Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sea and Sky, Wind and Words

So last week was our first overnight trip. It ranged about southewest England. It got a little wet, but not nearly as wet as we'd been dreading. And it took me through some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in my life.

We started with the small fry: Glastonbury Abbey.

As you can see, there isn't too much left. Arthur and Gwenivere* are supposed to be buried here, but they got misplaced somewhere along the way. Which is odd. You'd think, in the ranking of "Things I should keep track of," that King Arthur's bones would be up there with "my keys" and not down around "that tube of Chapstick whose flavor I didn't really like anyway."

It's 8:00 p.m. Do you know where your semi-mythical British monarchs are?

Moving right along.

Tintagel Castle. Once the home of the kings of Cornwall, back when Cornwall had kings. It is now the most beautiful, wild, terrifying, intense, magnificent place. The remains of the castle are perched on the rocks at the edge of the sea. The waves crash dramatically, way down below. The gulls circle forever, laughing their contempt at the futile dreams of mortal men. And the wind, the wind, the inexorable remorseless wind, pounds against the pilgrims and goes howling through the stones. 

Uther Pendragon, magically disguised as Gorlois, came here one dark and stormy night to seduce Gorlois's wife Igraine. After being there, I believe it. It's the sort of place where that sort of thing would happen. 

Magic, Zina taught me, happens in liminal spaces; the points where worlds almost touch. Tintagel is one of those places. Sea wars with sky, air with earth. The dusky grass clinging to the castle's overgrown pavements is fierce in its humble tenacity. There are no gift shops here, no guided tours, no now. Just then. Or maybe just always

I will wander Tintagel in my dreams for a long time yet. Maybe Igraine does, too. And Amalthea. And all the deep-eyed women who stood in crumbling castles at the edge of the sea and watched their destinies come to devour them. 

There's a funny thing about poetry.

The funny thing is that the kinds of places that produce it also produce some inconvenient side effects, like muddy boots. 

And sweaty backs and cold noses and general exhaustion. 

We stayed the night at the Hotel Victoria in New Quay (pronounced Key, for reasons known only to the Cornish and to God). Obviously BYU's definition of proper, economic accommodations is a little different from mine. This place was a PALACE.

Here Jo freaks out at the size of our room, which boasts . . . I'm not even kidding . . . an antique dressing-table and a wardrobe.
I spent a long time doing the hot tub-sauna-swimming pool loop, cooking the weariness and the poetry out of my bones. Jo spent a long time at the badly-tuned grand piano in the lobby, doing an impromptu concert for the twenty or so people hanging out there. Tyler holed up in a pub to watch Olympic curling. Gabe discovered that the elevator is haunted. The person in the room next door snored like a sawmill. Everybody ate too much at all-you-can-eat-and-then-some breakfast. It was quite a night.

Bright and early, we packed ourselves back onto the bus and continued southwest until we could go no farther, and I stood at Land's End in my Land's End jacket.**

Land's End is extremely beautiful, but it was sunny outside and so I felt much less inclined to wax rhapsodic and break my heart over nothing at all than I had been at Tintagel. 

Our cheery and sunshiney day continued as we headed back up the coast to a real, proper beach. And shimmering across the water was my new favorite island: St. Michael's Mount.
This is also my new favorite picture. 
St. Michael's Mount, for those of you who may not know, is the home of James, Baron St. Levan, and his family. It's been open to the public since the 50s, and the baron's actual family tend to actually live elsewhere while the National Trust maintains and displays the castle. It's one of those "You absolutely can come home and kick us all out whenever you want, on the understanding that you won't actually do it" kinds of things.

The castle is a little inconvenient to get to, and this is coming from a girl who hiked up to Tintagel yesterday. St. Michael's mount is technically an island. Except at low tide, when it becomes a peninsula, thanks to a cobbled road that rises from the water like magic.***

We arrived just a bit too soon for the causeway to be terribly useful, so we reached the island by troat. Or by buck. It was a boat with tires, or a truck with propellors.**** It was cool. Since the water was already nearly gone, this trip was a nice truck ride that included a seaside cruise of about fifteen seconds. 

This site is, according to some, supposed to be a point of origin for the stories of Jack the Giant Killer. Was there a giant, or just a bossy local lord? No way to know. But that magical causeway could put to shame any three giant beanstalks you might mention. 

The castle itself is just the cutest, sunniest, snuggest, most charming and well-appointed little castle you could ever hope to see. The rooms are all small and well-furnished and comfortable. It's got the requisite study, library, dining hall, and private chapel. The views are astonishing in every direction. If it was once the home of an evil giant (or local lord or whatever), I must praise his most excellent taste. I would be perfectly happy to live there forever.

Goodbye, St. Michael's! Remember me!
Alas, we had other places to be, and in haste. We had a whirlwind tour of the castle, a quickish clamber back over the causeway (those of us with the proper education making Scarlet Pimpernel references with every step), and a mad scramble back into the bus. Time for our final stop: Exeter Cathedral. 

Not gonna lie: the cathedrals are starting to blur together at this point. Maybe they'd be easier to keep track of if I were more faithful in my blogging. And at least they've all got lots of history and interesting points of variation and are all just magnificent. I keep thinking how much more befuddled I'd be if I were doing a study abroad across Utah and Idaho and visiting a new stake center every week. I love my faith, but architecture is not our strongest point.

Anyway, the real high point of Exeter Cathedral isn't even in the cathedral, but in the library adjacent. It was brought in by a bishop, passed over for gifting to one of the big universities, ignored for centuries and there it still is, nearly as good as new: Codex Exoniensis, the Exeter Book.

What is this book, you ask? Just one of only four remaining books of Anglo-Saxon literature. Only the largest volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry in the world. Only the origin text of the Riddles in the Dark. THE Exeter Book. And I saw it.

Ryan remarked later, laughing at me a little, that no one had yet seen me so happy. He might be right.

*My brain doesn't want to spell today. Guenivere. Gwenyfar. Jenny.

**Shoutout for Land's End Clothing: I have been in rain, snow, wind, and hail on this trip. I have splashed through mud and been knocked off my feet by wind. But no part of me covered by my Land's End jacket has been cold or wet for one minute of that time. It's true what they say: there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment.

***It doesn't rise out of the water. The water recedes and exposes it. But you know what I mean. The sight's about as dramatic as the reveal of Hamunaptra in The Mummy.

**** 'Buck Troat' would be a great name for a fictional detective. 

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