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Not just prehistoric archaeology

Although the focus of the trip was clearly on the prehistoric, and specifically neolithic, remains on both Shetland and Orkney, our tour leader was keen that the group should also get an understanding of more recent history. In particular, the sheltered anchorage at Scapa Flow, surrounded on all sides by the Orkney archipelago, was a major base for the British Fleet in both World Wars. In fact, my mother tells me that her father was based there for part of WWII, and when she was a baby my grandmother took her to stay in boarding houses around Scapa Flow for several months so the family could be close together. I never knew that!

As part of the tour we went to the Italian Chapel, built by a group of Italian prisoners of war who were interned on an island adjacent to Scapa Flow, and put to work building some of the anti-submarine defences called “Churchill Barriers”. These are made from blocks of concrete sunk to form barriers between the islands, which are now used as causeways between them.

Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel is made from two Nissan Huts, and was decorated by some very talented painters amongst the prisoners, who scrounged / reused / re-purposed objects from the POW camp. The walls are painted in very clever tromp l’oeil to simulate 3D stonework and carving, the font is made from a lorry suspension spring covered in concrete, and the candlesticks on the alter are made from tin cans. Very impressive!

Orkney Highlights

We caught the ferry from Shetland in the late afternoon of Day Three, had dinner on board, and disembarked in Orkney at around 11pm, getting to our hotel just before midnight. But we were all up bright and early the next day for the first of two days exploring the highlights of the Orkney Islands. For me, the main reason for the trip was to visit Skara Brae, part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site.

Skara Brae – a Neolithic house

Skara Brae is a village of inter-connected houses, dating from the neolithic age, and was inhabited between approx 3000-2500BC making it older than the pyramids. Because there is so little wood on the islands, the inhabitants had to build in stone, leading to the stunning preservation you can see above. In the centre of the picture is a rectangular hearth. Above is a stone-built “dresser” with a further storage cubby-hole to the right. On the left and far-right are stone-built box-beds. In the far top-left of the picture you can just about see the sea. The site is right on the coast, and was preserved through being buried in sand dunes until it was exposed by a particularly bad winter storm in 1850.

In comparison to Jarlshof on Shetland, visitors are not allowed to walk through the original houses, but have to keep to the paths and platforms above the houses, looking down into them. So, in order to give an idea of what it would have been like, a full-scale reconstruction of House 7 has been built next to the Visitor Centre (where, incidentally, they do a rather tasty Ploughman’s lunch, with Orkney cheese).

Replica neolithic house and Visitor Centre at Skara Brae

The replica is almost but not quite an exact reconstruction of the original. In order to comply with modern Health and Safety standards, let alone the larger bulk of some of the visiting tourists, the entrance is much higher and wider than the original neolithic building. Otherwise I suspect that some of the more obese modern visitors might get stuck!

Shetland Highlights

Mousa broch

After the first overnight crossing, we arrived in Kirkwall, Shetland Islands at 07:00am, had breakfast on the ferry, then disembarked to start a two-day tour of the archaeological highlights of the islands. Mousa Broch is an iron age round-tower, from around 100BC, still surviving to nearly its full original height.  You can see from the people at the bottom just how tall it is. It consists of two concentric dry-stone walls with a staircase between them, so you can actually still climb up to the top. It’s open to the elements now, but originally would have been roofed over. We saw several other brochs on the islands, but all the others had been robbed for their stone, and were much lower in height. This one was on a very small uninhabited island, so that may explain why it has survived in such good condition.

Jarlshof prehistoric village

Another highlight was Jarlshof Prehistoric village. I’d never even heard of it before, but it was fascinating. A community had clearly lived there from ~2500BC through to medieval times. Every few generations, the style of building changed so the people abandoned their previous house and built a new one right next door. So there is a spiral of houses, starting from late neolithic, and moving through bronze age, iron age, Pictish, Viking and medieval settlements. The house in the picture above is neolithic – you can see the low entrance with a lintel in the bottom left, and there are saddle querns for grinding grain in the centre of the picture and the lower right. I loved wondering around the village, stooping through the low entrances (I had to crawl to get into one house!), and imagining what the houses would have looked like originally. They were semi-subterranean, and would probably have been roofed with turf, so from a distance would have looked a bit like a hobbit village from Lord of the Rings.

An archaeology tour by ferry of Shetland and Orkney

I had a big birthday last week and was determined to spend it somewhere other than at work. Last year, I was running an equipment trial up at Durham University on the day of my birthday, and ended up buying a small iced cake from a bakery and taking that into the lab to share with the team. This year, I wanted to do something a bit different. I certainly managed that!

I’ve wanted for several years to see the stunning prehistoric remains on Shetland and Orkney. We consider the islands to be somewhat remote and isolated these days, being off the far north-east coast of Scotland and therefore clearly in the back of beyond. But in prehistoric times, a major way of getting around was by boat, and the islands had strong trading links to Norway, Denmark and even Cornwall. However, the subsequent relative isolation, together with the fact that lack of trees on the islands meant that they had to build in stone, means that much early archaeology is stunningly preserved.

There are a number of companies offering guided tours of Shetland and Orkney, led by an archaeologist. But my first couple of choices were non-starters – they either went at the wrong time of the year (and I particularly wanted to be away for the week of my birthday), or they were fully-booked for the desired dates. I ended up going with a company I’d never heard of before, who had availability on the required date, and were significantly cheaper than my first choice. The tour was led by an archaeologist, and went to all the key sights that I wanted to see, so that was all fine. They were clearly cutting costs on transport and accommodation. A brief examination of the itinerary showed where savings were being made. Rather than flying between the islands and the mainland, they made use of the overnight Northlink ferry service between Aberdeen and the Shetland and Orkney islands. So two nights were spent on board a humongous car-ferry, in rather poky but adequately comfortable cabins. I was rather concerned about that, but fortunately the crossings in both directions were very smooth and I managed to get at least some sleep. Fortunately the company didn’t try to get the costs even lower by foregoing cabins altogether – the alternative was to doze fitfully on recliner chairs in the main passenger lounge, as lots of locals seemed to be doing!

Despite the down-market travel options, the holiday was actually pretty good. The archaeologist knew his stuff and was a good communicator. It turned out that he was a late replacement for the advertised chap, who was stuck on an excavation on Iona and couldn’t get away in time to join the group! Our man was contacted on the Thursday, and asked to lead the tour on the following Monday, even though he’d never worked for the holiday company before and certainly hadn’t led a tour round the sites before! I got the strong impression that he’d spent the weekend frantically reading up on his old excavation notes from when he was himself digging them…. But it all worked out fine.

A brief description of the best sites and some photos will follow, once I’ve caught up with the laundry and had a chance to look at the pictures myself.

More train madness

I’ve been doing more tours of university physics departments, up and down the country. Last week it was UCL and Birmingham; this week saw two separate visits to Loughborough, as an industry guest presenter at a summer school on systems engineering for physicists. I could have done without making two separate trips there, but diary clashes meant I couldn’t accomplish everything in one visit. I was most impressed with the conference centre facilities at Loughborough University – essentially a 4* hotel with fitness centre, decent restaurant and lots of meeting rooms, all right in the middle of the campus. Though at lunchtime on Tuesday we did have to share the serving queue with the English Men’s Hockey team. They were quite easy to tell apart from the group of physicists I was with! 

The trips to UCL and Birmingham were quite simple to do by train, and in fact there’s a direct train from Malvern to Birmingham University which is much easier than driving and then trying to find somewhere to park on the very congested campus. I met several ex-colleagues on the train who now work part-time at the university, so it was good to catch up with them. Trips to London are always a bit of a gamble, but on this occasion the trains ran on time, and the helpful woman at the ticket office even booked me a seat on the peak-time train home – it cost nothing extra, and was very useful as that train is always crowded.

Loughborough however is much harder to get to by public transport. The most direct route by train from Malvern requires changes at Birmingham New Street (my least favourite station – the subterranean platforms are squalid and dingy) and Leicester.  A return ticket costs over £66 pounds, but the same very helpful woman in the Great Malvern ticket office managed to save me £30 on exactly the same journey by selling me day returns from Malvern to Birmingham, Birmingham to Leicester, and Leicester to Loughborough. I’ve heard of “ticket-splitting” before, and in fact made use of it on my recent trip to St Austell. But I find it very odd that you can save so much money by being creative in how you specify your journey. It’s a crazy way to run a railway, but fortunately the staff at Malvern station take it as a matter of pride to get the best possible deal for their customers.

A Judgement in Stone 

Malvern Theatres has put on a few plays over the years from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. They seem to have run out of Agatha Christies plays to produce, however (which surprises me somewhat as she wrote dozens of books), and have now metamorphosed into the Classic Thriller Theatre Company. Their first production in this reincarnation is A Judgement in Stone, based on the psychological thriller by Ruth Rendell. I had a free afternoon on Saturday so took myself along to the matinee on yet another standby ticket. I’ve not read the book, so I can’t comment on how faithful the adaptation was. But as a play, I thought it worked pretty well.

It was set in the late 1970s, in the wood-panelled sitting room of a wealthy couple and their family. They have recently employed a socially awkward but hard-working housekeeper, who turns out to have a shameful secret she is desperate to keep hidden. The action keeps switching between the aftermath of the family’s grisly murder, with two detectives trying to piece together what went on, and flashbacks showing us the events unfolding and building inexorably towards murder. 

The production was a bit pedestrian, but good of its type. The theatre was pretty much full, with at least three coach parties from across the West Midlands. I worked out the who-dunnit and why-did-they-do-it about half an hour before the detectives did, despite a number of red herrings which Agatha Christie herself would have been proud of.

There was one unintentionally funny bit in the middle of the second act. The two detectives were discussing some clue or other, when suddenly there was a very large BANG from the loudspeaker to one side of the stage. Everyone in the audience jumped – as did the actors who were clearly not expecting it! They then got the giggles and tried manfully to keep going despite corpsing, as the audience also dissolved into relieved laughter. I think the theatre will have had a bit of a repair job to do before the evening performance!

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

Mullion is far too far away for me to consider driving myself there. It’s also rather difficult to get to by public transport. From Mullion, I caught a bus via Helston to Redruth (a journey of well over an hour, though the scenery was lovely and you get a good view over the hedges due to sitting higher than in a car). Then it was several hours on a train to Exeter. It’s at least another three hours from Exeter back home to Malvern via Bristol and Cheltenham, so I decided to break my journey for the night.

I’ve not been to Exeter for over thirty years, so it was interesting to see it again. It was heavily bombed during WWII, and has been rather unsympathetically rebuilt. By which I mean there are some real architectural monstrosities mixed in with the older buildings. But the Cathedral survived pretty much unscathed, and there are still substantial parts of the medieval walls on the original Roman foundations. I enjoyed wandering through the Cathedral Close on my way to dinner.

Polurrian Bay

On Bank Holiday Monday, the plan was that Cousin David and his brother Ben would meet his cousins and some of Stephanie’s friends at the Polurrian Bay Hotel, and then scatter her ashes on the beach below. The hotel is in a beautiful clifftop spot, just outside the village of Mullion which is about 20 miles from Penzance, down on the Lizard peninsular.

Twelve of us met there for afternoon tea, and then we all walked down the cliff path to Polurrian Bay, which apparently was a favourite place for Stephanie. Her parents had owned a house on top of the cliffs above the bay, and I could see why the whole family loved it there so much. I remember Christopher talking about holidaying there as a child, and I think I’ve even seen some photos of him and his sister there.

Polurrian Bay

The weather just about stayed dry for us, though it was overcast and quite windy. It must be an absolutely gorgeous spot on a fine day.

St Michael’s Mount

I had a free day in Penzance last Sunday, before meeting Christopher’s family on the Bank Holiday Monday. I hadn’t realised quite how close St Michael’s Mount is to Penzance – a walk along the coast of only about three miles. The first mile or so is a bit industrial, as the coastal path is directly between the sea wall and the railway line. But once the railway heads inland, it’s a pleasant stroll along sand dunes (and a less salubrious walk through some car parks) to the small village of Marazion. The locals there seem to have perfected the art of separating grockles from their money, and it’s little more than a very pretty tourist trap. I had a tasty but over-priced sandwich there for lunch, before heading over to St Michael’s Mount. I’d checked the tide times beforehand, and was able to walk over the causeway to the island, which was quite fun.

St Michael’s Mount from Marazion beach

The island is run by the National Trust, who sting you for a substantial entrance fee. However, the gardens and the castle perched on the top of the rock are well worth a visit. I think my favourite bit was a model of the island, made by a butler to the family in the early 20th Century, entirely constructed out of champagne corks!

The pathway up to the castle is very rough – lots of uneven granite steps, and it must get very slippery when it rains. There is an underground tramway leading from the harbour up to the castle which is still functional, and used to haul supplies up to the top of the rock. But Health and Safety considerations mean that the NT won’t allow it to be used for passengers. My knees were killing me by the time I got back down to sea level, and I really didn’t relish the three mile walk back to Penzance!

Back down to Cornwall

Yes, I know that I’ve only recently been on holiday to Cornwall, but after I’d booked the trip to St Austell over Easter, it became clear that I’d be going back just a few weeks later. This wasn’t such a happy occasion – it was for a family funeral. Cousin Stephanie was Christopher’s mother’s cousin, but due to the fact that his mother died before we got married, Stephanie was pretty much a surrogate mother-in-law to me. Christopher was absolutely determined that she should attend our wedding, but she lived in the USA at the time. So we took the show on the road, and actually got married from her house in upstate New York.

Several years later, Stephanie retired back to the UK, and stayed with us for a bit while she house-hunted for somewhere to buy down in Cornwall. Her parents had owned a house there for many years, which all the extended family including Christopher and his sister used to go to on holiday. Christopher used to reminisce about piling into the family’s clapped-out car (a mini I think) and driving all the way from Kent to near Penzance, before the motorways were built.

Even after Christopher died, Stephanie always kept in contact. Over the last few years, she got increasingly ill with Parkinson’s Disease. She and her two sons (who I reckon would be Christopher’s second cousins) came to stay here about two years ago, and it was apparent then that she was seriously ill. So it wasn’t at all surprising when I got a phone call at work saying that she’d died. There was a very small private cremation service, but the sons wanted to gather her family and closest friends together to scatter the ashes. That was easier said than done, as the cousins are scattered all around the globe – USA, UK, Australia and Singapore – and I don’t think they’ve ever all been in the same place at the same time before! But it was decided that they would all meet up on May Bank Holiday in Mullion on the Lizard peninsula, which is where the family home had been. I was invited, and felt that I most definitely owed it both to Stephanie and to Christopher to attend. 

I made a long weekend of it, with short stays in Penzance on the way down, Mullion itself, and then Exeter on the way home. The countryside was gorgeous,  and I can quite see why the entire family had such good memories of their holidays there. Photos will follow when I’ve had time to look at them myself. For now, I’ve got tons of laundry to do before I go back to work tomorrow!