A Discovery of Witches Tour of Oxford

I didn’t intend my trip to Oxford, England, to be a personal Discovery of Witches tour. As a HUGE fan of the trilogy written by my mentor, Deborah Harkness, I knew I had to see All Souls, New College and the Bodleian, but that was all I had in mind; I was there to see the rest of the city (including places where Inspector Lewis was filmed) and attend the Historical Novel Society conference.

But the literary gods had other plans in store for me.

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

After a hellacious trip over to England that included a full day’s delay due to mechanical and weather issues, lost luggage (thanks, American Airlines) and having to re-buy everything (makeup, toiletries, clothing, shoes, etc), my arrival at The Old Parsonage hotel was like coming home. The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and pointed my stinking, travel-weary self toward the shopping district and arranged for the hotel to launder the only clothes I had (the ones on my back) for free as soon as I procured others.

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

While I was looking for clothes, I stumbled across the Covered Market where Diana buys the ingredients for her dinner for Matthew. If I lived there, this would be part of my daily life and I really could eat the European way, with fresh food daily. There are over 60 independent shops within the market, including two that sell fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, a butcher, a bakery and a small fish market, in addition to shops selling clothes, leather goods and pretty much anything else you can think of. I was certainly charmed. And yes, I did find clothes, though just outside the Market on Cornmarket Street.

I had no idea the hotel was even a part of A Discovery of Witches until I ran across the guide produced by the Tenth Knot on the day I was due to change over to St. Anne’s College for the remainder of my stay. I chose to stay at The Old Parsonage because it is one of the best hotels in Oxford and has its own library – I mean, what writer can resist that? I will tell you it is very expensive (but I was only there for two nights, including the one I missed due to delays, grrrr…) but it is worth every penny, er, pence. The food is to die for (no wonder Matthew chose to get his meal for Diana from there) and they really do work hard to ensure you have the best experience possible. (Word of warning, those bathtubs are slippery and the staircases twist and turn like a castle tower.) I will certainly stay there again when I return to Oxford, which I have no doubt I will do.

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now...

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now…

I also ended up heading back to the Old Parsonage for afternoon tea with the Historical Novel Society and dinner with friends one night, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, so even if you can’t afford to stay there or don’t have time, you can still experience the magic.

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

I decided to do the places the farthest from my lodgings and walk my way back on my first day. Little did I know they also had DoW connections. My first stop was the Oxford Botanical Gardens. I had to see them mainly because a) I love flowers and b) it was the setting for the episode of Inspector Lewis that gave me my original physical inspiration for Annabeth in Been Searching for You. The gardens are beautiful, but much smaller than I imagined. If you go, don’t skip the hothouses as they have some amazing plants.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

Next, I hit Christ Church College/Cathedral, which is mentioned several times in the book. The grounds are beautiful, so if you go on a nice day, be sure to explore them. The cathedral itself is smaller than many in Europe, but the stones practically breathe history so it’s well worth the tour. The college is also home to the hall that inspired the one in Harry Potter, but I found it underwhelming.

While I was in the area, I also visited Merton College, which is where Alex teaches in Been Searching for You and is one of the many colleges Matthew has attended. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time I was there, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was cool to be able to see where one of my characters lived and worked, albeit four months after the book was published.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I'm pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I’m pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

By my second full day in Oxford, it was time to get serious to make sure I saw the two sites no fan can miss: All Souls College and New College, homes of Matthew and Diana, respectively. All Souls is only open from 2-4 p.m. on certain days of the week, so I lucked out having free time while it was open. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was Matthew’s abode. Consciously or unconsciously, Deb did a fantastic job matching the energy of the colleges with the characters. There are only a few parts open to the public, but what you can see is more than enough to leave a lasting impression. All Souls is very majestic and imposing, so it doesn’t take the imagination of a writer to picture a vampire stalking its halls and quadrangles. The chapel is surprisingly light-feeling, especially for all the gothic finery on the inside, and is to me a reflection of the human Matthew, while the rest fits his vampire self. I did not get to see the famed library, but studying there, a privilege not granted to many,  is now on my bucket list.

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

Walking from All Souls to New College, I got giddy realizing I was taking the exact route Matthew would have walked when stalking Diana. To get there, you pass underneath the bridge connecting two parts of Hertford College (known as the Bridge of Sighs, but it looks nothing like the one in Venice – trust me, I’ve seen it) and walk down New College Lane. The bridge is pretty, and I’m sure appreciated by Hertford students, especially in bad weather, but it’s pretty much just a photo op.

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

I fell in love with New College. Not only is it much more accessible to the public, it’s energy is much lighter – it feels like Diana. I’m not kidding. There’s a bit of an air of mystery to the place, but a playfulness as well. The chapel feels surprisingly heavy; it’s not a place I’d want to spend a lot of time, but the rest of the grounds are great. You can see the cloister (which is in the book), the gardens (also in the book) and the outsides of several buildings. I kept looking at the

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

windows, wondering which room was Diana’s. There’s a bit of a mystery in the garden: a mound which is forbidden to the public. Of course, that got my writer’s mind going. The porter told me there is no story behind it – it’s purely ornamental – but feels more like an ancient temple to me. I may write a book with that idea someday.

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

On Sunday, there was the pinnacle of any writer’s trip to Oxford: the Bodleian Library. Hard to believe that two weeks ago today I was drinking in the magic of that grand place. I purposefully took the extended, extended tour so that I could see the reading rooms that aren’t on the other tours. We started in the Divinity School, which was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter movies. I

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

have a thing for windows, so I was in love with that room. We moved on to the Congregation Room, which is supposedly the model for the House of Commons. I saw a ghost in there (swear to God – it wasn’t very clear but he was a young man, just hanging out on the other set of benches where no one from our tour was. That would be at least my third ghost on a trip to England; the other two were back in 1999).

Duke Humfrey's Library, via Wikimedia commons

Duke Humfrey’s Library, via Wikimedia commons

My favorite part was next. Duke Humphrey’s is second only to Trinity College’s Long Room in Dublin as my idea of heaven. Too bad you can’t take pictures. We started in the Arts End and saw way the books used to be chained up and shelved with their spines in. Then we moved through the part with the circulation desk and reading bays into The

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

Selden End. I thought I was going to faint. This area usually isn’t open to the public, but it was on this tour and we spent a good long while there, long enough that I could wander around and look up and the second floor, trying to picture exactly where Diana was when she used magic to call the book and which chair Matthew was sitting in. It is my goal to research there someday. I did convince the tour guide to let me take a blank call slip as a souvenir.

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Then we moved on to the Radcliffe Camera, which is cool, but somehow I expected more. It’s a round study area with computers and bookshelves. But believe me, if I went to school there, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to study in it. (Sidebar: one of my friends was staying longer in Oxford so she got a reader’s card and was actually able to research in the Bodleian. I’m dying of jealousy! Another thing to add to the bucket list!)

Blackwell's Exterior

Blackwell’s Exterior

After the tour was over (I never wanted it to end!), I went across the street to Blackwell’s bookstore to see where Diana had her whispered conversation with the daemon Agatha. If you go, don’t confuse this location with the cafe by the same

The second floor cafe at Blackwell's where Diana met with Agatha

The second floor cafe at Blackwell’s where Diana met with Agatha

name in the Weston Library. Both are across the street from the Bodleian, so it’s easy to mix them up. I did.

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

I was hoping to make it down to the river to see the boathouses, the bridge where Matthew watches Diana row, and the Isis Tavern (really called the Isis Farmhouse), especially since I took up rowing because of this book, but my legs just wouldn’t carry me. But I need something to do next time I go back, right?

And for those wondering – the conference was good, though I prefer the way the US conference organizes things, and I had a great time reuniting with my friends.

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

I’m hoping to get all my pictures up on Flickr soon, but given my crazy schedule of conferences and speaking engagements, it may well be a month or more before I’m able to. I also still need to post research photos of Chicago from two years ago when I wrote Been Searching for You, so I’ll let you know when that is done. I hope you enjoyed touring Oxford with me!

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Arthurian Legend Tour Part 10: Stonehenge and Avebury

Stonehenge from within the circle.

Stonehenge from within the circle.

Well, this is my last post on my Arthurian Legends tour of southern England. It’s kind of appropriate that it’s on two biggies: the impressive stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, which we saw on the same day, our last day in England.

Stonehenge
We were fortunate enough to get on the list to watch the sunrise inside the circle at Stonehenge. This meant a 3:30 a.m. wake up call, which came all too quickly. We all looked at each other with one eye open and then napped in the car. Unfortunately, no one told the weather gods to make it a nice day. It was overcast, which dulled out the sunrise and it was also very, very windy.

Maureen, "King Arthur," me, and Tres inside Stonehenge.

Linda, Maureen, “King Arthur,” me, and Tres inside Stonehenge.

We had as our guide a modern Druid who calls himself Arthur Pendragon and claims to be the incarnation of said king. (I know an author on Twitter who claims to be the incarnation of Guinevere. I keep thinking I should introduce the two and see if they remember each other.) He was very kind, told us all about the structure and led us in a Druid prayer called “the Druid’s Oath:”

We swear
By peace and love to stand
Heart to Heart and Hand in Hand
Mark O Spirit, and hear us now,
confirming this, our Sacred Vow.

I visited Stonehenge years ago when I was in college and I have to say, it is much more impressive inside the stones. They are so huge – at least 3 – 4 times the height of a man. Arthur told us that at least 1/3 of each stone is underground, so they are even larger than they appear. And still no one knows how they got to Salisbury Plane from Wales, where they were mined. Arthurian legend would have you believe Merlin brought them by magic, but I bet there was another explanation.

056Jaime made the interesting statement that despite it’s age, Stonehenge is younger than a lot of the circles we visited and was clearly built as some sort of display of power, and likely only used by an elite few. Its energy is very masculine, whereas many of the other circles have a more feminine energy and were built for use by all, regardless of rank. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been less interested in it than the others. It could also be that it feels more touristy. That’s no fault of the people who work there or how it’s maintained. I think it’s just a natural offshoot of it’s popularity and all the hype built up around it in pop culture.

Avebury

A small part of Avebury

A small part of Avebury

After breakfast, we visited Avebury. It’s a completely different site, both in terms of energy and geographic layout. Avebury is so huge, there’s no way you can take it all in at once. That’s why it’s usually photographed from the air; it’s the only way to get it all in one shot.

Jamie told us there were four places the ancient people of the area visited, each at a different season, a quarterly gathering of the tribes. The Sanctuary, a timber circle that is no longer standing, was the location for spring (Imbolc/Candlemas). Avebury was summer (Beltane). Silbury Hill was autumn (Lughnasa). West Kennet Long Borough, with its repository of the dead, was the gathering place in winter (Samhain).

The avenue

We started out walking the processional way or avenue, which is a series of stones that act almost like guideposts or pillars, welcoming you to the site. It is very impressive and must have been even more so in ancient times when there wasn’t as much around as there is today. Nearby (across the street, actually) is a hewn stone several times the size of a person. It is said that is where the high priestess sat to welcome the tribes as they gathered, walking up the avenue. I sat there and can testify that is has both the sight lines and the power to be a very commanding throne.

Me sitting on the "high priestess' seat" at Avebury.

Me sitting on the “high priestess’ seat” at Avebury.

One of the very interesting things about Avebury is that it’s actually three stone circles, one of which is the largest in Europe. The stones are considered either male or female, based on their shape and location. Today, the at least some of the land is owned by a herdsman, so there are sheep everywhere. They must be used to tourists, because they didn’t pay us any mind. The shepherd was actually out checking his flock while we were exploring the circles and he told us all about the white chalk that naturally occurs in the ground and how his family came to own the land and their agreement with the National Trust to keep it sacred for those who visit.

Tolkein's beech trees.

Tolkein’s beech trees.

An unexpected surprise for me on the site was getting to see the beech trees that J.R.R. Tolkein sat under when he wrote his books. Supposedly, they were the inspiration for the talking, moving trees in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had to get my picture taken under them and pray that some of the inspiration would rub off on me! It is a very serene spot and I can see how looking out over the hillside with the trees whispering above him would have made his imagination take flight.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

The last place we visited that day (since West Kennet Long Borough was closed) was Silbury Hill. It is very near Avebury. It’s a cone-shaped hill that is said to be around 5,000 years old. Today it’s covered in grass, but it was believed once to be chalk like the earth beneath. It’s the tallest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Like Stonehenge and Avebury, its purpose is unknown, but local folklore calls it the resting place of a King Sil, who was buried on horseback, with the hill raised up around him.

I hope you all have enjoyed traveling to Arthurian England with me. If I get to go to Scotland next summer like I hope, there will be more blog posts from that trip. It’s my aim to trace the final voyage of the Votadini as memorialized in the poem Y Gododdin. Cross your fingers that the grant I’m applying for (since the trip is research for book 3) comes through!

Have you ever been to Stonehenge, Avebury, or Silbury Hill? If so, what did you think of them? If not, what would you like to know? What have you read/seen about them in popular culture?

Arthurian England Part 8: Sacred Springs and Holy Wells (Part 2)

The altar at the ruins of St. Madron Chapel

The altar at the ruins of St. Madron Chapel

In my last post, I took you to two of the four sacred springs/holy wells we visited on my June trip to England. Today, we’ll explore the other two:

St. Madron’s Well

The baptistery where the spring surfaces at Madron. Until the 18th century, it was the only source of water for Madron and Penzence.

The baptistery where the spring surfaces at Madron. Until the 18th century, it was the only source of water for Madron and Penzance.

This lovely spring is one we visited after Tintagel. There is a sign at the entrance which says, “Don’t change the site. Let the site change you.” I know it is meant to stop people from taking things, leaving things or defacing property, but the sign really resonated with me. And it is a place that will change you.

The hawthorns that smelled so lovely

The hawthorn that smelled so lovely

This one had a much shorter walk from the road, compared to others. We were surrounded on both sides by wildflowers and hawthorn, which gave off a scent similar to amoretto.

The chapel itself is built over an old pagan site and only part of it remains. Someone had left a beautiful wreath of flowers on the altar. You could also see where the stream, which was dry the day we were there, flowed into a basin-like area that later became a baptistery. While I was disappointed that the sacred spring was dry, nearby, another spring came to the surface and people had left an array of ribbons to honor the spirit of the spring.

The where the energy felt like it was going to pull me back in time. The "gateway stones" in the foreground.

The where the energy felt like it was going to pull me back in time. The “gateway stones” in the foreground.

The area behind the chapel held a special kind of energy for me. There were two large stones that seemed to me like a gateway to another world. Standing there with them, I could totally understand how the stone in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander caused her main character to go back in time. These had a similar, strange energy to them. That is where I chose to leave my ribbon.

Jamie admiring the tall, ancient trees.

Jamie admiring the tall, ancient trees.

On the way out, we walked a different route through a stand of ancient trees. I can’t even begin to  describe how tall they were. I’ve never been to the redwoods in California, but I had an experience of awe looking up into these trees that I’d imagine is similar. They creaked and popped in the wind in a very ghostly way. I could have listened to it for hours. (I actually took video of them in case I use them in a future novel.)

Sancreed

Sancreed Holy Well

Sancreed Holy Well

This Cornish holy site is much like many of the others I’ve described, with the path lined with flowers and hawthorn. It also had a rocky, mossy area watched over by pines and oaks that looks exactly like I pictured the Beltane bower in my first book. I tried to get pictures, but none of them do its beauty justice.

One of the ancient Celtic crosses, rare for both its age and the fact that there's a crucifix on one side.

One of the ancient Celtic crosses, rare for both its age and the fact that there’s a crucifix on one side.

Behind the chapel ruins is a Celtic cross which is a modern replica of the older ones in the church graveyard. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down how old it is. There is also a beautiful glade with a rope and tire swing, which Tres and I had fun playing on. On the way out, we toured the graveyard of the modern church, which boasts two ancient Hiberno-Saxon Celtic crosses.

That’s it for the holy wells. Next week we’ll start on standing stones and stone circles, so stay tuned!

What do you think about these two sacred wells? Have you been there? Would you want to go?

 

Arthurian England Part 7: Sacred Springs and Holy Wells (Part 1)

The holy spring at St. Clether's still dressed as it would have been in Celtic times.

The holy spring at St. Clether’s still dressed as it would have been in Celtic times.

England is dotted with holy wells and peaceful chapels. Many of the holy wells date back to pagan times when they were associated with a local deity or water spirit. There was a tradition of “dressing the wells” on feast days, i.e. decorating them with flowers and leaving simple offerings and/or tying a ribbon to a nearby tree to symbolize a petition, traditions that still take place. When Christianity came, these spots were natural places of contemplation for hermits and other holy people. Today, they are still places of pilgrimage for Christian and pagan alike, and are fiercely protected by the local people.

St. Clether’s

The holy spring feeds into a lake and a babbling brook below.

The holy spring feeds into a lake and a babbling brook below.

We visited four such places on my Arthurian trip to England. By far my favorite was the first, St. Clether’s in Cornwall. The walk to this spring is past an old stone church with an ancient graveyard where bluebells blossom among the headstones. Then you walk along a path with gorse on one side and a barely visible brook below (you can hear it easier than you can see it). There are real cuckco birds in the trees and on a warm summer’s day, the breeze sounds like the trees are talking.

The inside of St. Clether's as taken through the door. You can go inside. I just like the framing of this shot.

The inside of St. Clether’s as taken through the door. You can go inside. I just like the framing of this shot.

St. Clether’s itself is a small stone chapel. The spring is around the side in a small niche. When we were there it was dressed with offerings of flowers and symbols of fertility. On the inside, the chapel is plain and beautiful. The stone altar looks like a dolmen, and has a simple cross  with a candle on either side on top. Benches for contemplation line the walls. The peace and quiet inside was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

I can see how one could grow closer to God there. I really didn’t want to leave. If it got wi-fi service, I could live there. It is lovely maintained by Vonda Inman, who wrote a lovely book called The Guardians of the Well, fictional stories about St. Clether’s over the centuries. I’m currently reading it and loving it. All proceeds from the sale go to the upkeep of the site. There is some video of St. Clether’s on my YouTube page.

St. Nectan’s Faerie Glen

On the way to St. Nectan's

On the way to St. Nectan’s

The second sacred site we visited is St. Nectan’s. This is one place where the journey to get there is just as cool at the site itself. You spend quite a long ways in the woods, walking parallel to (and in some places, over) a babbling brook. There are so many amazing photo opportunities, I can’t even begin to describe them. All the while, you’re surrounded by the sound of the water and the birds calling in the trees. (I kept thinking of the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood. “You take the one on the right.” “Which one’s the one on the right?” “Oh, we’ll just jump out and grab them.”) As you get closer, you start seeing still stone cairns that pilgrims have built in the water.

Stone cairns built by pilgrims.

Stone cairns built by pilgrims.

Then, just when you think you can’t walk any farther, you reach the gift shop/café, where you have to get a ticket to see the faerie pool. That is also where you can view the ancient hermitage (which I forgot to do – you’ll see why in a minute). You go down a slippery set of stairs and then you’re at the most spectacular waterfall, which empties out into the pool.

The holy waterfall at St. Nectan's

The holy waterfall at St. Nectan’s

As you approach the waterfall, there are curtains of ribbons on each side, left by pilgrims. Word of warning: the rocks leading into the pool are very slick. I should know. I fell in! (I prefer to think of it as being baptized by the faeries.) I went back up to the café to dry off, but my tour mates stayed and took photos. They all waded into the water, and the photos they took ended up full of orbs. It is crazy to see how many. And my blessing dunk in the water is why I forgot to visit the hermitage. That’s okay, I’m sure I’ll be back someday.

Offerings left at the waterfall by pilgrims.

Offerings left at the waterfall by pilgrims.

Next week we’ll explore the holy sites of St. Madron and St. Crede.

Have you ever read about or been to these or any other sacred wells/springs? Have you seen or heard of the tradition of well dressing still taking place today? What do you think it means? Do you think it should continue?

Arthurian England Part 6: Tintagel – Legendary Birthplace of Arthur

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

The story of Arthur’s conception at Tintagel comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. In it, Tintagel was the seat of the King Goloris and his wife, Iggraine. High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, falls in love with Iggraine on first sight. When Goloris is killed in battle, Merlin casts a spell on Uther to make him look like Goloris. He enters the castle unquestioned and sleeps with Iggraine, who conceives Arthur. Nine months later, when the child is born, Merlin comes to Tintagel to spirit Arthur away to safety. Thus, does this impressive castle enter Arthurian legend.

Tres and me high on the cliffs

Tres and me high on the cliffs

Yes, you have to walk up all of those and more to get to the castle.

Yes, you have to walk up all of those and more to get to the castle.

The Tintagel of today is definitely an imposing structure. Situated high (and I mean high) on the Cornish coast, the visible ruins are all that is left of a 12th century castle. To get there, you have to walk up a crazy series of stairways that jut this way and that, and many of the steps are uneven and difficult for a 5’1” person to get up. (My calf muscles will never be the same!) But it is all worth it when you get to the top. In addition to the monastery ruins, there are several stone foundations of early Celtic settlements, where you can see where different buildings, even different rooms would have been. These, wisely, are on the part of the cliff most sheltered from the unforgiving wind.

Some of the Celtic settlements

Some of the Celtic settlements

A few other attractions up top are an ancient, acoustically perfect cavern that no one knows the purpose of. It’s speculated it was for ritual. The walls were hand dug, but are so smooth, they appear machine made. Then there is a flat piece of rock with nearly perfect circles carved into it. Again, no one knows the purpose (ancient cup holders? :)).

King Arthur's footprint

King Arthur’s footprint

Getting back to King Arthur, there’s a rock with an impression in it called King Arthur’s footprint, where, legend says, he was crowned and symbolically married to the land. It does indeed look like a large man’s foot made the impression. You can put your own foot in it, too. Not far away, just off the coast, is a triangular island known as Merlin’s hat.

Inside Merlin's Cave

Inside Merlin’s Cave

The view out from Merlin's Cave

The view out from Merlin’s Cave

Far below are several caves, only one of which actually connects to the mainland. That cave is known as Merlin’s cave, home of the legendary enchanter. It floods at high tide, which we witnessed, since the tide came in while we were there. It is a beautiful cave, with a vertical fissure that lets in the light. It may or may not be magical, but I did capture an orb in a photograph there, the only one in over 1,000 photos.

Merlin's Cave from above

Merlin’s Cave from above

We went swimming in the water just outside of the cave, which was so cold it hurt your feet. Well, Jamie was the only one brave enough to actually swim. I clung to the rocks (which had algae that felt like Astroturf) like a mermaid, only daring to get about waist deep when the waves splashed me. My friend Tres waded out to a waterfall to get a closer look and said she couldn’t feel the lower half of her body when she came back.

The Camelot Castle Hotel

The Camelot Castle Hotel

I have to put in a plug for the Camelot Castle Hotel, where we stayed during our time in Tintagel. There are a lot of negative stories about it on the Internet, but I truly enjoyed my time there. It’s a fancy hotel on top of the cliffs that is currently undergoing a five-year renovation. I paid for an upgraded room, which I would recommend to anyone staying there. My room had a four poster bed and a bathtub that was big enough to swim in! (I kept wanting to quote Pretty Woman: “His bathtub is bigger than the Blue Banana!”) Plus, it had a private balcony overlooking both the ocean and a labyrinth carved into the grass below. I went out on the balcony after dark to look at the stars and was blown away by how many more you can see than in the city. It was a spiritual experience.

Sunset from our hotel, overlooking Tintagel Castle

Sunset from our hotel, overlooking Tintagel Castle

The food is also very good and we got to meet the artist in residence. He’s very kind, maybe a little eccentric (aren’t we all), but I really liked him. I even bought one of his paintings that I fell in love with. And I don’t ever do that – that is the only piece of real art I own.

So, what do you think of Tintagel? Is it Arthur’s birthplace? I have my doubts, but I’d love to hear what you think. Have you been there? What was your experience like?

My Morning in Glastonbury with Geoffrey Ashe – Part 2

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

Last week we talked about Geoffrey’s Ashe’s thoughts on Glastonbury as it relates to King Arthur. This week we’ll continue with Glastonbury Abbey, as described by him and his wife, Pat, who was our tour guide around the grounds.

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting much from the Abbey, but it is truly a magnificent place. It’s hard to try to describe the sheer size of the walls. Even standing there, it was a stretch to imagine the size the Abbey must have been its heyday. Photos and even the model in the museum can’t do it justice.

There has been some kind of settlement on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey since the early Christian era. The foundations of an early Roman building have recently been discovered under a local supermarket (the area used to be part of the Abbey grounds). There was once a church, known only as The Old Church, on the grounds that was so old, no one knew who put it there. Tradition places it early in the Christian era. It was made from wattle and was said to be built by Christ’s disciples (Joseph of Arimathea group) in the first century. It may have existed where the Lady Chapel is now, and was considered the holiest place in England.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

So is the tradition of Joseph (and possibly the young Jesus) coming to the area possible? Mr. Ashe admits this theory is what first drew him to the area. While he believes the part about Jesus coming along to be “modern fantasy,” he believes it’s possible Joseph came because there were very strong trade routes between the two areas, especially in tin.

During the Middle Ages, the Abbey was at the height of its power. It was the largest cathedral in England other than old St. Paul’s in London. This means nearby Wells Cathedral was smaller, and that is of mind-boggling proportions. It had a grand scriptorium which purportedly housed the largest collection of books in Europe. (Today, only about 40 of these books remain.)

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The Abbot’s Kitchen

The Abbot was more than the religious leader; he was also chief justice for the area. He had his own kitchen, a separate building on the grounds which survives in tact today. It contains four ovens, one in each corner of the room, each with their own chimney that vented into one hole in the roof. These air vents served to bring in cool air, while pushing hot air and smoke out. They were so effective, they became models for others in buildings all over Europe.  It would have had a huge hall next to it, in which the Abbot would have entertained kings and other nobility when they visited.

And the monks did more than pray. They carried out important medical works for the sick, helped the poor (including at an almshouse on the grounds that was dedicated to poor widows) as well as public works, such as draining the water that still made the surrounding area marshy.

Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner? (“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ‘oh, what a good boy am I.'”) It turns out that Jack (John) Horner was a real person, but he was far from the little boy portrayed by artists. He lived in the area of Glastonbury during the time of the dissolution and was extremely helpful to King Henry VIII. He had a book of titles to the divisions of land that made up Glastonbury. As the story goes, he took one out of the book for himself before presenting the book to the king (hence, the title was the plum in the rhyme).

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

The Abbey was one of the last to be dissolved by King Henry VIII. It lasted until 1539. It is said that Henry stayed at what was then called the Pilgrim’s Inn (today the George and Pilgrim’s Hotel) across the street from the Abbey to personally watch it burn. When that happened, it wasn’t just the monks who were turned out. The Abbey was also a center of learning, so teachers, librarians and musicians lost their livelihoods and homes as well. After the dissolution, the property passed into private hands as the king gave favors and paid debts. In the 1970s, the Church of England bought it and it is now an international tourist destination, in addition to an important piece of history.

What do you think about Glastonbury Abbey? What questions do you have about it?

My Morning in Glastonbury with Geoffrey Ashe – Part 1

Me fangirling over Geoffrey Ashe autographing my copy of one of his books.

Me fangirling over Geoffrey Ashe autographing my copy of one of his books.

Geoffrey Ashe is something of a rock star in the Arthurian community. Now 90 years old, this historian has written some of the most influential non-fiction books about King Arthur, seeking to uncover Arthur’s true identity and the locations of the legendary Camelot and the Isle of Avalon. Whether or not you agree with his theories (I do on some), he’s considered an expert.

He has advised Arthurian fiction writers from Persia Woolley (who also wrote a series on Guinevere) to Marion Zimmer Bradley (she thanks him in the acknowledgements of The Mists of Avalon) and more recently, Tony Hays (who writes Arthurian mysteries). I am honored to be in such prestigious company. Mr. Ashe told me that anyone who seeks to write Arthurian legend should, “Leave the Grail out of it and resist the temptation to rationalize Mallory. That’s what everyone seems to be doing lately. Use your imagination and tell your own story. Don’t try to tell someone else’s.”

We were lucky enough to have him and his wife, Pat, as guests at Glastonbury Abbey. Before exploring the Abbey grounds with Pat, we sat down for what turned into a two-hour lesson on the area from Mr. Ashe. He was very kind to answer questions as we went along, even multiple ones from me pertaining to aspects of my plot. Because he and his wife gave us so much information, I’ve split it into two posts, this one focusing on the Arthurian ties, and the next on Glastonbury Abbey itself. What follows is a summary of the notes I took. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I did.

From left (Pat Ashe, Geoffrey's wife; Linda, a member of our tour group; and Arthurian historian Geoffrey Ashe.

From left (Pat Ashe, Geoffrey’s wife; Linda, a member of our tour group; and Arthurian historian Geoffrey Ashe.

The Arthurian Period
Mr. Ashe believes the historical Arthurian period to be the mid fifth century, with 458 a likely date for Arthur’s coronation. During that time, the area around Glastonbury would have been under water, with Glastonbury Tor, Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill being islands due to their height. Because of this, you would have accessed them by water, but it may have been possible to get to the Tor from a small strip of land that joined the Mendip Hills. There was so much water in the area that in the Middle Ages, they were still pumping it out of the area. The surrounding Lake Villages date from the beginning of the Christian era. Fishing and trade would have been very important to them. They lasted until the Saxon Conquest, when they were destroyed. 

We All Have A Theory
There are many theories that point to Avalon being sacred before Christianity. Mr. Ashe jokes that “the wisest thing ever said about Glastonbury was uttered by a Benedictine monk: ‘you have only to tell some crazy story in Glastonbury and in 10 years it will be ancient Somerset legend.'” Here are a few he spoke about in-depth:

  1. Zodiac – The idea that the signs of the zodiac can be found in the surrounding landscape, once quite popular, has fallen out of favor lately. This is mainly because you can only trace the shapes on modern maps. It doesn’t work on maps of the landscape from the Arthurian period.
  2. Ley Lines – Ley lines – lines of energy – connect a series of seemingly scattered ancient sites and hill forts across Britain. They run in straight lines across the landscape. For the most part, Mr. Ashe believes this is over-hyped, but he does concede that the St. Michael Line, which starts at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, goes through Devonshire and the Tor, continuing northeast into the country, does have an unusually large number of sites dedicated to the saint on it.
  3. Labyrinth – Many people, Mr. Ashe included (and me, too) believe that paths carved into the hillside around the Tor, which can still be seen today, are actually a Cretan-style labyrinth that was used for ceremonial purposes. This would have been created during the pre-Christian era. Some people propose that these paths were actually terraces for farming, but Mr. Ashe counters that if that was the case they would have been carved on only one side of the hill, the one with the best exposure to sunlight.
  4. The Holy Thorn058 The Holy Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey is from a cutting of the original, one of three in the area (the original was cut down in the 1600s by a zealous Puritan. The others are on Wearyall Hill, site of the original, which we couldn’t go to because it was closed to the public, and the other is at the church of St. John, which was just up the street from our hotel). The tree is a Syrian variety, so it well could have come from St. Joseph, if he really did live in Glastonbury. The other possibility is that it was brought back by soldiers from the Crusades. (And yes, it really does bloom at Christmas time. It blooms in spring, too, and was in flower when we were there.)
Arthur and Guinevere's grave was found here at Glastonbury Abbey.

Arthur and Guinevere’s grave was found here at Glastonbury Abbey.

Arthur and Guinevere’s Grave
As the tradition goes, in 1191 a group of monks were digging at the Abbey and uncovered a leaden cross marker that bore a Latin inscription which translates, “Here lies the famous King Arthur on the isle of Avalon.” (Some versions also add “with his second wife, Guinevere” to the text.) They dug down a little more and found a hallowed out tree that was a kind of coffin containing two bodies: a large man who had suffered from head trauma and a small woman, whose golden hair was still in tact.

The usual position of scholars is that this was faked by the monks in order to attract pilgrims (and with them, funds) to the Abbey, which was still recovering from a devastating fire in 1184. But Mr. Ashe is not among these. He believes that the discovery could be real. He won’t say for certain that it was Arthur and Guinevere the monks found, but it had to be someone important. To defend this position he notes:

  1. The Welsh, who have always claimed Arthur as their own, accepted the Glastonbury grave without complaint.
  2. There is no evidence that the Abbey tried to raise money or attract pilgrims at that time, something that would have been reflected in their own record keeping.
  3. It was traditional for monks from the 10th century on dig a second grave on top of the first layer in order to make more room. This would explain both why the cross was found lying down (rather than standing as grave markers usually do) and also why the monks had to dig down more to find the bodies.
  4. The leaden cross dates from the seventh century or earlier and appears to be written in a French translation of Latin, one that would have been unknown to the monks who found the grave, so they couldn’t have forged it.

  5. He also refutes the claims of those who say no one ever connected Arthur and Glastonbury before the graves. He notes that in the life of St. Gildas (c. 1130-1150), it is mentioned that Melwas kidnaps Guinevere and holds her at his stronghold in Glastonbury.
Close up of the grave marker today.

Close up of the grave marker today.

Both Ashe’s are believers that King Arthur died in France. They identify him with the historical Riothamus, who was killed in the Lorre Valley by a blow to the head. They say he was buried in the city of Avallon in France (which also is a city on a hill with abundant apple orchards) and that is where the cross was made. They believe that both the bodies and the cross were brought back to Glastonbury later and interred at the Abbey.

As for me, I think it could be possible they were really buried there, but I doubt it. I guess I would need more proof, which we’re not likely to get.

What about you? What do you think about Mr. Ashe’s theories about Avalon, Glastonbury and the graves of Arthur and Guinevere? What you do believe?

Arthurian England Trip Part 1: Intro, Glastonbury & Wells

Our tour group: (from left): Maureene, me, Linda, Jamie, Tres

Our tour group: (from left): Maureene, me, Linda, Jamie, Tres

First off, thanks to everyone who entered our two year blogiversary giveaway contest! The winners are:

  • King Arthur magnet: Mary Beth Lewis
  • Location magnets and Cernunnos plaque: Wisher
  • Figurines: Heather

I will contact you by email to make arrangements to get your gifts to you. Now, on to the matter at hand. For those who haven’t yet seen photos from my trip, you can view them on Flickr. I also have some very amateur video on YouTube from the trip. In case you were wondering, the tour I went on was called From Avalon to Camelot, and was conducted through Gothic Image Tours. I waited until now to publicize it because I wanted to make sure it was something I could endorse. I would recommend it to anyone. The accommodations are top notch and the nature of the tour allows for personalized interaction and visiting out of the way sites that a larger group wouldn’t be able to manage. Tour guide Jamie George has been doing this for over 20 years and certainly knows his stuff. He also has the contacts to be able to arrange for guests such as Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe and divination expert Sig Lonegren. My group had some last minute cancellations and was therefore only five people, including Jamie. Besides me, there were three women from Australia – Tres, Maureene and Linda – none of us knew each other before the trip. Now, we’re all good friends and are keeping in touch.

The George and Pilgrim Hotel, built in 1473, where we stayed.

The George and Pilgrim Hotel, built in 1475, where we stayed.

We started the tour in Glastonbury. We stayed at the George and Pilgrim’s Inn on High Street. This hotel has been around since 1475, and has played host to a number of famous guests over the years, most notably King Henry VIII, who stood in one of its rooms to watch Glastonbury Abbey (which is across the street) burn during the dissolution of the monasteries. The hotel is also host to a number of ghosts, including a merry, fat friar. None of us saw him, but Tres did have her TV come on unexpectedly one morning and Maureene was taking a picture of the town when she captured what appears to be a ribbon of energy, which she didn’t see at the time. By the way, some of the hotel’s rooms are named. I stayed in “The Nun’s Cell,” which is really funny since I used to want to be one and was voted Most Likely to Become a Nun in high school.

High Street in Glastonbury. Jamie's shop, Gothic Image, is on the right.

High Street in Glastonbury. Jamie’s shop, Gothic Image, is on the right.

Glastonbury itself is a nice, eclectic town. Somehow I was imagining a place full of frenetic energy, but it’s really not. There are plenty of New Age shops specializing in esoteric subjects, crystals, jewelry, etc. but you can also tell people live there. I guess what I’m saying is it isn’t a pure tourist trap. The Tor and Chalice Well are actually a bit away from the town center, so you either need to drive take the trolley/bus to get to it. Glastonbury Abbey is within walking distance. (More on Glastonbury Abbey in the next post.)

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

If you get the chance to take a little side trip, I highly recommend the town of Wells, which is about a 15 minute bus ride from the top of High Street. We went there on the recommendation of one of Maureene’s friends, and I will never, ever forget it. The town itself is cute, but the main feature is its breathtaking cathedral. No photo could ever do it justice, no matter how professional. It gave me a whole new respect for the generations of people who spent their lives building these monuments to God. To think that they accomplished such feats in an age without our modern technology is very humbling. The main attraction is a clock that has mechanical figures that come out every hour and do I little routine. There are many such clocks throughout Europe, and this is the second one I’ve seen, but they never fail to inspire.

The Bishop's palace grounds in Wells.

The Bishop’s palace grounds in Wells.

And if the cathedral wasn’t enough, we also toured the Bishop’s palace and grounds, which adjoin the cathedral. I haven’t uploaded most of those photos yet. The best I can do to capture their beauty is to say the grounds are better than any botanical garden I’ve ever been to. Seriously, if it was possible to die of beauty, this place would do it to you. And, you can even see the Tor from its walls!

Gardens in the grounds of the Bishop's palace in Wells.

Gardens in the grounds of the Bishop’s palace in Wells.

So that’s a bit of the first part of the trip. Next time I’ll talk about Glastonbury Abbey and let you in on what Geoffrey Ashe had to say about it and Arthurian legend. Then we’ll talk about Cadbury, a likely spot for Camelot. There will be a few posts on Tintagel and Merlin’s cave. I’ll probably put St. Clether’s Chapel, St. Madron’s Well, St. Crede and St. Nectan’s faerie pool into one. Then we’ll talk about the stone circles of Boscawen-Un (which is very special to me) and the Merry Maidens, as well as the dolmen of Lanyon Quoit. And of course, Avebury and Stonehenge. So stay tuned for the next several weeks!

What do you want to know about Glastonbury or Wells? Do you have any questions about the tour? What do you want to know more about?

On Site in England: The Next Best Thing to Going Back in Time

The area of my trip.

Where I’ll be for the next 2 weeks

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the frantic final throes of packing or blissfully winging my way across the Atlantic. That’s because I have the opportunity of a lifetime: taking a tour of England that is all based around Arthurian legend!

I’ve been dreaming about taking this tour since I first heard about it a few years ago. The leader is the guy who helped Marion Zimmer Bradley research the Mists of Avalon (which is what inspired me to write my books). We will have special guests on parts of the tour, including internationally renowned Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe, modern-day Bard Kevan Manwaring, and other scholars on mythology and ancient sacred sites. Poor Mr. Ashe has no idea what he’s in for – a whole lot of questions about how to attack and defend a hill fort, plus anything else I can think of. His is a brain I can’t wait to pick!

Anyway, since I’m going to be gone two weeks, there will be no new posts here until June 16, which is our two year blogiversary! After that, I’ll do a series on sites from my trip and things I learned about the legends. Here’s a preview, by way of the itinerary of my trip:

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Day 1: Travel to London, then to Whewell on the way to Glastonbury (which will be in all three books of my trilogy).

Day 2: Tour Glastonbury, including Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn, drinking from Chalice Well, climbing the Tor and visiting Glastonbury Abbey.

Day 3: Visit Cadbury castle, one of the sites thought to be home to Camelot. (This is one of the settings in book 2.) See the ancient Druid oaks of Gog and Magog.

Day 4: Travel to Cornwall, stopping at the holy well of St. Clether. Tour Tinagel castle and Merlin’s Cave. (I can’t wait for you guys to see where we’re staying in Tintagel. It’s breathtaking!)

Day 5: Visit the faerie glen of St. Nectan, the village of Boscatle and Rocky Valley (which has two Bronze Age carvings in a Cretan labyrinth).

Day 6: Head to Penzance and St. Michael’s Mount. Quality time by the sea.

Day 7: Take in the stone circles of Boscowen-un and the Merry Maidens, along with the stone monoliths called The Pipers. Visit the holy wells Madron and Sancreed.

Day 8: Visit haunted Bodmin Moor and the area made famous by Daphne Du Maurier. (I’m very excited about this because I want to write a gothic fantasy someday and am hoping to get the thread a of plot based in local legend.) Spend time in Dartmoor and Marlborough.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 9: Journey to Stonehenge for private access inside the stone circle to witness a real Druid sunrise ritual. Meet J.P. Reedman, who I interviewed, and whose book, Stone Lord, I reviewed. Visit Avebury – the largest stone circle in the world – West Kennet long barrow – the largest burial mound in Europe – and Silbury Hill.

Day 10: Travel back home, no doubt in awe and incredibly grateful for all I’ve seen.

This trip includes several items on my Bucket List. There are no words for how excited I am. I can’t even believe this is really happening. This is invaluable research for my books, a precious networking opportunity with Arthurian scholars and just plain fun for a geek like me. I won’t have Internet access while I’m there, but you’ll get plenty of photos and stories when I get back. I hope you all have fun while I’m gone. I’d tell you to behave, but I know my readers better than that!