Going There #11: Crossings

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.

From the Guest House Window at Cairnryan, Scotland

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, Cairnryan, Scotland

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.

Village of Cairnryan, Scotland

A short walk to the ferry landing and we were on our way to Larne in Northern Ireland.

On the P&O Ferry Leaving Cairnryan for Larne

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 series but I could still follow the tracks of my characters over the land surrounding them. We toured the castle, just for fun.

Carrickfergus Castle

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.

Carrickfergus Cannon

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.”

Dobbins Inn Elizabethan Fireplace, Carrickfergus

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

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Going There: Site Research

I’ve just returned from a trip to research sites for my upcoming series set in Greece and Ireland and points in between and will be sharing my adventures on this trek over the next few weeks. I started in the wonderful Greek Isle of Crete where I visited the center of the first stories, the ancient ruins of Knossos.

Knossos Portico Steps

This fabulous site was uncovered about 100 years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. The archeologist restored parts of the buildings, the unique red columns, steps, and rooms, a controversial practice not accepted by today’s archeologists. But the reconstructions do offer a sense of the place I found intriguing. It was a visit to Crete several years ago that started my whole series. When I saw Knossos I knew I wanted to write about these ancient people known today as the Minoans. So I began to write what would become my opening book in a series.

I visited Greece a couple of times before this year’s trip and Stonehenge in England, and visited Ireland a couple of times as well, but as I continue with the series, new books take my characters to different places in these lands, sites I had not seen before, and I wanted to see those places on this trip.

So, why do I go? I could try to create an entire world in my own imagination, with a little help from Google Maps. But if my setting takes the reader to a real place, I’d like to see and feel the place firsthand. Why isn’t my imagination enough? Well, for one thing the natives tend to get annoyed when you misrepresent their landscapes. But there’s more to seeing a place than getting the description right.

I believe every place has a personality that comes out of the nature of the land, the people who touch it and change it. For historicals, can I feel the echoes of people who lived there before? Echoes of events that affected their lives? Maybe. I’d like to believe so. It certainly seems to happen.

Fodhele Beach

Maybe I’m only reflecting my own feelings off the land around me. But what if there’s a resonance reflecting back? I’ll reach for that. Open myself to it. Let it come in, perhaps in the moment I walk in that place, perhaps later as memory and inspiration slip into my mind.

While in Crete I also visited peaceful Fodhele Beach where a battle rages in one of my books. The water is so clear you can see the rocks in the bottom far out from the shore.

From Crete I went on to the Isle of Santorini, officially called Thera or Thira. Anglicized spellings vary in Greece due to the translations from a language with a different alphabet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Next stop was lovely Nafplio in the Peloponnese peninsula on the Greek mainland. From there I took day trips to the ancient Mycenaean sites of Tiryns and Mycenae itself, home of the warriors who sail to Crete in about 1470 B.C. and change the island forever.

Archeologists at Zambujal

From Greece I flew to Portugal to visit the ancient citadel of Zambujal north of Lisbon and had an amazing experience I’ll talk about in a later post. It had to do with modern-day archeologists working on this site, as shown above.

More wonderful encounters awaited me near Évora in Portugal’s interior.

From Portugal I flew to London’s Heathrow Airport where I met my writer friend, Lynn Ash, who would continue the trek with me.

After a little struggle finding each other (more on that later), we took a bus to the charming town of Amesbury, which is only a couple of miles from the famous stone circle, Stonehenge.

The next day we visited those massive stones, along with a gazillion or so ravens. Caught a couple in my photo. They seemed to add to the haunting aspect of the ancient circle.

Stonehenge and Ravens

From Amesbury we traveled north to the Lake District where we were surprised by the rugged mountains and thrilled to the beauty of the lakes. I got partway up a trail above Buttermere Water, where the outlaws in one of my books hang out. The trail never got much easier than what you see below.

Trail Above Buttermere

From the lakes we wended our way into Scotland and across to Cairnryan on the coast where we caught the ferry to Ireland, center of my later books, which intertwine with the first three. We finally reached Rosscarbery and the bay I call Golden Eagle Bay for the Golden Eagle Clan of my story whose village lies a short way above this cove.

Golden Eagle Bay

As daylight dimmed on the bay the search for story sites came to a close. I had a much stronger impression of the places I visit in story. It will take time to absorb all I’ve seen, but already these worlds have become clearer in my mind, and I want to pass that clarity on to my readers. From this overview I’ll share the highlights on my blog in more detail in the coming weeks and hope you’ll join me on this trek from Greece to Portugal to the UK to Ireland, 37 days of reaching into the hearts of lands where my characters roam.

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