentioned. Great guy.

Arundel Cathedral

Monday, July 5, 2010

Scotland (VII): Mulling over Staffa

We took a boat trip to the Isle of Mull, and from there a second, longer boat trip out to an island called Staffa. Staffa has a cave called Fingal's Cave that has stone structures similar to those at the Giant's Causeway in Ireland.

It's famous in its own right, but also for a symphony that Mendelssohn wrote after visiting the cave. It is impressive. The volcanic stone has formed into patterns that look quite man-made.

Less expected, but more interesting, the island of Staffa has puffins. They spend almost the entire year at sea, and they can't land on the island or the seagulls will kill them. But the puffins know that if people are around, the gulls will keep their distance, so for a month or 2 each year, the puffins will come and land on the island if there are people around.

They are like nothing I've seen before, and they act quite tame. You can get very close to them.

Scotland (VI): Damn you, Campbells!

Pretty much every clan history in Scotland has the same ending:

"And everyone was living happily, until one day some Campbells came along and killed them, and stole their castle."

The Campbells were the Ngati Toa of Scotland; complicit with the English and ruthless. The most famous example of this was at Glencoe, where the MacDonalds were massacred by the Campbells in 1692 on orders from the English. There isn't a lot to see there, but we went for a walk through woods that were very pretty.

Stream at Glencoe

Highland Coo

At the south end of Loch Tay, we paused in Killin just long enough to sneak onto the burial island of the MacNabs. They were a bunch of tough-arses (the MacNab emblem is the disembodied head of one of their neighbours), but as so often happened, they were given a bit of bif by ... the Campbells.

The MacNab Tomb

The same thing happened to the MacLeans, whose Duart Castle, on the Isle of Mull, was taken and destroyed by the Campbells. It was rebuilt last century.

Duart Castle

Further into Argyll, we visited Castle Lachlan, the former castle of the MacLachlans. It was destroyed with cannons after the Battle of Culloden. It's a great castle to visit: there are few people and you can climb around inside it. It's a pain to drive to, though.

Slightly against rule, the MacLachlans had their land returned to them after the Campbells interceded on their behalf. Maybe I had those Campbells all wrong?

Scotland (V): Skye

Just before reaching the west coast, we passed Eilean Donan. It's possibly the most famous castle in Scotland, I believe ever since the Dexys Midnight Runners' song "Don on Eilean". It's the home of the MacRae's.

Despite the causeway, this became the second castle that we sneaked into without paying. It's just as well we weren't a mob of filthy Campbells, sneaking in to kill the MacRae's in their sleep.

Just past Eilean Donan, we crossed onto the Isle of Skye.

We paused to visit Caisteal Maol, a castle ruin that was owned by a Scandinavian princess. They draped a huge chain across the loch here, as a way of stopping boats to pay a toll.

We attempted to do a drive across Skye to do a hill climb, but foul weather thwarted that, so we headed south and took the ferry to Mallaig, a town back on the mainland.

We paused at Glenfinnan viaduct, hoping to see the steam train cross it. From the car, we had seen what looked like steam rising into the air, but we waited for ages and nothing arrived. When we drove on, we passed a group of fire engines putting out a fire. That was probably the phantom steam we saw.

If the viaduct seems familiar, it may be because you've been watching movies about a boy wizard.

New Year's Eve

Okay, so it's halfway through the year and I still haven't posted this. I'm going to hide it in amongst the Scotland stuff, and hope no-one notices it.

If you recall, I spent Xmas in Thailand. I went to this swanky expat party for new years eve. I'm sitting there, getting quietly drunk on wine someone else paid for, which turns out to be the best sort. I've probably got duck confit on my face, but none on my shirt, so it's about the best behaviour you could expect from me.

Anyway, at one of the other tables I hear a loud voice shout "Where? Where is this straight man?", and before I could unblur my vision I was being dragged forward to pose for photos as the token heterosexual. I am so sick of being singled out because of my sexuality.

It's lucky I had that yellow hat on, or I might've looked quite the fool.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Scotland (IV): The Clearing of the Highlands

When we visited the former farm at Knock Hill, we visited the nearby Marnoch Old Church, where there is a family connection. It was very pleasant.

This unassuming church played quite an important role in the Disruption, which was a 19th century schism in the Church over whether the landowner or congregation members should be allowed to choose the minister.

I assume this has parallels to the "Clearing of the Highlands".

In the middle of the 19th century, a lot of land in the Highlands was owned by powerful landowners, while the majority of people were poor tenants. The landowners realised that they could make more money by kicking the people off, and farming the land heavily. This drove people to the urban centres, and resulted in a lot of the Scottish immigration around the world at that time.

Late in the trip, we did a detour to drive around Loch Tay to a tiny town called Lawers. The former town of Lawers was emptied in the Clearing, and we went to find it. It was quite special.

We walked down a little farm road, to the shore of the lake.

At the bottom were a collection of desserted crofts: the former town of Lawers.

It was a very peaceful place, but also had an air of sadness about it. While I was stumbling around looking at the buildings, I snagged my jersey on a rose bush and then flailed my way through a patch of nettles. I then also had an air of sadness about me.