Part II: Further Outskirts of England and Beyond into the Celtic Nations
Here’s the good thing about Cornwall: here you can see castles, hill forts, and learn about pixie lore. The bad thing, however, is that Cornwall is a bit of a hike from places like London and Avebury. Located on the furthest southwest corner of Britain, Cornwall has breathtaking coastal towns as well as lush wooded areas. Its history combines the mystique of Celtic culture and the excitement of pirates (who doesn’t love a Druidic/Pirate mash-up?). Stone circles, castles, sheep, more sheep, pirates and tea are just a few of the joys that can be savored while visiting Cornwall. One of the hotspots to visit is Tintagel – here you will find the ruins of Tintagel Castle, which according to Arthurian tales is the scene where Merlin used sorcery and shapeshifting and King Arthur was born. During the time of Roman occupation in Britain, Tintagel was most likely a Celtic Chieftain stronghold turned monastery, and was probably a place where people were allowed to keep their Celtic ways. What remains on the site now are the ruins of a Norman castle, which are a stunning site indeed. The ruins of the castle face the Atlantic coast, and the local village has quaint stops for tea and scones. Not far from the ruins is Merlin’s Cave, another supposed residence of Merlin’s while Arthur was at Tintagel. For information on Tintagel and the surrounding areas, you can visit: http://visitboscastleandtintagel.com. I also highly recommend reading through the different sites on http://www.historic-cornwall.org.uk, which shows love and devotion to chronologically ordered archeological sites in Cornwall (Neolithic to Medieval). Not only does it show you where the sites are located, but shares a detailed history and descriptive information about each site. Amongst my favorites are Men-an-tol and the stone circle “Nine Maidens,” both located near Penzance. Men-an-tol has quite a history to it, having the reputation for curing illness, fortune telling, and generating nature spirits. But what is most striking about men-an-tol is that it is a large round stone with a large round hole right through the middle of it. One can almost imagine using it as a window to the Otherworld, or a telescope into etheric presences in the skies.
Cardiff and Caerleon, Wales
If you were to drive due west from Avebury for about an hour, you would arrive in Wales, where I believe you would encounter some of the finest natural settings in the UK; nay, in the European Continent. Bright green hills, the lush, beautiful forests of the Brecon Beacons to the South, and the white-capped Snowdonian Mountains to the North, are all just part of the viewing pleasure in Wales. It is a wonderful, mystical landscape where people interested in everything from camping, to golf, to faerie folklore and Arthurian legend can find themselves fascinated and entertained. Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has plenty of things to offer – not to mention, it is a great point to get to other travel locations in Wales. Cardiff has a stunning, ancient castle, rightly named Cardiff Castle, with walls dating back to Roman occupation. Cardiff truly is a gem in Wales as it effortlessly combines a historical past of castles and chivalry with all the amenities and progression of a modern city. Not to mention, the thought that Jack from Torchwood may pass you on the street is enough to have you visiting for at least a week. Only thirty minutes north from Cardiff is the town of Caerleon. Here is an area commonly associated with Arthurian legend—as medieval scholar and writer Geoffrey of Monmouth sites it as the location where King Arthur sets up Camelot. Although no evidence exists to support the idea that Arthur truly held court here, the Roman ruins have often been said to resemble the Round Table.
Carreg Cennen, Brecon Beacons, Wales
Before moving northwards through Wales, a stop at the Brecon Beacons is a must. On the west corner of Brecon Beacons sits an admirable castle from the 12th or 13th century: Carreg Cennen. Called haunting, fantastical, and mystical by visitors, Carreg Cennen is said to look like a residence of the fey. However, according to legends, it was actually where King Uriens and his son Owain of Arthurian legend resided. The location is easy to reach by car or train; and one bed and breakfast named Ty Cefn Tregib offers Mongolian Yurts for accommodation. Their website is: http://www.tregib.co.uk. If you are looking for something a little more western, try the Cawdor Arms Hotel up the from Tregib. While at Brecon Beacons, there are plenty of trails to visit as well as many ancient sites on which you can explore and get lost on for weeks.
Gwynedd and the Snowdonian Mountains
Gwynedd is the northwest region of Wales and embraces a majority of the Snowdonian Mountains as well as touches the Irish Sea. Gwynned is a massive area to cover, but is worthy of time and exploration, as the Snowdonian Mountain Range is a beautiful landscape where it’s easy to get lost in fantastical thoughts. Well, it’s actually just easy to get lost there in general. But what a place to get lost, and in a location where a good majority of the population speak Welsh language as well! Mountains, and lakes, and beaches, pixies and poets – these are just some of the bounties of Gwynned. And here, we also come full circle from the Buffy remarks in the introduction as there is a beach in Gwynedd called “Hell’s Mouth.” Hillfort Dinas Emrys and Lake Llyn Dinas are located near the town of Beddgelert, and here we find a scene connected with Arthurian Legend. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, he tells a tale of the King Vortigern summoning Merlin to his castle at Dinas Emrys, where two sleeping dragons slept underneath the fortification. Archaeological evidence does show that the fort dates back to about 400AD. If you are looking for an undertaking in the Snowdonian Mountains, consider staying at Tremeifion Vegetarian Hotel – a small and beautiful bed and breakfast serving vegetarian and vegan dishes from food harvested in their own organic garden and orchard. They’re only a drive away from the path that will lead you to the summit of Snowdon, the highest peak in all of Wales. Or, for those seeking inspiration, you can travel south of Snowdon to Cader Idris, another mountain peak in the Snowdonian Mountains. In past traditions, bards would sleep at Cader Idris, hoping to become inspired by it. And, today, it is believed that anyone who sleeps on the slopes of Cader Idris alone will wake up either a poet or a madman. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, as this place is also said to be the residence of faeries. Additionally, Gwyn ap Nudd from the Welsh tales in the Mabinogion used this region as his hunting grounds and stumbled upon an entrance to the Otherworld here. A nicely written blog on Snowdonian travel can be found at http://www.visitsnowdonia.wordpress.com.
In the absolute opposite direction of Cornwall and Wales is the wonderful northern town of York. York has an extensive, ancient, and diverse history, and having been home to Romans and Vikings, this beautiful town offers many ancient and medieval sites to visit. Located in the northeastern region of England, a train ride to York from Manchester presents a stunning view of the green Yorkshire Dales. Seeing the Yorkshire Dales is a lovely and peaceful experience – a landscape of rolling hills of various shades of green dotted with the white poofs of sheep herds, it is unlike anything in America. I also believe that this is where you can breathe in the sweetest and freshest air in all of England. `York City Wall runs through the city and remains from Roman builders, while the Roman Tower reveals the remnants of a Roman fort. Jorvik Viking Centre is on the archaeological site of the 10th century Viking settlement in York and offers year-round exhibits on Viking life in York. They host the annual Viking Festival, where fans of the Scandinavian explorers/pillagers come to enjoy a week of reenactment, archery, storytelling, traditional costume and activities for children and adults alike. Well worth visiting are the preserved medieval streets called The Shambles, which won Most Picturesque Street in Britain in 2010. There are also nightly ghost tours where participants walk around to York’s most reputable haunts. Although it is not the epicenter of party life, the pubs and historical buildings are simply stunning and have Yorkshire Dale charm. Tea and scones with clotted cream are served at every tea shop; and if you’ve ever wanted to brave tasting blood sausage, it is an easy find in York.
Northumberland National Park and Hadrian’s Wall
http://www.rockart.ncl.ac.uk. For more information on visiting Hadrian’s Wall, go to http://www.hadrians-wall.org, or for information on Northumberland National State park, go to http://www.northumberlandnationalstatepark.org.
Maeshowe has been called the Egypt of the north and an architectural achievement of prehistoric peoples in Scotland. It is a chambered cairn that is dated to approximately 2700 BCE, and appears as a large, grassy mound. No bodies were found in here, but Vikings did indeed break into Maeshowe 3000 years after its creation, leaving behind so much graffiti on the walls that it is the largest collection of runic inscriptions outside of Scandinavia. For the visitor with the ability to interpret the runes, you may blush at the language that these Vikings left behind, or get a good chuckle depending on your sense of humor. The entrance to Maeshowe is low and long, leading into a rounder, open room that then has three side chambers. One can be creative and liken the four chambers to those of the heart, while others enjoy focusing on the incredible brilliance of the arrangement of the opening to the chamber. Each winter solstice, the light of the sun is aligned with the entrance of Maeshowe, thus illuminating the back wall of the main chamber. It is as though the constructors of Maeshowe were able to recreate a shamanic birthing process, and like the birth of the Sun King on the Winter Solstice, those who exit the womb-like chamber can liken the experience to that of rebirth as well. Pretty deep. The Ring of Brodgar is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), the Brodgar Ring is the same exact size as Avebury’s two inner rings. Although only 24 stones of the original 60 remain, the Ring of Brodgar exhibits cryptic runic inscriptions known as twig runes, which still are up to interpretation by scholars. Legend has it that the Ring of Brodgar was known as the “Temple of the Sun,” while the Standing Stones of Stenness were known as the “Temple of the Moon.” Skara Brae is a large, stone built Neolithic settlement, which was occupied between 3180 BCE and 2500 BCE. Due to its proximity to the ocean, time covered it with coastal sand, leading the eight dwellings of Skara Brae some of the best preserved relics of a faraway past. Archaeological finds include pottery, bone pins, and even fungi which were most likely used for medicine. Some have even reported seeing ghostly balls of light, or will’o’wisps appear at Skara Brae. Fortunately, these four sites all happen to be in close proximity to each other, and renting a vehicle out of Kirkland will get you to the sites in less than thirty minutes.
Since this article has focused on visiting castles, how about staying in one while in the Orkney Islands? Balfour Castle is in Shapinsay, and they will even arrange a helicopter for your travels to the tiny island that the castle sits on: http://www.balfourmembers.com/. A very insightful website chock full of information about Orkney is: http://www.orkneyjar.com/index.html. It is a wonderful place to feel inspired by the tales, legend and culture of an island that has had inhabitants for thousands and thousands of years. For further assistance with traveling to the Orkney Islands, visit: http://www.visitorkney.com/.
Although I find some sort of twisted pleasure in recommending you to take a ferry to the far northern Islands of Orkney and the snowy peaks of the Snowdonian Mountains, I hope you consider making the effort to see some of the places I’ve recalled here. Most of these places are just a simple excursion from major cities in Britain and can be a pleasurable and short journey. I feel these places are some of the most intriguing and fulfilling for your mystical journey through the wonderful land of Britain. My hope is that you are inspired to ramble further, to dig deeper, and to be willing to take that journey on the back of a sheep truck to see a specific spiral stone carving or sleep in a bed and breakfast that purportedly sits on a ley line. Whether or not you can make it to all the locations is up to you: each location offers such a magnificent sense of magic and myth, that my hope is you return from your voyages feeling like you’ve gone on a pilgrimage, similar to the ones those who would’ve visited Avalon for.