);
  • Happy New Year!

    Elaine Massung All Roads Lead to Machynlleth

    As we make the transition from one year to another, it’s a great time to look ahead to new horizons as well as turn around to see how far we have come. 

    I am ready to throw myself headlong into 2019 with the launch of a new business strand, and I’ll be posting less new content on the MissElaineous Blog while I get everything up and running over on Blue Eagle Academic Services.

    However, I will be dipping into my photographic archive throughout January to share an incredible trip to Wales that showed me the importance of unplugging in order to recharge. Please consider following along with daily pictures on Facebook and Instagram, and sign up for the mailing list to see how all roads lead to Machynlleth.

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    A Light in the Darkness

    Visiting Sudeley Castle's Spectacle of Light 2018

    I never gave much thought to winter before moving to the UK. After all, I grew up in Florida and if there’s one thing it’s known for besides Disney World, it’s sunshine, palm trees, and a tropical climate. Okay, that’s three things but you get the idea. Temperatures in Florida range from warm to scorching, with a side helping of humidity. The state’s relative proximity to the equator likewise means that daylight sticks around a little bit longer during winter months, and I never particularly noticed an extreme fluctuation as we approached the end of the year.

    This all changed when I settled in Britain. Temperatures are definitely colder but, with the right coat and a lot of layers, it’s completely manageable. Yet the earliest sunset of the year is at 3:58 pm. In no way can that be considered “evening”. During the darkest period, which is about 10 days on either side of the Solstice, we get slightly less than 8 hours of daylight each day. You would think this is something I would get used to, but no: each year I find it a little bit harder to deal with the dark and have started to feel a strong urge to hibernate.

    So it’s probably no surprise that I have found myself seeking out mid-winter light. Not in a SAD lamp type of way (although, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t hurt to get one), but in regards to the lantern displays and illuminations that have started to proliferate at attractions across the country.

    Visiting Longleat Festival of Light 2018

    First it was Longleat Safari Park. Their 2016 Festival of Light event, coinciding with park’s 50th anniversary and the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter, was an incredible introduction to this stunning display of Chinese lanterns. These are wire-framed sculptures embedded with light bulbs and covered in fabric; although they have their origin in China (and are still made there), Longleat does a new theme each year and really makes it their own. Indeed, this year’s is a completely original story that takes visitors through time and space with children Harry and Bea and their dog Monty. The Festival has become a household tradition that MrElaineous and I look forward to every year, but we have started to incorporate even more events into our routine.

    Like Christmas at Kew, with its flaming Christmas trees and stunning laser show; I’m still trying to figure out the former, but I could have watched the latter all evening. This year we visited Sudeley Castle’s Spectacle of Light, whose fun Alice in Wonderland theme was great to see during the day as well as at night.

    I admit the cynic in me sees this as a way for such venues to increase their winter profits: after all, what better way to lure visitors to a garden in the middle of winter than with a brightly coloured seasonal attraction? And since it’s dark so early, there’s no need to greatly extend the opening hours.

    But the part of me that craves the light? Sign me up.

    Visiting Christmas at Kew 2017

    If you’re interested in going yourself, a few words of advice:

    • Dress warm: The longer you spend outside at one of these attractions, the colder you’ll get (especially if you’re waiting for it to get full dark; see below). Thermals, multiple layers of clothing, heavy jacket, double socks, gloves and glove liners, hat, and scarf are all good investments, although you will feel like the Michelin Man.
    • Test your camera. If you’re planning to photograph a light display, check that you know the best settings for low light and can operate your camera while wearing gloves. If you’re using your phone for photos, make sure you have conductive gloves so you can operate the touchscreen.
    • Wait until full dark: This is especially true of Longleat’s Festival of Light. Although the sun may set early, wait until the last traces of light are gone to get the full effect of the displays. Or go around twice for before and after shots!

    As for me, I am basking in the knowledge that there are only 84 days until spring.

    Visiting Sudeley Castle's Spectacle of Light 2018
    Visiting Sudeley Castle's Spectacle of Light 2018

    Read about past illumination events (and see a lot more photos):

    I’ll be continuing my Dear Meghan series with a bonus blog post that will only be available to members of the MissElaineous mailing list; please consider signing up to have it delivered directly to you (and get a free eBook of the beautiful English countryside).

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    Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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    Reaching New Heights in Edinburgh

    Visiting the Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland
    PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ][ This is a continuation of last week’s post about my explorations of Edinburgh on a sunny autumn day. Check out the first part or keep reading to see whether I managed to face my fears and get a new perspective on the capital city. ]

    As I finished my circuit of Princes Street Gardens, my time in the city was drawing to a close but there was still one more thing I wanted to do. During previous trips I had visited the castle, Holyroodhouse Palace, St. Giles, and the main museums, but I had never climbed the Scott Monument. It seemed a waste to venture to the top on such grey days but if I was ever going to climb it, today was going to be the day.

    I don’t think Sir Walter Scott is read much today, at least outside of Scotland, due to a combination of doorstep-size novels, dense language, and somewhat overwrought plots.  Yet during the 18th and early 19th century, he was the celebrity writer of the age.  He was inspired by tales of the Scottish borderlands and chivalry, writing novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Waverley, and is credited with launching the historical novel as a genre.  He is likewise recognised for reviving Scottish national pride after the Jacobite rebellion of the mid 18th century, and his success further led to the stage management of the visit of King George IV to Scotland, sparking a trend for all things tartan.

    Soon after Scott’s death in 1832, a contest was run to design a fitting monument for such an illustrious citizen. The eventual winner was George Meikle Kemp, a self-taught architect. Decorated with the figures of 64 characters from Scott’s novels, with a statue of the author himself at the base, the monument was built by public subscription at a cost of over £15,000. Reaching heights of 61m (200 feet), it remains the tallest monument to an author anywhere in the world.

    Unfortunately Kemp did not have the chance to see the monument completed; he drowned in an accident in 1844, just a few months before the final stone was placed. He was, however, spared some of the negative reviews, such as one by Charles Dickens, who had this to say about the monument: “I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” 

    While I think Dickens was a little unfair, I do wish Kemp had given a bit more thought to how visitors would get to the various levels to take in the sights. Yes, I was again looking at my nemesis: narrow, winding stairs. Heights don’t bother me: walking over the glass walkway at the Tower of London was a highlight of my trip. But figuring out where to put my feet gets me every time.

    I have vague recollections of falling down cellar stairs as a toddler: it was winter, they were slippery, and I was swaddled in a snowsuit so no lasting damage done.* But perhaps this made an impression on my psyche? Logically, I know it’s a baseless fear: even if I were to fall, I wouldn’t make it all the way to the bottom like in this classic Far Side cartoon—but that doesn’t stop my brain from triggering a fight or flight response (it prefers freezing in these situations or, preferably, fleeing in the opposite direction towards a nice level surface).

    There is only one stairway up and down on the monument, and it’s as narrow as any I’ve ever come across. However, I made it to the first level without a problem. This houses the Museum Room, with beautiful stained glass windows of St. Andrew, St. Giles, and the coats of arms of Edinburgh and Scotland. I took a moment to catch my breath while reading about the history of the monument then I began to climb the second flight of stairs.

    Visiting the Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland

    And this is when I ran into a few issues. Not only were the stairs narrow, but the ceiling was low as well. So low that my backpack was hitting it and I had to keep my head down to stop it doing likewise. There was no handrail, I didn’t know where to put feet (which seemed to be growing in size by the second), and I was trying to protect the camera hanging around my neck from swinging into the side of the wall. I was not exactly comfortable with any of this.

    Indeed, I scurried back down after only about 20 steps. Not two minutes before I had passed a member of staff who had given me the go-ahead to go up, and as I reappeared in the doorway he asked me what the problem was. I tried to explain, gesturing to the backpack but not mentioning my rapidly expanding feet.

    “You have a good camera,” he said. “You’ll get great shots today. Give me your bag.” And with that he took my backpack from me and carried it up to the next level. I trailed along in his wake while trying to focus on his questions as part of my brain yammered that I needed to think about foot placement.

    But, with his help, I made it to level two.

    As you climb the Scott Monument, a paradox occurs. The stairways seem to get narrower, but each level opens up more and more of the city to your gaze. And there were still two flights to go. I navigated them holding the backpack out in front of me, and in this way I climbed to levels three and four. Once at the top I marvelled at the 360-degree views across the city, looking towards all the landmarks that I had visited in the course of the morning and across to the magnificent Arthur’s Peak and distant mountains.

    Getting back down proved to be its own challenge. I had the same issues as before—no handrail, dangling camera, low ceiling, small steps, and big feet—but now gravity was pulling me forward, aided by my heavy backpack. But, step by step, I made it back to level three, level two, level one. Fortunately there were no other visitors making the climb at the same time or I think I would still be frozen to the spot.

    When I made it back down to the ground I nearly hugged the member of staff who had helped me up, and I felt like I could take on anything life threw at me. There were also a number of lessons I took away from this. First of all, face what scares you. It’s probably not as bad as you think! Second, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. For me, this was quite a literal lesson, but it’s something I think that is applicable regardless of the challenge you’re facing. And, finally, sometimes you’ll need help along whatever journey you’re facing—accept it. Because the view from the top or the other side of a difficult problem? Absolutely worth it.**

    When visiting Edinburgh it’s hard not to think about other places; certainly Athens, Oxford, and Hogwarts all came to mind at one point or another. Yet Edinburgh is very much its own beast and is a city I love to visit. Not only does it have an incredibly rich history, stunning architecture, and friendly people, but it always challenges my expectations. In this case, proving to myself that I could climb 287 narrow, winding stairs was a wonderful confidence boost. The other unexpected outcome of my trip? Sunburn.

    Calton Hill, Edinburgh

    * In double checking this memory with my parents, they reported that I fell down at least two sets of stairs as a child, so perhaps my irrational phobia isn’t quite as irrational as I thought (also, I have a new appreciation for the invention of stair gates).

    ** Another lesson: pack a lighter bag. My arm ached for the next two days!

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    Exploring Edinburgh in Technicolor

    Skyline of Edinburgh from Calton Hill
    PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]

    Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is known for many things. There’s whisky, which I don’t partake in, but I can vouch that tastings are a popular activity on offer for those who want to sample a beverage that is practically synonymous with the country. There’s its architecture: the “newer” parts were built during the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, when architects looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration; this saw the city nicknamed the Athens of the North because of the proliferation of columns, urns, and porticos. There’s its place in literary history, with its brooding medieval castle serving as J.K. Rowling’s muse for the creation of Hogwarts; further back, it was the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson and the haunt of Robert Burns.  

    One thing, however, is not on this list: good weather.

    I have been four or five times before and each of the previous visits had rain, high winds, cloud cover, or a combination of all of the above. Either way, the results were the same: the city was bathed in shades of grey. Don’t get me wrong: Edinburgh is the type of city that looks good no matter the forecast. When overcast, it is moody and looks suitably ancient, perfect for the setting of a noir film or Ansel Adamsesque black-and-white photography.

    However, I was fortunate to have both sun and blue skies during a recent visit, and they showed the city to me in a whole new Technicolor light. I was able to take a day just to wander from one landmark to another, which is an inefficient way of travelling as I occasionally doubled back on myself, but having no particular aim meant I was able to pinball through the city to take in both new and familiar sights.

    I began by setting off towards a place I had never visited before: Calton Hill. This is one of three outcrops of volcanic stone that have shaped Edinburgh through the millennia, and on a clear day the climber is rewarded with views across the whole of the city: you can look at the shops down Princes Street, see the Firth of Forth and its bridges, and look up to the second volcanic ridge, Arthur’s Seat. The hill itself is home to a number of distinctive monuments that perfectly illustrate why Edinburgh received the Athens of the North moniker.

    National Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

    There’s the National Monument, a replica of the Athenian Parthenon that was dedicated to soldiers lost in the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately the city ran out of money, so only half of the monument was ever built, but in many ways this makes it an even more poignant memorial to those whose lives were likewise cut short and left unfinished. One of the more unusual monuments is the one dedicated to Dugald Stewart, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens and takes the form of a round temple with Corinthian columns (i.e. columns with leafy tops) and a central urn. Classical Greece is well and truly represented within the Scottish capital.

    Dugald Stewart Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

    Yet when gazing across the city from Calton Hill, it was Oxford I found myself thinking of. It’s known as the city of dreaming spires, but Edinburgh is quite pointy as well. Church towers, random bits of Victorian Gothic architecture, and elevated statues all contribute to a very distinct and rather sharp skyline.

    The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

    After descending Calton Hill I headed in the direction of the Royal Mile. This street covers the 5,280 feet (give or take) between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In the past, parts of the street formed a market place for linen, yarn, and cloth, and in many ways its use hasn’t changed much over the years. Today it is one of the main tourist thoroughfares, with numerous shops hawking souvenirs ranging from shortbread to cashmere. There are, however, little architectural and historical gems if you keep your eyes open.

    Like Advocate’s Close. The entrance is a bit hidden—indeed, I only stumbled across it because a tour group disappeared down it—but it is one of the oldest of the narrow, winding streets that snake off from the Royal Mile. It is thought to date to the late 16th century and offers lovely views down to Princes Street and the Scott Monument.

    A bit easier to spot is the distinctive crown of St. Giles Cathedral. This is the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and much of the modern church dates to the late 14th century, with its famed steeple being added a century later. The Victorians also did a bit of restoration in the 19th century, with the aim of creating a Westminster Abbey for Scotland. They succeeded, with St. Giles continuing to play a central role in the religious life of the nation.

    The end of the Royal Mile brings the visitor to the third volcanic outcrop. Edinburgh Castle was originally built here in the 12th century, but with such incredible views over the surrounding landscape from the top, it’s no surprise that its occupation goes far further back. Archaeological evidence shows that humans were exploiting the area at least a thousand years beforehand, with Iron Age artefacts dating back to the 2nd century AD.

    However, its slightly more modern history is one being a royal residence, at least until the first half of the 17th century. It then became a military barracks, and the 19th century saw the start of a daily castle tradition: the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. This was a time signal to the ships moored on the River Leith so that they could set the clocks that were vital for navigation. While this original purpose has long passed, the gun continues to be fired daily. Which, despite being aware of it, still made me jump in surprise!

    Grassmarket Views, Edinburgh

    From the castle I went down Granny’s Green Steps (I am still trying to figure out the reason for this apostrophe placement and, according to this article, I’m not the only one!) and into Grassmarket. This is a lovely area with pubs, cafes, fun shops, and incredible views looking up at the castle. A previous trip to Edinburgh saw me visit the local cat café, but this time I headed off to a place that is has gone to the dogs. Well, one dog in particular.

    Greyfriars Kirkyard has some interesting architectural details, with funerary monuments built against the neighbouring houses and, in a few cases, blocking the windows (on the bright side, the neighbours are at least quiet). The church’s main claim to fame, however, is due to a Skye terrier named Bobby. The story goes that after Bobby’s owner died, the dog spent the next 14 years guarding his master’s grave. He became a local celebrity during that time, and after his own death the legend only continued to grow. A water fountain topped with a terrier was built nearby and a local pub bears his name. I certainly found it touching that people are still making offerings of sticks and chew toys at Bobby’s grave.

    Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh

    From Greyfriars I returned to the centre of the city and found myself thinking about Harry Potter along the way.  It was hard not to: every corner seems to offer a connection to the boy wizard. The Elephant House advertises that J.K. Rowling wrote the early novels there. There’s the obvious castle that dominates the skyline as well as a joke shop that could easily be the inspiration for Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes (or vice versa). And I found the Victorian architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town to be rife with random turrets and narrow passageways that made it easy to imagine Diagon Alley had come to life.   

    But you don’t have to escape into a fantasy novel to get away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh. Princes Street Garden is a sunken park that stretches alongside the city’s main thoroughfare, but walking down into it is a bit like entering another world. It is a fantastic oasis of green in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, with rose gardens, fountains, and poignant war memorials, and I found it an ideal place to cool down on what was turning out to be a hot autumn afternoon.

    As I finished my circuit of the gardens, my time in the city was drawing to a close but there was still one more thing I wanted to do. During previous trips I had visited the castle, Holyroodhouse Palace, St. Giles, and the main museums, but I had never climbed the Scott Monument. It seemed a waste to venture to the top on such grey days but if I was ever going to climb it, today was going to be the day.

    Check in next week for the second part of my Edinburgh adventure in which I face my old nemesis: spiral staircases. Please consider signing up to the mailing list to have the latest MissElaineous blog post delivered directly to your inbox each week, and check out social media for (almost) daily photos. ]
    Polish War Memorial, Edinburgh
    Polish War Memorial, Edinburgh

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    Thanksgiving Thursday

    Visiting National Trust Stourhead during autumn

    Today the United States celebrates Thanksgiving while we in the UK go about what is known as Thursday. I have found explaining this holiday to friends in the UK quite difficult, but I suppose it can be summed up as Christmas without the gift-giving and based loosely on a historical event (very loosely). It is also a chance for couples to practice their arguments ahead of Christmas about whose family they will be spending the holiday with.

    Only slightly less tongue-in-cheek, Thanksgiving in America today involves family, food, and football (of the American variety of course), with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade thrown in for good measure (although how they’re going to be impacted by the helium shortage is anyone’s guess). It prompts some of the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as people hop on planes, trains, automobiles, buses, and most likely watercraft to get to wherever they need to be to spend the day with family and friends (and then cause the same travel chaos in reverse a few days later).

    Children are taught about the first Thanksgiving at school as an event involving the Pilgrims, portrayed as refugees escaping religious persecution, and the Native Americans, who taught them how to survive in a new land, sitting down together to enjoy a feast and give thanks for the harvest. Until the age of 10 or 11, this time of year sees students creating feathered headdresses, buckled hats, and handprint turkeys, giving the impression that headgear and wild fowl are of prime importance to the celebrations.

    The reality of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is nowhere near as clear-cut as textbooks would like us to believe. Instead, much of what we “know” originates in the 19th century and appears to be based on a centuries-long game of telephone (UK readers: Chinese whispers). Yet at its core is thankfulness, so I would like to use today’s blog post to share a few things I am thankful for: MrElaineous, who lets me use this pseudonym for him and doesn’t mind me sharing our adventures with the wider world; those of you who take the time to read this blog (hello, mom and dad!); and a UK institution that manages to tick all of those boxes up there in my tagline (travel & nature & history & tea).

    The National Trust was established in 1895 by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter, and Hardwicke Rawnsley, and in the intervening 120 years has grown to become one of the UK’s leading charities looking after the country’s historic properties and protecting areas of beautiful countryside. If you have been following along on social media, you’ll have seen photos recently from one of the jewels of the Trust, the incredible landscape gardens of Stourhead.

    These gardens have their origin in the mid-18th century when they were designed by Henry Hoare II at the beginning of the landscape garden movement. It’s easy to see the inspiration of the aristocratic Grand Tour in its construction, with buildings like the Pantheon, Temple of Flora, and Temple of Apollo seemingly take directly from the landscape paintings that were popular souvenirs of the time. Indeed, perhaps one of the most photographed views in the whole of the National Trust is looking across the lake to the Pantheon, itself a miniature replica of the one in Rome and full of statues of Roman gods and heroes.

    Visiting National Trust Stourhead in the autumn

    In looking back through the blog posts I published this year, it is clear that the National Trust has played an incredible role in shaping my travel experience, and I have definitely gotten my membership’s worth throughout 2018!

    Visiting National Trust Brockhampton Estate

    Brockhampton Estate: This massive estate has a medieval manor house at its heart, complete with moat and gatehouse. The Trust restored each room to a different time period, really giving the visitor the feeling of time travel as they proceed through the building.

    Berrington Hall: It was an incredibly friendly volunteer at Brockhampton that encouraged MrElaineous and I to investigate Berrington Hall, which was Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s final completed commission. This kicked off what has become known in our household as the “Year of Capability Brown” as it feels like we’ve stalked him across various English counties.

    The interior of the National Trust's Berrington Court
    Visiting the National Trust's Croome Court

    Croome Court: Of all the properties visited this year, this one has probably been through the most changes, from family house to school to Hare Krishna centre and back to family house! It’s claim to fame, however, is being the first major commission for landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown and architect/interior designer Robert Adams, and let’s just say that its “Expect the unexpected” tagline is incredibly accurate.

    Lacock Abbey: My local National Trust site is a three-for-one combination of historic village, grand property, and museum dedicated to the history of photography. This is a place I have started to visit regularly, and it can be read about here and here.

    Coleridge Cottage: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”: these famous lines were penned by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a small cottage in Somerset, and MrElaineous and I found it quite an accurate description after a sudden downpour!

    Castle Drogo: It isn’t just Americans who bend the past to suit them. Castle Drogo was constructed in the early 20th century by Julian Drewe, who adopted an illustrious pedigree to go with his modern castle, built to medieval Norman specifications. Unfortunately medieval Norman specifications were not a good match for 20th century British weather and the castle has leaked from the moment it was built. Cutting-edge scaffolding and an ambitious building project has seen the Trust work towards making the building watertight, and it was fascinating to take to the heights to learn more about it.

    Visiting the National Trust's Castle Drogo
    Visiting the National Trust's Lytes Cary Manor

    Lytes Cary Manor: This medieval house in Somerset was lived in by the same family for 500 hundred years. Its garden is absolutely stunning, and the National Trust was hosting some incredibly cute tenants during my visit.

    Mompesson House: This former family home has one of the best views of Salisbury Cathedral as well as a glass collection that has somehow managed to survive several centuries of use. I’m not usually one to fawn over bric-a-brac, but the social and political commentary encoded into beautiful drinking vessels has to be seen to be believed.

    Visiting the National Trust's Mompesson House

    The Courts: Although a fairly local property, I must admit I haven’t visited this lovely garden as often as I should.  Having the chance to visit during the height of summer was a real treat, and worth it just to see the dragonflies put on an  aerial display.

    I hope the travel & nature & history is obvious somewhere in all of these, but I had a friend ask me recently about the tea. I confess I don’t write about it as often as I should, despite it being a drink that powers much of my day. But most National Trust properties have a café or tearoom, which is the perfect place to sit with a cuppa to warm your hands on cold days, stay hydrated on warm ones, and enjoy a tasty treat regardless of the weather. So even though it isn’t explicit, there is a strong current of tea running throughout all of these visits, and it is yet another thing I am thankful for.

    So, there is just one more thing left for me to do: wish a very happy Thanksgiving to my American readers and, to those in the UK, have a wonderful Thursday.

    Curious to read more blog posts about Thanksgiving or why this is an unusually manic week for my family?  Check out these past posts:

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