On the road again

On the train – not unlike in England. But I look out onto familiar landscapes this time, as I’m running through the area I grew up in, and worked in for a while. Just heading out of Ottawa for a weekend in Quebec City with my mom and sister. This is the fifth weekend of being busy and I’m noticing. I actually only have two unscheduled weekends left in my time off…

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Somewhere in Eastern Ontario/West Quebec

So I took a bit of a break in my blogging when I got back. I had a mass transit cold that I’m just getting over, plus jet lag that had me waking up fresh as a daisy at 1:00am, because that was 6:00 am in Ireland – so a nasty few night’s sleep right after landing. I had a bunch of appointments and home stuff, vet related concerns (the old girl cat is being concerning), seeing family and delivering a few Irish presents. Not to mention getting to see my boyfriend and try to do something date-like with him (while trying not to pass on my cold) because I missed him during my adventure.

Downloaded my photos though – over 2500 of them. Most of them turned out pretty well. Only a few were washed out because I wasn’t paying enough attention to my ISO. I might be able to salvage them through some photo editing, hopefully (really need to finish J’s Understanding Exposure and then find all the full controls on the old camera). And only a couple are not salvageable due to focus issues (quick shots gone so, so wrong). I’m excited to print some out. I took a lot of door shots, window shots, birds, ruins, sea versus rocks, pathways, macro plants and tide pools and fossils. And my Stonehenge ones are pretty lovely too (probably 50-100 just of different pieces and angles on the stones). I think my viewfinder might be off centre though. A whole bunch of my photos seem to have a bit of a tilt and I was paying attention to alignment (most of the time…)

I got into the studio exactly once since Friday last week (I.e. since I’ve been back). But after going through my photos, I think the gnarled tree on my current canvas will borrow some characteristics from the one fairy tree at Carrowkeel. And I want to put a fuzzy “vision” “frame” around the image so that it’s shadowy and mysterious.

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My flight back from England was all afternoon. I actually got to relive 3:00 pm about three times as we passed through time zones. The Atlantic Ocean is very large. I kept looking down and seeing tiny white flecks. Now keep in mind I was at 34000 feet. I watched them and if they disappeared, they were probably white caps. If not… Icebergs? I saw a huge tanker or freighter churning across the North Atlantic but from my vantage point it looked only a few millimetres long. I sat with a chemist or chemical engineer graduate student (or post doc?) who was looking over a PowerPoint presentation involving the chemical structures containing some of the rarer elements in the periodic table. Behind me was a Norwegian fellow on his way to see his Canadian girlfriend in Edmonton. And a Canadian girlfriend who had decided at 2am that morning that she was coming home to see her boyfriend in Ottawa. We commiserated on the uncertainty of having grabbed all of our things and I shared my boyfriend’s priority list for absolute must-haves. 1. Passport. 2. Wallet. 3. Keys. Everything else is pretty replaceable.

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Somewhere over the North Atlantic – much closer to space.
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There are other small stories from my trip that I’ll try to remember to share. Like the full castle dinner experience, and some more driving stories.

Bonjour Montreal!

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Touring in a hurry

This was my first bus tour experience. And it kind of goes with my personality, I think, to go for the challenging one. Eleven hours, three sites, 400 km, one day. At least I wasn’t the one driving.

I found the coach station and boarded the bus (with my illegal hot drink that they let us have for the morning part). We got a bit of a tour on our way out of London, and then we were on the road to Windsor Castle.

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The Union Jack was up, meaning the Queen was not there.

I didn’t realize Eton College was so close to Windsor Castle! The boys went to school very close to home (both Prince William and Harry went to Eton).

There was airport style security and we weren’t allowed to take photos inside. We also had only a short amount of time, so I got to skim through the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dollhouse (with real silverware – not for playing, but because she enjoyed collecting miniatures), and the Drawings Room which had many portraits of the Queen throughout her life. She was a beautiful young queen. The ones displayed today included Lord Snowdon, Andy Warhol, Yousef Karsh, and Annie Leibovitz (they cycle them in and out – it’s a small room). The State Apartments were just jaw dropping. All those things you think about royalty and luxury and stuff? True. Absolutely.

When we exited the State Apartments (I was lucky, they let me keep my backpack on – technically I was supposed to check it), we had to walk the moat path, and we got to see one of the bearskin hat guards patrolling (with a very modern, scary gun).

But as I passed onto the moat path, I stopped to pull my map of Windsor Castle out of my pack to figure out where I was going. One if the castle wardens came over, an older gentleman a bit shorter than I, with a twinkle in his eye. He says to me, “Saw your old bag…” (I sewed a Canadian flag onto my backpack before I left.). With that, he started to pull his tie out of the collar of his vest to reveal… a Royal Canadian Mounted Police tie pin! I said, “Well, hello there!” He said, “I used to be a Mountie, but I shrank so they tossed me out!” I laughed and we chatted a bit. I didn’t get a chance to ask him how he did get the pin, as I only had half an hour left (which he thought was a sin because you could easily spend a whole day there – to which I heartily agreed.) I was so glad that he took the time to make the connection with the little wandering Canadian, though. I don’t think I’ve encountered another Canadian on my travels, actually. As it was, I had enough time for a couple more photos outside and then to run back through the marketplace, grabbing food.

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Wisteria climbing the castle wall, or blue rain as my Swedish seat mate called it.

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Heading out to find my bus – one last look back.

Then we heading for Bath. We had access to the Roman Baths and our tour guide, Edina, gave us all sorts of history about it. For example, how happy the Romans were to find hot springs in England since they came here from hot Italy. She was assertive to get us into the Baths in good time, but the buskers in the squares were amazing. Classical guitar, jazz singing (with trumpet solos)…

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Bath Abbey, built by Bishop Oliver King, symbolized by the olive tree with a crown around the trunk and a bishop’s hat over top on the corner columns (which you can’t see in this one, but do note the angels climbing up and down on ladders on either side).

It was really interesting to see how the baths evolved, and to see how they’ve reconstructed. Also to know little tidbits about the town – how it got its revival when Queen Anne came in search of the healing waters (so that maybe one of her children would make it to adulthood). Jane Austen lived there for five years and she hated it – she thought it was too snobby. Nicholas Cage had a townhouse there in a circular block of three buildings designed and built by a Freemason, so there are lots of hidden meanings in the architecture. And on our way out of town, we got to see Jane Seymour’s old estate – apparently she would throw wild parties and drunk people would be stumbling all over Bath – so much so that the local paper called her “the neighbour from Hell”. Eeep!

I finished up in the baths by drinking some of the healing waters. It tasted like warm, mineral filled water, honestly. Then, instead of heading into the abbey, I just wandered around admiring the Georgian architecture and the honey-coloured stone.

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The square where we were picked up. I made some ladies giggle as I turned a corner and made a noise of glee at the awesome streetscape before me.

We left at 16:00 on the *nose* and took the scenic route to Stonehenge. We got to see an old Iron Age ring fort (which was apparently a favourite spot for UFO sighting back in the day), burial barrows and the “tank crossing” signs along the highway to Stonehenge because a lot of that land is owned by the British military. Prince Harry trains out there. We didn’t see any tanks. Though we did see an Army helicopter fly by.

But then we passed by where they are building the new Stonehenge visitors centre, where they are going to have buses or trains to run visitors to and from the site. Now I know why they were recently hiring for the position of General Manager of Stonehenge!

And then, we arrived. Our tour guide was even more assertive to get us in to the site before a group of 77 people.

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Stonehenge. And the sun.

The stones were much larger than I expected. We were given the context of the large stones being 40 to 50 tonnes and requiring 300 men to haul each one on a sledge. Sometimes 500 men if they had to go up a hill… It’s hard to compare the volume/mass thing – Edina said for comparison, our bus weighed about 15 tonnes. They aren’t the size of a bus because they are dense, but still. And amazing to see the ball joints on top where the lintels would be held on. Engineering! Ravens were flying around and I got some good shots of one perched on top of one of the standing stones.

So I’m back in London, my last night here. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and do a really good yoga session to loosen up before the flight, have some breakfast, make sure everything is packed securely and I’ll start making my way to Heathrow. I don’t mind hanging around the airport – it is a big and interesting one. And then I’ll be home. :)

I can’t believe it’s done!

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Shadows and light, stones and earth.

London calling

Okay, maybe I’m hormonal, but I got teary eyed tonight at about 6:30pm. Let me tell you why…

My train ride was fine – I sat with 4 Americans from Florida and we chatted – they had just spent a long weekend in Ireland and had been at the Giant’s Causeway on that really rainy day. So it wasn’t as fun for them. We parted ways when we changed trains. The one couple will be on their way to Paris via the Chunnel in the next few days.

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My Welsh train to Chester.

Then I sat, sleepy and annoyed that I didn’t get my reserved seat on the Virgin train, and that the wifi was wonky. But I did get another gruyere and portobello mushroom panini, so that kind of was better (plus I was starving) (but the fellow at the snack counter asked if I was Slovakian… …?)

We pulled into London and I unwedged my suitcase from the foot space of my neighbouring seat (there was no room on the luggage rack). And I found the Tube. It was end of day so everyone was walking with a purpose. I was trying to but I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I walked with a purpose in the wrong direction from my hotel, but the helpful (potentially bored) girl at the Mailboxes Etc. (including stamps… *wink*) turned me the right way and I got to my hotel fairly quickly.

Now, I’m staying in Westminster – which is super convenient to the Tube, the station where I pick up my bus tour tomorrow and is super convenient for tourist walking and gawking.

Like, I was almost all the way to Westminster Abbey before I turned back. I walked past Westminster Cathedral twice by that point.

Then, when I left my hotel to wander and find dinner (would kill for a veggie pad thai but that may have to wait until I get home), I finished my walk to Westminster Abbey.

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Westminster Abbey – I was not the only tourist taking photos on my little Apple device.

And then I turned the corner and saw these guys.

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Houses of Parliament – their gold is very shiny in the sun.

There were protestors of the gay marriage vote that was going through the House of Commons today (passed). They best part about that? There were only two protestors. Actually, no, that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the well dressed woman who walked up to the one yelling protestor and who said to his face, “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” And then she walked off. The protestors were predictably quoting Old Testament stuff on their placards. Most people were looking at them like they were the crazy ones.

I walked around the corner to Westminster Bridge and got a shot of the Thames.

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Thames River looking towards the Waterloo Bridge.

I stopped short and that’s when tears popped into my eyes. It was 6:30 pm and Big Ben had just chimed. I’d just heard Big Ben in real life. I love the sound bells make, and one of my favourite post-work activities, when I lived in a different part of Ottawa, was to walk home across the bridge from Gatineau (where I worked at the time) and sit at “my” willow tree down by the Ottawa River and listen to the Peace Tower chime.

I walked along the Thames for a bit, walking past the statue to Boudica, the Iceni queen who resisted the Romans, and (high-security) Downing Street. Then I doubled back and found my way in to the square in front of the Houses of Parliament and I hung out by this guy:

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This one’s for my friend, M.

And I waited the last four minutes. Then…

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When the bells toll, it will be seven o’clock.

I stood, listening, big grin on my face. The richness of the hour bell toll reverberated over me despite the traffic noise. Then, once it was done, I turned and continued on. I walked along St. James’ Park, along the Birdcage Walk.

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Pretty.

And then (I think N will like this next part) I turned the corner and passed under a black and gold gate with a swan on one side and a lion on the other. I recognized the place from all that news coverage not so long ago. The gardens out front in the plaza were planted with blue forget-me-nots and yellow snapdragons. The middle bed had a dark red flower that I couldn’t see from my vantage. The air smelled sweetly of them, though. One of those delicious, water-soluble, nectar-like sweetnesses. Not cloying, but light and still rich.

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Buckingham Palace.

Again, shockingly not the only tourist there. In fact, there was one man with his brand new walking machine (cute little girl babbling and running). And he stopped to get a photo on his tablet and she started running for the road and I went after her going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” She grabbed onto the fence bars and I was ready to scoop her up if she went under but she turned to find her father. I looked back and he was coming and he said “Thank you” with big eyes. Mental note – little legs can go fast.

Then I got to help someone orient themselves because I had picked up a tourist map for this part of London. She was looking for Victoria Station, which is my new expertise. She didn’t believe me or take my advice because she was trying to retrace her steps. But she was appreciative all the same.

I stopped in at Lime Orange, a tiny but hoppin’ Korean and Japanese fusion restaurant. The food was lovely and the ladies were good. I’m still tipping in my normal fashion – hopefully that’s okay here.

Now I’m setting my alarm so I can get up in time for my bus tour tomorrow. Stonehenge, here I come!

Also, there’s a conference going on in my hotel, apparently. The World Stem Cells Regenerative Medicine Congress 2013. Neat!

Crossing the Irish Sea

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We’re rolling a bit more this time, whereas it was front to back last time. No gale force winds, however.

Farewell to Ireland. I can’t say that I had the great desire to move there (as I did at the end of my trip to Paris, when I was standing at a real estate office trying to figure out whether I could afford to), but I wasn’t ready to leave. There were so many things I didn’t get to see. The people were so lovely and helpful, warm and welcoming.

Newgrange

Well, first off – sorry for the multiple posts last night – my wifi was being flaky and my blog app kept telling me that my post had failed. Clearly, it lied. I tried to delete the extras. I think I did, but if not, I’ll clean it up in a couple of days on an actual computer.

Today was my last day running the roads of Ireland. My alarm rang at 5:30 and I looked out my window to the mist-filled morning. I left my B&B around when I’d hoped to. I had a good breakfast – cooked myself some eggs and stuff. I left some food behind for the next folks and I let Sinead know. She was getting the kids ready for school. And then I entered Monday morning rush hour.

Really, the drive was pretty decent. I knew where I was going up to a point and then from there, I expected the signage to be stellar. I was heading towards Dublin, after all.

And I was correct. It’s funny – 2-ish weeks later, I’m pushing the car to drive 120 km/h. Oh yes, I said km/h. Although I was doing not too badly translating the mph, it’s kind of like a language you’re not fluent in – there’s a translation moment in your head. And when I saw those circles saying 120 km/h, I said, “Hello, Republic of Ireland!” Don’t get me wrong, Northern Ireland is fantastic, but I would like to drive it with a speedometer that reads both.

So I knew which exit I needed for Monasterboice but it was also especially well signed. I pulled into the parking lot about two and a half hours after I left my B&B, and saw the broken tower peeking over the trees.

There was a tour group there, so I tried to stay out of their photos. I wandered the entire site and took some photos of the ruins and the tower. And the huge Celtic crosses with the ornate carvings. Amazing. The trees were filled with ravens just carrying on and I tried to get some strategic shots of them flying around the tower. I apparently did not, however, take any photos with the iTouch.

Then, I found my way to the Newgrange visitors centre. I hustled in to get a spot in the next tour group going – successfully. I got to wear an orange 12:15 sticker for just the tour to Newgrange. I had wanted to go to Knowth as well, but the lady told me it would take 3 hours and I still wanted to get to the Hill of Tara before I had to drop the car off at 5:00.

So I walked out to the bus stop, the first one, and was able to get right on the bus. I didn’t sit in the absolute front row but I did have a seat to myself. Not a lot of odd numbers in the parties there, apparently. And we were driven down to the site.

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From the tour holding pen. Off to the side-like.

Our tour guide was Lisa, and she did a fantastic job. I really appreciated her balance of reverence, quiet excitement about the archaeology, honesty about the interpretation and slight bitterness at what has been lost from the site. It passed into history and became overgrown after the Neolithic people who built it abandoned the site – for whatever reason. But it was rediscovered in the late 1600s by the then landowner, Campbell’s, labourers, who he’d instructed to quarry the mound for stones because he wanted to improve the roads on his estate. Luckily, they began to dig at the doorway, which was overgrown and hidden, because otherwise they could have really damaged the site. Unfortunately, it remained under private control until the 1800s, when it passed to the state. During this time, it was left unprotected, and was further degraded with graffiti and the use of some of the stones to build a folly just to the side of the mound.

Luckily, it survived all this abuse to be standing today. The front face, which you can see is white, is controversial. This is a reconstruction that happened in the 1970s, and while the archaeologist who rebuilt the wall used scientific methods to determine as best he could where the stones were on the wall by how they had fallen, the reconstruction used concrete, so the angles of the reconstruction are not accurate to the original design.

It is an amazing reminder that Neolithic people weren’t stupid. They were us, with less technology. They were still able to engineer and build, align and transport things. The quartz of the face likely comes from the Wicklow Mountains, 30 or 50 km away to the south. The rounded granite “eggs” that also dot the face likely came from the Cooley Peninsula, 30 or 50 km to the north east. The kerbstones range from 1 to 10 tonnes, and were likely quarried 10 km away on the coast at Clogher Head. They were transported uphill using manpower and ingenuity. Probably log rolling, although the lighter ones could have been carried by twelve men with lashings and staves.

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The entryway to Newgrange tomb.

No photography was permitted inside (and one fellow “forgot” and took a picture of his girlfriend coming into the chamber). She indicated it was out of respect, since it is a tomb. Fair enough. It was amazing inside. The carvings in the stone were beautiful. An intricate spiral and diamond (lozenge) pattern was carved in the “ceiling” stones over the granite receptacle in the right hand recess, where someone’s remains once lay. In the left hand recess, a triple spiral triskele. In the topmost recess, a lot of graffiti. But also another spiral pattern. Our tour guide gave us a recreation of the Winter Solstice morning and the light has shifted with the Earth’s axis tilt change. It no longer comes directly straight across the chamber floor – now it has a diagonal to it. It ended at my toes actually, in the recreation.

We didn’t get to spend very long in there, and then we had to stoop our way out. While the one hall and the chamber allows us to stand straight, the passage was low in spots so I was very stooped, and at one point we had to turn sideways to make it through.

I walked around the perimeter looking at the kerbstones and seeing the carved ones, and then I had to go back because the bus was pulling up. One hour just flew by.

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A better view of the carving on the door kerbstone.

I went through the exhibit, and saw the audio visual presentation talking about the solstice alignment and how the other two passage graves of the triple complex (Knowth and Dowth) are oriented differently (equinox and sunset of summer solstice, respectively, I believe). Then, I asked the fellow at the gift shop how far the Hill of Tara was – at least half an hour. And it was going on to 3:00 at that point, and I was still at least 30 km from the Dublin airport. So I sadly skipped the Hill of Tara, where ancient Celtic kings were declared, and headed back to Dublin.

I took a city bus from the airport (at the grave recommendation of my shuttle bus driver) and the lady who sat besides me was descending at the same stop so she was able to orient me when we got off. So lovely. And I was only three blocks from my hotel.

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Dublin’s tall tower thing. Three blocks from my hotel. I dunno.

I am sad to be leaving wonderful Ireland but hopefully I’ll be able to make it back sometime in my life. Next up, mini adventure in England and two travel days (not in that order).

The northern coast

Today is my last full day in Northern Ireland, sadly. I feel like I needed at last a few more days to do it even a remote amount of justice, but alas, I have a plane ticket in a few days time. To go back home and digest all these experiences. I’ve finished two pens already, writing in my moleskine (yes, I write even more every day than just my blog posts). And my book is about halfway filled.

I started my day with a tea and cookie and chat with my lovely B&B owners, Sinead and Dermot, with their 3 busy little ones running around and injuring themselves on the trampoline outside (knocked heads and then lots of crying). Yesterday was tough on the kids because of the rain so they just wanted to play outside as much as possible. They counted 11 slugs in the garden, and the eldest boy insisted the dad needed to go look at them.

It was during this conversation that I realized where my one friend’s certain speech pattern comes from. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s funny when you hear something familiar and something just clicks.

Another thing that clicked this morning as I was thinking about my plans for the day – uisce is the Gaelic word for water. Whiskey… Uisce… Ahhh… This was further confirmed by the video loop playing in the waiting area at Bushmills Distillery – uisce beagh -> fuisce -> whiskey. Yay early morning brain.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I went to Dunluce Castle. The legend has it that, one night during a banquet around 1642, the kitchen fell off the castle and into the sea (with part of the cliff that it is built on) which is when the lady of the house decided it was time to move. Seems like a logical decision to me. But… Paintings from a later time period still show the castle intact, and it wasn’t until later that a chunk fell off – and not the kitchen either, because I was poking around in it. In fact, they figure that the lady of the house, Katherine Manners, abandoned the castle when her husband was caught in the Irish uprising of around 1641-42. She moved her wealth to Chester, England, as the family had been allying itself with the monarchy. But it was all confiscated by the anti-Charles I forces.

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Your house is broken.

There’s a lot of interesting history about Dunluce, actually. And a lot of links to Scotland (which I kind of saw across the straight). It was a good call by J, again. ;) Not a surprise.

Then I went to the Bushmills Distillery. I have to say, the mash house smells delicious. Our tour guide explained the difference between Scotch, Irish whiskey and American whiskey. Americans distill theirs once (~23% alcohol). Scots distill twice (~70% alcohol). And the Irish distill it three times (~80% alcohol). The Irish also dry their sprouted barley with warm dry air whereas the Scots dry it over burning peat, hence that peaty flavour. Also, once the mash is finishing boiling, they decant the liquid and sell the essentially cooked barley to local cow farmers for feed. Our guide assured us that they weren’t alcoholic because fermentation hasn’t happened yet, and she said not to worry because they weren’t encouraging drunken cows, and the only drunken cows she knew of were her and her friends. Heh.

I got to smell a cask *woo!* (smelled like my bottle at home). she mentioned that they sometimes bottle gor Jameson’s as well at their bottling facility. Craziness. And I got to try the 12 year reserve whiskey that they only sell at the distillery, not in shops. It was lovely. I could only have a few sips because it is 40% and I did have to drive and I’d only had a cheese sandwich before I went in… I also made friends with a group of Australians who I took a picture for, and they noted I was sitting alone in the bar trying my whiskey, so they invited me to sit with them. The daughter in law was not enjoying her Bushmills Irish Honey (whiskey mixed with Irish honey – the “trainer whiskey” according to our guide). The son, however, was totally okay finishing everyone else’s whiskey if they didn’t want it.

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Artistic exit from the distillery – their casks are kept in a warehouse, actually. We couldn’t have cameras etc. on because we were walking through areas with a lot of alcohol vapours and they didn’t want any explosions. Also meant there were no pictures of the plant.

After that, I went to the Giant’s Causeway – a really awesome natural feature of basalt columns. Unfortunately, there had been a landslide so I wasn’t able to see the two additional bays, but the parts I did get to see just thrilled my geological soul. I hiked out on one of the promontories and took some photos. Memories of running out on the breakwaters at Kingston Harbour. The ranger who was being our tour guide did an excellent job of delivering the history, geology and lore about the causeway. It’s all wrapped up in the Finn MacCool story, Ireland’s giant. Also, I was the only one from our tour group who he ended up showing the wishing seat to (mainly because I’d stayed behind to climb and take more photos), but I didn’t have anything to wish for, so I just took a photo and chatted with him about how he has a ton of family in Hamilton. It’s nice to not know what to wish for. Then he had to go be a ranger because some folks were trying to climb to the sea’s edge and the wet basalt is super slippery.

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The basalt columns and the more quickly cooled basalt lumps in the water beside – all a function of crystallization.

So, tomorrow I head back to Dublin and drop off my car. And I was just getting more confident with this driving thing… :) Then I catch a ferry (but not a real faery) back to Wales.

Cold and wet, but fun

Well, today was as they promised – rain with more rain, and a chance of rain with a high of 9C. I spent my morning just resting a bit and then decided that I was going to go see Navan Fort (or Emain Macha) in Armagh. It was one of my biggies that I wanted to do, and I was going to try to squeeze it in when going to Newgrange. So glad I did it today.

I set out and threaded my way through tiny roads first to go see Beaghmore Stone Circles and Cairns (thanks to J for the N.Ireland map – so helpful!!). I came by way of Banagher Forest Nature Reserve, which looked suspiciously like it was being clear cut, but they may use “Nature Reserve” in a different way than I know it. This road brought me over the Sperrin Mountains, just on the flank of Mullaghaneany. And the clouds, they were low today. How low, you ask?

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This low.

I also got to drive through the clouds on my way back this evening, as I went through Glenshane Pass in the same range.

Then I reached a point where I was just going by counting the number of intersections of small unnamed (on my map) roads I passed before I should turn to hopefully make it to the stone circles. And I made it! Yay Irish tourism authority for signing even small unmanned sites like this.

It was raining pretty steadily so I didn’t take any pictures with my dSLR, unfortunately. I was quite soaked by the time I got back to the car. But the site itself was really interesting – trying to figure out what the lines and circles may have meant to those megalithic people. Apparently it is comparable in age to Stonehenge.

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The ground was quite sodden, so my feet were wet beginning now (yes, J, you told me so). I also found lots of these guys sliming along (warning – bug picture).

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Slugs of Unusual Size

I hopped back in the car and sat with the heater going full blast for a bit to try to dry myself off and to clear the windows (then I realized, sadly, that cold works better for that…) I planned my route, left, then straight, then left. I forgot the additional “straight” and took a slightly longer route to Cookstown than I wanted to, but it all turned out. I stopped for gas and then a little further down the road I stopped for groceries at a Spar. Then I headed south to Armagh. I got turned around and went out the other side so I had to go back and then I was able to follow the signs to the Navan Centre. And I was there!

A period costume interpreter met me at the door and started me off with some chatter that had me smiling. He was a warrior and craftsman, and apparently a rogue (immediately asked if I was hand fasted). He suggested that, since I was a lone traveller that I could be an outcast, or a thief, and that his tribe would be wary of me. He also thought it was too bad I did not come bearing gifts, or at least salt. It was fun. He came back up in twenty minutes to take me on the Living History portion of the exhibit. Shannon, the woman guarding the gate with a spear wasn’t very impressed that I didn’t bring gifts but she let me in anyways. The man introduced himself as Doragh.

We went into a round “house” and talked for a while and they explained their life and customs to me. It was really interesting – including anyone who “lived” in the house all slept in the same bedding area. They invited me to sleep over, and I thanked them for their hospitality. Doragh suggested he’d find me a place to lie (*wink wink*).

There was also discussion of the trial marriages of a year and a day, which could then become permanent handfastings or they could be dissolved with no hard feelings. This trial was important because a couple constantly fighting wouldn’t be productive and that could endanger the clan, because they wouldn’t be doing their fair share of the work. But any children coming from any marriage (trial or otherwise) would stay with the father’s clan and the mother would go back to her own. The woman, however, was able to divorce a man if he stopped treating her well, or if he became fat (literally if the belt he wore when he got married ceased to fit) because that could be a sign that he’s become lazy, or is eating more than his portion. This doesn’t apply to women because of what childbirth does. This sort of life gives new meaning to portion control.

We spent the whole time in the house and I got to heft the house owner’s (Finn’s) sword and he explained how the design of it is such to lighten the blade without weakening it. It was well balanced too. Then they explained how hurley was used to teach their little ones (girls and boys) how to be warriors (without teams mind you). It is a bit like baseball, with a more hockey stick shaped stick and you practice hitting a ball towards a goal, which builds upper body strength and makes you able to slice at folks. And he had been mentioning that the warriors (men and women) run into battle naked. They noted that I was wearing warrior colours, with my blue (woad) scarf and coat, and that since I was travelling alone, I must be a pretty good one. Then we talked about weaving a dying wool and other fabrics and I mentioned knitting and they really suggested I join the clan because I had a useful skill and was a warrior. Heh.

All in all, it was really interesting. I spent an hour out there. They hand churned fresh butter right while we were talking with a jar and a few sticks tied together. And I got to try grinding barley into meal with a fancy Roman hand grinder, not one if those old fashioned indented stone slabs with a hand rock things. *pfft*

As I left, to eventually head back to my own lands (many days travel west), they gave me a gift of a handful of barley. For luck.

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I put it in my pocket and played with it for the rest of the day.

Doragh walked me back to the visitors’ centre and we chatted a bit out of character. He marvelled at the fact that I was a scientist, a biologist. He said that was the amazing part of his job, he gets to meet so many different people from different walks of life. We then parted ways and I headed into the interpretive exhibit that talks about the excavations they’ve done around the site. Now Emain Macha had been populated since at least 4000 BC, and has gone through many changes. It was probably the ritual centre of Ulster for pagan religions of the time, up to around 95 BC when they built a huge, circular wooden house, filled it with a cairn of stones 3 metres deep that seem to have come from all over, set the structure on fire and then covered it with earth and turf from all over as well. One of the theories was a ritual for the 34 chieftains of Ulster, connecting their lands with the Otherworld (common association with destruction, i.e. fire, and burial, i.e. earth mound.) The structure had been separated into 34 partitions (slices of the pie, if you like). The site was abandoned basically after this.

Archaeologists in the 1960s dug the whole thing up and then reconstructed it exactly after they’d catalogued the whole thing. They’ve also found what they think are sacrificial offerings in a couple nearby lakes (one man-made in the BC timeframe, called The King’s Stables). Mostly animal bones or antlers, plus one person’s face… Just the face…

After that, I hiked up to the mound itself. The rain had stopped and it was just a light drizzle so it wasn’t bad. When I got there, there were three fellows standing next to a rabbit warren opening in the earthen bank around the mound, and one fellow had just picked up a furry body and the other fellow picked up his lumpy grain sack from the ground and walked towards him, then they took off as I walked up the hill. I didn’t say anything to them, I was there to see Emain Macha. Still playing with the barley in my pocket, I took out a bit and offered it to the mound. I walked around it (on the earthen bank after I realized it had two moats – or at least it did today). My shoes were just absolutely squishing at this point and I could feel bubbles between my toes. Then I headed back and picked up another piece of trash and dealt with it.

The last thing for me to do was to attend their audio visual show. I grabbed a tea and warmed up while we waited to see if the other folks wanted to attend as well. The people at the centre were just too kind. I was one of a few folks braving the wet today but they seemed to honestly care. I mentioned the fellows up on the mound to the one lady and she said that they weren’t supposed to be doing that and she’d let Irish Heritage know and she thanked me for mentioning it. I felt like a bit of a tattle tale but there was a sign marked “Nature Preserve” on my walk back… And I saw two rabbits – a blond and a black – bounding away from me as I walked.

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Emain Macha – what’s left of a bustling hub of activity.

So the two families left without seeing the show (apparently the little ones were quite done) so I got the theatre to myself. I don’t know if something was supposed to be on the screen but they played a story of Cuchulainn and of the Curse of Macha and the Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) where Queen Mebh and the men of Connaught were defeated by Cuchulainn and King Conor (eventually). I listened and it was quite well done.

I found the road my cottage is on and all the rains today had caused flooding down the hill so it was like driving over a riverbed with all the stones and sand that had been displaced. Luckily the water had mostly subsided so the little Nissan Micra made it. And then, I cranked the radiators and set my shoes to dry.

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Socks too…

Tomorrow is supposed to be gorgeous so it’s off to the Giant’s Causeway. I’m planning on visiting Bushmills but we’ll see how much time I have. Then bright and early Monday morning, zipping off to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara and Monasterboice. Then back to Dublin! How time flies!