Communion Of Dreams


Scotland 2018: 8) No stone circle is really complete without a nuclear bunker.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Saturday, May 12.

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, and considered our options for the day. Aberdeen and the surrounding area has a lot to offer — our preliminary list had about a dozen possibilities on it, and we had identified at least that many more in looking through “Vistor’s Guides” and such there in the hotel.

In the end we decided that we really wanted to see more of the Highlands, and figured that driving up into the Cairngorms was the best way to do that. It was probably the best decision that we made on the entire trip.

Why do I say that? Well, read on …

The Cairngorm Mountains are just incredibly beautiful on their own. Seriously, like the inter-mountain range of the Rockies in Colorado, though of course they’re not as tall.

And Martha had seen something promising on one of her research forays: Kildrummy Castle.

I admit, I was somewhat unimpressed with the number and quality of medieval castles in Scotland. That’s because for the most part, castles were repeatedly upgraded and renovated … or they were allowed to disappear completely. So you get those magnificent structures like Stirling, Dunvegan, and Edinburgh, or private fortresses such as Eilean Donan and Doune, all of which saw significant rebuilding and modernization through their history. But places like Urquhart and Old Inverlochy are pretty rare in Scotland, whereas in Wales they’re seemingly around every river bend.

But Kildrummy Castle is a magnificent ruin, substantial in structure and easy to understand in terms of layout and architecture. It would have been a formidable stronghold, and played an important part in Scottish history. We stopped in at the ticketing office, and had a chat with the caretaker — who was both enthusiastic about the castle, and a little surprised to find a couple of American tourists stopping in to check out the place. Then we walked up the path to the castle, which I hadn’t seen at all while driving.

But this is what we saw:

Promising …

 

Up the hill and across the dry moat.

 

Across the drawbridge, left …

 

… and right.

 

Elphinstone Tower.

 

Great Hall and Warden Tower.

 

Chapel.

 

Exterior of the Chapel and Warden Tower.

 

Martha in the inner ward.

 

More of the inner ward.

I want to note that we were the only people there, the entire hour or so we spent exploring the castle. On a beautiful Saturday, in the largest National Park in the U.K.

And this, I think, is important, and in itself changed the way I thought about the entire trip. Scotland has done a fair amount of work to promote tourism, and there were places we visited which were crowded with tourists from all over the world. But just a little work to get off the beaten path always took us away from the madness, into a part of the country which was just as beautiful, just as full of history, and a whole lot more enjoyable (at least for this introvert).

We stopped back by the ticketing office. I thanked the caretaker, and told him that I thought that Kildrummy was one of the best medieval ruins I had seen anywhere, in Scotland, Wales, the UK, or on the continent. I’m sure it made his day. Visiting Kildrummy made mine.

Spirits high, we headed further into the mountains. First we stopped at Glenbuchat castle, a nearby fortified home dating to the 16th century. It was well-sited, but closed for renovations. Then we went to Corgarff Castle, a medieval tower which had been expanded in the 18th century, but didn’t hold our interest. We had a nice lunch at a little cafe, then proceeded south across the moors on the Old Military Road:

Stairway to heaven.

We took the A93 back towards Aberdeen for a while, but then went north again towards the small village of Tarland, but stopped at the Tomnaverie Stone Circle. From another website about the circle:

The restored circle is a truly beautiful site to visit, the circle is now neatly grassed over, the quarried area to the south has been filled, and there is a small car parking space available below the hill. The raised location allows for panoramic views in all directions, and there is also an information plaque which gives details of the circle and its history. Those with an interest in prehistory or megalithic monuments will need no coaxing to visit Tomnaverie, and for the casual visitor it is wonderful place for a stroll or a picnic.

See for yourself:

Oh, say can you see?

One unusual feature of the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is noted on the information board:

Which is here:

The small structure just right of center is the bunker entrance.

Strange juxtaposition.

We decided to make one last stop before heading back to Aberdeen, which was just a short way away: Culsh Earth House. Description from that site:

Earth houses, or souterrains, can seem mysterious structures: stone-lined tunnels dug into the earth, usually leading to a dead end and with no obvious purpose. The reality is actually fairly mundane, and it seems that earth houses were simply built as underground storage for agricultural produce.

Culsh Earth House probably dates back to some time before AD100. At the time a timber roundhouse farmstead would have stood nearby, perhaps a direct predecessor of the farm which stands immediately to the south today. The entrance to the earth house might have been inside the roundhouse to next to it, and the earth house itself would probably have been used for the storage of grain or other produce.

Here ya go:

Wonder where that goes?

 

Cool!

 

Looking back.

 

Reemergence.

The rest of the drive to the hotel was uneventful. We had a nice dinner in the pub, and crashed relatively early.

 

Jim Downey

 

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Scotland 2018: 3) It’s more than a famous film location, but … pass the coconuts.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Sunday, May 6th.

We had a lovely breakfast at the B&B, and for the first time I had real, actual, haggis … and discovered that I quite liked it. It was our host’s own home-made, and the slice I had with breakfast was buttery, crunchy, full of flavor. Yum. The haggis I had a couple of additional times during the trip was similar, and likewise quite tasty.

Following that, we packed up, then went up to Stirling Castle, just up the hill. Stirling is a very substantial royal castle, on the order of such Edward I castles in Wales as Caernarfon or Conwy. But as with a number of additional castles in Scotland, Stirling had been renovated and updated repeatedly after the medieval period, serving different functions both personal and military up until almost the current time.

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The Great Battery.

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Nothing quite like commanding the heights.

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The Great Hall.

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Hmm … feels oddly familiar …

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Royal Chambers.

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King’s and Queen’s Knots, seen from the walls of the castle.

It was good that we were able to get there first thing, because by the time we had enjoyed our tour of the castle, the crowds were starting to get thick. We headed off on our way.

To Doune Castle. Doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe this will help:

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I love that they sell coconut halves there.

Yeah, Doune was used for multiple different ‘castles’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Wikipedia outlines:

  • At the start of the film, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) approach the east wall of Doune Castle and argue with soldiers of the garrison.
  • The song and dance routine “Knights of the Round Table” at “Camelot” was filmed in the Great Hall.
  • The servery and kitchen appear as “Castle Anthrax”, where Sir Galahad the Chaste (Michael Palin) is chased by seductive girls.
  • The wedding disrupted by Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) was filmed in the courtyard and Great Hall.
  • The Duchess’ hall was used for filming the Swamp Castle scene where the prince is being held in a tower by very dumb guards.
  • The Trojan Rabbit scene was filmed in the entryway and into the courtyard.

As well as also having served in other films and television shows, including Game of Thrones and Outlander.

Recognize any of these shots from the castle?

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Sir Galahad almost slept here.

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“You must spank her well, and after you are done with her, you may deal with her as you like… and then… spank me.”

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We’re knights of the Round Table, we dance whene’er we’re able. We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impec-cable.

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In his own particular idiom.

And some other pics:

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From Doune we headed northwest through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Driving through the beautiful Trossachs was wonderful, and reminded me very much of the area around Snowdon in Wales or parts of the American West in the Northern Rockies.

We had a very substantial lunch at a nice pub along the way, so weren’t very hungry that evening. We popped into a grocery store and got some snacks and cold cuts to make a light dinner. I was amused by the selection of decent scotches (at absurdly low prices) there in the little store:

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Mmmmmmmmm …

Jim Downey

 

 



Forward, into the past.

I sewed up a book yesterday.

* * *

It’s been a rough year.

Oh, a good one, in many ways. The delightful trip to Wales was certainly wonderful. And I was pleased to finally wrap up our two-year work on the brick walkway; I recently used it, and it was nice to see how it has settled solidly after a couple of months weather. There have been other highlights, time spent with those I love, sharing & caring.

But it’s been a rough year. Mostly, because back in early spring I started my slow bipolar descent, and then got stuck stumbling along the bottom of my personal trough for the last six weeks or so. And, while I haven’t talked about it (or anything else) much here, the political situation has been extraordinarily depressing. It’s been a weird combination of things I have long dreaded and things I was writing to warn people about in St Cybi’s Well, and after significant effort to re-write the draft of that book to reflect the new political reality I found myself without the energy or inclination to continue. I felt paralyzed.

* * *

But, as these things go if you are lucky, the wheel continued to turn.

Even if the progress is steady, and consistent with my previous personal experience, it’ll be some 4 – 6 months before I completely climb out of the depressive part of my bipolar cycle.

But I sewed up a book yesterday. This one, for the first time in at least a year and a half:

Yeah, it’s one of the premium leather bindings of Communion of Dreams.

Finally.

For whatever reason, completing those books got mixed up emotionally with completing the writing of St Cybi’s Well. I think I understand it, but I don’t think that I can explain it. Well, I understand it now. At least part of it.

That’s how you solve art, sometimes. And how you walk out of depression: one part at a time, one step at a time.

The writing wants to start again.

In the meantime, I sew books.

Happy New Year.

 

Jim Downey

 



The St John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Saint John’s Bible homepage.

This was no small project. The finished bible, produced on animal skin vellum, was in seven volumes. Each volume was two feet tall, and three feet wide when opened.

Recently Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri — Columbia asked me to archivally mount special dedication pages to six of the seven volumes in their Heritage Edition set of the book. Since this very limited edition (just 299 copies) is the full-size, fine art version which very few people will ever have a chance to see in person, I thought I’d take some pics and share them here, along with some notes and observations.

Each volume comes in its own conservation clamshell box:

As you can see, these things are huge. They’re so big, I couldn’t store them in my large safe — so I picked up a pair of the books at a time, did the mounting (which takes two days to do properly), then returned them to Special Collections.

And that style of clamshell box is a work of art itself. I occasionally do (smaller) ones for clients, and they can take three or four hours of labor for me. Doing one that size would take special equipment and workspace I just don’t have.

Here’s the first volume in the set, in gorgeous hand-bound red calfskin:

Click, then follow the link at the bottom, if you want to take a close look at the calligraphy.

 

Likewise.

And here’s the dedication page, along with the facing colophon:

The calligraphy for the dedication page was done by Diane M. von Arx, who was part of the team which worked on the St John’s Bible. If you look closely, you can see some of how I mounted the dedication pages: in the gutter there’s a slight discoloration from the Japanese Kozo tissue paper. The process of mounting the pages was easy: first mount the Kozo strip along the back of the dedication page, then allow to dry under restraint overnight; the next day, position the page and then paste out the Kozo ‘tab’, and secure it to the facing page and again allow to dry under restraint. This kind of mounting allows for a very natural movement of the page, as though it was part of the original binding, with minimal chance of the additional bulk of a page causing long-term problems. I also had to trim each dedication page to the specific dimensions of each respective book (they vary by a couple of millimeters — no surprise, given the size of the things and the fact that they were bound by hand).

And here are some additional images from the books, again available in full scale:

A fun project.

 

Jim Downey

If you are interested in supporting conservation work at Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri, here is their “Adopt a Book” page. And if you might be interested in sponsoring the last of the seven volumes of the St John’s Bible, you can contact MU Libraries Director of Development, Matt Gaunt.



Three weeks in Wales, Part 11: end days.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.

The next day we were in a neolithic kinda frame of mind. This was by design, actually, since one of the sites we wanted to see is only open on weekends, if you want to see the inside of it. That’s the Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber on Anglesey, and I love this aerial image of it from CADW’s site:

I actually mentioned this site in a blog post three years ago about St Cybi’s Well, and I’ve been wanting to see it since I did the research about the site. And this was another case where I had a false memory of having previously visited it, thanks to that research. But this time I knew full well that I hadn’t been there … even as the false memory played out as having been there when we went looking for it. A very strange feeling.

Anyway. We stopped at the little shop in the nearby town, as instructed on the CADW site, and collected the key for the chamber. The site was only about a mile away, and we parked there in the lot for a small beach, and walked out to the mound.

The mound was excavated in the 1950s, and when that research was done they capped it with a concrete dome and turf to protect it and to return it to something like what it may have looked like when constructed 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The entryway you can see in the image above allows anyone to partially enter the mound:

Where you see this:

The original entry path of the cruciform passage grave.*

The gate is locked, and the key allows you entrance. We wanted to get inside because I wanted to personally see the neolithic art:

There are better images (and more of other carved stones at the site) at the site linked above and elsewhere online.

After exploring inside the chamber we locked it back up, then explored the exterior. There on the headlands the wind was brisk, but it was a wonderful location with excellent views:

We returned the key to the shop, and went off in quest of other neolithic sites there on Ynys Môn. First was Caer Lêb, a Bronze Age settlement which is little more than mounds now.

Then we stopped at another passage grave: the Bodowyr Burial Chamber.

From there we headed back to the mainland, stopping for some lunch before visiting friends of Martha’s for a couple of hours. When we headed back to our beachside hotel it was still a bit early, so we decided to to explore the substantial Iron Age hillfort overlooking our portion of the beach:

From the hotel parking lot.

That’s Dinas Dinlle, and there’s not a lot of information available about it, though the Megalithic Portal has a number of images of the site. Here are some more of mine:

At the top. I’d guesstimate the hill to be about 100 meters high.

 

Along one of the defensive earthen walls.

 

Path across the village ‘floor’ to the other defensive wall. To the right the sea has claimed approximately a third of the original hillfort.

 

During WWII there was a military airport just up the coast, so at the base of the hillfort it wasn’t surprising to see a small defensive pillbox of that era:

I thought that it was an interesting juxtaposition.

The next day was our final one in Wales. After a nice breakfast we packed up and headed east. We were driving back to Manchester (where we would fly out the next day), but we thought to hit several castles along the way. The first of these was Rhuddlan Castle. We had visited Rhuddlan some years previously, but at that time it was undergoing some restoration work.  CADW has a nice overview of the castle … in the form of an aerial fly-by:

It was nice to have a chance to really walk around the place and enjoy it.


 

From Rhuddlan we went to the first castle King Edward built to subdue Wales: Flint. Both Wikipedia and Castle Wales have good entries on Flint Castle, but I prefer my own images:

There were a number of these shadow-sculptures, which I really thought were striking. the images were drawn from history/Shakespeare.

Entry into the unusual large circular detached tower, called a donjon keep, which overlooks the main castle entrance.

 

The donjon had your typical central rooms, but it also had wide (7-8′) corridors in the walls, with defensive windows and arrow slits looking out.

 

Inner room of the donjon.

 

The lower inner corridor in the donjon keep. 

Top of the donjon. 

Inner ward of the castle.

 

Across the inner ward.

 

Our last castle of the trip was to be Ewloe. This small Welsh castle was one I’d never even heard of, as its history is both brief and unremarkable. But it is a surprisingly charming little place. I’ll add a couple of pics, but I like the ones at Castle Wales better, so would recommend that you check those out.

From there, it didn’t take us long to drive the rest of the way to Manchester, where once again we had reserved a room at Ash Farm:

It was a good trip. Thanks for sharing it with us here.

 

Jim Downey

* I’ve always been struck by the fact that the shape of these passage graves is a cross. Obviously, that was the shape which came to symbolize Christianity, and which was used to construct churches and cathedrals for hundreds of years. But I don’t recall having ever read anything where someone has drawn the obvious connection between the two. Evidently that’s a gap in my knowledge.



Three weeks in Wales, Part 10: Welsh Rover.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9.

Took this the next morning at breakfast in the Black Lion pub, just had to share it:

While we’d had exceptionally nice weather through most of our trip, the next day we woke to more low-hanging clouds, light rain, and mist. In other words, characteristically Welsh weather.

We next had an Air B&B up outside of Caernarfon. Charming place. Lots of character. Bit too much for my tastes, actually. Would have been fine if I were a grad student again, but I’ve now come to like more luxury when on vacation. Like a bed which isn’t a foot off the floor. A bathroom which isn’t down the hall, up some stairs, then down another hall. And a door which *doesn’t* lock from outside the room.  It made me … uncomfortable. At least the host was pleasant, though in a way which a murder mystery writer might describe. Yes, I have an over-active imagination, but still. We stayed the one night, but high-tailed it to a conventional holiday hotel elsewhere in the area the next day.

But before we went there, we took a trip south to pay homage to Number 6. Yup, we went to Portmeirion:

Even The Village needs maintenance work now and again.

Rover! Here boy!”

 

OK, this is hard to make out. But there in the middle of the image is a modern security camera. Given how Portmeirion was used as the setting for The Prisoner, with it’s all-encompassing monitoring, I just thought it a bit ironic to actually see this.

 

After a nice afternoon in Portmeirion we went up to Caernarfon and strolled around a bit. I was surprised at just how much the city shuts down at the end of the business day — they really roll up the sidewalks.

But there was still one pub going strong, at least: The Anglesey Arms.

Where we saw this. I thought the paint job would appeal to a number of my friends.

The next morning we decided to go out onto the Llŷn Peninsula, first going to Criccieth Castle.   Here’s the description of Criccieth from St Cybi’s Well — see if you think it fits with the image from Castle Wales below.

Darnell went across to the exit into the castle grounds proper. The path turned left, then right into a copse of trees. When he emerged from these, the massive gatehouse seemed to loom directly overhead. The path cut up the hill at an angle on the north side, climbing steeply, then switched back before coming around to the front of the gatehouse. There was little doubt that when the castle was in operation, taking this path would mean that any attackers would be under constant fire from arrows, bolts, and heavy stones coming from the walls and the outer gatehouse. Trying to go straight up the hillside would have been even worse, because while it was a shorter path, it was much more precarious footing, and still under direct fire from the outer gatehouse tower and curtain wall.

And of course, if you made it past the outer gatehouse, then you had to contend with the huge inner gatehouse, a massive structure of twin D-shaped towers sporting a delightful array of arrow loops and murder holes.

Do go and check out the castle itself: it’s damned impressive, even in its ruined state. And the lump of hill it sits on is a stunning site, with fantastic views of the town and country around:

From Criccieth, we did some exploring on the peninsula, then thought to go find a small church we had heard about from friends years before. This is St Beuno’s at Pistyll, on the north shore, and its so small that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry:

St Beuno’s is a 12th century structure, though it has seen some updates and repairs over time. Still, it’s largely intact, and feels like it both inside and out:

Note the rushes on the floor.

 

If you look carefully, you can see the holes in the rafters for where thatch was held in place. The slate roof is only about 100 years old.

I love these two pans of moss & stone in the window ledges, an old tradition related to Easter:

Moss pan in the window, 12th century stone font for holy water in the foreground.

Outside:

The narrow window is called a “Leper’s squint”, where those who were not permitted inside the church could witness mass.

And around:

Lovely.

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 9: castles, churches, and the Green Desert.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.

We were going to head north, to meet up with another of Martha’s friends from the online Welsh language community. But we decided to explore a bit along the way. Exploring, we discovered a castle we hadn’t visited previously: Cilgerran.

Here’s the nice image/intro discription from CADW:

This beautifully located castle has a romantic air.
The coracle, a one-person boat native to these parts, has a history dating back thousands of years. Cilgerran Castle, which overlooks the Teifi, a river favoured by the peculiar vessel, isn’t doing too badly either. Almost 800 years young and counting.Take the wall-walk to truly appreciate why it was built here. Stunning location. Perfect for stunning attackers. The Normans first saw the potential and established an early ‘ringwork’ castle here, but the imposing masonry castle we see today was probably the work of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke.

It really is an impressive structure, and we enjoyed poking around it for a good while.

Main gate.

 

Inner ward.

Not a strawman I’d care to fight.

 

The walls were surprisingly thick — about 10′. Which is about half again what you normally see in castles of this age.

Definitely glad that we stopped to check it out.

Martha’s friend Huw lives outside Aberystwyth, and we took a room at the Black Lion pub in nearby Pontrhydfendigaid. He met us there, and we went over to Strata Florida, another Cistercian abbey which played a very important role in Welsh history, and was a major center of learning. It also plays an important role in St Cybi’s Well, with one of the chapters titled with the name. Here’s a bit of that:

He led Darnell through the gateway, onto the smooth green lawn which once had been the floor of the abbey church. To the left and right were the foundations of the original walls, less than a half meter tall, and somewhat wider than that. Beyond those were the remains of the exterior walls of the north and south aisles. Looking down the long nave, and across to the far wall of the north transept, Darnell saw a small group of people before a large slate sign. From his previous visits, he knew that this was a marker dedicated to a famous Welsh medieval poet who was buried on the grounds.

This was familiar ground, ground he had walked before. And yet, for the first time he felt something different. It was an echo of that resonance he had felt at St David’s Cathedral, of the shimmering energy of Stonehenge. Something deep. Powerful. Old.

Whether the ground was so imbued with this strange … energy … before the monks had chosen this spot for their abbey, or whether the energy was the effect of hundreds of years of worship on the location, he didn’t know. But there was something there which touched him, which opened a door he had only recently come to realize even existed.

It really does have a special feel. See for yourself (first image is from Wikipedia):

Graves of princes and poets.

 

From Strata Florida, Huw took us up into Elenydd, the so-called ‘green desert of Wales’. It’s an upland plateau, a wild and largely empty place. And it is beautiful in its starkness, particularly with the clouds hanging less than 100′ above us:

Lovely.

Huw had one more treat in store for us that afternoon: the Church of Saint David at Llanddewi Brefi. While most of the current structure dates to the 19th century, the central tower is clearly 12th century:

The interior of the church:

But what is most impressive are the Ogham stones, probably dating back to the 6th century:

 

The next day the low-hanging clouds which had been threatening rain delivered on their threat. It was a good day for driving again in the Green Desert, with a visit to “the most remote chapel in all Wales”, Capel Soar y mynydd:

And while the chapel may be remote, they’re up with the times:

 

Jim Downey