“Inspircation” Day 13: Exploring Ancient Ireland

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Wow.

Today was simply incredible. We headed out of Dublin on tour to visit Newgrange tomb and the Hill of Tara. Marcie had booked this tour months ago, after much research, and she sure hit the jackpot with Mary Gibbons. She was an excellent guide, giving us so much history in such a short time, but by putting everything into the context of world history, it wasn’t remotely overwhelming or confusing. Nor was it simplified and patronizing. I highly recommend her tours (you can check out her website here.)

The neolithic Newgrange site limits the amount of visitors it accepts, so that was one advantage to us having a pre-booked tour. (Even during our time there, we saw people get turned away; you can’t simply drive up and expect to get in.) The other good thing about this policy is it just means there are less people on the site. It’s a spiritual place, and that wouldn’t quite be the same if you had to wind your way through a crowd. In fact, they wouldn’t even let our whole tour group go to the site at the same time. Instead, they divided us and sent us on a smaller bus for separate sessions. When it wasn’t our turn to go, we explored the interpretation centre (and the gift shop, where we bought a beautiful print).

The Newgrange passage tomb is 5,200 years old and is easily the oldest tomb I’ve ever visited, older than those I’ve seen in China, Korea, Central America, and even Egypt. One of the things that make the Newgrange site so special (in my opinion) is the artwork engraved onto the stones. If you have any familiarity with Celtic art, then you will recognize the triple spire and other organic patterns. (Though the Celts didn’t build Newgrange—it far outdates their arrival in Ireland. I guess we just now associate these motifs with the Celts.)

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You can walk around the entire mound and see the structure.

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This is the entrance to the tomb:

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We were allowed to go in, escorted by the on-site guide. We ducked and squeezed our way through the passageway until we reached the chamber where there were once cremated remains stored. The mound is a monument to the sun; at dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight beams all the way into this chamber through the “window” that is situated above the doorway. Of course, we weren’t there on the winter solstice, but they recreated the effect with artificial lighting. I can only imagine how amazing the real event would be.

You cannot take photos inside of the tomb. I was quite okay with that, since it is such a spiritual place. But I did want to record something inside of there, and so I made some sketches in my notebook. You will see on the page below my simple doodle of one of the basins that was used to hold the urns of cremated remains. (The other sketches were ones I did outside.)
newgrange-sketchbook

After our visit to Newgrange, we took the bus back to the drop-off point, and walked across the River Boyne, which is the spiritual centre of this area. This place is so steeped in history! Once we were back on the bus, Mary Gibbons told us all about the famous people who have come from this region, and about the famous Battle of the Boyne. I won’t go into that here—mostly because I can’t tell it the way Ms. Gibbons did and I won’t pretend at being an expert in Irish history. But what I can do is show you the photos Marcie took of the river:

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The next stop on our tour was the Hill of Tara, which, according to tradition, was the most important place for the High King of Ireland.

Our time here started with a visit to The Old Bookshop, which is located in a stone cottage. The owner, Michael Slavin, delivered a short slideshow to describe the site to us. Oh. And when I say slide show, I mean in the traditional sense, including the old fashioned clicking carousel and dust-covered transparencies.

I adored this bookshop. It had a wood fire going that you could smell from outside and the books are mostly used, so as Ms. Gibbons described (aptly), “It’s like heaven in there.”

Marcie and I each ended up buying books from that shop (both on Irish fairytales and folklore).

hilloftara_bookshop

After the bookshop, we headed out to the actual site. The first thing we came upon of interest were these two stones:

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According to legend, one would attempt to drive a chariot through these two sacred stones. If the person in question was a worthy candidate for a king, the stone would part, giving him a path through. If not—well, I guess it was time to get a new chariot.

Next on our walk came the Mound of Hostages, which is another passage tomb, like Newgrange, but much smaller, and not as old. You can see inside it through the barred doorway:

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After this, we explored the surrounding landscape and eventually made our way to the Lia Fáil, or the stone of destiny. This was another challenge that a prospective king would face; if the stone roared upon touching it, then it meant you were worthy.

Marcie and I faced off to see who was the most worthy, and I eventually gave it a try.

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In all likelihood, it won’t surprise you to learn that the stone did NOT roar for me. I guess the wee bit of Irish I have in me didn’t help my worth in this instance.

Below, are a few more photos of the surrounding landscape. The vistas are beautiful and, apparently, on a clear day, you can see “three-quarters of Ireland.” I don’t know about that . . . but I do know that we lost my mom while visiting Tara. She wandered off on our own accord, which shocked us, because so far on this trip she’s never let us out of her site. So we assumed she was looking for us, and we went looking for her, only to eventually find her in the gift shop. Oh well. She’s far more comfortable with the country settings than the city ones!

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Well, that was our day! It was pretty spectacular, and I even managed to get some writing done on the ride back into the city—I simply can’t help being inspired by all of the lore and legends here.

I’ve been collecting so many doors and door ornamentations on this trip, but today I didn’t photograph any. Though, I suppose you can count the entrance to the Newgrange tomb as a doorway.

Tomorrow is our last day in Dublin, and we are going to explore the rich literary history of the city.

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“Inspircation” Day 9: Dipping into the Roman Bath House

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Today marks the half-way point of our “inspircation”—our inspirational tour through the UK and Ireland.

Great things have been happening creatively for me, and since I’ve been on this tour I’ve even agreed to an amazing project for when I return back to work in the studio. And, wouldn’t you believe it, the theme of that project is “travel.” So the universe continues to do its work.

But that’s the future! As for today, we spent it exploring the city of Bath and enjoying some arts and culture.

Our day began with a tour of the Roman bath houses. Our host at our B&B advised us to get an early start, so as to avoid the larger tour groups. This was good advice; we arrived by ten, just in advance of the first large group. This meant that we could enjoy the site amidst a relatively sparse crowd, allowing us to take lots of great photos and linger at the baths themselves.

I love this particular photo, which shows the main bath and the abbey in the background. In Roman times, this bath house was covered, first with a wooden roof, and eventually with stone. Now, as you can see it is open.

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The bath house truly is remarkable. This is most likely the oldest site I’ve ever walked through since my time in Egypt many years ago, and it truly is humbling. So much of the structure is still intact, still working the way it was designed all those hundreds of years ago. Here are some other photos of our exploration . . .

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You’re not supposed to touch the water, but, of course, my mom did. (If it’s not her, then it’s Marcie—they seem determined to defy all the no-touching rules.) Thankfully, we avoided a lecture from any number of attendants lurking about the site.

Below is a photo showing the structure of the subfloor. Originally, these were pillars to support the floor, and this would have been the place to heat the floor. Apparently, in some places in the bath house, the floor was so warm that one needed to wear sandals to avoid burning!

bathhouse_subfloor

The photo below is of a mosaic tile floor. It caught my attention in particular because it shows a herd (school?) of hippocampi. I have dealt a lot with hippocampi recently, since I taught a workshop on mythical sea creatures when I was in Korea in July.

bathhouse_mosaic

After the bath house, we ventured up to the fashion museum, which is situated in a Georgian style house. We took a quick spin in the ball room . . .

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. . . and, afterwards, took a guided tour through the special exhibit of the Georgian clothes. As luck would have it, it was just the three of us on the tour, so we really were able to soak up a wealth of inspiration. The exhibit consists of original items (NOT reproductions) and gave me a lot of inspiration for character design.

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My favourite piece was this embroidered coat from the 1720s. It has me thinking, in particular, of one specific character in a book I’m currently writing. (But more on that another time.)

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After the Georgian exhibit, we came across an area where we could dress in Victorian clothes and pose for photos. Marcie leapt at this opportunity. I was a little bit more reluctant at first (didn’t they have lice and all manner of vermin in the Dickens’ time?), but eventually my inner kid took over.

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There was a group of older woman nearby, and they absolutely thrilled with how Marcie looked. “Oh, my, don’t you look lovely,” they kept saying.

For our evening entertainment, we went to the Theatre Royal to see Mrs. Henderson Presents. Before the show, we chose to eat in The Vaults. This is a restaurant located right beneath the theatre in . . . well, vaults. It’s a very cozy and intimate space and the food was delicious.

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As for the play, it was a riot and it was good to hear my mom laughing out loud. (Really good, because the play was a bit racy and I wasn’t sure exactly what she would think of it first. But it wasn’t ME who booked the tickets; that was Marcie). Some might know Mrs. Henderson Presents from the film version; myself, I had never heard of it, but it was the perfect sort of play to see, as it is based on the real-life Windmill Theatre that was running in London during World War II. It was funny, dramatic, and poignant all at once.

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Tomorrow is our last full day in Bath. Not sure what we’ll get up to. Perhaps it will be a day of taking it easy.

As usual, I leave off with some door photos. There’s a chapel we pass by on our walk into town from our B&B and it has some very interesting doors—I’d say rather steampunkish.

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“Inspircation” Day 8: Bath from Above

Yesterday, we left Exeter and headed to Bath. Believe it or not, we did not get lost—in fact, we did not get turned around once! Of course, that still doesn’t mean that we didn’t experience any glitches. We arrived at our B&B, smug because we didn’t get lost, only to discover that we had actually arrived too early. The place was locked tight and there was not a soul to be found.

We went for a walk, grabbed a bite to eat, then came back only to discover the same. We were finally able to borrow a mobile phone from a kind local and phoned the number on the outside to track down our host. Turns out, he was just down the lane picking blackberries with his kids!

One of the reasons we came to Bath was for the history, and the other was for the Jane Austen connection. Marcie has been re-reading Jane Austen this whole trip and has been most excited to explore the city where she wrote her great works. Alas, our B&B host told us that Jane Austen only lived in Bath for three weeks and rather hated the city. He said that he thinks her connection to Bath is a rather tenuous one! Still, we found the house where she lived:

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You can’t go in—just look at the plaque. Still, kind of neat and we might go explore the Jane Austen centre later on in our stay, even though it was not recommended to us.

Otherwise, we had fun exploring the city. This is Great Pulterney Street, which is supposed to be the widest in England:

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And this is the view of the bridge over the River Avon. It is one of those old-fashioned bridges that have shops on either side—though cars now back and forth, so it’s not quite as romantic as I had imagined.

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Perhaps the greatest fun of the day was visiting The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

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We decided to take the tour to the top. We made the last one of the day and climbed up the 212 steps to the top. The way was narrow and tight (though not as much as previous towers we’ve climbed). However, it was my mom’s first time making such a climb and I was worried how she handled it. Thankfully, it was not a problem.

Our guide was a senior himself (by my guesstimate, 110), and he pretty much jogged up those stairs. I was right behind him and felt compelled to keep up. By the time we reached the first level, both he and I were minutes ahead of everyone else. I asked him how many times a day he climbed up those stairs and he said it was sixth time that day!

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Finally, Marcie appeared, panting behind us (and I was waiting to photograph her!):

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On this first level, we could see the bells, the bell workings, and the clock face. There are ten bells in total and we got to see how they were rung and chimed (which are two different things, apparently).

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After this stage, we headed up to the very top to get some fantastic views of the city.

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There was a small wooden door in one corner of this rooftop terrace:

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One of the tour members asked what it was for and our guide responded by saying that, as far as he knew, it hadn’t been opened in years. Got me wondering . . .

Here are a few other doors and knockers that I found throughout the city. (My favourite one is the door knocker enshrouded in a spider’s web.)

bath_abbey_woodendoor bath_doorknocker_facewithorns bath_doorknocker_lioninwaiting bath_doorknocker_withspider

Next up: the Roman Baths!