Ruth Ann Adams

5 X Mama: Travel Tales, Faith Stories and Children's Literature

Archive for the ‘Travel Tales’ Category

Falling in love with Scotland

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My mother once told me, in her practical wisdom, that most of life consists of day to day living. She said that life has its mountain top experiences, but these are the exception, not the norm. Of course, she was right. Our days and weeks, months and years consist largely of the small pleasures of our normal routine. However, once in a while, something so fresh and unexpected comes along, that our outlook is never quite the same afterwards. This was my experience visiting Scotland for the first time.

When Elizabeth I ruled England, one of the biggest uncertainties was her future successor.  She died in 1603, without a child of her own, and the crown was handedto King James VI of Scotland. In 1707, the Act of Union created Great Britain, consisting of England, Scotland and Wales. The Scots had always had a strong sense of their own nationality.  In the time of Roman Britain, the Emperor Hadrian was unable to occupy Scotland and instead built Hadrian’s wall, to keep the Celts out of British territory. Heroes such as Braveheart and Bonnie Prince Charlie  fought for their country, hoping to free Scotland from outside interference. Even now, Scotland has its own currency, the  Gaelic language, and a unique culture. A referendum has even been set for September 18, 2014, to ask the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

During our first day in Scotland, we sailed down Loch Lomond, admired the  breathtaking scenery, sipped complementary tea and listened to the stories of a Scottish tour guide. Later, while my family went up the side of Ben Nevis in a cable car, I remained sensibly on the ground, browsed through some local stores in Fort William, and compared the products to what we sold at the department store I worked at in Canada. That evening, at our hotel in Newtonmore, a Highlander, dressed in full regalia, played the bagpipes and in a short  ceremony artfully presented the haggis, a dish made of sheep’s liver or intestines. The next day, we toured Blair Castle, built in 1269. Our guide told us that Queen Victoria and Prince Andrew had once visited the castle and gifted the presiding duke with his own private army. For lunch, we stopped at  St. Andrew’s, which has as at least three claims to fame, as a well known golfer’s paradise, the city where Prince William went to university, and the setting for the opening and closing scenes of Chariots of Fire. In the evening, after a meal of salmon and potato chowder, I had a conversation with a charming Scotsman who very obligingly explained to me the different parts of his costume.

In the morning, we drove to Edinburgh, took a tour of The Royal Mile and Princess  Street, and  enjoyed some free time to explore on our own. At the Writers’ Museum at Lady  Stair’s House, we saw displays on three famous Scottish authors: Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Robert Burns, my daughter Hannah’s favourite poet, has remained so famous that many people still celebrate Robbie Burns Day each year on January 25th. Burns’ poem, Auld Lang Syne (“for old time’s sake”) is often used to usher in the new year.

While my family lingered over lunch, I walked up the street  and forced my way through a very heavy door into a gift shop on the lower level of St. Gile’s Cathedral. Since many of the cathedrals in the UK charge admittance, I was pleased to discover that St. Gile’s did not.  I ran back to encourage my dawdling family to finish lunch, so we could tour the cathedral together. Inside the cathedral was a statue of John Knox, a famous Calvinist preacher, who once graced the pulpit of St. Giles and preached a reformist message of salvation through grace. He had a particular antipathy towards the beliefs and practices of  Mary Queen of Scots and is credited as an instrumental player in the development of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. At the John Knox house, we saw some fascinating  manuscripts and descriptions of his life and work.

Hannah and I went off look through some stores and were drawn into a little shop with the unusual  name, The Tappit Hen. When I asked the saleslady what the name meant, she said that it referred to a type of drinking mug and showed me where it was located in the store window. The shop also sold Celtic jewelry and an intriguing  item called a quaich, a  two -handled cup which is presented as a friendship gift on special occasions.

On the bus, our tour guide played the Scottish song, “Loch Lomond” and for weeks afterwards, its haunting tune  played in my mind. We drove through the Scottish highlands, saw the heather on the hills and the  cows called “hairy coos” roaming the fields. Perhaps it was the romantic story of the lovers in “Loch Lomond,” the beauty of the landscape, my love for my husband who sat beside me on the bus or the brogue and friendliness of the Scottish people. Perhaps it was because Scotland caught me off guard, a place I had always thought would be interesting to visit but had never dreamed of, as I had  England. Whatever it was, my unexpected love affair with Scotland is something I will never forget and never recover from.

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Written by Ruth Ann Adams

April 17, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Tower of London

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We walked up the steps from  Tower Hill tube station. I gasped in delight as we emerged into the sunshine. There, right before us, walls rising out of the mists of history, was the Tower of London! This was the England I had dreamed of. We were about to  cross the street and step straight back in time!

When William the Conqueror began assembling the White Tower in the 1070s, he intended to impress the boisterous Londoners with his authority. Future monarchs contributed towers, curtain walls, moats, furnishings and whatever else was required for safety and comfort. What was the Tower used for?  Some kings sought out the Tower for protection against angry barons and rebellious mobs. The Tower contained The Royal Mint, the Office of Ordnance and a menagerie (a forerunner of a zoo), which housed, among other unusual occupants, a bear, lions, monkeys, a  hyena and an alligator! Of course, the most gruesome  and well known use of the Tower was as an execution site, including that of two of the ill fated wives of Henry VIII.

After going through security – and when you think of it security is what the Tower has been all about for centuries – we explored The Bloody Tower. This tower is set up with a display board portraying the mystery of two young princes, who were thought to have come to an untimely death at the orders of  King Richard III, their treacherous uncle.

What probably intrigued me most, though, in The Bloody Tower, was Sir Walter Raleigh’s study, complete with a desk, chair, writing materials, fireplace and a large, framed picture on the wall. I wonder what he thought about, as he walked the Tower grounds and sat at his desk, writing The History of the World? Perhaps he dreamed of far off places, because in between imprisonments, Sir Raleigh went on several  sea voyages. The second  led to his execution by James 1st.

The Crown Jewels, in The Waterloo Barracks, beckoned to us. For my daughter, Hannah, this was the most exciting part of the Tower tour. When Charles 1st was executed in 1649, the ruling Commonwealth insisted that the Coronation Regalia be demolished. In 1660, Charles II was freshly endowed with jewels, when he began his reign in 1660. We rode on a moving platform past exquisite treasures. My husband asked a young guard how much one of the jewels was worth. He replied, “It is priceless.” I suppose he was correct. What price could such a jewel, steeped in history and tradition, be sold for?

However, on May 9th, 1671, Thomas Blood evidently viewed the jewels as extremely lucrative. He and his partners bound the unfortunate Keeper of the Crown Jewels and proceeded to plunder the riches. They were caught, but in a world where thieves could be put to death, the robber managed to talk the king into a royal pardon. A version of this story was actually preformed in the Tower courtyard, where we sat for a time, eating waffle sticks with chocolate sauce and  conversing with a couple from Enfield, Nova Scotia. Hannah asked for cream for her coffee but was told that she was in the wrong country! Is coffee cream a Canadian tradition?

In the courtyard, we also watched the Yeomen Warders or Beefeaters converse with the crowds. These lively performers  provide tours and their own brand of entertainment. They are immediately recognizable in their blue and red  Tudor style outfits. The Warders live right on the grounds with their families, and I am sure provide their children with their own slant on history!

My husband, Andrew, felt the Tower was well worth the admission price, because it was like having a number of small museums in one place. He was especially interested in the exhibit Fit For a King, in the White Tower, which features suits of armour and gives tourists a good idea of the size of the kings wearing them. There is even armour belonging to either a very small king or a child. All kinds of details are explained and we could easily have spent much more time learning about armour and the kings who donned it.

No trip to the Tower of London could be complete without contemplating the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. Anne and Catherine, wives of Henry Vlll,were beheaded ostensibly for adultery, but a guide told my husband that they were most likely innocent. 16 year old Lady Jane Grey was queen for merely nine days and executed for solely political reasons.

According to a guide, Queen Victoria felt extremely sorry for the victims. Today, on Tower Green, there is a monument, designed by Brian Catling and put in place in 2006.  Around the base of the memorial is written Catling’s tribute:  “Gentle visitor pause awhile. Where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life. May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage, under these restless skies ” (punctuation added). We were standing under the skies of Tower Green and could only imagine these victims of political circumstance laying down  their lives, while spectators watched nearby. Did Henry VIII feel any remorse as he watched his wives beheaded at his own command or did he feel, as supreme monarch, that he was somehow justified?

Andrew and the girls went off to see the instruments of torture, but I had spent enough time climbing long, narrow staircases and stood instead by Traitor’s Gate,where prisoners once arrived along the Thames in barges. I  thought of the prisoners and those who had power over them. Was Henry VIII, who by our standards, murdered two of his young wives, convinced he was right, overtaken by religious conscience or  merely a dictator who could get his own way? If he were to walk out into the sunshine at Tower Hill tube station, and look across the street at the Tower, would he gasp in delight, as a 21st century tourist might, or would he gasp in horror at a world he could barely comprehend? It is probably fair to say that we cannot fully comprehend his world either. Regardless, the Tower stands as a tribute to human courage, is a  famous  World Heritage Site, and is an absolute must to see during any tour of London, England!

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Written by Ruth Ann Adams

February 1, 2013 at 12:13 am

Iceland

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“Do you use processed meat?” my daughter asked the dark haired lady behind the counter at the Loki Cafe. We were jet lagged, hungry and in need of something that Susanna could eat that didn’t contain the soy products so often found in processed foods.

“What is processed meat?” the lady replied. “All my meat is hanging up back there,” she explained, with a gesture towards the back of the cafe. We were reassured. There would be no soy in the food. We sat down at one of the little tables and enjoyed a delicious meal of Icelandic meat soup, rye bread and chocolate cake with whipped cream.

My husband, two daughters and I were in Reykjavik, en route to a tour of England, Scotland and Wales. This was my dream trip, given to me by my loving family, who knew how I had always longed to see England. Spending several days in Reykjavik was an added and exciting bonus.

After  our meal and a good night’s sleep, we set out to see the sights of the city. “There is no charge, today,” the bus driver said to my husband, when he tried to give him a ticket. We had unexpectedly stumbled upon Reykjavik’s Culture Day, which included special events, free museums and buses, shop displays and fireworks. Thousands of Icelanders walked the streets, delighting us with their unique and  lilting accents. Blonde children ran everywhere. Babies, in tight fitting bonnets, rode in what looked to me like old fashioned carriages. Susanna was horrified to find a baby parked unattended in a pram, outside a store. However, there is very little crime in Iceland and the thought of someone snatching a baby is a foreign one. Placing an infant outside to enjoy the sunshine is common and safe.

The shops beckoned to us and my husband, who seldom purchases anything beyond necessities, bought a book called The Little Book of The Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir. This book is divided into topics explaining many quirks and customs of the Icelandic people. We had already noted the habit of the drivers to ignore hapless pedestrians trying to cross the roads!!

I made a small purchase of my own and was startled when the saleslady said, “That will be 1,000.”

“1,000?” I squealed.

“”1,000,” she repeated calmly, no doubt wondering if all Canadians were as dense as I was. She meant 1,000 ISK, about eight  dollars, but hearing 1,000 in any currency gives me a fright!

We wandered into a fabulous bookstore called Mal og Menning and discovered a cafe, Sufistinn, on the second floor. Now this was something I could understand: an Icelandic Chapters/ Starbucks!! Well, not exactly, but the concept seemed the same, good books and food in combination. Some of the titles were in Icelandic but many were in English. We had croissants, Earl Grey tea, coffee and other snacks  and perused  the stacks of literature.

Some of the restaurants offered  delicacies such as puffin and whale. A group of eager youth, intent on saving the whales, asked us to sign a petition promising that we would never eat whale meat. We signed immediately and have had no occasion to be tempted otherwise!

Later in the afternoon, we headed for the museums. Here we learned about the strength and resilience of the Icelandic people. We learned about Ingolfur Arnarson, an early settler in the Reykjavik area and Leif  Ericson, a voyager  who helped spread Christianity to Iceland and other parts of the world. In The Settlement Exhibition or Landnamssyningin, we pondered an excavated Viking longhouse, originating from about 930 AD. A diagram explained what the various parts of the longhouse were used for. We all recognize the horned helmets reportedly worn by Viking warriors, but here was a real house, once inhabited by real people, so different from us and yet perhaps with hopes and fears not that dissimilar.

The greatest discovery for me was that this little country, which I had barely thought about before our trip, has a long and rich literary history. At the Culture House, we discovered The Medieval Manuscripts: the Eddas and Sagas. My husband was fascinated to hear from a museum guide that Icelanders can read Old English much easier than we can, because of its strong resemblance to their own language. In a corner of the Culture House, we found a tribute to JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien studied Old Icelandic at university and undoubtedly the stories he read influenced his own fanciful tales.

On our bus trip from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik and back, we were struck by the piles  of lava rock, scarcity of trees and looming volcanoes. A shop lady told us that we were fortunate that the weather was so warm. It was 20 degrees, a temperature that  is reached only once or twice during the summer months. Iceland, like many countries, has a history of control by foreign peoples. Large areas of land are not fit for human habitation. A man on a bus told me that there are more sheep in Iceland than people. The threat of volcanic eruption is ever present. Yet, out of all this has come a people who are independent, colourful, intelligent and rich in tales and legends. If you have the opportunity, this country is not to be missed!

Fran By the Sea

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Written by Ruth Ann Adams

September 19, 2012 at 4:51 pm