Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I’m watching the BBC this morning as I eat breakfast in my room and pack my suitcase in advance of tomorrow’s departure. They’re discussing the results of a survey which says that people are unhappy with the way police are answering complaints about “anti-social behavior” in their neighborhoods. This amuses me, and I almost choke on a bite of Golden Syrup cake. In America, holding a knife to someone’s throat is something we would call assault and battery, but admittedly, the British euphemism sounds less distressing.

From there, things really get quaint. The TV news anchors segway into a discussion of cat curfews where the sentence, “OK now, it’s 11 PM, time to find Mr. Tibbles” is used. Apparently, there are local ordinances designed to protect song birds from the murderous instincts of felines. It sounds like a losing battle to me, but as a compromise, someone gamely suggests mandating that cats wear bells on collars as a kind of alarm system. I look at my watch and groan. I’ll have to miss the end of the story because it’s nearly nine and I have a bus to catch, even though I don’t have far to go.

The Heart of Scotland van is parked just outside my hotel at Waterloo Place, and I’m greeted by a cheerful guide named Steve, who wears a kilt not as a costume, but as an everyday item of apparel to show his Scottish pride. I climb aboard with a half dozen or so other tourists and we slowly make our way south out of Edinburgh.

Our first stop of the day is Rosslyn Chapel, best known—sadly enough—for it’s prominent role in Dan Brown’s potboiler of a novel, The Da Vinci Code, where it was said to have been a hiding place for the Holy Grail. The church is undergoing a major restoration, so much so that we can barely see the exterior beneath walls of scaffolding and blankets of plastic sheeting. The interior, however, is another matter entirely. Nearly every square inch is covered with intricate carvings and mysterious symbols, including an angel playing bagpipes that reminds me of the one in the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles. Among all the imagery there is but one inscription, which reads like the answer to a riddle: Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas, or “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all.”

There is a guide who greets us and she narrates a brief history of the chapel and its most famous architectural element, the Apprentice Pillar, named after a novice stone mason who completed the work under divine inspiration while his master was away. Enraged by jealousy at the quality of the young man’s work, legend has it that the master mason struck his apprentice in the head with a mallet, killing him instantly. Legend also says that the murderer’s face was carved into the opposite corner of the nave, destined forever to gaze upon his apprentice’s work.

Back in the van enroute to our next stop, Steve holds us in rapt attention by telling the story of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. After his death in 1329, his men cut out his heart and placed it in a box to carry with them in the crusades, so willing were they to follow that “brave heart” into battle. Thus, Steve insists that the phrase has nothing to do with Mel Gibson or a certain movie of the same name.

Today, what remains of Robert the Bruce’s embalmed heart is buried among the ruins of Melrose Abbey, which is where we break for lunch. I go on a quick scavenger hunt around town in search of something to eat later in the van—a coronation chicken sandwich, a bag of chips, and for dessert, a delicate fondant petit four from a local pastry shop—then I head back to use the bulk of my time to explore the grounds of the abbey.

Like so many Catholic churches and monasteries across Great Britain, Melrose had a turbulent history. The abbey was burned by the army of Richard II, and damaged again in the 1540s as English armies raged across Scotland in an effort to force the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the son of Henry VIII. And it was bombarded yet again by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. By the early 19th century, it was a romantic ruin, one that inspired Sir Walter Scott to write:

If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.

It’s a great, cavernous place of crumbling stone. I climb a set of stairs for a better view and find myself high among the gargoyles, their worn faces covered in moss and lichen. I may not be here by the “pale moonlight,” but Melrose Abbey by day is still well worthy of a couplet or two.

We journey further south until we come at last to the border with England. It’s a desolate stretch of earth, covered with wild grasses and herds of hearty sheep. Standing tall beside a great stone marker carved with the word SCOTLAND, there is a man playing bagpipes, serenading visitors as they either arrive or depart. His name is Alan and I pose with him for a picture. I tip him well and he throws an arm across my shoulder gratefully and calls me a “bonnie lass.”

We break again when we reach Housesteads Fort, the remains of an ancient Roman outpost. For many years, this was the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire. To keep out the barbarians, the emperor Hadrian ordered that a massive wall be built all the way from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, eight to ten feet across and fifteen feet high. What little remains of it today is best seen here. Steve gives us some basic directions and warns us not to fall off the cliff. He says he’s from the veterinary school of medicine, which means: “If you bleed, I shoot you.”

It’s a scenic walk, but a tiring one, through a large expanse of green field, doted with sheep, and then up an imposing hill. I’m breathing heavily by the time I reach the crest, work my way through a copse of trees, and look out across a great expanse of Hadrian’s Wall as it stretches into the distance. Here, the wall is sturdy, but wild and unkempt, with a thick carpet of grass growing on top and a well-worn footpath following alongside. I admire the view for several minutes, but then pause for a moment of quiet reflection.

I don’t know why it occurs to me just now, but I’ve made it. Not just up the hill, but through my whole trip, and for that matter, through the entire last year—and what a dreadful year it has been, my very own annus horribilis, to borrow a phrase made famous by Her Majesty, the Queen after a year in which three of her children ended failing marriages and fire nearly consumed Windsor Castle.

Perhaps someday this will feel like the end of a chapter. It’s time to turn the page and start afresh, to follow the path over the hill and on to the next, to see what lies beyond. Isn’t that what travel is all about?

Once back in the van, Steve turns to us and says, in his thick Scottish brogue: “OK, that’s enough time in England, let’s go!”

He’s right. I am loathe to admit it, but after three weeks on the road, home and work await, and in the morning, a long connecting flight from Edinburgh to London to Philadelphia.

I nod. It’s time to go.

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