Friday, November 28, 2014

Glastonbury--Avalon--The Isle of Glass

Whatever name it's called, the area of Somerset that cradles the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey beneath the watchful Chapel of St. Michael high on the Tor is a mystical, magical, serene and uncanny place, and has been since the Dawn of Time. In addition to the spirits of nameless and pre-historic peoples, Druids and Irish hermits, two intertwined legends are synonomous with Glastonbury--and form the groundwork of the mystery that is investigated in The Spoils of Avalon.

Arthur and Guenevere 
Somerset is often a watery plain, with frequent floods and rains and marshy ground, and the high, strange Tor (Welsh for 'hill') can often appear as an island floating in a sea of glass. The village is some sixty miles west of famous Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and not very far from the Welsh border where the sea-swept and rocky fortress of Tintagel still holds fast the secret of King Arthur's birth. It is said that Arthur met his fate in Glastonbury, when the Lady of the Lake took back his sword into her realm, and she and her ladies bore him off to the Isle of Glass, to return
again in a time of great need. However, in 1191, the monks who lived at the great Abbey claimed to have found the tomb of Arthur and Guenevere in their graveyard, buried sixteen feet down--the bones had been laid in the hollowed-out trunk of an enormous oak tree. Nearly 100 years later, with great pomp and ceremony, and with  King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attending, the bones were removed to a magnificent tomb inside the great church, embedded in the floor before the high altar, and marked with a slab of shining black marble.

St. Joseph and the Thorn Tree

On Wyrral Hill close by the village of Glastonbury, it is said that Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary and great-uncle, therefore, to Jesus, plunged his walking stick into the ground to signify the founding of a church on this holy place, and that the stick became a thorn tree, which forever after bloomed in the midst of darkest winter, on Christmas Day. The original tree is gone, but shoots were taken from it through the centuries and grafted onto other trees, of which there are at least three still to be seen in Glastonbury and on the grounds of the Abbey ruins. 

Joseph is also widely believed to have brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, and buried it in an ever-gushing spring of water, known for centuries as The Chalice Well. The water, though clear and very drinkable, has stained the rocks around it a rusty, dark red, like blood, which lends credibility to the legend.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In the Shadow of Hadrian's Wall

In The Spoils of Avalon, the characters of Gwillem Moor (the blind Welsh bard) and Arthur Joseph, the young monk of Glastonbury Abbey, set out on a journey to the far north of England, near the Scottish border -- to Lanercost. It takes them a month to walk about 400 miles, through lowlands, forest, hills, mountains, up to the Lake District with steep crags and mountain lakes, to reach the fells and downs of Cumberland.

The tiny hamlet of Lanercost, on the grounds of the estate of great Naworth Castle, is just half a mile from the path of Hadrian's Wall, which Roman soldiers began building in about 117 CE. It marked the northwest limit of the Roman Empire at the time, and extends across the narrowest part of the country, from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend in the east -- about 73 modern miles (117 km). Major forts were located 8.2 Roman miles apart, between which where smaller "fortlets" or milecastles, with two small turrets between every milecastle.

At the time of my novel, the Wall had long since been plundered for local building--Lanercost Priory itself, with its barns and stables, is largely made up of stones from the Wall, as are many medieval farm houses and stone walls marking property lines. But the Wall loomed large--figuratively and literally--in the minds of the people, and signified both history and legend of greater times. When I stood on the spot in the photo below, it was almost a spiritual experience to think about Gwillem Moor and Arthur Joseph catching sight of the Priory from a similar vantage point.
View of Lanercost Priory from Hadrian's Wall Path

This wall section (on left) was thought to be part of the original Wall for centuries, until early 20th century archaeo-logical testing showed it to be only a reconstruction of the Wall, but using actual stones from it.

On right is a stone wall on grazing land, some of whose stones are undoubtedly from Hadrian's Wall.

One of the great camps for Roman soldiers and their families is a site called Vindolanda, which is still yielding important discoveries today about daily life in the early 100's C.E.  The Wall was just on the other side of the ridge above the camp. Visiting this place made me want to write in some scenes where Violet and John visited the camp ruins, but not everything you learn can go into a story!

From the Museum at Vindolanda, some artifacts found on the site in recent years:

 A fine Samian ware bowl, imported from Europe, and a carving of a goddess (Ceres?).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Naworth Castle - The Mighty Fortress of Cumberland

Naworth Castle has a long and enduring history in Cumberland, particularly as the fortress that helped keep the "rievers" (the Scottish raiders) at bay over many centuries. Home to the Dacres family, then the Howards (all inter-related), the castle is famous for "Belted Willy's Tower", seen above with the flag on it, as it is the primary section of the original castle (along with the outside walls) remaining after a disastrous fire on May 18th, 1844. It is in this tower that amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent have a great and marvelous adventure in The Spoils of Avalon.

Some thirty years after the fire, the heir to the title of Earl of Carlisle, Mr. George Howard, (who became the 9th Earl in 1896), hired Morris & Company to re-design and re-build the main halls of Naworth, with stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and architecture by Philip Webb. The rooms are gloriously Arts & Crafts, with painted ceilings, lovely sconces and hand-carved stairwells.

I was privileged to visit Naworth Castle, the country residence of Mr. Philip Howard, on my research trip recently, and I was given a glimpse of the round, stone staircase leading up from Lord William's bedroom to the Tower rooms above--it is indeed very narrow, perhaps about 18 inches in width, and the steps are roughly hewn from solid stone. Seeing it helped me picture very intensely how it might have seemed to Violet and John as they ascended it by candlelight and lamplight during a raging storm!

N.B. - The photo above was taken by me from the public road. Although I was graciously allowed to take a few photos during my visit, I promised I would not publish any of them, in order to protect the family's privacy.

The road to Naworth from the main Brampton Road ascends through a woods to the top of a plateau, from which one can gaze upon the surrounding meadows and rolling hills, with mountains (fells) in the distance. It was fascinating to be on the spot of the scenes I had been describing in my book, and fortunate, too, in that I was able to re-write a few descriptive scenes more accurately--including one in which I had Violet "looking out for a glimpse" of the crenellated towers of Naworth as they rode along the Brampton Road--turns out that was not possible! But easy to correct!