I wrote barely a word during our recent trip to Europe and four days after turning the key, for the first time in nearly two months, in our front door, I struggle to write about our time away from home. I am determined, however, to share the best and worst of our seven weeks, so I have decided to create, over the next few posts, a memoir of our journey. Somewhere, buried in the image-album of my mind are scenes I want to share; still resounding in my brain are the sounds of unfamiliar but welcomed accents and greetings, tastes I registered, impressions I stored, sensations I preserved. These and the vast, impromptu, barely stage managed theatre that was my journey across the world, are my sources. I hope I can do them justice. What I record in the next few weeks may not be chronological but grouped into themes: the characters we met; how we travelled from country to country; the delights or otherwise of using Airbnb; the food we tasted; even the places we longed to visit but had to miss; my reflections on what we saw, did and enjoyed.
We travelled, during seven short weeks, to Scotland (briefly) England, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. We stayed in seventeen different towns or cities, some for only one night, others for up to six nights. We had accommodation in twenty different Bed and Breakfasts or private homes (Air B&Bs) and one hotel (after I insisted, we leave the accommodation we had arranged and relocate to cleaner, more pleasant premises.) We travelled on a ferry to and from Ireland and again when we were in Greece, to and from Hydra. I cannot count the number of trains we waited for and travelled on but we took to the air, once in Europe, only once. This means some of my impressions are fleeting, while others seem to impose themselves on me as I go about unpacking, opening weeks old mail and choosing how to live the rest of my life.
Let me just say this; I did not like flying to Europe. I liked being there and I hope these posts will share the joy.
Glastonbury and Cilwen
These were two of the first places we visited and among my favourites, although crossing the border from England to Wales meant we faced another long drive along the motorway. Despite the rain and dark clouds, I was surprised by the complex pull of Wales, the home of my paternal great-great grandparents and my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t a sense of ‘home’ or even a return; it was something deeper, something primal. The folded green hills, grey skies and road signs bearing unfamiliar, consonant rich Welsh words above their English equivalent helped make the miles slide by. The sense of attachment increased later when I heard inflexions and rhythms of speech of the people I passed in the street.
Before entering Wales, however, we stopped in Glastonbury, Somerset, a half an hour’s drive off the M4. Steeped in legend and befuddled by controversy, Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly the burial place of King Arthur. Some archaeologists believe Chalice Well, at the foot of the Glastonbury Tor, has been in use for two thousand years. The water from the spring contains iron oxide, giving it a reddish hue which, like the hot springs in Bath, is said to have healing qualities.
We parked the hire car and headed for the tourist information service to purchase tickets for the Well; unfortunately, we didn’t have time to climb the Tor. As we located the well and climbed the hill above it, I didn’t know what to expect. I read and studied the myths, legends and spiritual beliefs of the ancient Celts decades ago but my studies often lead me to poorly researched material, misinformed conclusions and occasionally blatant fictions about the ancient beliefs of the first inhabitants of this area. We sat above the well for a short time. The hills were quiet and light rain fell. When it stopped we decided to descend to the well and sit on one of the nearby benches. All was silent and so we did not speak, awed by more than just the beauty of the place. I wasn’t searching for a message or revelation, I didn’t want to impose my confused feelings and beliefs on the peace we had found but as I sat I felt an inner wisdom uncoil: 'I cannot know', I thought or heard or perhaps understood, 'what I think I know, because at the end of all knowing is only mystery.
Knowledge dissolves and words uttered or written fade in the presence of a mystery older than human memory. As we made ready to leave, I pondered the ‘message’ and what it meant to me, who so values learning and knowledge. In the following weeks, during the daily routine of catching trains, finding our lodgings and places to eat that was my life, I occasionally reflected on and welcomed this new form of ‘unknowing.’
Two hours later we arrived at Cilwen, a place of delicate peace and beauty created by two gracious men dedicated to making their lives simpler and sharing that simplicity with others.
Both Somerset and Wales will remain places where I learned the importance of sitting and letting go of expectations and anxieties. By nestling into the stillness of sites sacred to thousands of generations, and refuges built from love, the silence of simply being reveals new understandings and kindles old memories.