The people of Oakland, Oregon, sauntered back in time this weekend to live their rich history during Living History Days, and I joined them with my books that delve into these early times.
Betty Tamm kindly invited me to set up my book signing table in her Triple Oak Wine Vault in downtown Oakland, a unique Tasting Room located in a renovated 1892 bank building. In the photo above she’s displaying the art of spinning, which many in our past have done.
Not every tasting room has a bank vault for wine storage, complete with safety deposit boxes. And despite the sign on the front door you would not have found me back in the deep vault sipping wine. I believe the whole establishment counts as the vault.
I actually had a lovely table in the front of the room to set up my books.
Nancy Anderson and Diane Brown brought historic treasures–exquisite quilts, vintage clothing, old news stories, and more–to be displayed in the Tasting Room, so they joined me at my table and we shared some delightful conversation and a bit of delicious, decadent food.
Things seemed to be going quite well. A good crowd meandered through to taste some wine and check out our handiwork, many of them in costume in this town where history resonates through the streets and in every downtown building. So I gave little thought to the gentleman in hat and boots, a gun on his hip, until he stepped to the door with sudden alarm.
Who knew the North and South would be at it again? But there it was on the historic streets of Oakland, yet one more battle brewing between the union and the confederates.
All in all, the weekend event was, as I promised, a rip-roaring good time.
The British Hudson’s Bay Company fort on the Umpqua River takes center stage every year when the people of Elkton, Oregon, commemorate the historic outpost in the annual Labor Day celebration, Fort Umpqua Days. This year’s event starts tomorrow, Saturday, September 1.
The cannon went off at last year’s event, and the sound reverberated across the valley.
A bass tournament starts off the activities tomorrow at 6 am, then a Lion’s Club pancake breakfast at the Elkton Community Education Center at 7. Pioneers and others will parade through town starting at 10, when most of the other activities begin. It’s a two-day event, Saturday and Sunday.
Folks can find all kinds of fun there. Mountain men with their black powder rifles. Pioneer activities for the kids. Vendors selling everything from candles to jewelry to–oh, yes!–books. And more. Of course there will be food and music and the evening pageant under the direction of Cathy Byle–with a historic flare of course.
Following are a few more scenes from previous Fort Umpqua Days events.
It’s all in the spirit of fun–and maybe learning a little about our local history. The weather should be perfect.
Remember these archaeologists in Portugal digging all that dirt last spring when I visited the ancient Castro do Zambujal, and Sónia Cravo and Fábio Rocha gave me that wonderful tour?
Remember Sónia, head of the project, looking over the site on the day of my May visit, seeing the tremendous amount of work yet to do?
So that was then.
This is now.
After three months of digging the archaeologists have cleared many loads of dirt to reveal what once lay buried. The citadel seems to rise into a greater semblance of its once-powerful position above the rolling hills near the western coast of the Iberian peninsula. Sónia sent me three photos taken this month by Fábio, for which he used a drone to get some perspective above the site, the photo above and two more below.
In these new photos I can see places I walked and more walls I wasn’t aware of. This helps me get a better idea of the configuration of this citadel that plays a significant role in part of my upcoming series. And look how clean the rocks are compared to the May photos. It’s a painstaking process, digging carefully, always alert to what might be found in the next scoop of dirt. They’re still working on it. But they have made impressive progress. What a change!
Sónia also sent a photo of the two of them happily waving. When I visited in May I couldn’t help noticing the camaraderie among the people working on the project. The story of my thrilling May visit is here.
I so appreciate Sónia and Fábio sharing these new photos with me and their readiness to answer questions that come up. As I work through my revisions I’m sure questions will arise and it’s good to know I have such friendly sources ready to help me.
We flew out of Shannon airport on our homeward-bound journey. Lynn and I had bought our tickets separately so we weren’t seated together. For the Shannon-Philadelphia leg of the trip I took my seat by the window and a couple of young Irishmen sat beside me. They were on their way to San Francisco, a place where I had lived for eight years. So as the plane lifted off I left their world as they looked forward to visiting mine. They had both just turned 21. Their boisterous excitement was infectious and I laughed with them, caught in their delight.
My trip wasn’t quite over. Setbacks awaited me in Los Angeles when our Philadelphia-LA plane landed late in LAX, where we had a short connection. Seated in the very last row, I had trouble getting past the other passengers, and we had long lines and two slow buses across the tarmac to reach my gate. Lynn was well ahead of me.
By the time I found my gate, panting from my run, there were no passengers left, just an attendant standing alone at the gate. She asked me if I was Janet Fisher. Hopeful they were waiting for me, I answered yes in a gasping voice. She phoned the plane and shook her head at me. “They’ve already left. You’re too late.” No! That couldn’t be. “My friend is already on the plane,” I told her. “I have to be on that plane.”
The phone rang. The pilot had agreed to open the door for me. The plane hadn’t actually pulled away. I broke into tears. The attendant led me to the plane’s door. Once inside, I stumbled down the aisle as passengers applauded with smiling faces. Lynn was beaming and gave me a big hug when I sat down, still crying softly. She had begged them to wait, certain I was coming.
Exhausted, I settled back in the seat for the last leg of our journey, slowly recovering from that arduous finale to a long and wonderful trip—37 days of exploring the world of my ancient trilogies.
During those 37 days I became steeped in the past, as I sought the places that define these stories.
I had the good fortune of meeting several archeologists whose work takes them into the ancient times. And others who simply love their history.
I felt the raw edge of cultures different from my own and the universal embrace of friendly people.
I immersed myself in the book settings and felt my characters walking along these places. As I walked with them I remembered their tears and joys. My own tears came, and my joy.
The novels will be richer for the experience.
If my visit to Knossos in Crete felt like being home because of all the days I lived there in my mind while working on my first ancient trilogy, my return to Ireland felt like returning to another home of the mind. My second ancient trilogy centers in Ireland.
The last time I traveled to Ireland I stayed a month there with my late friend Tilly Engholm. She and I spent six days on the island’s south coast at the small town of Rosscarbery, the central location for the series. The fictional village of my Golden Eagle Clan sets just below the stone circle now called Bohonagh Circle, an easy walk from the Rosalithir B&B where we stayed. This wonderful B&B hosted by Catherine and Finbarr O’Sullivan is one of the friendliest places I’ve visited in all my many travels.
Of course I had to return and wanted to introduce my writer friend Lynn Ash who was traveling with me on this part of my current trip.
Since the last visit to Ireland when I was researching Book One of the Irish trilogy, I had drafted Books Two and Three as well, which took my characters to places I’d never seen. The treks through Portugal and the UK gave me a good look at many of those, but I also had a few new scenes in Ireland in places I hadn’t been.
Before traveling to Rosscarbery I wanted to spend a little time at a location closer to the new settings and chose the historic village of Adare near Limerick.
It’s a charming place with thatch-roofed cottages and a crumbling castle, a lovely river walk, and entertainment by a terrific young Irish musician.
The tourists have found it, but we got a quiet B&B on the outer edge, with a country setting and lovely breakfasts, the Carrigane House.
We stayed three nights to explore the area. I found my beautiful green fields for a big battle scene and the treacherous ford across the Shannon River at Limerick.
On one of the three days I used my bus pass to ramble down to Kilrush on the Shannon and check out another scene, enjoying a stroll to the marina and a tasty salmon lunch at Crotty’s Pub.
We found pub food to be reasonable and delicious. In Adare we had to have at least one meal at the famous Blue Door with its fine thatched roof.
From Adare we took the bus to Rosscarbery with a bus stop at Cork City where we watched the beautiful island clouds rise over this intriguing city.
Catherine at the Rosalithir B&B welcomed us with open arms as I knew she would. The B&B is on a working farm just outside Rosscarbery. They raise fine purebred beef cattle now, having switched from the dairy cattle they had on my last visit. Lynn and I booked only two nights with them, one full day. It wasn’t nearly enough, but we would do what we could.
From the upstairs deck of the house we looked out over the yard to the surrounding farms. Haze screened our view of the sea in the gap. Note the old stone fence on the far side of the road.
Anxious to see the stone circle so central to my stories, I headed out with Lynn in the morning. Catherine told us about a walk to the circle I hadn’t taken before–a lovely hill walk over green patchwork fields with views back to the B&B and forward to the ocean. If you can zoom the first photo below you may see the B&B. It’s a pale-pink building with two facing gables in the middle of a wide field in the upper right.
My heart pounded as I climbed straight up the slope to Bohonagh Circle–called Golden Eagle Circle by characters in the trilogy.
After the huge rings of Almendres Cromlech in Portugal and Castlerigg in England this circle looked small. Bracken and brambles had filled the interior since I last strolled through.
Bluebells lifted their heads above the competition. I remembered those exquisite flowers blooming among the stones from my visit before.
I got down on my hands and knees to climb under the electric wire surrounding the space and made my way into the ring despite the tall growth. I took my time, circling the ring to consider each stone. I remembered the rough faces, the cool edges, the warm, the tall pillars with tops beyond my reach, the low, the wide entrance between portal stones I could barely touch at once with my outstretched arms, the slanted tops, the rounded, fat, slim, one slant that matched the slant of the sea gap beyond. Echoes shimmered. Dancing feet pummeling the ground. Voices of pleasure, pain, supplication. Though left to the wildness of winds and other natural forces the circle still seemed to resonate with a subtle power–maybe more so because of the untamed elements.
Here lay the heart of my Irish stories.
We would visit the better known Drombeg Circle with Catherine. Close to the highway, that one is a National Monument, well maintained by the Commissioners of Public Works for the state.
A sign at the site notes that on the winter solstice the sun sets at a point aligned with the center between the portal stones and the middle of the recumbent stone opposite. In my story this is the village circle of my neighboring Red Deer Village. The circle rests on a bench of land overlooking the broad fields below, the sea lost again in the distant haze. In one of my books the clanspeople of southern Éire face the warriors of Zambujal on those broad fields, and in another a young Red Deer woman faces the wrath of her father. Many scenes there.
We closed our day with a visit to the sea in the softening light. I wanted to revisit Golden Eagle Bay. We drove to the wrong bay first, then found the right one. I hadn’t remembered the shoreline quite right, so the stop helped me form a better sense of place in this important setting. Anguished partings happen here. And poignant reunions.
The wash of the sea brought many memories, like recurring waves.
With one last look at this bay below the site of my Golden Eagle Clan village I embraced the scene, feeling enriched by this and so many experiences over the course of my journey. I would hold these places in my mind and heart, hoping to share and let others see and feel the wonder of it all.
The village of Cairnryan sits like a hidden jewel on the southwest coast of Scotland. I had never heard of it before I began searching for a crossing to and from Ireland for the traders in my stories. It became a gem discovered.
We spent a long time at the window of our guest house that evening, enraptured by the beauty in the fading light at this quiet place.
We hadn’t taken the roads most traveled on this journey. Months earlier when I invited my writer friend Lynn Ash to join me in Amesbury for the last two weeks of my trip, I showed her my itinerary. She found some unfamiliar names on the list, and with a touch of embarrassment I explained that the characters of my books traveled to these places and I needed to see them. Being a fellow writer, she expressed her delight at the unusual destinations. I was glad.
These weren’t tourist spots for me. This was my work.
Stonehenge was familiar of course, and I had chosen it for scenes because of its magnificence and because readers sometimes like to read about popular sites too. I had never heard of the Lake District, although we found it to be a popular retreat for the British.
Once we left the Lake District we ventured into Scotland’s quiet edges, where my protagonist follows a handsome trader into harrowing adventures. The train from Penrith offered a route that got us to the port of Cairnryan where my traders cross–not the straight route my people would take, but the best I found, which brought us to Stranraer, just six miles from The Auld Cairn Guest House we’d booked in Cairnryan. Before we taxied to our guest house we stopped at a pub in Stranraer where I had one of my best fish and chips meals ever, with haddock. Fantastic!
The Auld Cairn was a delightful place. It’s the building in the picture above with the car in front, one of a line of houses that rims the coast. Our host Maggie had lots of stories to tell. We woke to a bright morning.
A short walk to the ferry landing and we were on our way to Larne in Northern Ireland.
I wandered around the ferry and finally found a nice spot out of the wind where I could sit on a bench and watch the water go by. Lots of water. I couldn’t help thinking about the ancient travelers plying this water in their little currachs. The currach is a seagoing Irish boat made with a wooden or wickerwork frame covered in animal hides, long and narrow with a high bow to handle the waves (not to be confused with the smaller round coracles used in quiet water). Currachs have been plying the seas in this area for a few thousand years, propelled by oars, maybe sometimes a sail. Some folks still swear by them. I read somewhere that they could travel at about seven knots.
As our ferry sailed smoothly across the water at a good clip, an official-looking fellow came out to the deck where I was sitting. Curious, I asked him how many knots we were going. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just drive this thing.” He beckoned a young man dressed in orange and asked how fast we were sailing. The guy guessed about 18 knots. Comparing that to the currach’s speed I figured it would take our ancient travelers a good part of a day to make the crossing.
I watched the land fall away on the Scotland side. As soon as it was about to disappear I saw land on the Irish side. So even without instruments our ancient travelers would be able to keep land in sight for the distance, provided the air stayed clear. It had become pretty hazy on our journey and I could still see land. Days were long during the summer when traders made their rounds. According to my iPhone, sunrise that morning was at 4:51 am back in Keswick. Cairnryan is even farther north. With such early sunrises, a start at dawn and strong rowing might even get my traders across the water by the time the sun reached its zenith. Surely they could make it well before dark.
I watched the gently churning sea and shook my head in amazement, glad for the solid ferry. What if a storm rolled in? Even in calm water I had trouble imagining such a ride in a small currach and my appreciation for the fortitude of these early people rose considerably.
Given our long train ride of the day before, Lynn and I planned a shorter journey for this day. After disembarking from the ferry at Larne we took the train–a beautiful ride–from Larne to Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland where we had booked the night’s lodging. We wanted to see the historic Carrickfergus Castle. Even our hotel, The Dobbin’s Inn, has a long history. These places didn’t exist yet at the time of my trilogies but I could still follow the tracks of my characters over the land surrounding them. We toured the castle, just for fun.
This Norman castle was built in 1177 (that’s AD) by John de Courcy and it got besieged many times by a lot of other warriors who wanted it. Lynn and I bought tickets and explored inside.
I got a bead on that ferry. I think he should be worried. Or not. I believe my weapon is spiked.
Although these structures are modern compared to the stone monuments of my books, when we checked into our hotel I wasn’t prepared for the answers our desk clerk gave when Lynn asked him how old the hotel was.
With complete nonchalance he told us there had been a hotel there for 800, maybe 900 years. They were at that moment digging into the walls to learn how much of the early building still existed. Once we had absorbed that surprising answer, he casually pointed to the large old fireplace in the lobby and said, “That’s Elizabethan.”
I think my jaw dropped.
He didn’t mention the inn’s rumored ghost and I didn’t bring it up.
That night after an exquisite dinner of salmon with hollandaise sauce in the inn’s restaurant we went upstairs and settled in for a good night’s rest.
I woke out of a deep sleep. I heard a rhythmic squeak, squeak, squeak, like squeaking floor joists, over by the bathroom. Squinting my eyes, I saw that the bathroom door stood ajar, letting light from the frosted outdoor window cast a glow into our darkened room. I frowned and climbed out of bed to shut the bathroom door. When I approached the door my footsteps made a sound. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I stopped dead still. No sound. I crept forward again. Squeak, squeak.
Reaching out, I shut the bathroom door and walked back to my bed without a sound. I didn’t hear the slightest squeak. Back in bed I pulled the covers up to my chin. I never heard another squeak all night.
Now, I’m not saying I believe in ghosts. I’m just saying what happened. On that night. In the old inn some folks think is haunted. Just saying what happened. And that’s all.
NEXT: Heart of an Irish Story
If you were an outlaw on the run in ancient England, where would you hide?
A mountain stronghold? I considered the Highlands of Scotland, but that’s a long run from Stonehenge where my guy gets into trouble. Where would l find mountains in England?
I used the Google Maps terrain feature and found some heights to the north. Pulling up the pictorial view, I found myself on rugged, rocky slopes. Perfect! I told an English friend I had found a hideout for my character in England and she wanted to know where. “The Lake District,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, that’s where Merlin the Magician went.” Merlin’s haunts! Even more perfect! Merlin was from a later period than my character. Or not. Do we really know how old the magician was by the time Arthur came around?
Now I needed to visit the Lake District to see if my chosen site worked and to enhance my descriptions. In my story I call it the High Lakes. The raw mountains rise dramatically above the valley floors. And many lakes nestle among precipitous slopes, with treacherous rocky trails.
Wooded beaches add concealment.
My outlaw had a long horseback ride from Stonehenge to his High Lakes hideout, taking several days. My friend Lynn Ash and I had a long train ride, but we would do it in one day. Lynn was traveling with me now, having joined me just before visiting Stonehenge. From Amesbury near Stonehenge we took a bus to Andover and caught the train to Penrith. It’s a pleasant ride through the green fields of England with hedgerow borders giving it a patchwork quilt look.
British trains are noted for their punctuality, but when there’s an accident on the track ahead, what can they do? At our second change our train was late. When we arrived in Penrith we had only minutes to catch our bus to Keswick, the town nearest the village of Portinscale where we had booked our B&B, the Lake View.
Coming off the platform we found steps–no elevator, no escalator to make it easy to tug our large bags. I asked a young woman how far to the bus stop. She assured me it was close and started to give directions. Then she said she would show me and offered to carry my big bag. A young man took Lynn’s bag and together they led us. More angels. If they hadn’t rushed us out we’d have missed the bus and gotten into Keswick after 9 o’clock, a late arrival.
The Lake View was wonderful. Our host Stuart Muir met us at the door and showed us around. We would soon meet his wife, Catherine, who cooked our fantastic breakfasts for us. They had only three double rooms, so every morning the six guests sat around a long table for breakfast. We had delightful conversations while we feasted on full English breakfasts of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and more, along with a sumptuous buffet.
We had four nights there, three days to see my outlaw’s haunts. The first day I wanted to spend some leisurely hours on the shore of Buttermere, the lake where I planned to set the camp for him and his fellow fugitives. The next day I wanted to hike into the mountains, and the third day, walk to Castlerigg Stone Circle, the home circle of his cherished grandfather.
Once again, the best laid plans and all that.
After 25 days on the road I had to do laundry. So I thought I would get that done the first morning, stuffing the clothes into my tote and walking the pleasant path from Portinscale to the laundry in Keswick. Lynn, still feeling the effects of her long flight from the US, needed a nap. But she thought she might take a walk around Portinscale after her nap so she kept our only key and promised to tuck it into a secret place so I’d be able to get in when I returned.
On the way out I saw Stuart, who told me he and Catherine were going into Keswick for supplies soon. He wished me well and I went on my way, giving no thought to what his remark could mean to me.
I enjoyed the Portinscale-Keswick path over the river, past lovely bluebells, and through the pasture. My father raised sheep on the farm where I grew up but I had never seen black lambs with white ears. They were frisky and adorable.
After leaving my clothes at the laundry I returned to the B&B. The door was locked as usual. I rang. No answer. I checked for the key. No key. I rang and rang. Of course our hosts were in Keswick and Lynn must still be asleep. I should have known better. I knew what jet lag could do.
Finally giving up, I went to the nearby cafe to grab something quick for lunch. I was eating my scone when a man sat across from me. I looked up, surprised to see Stuart. “You’re locked out,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
It was a bit of a kerfuffle, but the upshot was that I missed the last morning bus to Buttermere. The next bus wouldn’t come for two hours. I would lose two precious hours in Buttermere. I wouldn’t arrive there until 2:24 and the last return bus to Portinscale left Buttermere at 5:18. I would barely get out to the intended site before I had to turn around and walk back. I was frustrated, angry, not at anybody, just at the situation–and at myself for not seeing the clues. Lynn felt terrible but it wasn’t her fault. She opted not to take the hurried trip to Buttermere. But I wasn’t willing to give up even that small amount of time. I would go alone.
I waited at the nearest bus stop. The bus rolled right past me. I ran to the next stop down the street and caught it before it left. The driver seemed grumpy when I asked for a return ticket to Buttermere.
The bus circled the district on narrow roads that wound through trees and lakes, up into spectacular mountains, and through the raw crags of Honister Pass. The picture above, taken through the bus window, may not be the best photo, but it shows the rugged slopes. Roads were barely wide enough for the bus to pass a car, so vehicles often came to a full stop before proceeding. Wide eyes peered from passing cars. Sometimes it was just a matter of avoiding a scrape. Other times, precipitous drops.
When we reached the village of Buttermere the driver kindly told me I could catch a later return bus, a 6:20 back to Keswick. I happily told him that would work. I had to go into Keswick for dinner anyway, Portinscale having few restaurants. That gave me an extra hour. I thanked him, much relieved. He seemed quite friendly now. I think he was annoyed with me before because I was standing on the wrong side of the street (the British all drive on the wrong side of the road) and when I spoke to buy my ticket he realized from my accent that I wasn’t from there and he gave me some slack.
I set out to explore the lake. I strolled past another sheep pasture at the west end of the lake, across a bridge, and out along the walkway bordering the southern shore.
At first the woods were too steep, but I eventually found a flatter site alongside a bubbling creek, which looked like a good option.
The trees in these woods are mostly conifers, which aren’t native to the area. So plans are to cut those out and replace them with native deciduous trees, mostly a small variety of oaks. When I envision my outlaws in the camp I have to screen out all the straight conifers and imagine gnarly oaks. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see a vertical line through the wooded slope. On the left, above Buttermere, it’s mostly conifers. On the right the conifers have been replaced with round-topped deciduous trees.
Even with the extra time, I had to rush through the woods where I planned to place my hideout. I only walked about halfway down the lake, and instead of wandering and absorbing I hurried along the path taking quick pictures, doing my best to capture the essence of the place in the time I had.
The next day I wanted to get a much earlier bus for my hike into the mountains. I had already scaled back my plans. Google Maps showed a walk to what they call the Pillar that didn’t look bad. When I told Stuart I wanted to walk there he glanced at my low walking shoes and shook his head. I had left my serious hiking boots home, not wanting to carry them. He assured me it was a long day’s hike to the Pillar but I could do a shorter walk to the first ridge that would give me a nice overlook. Lynn wasn’t keen on the hike, so again I would go alone. She opted to take the circle bus ride I’d raved about.
We waited at the bus stop. And waited. The scheduled time slipped past. We eventually learned there was an accident on Honister Pass. The bus didn’t come until after lunch. The 1:36. It wouldn’t get me over there until almost 2:30. How would I ever do the hike in the time left?
My favorite driver was at the wheel. I told him I wanted to get off at Gatesgarth, the nearest stop to the trailhead, at the east end of Buttermere. Shortly after the passage through the raw slopes of Honister Pass he stopped the bus and called out something I didn’t understand. I looked at the mountains beside us and hoped he hadn’t said what I thought. He turned to face me and said quite clearly, “This is Gatesgarth.”
I faced the mountain again. Holy shmoly!
I have hiked in the Cascades and the Rockies. I walk up the mountain outside my door nearly every day. I was not prepared for this trail.
After crossing the flat field I began to climb. The first tenth of a mile or so was a steep incline of stones that formed a ragged staircase. I checked each step to be sure of safe footing. Realizing I had better eat my simple lunch, I stopped in the shade halfway up that first incline. I was going to need my strength. I’d brought a banana and three of Catherine’s nourishing cookies chock-full of seeds and nuts and enough sugar to give me a boost. And water.
Beyond a dogleg turn the trail had a few gravelly stretches between more staircases of uneven stones. No more shade. The sun beat down. My pack grew heavy. My shoes weren’t adequate for the conditions. Time kept creeping by. Was it even possible to make the ridge and get back to the bus stop for the last bus out? I sat on one of the stone steps to consider.
A couple came down the hill. I asked if the trail got any better farther up. They said no. We chatted awhile. They thought I probably shouldn’t be doing the trail alone, given the treacherous rock. Every step up, I would have to go down, even more hazardous. If I turned back now I could walk the length of Buttermere. Take more time. Absorb the site. And I had hiked far enough to get a feel for the mountain. Maybe halfway to the ridge. Maybe a third. I’m not a person who gives up easily, but I turned back.
The next day’s walk to Castlerigg Circle seemed like a breeze in comparison. One of the oldest circles in Europe–older than Stonehenge but younger than Portugal’s Almendres Cromlech–Castlerigg lies within a wider ring of mountains that enhance the wonder.
We enjoyed a last look at the beauties of the Lake District and saw the sun set on Crummock Water, the lake northwest of Buttermere. Lynn walked ahead toward the setting sun as I took a picture. I’d gained a vivid sense of the place even if things didn’t go as planned, and I would keep a warm spot in my heart for this beautiful stronghold and for our wonderful hosts.
Stonehenge impacts. It just does. Despite detractors who want to say this is better, that’s better, you can’t get inside, whatever, there is no other stone circle in the world quite like it. The dressed sarsens with their phenomenal bulk. The horizontal lintels that look as if giants had placed them. The bold position on Britain’s wide Salisbury plain. Power resonates.
I felt that power as we walked toward the great stones, just as my characters feel it in my stories. Stone circles play a significant role in my second trilogy, which centers in Ireland, and my lead characters have a fascination with this grand megalith so different from their own village circles. Some of the characters have the opportunity to visit. Others envision it.
The site was carved out about 5,000 years ago when people dug a circular ditch. About 500 years later others erected the first stones. Those were the smaller bluestones, a type of stone not found in this area, but which scholars believe were brought all the way from Wales, a herculean task. The quarry has been located and stone cuts matched, pretty strong evidence. But why? No one knows. The giant sarsens came later, and over time the arrangement of the stones saw several changes.
My writer friend Lynn Ash had joined me on my trip the day before our visit to Stonehenge, and we took the obligatory photos.
I first saw Stonehenge in 1993 when I was researching another long-abandoned book. That was before the new Visitor Center. You don’t have to pay to see Stonehenge. It’s right out there on the Salisbury plain, visible from the road and from trails that cross the fields. A fence holds you back a ways. But if you want to get as close as Lynn and I are in these photos and experience the Visitor Center (and it is an experience), you pay. Not a small fee. We each paid about $23 for a set time slot to enter, although you can take as long as you want, once inside the compound.
Compared with the wonderful Almendres Cromlech in Portugal (see “Going There #8”), a site that’s free and wide open to whatever the public and weather may do to it, Stonehenge has become a local industry. Yet somehow that doesn’t diminish the experience–when you give yourself to the wonder.
The Visitor Center is remarkably well done. Most intriguing is the 360-degree theater in the round where you stand in the center of the stones while seasons and centuries pass. That makes up a little for the fact that a rope around the real stones keeps you out of the center (except for special occasions, like the summer solstice, when people are allowed in, which you no doubt have to reserve far in advance).
The theater’s effect offers a dramatic experience. Many other fine exhibits explain the site and display archeological finds. Outdoors, typical houses of the early period have been erected, and you can step inside to see where people slept.
I’m not sure about that pillow. I’m of the flatter pillow school.
A sample stone below shows how the giant sarsens might have been moved to the site in those long-ago days. I had to tap the stone. It’s plastic but illustrates nonetheless.
Lynn and I opted to walk to and from the circle. The Visitor Center is a little over a mile away, leaving the circle to stand free and open in its grand position. The day was gorgeous, and the easy stroll allowed us a long view of the stones and the effect of the approach–as my characters would have experienced it. We took the road going to the circle and went back to the center on a trail through the field. A lovely walk.
We had contemplated going to Avebury afterward, another wonderful site where the village is set among giant stones and you can touch them. I had been there before and enjoyed not only the stones, but a lovely high tea in the tearoom of an elegant manor, and I had lured Lynn into this trip promising her “scones among the stones.”
Well, we didn’t have a car, and bus connections would have given us more bus time than tea time. Taxis were expensive there, and we were exhausted. Lynn had taken the grueling trip across the pond just the day before our Stonehenge excursion and hadn’t slept on the flight or very much the night before her departure. I had only flown from Lisbon, but our meeting at London’s Heathrow airport hadn’t exactly been a snap.
Lynn had seemed worried about navigating that huge airport, but I had reassured her that my flight would land about an hour before hers and I could be waiting for her when she came off the plane. We had our iPhones in case it took a moment for us to find each other. The best laid plans and all that. My flight was late, very late. Hers was early. When I rushed into the airport, trying to connect with her, I got no answer. I got delayed in a huge line at border control. While moving slowly through that line I tried email, texts, phone. No response.
Friendly airport personnel helped us–more angels. As soon I got free of border control and found my bag I headed for her terminal–just as she headed for mine. We were striding across moving walkways when we looked up and saw each other. What a relief! We had bus tickets to Amesbury, the small town near Stonehenge, and the bus station was right between the terminals. We made it in plenty of time. But the distress took a toll.
Now we’d spent so long at Stonehenge we gave up on Avebury, but as we sat resting in our room at the delightful Fairlawn Hotel in Amesbury we decided to take an evening stroll to Woodhenge, a satellite site within easy walking distance. We were surely up to a pleasant walk out through the edge of the lovely town. We didn’t account for traffic that buzzed along beside us like freeway traffic on a narrow road, so close to the sidewalk I felt as if a wobble would put me right in a car’s path. But we survived to see this unusual site. A quiet, peaceful place.
Lynn snapped my picture sitting on the concrete stumps where wooden poles once rose.
On the way back we took a side path to walk a short way along the famous River Avon. That offered another respite of quiet and peace with a generous touch of beauty.
As I put this post together, selecting photos from the many I took, I noticed something in the photo at the top of the post that I hadn’t noticed before–the picture labeled “Stonehenge.” An odd shadow. I give a closer look here. Do you see it? Probably a strange slant of the light against the stones.
But it put me in mind of the shadows that linger across this old world. Sometimes the shadows seem to come alive where the past remains so visible, as in these ancient works in stone. Or the crumbling citadels of Greece and Portugal, where archeologists work to ferret out the hidden secrets.
Bringing the past to life is what I try to do in my stories–whether from our own country’s pioneer past in A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds, or in these ancient times of my new trilogies. I would keep searching, keep reaching, trying to see into the shadows to bring out the light of a people who did walk in these places, portrayed as truly as I can through the fictional characters in their imagined lives.
NEXT: Outlaw Hideaway
When you’re already living in the Bronze Age and something appears to be old in the extreme, you have really fallen back in time from our perspective. One of my characters experiences that phenomenon, and when I followed her into Portugal’s interior I fell back with her.
After Zambujal I planned to spend six nights in the charming historic city of Évora in the Alentejo region of central Portugal. I had three focal points–first, the nearby megaliths with their ancient stone circle; second, the Escoural Grotto with its paleolithic cave drawings; and third, the cork oak forests that have played a significant role in the area for millenia. Vanessa, the hostess of my hotel, was arranging tours for all three.
Taking the train, I left the green coastal hills around Zambujal to enter the dryer lands of the interior. But late spring rains had kept the land unusually green for May. I soon began to see sweeping cork oak forests covering the broad plains and rolling hills, the forest floors carpeted with flowers of yellow and white and many shades of blue amid the green. An occasional boulder rose among the wide-spaced trees, reminding me of Portugal’s ancient monuments.
Cromlech of Almendres and Cork Oaks
My tour group for the megaliths met the next morning in downtown Évora, a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, the Solar de Monfalim. Our friendly guide, archeologist Mário Carvalho, welcomed six of us, Canadians, Australians, and two from the US, and we all headed out with his driver in a van. This being my main interest in the Évora vicinity, Vanessa had scheduled it first. She was still having a little trouble with the cork forest visit because another party had cancelled and I would have to pay more. As Mário chatted with us on the way to the stone circle, asking where we’d been and where we were going, I mentioned my uncertain cork forest tour.
“The megaliths are right in the middle of cork oak forests,” he said. He didn’t think I needed another tour. He turned out to be well informed about cork oak trees and harvests, as well as megaliths, and I decided to count this as two tours in one.
When I told him I had been to Zambujal, he was excited to hear about my unexpected visit with Sónia and Fábio. Mário also took an interest in my books and offered to answer any questions he could, now or after I returned home. I was thrilled to find another excellent source.
The stones of Almendres Cromlech struck me with their numbers and their dramatic setting.
This circle has 90 to 100 stones, dancing together in intertwined rings, more than I’d seen in any other stone circle. My camera frame holds only a part of them, looking off to the east. It’s an ellipsis rather than a true circle, Mário told us, and like most, it sits near the top of the slope but not quite at the crest. Besides its size, the Almendres Cromlech carries the power of its age. My character feels that, so I did, just knowing.
It’s older than Stonehenge. Almendres Cromlech dates back 6,000 to 8,000 years. The first bluestone ring of Stonehenge is a young 4,500 years old, the great sarsens even younger.
Many of these stones at Almendres Cromlech bear markings–cups, circles, half-circles, curved lines like shepherd crooks. Similar markings have been found in other archaic settings.
Mário contemplated possible meanings, the circular lines representing the moon and the shepherd crooks having to do with grasping truth in the same way a shepherd grasps his sheep. Many scholars believe the stone circles helped their builders gauge the astronomical events of the passage of the moon and sun.
The single Almendres Menhir stands out from the others, far enough that we had to drive to reach it because we couldn’t walk through the property owner’s fields.
This solitary stone was integral to the whole as it provided alignment for determining the equinoxes and solstices.
From that site we went on to the Dolmen of Zambujeiro. Curious at the name which sounds so much like Zambujal, I asked Mário its meaning. “Zambujeiro means a wild olive tree,” he said.
“So, what does Zambujal mean?”
“A group of wild olive trees.”
Ah ha! I had wondered and searched online but never found the definition. I asked if they would have had cork oaks at Zambujal at the time of my story, and he assured me they would have. I was glad to hear that because I needed a large gnarly tree for a grisly scene there.
The trunk of the above tree lies in shadow, but if you look closely at the area just above the crotch you’ll see that below a defined line the bark is darker and redder. That part has been stripped of cork. The tree remains unharmed, but can’t be harvested again for another nine years. Portugal is the primary provider of the world’s cork, so the cork in your wine bottle may well have come from a tree like this in Portugal. These mighty trees can live for a couple of hundred years and add beauty as well as value to the land.
The trees are fire resistant but owners still carefully protect them by digging fire breaks and grazing to keep the grass down. Horned spotted cattle have been grazing these lands for many years, and horses have long been a part of the Iberian culture as well.
Iberian horses play a large role in all three books of my second trilogy, so I couldn’t resist photographing this beauty.
Our morning with Mário was wonderful. We had a compatible group and he was a great guide, never rushing us, always happy to answer our many questions. A delightful and informative tour. The experience gave me an excellent sense of the place I’m writing about. For more information on these megalithic tours you can click here.
For Mário’s sake, I do want to pass along his concern. The ground under the stone circle is weathering away. The stones may fall. The roads to the site are in terrible repair. Yet no one has authority to care for the site or the roads. It’s private property. He hopes one day the government will take it over and preserve it before too much damage occurs to this world treasure. I hope so too.
Vanessa scheduled a tour for me the next day to see the ancient cave drawings at the Escoural Grotto. Since there was no public transportation available she arranged for a taxi. The driver asked if he could bring his daughter. She had never seen the grotto and wanted to take this opportunity. That worked out well, because this 20-year-old daughter spoke excellent English and his was limited. The grotto was a 17-mile drive one way, so I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I had just saved a lot of money by cancelling the cork forest tour.
The cave mouth opens against a steep slope embedded with limestone boulders. A small enclosure covers the opening. Our guide led the three of us in–the taxi driver, his daughter, and me–and gave us hardhats. I was glad for that hat more than once. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so I must offer word pictures.
It’s a small cave, intimate.
We worked our way through the cramped space down wooden steps and walkways. My hardhat bounced off hovering rock overhead. A few bats clung to the higher walls. The electric lighting may have added a yellow hue, but the cave walls looked golden compared to the gray rock outside. I had the impression of thick butterscotch frosting, whipped in wild swirls, hardened and broken off in places to reveal flat nubbly cuts that melted back a little, softening over time. On some of these flat slabs thin ridges ran down like rivulets of water that had turned rigid.
I didn’t see the pictures until our guide turned a light onto them. Then I saw the black charcoal outline of a horse with a deep belly. It looked pregnant, and I mentioned that. She believed the figure represented fertility. Only the lines between the rivulets remained. We went farther below and had to bend down to look at a slab slanted inward. On that slab scratches had been cut into the rock surface creating the outlines of several horses with heads raised, active, alert. Another drawing represented a horned animal.
The depth of time resonated. Into this ancient place of artistic expression my character felt herself falling back tens of thousands of years. And I did, knowing that.
I had one more place I needed to see. The town of Escoural itself. Just three more miles up the road from the grotto. When we left the cave site my taxi driver started to turn toward Évora. “I still need to see Escoural,” I told him.
He wrinkled his brow. “Is nothing there.”
I explained that it was a significant place in my book and I needed to see it. His daughter tried to explain. He hesitated but finally turned toward Escoural. The meter was rising. It would soon hit our agreed price and we still had to go all the way back, but I had many chapters in that location. I had seen it on Google Maps, but I really wanted to see the land. Not the town. There was no town back then, but there was a knoll where I wanted to put a fictional village. And I wanted to see the land around it.
We drove into a town whose sleepy streets I had traveled virtually and it all looked familiar. He turned to me. “See? There’s nothing here.”
That’s the idea, I told him. It’s the middle of nowhere. Exactly what I want.
About that time I saw my knoll and got excited. “There! Please turn that way.” His daughter had to convince him. And when we came away from the houses and I had a full view of the knoll I asked him to stop so I could get out and snap a picture. It took him a moment to respond and I asked again. I’m sure he was thinking, What is the matter with this crazy lady wanting to stop and look at nothing? He stopped. I got out and took my picture. And a few more. Laughing, I told his daughter, “Escoural hasn’t had this much enthusiasm in years.”
The rest of my time in Évora I explored the town. I checked out the Roman temple and the museum and the bone chapel and found Vasco da Gama’s house. But much of the time I sat on the lovely balcony of my hotel and took notes and sorted out my thoughts about all I had seen, fitting some changes into the excerpts I’d brought while the memories of my experiences were fresh.
Portugal had been good to me. Alone, I had felt the raw edge of a culture where communication often confounded me. But that taught me something too, which will work its way into my stories. Most of all I thrilled to ancient wonders and the warmth of people who so willingly shared those with me.
NEXT: Shadows in the Stones