In which our heroine is charmed by an abbess and a vampire

After two nights in Whitby, I am leaving with a brand-new love for a place I had barely heard of. My calendar shows a saint’s commemoration for “Hilda of Whitby,” but the person and the geography were just words to me before yesterday.

Doing travel research and laying out an itinerary is a lot like collecting shells on the beach. Every single option looks more lovely than the previous one, and before you know it, your pockets can’t possibly hold all the pieces you’ve picked up. So you sort and throw out, either randomly or with reasons that make sense only to you.

The plans for my journey around the UK got quickly and completely out of control and had to be wrangled into submission. I have a nostalgic/Anglophilic weakness for ruined abbeys, and that helped me with the sorting. Looking for a destination about a four-hour train ride from Edinburgh, I dropped a pin at Whitby. It has an abbey. And it’s on the coast. That would be cool. 

I ended up in this seaside town without knowing anything about it. As it turns out, it’s an enormously popular destination, and the spring bank holiday ensured a crowd. Super-historic and adorable with narrow streets, shops, and cobblestones, Whitby also has its share of crap-shops, temporary tattoo booths and “attractions” like every other tourist town. 

But by far the most wonderful thing about Whitby is the ruined abbey atop the cliff, 99 steps above the street and overlooking the North Sea. The present ruins are from Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries around 1540, but they rest on more ancient monastic ruins dating to the 600s. Adding to the moody atmosphere on the clofftop is the fact that the graveyard of the nearby Church of St. Mary the Virgin is where Dracula met his first victim upon his arrival in England. 

St. Hilda (614?-680) was the founder and abbess of a co-ed monastic community. Hilda was so respected by the Anglo-Saxon kings and religious leaders that her monastery was the site of a key council of the church in 664. For reasons more political than religious, the Synod of Whitby decided that the still-new Christian religion in the north od England would follow the practices and the calendar of Rome, rather than the Irish and Scottish (Celtic) ways. (More’s the pity, I say.)

The abbey is an English Heritage site, of course, and as such is a prime location for costumed interpreters. During my long afternoon there, “Benedictine monks” were introducing visitors to the temporary labyrinth mown into the lawn below the abbey. Even more than abbey ruins, I am a sucker for a labyrinth, so it was a wonderful surprise to find one there for the walking. It was mostly tourist attraction: racing kids and laughing friends made it an interesting semi-devotional, communal experience.

I said someting to one of the monks about “that damned Henry VIII” and he, in a perfect (and unintentional) impression of Hugh Grant said: “Yes, well. HE’LL have some things to answer for, won’t he?”

Have fun storming the castle!

I have been away from home for a week today, and am just starting to settle into myself, starting to notice the luxury of time. 

My journey began in Ireland (Ireland, IRL!) in the companionship of my daughter Clare, son Marc and his friend Chelsea. Ireland is magic, green, extroverted, ancient, and four days in Galway was just right. Clare and I have come now to Edinburgh for two nights, and “vacation” is slipping away along with my companions. Pilgrimage is starting.

I have been in Edinburgh just once before. My frustration with that trip was that I bungled a trip to Edinburgh Castle, missing out on the Honours, or Crown Jewels of Scotland. This was a mistake I did not intend to make this time. 

The heavy-walled castle is entered slowly, up a hill, through gates and a portcullis. It sits on the top of a rock which, on a non-foggy day, allows a 360-degree view for miles around. It was the home of Mary, Queen of Scots and birthplace of her sweet baby James, (King James of the eponymous Bible.) It is also the site of the oldest building in Edinburgh, the exceedingly sweet Queen Margaret’s Chapel.

Having bought my ticket ahead of time, I got to the gate as it opened (along with several hundred others. The weather, which can’t be described without profanity, does not deter over 7000 visitors per day.) I walked with purpose up the hill and around the corner and away from the crowd, and bee-lined it for the Honours exhibit.

Oh, my friends. There’s such a strange and poignant juju to Scottish royal history. It’s the stuff of tears and whiskey, legend and song. (Seriously, now. Those damned British!) The exhibit I had come to see was your typical winding rabbit warren with painted walls and costumed statues telling the story of the Honours (which you can look up for yourself.) It was cool, of course, but the most amazing thing was that I was completely alone. Alone in Edinburgh Castle.


My walk through the hallways was quiet and reverent, and by the time I got to the chamber at the end where the treasures themselves were, I didn’t even care about taking pictures. (Plus which: there were docents watching.) The lore of the pieces is a wonderful story: the making, surrendering, burying, the rediscovering. 

But one more thing: even more evocative  than the jewels and gold was a rock: The Stone of Destiny. You can look that up, too. I wish I could have taken a picture of this one.

Though I have more Irish in me than Scots, I’m feeling all nostalgic right now. I am remembering Connie Dover’s wonderful song On Castle Rock

Also: here is my (nearly solitary) view as I arrived at the exhibit. That’s the Scottish National War Memorial first, then St. Margaret’s Chapel.

Y’all. The Cliffs of Insanity have wifi. 

One of my favorite things about travel is seeing film locations. Not just any location: only the ones for films I love.  It’s a little embarrasing to care so much about this. 

A couple of years ago on the same trip to Scotland I was thrilled to see both the viaduct over which the Hogwarts Express passes, and the beachside church from Local Hero. I have the exact reaction as I do when I see a famous person. “Oh my God! There it is! It looks just like it does in the pictures!” Loving a film predestines me to love the place it was shot.

Today I visited the Cliffs of Insanity, site of the famous line (one of the many) from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

The Cliffs of Moher rise insanely high above the Atlantic coast, on the far west side of County Clare in Ireland. I have seen a few natural wonders in my day, but this site truly is a jaw-dropper. We were so lucky to have a perfect day: bright sun and deep blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. Across the top of the cliffs lay the iconic emerald sod. Wifi access allows the visitor to listen to interesting information, as at a museum. 

Bonetti’s Defense seemed fitting, considering the rocky terrain.

God talks to us through our senses, in our bodies. How else? The sharpness of the colors, the feel of the wind, the sound of the Irish accordion…all of these swirled in a knot together with the affection I have for that film. What a treat. What a blessing. 

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity

As a church-loving Gaelophile, I got all tingly at the chance to worship on Trinity Sunday yesterday in Dublin. It was the patronal festival of “The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, commonly called Christ Church,” and it was pure joy. The church was founded an astonishing thousand years ago, but the Anglican bits date “only” to the 1660s. 

At the same time, as a church professional, I admit it took me a while to settle down from professional interest into worship. For one thing, the Trinity is the doctrine most likely to make a thinking Christian tear out his or her hair. Helpfully, the preacher, the Dean of Cork, suggested that the Trinity is not actually a doctrine, but a person: a person in whom we live, move, and have our being. That’s nice. 

The processional hymn was, of course, my beloved St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which is always fresh and new to me, despite its familiarity.

The cathedral choir, undergirded by the ancient acoustics, and it is impossible to say this without using a cliché, sounded like angels. One of the loveliest moments occurred when the choir, having removed itself to a side chapel, sang a communion anthem that seemed to emanate from the old stones themselves.

The Archbishop of Dublin dismissed us: “God the holy Trinity make you strong in faith and love, defend you on every side, and guide you in truth and peace.” There is nothing like a Trinitarian blessing in an Irish voice.

I think you aren’t supposed to “understand” the Trinity. I think you just let it flow over you.

See a portion of choir rehearsal here:

Fish and chips and rain

She who binds herself to a joy does the wingéd life destroy / but she who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise. (William Blake)

In other words, don’t get your knickers in a wad when things go wrong. (Paraphrased.)

Having been told that the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College Dublin was a Must See, I bought a ticket several weeks ago. 

The bad news was that my flight from Gatwick to Dublin today was delayed for 90 minutes and I missed my window. The good news was that my seat on the plane, which quickly turned into a big can of hot air, was right by the open cabin door. 
You know: the idea that we can control things is just codswallop. (Now that I am in the UK I am going to start talking like that.) You make your plans and do your best. Or, to quote Crash Davis, you play it one game at a time and, good Lord willing, things will work out. 

It’s raining in Dublin, I just ate fish and chips at historic Beshoff Brothers (thanks for the wifi, BB) and I have scoped out a pub for traditional music. 

I am kissing the joy as it flies. 

The approach to Dublin from Ryanair flight 122

From departure to arrival, what does it mean to travel?

My daughter Clare is one of my most trusted music advisors. For one thing, we have similar taste, since she and her brother were subjected to a lot of my music back in the day when I still controlled them. But Clare is a more avid seeker of new music than I, and has shaped my listening as well. So when she told me firmly to buy Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new album, I didn’t hesitate. 

Mary Chapin, y’all. I’ve been a fan for 30+ years, since another friend turned me on to her. “The Things That We Are Made Of” is rich, evocative, and old-soulish, even more than her usual. [Edit: read the NPR review here.] The guitar is like spiced chocolate, or liquid silver. I am listening to it over and over on my flight from Austin to London. The title of this post comes from the album: the whole thing is full of maps, and roads, and traveling. This album is destined to feature prominently in the soundtrack of my sabbatical. 

And from taking off to landing, you can feel your heart expanding (MCC)

In fact, I have just decided to listen only to new music on my travels. This is completely antithetical to my normal pattern: I like time-honored, memorized music. But suddenly, accompanying my new experiences with new music seems like the best idea I’ve ever had: I’ve got this fabulous new wineskin, it deserves new wine. 

Thanks, Clare. See you in Dublin.

Flat Polycarp enjoyed the nonstop flight

Everything I need to know I learned from packing for a long trip

  1. charge your batteries. 
  2. make sure you have your chargers for when your batteries get uncharged. 
  3. it is possible both to be comfortable and to look cute.
  4. you don’t need half the stuff you think you do.
  5. layers. 
  6. you’re gonna need a quality shoe.
  7. a snack is a good idea. 
  8. you only need about a third of the stuff you think you need.
  9. don’t wad; roll. 
  10. layers. 
  11. something might get broken; hold it lightly.
  12. nobody cares if you wear the same thing two days in a row.
  13. take some more stuff out of the suitcase.
  14. it’s called baggage for a reason.