Maybe you’re looking for “free” places to explore with your family each summer. My own awesome mom did this because she had five active daughters.
Maybe I can help you. I know of several “free” ghost towns in Western Pennsylvania.
Here’s Ghost Town #1: The Ghost Town Trail in Indiana and Cambria Counties. This is a 44-mile “rails-to-trails” trail. You can ride your bicycle or walk / run this trail from Blacklick, PA to Cardiff, PA.
Such trails here in Western Pennsylvania charge no admission. You don’t need to have a special permit to enjoy our public trails! (I vacationed once in the Adirondacks in New York State, and the bike trails there charged admission.) You can access the Ghost Town Trail through several trailheads that provide free daytime parking.
As the name “rails-to-trails” implies, this trail lived an earlier life as working railroad lines. People dependent on the economic opportunity from blast furnaces and coal mining lived along these tracks. They built houses, schools, churches, and stores along these tracks. They died along these tracks.
Some of the structures remain as ghost towns. Thus the name, “Ghost Town Trail.”
For instance, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s uncle, Warren Delano, developed the railroad town of Wehrum along these tracks. Wehrum evolved into a ghost town after the mines closed in the 1930’s. Wehrum now consists of one standing house, a bank vault, and the Russian Orthodox cemetery.
Jonathan and I travelled from the Pittsburgh area on PA Route 56 to access the trailhead in Vintondale. The bike trip took us through the Blacklick Creek Valley. Adventurers can view two out of the valley’s three original iron furnaces: 1.) Eliza Furnace (AKA Ritter’s Furnace), and 2.) Buena Vista Furnace.
Folklore claims that one of the Eliza Furnace’s original owners died suddenly after a financial or personal setback. The lore includes tales that this owner still haunts the furnace.
I’m sure that other ghosts, real or imagined, also haunt this trail.
We define places through our own pasts, our own kaleidoscopes.
For instance, I grew up in Central and Western PA to Pittsburgh-area parents. PA’s steel industry collapsed. My extended family left the state for brighter futures elsewhere. My friends from school left the state. My family and friends who stayed here struggled to find (and keep) family-sustaining jobs. I know a lot of good people who suffered after the steel business imploded here.
Johnstown, near Vintondale and the Ghost Town Trail, nearly became a ghost town in its own right.
I lived in Johnstown for a few years after college. I had my own reasons for this. I struggled when I lived in Johnstown.
I organized cultural activities through an Americorps program that served (economically distressed) communities in Western PA. I shared office space in Johnstown with two fellow Americorps members who worked on remediating the section of the Ghost Town Trail that ran through Vintondale.
I lived and worked in an almost-ghost town while my office-mates preserved a tourist attraction marketed as a “ghost town.”
Then, I moved to the Pittsburgh area. Jonathan and I returned to Vintondale to pedal along the Ghost Town Trail. We now belong to the Ghost Town Trail’s “Pittsburgh tourists.”
When I pedal along the Ghost Town Trail, I reflect on my time spent with loved ones in PA’s “almost-ghost” towns.
You’ll reflect on your own truths as the you tour the Ghost Town Trail.
The book Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered (SSDGM) by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark just hit #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list for “Advice.” The two authors host My Favorite Murder, a True Crime podcast.
I read SSDGM last week. I wrote TWO blog posts about SSDGM on my other blog. SSDGM (and my blog posts about SSDGM) don’t fit with The Parnassus Pen‘s “brand.” However, here are my two blog posts:
I attended a few author visits and book launches at local bookstores. At such visits, the author talks a little bit about his or her new book and usually takes questions from the audience. The audience has the opportunity to purchase the book and to have the author sign it.
I show up at these things to learn about other people’s writing processes.
Anyway, last week I attended Laurel Houck’s local book launch for “The Girl with Chameleon Eyes.” This Y.A. (Young Adult) novel also qualifies as teen romance, paranormal, and historical fiction. Laurel Houck lives in the Pittsburgh area.
I say “historical fiction” because the plot included this event: In July 1782, at the end of the American Revolution, the British (some websites claim “Canadians”) and their Seneca allies under Guyasuta attacked and burned down Hannastown (also called Hanna’s Town), Pennsylvania.
See, Greensburg is now the county seat of Westmoreland County, PA. However, the county seat actually “sat” in Hannastown in 1782. Hannastown was the first county seat west of the Alleghenies (the Allegheny Mountains). Westmoreland Countians attended to court business as the attack started. Many settlers from surrounding farms took refuge inside Hannastown’s fort as their farms, crops, and town burned.
Peggy Shaw got shot as she chased after a runaway toddler during the attack. Poor Peggy went onto the historical record as the attack’s only fatality.
Today, we can all visit Historic Hanna’s Town on the site of the Hannastown that the British, Guyasuta, and their allies burned. The Westmoreland County Historical Society now runs an archeological site there. They maintain several colonial homes and a museum at the site. In the summer, a festival re-enacts the attack on “Hanna’s Town.”
“The Girl with Chameleon Eyes” introduced me to a supernatural teen named Summer who manifested herself behind a Sheetz convenience store. Summer soon found herself enrolled in a high school history class that took a trip to Historic Hanna’s Town. Then, Summer had a flashback to her own experience at Hannastown in 1782.
So, “The Girl with Chameleon Eyes” is the first paranormal novel that I read about Hannastown.
Here are two non-paranormal historical fiction stories about Hannastown:
1.) Hannah’s Town, by Helen Smith and George Swetnam, copyright 1973
I bought this book used from the Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh.
This book introduced me to a fictional little girl named Hannah who lived in Colonial Hanna’s Town, and considered it to be “her” town.
Spoiler: Hannah and her family conveniently moved away from Hanna’s Town about a year or so before the British and Guyasuta attacked it. This book was written for young readers. It didn’t include any violence or terror. The book merely described how Hannah and her family built their house, established their farm, completed their chores, etc. In fact, this book reminded me of Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.”
Turnbull dedicated “The Day Must Dawn” “To the residents of Westmoreland County.” At the beginning of it, she wrote: “When I was a small girl, driving with my parents from the village of New Alexandria in Western Pennsylvania to Greensburg, the county seat, I always used to beg them to stop the horse at one spot in the road and tell me again about Hannastown-that-was-burned-by-the-Indians.”
Turnbull was born and raised (and is now buried) in New Alexandria, which is about five miles from the site of old Hannastown.
In “The Day Must Dawn,” one of the (fictional) main characters watched (the real life) Colonel William Crawford burn at the stake while Simon Girty laughed. This character later returned to his family in Hannastown and then watched his own home and town burn. This novel described the aftermath of several other violent deaths in the years leading up to the burning of Hannastown.
In “The Day Must Dawn,” the town lost a significant portion of its able-bodied fighting men in the Crawford Expedition during the American Revolution. (William Crawford, the leader of the expedition, previously founded Fort Crawford in Parnassus, New Kensington.) The Native Americans and British attacked and burned Hannastown less than a year later.
“The Day Must Dawn” is actually a romance about Scotch-Irish Presbyterians named Hugh and Violet.
See, before the novel opened, white settlers moved onto Native American lands along the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania. The Native Americans retaliated with violent attacks on these settlements. All of Violet’s siblings and also Hugh’s parents died in these attacks. Violet’s parents informally “adopted” Hugh.
So, at the beginning of “The Day Must Dawn,” Hugh and Violet called each other “sister” and “brother” and they considered each other as siblings. Then they fell in love with each other.
Hugh decided that he must join a colonial militia and prove his manhood. He planned to ask Violet’s parents (his own foster parents) for permission to marry Violet. In the meantime, Violet’s mother planned to marry Violet (her only living biological child) off to a lawyer who will take her to an easier life in Philadelphia. (Or what passed for easier in that era. One tenth of the population of Philadelphia perished during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.)
I sometimes romanticize colonial life. In 1782, Pennsylvania was the frontier, and life was cruel and primitive. Parents were admonished by neighbors not to grow too fond of their children, lest they tempt fate. Several children died in this novel. Violet’s father mocked Violet and her mother for bathing in the winter. He bragged about the long period of time since his last bath. (I suspect that this may be one reason why the spark apparently died in the marriage of Violet’s parents.) Violet learned that her mother ate off of plates decorated with flowers during her own childhood in Philadelphia. Violet told her mother that she would die happy if she herself could eat off of such a plate just once. The family’s prized possessions were three books (a Bible and two volumes of Shakespeare) and a mirror.
The author described a folklore treatment actually used by the Pennsylvania German – or, as the book refers to them, the Pennsylvania “Dutch.” Here’s what happened:
A rattlesnake bit Viola (on page 237) as she worked on farming chores. Viola’s mother treated the wound with contemporary medicine. (Chestnut bark poultice. Boiled chestnut leaves. Nanny tea – tea made with dried sheep dung.)
Meanwhile, Viola’s father and Hugh dissected the offending snake. They roasted the snake over a fire. They said “words of the dark charm” over the cooking snake. Then, they applied the snake meat to Viola’s wound.
Viola’s mother turned away, ashamed that her husband and foster son used “witchcraft” (her words) to treat the snakebite.
Simon Girty, a famous historical figure, appeared in the story and declared his sympathy for the Native Americans. (I love that Simon Girty appears in this story!) In one scene, Girty bought Hugh a drink in a Hannastown tavern. Girty proceeded to tell Hugh why he supported the actions of local Native American chiefs. (Girty also spied Crawford sitting on the other side of the bar, and talked about his dislike of Crawford.) Later, after Girty and Hugh both rode in the so-named Squaw Campaign, Girty told Hugh how the outcome of the campaign (several dead Native American women) disgusted him. Girty defected from the Pennsylvania militia and joined the British.
“The Day Must Dawn” has been out of print by The Macmillan Company for years. The Westmoreland County Historical Society’s website used to sell a paperback reprint of this book. I bought my own hardback copy used on Amazon.
I found some good biographical information on Turnbull at Peter Oresick’s The Pittsburgh Novel and Goodreads. However, one of the librarians at Saint Vincent College introduced me to Turnbull when I worked at the library as a student. As I mentioned above, Turnbull grew up in New Alexandria, PA. Saint Vincent College is a very short drive from New Alexandria.
Turnbull actually graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). (IUP used to have a building named “Turnbull Hall” in honor of her. My sister, a double-graduate of IUP, told me that the school tore Turnbull Hall down a few years ago.)
Turnbull married a man who then left to fight in World War I. Afterward, Turnbull and her husband moved to New Jersey. Turnbull became a best-selling author. She set several of her novels in Western Pennsylvania.
So, I’ve just outlined three very different historical novels about Hannastown (Hanna’s Town), Pennsylvania.
Check back for future updates about my favorite podcasts and travel adventures.
2.) Then, an episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder talked about this in episode 136 and heavily “cited” Criminal. (In my opinion, the bulk of the My Favorite Murder host’s “research” consisted of her listening to the Criminal episode! This is merely my personal opinion, though.)
When I read about the American Civil War and the years leading up to it, I come across a lot of men named after “Stephen Decatur.” I know this, because the men all have “Stephen” for a first name, and “Decatur” for a middle name.
The American Civil War started in 1861. So, I guessed that these men were born in the first few decades of the 1800’s.
Stephen Decatur served as an officer in the United States Navy from 1798 – 1820. I’ll make this quick because anyone with an interest in naval history can just read all of this on Wikipedia. However, Decatur fought pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. He witnessed his own brother, James’s, burial at sea after one of these battles. He earned a Medal of Honor. He died young as a national hero.
Here’s an example of how highly folks regarded Decatur: I listened to Episode 9: A Devil on the Roof from the Lore podcast by Aaron Mahnke. This episode told the myth of the Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. According to the folklore, Decatur saw the Jersey Devil as he tested cannon balls in Burlington, New Jersey. The legend maintains that Decatur fired a cannon at the Jersey Devil but that the Jersey Devil flew away. This myth implies to me that if such a decorated hero as Decatur saw and reacted to the Jersey Devil, then us common folk should believe that the Jersey Devil actually existed.
I don’t know if Decatur actually saw the Jersey Devil and fired a cannon at it.
However, in 1818 Decatur did actually build his residence in Lafayette Square in Washington, a very short walk from the White House. Before this, Decatur married Susan Wheeler, a woman who had already rejected the romantic intentions of Aaron Burr and Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother). Decatur and Susan entertained the elite of Washington society in their gorgeous Lafayette Square home. (In fact, you can still visit this “Historic Decatur House.”)
So, after all of the struggle and success, Stephen Decatur agreed to duel another naval officer, James Barron, in 1820. Decatur shot Barron. Barron shot Decatur. Decatur died at the age of 41. Barron survived for several more decades.
Wikipedia gives a lot of information about the duel, so I’ll make this short. The Decatur / Barron duel resulted after Decatur served on Barron’s court-martial for surrendering a ship, Chesapeake, to the British. Some Wikipedia sources imply that Decatur and Barron meant to call off the duel or else not actually shoot each other, but their “seconds” encouraged things to proceed as they did. Also, Decatur left for his duel without telling his wife about his plans. (Alexander Hamilton did the same thing to Eliza in the Hamilton musical before Hamilton dueled with Aaron Burr and died.)
You read correctly: so many duels happened before the Civil War that the Washington elite journeyed to a designated dueling grounds. In fact, I learned from Wikipedia that Francis Scott Key’s son, Daniel, died after a duel that started over a dispute about the speed of a boat.
Now, since I spend time in Erie along the shore of Lake Erie, I know that another naval officer, Oliver Hazard Perry, is the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. I just learned that in 1818, Perry fought in a duel and he chose Decatur as his own “second.” Nobody died or suffered gunshot wounds in that duel.
(If you go to Lafayette Square today, you will see a statue of Andrew Jackson sitting on a horse. Right now in 2019, Jackson’s mug decorates our American twenty dollar bills. However, back in 1878, Decatur’s face graced the twenty dollar bill. Here’s why I find this peculiar: Decatur fought a duel in which he died and his opponent was injured. Jackson fought a duel in which Jackson’s opponent died, but Jackson suffered an injury and lived. That’s right: Andrew Jackson shot and killed a man in a duel before he became POTUS.)
Dueling declined after the American Civil War. I learned on Wikipedia that the last Bladensburg duel occurred in the late 1860’s. I read in a book of Maryland folklore that a suburban housing development now sits on most of Bladensburg’s “dueling grounds.”
I thought tonight about what our society, our country would look like if people still challenged each other to duels. I read about so many posters on social media who tell the rest of us about how badly another social media user offended them. What if these angry people on Twitter or Facebook or wherever demanded “satisfaction” from each other by dueling? How would these people chose their “seconds?” Would they pick social media friends to be “seconds,” or would these duelers chose from their real life friends? Do any of these social media users (myself included) actually have any real life friends?
How would law enforcement handle dueling today? Would law enforcement arrest the duelers of color, but ignore the white duelers?
Finally, if somebody offended me on social media, would I challenge the offender to duel with me personally? Or should I expect my husband to defend my honor?
Ugh, so many questions!
Check back for future posts here about history and traveling.
This is a blog post about one of my favorite podcasts.
First, I have to vent about something. I saw today on Facebook a meme of Barack Obama allegedly carrying the book The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria. The meme alleged that this book is about “a Muslim’s view of a defeated America.” The meme further implied that Obama championed “a defeated America.”
Now, first of all, I just researched the meme on Snopes.com. The Snopes entry about the meme is dated 2008. The meme existed on the internet at least as far back as 2008! Therefore, the “helpful” person who shared the meme in 2019 didn’t actually provide any new wisdom or insight. Also, according to Snopes, the book isn’t actually about “a defeated America.”
Second, here’s the bigger thing that bothered me: this meme implied that we readers endorse the ideas presented in every single book that we ever read. This doesn’t make any sense! For instance, my decision to read Gone with the Wind when I was twelve years old does not mean that I endorse the Lost Cause mythology. I am currently listening to a novel about Varina Davis (the wife of Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States of America). This does NOT mean that I want my husband to start his own country.
Finally, I am happy that from 2009 – 2017, we had a POTUS who read actual books.
Now for my podcast recommendation.
As I mentioned earlier in this blog, my mom passed away about six months ago. Since then, I’ve listened to several hours of podcasts or audio books every day. I listen during my commute, housework, etc. Listening to these for hours and hours helps me to get through each day.
I used the “browse” section of my podcast app to find any comedy podcasts that exist. I found The Dollop, hosted by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds. In each episode, Anthony reads a story to Reynolds, “who has no idea what the topic is going to be about.” Most of the stories are from American history. Anthony and Reynolds crack jokes as the story progresses.
Now, I am usually late to the party when I “discover” things that I like. For instance, this spring I “discovered” The Dollop. I told my husband, Jonathan, all about this podcast. Jonathan responded that he saw his Facebook friends post about The Dollop for years!
Listening to The Dollop archives is one of the best parts of my day.
To make this about Pittsburgh: last year, The Dollop did a live show in Pittsburgh. They profiled Henry Clay Frick. Anthony’s story included Andrew Carnegie, the Johnstown Flood, and the Homestead Strike. You can find this episode wherever you download podcasts, or you can listen to it here. I learned from the live recording that the Pittsburgh venue hosted a sold-out show and also that the Pittsburgh venue either ran out of, or just didn’t sell, beer.
Check back for upcoming blog posts about my other favorite podcasts.
I saw Celeste Ng speak at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh last Friday. Ng promoted the paperback release of her novel Little Fires Everywhere.
I estimate that several hundred people attended. Good thing that White Whale Bookstore held this inside a healthy-sized venue!
I read Little Fires Everywhere last year after my husband Jonathan gave a hardcover copy to me for Christmas. Amazon told Jonathan that I would like this book.
Wikipedia taught me that Ng was born in Pittsburgh in 1980 to Chinese-American parents. Ng grew up in Pittsburgh and in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
(Ng belongs to my generation. So do most of Little Fires Everywhere‘s main characters.)
Little Fires Everywhere took place mostly in Shaker Heights during 1996-1997. However, Chapters 13 and 14 consisted of a flashback to Pittsburgh during the years 1979 – 1982.
I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania, about 200 miles east of Shaker Heights. However, I never heard of Shaker Heights until I read this novel.
I learned very early in the story that the people of Shaker Heights thought pretty highly of themselves and their community. I googled “Shaker Heights” and learned from this satire article that McSweeney’s liberal elite also held Shaker Heights residents above us other middle-class suckers.
I read the first part of this novel with a chip on my shoulder. I was a teenage country bumpkin in the 1990’s. I longed to reside in an upscale suburb near a major or even a minor city.
So, I resented this author’s privilege for growing up in Shaker Heights.
However, I finished Little Fires Everywhere and realized that my own resentment summed up about 75% of the plot!
Here’s what happened in the book: an “artist / food service worker / housekeeper / single mother” raised in a no-nonsense working-class Pittsburgh family moved to Shaker Heights with her teenage daughter. They rented an apartment from an established Shaker Heights family. They discovered the class division separating themselves from the Shaker Heights family.
Here’s some other stuff that happened: In the very first chapter (first sentence, really) of this book, a teenager named Izzy Richardson burned down her well-heeled parents’ upscale house in Shaker Heights. This first chapter took place in May 1997. The rest of the book recounted the chain of events (mostly in 1996 – 1997) that caused Izzy to torch her family home.
The novel also described a fictional custody battle between a Chinese-American birth mother and a rich white couple.
Most of the white adults and white teenagers in Little Fires Everywhere presented themselves as jerks who thought of themselves as “good people.” I originally begrudged Ng for this. (To be clear, I changed my mind about this.)
In addition, the author initially “offended” me when she portrayed the characters in Pittsburgh as rotten human beings.
When I first learned that Ng was coming to Pittsburgh for her paperback tour, I thought, “If you think that you are so much better than us “Pittsburghers,” then why are you even traveling here to Pittsburgh for your book tour?” (Again, to be clear, I changed my mind about this.)
I’m not technically a Pittsburgher. However, my mom was born and raised inside the city limits. (Mom grew up in Carrick.) My grandpa retired as a Pittsburgh policeman. I work downtown here. It grated me that this elite, privileged Shaker Heights / Ivy League / New England woman ripped on an uneducated, working-class (white) Pittsburgh family in her novel. Even though the fictional Pittsburgh family resembled my own family’s background here. Even though Ng’s description of Pittsburgh in the late 70’s / early 80’s wasn’t incorrect.
(Yeah, I know that my own response helps to explain why a certain populist politician won a certain election. I’m being honest with myself, not proud of myself.)
Why did I attend the book talk after the book touched several of my sore spots? Well, Ng is a nationally-acclaimed author. I wanted to learn about her experiences writing a book that I read.
Also, I wanted to hear what Ng had to say about Pittsburgh to her Pittsburgh audience – AFTER she wrote about Pittsburghers so unfavorably in Little Fires Everywhere.
To my disappointment, when the moderator asked Ng about her memories of Pittsburgh, Ng spoke about her visits to the dinosaur exhibit at the Carnegie Museum. How diplomatic.
Ng did mention her anxiety about her earlier author visit to Shaker Heights after Little Fires Everywhere‘s hardcover release. After all, the fictional residents of Shaker Heights also presented as awful people. Ng noted that the attendees at her Shaker Heights visit didn’t argue with her portrayal of Shaker Heights.
I’m glad that I read Little Fires Everywhere and I’m glad that I had the privilege of watching Ng speak last week.
Once upon a time, I followed my husband Jonathan on his business travel to London. We rented a car. We drove to Tintern Abbey, in Wales, on the River Wye.
Well, Jonathan drove our British rental car on the left side of the road. Jonathan maneuvered the traffic circles (roundabouts). I navigated.
Here’s the first road sign that we saw after we crossed the line into Wales. Note that the first three lines of this sign are in Welsh and the final three lines are in English:
WHEN RED LIGHT
We almost didn’t tour Tintern Abbey.
The government runs this landmark as a day-use attraction, so it closes before the sun sets. The staff ends ticket sales 30 minutes before the attraction closes for the day. We got lost and then we arrived at Tintern Abbey about an hour before it closed.
But we made it!
Cistercian monks established and maintained Tintern Abbey between 1131- 1536. Tintern Abbey closed in 1536 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Here are some of the things that happened:
1.) The monarchs in England used to be Roman Catholic.
2.) The Protestant Reformation began in Saxony (Germany) in 1517.
3.) Henry VIII of England wanted to end his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533 so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
4.) Henry VIII rejected papal supremacy. Parliament passed a law establishing Henry as the head of the Church of England.
5.) In the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry closed all of the monasteries, including Tintern Abbey.
6.) Henry’s agents stripped the monastic property of anything and everything valuable, including the lead roof.
(In Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness, one of the main characters lived as an English monk in a different Catholic monastery. Henry VIII also closed this monastery during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The novel detailed how Henry VIII’s officials plundered that monastery of its valuables and banished the monks. At least one of these monks fled to France. Many of them remained in England but hid from the Protestants during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The King’s officials grew their own wealth by closing the monasteries. See my prior blog post about Anya Seton.)
The band Iron Maiden filmed their music video for “Can I Play with Madness” partly at Tintern Abbey.
Jane Austen shouts-out to Tintern Abbey in her novel Mansfield Park.
Wikipedia taught me that Allen Ginsburg tripped on acid here in 1967 and then wrote his poem Wales Visitation.
William Wordsworth also wrote a poem about Tintern Abbey.
The Wye Valley Railway established a station near the Abbey in 1876. Though prior tourists visited Tintern by boat, fashionable Victorians could now access it by train.
We left the Abbey and grabbed dinner at a local pub. Other patrons spoke Welsh to each other.
We drove through the rural darkness back to London.
Watch for my upcoming blog posts about my adventures in travel.
Today is May 1. May Day. The ancient festival of Beltane.
Ancient residents of Northern Europe celebrated May 1 as a spring festival. My ancient ancestors most likely celebrated on May Day.
In Anya Seton‘s historical fiction novel Katherine, the serfs living on the English protagonist’s estate snuck off and observed Beltane. A nobleman discovered them and ended the party. The powerful men in this novel forbid Beltane since it wasn’t a “Christian” holiday. They labeled Beltane as “pagan.”
In honor of May Day, I blog today about a place in England that predated Christianity in England. Modern-day Pagans (Contemporary Pagans / Neopagans) still gather at this landmark to observe their own beliefs. I blog today about Avebury.
My husband Jonathan travelled to London for business a few times. I took vacation days from my own job, purchased plane tickets, and squatted in his hotel room so that I could blog about England.
Jonathan had a weekend “off,” so we rented a British car. We drove several hours out of London and visited rural England.
My cousin R. previously lived in the United Kingdom for a year. We asked R. for sightseeing recs. Cousin R. told us about Avebury in Wiltshire, in southwest England.
Avebury Henge, a Neolithic henge monument, encircles a section of the village of Avebury. A ditch surrounds the henge.
UNESCO classifies this as part of its “Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites” World Heritage site.
We decided through our research that Avebury was more accessible to us than Stonehenge from our hotel “base” in London. We had limited “free” time during our trip. So, we skipped Stonehenge in favor of Avebury.
To our delight, Avebury and its attractions charged no admission. We found it uncrowded, too!
Visitors can even shop inside the henge.
Sheep graze among the Avebury Henge.
In fact, I watched a sheep rub itself against the henge stones.
Look at the below photo. Some of the henge stones show long-term wear at sheep level.
We explored the actual village of Avebury:
Here is the Parish Church of St. James in Avebury. To be clear, this IS a currently operating Christian (Anglican) church. I include St. James in the middle of this blog post because it sits in the village of Avebury.
St. James dates from approximately 100o A.D. The Normans possibly altered the church after the Norman Invasion in 1066 A.D.
The residents on this land now called Avebury once celebrated such pre-Christian rites as Beltane. The status quo maintained Beltane as a festival.
Then, the (Roman Catholic) Church brought Christianity to Avebury. The status quo no longer maintained the pre-Christian beliefs and festivals. The status quo maintained Roman Catholicism.
Then, in the 1500’s, Henry VIII established the (Protestant) Church of England. Henry dissolved the Roman Catholic monasteries. His supporters prosecuted practicing Catholics. Henry VIII died. Henry’s son Edward VI maintained Protestantism as the status quo in England. Edward VI died.
Henry’s daughter, Mary I, then became Queen. She reinstated Roman Catholicism and persecuted Protestants. Mary I died.
Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I became queen. The status quo changed again, this time in favor of Protestants.
(This actually provides much of the setting for Anya Seton‘s time travel / reincarnation novel Green Darkness.)
In 1561, Elizabeth I ordered that all churches destroy their rood screens. (The rood screen separated a church’s chancel from its nave.) Unknown parties disassembled the rood screen at St. James and hid it behind a false wall. Church inhabitants discovered the rood screen in 1810. St. James parishioners restored the screen and reinstalled it by the end of the 1800’s.
Here is St. James’ churchyard:
Again, I include St. James in the middle of this blog post because it sits in the village of Avebury.
The rest of this post details landmarks several miles outside of Avebury. We had to drive to these these places. They are “associated sites” included in the official Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site:
West Kennet Long Barrow:
This neolithic tomb contained the remains of over 40 individuals.
We parked and walked up a hill in order to view West Kennet Long Barrow. Partway up this hill we came upon a tree filled with ribbons. Unknown visitors tied various items to many of the ribbons.
Here is the inside of West Kennet Long Barrow. Earlier visitors lit candles inside the barrow before we entered it.
This prehistoric artificial mound is the largest one in Europe.
Thank you for letting me share my adventures with you!
Check back for my upcoming blog post about Tintern Abbey, Iron Maiden, and Jane Austin.
(Note: Henry VIII closed Tintern Abbey in 1536 when he replaced Roman Catholicism with Protestantism as the status quo.)
This is a book report on Green Darkness by Anya Seton.
Anya Seton (1904 – 1990) wrote several historical fiction novels about real-life and fictional protagonists. My high school library, my college library, and my Grandma Gaffron’s library all carried her books. Philippa Gregory wrote forwards to new editions of several Seton novels.
I read Dragonwyck first.
Perhaps our high school librarian set it out as one of her recommended books. Dragonwyck told the fictional tale of a poor young farm woman in New York State who married a rich man who knew President Martin Van Buren. She learned that the rich husband actually poisoned his first wife and intended to kill her as well. Dragonwyck has the same gothic plot as movies (such as The Babysitter’s Seduction starring Kerri Russell) and at least one Mary Higgins Clark book (A Cry in the Night).
Then I read Seton’s novel Katherine because I saw it on a list of the “best historical fiction that aspiring writers should read.”
Katherine fictionalized Katherine Swynford’s life in the 1300’s. Katherine grew up in a convent after her father (a knight) died serving the King of England and the Black Death killed her grandparents. Her sister Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster after his first wife died of the Black Death and his second wife also died of something horrible. Katherine’s stepson, Henry, overthrew his own cousin Richard II from the throne of England. Henry became Henry IV of England.
Next, I read My Theodosia.
My Theodosia fictionalized the life of Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr. This is the same Theodosia who inspired the song Dear Theodosia in the Hamilton musical. In real life, Theodosia Burr married a future governor of South Carolina and she moved to his plantation. She ended up “lost at sea” at the age of 29. She was a passenger on a boat that disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean in 1813. (Just a note of caution: My Theodosia‘s story line and language turned racist after Theodosia moved to the plantation.)
Finally, I read Green Darkness.
Now, I consider Green Darkness (published in 1972) as a cross between fantasy and historical fiction. The story “begins” in the year 1970. A fictional American – Celia Marsdon – moves to England with her British husband, Richard.
Richard grew up in his family’s ancestral seat in Sussex, but he hated his childhood there. Richard still decides to move back home after his father’s death. Big mistake.
The Marsdons show up in Sussex on Halloween. They stop first at the ruins of Chowdry House, a real-life Tudor mansion that burned down in the 1700’s. Celia insists that she remembers being in that mansion before it burned. The Marsdons watch bonfire lights in the rural darkness. They meet business associates at the real-life, ancient Spread Eagle Inn. During drinks, somebody jokes about Halloween and its “wormy dead” which “rise from their graves.” The business associates tell Celia a ghost story about a “black monk” (a Benedictine monk) who haunts the area. Celia slips out of the inn to look for the ghost monk. Celia finds the ghost monk and chases it. (Just like every episode of Scooby Doo!) Richard finds Celia and gets angry.
The Marsdons “settle” into Richard’s ancestral home. Their marital problems continue. Richard plays the song “Celia, Wanton and Fair” over and over on his record player.
Celia tours a famous “real” landmark, Ightham Mote, with her mother. They learn that renovation crews recently found a skeleton walled up in the estate’s main house. Celia suffers vague flashbacks to prior events there and she falls ill.
The Marsdon newlyweds hold a dinner party for a bunch of people that they barely know. However, all of the guests at the party actually seem “familiar” to Celia. Celia suffers a medical emergency that night.
As Celia recovers in a hospital, her mother brings to her bedside a physician / Hindu teacher. Under this doctor’s “guidance” Celia recalls memories from her prior life as Celia de Bohun in the 1500’s in Sussex.
The story goes back to the 1500’s for about 500 pages.
Celia’s husband from 1970, Richard Marsdon, is a Catholic Benedictine monk named Stephen Marsdon in the 1500’s.
Brother Stephen Marsdon lives in an English monastery until Henry VIII closes it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I imagine that Stephen’s monastery resembled Tintern Abbey. (I will blog about Tintern Abbey next.) Stephen flees to France, but later returns to Sussex.
I need to mention that Celia de Bohun’s aunt, Ursula, is obsessed with predictions and divinations. Aunt Ursula hires a famous mystic to tell Celia’s fortune. The mystic predicts Celia’s early and violent death.
For the next several hundred pages, Celia de Bohun and Stephen Marsdon fall in love as they dodge the wrath of the Tudor monarchs.
As you probably guessed, Stephen Marsdon and Celia de Bohun leave behind “unfinished business” in the 1500’s that Richard and Celia Marsden resolve in 1970.
Celia Marsdon wakes from her trance in 1970 and she realizes that the guests from her dinner party were all reincarnated from people that she knew as Celia de Bohun in the 1500’s.
The two Celia’s, Richard, and Stephen are all fictional, as are all of the guests from the 1970’s dinner party. However, several of the characters that Celia de Bohun met in the 1500’s are real historical figures. The “ghost monk” that Celia Marsdon chased on Halloween is based on the “real” ghost story about the Black Monk of Pontefract.
Green Darkness spans about 600 pages. In my opinion, Seton should have cut this down to 300 pages. The story goes off on many side plots (tangents) that have nothing to do with Celia and Richard’s “unfinished business.” I suspect that Seton plugged unused material from her other books into this, her final finished novel.
I laughed when Celia de Bohun mentions Katherine Swynford’s famous marriage to John of Gaunt two centuries earlier. (John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, married Mary de Bohun in 1380. I suspect that the author intended that the fictional Celia de Bohun of the 1500’s belonged to the same de Bohun family.)
If I ever return to the United Kingdom, I might visit these real places listed in Green Darkness: the Chowdry Castle ruins, the Spread Eagle Inn, and Ightham Mote.
In Green Darkness, some of the characters who mistreat and abuse others in the 1500’s pay dearly for it in 1970. Similarly, kindly Aunt Ursula suffers in the 1500’s but during the 1970’s dinner party she is rich and beautiful.
It’s important to be nice to people. Karma exists.
Anya Seton passed away in 1990. Hypothetically, if she was born into another life in 1991, she would now be 28 years old in her new life. Perhaps Anya Seton lives on in the body of another writer.