What a difference a day makes! 24 little hours, or so the old song goes (and try clicking on this link to play this song as you’re reading this – as I am hoping you’ll find that that too makes a difference for capturing the mood I was in as I wrote this! 😉 ).
That song seems to especially relate to when something highly eventful happens – such as the Royal Wedding on April 29th that touched so many peoples’ lives here in the United Kingdom and around the world – and the feeling that everything is different, somehow, after all has been said and done.
The blog of my tour guide friend, Cindy Eve, captures the excitement of the hours before and on that one day so beautifully, for both local and international citizen alike, that I will not say any more about that great day. Except that is to say that, even in the quietest backstreets of London, it was hard to escape signs portending to some great special celebration beyond simply the usual gold-covered chocolate bunnies in the shop window, or the smell of hot cross buns wafting from cafes, as signs of the regular annual coming of the end to the Easter fast or, simply, an end to the long dark days of winter.
For me, that little “change in 24 hours” principle equally applies to travel as much as special events. Especially to when I’ve travelled, as I have just done in the past week, to somewhere completely new in the space of a day. I almost feel like I am a different person afterwards
I think it comes as a result of how different that new place is to anywhere else that I’ve been or seen, as well as the excitement of discovering why it is so different.
Or simply just enjoying the difference, if it is a relaxing holiday.
It’s like one’s whole being is somehow lifted, as much as rested, purely by the change of scene.
Perhaps that’s how and why the word “holiday” has come to be derived from “holy day”?
Words can almost not describe how much difference that change in scene can make to the psyche – read on to see what I mean….
The Grey Escape!
Our recent drive to get away from it all was not just from the spires and chimney stacks seen from my office window however, but also from anticipating the madness that would prevail in London on the following Friday with “our Wills’ and Kate’s wedding” as some locals affectionately refer to it (and belying the regal status that this couple have here in British society that separates them from the average and typical commoner, that Kate and the Middletons are clearly not).
So my wife and I had decided that we would take a road likely to be less travelled that week – and so headed across to Wales, or Pembrokeshire to be precise, on the Sunday before “the big day”.
This went against my original musing back in March about fully and finally taking the road to Canterbury this Easter, visiting the original stops along the way that Chaucer and his companions would most likely have been to and seen.
Ironically, with the Royal Wedding that week, the Canterbury road was likely to have been one of the ones most travelled and visited – especially with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding over events. It would have been madness to head there, from all accounts, with the crowds that would have been lining or queuing up down those roads more than any other.
So the best alternative, if we were to get any holy days at all, was to head further down and beyond that road that I first travelled back in 1991, and based on what I know now about the concept as much as whereabouts of “Camelot“.
So, then on to (perhaps find) Camelot we go
Based on a great book by Philip Gooden that I found in Notting Hill’s famous travel bookshop, entitled “The Story of English”, traces not only what has led “the people” here in England to their first stirrings of nationhood, but perhaps to how their greatest achievement – that of the English language itself – has been formed from being a polyglot of words collected from the various Celtic, Roman (Latin), Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman settlers and invaders.
According to Philip Gooden’s book, it is not just a result of some of the greatest and savviest kings and queens of England that have made English – and the English – what they are today, but the advisors to them and their poets laureate (such as Chaucer) and their popular playwrights (such as Marlowe and Shakespeare) – of course! 😉
This reading up has made me realise how superficial my discoveries about knights of the Round Table, Camelot and King Arthur were back in 1991. They had only taken me as far as others wandering the roads to Glastonbury, Stonehenge and Tintagel – which are fairly typical tourist traps, before then and now, and which I have since found to be based on a mix of legends written in French by a mix of early medieval writers of the early twelfth to fourteenth century.
Many of these stories are without any firm basis of truth and are born from developing or preserving a romantic medieval ideal of chivalry and good manners that the Normans were keen to propagate more widely, but then these are still things which we can all aspire to as much as the nobility themselves – yet, to understand them, required knowledge of the French that was being instilled as a result of the Norman invasion. I am happy to say that some of this still managed to prevail in what are now termed “English manners” today, to some extent or other – and so perhaps, truth or no, ’twas not a bad thing? 🙂
Indeed, it was these stories, and not so much the cold hard facts and history that lay beneath them, that captured my imagination some thirty years or more ago growing up in New Zealand.
So, to tell a more modern Knight’s Tale….
Back then, in the eighties, New Zealand was caught up between its passion for playing rugby against South Africa and principles for not supporting South Africa’s apartheid policy.
As a result of the politics, I was made to feel that there was little heritage that I could safely call my own, as the focus was on looking forward to a country with its own identity and culture – but (sadly) without necessarily being open to discussion and acceptance of where all aspects of that culture and its identity have been derived from.
So I think that these stories somehow provided me with something to latch on to that went beyond all the bad or sad news about unfair treatment to others, and some war somewhere else in the world, or otherwise about knowledge needed for work rather than living a good life, to a more higher and noble set of universal principles.
They were seemingly directing me towards owning a set of values that were right, fair and free for all to follow – and were realistic in indicating how even the most righteous could fail or fall, or the lowliest or humblest could still find a place at the King’s or Captain’s Table, as long as they all strived valiantly and did what they did for the good of all.
It was these things that provided me with some form of an ideal to live up to, despite the truth of the tales not necessarily being with any standing like I discovered. Better still, these tales were connected with the culture that I originated from (though how much so is anyone’s guess, as it’s hard to trace geneaology back that far) – yet they could be equally understood and valued by anyone from anywhere.
However, perhaps it has been seeing the division and then reuniting of my own native country and its culture into an identity of its own – over such a short period of time (and which is especially relevant now with the Rugby World Cup on there) – that has led me to being interested in how these stories came into being.
Indeed, I’ve since discovered that the stories were seemingly not written up at all by the people from who they presumably originated. Rather, it was the all-conquering Anglo-Saxon invaders – as well as scholarly monks of the Dark Ages – who did that.
The Anglo-Saxons capturing these stories, about the very people that they had finally vanquished, made me realise there was something of value that could equally resonate today in helping others recognise what’s good in another culture, as much as recognise what is good in one’s own.
So this is what led me to take some days off to see if I could find the roads less travelled there, from whence the well of “Camelot” perhaps first sprang – and rather than from where it ended up, physically, in capturing the hearts and minds of all British people of the modern day and not just those who choose to call themselves “English”.
So where did the legend rather than the place of Camelot come from? This is where that end of the tale begins now
I will instead return in later blogs to how I now see Canterbury coming into what we now associate with both kinship and kingship today.
And so on to Camelot
It was thanks to their royal highnesses that we had an extra long weekend following Easter that allowed me to take this other road so easily, as well as to taking it instead of the one to Canterbury.
By leaving on a Sunday, rather than early Friday evening or very early Saturday morning as you would typically do here on any other weeks’ holiday following a bank holiday break, there were little of the usual traffic jams that are otherwise so typical.
So the roads were quiet, and the weather sunny and bright, making it almost a pleasure to drive the long stretch of motorway from practically one side of the island to the other.
The beauty of the trip is that we didn’t have to go far to be transported into a different world that seems so near, and yet so far, from where we live here in West London.
It is the moment you cross over the massive bridge across the Severn River, that essentially separates Bristol, the largest town in the West Country of England, from a curious mix of Newport and Cardiff, that you are suddenly reminded by signs in two languages that this is a different place to England.
The first Welsh word you learn is “Croeso“, meaning “Welcome” – but beware that how that is pronounced, as with many Welsh words, is not necessarily the same as how it looks!
It was to a little self-catering cottage, that is 5.5 hours’ drive from us down the M4 and then a mix of A and B roads, that we headed. More correctly, it is 3 hours drive in England and slightly less than that again on the Welsh side of the border/bridge – if we are to be medieval about it. The actual location is hard to say, except that it is halfway between a little town called Letterston and a small village called Little Newcastle – and satellite navigation ain’t gonna get you there!
Once there though, it was the amazing contrast to where we had come from and live in London that struck us.
Firstly it was the glorious sunshine and the flowers where we stayed – especially just outside the front of our little cottage in the mornings and early evenings.
Then it was with the only sounds being those of bumble bees in the day or the chorus of birds to wake us in the morning or tweet us to sleep in the evening.
In fact, it is not surprising that people go to bed early here, and get up equally early in the morning, as the daytime is what it is all about here.
It was amazing to think that it is only one day’s ride from London that one can be amongst such peace and tranquillity – and so far from the gladding crowd that was gathering to celebrate at t’other end of the highway.
So it is from here that I will blog a little, over the next week, about who and what I found there in South West Wales – sharing the snippet of a tale or two as I go – on what may well be the source of the real Camelot…