Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.

Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.

Maeshowe

And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019