27 August 2015

A Interview on 'Dreaming' via Cleve Sylcox

It's been a while since I gave an interview, and this week Cleve Sylcox has been good enough to offer me a couple of spots on his Dreaming site, an interview and a book promo

Cleve runs a very good Facebook Page Indie Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Promotion and is a formidable author of poetry as well as SF, with the sort out output that makes me want to scuttle under a stone. Perhaps I should just be inspired.

Networking is one of the aspects of a writer's work, and it can pay all sorts of dividends. No sooner had a link to Cleve's interview gone up on his Facebook page, than I had a nudge from The Darker Side of Fiction about a book signing event to be held in Peterborough, UK, in October. 

And here am I, hobbling about on sticks one week out of major surgery. You couldn't make it up, could you? No, you couldn't. Read it properly, Linda. It's Peterborough 2017!!

26 August 2015

Research: The Faroe Islands - Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

Northwest of Scotland, halfway to Iceland, lie the Faroe Islands, the most northerly destination of our 'Northern Isles' trip. Whereas the landscape of the Orkney Isles undulates along the horizon, the Faroes sweep up from the Atlantic Ocean as if a verdant green beast. Natural harbours are at a premium.

Parliament Point - Tinganes - where the Norse held their first 'Thing'.
Eighteen islands make up the archipelago, with under half the country's population of 48,000 living in and around the bay of its capital, Tórshavn. The extensive modern harbour was busy with shipping when we berthed, not only cargo ships and fast inter-island ferries, but with six- and eight-oar rowing boats practising for the country's gala day. Rowing is the national sport, and the clinker-built boats are direct descendants of the Viking ships that brought the islands' influx of Norse colonists from the 9th century onwards.

Extensive, and still occupied, 'Old Tórshavn'
Protruding into the harbour is the Tinganes peninsular, the site of the Norse 'Thing' (various spellings) and it is still known as Parliament Point. It continued to be the centre for government and trade, and the current red-painted buildings with sod-roofs for insulation date from the 16th and 17th centuries. A suprising number of modern buildings use the same roofing material. I found the area very reminiscent of the Bryggen in Bergen, Norway.

It was the Norse connection I was particularly interested in. As can Icelanders, the Faroese can read medieval documents written in Old Norse, and each other's written language, though pronunciation has changed so much over the centuries that verbal communication can be more problematic. 

Turf covering the stone foundation walls of a Viking age house & byre


We took in an excursion to Kvivik where, in 1942, an excavation had revealed the foundations of a Norse dwelling 21 metres (69ft) in length with a 7 metre hearth, and its 12 stall byre.

I could understand why the place had been chosen by its Norse settlers. Faroe is made of basalt lava with no fresh water springs, and down from the heights a wide stream still runs beside the site. The shallow sandy beach just over the modern wall is ideal for pulling up ships, and thick pasture rises up the mountain behind the village in a gentle crescent, ideal for grazing stock animals and small-scale farming. Artefacts unearthed included loom weights and spindle whorls, fishing weights, and children's toys of horses and boats.

Our local guide, Regina, explained that the modern Faroese are renown for having 2.5 children, 3 sheep, 1 border collie dog, and a boat. Perhaps only the technology has changed.

Other posts in this series:
Orkney 1: Vast Skies & Standing Stones
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

19 August 2015

Research: Orkney 2 - Neolithic Skara Brae

After leaving the Neolithic megaliths of the Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar - see HERE -  we drove a few miles up the road to face the Atlantic Ocean at Bay of Skaill, a wide expanse of silver sand between two headlands. Partway along, now protected from the eroding ocean and its storms by a retention wall, is the best preserved Stone Age village in northern Europe, Skara Brae.

Neolithic World Heritage site Skara Brae, Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Ten distinct buildings survive. Aerial photographs show a scree of debris reaching into the sea, so the village could have been larger. The buildings, constructed in three distinct phases over the 5-600 years of occupation, are of a similar layout and most a decent family size. Everything visible is constructed from stone, either collected cobbles or the local sandstone split to size, much as were the megaliths mentioned above.

A covered and paved passageway linked the partially subterranean buildings, and each has a doorway that could be barred from inside. Across the fire-pit/hearth stands a three-shelved 'dresser'. Around it are a pair of grinding stones, 'boxes' capable of storing live seafood in water, and a container for (probably) fresh water. Two stone-faced bedding units face each other. Most buildings also have an alcove, or a small ante-chamber built into one wall. 

Skara Brae was uncovered from the sand dunes in 1850 after a particularly fierce storm and over succeeding years was gradually dug out. At the time it was believed to be an Iron Age Pictish settlement circa 500BC, a view that remained well into the 20th century, despite the furnishings material and no sign of any iron-working. After all, regardless of the evidence of the megaliths not far away, Neolithic peoples couldn't possibly be this refined, could they?

Part of still-covered passageway connecting the houses
It wasn't until the early 1970s that modern archaeology and radiocarbon dating finally blew this tenacious theory into the ocean. Not only is Skara Brae 4,500-5,000 years old, that small ante-chamber in most of the buildings had a water-fed drain in its floor and is considered to be the earliest inside flushing toilet.

Artefacts discovered on site include jewellery and clothing pins, and an assortment of bone and stone items not easily recognised. Also found have been a lot of antler from Scandinavia, jet from the North Yorkshire coast of England, and amber from the Baltic region, as well as pottery with designs seen at the Newgrange Neolithic site in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. As our guide said: Think of the logistics, both in communication and transport - Wow!


Other posts in this Research series:
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings    

12 August 2015

Research: Orkney - Vast Skies & Standing Stones

Turning towards Kirkwall (courtesy Michael Clarke)
There's nothing quite like sighting skerries and ever-larger islands, and knowing that the wide bay of the capital, Kirkwall, will soon be opening before our ship's bows.

The 70-odd islands making up the Orkney archipelago off the north-east tip of Scotland are renowned for their green and gently rolling landscapes, lack of trees, and wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. So how did it become the centre of the western north-hemisphere during what is commonly referred to as the New Stone Age?

For its size, Orkney carries more prehistorical monuments than anywhere else in both Britain and Europe, and it's not just the well-known clusters: the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Mor Stein, Quoyness Cairn, Maeshowe; single monoliths stand sentinel on low rises almost on every side. It made me wonder what lies beneath the foundations of medieval Norse Kirkwall.

We were on a half-day excursion on Mainland so our choices were decided, but our garrulous and informative guide - joy! an archaeologist - kept up a stream of enlightening facts and up-to-date conjecture to give context to what we were seeing.

Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness, located at the junction of lochs Harray and Stenness, was our first stop. It is considered to be the oldest henge site in the British Isles, pre-dating Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The stones come from different parts of the islands and are believed to have been brought to the site by separate social groups who built a fire-pit in its centre and feasted together. 

A single shorter stone used to stand to one side. Known locally as Odin's Stone, it was remarkable in having a natural hole through which lovers held hands to swear their devotion, until in 1814 the landowner, fed up of trespassers, destroyed it. Even his own father was appalled. Thankfully, over the centuries when the Picts, the Scots, and the Norse claimed the land as their own, such desecration has been rare, or limited to graffiti. See HERE for the runic inscriptions left inside the Maeshowe chambered cairn by sheltering Viking Norse.

Map from the information board at the Stones of Stenness

Half a skip away lies the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, and what has developed into the most fascinating archaeological dig in the entire UK. On the Ness of Brodgar a supposed simple Neolithic settlement has turned into what is believed to be a temple complex where, among others, the lower walls of a single building 82ft x 65ft (25 x 20metres) have been uncovered. Follow this LINK for spectacular images and a continuing 'Dig Diary'. A timeline for the building of all these monuments can be found HERE.

A very small part of the Ring of Brodgar
Half a skip from those - yes, these sites are all within easy walking distance - is the Ring of Brodgar which I had particularly wanted to see. 27 slim standstone megaliths remain, reaching 7-15 feet into a bright sky with hardly a breath of wind to ruffle the heather growing across its 340ft diameter centre. 

I've seen images of the Ring on television and in magazines, and each time I gained the impression of a flat landscape, much as my own photograph displays. In fact, the site stretches up and across the side of  hill, the stones enclosed by, even now, a deep ditch.

We couldn't explore the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, or the excavation continuing on the Ness of Brodgar. Our visit had been designed to be a taster, and it certainly whet our appetites to return. 

Besides, we were boarding our coach to what will be my next post, another World Heritage site: Skara Brae. 

Other posts in this Northern Isles series:
Orkney 2: Stone Age & Sea Age - Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

5 August 2015

Research: England - Gainsborough Old Hall

The UK is known for its elegant country houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many now belong to the nation with their upkeep entrusted to English Heritage or The National Trust. Often these houses were built around earlier properties which were all but obliterated on amalgamation, or the earlier properties were cleared before rebuilding began. Therefore, finding a true mediaeval house - as opposed to a stone-built castle - is often a matter of visiting sites such as the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum where rescued medieval houses, or at least their main timbers, are rebuilt and the dwelling refurbished. 

This makes Lincolnshire's Gainsborough Old Hall, built in the mid 15th century on the banks of the River Trent for ease of transport, one of the very few timber-framed buildings whose original hall stands more or less as it was constructed.

Gainsborough Old Hall, with its east & west ranges.

The great hall, looking towards the 'upper end'.
The hall itself retains its beautiful beamed roof, its height designed so that smoke from the central fire - sneaking into shot at the base of the photograph - would be lifted high enough from the household to not cause discomfort.

In particular notice the narrowness of the hall, echoed in the Tudor brick-faced range in the photograph above.

The photo of the great hall shows the 'upper end' where the lord, his family and closest retainers would have congregated. To the right is the family's buffet, on which the lord's wealth in silver or gold plate would have been displayed, complemented by the richly woven or embroidered wall hangings and canopy.

In 1483 King Richard III broke his journey from York to London at the hall. It seems that the lord, Thomas Burgh, soon afterwards neatly switched allegiance to the King's enemy, Henry Tudor, and so retained his hall and lands when the crown changed hands.

One of two kitchen fireplaces, each of a size to take a full ox.

Surprising though it might seem to readers, writers are more interested in how a premises worked on a daily basis, rather than the great and the good who resided there.

The kitchen would have been built close after, or at the same time as the hall, and has a similar roof height and span. Whereas the hall was never upgraded with a fireplace, the kitchen has two facing each other across the width of the building, one for roasting and the other for boiling, with working trestle-boards arranged between.
The servery from the kitchen side. Servers did not enter the kitchen.

This image shows the servery where prepared food would be left on a counter the width of the wall to be collected by servers - usually high-born young men residing in the lord's household to finish their education: martial, written,  languages and the social skills necessary for their position in society.

Not shown are small ante rooms each containing dry goods such as flour, a meat larder, and the Clerk to the Kitchen's office where highly-prized and very expensive spices and sugar was stored under lock & key.

Were strewn rushes actually strewn rush matting?
One concern for writers is the use of "strewn rushes" to create both warmth underfoot in winter and to soak up spills. As any re-enactor will complain, it is easy to catch a foot in lengths of strewn rushes and so trip, and as one woman remarked, to walk across a hall strewn with loose rushes is to arrive with a heavy ball of the things caught within the hem of a long dress. 

Modern thinking, gleaned from illustrations of the period, is that "rushes" might have been a mediaeval shortform for "rush matting". The curators of Gainsborough Old Hall go with this concept, and one area close to the kitchen has been laid with lengths of flattened and braided rushes sewn loosely together. It makes sense to me.

In this post I've concentrated on the oldest, single storey, buildings, but soon after they were completed it is believed that the two-storey east and west ranges were added, with Tudor brick fireplaces and chimneys to serve the rooms very soon after that. Towers were added - only one survives but gives great views of the Lincolnshire landscape from its roof - and even more of the great and the good deemed the house a worthy place to rest their heads, including in 1541 King Henry VIII who met with his Privy Council there.

English Heritage has done a great job of making the building and its history accessible, including audio recordings of actors enacting roles in various rooms. It's well worth a visit. And, of course, has a great teashop.