With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

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Thinking and Dreaming

Do you ever dream about your characters? I expect some writers do, devising entire plot lines and waking to scribble it all down on that notepad that you are supposed to keep at hand for when inspiration strikes. Everyone has different dreams and ways of remembering them – or not!

There are the dreams so vivid that you are scared to return to sleep. Other people claim not to dream at all. Then there are those dreams that you half remember, leaving just a frustrating impression. I had one of the latter recently. I woke, knowing that my dream had been full of incident, but it disappeared before I could catch it in the net of my memory. All that remained was a snapshot. A big man swinging a sword. It was dark and he was surrounded by trees. It must have been Byrhtnoth and this is the only time I have dreamed about him – that I  remember.

I could use that scene, embroider details onto it, decide who he is fighting, and why. But it would no longer be the original dream that I experienced. It is very annoying, but why did I have that dream? Was it because I had not done any writing for several weeks? Was my character, or just my subconscious (which is the same thing really) telling me to get on with it.

Not wanting to end up with nightmares, I obeyed. I retreated to the writing computer and wrote just over 1,000 words – then the rugby came on. At least it’s a start and I’ll try to keep it up.

River and muddy path.

I had warmed up with a bit of editing, because those weeks of not-writing had not been wasted. I had been thinking. A weekend away in the Lake District was not just a time for walking and drinking. I had decided to send my character to this same place, and was looking at the view with his eyes, hearing the sounds with his ears, feeling the suck of mud on my boots. How far would he travel in a day? Where would he stop for the night? The only problem with this, is that I was there in February – he will be travelling in May. I can cope with that, I hope.

The other thinking that occupied me was about the structure of my books. I sat down and wrote a synopsis of book two. I then did the same for book three – a bit more difficult as it is only part written. I then wrote a synopsis – well more of a set of notes – for the unwritten book four. From the look of it, that will be the end. Of course anything can happen if the characters don’t agree!

Then it got really speculative, what next? How about a prequel? A children’s book? Tell the story of other characters? Send Byrhtnoth into outer space – perhaps not that one. A different period? Modern day? A thriller? Then I calmed down, just get on with writing the next book.

Once I had got the synopses down, I started to apply the Three Act Structure to them. It was an interesting exercise. I found that half of one book was about a completely different character – is that allowed? It was difficult to fit the structure onto the unwritten book four – how do I know how much I’ll write for different scenes? I have not become organised enough to say that chapter x will contain such and such scene. Thank goodness, I’m still a pantster at heart!

Feel free to return to this post in a few months/years time and have a good laugh at my dreams.

View down Eskdale from Hardknott Roman Fort.

Sutton Hoo through time

If you mention Anglo-Saxons, the first thing most people think about is Sutton Hoo – the famous helmet and shield, the beautiful jewellery and the mounds that stand on a hill near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In recent years the Staffordshire Hoard has become famous, but it was probably made by the same artists, and in the same place as the Sutton Hoo treasure.

Since I am writing about the Anglo-Saxon period, I must take my characters to Sutton Hoo. After all, Byrhtnoth was Ealdorman of Essex, not far away. But what was the site like when he visited? The Anglo-Saxon period lasted a long time – over four hundred years from the 7th century to 1066. Byrhtnoth died in 991. I wanted his sword to have a beautiful gold and garnet hilt, but he lived too late. King Rædwald, probable owner of the treasure died about 624. It would be like a modern soldier using a flintlock pistol. I don’t suppose swords changed that much, but how they were decorated would. A warrior would be ashamed to wear “last season’s” sword. And Byrhtnoth was a Christian, no one was buried in burial mounds with treasure any more. You gave it to the church to pray for your soul

Sutton Hoo has meant many things to many different people. As you will see, I am one of them.

There were prehistoric farmers on the site, the woodland was cleared in the neolithic period, they placed pots in pits there. There were bronze age roundhouses but the land became infertile and farming was abandoned, used for sheep and cattle. Farming returned in the Romano-British period, perhaps growing grape vines. Then came the Anglo-Saxons.

A little while ago I read Monsters by C R May the third of his Sword of Woden series about Beowulf, which includes a scene where Beowulf himself visits Sutton Hoo and buries a body there.  It’s fiction, but a nice idea,  someone must have made the first burial there. It was followed by others.

There are about 17 burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, dating to the sixth and early seventh centuries. King Rædwald ruled from 599 to around 624. He was the greatest of the East Anglian kings. He defeated Northumbria, installing Edwin as king. He was called Bretwalda, chief of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Therefore we assume he was the king buried with the great treasure, but we cannot truly know. Who was buried in the other mounds? His relatives and family? Possessions of both men and women have been found; one boy was buried with his horse. On this hilltop, the clan of the Wuffingas demonstrated their power.

By Byrhtnoth’s time there was no longer a king of East Anglia. King Alfred’s Wessex had expanded to form a single country, England. Danes had invaded the eastern part of the country. Æthelstan was Ealdorman of East Anglia. He was called half-king because of his power. In later life he became a monk at Glastonbury and presumably buried there, his sons were buried at Ramsey Abbey. Sutton Hoo had been abandoned, at least by royalty. Archaeologists have discovered graves from the later Anglo-Saxon period. There was a gallows on one of the mounds and criminals were buried there.

So it stayed, seemingly forgotten, until the 20th century, but not untouched. A boundary ditch was dug, destroying part of the largest mound, so looters in the 16th century missed the burial. although other mounds had been robbed.

Now, a slight diversion. Before I became a writer, I was a genealogist, in fact that was what started me writing. I gradually became interested in one unusual name, Madder. The family came from Norfolk and I got stuck in the mid 18th century. In my efforts to break this brick wall I extended my search. I came across a family of that name in Suffolk. They lived in Sutton. I didn’t realise the significance of this until I was transcribing the will of Robert Mather (both names appear in records for this family) in 1639. He leaves the property etc “in which I dwell called the Howe”.

Line from will of Robert Mather 1639 (Suffolk Record Office ref:
IC/AA1/77/74

Old map (date unknown) from website of The Sutton Hoo Society

Robert is referred to as “gentleman”. There are twelve wills of the Madder/Mather family dating back to 1474, early members were “yeoman”. They owned the site of Sutton Hoo, they became richer over the years – Robert’s son, Henry moved away and I lost track of them. Are they related to my family? Did they dig up some of the Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I will leave it there for now.

There were a few digs in the 19th century, but it was not until 1939 that the then landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, employed Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, to dig the largest mound.

When he found the burial chamber the dig was taken over by “professionals”. It was the eve of WW2 and the objects were whisked away to the British Museum. A later coroners inquest awarded everything to Mrs Pretty, who eventually donated the collection to the BM. There is an interesting book, The Dig by John Preston which tells the story of the 1939 events. Fiction, but it gives a good description of the atmosphere and the characters involved.

This should be the end of the story, but there is one more event in the history of this place.

In July 2002, it was my birthday. I was visiting my parents in Essex and decided what we would do. We had visited Sutton Hoo before, but the National Trust had recently opened in new visitor centre, the British Museum had loaned objects. We would go there, have lunch, visit the display and walk around the site.

At this time my father (centre in the above picture) had health problems; he had trouble gripping things with his hands and sometimes swallowing, but he walked round the site (We told him that although he had problems with his hands, his legs were OK.) and enjoyed the day out. Three weeks later he went into hospital, for tests. Motor Neurone Disease was diagnosed, I visited him (he was in a London Hospital.) and we talked about how he would cope, make alterations to their house. He died, peacefully, three days later, on 4th August 2002. Exactly fifteen years ago last Friday.

I don’t know why; perhaps I had a premonition, but I took a photograph of him at Sutton Hoo, standing outside the exhibition, beneath a representation of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It is the last picture I took of him.

Sutton Hoo has a long and interesting history, that is why have included it in my book (you will have to wait to see how). It is also a special place for me.

RIP Kenneth Bernard Madder-Smith (1926-2002)

 

 

Where are my characters going?

When we talk about a character’s “journey” we are usually talking about his (or her) emotional or spiritual journey, But what about the physical, boots on the ground, journey? There are the obstacles, the bumps in the road. There is the weather and where to seek shelter. Why is the journey necessary? But also, there is the decision on which way to go, especially with historical fiction.

Recently, by compete coincidence, I was following the same route that my protagonist was taking, in book two. Of course I was in a comfortable car and he was walking, but we were both following the same road to the north. I started a bit further south, but the section I am thinking of is from York northwards, nowadays the A68, in his day perhaps Dere Street. One of the great Roman roads that continued to be the main travel routes in Anglo-Saxon times and still serve today.

I have been thinking a lot about why roads are where they are. Rivers came first and it is difficult to move a river, so roads had to go where rivers permitted. Most rivers, close to the sea, are difficult to cross. The road must cross where the river was narrow enough to ford, or someone has built a bridge. Ships can sail up rivers – usually to roughly the same point as the road crosses. That is where a town is built. Nowadays roads can go anywhere, across rivers, under hills, even under the sea, but look at a map and you can see the same arrangement of roads laid down by the Romans, often following more ancient prehistoric track ways.

The Portgate on Hadrian’s Wall. What would it have looked like when Byrhtnoth passed this way?

I can look out of the car window and see the same hills and rivers, my character saw, over a thousand years ago. Although the architecture and vegetation may have changed, the bones of the country are the same. Stand on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and you can see Bamburgh Castle (or you can if it’s not raining, as when I was there recently!)

Have you ever looked at a map and noticed a cluster of those little crossed sword symbols that mark a battle site? Close to York we passed Fulford and Stamford Bridge (1066) and Towton (1461). I’m not sure about Towton, but the other two demonstrate the ford/bridge connection. Battle sites are usually close to one of those road/river pinch points.

Heading North – was that the right junction?

I hope you don’t think that these thoughts were distracting me from driving. I was the passenger, or perhaps I should say, performing the more important job of navigator. I find these long journeys are good for thinking, and thinking nowadays means thinking about my writing. When you are on a motorway and the next instruction is 20+ junctions away, you have nothing to do. Normally, when I have the unusual experience of “nothing to do”, I read – difficult in a car – although there are times when I have been desperate enough! We could listen to the radio, but that is difficult with the noise of a motorway. So I sit, looking out the window. Sometimes there are things to look at. Everything passes quickly but sometimes, something will catch your eye; a certain arrangement of clouds, a house in an unusual place, a group of people or just one person. You have no time to study it but you continue thinking about it, you weave a story around it, it might be the start of a new book, or just a brief scene in what you are writing now.

If the journey is boring, as motorways often are, I drift off into my book, enjoyable scenes or something that is causing problems. On our recent trip I started thinking about book three. With book one with the publisher and book two in the midst of editing, I allowed myself to catch the individual strands that had started to float around my brain; in which order should they be placed? How do I connect them together? The main characters are easy – I have a rough idea about their future, although that may change (I have already killed someone off and resurrected them!) It is the minor characters, the ones that pop in and out, how can I re-use them – recycle rather than invent new ones?

I started getting confused, it was difficult remembering what happened in which book. I was horrified to find myself thinking: I really could do with a notebook, to write things down.  Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not a planner. Am I changing? I can’t imagine doing anything as drastic as actually dividing the book into chapters – before I’d written a word!

Perhaps a timeline, or a few brief biographies, even a family tree. And of course I’ll need a map, to track where people are and how long they take to get there.

But definitely not post-it notes!

Finally, with all this travelling about, I have lost track of where I had got to with recording my editing progress. So I will give a general overview. I have divided book two into four sections, well three sections and a bit on the end. With this edit I have got through the first two (roughly half way). 47,448 words have been reduced to 44,460, a loss of around three thousand words. There is a scene that I have decided to cut, perhaps another. I have hopes I will get under 100,00, perhaps closer to the planned 90k.

So – I’d better get back to it. I have been told I will be getting the book one proofs “sometime”.

Digging at #Lindisfarne – a beginners guide

Last year I came across plans for an archaeological excavation on Lindisfarne, to find the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery; a crowd funded project run by DigVentures.

I have been interested in archaeology for a long time – watching it on TV, reading about it and attending talks at  Rugby Archaeological Society. I have always wanted to “have a go” but had accepted I was too inexperienced, too old and lacked the time to take on another new hobby.

But this was one of those unusual digs that was looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. I studied the website – there were various options. I could become a Digital Digger – In other words, I could sit at home and keep up to date with what happened, day by day with information; videos, some live, everything other than actually being there on the ground. I would also be listed in the report and I picked the option to receive a special team t-shirt.

I enjoyed the event, it became “my” excavation.

When, later, their (our) discovery of a rare Anglo-Saxon namestone was featured on the BBC TV series, Digging For Britain, I was hooked. When it was announced that the team would be returning to Lindisfarne, I wondered. Could I actually go? Could I take part in the dig? Again there were various options – the whole dig, a week, a weekend, a single day. I settled for a single day – if I made a fool of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I checked tide timetables (see below) and accommodation (at the Blue Bell Inn in Belford, where we had stayed on our visit last year.) and in a rush of enthusiasm, we booked – two people to dig on Sunday 23rd July 2017. This is about that day.

By the time we drove up to Northumbria on the Friday, we knew the weather was not going to be good. On Saturday we spent some time in Berwick. We got halfway round the walls before it started raining, so not quite a washout. Then early Sunday morning we headed for Holy Island. We had been asked to report at 9.00 am. The causeway was open by that time. We had to leave by 1.05 pm or stay until 7.30 pm. We had paid for our day, we would be there for the day. It stayed dry(ish) until we reached the car park.

Causeway to Lindisfarne, but where is the island?

Pilgrim’s route back to the mainland.

When we got to the Site Hut (the village Reading Room) well before 9.00 we were already wet. We found a notice on the door saying work would not begin until 9.30. There were already people waiting, so we joined them. Gradually more arrived.  Finally the room, it was not very big, was full of about 20 people and two dogs, all damp.

Site Hut in Lindisfarne village

Someone eventually arrived who knew what was going on, and after some discussion, most people left for the dig site, leaving four newbies, us, another one day digger and someone who had met the organisers in the pub. We were given the introductory talk, filled in forms (including next of kin – how dangerous was this archaeology?), and had our photos taken (to distinguish us from the skeletons in the trench?). Finally, trowels in hand we were marched, through the village, to the actual excavation.

Approaching the excavation.

Health and Safety talk – basically, watch where you put your feet!

One of the two skeletons already found. The other is under the plastic sheet!

We stood in the rain for a talk on health and safety – keep away from the edges, don’t slip over etc. We were given a look at one of the two skeletons that have been found. Both have now been raised and will be on their way to Durham University for further study. Apart from these complete skeletons there were pieces of bone scattered all over the site. This was probably the monk’s cemetery and the upper level had been disturbed by later ploughing, or levelling for the Norman monastery, whose ruins loomed over our trench.

We were told to find a shovel and bucket – I found a shovel, but all the buckets were being used and at last we were led into the other half of the trench.  We were shown where to dig and left to get on with it. I tried to find somewhere to kneel – there was a pile of rocks in the way, and there were no kneelers left either, but I had a plastic bag with me, so I used that, together with the gardening gloves we had been told to bring. Later I realised that I should have worn the gloves – they keep your hands comparatively clean. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone to take photos with muddy hands? I’m surprised it still works!

Trenches of the four “beginners” Mine at the top with plastic bag and red trowel. “Bone” below next trowel.

So what was it like? Actually digging on an archaeological site? Well, imagine kneeling on a hard rough surface, bones and rocks sticking out of the ground all around. You are focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. You must scrape away the top centimetre of this soil. When you have scrapped enough soil, you shovel it up, twist round and dump it in the bucket behind you (oh, someone must have found one!). All this in the pouring rain. I seemed to be faced with a solid mass of sticky soil – a few feet away others seemed to have better soil, but mine stuck to the trowel, it had to be scraped off, onto the shovel, then into the bucket. What if I missed something important, or more worrying, what if I did find something? We only had about an hour of this before things were called off because of the weather, but I enjoyed every minute – apart from the rain running down my neck.

So did I find anything? My Better Half kneeling beside me (with the better soil, or was it just his technique?) found a lump of something shiny. It looked like glass to start with, but it caused some interest – it got listed as a small find. It was entered into the computer system there and then, numbered, and put in a small plastic bag of its own. There were a few problems writing the number on the bag in the rain, but it is now in the database (the find is registered to me, because only my name was in the system!) You can find the details here, number 54 “Black unidentifiable shiny object maybe production waste”. That is the wonderful thing about DigVenture digs – everything is recorded immediately and put online, for anyone to look at.

He also found a bone starting to appear in his area. What did I find? A stone, that turned out to be “just a stone” and was chucked in the bucket, and an earthworm, alive. I didn’t think I needed to report that.

There was a break at about 11 and I went up on the Hough to take some pictures, but the rain was coming down even heavier. By the time I got back, the dig had been abandoned for the day.

 

Heavy rain – discussion  on whether to abandon excavation!

We all trooped back to the Site Hut. There was fiddle playing and birthday cake – we were not sure whose birthday it was, but we sang happy birthday and accepted a piece of cake – it was very good. There was a lot of waiting around and discussions as to who would go and who stay. If anyone wanted to leave the island, they had to go before the causeway flooded at 1.05. A lot of the “regulars” disappeared, but we were determined to stay. We were sent off to find some lunch, but we had a walk around the village – for some reason the rain had stopped!

When we returned, we were offered some work, washing finds. “Bone or stone?” we were asked. We picked bone, it sounded more interesting. So we were settled at the table with a washing up bowl of water, a pot of wooden skewers and toothpicks (for removing soil) and toothbrushes (for cleaning). We were given a finds tray (which gardeners would recognise as a seed tray) containing a mixture of soil and small pieces of bone. This kept us busy for hours (BH found a tooth – well what else are tooth brushes for?). I liked the pieces of skull – flat both sides and no awkward corners, but most of what we cleaned could have been anything. We enjoyed it so much, that when we had finished the box, we asked for more, but bigger. We did longer bits of bone and vertebrae etc. We hung on for a while past 5.00 when we were due to leave – just to finish that box. It was wet and messy, but surprisingly restful.

Washing Finds in the Reading Room.

We helped to pack things away, but then had to say goodbye. There were over two hours to kill before we could leave, so we decided to return to our car to change out of our boots. We had planned to find somewhere for a drink, but the rain was too heavy – we couldn’t face any more. We had water and “emergency rations” in the car, so stayed there. I had my Kindle and read for a while (Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert – I do like to coordinate my books with my activities!) plus a recording of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” which seems an appropriate way to end this post; writing and bones.

Rain through car windscreen.

We made our way back to our hotel, in time for dinner. It had been an exhausting day, but one I shall never forget. Thank you DigVentures for having us.

Will I do it again? I’ll let you know when I’ve dried out!

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 5, Final Day

This was the day I had been looking forward to, the trip to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, including the world heritage sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Brodgar and Stenness. These were the sites I had read about and seen on television. They were on my “must see” list of places to visit. I had already had one disappointment when we were told that the Ness of Brodgar excavations had not started yet and everything was still covered up for the winter. Never mind, there was plenty of other things to see, and it is the complete ritual landscape that is important.

First view of Maeshowe from the coach. Excitement builds.

It was not a good start, we were too early for the Maeshowe visitor centre, or they weren’t ready for us, so we went to the Standing Stones of Stenness first. It was perfect weather to view these tall stones (unless it is winter with dark skies and snow on the ground!)

Alan adds a sense of scale to the stones.

Stenness Stones. Tall but very thin. How did they get them there without breaking them?

Stenness Stones. Looking for alignments – surely those distant hills on Hoy are significant? Don’t know about the coach.

Looking in the opposite direction, towards Maeshowe. Another dip in the hills! The mound was visible from some parts of the circle but not others.

Distant view of the Ring of Brodgar from Stones of Stenness.

Rather than continuing across the causeway to Brodgar, we returned to the Maeshowe visitor centre, where we moved to smaller coaches and picked up guides. It was a short drive and then a walk along a path through the fields to Maeshowe itself.

Walking towards Maeshowe.

Coming through the tunnel…

…and leaving again.

I am sorry I have no pictures of the interior of Maeshowe, but photography was forbidden. Maeshowe is a megalithic chambered tomb, similar to the Tomb of the Eagles, that we had already visited, but bigger and with no skulls. It is famous for its mid-winter alignment when the setting sun shines along the passageway to light up the interior. When the tomb was opened, in 1861, the entrance was invisible, so it was entered by the top. The roof is a Victorian replacement, not nearly as accomplished as the original must have been. In earlier times, it must have been open as, in 1153, a group of Vikings took shelter there from a snow storm. Bored, they carved runes onto some of the stones in the chamber. It is now one of the biggest collection of runes in Europe.

Our guide was very knowledgeable, but was obviously under instructions to increase income for the visitor centre. As you would expect, someone asked what the runes said. We were told, “It’s in the guide-book.” I have checked the entry price. It is £6 for an adult; not bad for a short coach trip and a guided tour. I suppose they need to raise more money somehow, but, together with the prohibition of photography, it left a bad taste in the mouth.

After a stop in the shop (we did buy the book) it was back onto our coach. As we crossed the Ness of Brodgar, I looked out for the archaeological site. I glimpsed a farmyard with a pile of tyres, so I suppose that was it. We were soon out of the coach again and walking up a path to the Ring of Brodgar.  This was a spectacular site, on a sloping site. As you approach it, the view beyond is invisible. It seems the whole landscape had been manipulated, to hide and reveal different aspects at the correct time in whatever ritual was being performed. I would love to know how, and why, it was used. Like the stone circle we had seen on the first day and Stonehenge and Avebury, it probably meant different things at different periods. Religion must have changed drastically over five thousand years plus.

Like Avebury, the Ring of Brodgar is large, too large to photograph properly. The problem was made worse by the fact that part of it was roped off for conservation. That is the problem with popular sites. Too many visitors can destroy a place which they want to see because it is so special.

Approaching the Ring of Brodgar, through a field of dandelion clocks – literally walking through time.

Fencing around part of the Ring of Brodgar, plus another mound – and that view of the horizon.

View of ditch, stones and the loch behind.

Getting close to the stones – the urge to touch.

We were told there were runes carved on one of the stones. One of our party found them – would you have seen them?

View from the top of a small mound, just outside the ring of stones.

We made our way back to the coach and the trip to the last ancient site we were to visit today, Scara Brae. We first spent time in the visitor centre – most of us in the cafe, for a much needed lunch. We then wandered outside to explore a modern re-construction of one of the houses we were about to see.

Reconstruction of Scara Brae house – a maze of tunnels led to one house.

Entrance to the house

Inside the house, with hearth, beds and “dresser”

The reconstruction was a good idea. You could see everything from ground level, imagine sitting round the hearth on winter evenings. I discovered that the edge of the beds was just the right height to sit on. Apparently, when the reconstruction was built, the passages were made taller and wider than the originals – modern people are larger (or less nimble) that the inhabitants of the neolithic age.

Finally we were allowed to see the original, from above. The village was inhabited for at least 600 years, starting around 3000BC, so older houses went out of use, or were replaced by later ones. Then there was a sudden catastrophe. The whole site was covered in sand and never used again.

An early house. You can tell by the position of the beds, inset into the walls.

View showing position of the village, close to the beach.

Looking into one of the later houses. Note same arrangement as in reconstruction – dresser always faces the door!

Looking across the site towards Skaill House.

We didn’t have much time (about 10 minutes) to visit Skaill House, home of the local Laird, which was included in the entrance price. An interesting house, I would have liked to have spent longer there. It was back into the coach to visit another old house, not as old as Scara Brae, but perhaps older than Skaill house, although lived in until comparatively recently.

Corrigall Farm Museum was an addition to the schedule. It is a traditional ‘but and ben’ house that portrays a typical Orkney farmhouse and steading in the late 19th century. While we had been at Scara Brae we had been told to think about all the perishable objects that would have been found in the houses – wooden tools, woven baskets etc. This was an opportunity to see, in situ, all the possessions of a Victorian farm would have in their house. A lot less than we would own nowadays but not that different to a prehistoric farmer facing the same problems of daily life.

Corrigall Farm Museum. The farmhouse at the back, barns in front. Note the stone slabs roofs.

Inside the farmhouse.

Ancient mousetrap – wood and stone and highly lethal.

Our driver, John, surveying the farmyard.

It was here that the first of our group left. An American couple were due to fly back to Shetland, to join another tour – birds this time – I hope they saw some puffins. John was very helpful, arranging a taxi to pick them up at the farm. He also gave them a lot of advise on places to visit later in their holiday. I’m sure it was beyond his job description but was greatly appreciated by our foreign visitors.

For the rest of us, the day was not yet over. We made a brief stop in Stromness, for tea or coffee. We had a walk along the main street. There was a strange atmosphere, quiet but busy, if you know what I mean. We stared seeing people carrying musical instruments It was the start of the Orkney Folk Festival  held at the end of May each year. By the time we got on the coach again, singing was coming from outside a nearby pub.

Stromness harbour

Houses in the quiet part of town

Folk music in Stromness

On our way back to Kirkwall, we stopped at the cliffs at Yesnaby I don’t know if we were looking for puffins again, I don’t think so, there was no soil, only bare rock and a strong wind. Very dramatic.

Rocks

More rocks. No birds.

Dramatic photo of dramatic photographer, but no birds!

Finally there was the long trip back to Kirkwall, where we were to have dinner at the Ayre Hotel. It was a jolly event; the whole group on one long table – much better than the small tables we had experienced at other meals. Then it was back onto the coach for the short trip to the ferry. It was the same one we had arrived on two days before. There was a bit of a wait in the terminal, then we were onboard. After such a busy day, most of us went straight to our cabins.

Sunset from the Kirkwall ferry terminal.

We awoke next morning, back in Aberdeen. Some of the party left from there, others were dropped off at the airport, but the final few of us made the trip back to Edinburgh. Our car was still in the hotel car park, so we packed our luggage into the boot, and left. We had booked a few days in Yorkshire before the final trip home, but that will have to be described another time (perhaps)

So. how was the holiday? Was it up to expectations? Definitely. We saw places we expected to see and some we didn’t. There are many places that when they appear on TV history programs we can say “We were there.”

It was not a relaxing holiday, but we didn’t expect that. So much to see in only six days. It was very well organised, we always arrived when and where expected. Even the weather was good!

The other travellers were friendly and none caused problems, no-one was late at getting to the coach, in fact sometimes we left early.

Many thanks are due to Alan and John, who hadn’t met before the coach arrived in Edinburgh. They melded into an entertaining and informative team.

Thank you Brightwater Holidays for organising the trip. If you are interested in archaeology and/or Orkney and Shetland, I would recommend it highly. Just don’t expect it to be relaxing. But who wants to sit on a beach all day?

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts. It will now be back to business. I haven’t had a chance to write properly for ages, but I have some exciting news to report very soon.

A Tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 4, Orkney

After out late night arrival at the Kirkwall Hotel, we were up bright and early next morning and heading south. It seems to be an indication of how far north we were that a lot of the time we were travelling south.

First stop today was the Churchill Barriers, created after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in October 1939. Ships have been using the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow since man first learned to sail. Vikings anchored their ships there, but it became most famous as a naval base in WW1 and WW2. After their defeat in WW1 the German fleet was interned there pending a decision on their future and in 1919 the German officer in command gave the order to scuttle the fleet. 52 ships were sunk. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s many of the ships were raised for salvage. In WW2 Spapa Flow again became Britain’s main naval base, but when a German submarine the U-47, commanded by Günther Prien managed to penetrate the bay and torpedo HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 833 men, it was decided to block the entrances. A series of causeways were built, connecting several islands and providing the main road to South Ronaldway.

View from coach on one of the Churchill Barriers of (partially) sunken ship.

Just over the first of the barriers, we stopped to visit the Italian Chapel. This was built by Italians at a prisoner of war camp set up to help build the barriers. They asked permission to build a chapel, which they did using two Nissen huts. All the work was done by the prisoners themselves, using materials “found” around the camp. It is interesting to consider that at a time when British POWs were using their ingenuity to escape captivity, Italians in the same position were creating a thing of beauty.

View of Churchill Barrier and Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel, interior

Italian Chapel, screen

Italian Chapel, altar

We then continued south, across the barriers. At this point, I should mention that all the roads were well maintained and there was little traffic. Although we did encounter one traffic jam.

Orkney traffic jam.

At what seemed like the end of the road, we arrived at the Tomb of the Eagles or the Isbister Chambered Cairn. The tomb dates from about 3,000 years BC and was found by farmer Ronnie Simison in 1958. There is an excellent display at the farm and we were given talks on the history of the area by members of the family. I real “hands on” experience as objects were handed round. Then came the bracing  one mile walk to the tomb. I had seen the tomb before, on television (I’m sure I remember Neil Oliver pulling himself inside on a little trolley) but nothing prepares you for the actual experience. I had imagined the tomb to be in the middle of a field , when in fact it is close to the edge of a very dramatic cliff. No wonder so many sea eagle bones were found mixed with the human bones. They must have been a common sight in the area at the time the tomb was in use. And no-one used the trolley!

The queue for the tomb.

Who wants the trolley?

Coming through!

Inside the Tomb of the Eagles. All the side chambers were empty…

…except one!

Back to the land of the living.

Walking back along the cliffs. If the rabbits were this size, how big were the eagles?

Back on the coach, it was a short drive to St Margaret’s Hope, for lunch etc. We sat and had an (Orkney) ice cream overlooking the harbour, before we returned to Kirkwall.

St Margaret’s Hope, boats

In the afternoon, we were free to explore the town of Kirkwall. Other Half visited the Wireless Museum, while I opted for the small but interesting Orkney Museum. We then met up to see St Magnus Cathedral and the nearby Bishop’s Palace and Earl’s Palace (Yes, another castle built by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney).

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral, nave. Hanging banners gave the impression the columns were leaning.

St Magnus Cathedral, arches upon arches.

Loved this monument to John Rae, the arctic explorer.

St Magnus Cathedral – Bishop’s Palace on left, Earl’s Palace behind railings on right.

Earl’s Palace.

Bishop’s Palace, interior. There are steps to the top of that ruined looking tower. Good views of the cathedral and town – if you can open your eyes!

Dinner that night was at the hotel and afterwards we had a walk beside the harbour.

Kirkwall Hotel, bathed in evening light.

The view from our window.

Two nights in one place! We had nearly manged to settle in, but suitcases had to be out the following morning (we braved the lift!). We had another day in Shetland, the highlight of our tour, but it was nearing the end.