Category Archives: Europe – Northern Europe & Scandinavia

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Camelot in Wales

Although most scholars today regard the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table to be legendary more than historical, there are still locations that claim a link with Camelot, the place where Arthur held court and the supposed location of the famous Round Table. 

Where was Camelot?

The top four claimants for this honour are Winchester with its round table dating from the 13th century, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall whose claim to the title rests on a 1,500-year-old piece of slate bearing two Latin inscriptions, Cadbury Castle in Somerset where the first reference to its connection was written down by John Leland in 1542 and Caerleon in Wales, one of three Roman legionary forts in Britain, chosen as Camelot by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes. 

Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon, Wales

On purely subjective grounds I’m going for Caerleon.  It’s a magical place and when I go there not only does the Arthurian legend seem less a fiction and more a fact of history, but the presence of the Roman Legion of 30,000 men that was stationed here in the 1st century BC is very palpable. 

The top thing to do in Caerleon is to visit the Roman Baths, housed in an inconspicuous building that opens to reveal the remains of a Roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house.  The ancient stone foundations that are on display give some idea of the original building but when you enter the enormous natatio (open air swimming pool), the basilica (indoor sports hall) and the frigidarium (cold baths) it all comes suddenly to life. Modern technology allows the projection of water onto the remains of the baths, complete with sounds and images of people swimming, and this is truly amazing: there is a short, informative, but humourous film to accompany this.

Entrance to Roman Baths

This was where the Roman Legionaries in first-century Wales would come to escape being shouted at by the Centurions or skirmishing with the local ancient Britons.  Here, they could hang out with their friends in the immense open-air swimming pool that held more than 80,000 gallons of water, and after a swim they could play ball games, or gamble, have a massage and even buy fast-food snacks.  The whole complex would have been much like a modern-day leisure centre/sauna, with a tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room).

A Roman as he would have appeared at the time

Procedure before Swimming in Roman Baths

Before swimming the soldier would have had a bath in one of the lofty vaulted halls next to the swimming pool where he would strip, hand his clothes to one of the bathhouse slaves and enter the frigidarium (cold bath suite). After a cold dip he’d coat his body with perfumed oil and then visit the warm and hot suites in turn.  In the last room, heated from wood-burning furnaces (you can look down and see the stacked pillars under the floor that allow heat to circulate) he’d scrape the oil and sweat from his body with a metal tool called a strigil, before finishing off with a final cold plunge.

Bathing was done naked but as mixed bathing was frowned on, women and children used the baths in the morning while the soldiers would use it in the afternoon.  On some days though, prostitutes were allowed in and on these days mixed bathing took place. 

Thanks to modern technology and film projection, you can see and hear the splash as a Roman soldier dives into the water, and you then see him swimming in the pool.  Then watch as women enter the water and swim together.

Replica objects on display testify to the cleanliness of the Romans, tweezers, ear wax cleaner, toothpicks, nail files and body scrapers.

From baths to Amphitheatre

After the baths it’s outside to see the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain, built to entertain the legionnaires and keep them happy in their time off.  Walk through the great north entrance to this huge arena build around AD 90 to seat up to 6,000 spectators, and imagine the din of those 6,000 people baying for blood. 

This impressive amphitheatre was the Roman equivalent of today’s multiplex cinema or a massive sports stadium. Wooden benches with seating for up to 6,000, were provided for the spectators who would gather to watch bloodthirsty displays featuring gladiatorial combat and exotic wild animals. 

Long after the Romans left the country, the amphitheatre took on a new life as the Camelot of Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century scholar, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Arthur was crowned in Caerleon and that the amphitheatre was actually the remains of King Arthur’s Round Table. 

I’m happy to go along with that because I think I saw Merlin flit across the grass one evening as dusk was descending. Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to Richard Burton singing/speaking one of my favourite songs from the musical Camelot, Finale Ultimo. https://youtu.be/HmOhwkVFFQM

NB.  The Caerleon Amphitheatre, which boasted eight vaulted entrances and a shrine to the goddess Nemesis, is the only fully excavated Roman amphitheatre in Great Britain.  It was maintained until its abandonment in the 3rd century when the Second Augustan Roman Legion departed to protect what remained of the diminishing Roman Empire.

The Welsh Government is to be congratulated on this imaginative place and when I was there it was entirely FREE. I urge anyone who is in the area to visit it.

To read a full history of the place and to watch some excellent videos (including an aerial one of the amphitheatre) click on http://www.caerleon.net

And back in the 21st century, don’t miss the Sculpture Park in Caerleon town, a truly wondrous journey through myths and magic and the power of the artist.

Eton -More than a College

There are few people who have never heard of Eton College but the town itself is less well-known as it sits in the shadow of its nearby sister town of Windsor.  Situated just across the river from the Royal Borough and accessed via a pedestrian footbridge, the town of Eton, a settlement since at least Saxon times, has a rich and diverse heritage.

Eton College

The mile-long High Street leading down to Eton College has remained unchanged for many years but the name has always been Eton, or Eyot-tun, meaning ‘settlement on an island’.  In the 1086 Domesday Book, the town is listed as ‘Ettone’, with two mills, a meadow, woodland and fisheries and it was concentrated on the higher land.  Many royal processions have made their way along the High Street, most notably the funeral procession of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, in 1537.  

This elegant little town is an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary retail outlets catering to its local population and a year-round tourist trade, with high-end gift shops, antiques and modern art establishments sitting alongside shops selling traditional medicines and complementary beauty therapies.   The traditional shop fronts and the boys in their traditional school dress (often seen around town) give a sense of stepping back in time.

The Thames has always been important to the town which initially flourished due to fish farming, and goods into and out of Eton were conveyed by barge – including the stones used to build Eton College Chapel.

Connected by the footbridge from Windsor, Eton has an importance of its own, and the Eton Walkway, a 2-mile/one-hour circular walk, connecting 18 points of interest in the town starting at Windsor Bridge is the perfect way to find out about the historical importance of the town.  This walk is marked out by permanent, bronze, lozenge-like symbols set in the ground to identify the route, the 18 shields marking: The King’s Stables, the Cockpit, Porny School, Baldwin’s Bridge, Eton College, the Burning Bush, Eton Wall Game at the Timbralls, Skinners’ Bridge, Herschel Observatory, the Gormley Statue, Keate House, the Natural History Museum, Museum of Antiquities, St John’s Church, Jubilee Square, the Brocas and Eton Boat House.  Information on each point of significance is included on the Outdoor Guide website

It’s impossible to speak of Eton without reference to Eton College which occupies the whole of Eton north of Barnes Pool bridge and is second only to Winchester as the oldest public school in England.   The College was founded by Henry VI in 1440, modelled on Winchester which had been founded by William of Wykeham, and Henry decreed that there were to be 70 King’s Scholars, who were to be educated for free and housed in the College. Outside the College, so-called Oppidans were lodged in the town and received the same education. Originally the houses were run by Dames, but more recently they have been run by House Masters. Today there are 24 boarding houses for Oppidans and over 1,300 boys in all.

The College looks after thousands of historic, artistic and natural objects, and welcomes visitors to its Museum of Eton Life, Museum of Antiquities and its Natural History Museum, which are open to the public free of charge on Sunday afternoons between 2:30pm and 5pm. 

So if you are in Windsor and find yourself with an hour or two to spare, just walk across the bridge into another world where time seems to have stood still. The shop-fronts look almost Dickensian but in Eton they are cleaner than those depicted in any of Dickens’ books – this is one of the cleanest towns I have ever visited. You will be amused by the items for sale in some of the shops, the old-school tailors, the haberdashery, even a sweet shop selling long forgotten sweets from jars.

And when you’ve had enough, just stroll back across the bridge into the real world again. Or nearly. It is, after all, the Royal Borough of Windsor.

The War Horse at Mottistone

I re-watched “War Horse” a few nights ago, that wonderful film from the book by Michael Morpurgo that tells the tale of a brave horse and his human friend who both come through the horrors of the First World War after many trials and are finally united. **  As always, it reminded me of the story’s links with a real-life war horse and the man who bred and raised him on the Isle of Wight.    

Portrait of General Jack Seely on Warrior by Sir Alfred Munnings

The original horse that served in the war was called Warrior and his story was told in 1934 by General Jack Seely in a book called My Horse Warrior, re-published in 2011, then again in paperback in 2013 and 2014.  It tells the story of Warrior from his birth in a field on the family’s estate on the Isle of Wight and how, due to a combination of character and some twists of fate, he was able to survive Ypres, The Somme and Passchendaele in a war in which over 8 million horses, donkeys and mules died.  Warrior lived to the age of 33 and died at his home in Mottistone, Isle of Wight, in 1941 and in 2014 his bravery was rewarded posthumously with an honorary PDSA Dickin Medal (the VC for animals).

From a happy life in the fields of the estate on the Isle of Wight, Warrior was sent to war along with his owner, where as a result of his being able to survive so much, he gained a reputation for bravery under fire and was adopted as his formation’s mascot, as well as earning the nickname ‘the horse the Germans couldn’t kill’ – this from the Canadian cavalrymen he led.

His owner was no less brave. On the Western Front he was involved in some of the defining moments of the First World War and led one of the last cavalry charges in history at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, on his faithful horse Warrior, in March 1918.

And so we come to Mottistone Manor, first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 and today a National Trust property.  The Manor as it stands today however, was created during the 15th and 16th centuries but the gardens we stroll in came much later.  These were laid out in the 1960’s, to the original design, with seasonal plantings which are a delight even in winter.

Mottistone Manor

Mottistone Manor was bought in 1861 by Charles Seely who was a Liberal politician and philanthropist who had made his fortune in the Industrial Revolution, and the Seely who owned Warrior was General Jack Seeley, the First Baron Mottistone, known to all as ‘Galloper’ Jack. 

Below are a few images of the gardens from last time I visited.   

Of course, Warrior never wandered through these gardens but whenever I visit, I think about that horse and all the other animals that died in The Great War.  For me, Mottistone is a very fitting place to remember the brave Warrior.

The War Horse is now available on the National Theatre’s new streaming service National Theatre at Home. The iconic and multi-award-winning production of War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpugo, is available on demand for the first time since its premiere 13 years ago.

** The film was directed by Stephen Spielberg from a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis and starred Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, Jeremy Irving, Peter Mullen, David Thewlis and Celine Buckens.

Lens Artist Challenge 164: Look Up, Look Down.

Linked to Lens Artists at Sofia’s here

The challenge this week is to show how we look up and then look down when we are photographing. I’ve dug through my images and come up with these.

Can you see the tiny church on the mountain top? It’s almost in the centre of the image. This was taken from a Gondola coming down from Mt. Pilatus near Lucerne in Switzerland.

And now we are going up in the funicular to Mt. Floyen in Bergen

And now for something completely different. Look down on the beach here, this is Utah Beach in Normandy, France, scene of the D-Day Landings during World War ll. Up these cliffs the Allied soldiers had to climb, cut down by machine-gun fire from the entrenched enemy in concrete bunkers on the top of the cliffs, and this after having waded to the beach from the landing craft. No wonder so many thousands died on that day.

The second photograph is looking up at the effigy of a soldier hanging from the steeple of Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy. On 5th June 1944 a US paratrooper of the American Airborne Landing forces was caught on the steeple as he descended. He feigned death to escape being shot at and was eventually taken down by an enemy soldier from whom he escaped. The village has kept the effigy (hanging just below the white flag) as a reminder of those days.

Linked to Lens Artists at Sofia’s here

Life in Colour – Gold

Photo Challenge 26

Connected to Jude’s Life in Colour here.

A direct lift from Jude’s site tells us that this month we will be looking for Gold, the colour of wealth, of power, of gods. Gold-leaf applied to paintings, gold crowns and coins. But look also for golds in the natural world, a fish, a sunset or sunrise, flowers and autumn leaves or sunlight on water. Or capture the light in the ‘golden hour’.

So I managed to find two golds, but neither of them are my own photographs. They are images I’ve just received from a friend who has a pond stocked with Koi and this golden one is his newest addition to the waters.

Golden Koi

He also has some lovely ducks, some very colourful, but at the moment all attention is on the chicks, fluffy golden yellow ones with yellow webbed feet.

‘Hello’ world. My feet feel too big for me at the moment.

A Few More Reds

Linked to Life in Colour at Jude’s here

I’ve found a few more reds, two from St. Malo (France) and two from Belfast (N. Ireland)

First up St. Malo and my favourite restaurant which serves up moules in every way you could wish. My all-time favourite is the traditional mariniere style, and I like a spoon and some good fresh bread to sup up the delicious liquid that remains in the navy enamel bowl after the moules have been dispatched.

One Word Sunday – Bridge

A selection of lesser known bridges away from the crowds in London, where life is slow, barges are still transporting goods on the river, and the peace and calm is a far cry from the hub and bustle of the Thames we are more familiar with.

Then a hop over to Seville in Spain, where there are some spectacular bridges over the Guadalquivir River. These are just two, the first one being the modern Alamillo Bridge by the famous architect Santiago Calatrava, and the second one, built in the mid-19th century, is the equally famous Triana Bridge.

Life im Colour: White/Silver

I didn’t think I’d have another picture to add to Jude’s White/Silver challenge but I suddenly remembered the whiteness of lovely Stavanger in Norway, and I offer a selection to link to Jude here.

A hilly, colourful street in Stavanger

Link to Jude here.