For the second half of my Europe work trip I’ve been visiting a few astronomy friends in Copenhagen, a city both Peter and I know and love from our adventures two years ago. Unfortunately Peter wasn’t able to join me this time; something about work and a thesis and perhaps a couple mutterings about beer brewing. Oh well, I’ve been having plenty of fun without him, starting with an entertaining evening at the street parties organized by Distortion. It reminded me a bit of Halloween in Isla Vista, but only some people were wearing costumes and the average age was a bit higher (minus the toddlers safely rocking out from their balconies). I defer you to google for a realistic image of the chaos. For a change of pace, my friend Andreas, his girlfriend Mia, and I decided to hit the Swedish countryside for a long weekend of staring at nature. You see, I chose the absolutely best two weeks to visit Copenhagen, with one holiday each week to goof off and recuperate from what is starting to feel like a very long stream of never-ending travel (especially after my trip to the East coast three weeks before leaving for Europe). Thankfully, Sweden did not disappoint. We stayed in Mia’s parents’ cabin in the Swedish woods across the road from a lake. The cabin had canoes, fishing gear, and even internet. While we failed to catch any fish, we did enjoy exploring a couple of islands, and being the pessimists we are, came equipped with various meats to roast on the grill instead. On the second day, we went on an outing to an establishment in the middle of the Swedish woods where we sat outside sampling various teas (they had an impressive selection and I was grateful to Upton’s for at least a cursory knowledge of tea lingo) and some Swedish pastry that involved balls of cooked dough served with tasty jam. On our way there, we saw two wild boar and a handful of cute baby boar from the road, apparently a very rare sight. Between that and a bee attack in the car, it was an entertaining day. To top it all off, we got to take the ferry to and from Sweden through Helsingor, which I previously visited to see Hamlet’s castle. This time we saw the castle from the ocean view, surrounded by sail boats (probably Danes just celebrating a perfectly clear day in June, the first in more than a week) and sparkly water. Allow me to demonstrate: Perhaps I should clarify that part of my interest in visiting Sweden was due to my heritage of being a quarter Swedish, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but apparently it’s enough to require Swedish themed Christmas parties growing up and a strong attraction to almond-flavored pastries (although not to pickled herring). My mother was understandably jealous when I told her I was visiting Sweden without her, but I’m happy to report that Sweden is pretty much just like Maine (where my parents plan to retire), so they shouldn’t feel too left out. For example, both have way too many large rocks and a mostly-rocky coastline, tons of forest (specifically pine trees), and both are covered in lupins.
Today I set a goal of completing the Crail to St Andrews portion of the Fife Coastal Path. The reasoning was twofold: the coastal path was reportedly stunning, and I had little more to see around St Andrews, and exercise is always welcome–but more exciting to me was following up on some hints laid out in the mysterious journal I found yesterday. I’m sad to report that I did not get any pictures of it, however; I stayed up far too late last night, enthralled by it, and when I woke up this morning I had to rush to catch the bus to Crail. (The bus runs hourly, and as portions of the walk are inaccessible at high tide and high tide is due at about 2pm today, I was on a tight schedule.) Perhaps, though, this is for the best.
The walk is supposed to take about six to eight hours, and as I had a dinner to attend, I wanted to waste no time. Crail is a picturesque fishing village–I would call it a quaint New England village, except it’s not in New England, of course. Heading north from Crail, the path is relatively wide and alternates between dirt and gravel, and is well-maintained in any case. The weather was cold and blustery (“a bit blowy” a British lady I passed called it), but it didn’t bother me. The wind had whipped up the waves, and despite the seeming violence of the water crashing on rocks, it had a strangely inviting character to it.
I made good time to Kingsbarns, passing such features as Constantine’s cave and the occasional derelict building. The path wandered from the shore up the bluffs and back down again, and I kept the sea on my right, with the country on the left alternating between golf course and farmland. At various points the path passed near, and, indeed, through herds of cattle. One brown cow seemed particularly interested in me–puzzled, slightly afraid, even.
After Kingsbarns, on the way to St Andrews, the path became much more remote–despite the claims of the website I was following that it is the Crail-Kingsbarns section that is the wildest. The wind started to increase, and it began to rain. At one point, the path turned inland into a forest, yet I found myself strangely hesitant–not to enter the forest, but to leave the shore. As I did, though, the wind and rain increased, and the waves crashed ever more insistently on the rocks.
I do owe a bit of explanation at this point. “Perry” (this was apparently Lawersson’s nickname, go figure) had apparently been quite successful at tracking down religious folk rituals of the area. She hinted at two different points of interest in particular: the sand pile–er, Witches’ Mound–of yesterday, and a river that flows into the sea, somewhere between Kingsbarns and St Andrews. Apparently, local superstition holds that every certain number of years towards the end of May, a long-forgotten sea-god must be placated, first with a “pre-summoning” ritual around a Witches’ Mound, then with an incarnation the following day at the river. Lawersson had successfully tracked down the pre-summoning; the last entry in her diary indicated that she was going to witness it. I don’t know what became of her, but she did leave enough clues for me to determine that if I walked the coastal path from Crail to St Andrews I could find the river.
As I proceeded deeper into the forest, the sound of the waves, rather than fading away, became ever more insistent and rhythmic, a steady crash-withdraw, crash-withdraw. Indeed, the waves seemed to be trying to make their way up the river. The same footprints I saw yesterday became apparent in the muddy trail, though the increasing storm was eager to wash them away. I slowly became aware of what seemed to be a chanting in time with the assaulting waves, at first barely perceptible through the now-furious rain and wind. Finally I approached a semicircle of people in fantastic dress, perhaps a dozen, waist-deep in the river, facing towards the ocean. My approach muffled by the storm, I walked into the middle of an upstream bridge over the river. I cannot describe what I saw next. Some sort of… thing… was crawling up the river, propelled by the rhythmic waves and drawn by the chanting. It was so horrible, so hideous, that before I could fully understand what I saw, I ran, as fast as I could, across the bridge and down the path, which mercifully led away from the river before turning back to the welcoming sea.
I’m not ashamed to say that I fled, but I do regret dropping what I was carrying–Heather “Perry” Lawersson’s journal and research notes. I doubt it survived the heavy rain, though the storm did abate as I got further from the river. If my phone and camera had not been secure in my backpack at that point I would have surely lost them, as well. Perhaps it is for the best, though, that the journal never be found, and this all be forgotten as soon as possible. I did manage to take a couple pictures of it while I was on the bus ride to Crail, though, so perhaps that will help the interested scholar. I’m not sure that anyone will believe what I have stated–I certainly thought Lawersson’s writings were either make-believe or a hoax until I saw for myself–but I know I will never forget the chanting that followed me away from the river and haunts me still: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!
As I returned to St Andrews, soaked to the bone, I became more and more dejected after I turned away from the sea. The townspeople crossed the street to avoid me, and quickly looked away when I glanced up. Dripping wet, I was also spattered with mud from my flight through the forest and tracking sand behind me from the places where the path ran along the beach. Finally, after a little girl of six or seven pointed, screamed, and ran away, I looked at myself, and noticed that webbing was emerging between my fingers, and bulges in my neck. Whatever I had seen as a result of that accursed diary had changed me, physically and mentally, and now the wind-whipped waves call to me. I leave this record only as a warning for others.
Editor’s note: This is a transcription of a recording found on a phone in a wet backpack left outside the bed and breakfast. The pictures were downloaded from a camera also in the pack, and selected in an attempt to correspond with the tale. The forest entrance was the last picture on the camera. As for the pictures mentioned of the journal itself, none were found, but there were some photos–chronologically placed before first photos of Crail–that were too corrupted to be recovered from the camera.
(This is the second in a three part series on St Andrews. If you missed it, start with part 1.)
Having seen most of what the town (village?) of St Andrews has to offer, today I set off into the Scottish hinterland–or rather, I walked along the idyllic Lade Braes. A lade is a man-made stream or canal used for powering mills or simply supplying water. The Lade Braes has been unused for quite some time, but the locals have kept the trails along it well maintained.
There’s not a whole lot more to say about it. After a while the official Lade Braes Walk ends, and the path and the lade part ways, but I continued walking on other paths, of varying quality. I had passed a few people on the Lade Braes Walk, but there were none on the smaller paths I continued on. This was a little strange as there were clear tracks in the mud–both man and beast (dogs, I assume), and apparently recent.
The most interesting occurrence of the day, by far, was the finding of a leather-bound journal on the ground near the end of my walk. The muddy, narrow path I had been following opened up into a clearing with a mound of what appeared to be white sand at the center of it, and at the edge of it were “The Notes of Heather Lawersson”. The entries were all dated in April and May–the last one being May 29th–and though there was no year, it was clearly at least several years old, and possibly up to several decades. She seems to have been researching folk religions, with a particular interest in those native to Scotland.
She was apparently in St Andrews–with its history as a religious center–attempting to record what I would call Wiccan or neopagan practices. As far as I could tell, the pile of sand in the center of the clearing where I found the journal is called the “Witches’ Mound”, and is what drew her here.
I’m sad to report that I became so intrigued by the find that I stood there reading it, neglecting to note that I had the camera in my other hand, turned on, and the battery completely drained. (It had already been in near constant use since we got to the UK, after all.) I managed to get the pictures you see above off the camera, and once the battery charges I’ll upload some pictures of the journal–though I’m not sure how well her faded scrawl will come out.
(This is the first in a three-part series of posts on St Andrews.)
Anna is again at work in a foreign land, bringing me along to sample the local food, drink, sights, and smells. Not that there are that many smells in St Andrews, mostly just a sea breeze from time to time. There’s actually not that much of anything else in St Andrews, either; there are three main roads (North Street, South Street, and Market Street in between), and the majority of the town is found within the few city blocks between these streets. Which is not to say, exactly, that I haven’t kept myself busy.
The streets of St Andrews hold a bottle shop (utilized), two ice creameries (one of two sampled, as yet), several bakeries (one good, one bad, others untested), multiple coffee shops (who has time for that?), many pubs (definitely made time for that), and, of course, tons of old buildings (appropriately gawked at until they all started to look the same).
There is also a golf course, which you may have heard about–St Andrews is famously the home of the sport. I’ve never swung a club in my life, so while it was certainly pretty to look at, well, that’s about all I did.
Much more interesting are the ruins of the cathedral. St Andrews has been a holy site for at least a thousand years–the bones of, well, St. Andrew were reputedly brought over from Greece, then a giant tried to peg the bearer with a rock but missed, leaving behind a rock, er, *ahem* the Blue Stane. Apparently the ol’ stone-and-bones combination made for a hot pilgrimage destination, and St Andrews became the most important religious location in Scotland. A few crispy Reformationist martyrs later, the protestants took over, killed the bishop, and destroyed all traces of popery, which included, logically enough, the cathedral. As in, all of it. There are currently enough stones remaining only for one to make out how big the cathedral must have been (which was, technically speaking, really really big). And, just because we couldn’t have religious peace for too long, some time later a Presbyterian (or Episcopal) bishop was assassinated by an Episcopal (or Presbyterian) gang (I don’t remember which).
That’s about it for the town–but the surrounding lands are gorgeous. On the menu: walk inland, to the hills, and walk along the Fife coastal path.
This post could alternatively be titled “Of Cider and Cheese”. After our brief romp around London, we took the train to Cambridge, which, it happens, is out in the boonies. As proof, there are cows grazing on Jesus Green next to downtown Cambridge, literally a stone’s throw away from the Cambridge Beer Festival. Within an hour of dropping off our bags at “The Stables”, Peter and I found ourselves armed with pint glasses and an array of probably hundreds of beers, ciders, perries, wines, and meads. I was so overwhelmed that I decided to stick with cider and Peter to (mostly) beer. Between a “cheese plate” with three large hunks of cheese served with a fourth of a loaf of bread and a very extensive chocolate stand, I tried nearly 10 different types of ciders.
Peter tried stouts, a red ale, and a perry. After they kicked us out of the Beer Festival (ok, so they kicked everyone out), we meandered to the center of Cambridge and finally to the Cambridge Public Library where we took naps. Feeling refreshed, we dined at a Turkish restaurant before finally hiking home. Yet another fabulous day in England.
Day two in Cambridge was less fun because I had to go to work and give a talk. While I was picking at the rather awful food in the Churchill College dining hall, Peter was eating sausage and pastries between trips to an outside market and the Fitzwilliam Museum. At least he remembered our
unspoken rule that whoever is on the trip for fun buys local delicacies for the one who is working. Peter brought back a large loaf of whole wheat bread and a small round of cheddar cheese called Little Black Bomber. They were both very tasty!
In lieu of more English food, we went French for dinner at the Cote Brasserie, where I had yet more cider (Breton this time) and a delightful beef bourguignon with chocolate mousse for dessert.
There was certainly a stretch of time during which I felt like we would just never get here. It started after our first flight to SFO was delayed beyond repair and continued through the next day when our new first flight to LAX became questionably delayed. We considered abandoning our local airport and renting a car to LAX, but luckily such action was unnecessary. Fast-forward a day and we are finally taking the underground into London to find our (adorable) hotel right next to King’s Cross Station, arriving at 2pm. That gave us 7 hours of sunlight to explore London and still make it into bed in time to take an early morning train to Cambridge. This is what we did:
1. Dropped off our bags in the weirdest underground hotel room I’ve ever seen. The only natural light was from a skylight directly over the bed. Great for listening to the rain at 5am. Less great for falling back to sleep after the sun comes up at, you guessed it, 5am. Again I came prepared with an eye mask and have used it every morning starting at 5am since.
2. Quickly looked through the suggestions for what to do in London given to me by a friend. I love to take the free city maps and write on them with a couple places to eat and to draw out a route to walk. It keeps things simple to know where you’re going, while still giving you the freedom to change your mind half-way through.
3. Started walking towards Covent Garden, stopping by Balthezar Bakery on the way via Drury Lane (a hat-tip to our friend Byron). I was instructed to get Cream Tea, which is tea served with scones, jam, and clotted cream. It’s taken all my self-control not to have Cream Tea every day. Soooo goood!!!
4. We headed towards Trafalgar Square, then towards Big Ben and the House of Parliament, passing by Westminster Abbey (to go inside would have been nearly 20 pounds each! WTF!?!) and ending up outside Buckingham Palace. As though it sensed our drooping spirits, the palace proceeded to emit fancily dressed people, with all the ladies wearing hats or fascinators. I like to imagine that they were all having tea with the Queen, but they were probably just taking a tour.
5. We took the long way home, walking around the edge of Green Park and Hyde Park to reach Baker Street. You can probably imagine where I’m going with this. 221 B Baker Street does exist, but it comes after 231 and is a Sherlock Holmes museum and gift shop and was, very unfortunately, closed. At least I wasn’t the only person taking pictures of the establishment.
6. For dinner we went to Union Tavern on King’s Cross Rd. Peter had (boar) bangers and mash and I had one of the most perfectly cooked steaks of my life. If only we had saved room for dessert! I had a half-pint of cider and Peter had a couple pints of beer. Not a bad way to end a VERY long day.
As with all of my interesting travel destinations, this was a work trip, in every sense of the word. I arrived Tuesday evening for a conference on Wednesday through Friday, and flew out Saturday at noon. This means that opportunities for sight-seeing were limited, especially once you consider the exhaustion of changing time-zones in addition to being at a conference in the first place (group activities started at breakfast and went until the end of dinner). I contemplated going out for drinks after dinner, but the sleep-deprivation coma always seemed to kick in before I could get my butt out the hotel door.
Thankfully, astronomy conferences tend to anticipate the crazy-busy tired attendee who doesn’t bother taking a day of vacation (or more) to fully enjoy the local sights, and a whole afternoon of the program was dedicated to an outing to the Great Wall. If only I had remembered to bring a warmer coat! I lasted all of 30 minutes walking up and down an impressively steep length of the Great Wall, snapped some photos of the views (which were extraordinary), had my picture taken with some Chinese tourists (apparently Americans are somewhat of a curiosity), and promptly bolted back to the warm bus to regain the feeling in my hands and face.
It will come as no surprise to many of you that my favorite part of the trip was the food. I wasn’t sure whether I was mentally prepared to eat Chinese food for three meals a day (yes, including breakfast). It wasn’t even hard. My biggest worry was that there would be too much meat and that I would end up feeling sick, since Peter and I cook and eat meat maybe once a week to once a month. But no, there was unimaginable variety of vegetables, noodles, and rice at the hotel restaurant (where we ate all but one of our meals). The one meal we ate elsewhere was in a stunning, very fancy restaurant with live performers during dinner and a never-ending line of food brought to our table. A dish of donkey meat was one of my favorites, along with a very spicy beef dish, and some marinated lotus root. I wish I had taken more pictures of the fancy restaurant and its lantern-lit gardens, but the experience was so captivating that I totally forgot to be a tourist.