Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween Special: The Little Stranger

I'm always on the look-out for new books to read. And as you may recall I LOVE a good ghost story. Especially now that the evenings are getting darker and colder, there's nothing like snuggling up to a good, shivers-down-your-spine kind of book. Apart from snuggling up to a good man that is. Who should also be of the shivers-down-spine variety, but in a different way. You catch my drift.

Because of my love of a nice chilling tale I was elated to find a recommendation for Sarah Waters' book 'The Little Stranger' on Paula's blog. As I was unfamiliar with the author and her work (which I'm now willing to admit is gross negligence on my part), I would have completely missed this book otherwise. And that would have been a great pity, as I find Sarah Waters does know how to tell a story. The kind that draws you in and stays with you long after you've put the book down.

The Little Stranger is set in rural Warwickshire in the period after WWII. A country doctor is called to Hundreds Hall, the estate of the Ayres family, to tend to a servant. This visit marks the beginning of a  friendship between the lonely doctor, whose own mother was at one time a maid at Hundreds, and the once grand but now impoverished Ayreses. Still, the difference in class is never quite forgotten - by either party. Then eerie things start to happen at the Hall, ever increasing in magnitude and (pause for dramatic effect) malevolence.

This is truly a gripping tale, that leaves you feeling somewhat unsettled. Even though its main characters are not always likeable, you can't help but feel for them. Each one of them is in his or her own way struggling with feelings of loneliness and the seeming hopelessness of their situation. In all, this is so much more than 'just' a ghost story. And I didn't suspect the answer to the mystery till relatively late in the book - whereas I can usually tell how a plot will turn out from miles away (she says smugly). There are some parallels with the Turn of the Screw, where you are made to wonder how much is actually only going on in the head of the governess. The Little Stranger does provide a clear answer to that question in the end.

Although I had been warned this story could become quite unnerving, I blissfully ignored the heads up - as you would have guessed - and only started reading it at 10 PM the day it came in. And found that I couldn't put it down till I really had to get me some sleep - at about 2 AM. By which time things in the book had gotten rather spooky. So spooky in fact that I started hearing every little sound in the house after I turned out the light. If ever that happens to you - I've got the answer.

Head over to YouTube and watch this clip of Billy Connolly and his take on hauntings. I'm telling you, you cannot still be spooked after watching this. A word of warning to those unfamiliar with the Big Yin: he does have a certain fondness for strong language. That is a euphemism, yes. Well spotted.

I do so adore him.  

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Eternally remembered - The 53rd Welsh Division

The first time I laid eyes on this monument I just got so annoyed. SO annoyed.

Not because of the Celtic Cross itself though. I think it's rather a nice thing actually. Bit austere and somber looking but that fits its purpose.

This is the 53rd Welsh Division Memorial.

On the 27th of October 1944, after 4 days of bitter fighting, the 53rd Welsh (Welch) Division succeeded in liberating the city of 's-Hertogenbosch, a.k.a. Den Bosch, from German occupying forces. In the fighting, 146 of the Division's men lost their lives and another 705 were injured.

At the base of the memorial cross the following inscription is carved:
To those who deserve to be eternally remembered.

And that's what set me off. First time I actually saw the monument with my own eyes I couldn't believe where they had put it. Some out of the way, obscure little corner of Den Bosch. I remember thinking to myself: eternal remembrance, HERE??

I was less than impressed. And started muttering and spluttering that if the city council had wanted the sacrifice of these men to be remembered, they should have bloody well put the memorial in a place where people would actually have more than an ultra-slim chance of seeing it - and be reminded to remember.

Not too long after that I had to swallow my words. Bloody wells included. I found out there was actually a good reason for it to be put in that specific location. The Division's survivors themselves felt this was the right place for the memorial, because it happened to be the exact spot from which they launched their attack to liberate the city. Which makes it a place that holds very special meaning to them. And us obviously. Um. That sort of took the wind out of my sails of indignation. Sometimes I even manage to annoy myself with my little miss know-it-all attitude.

Have a look at the below picture.

Doesn't the veteran in the photo have the most fabulous smile in the world?

And what do you know, he doesn't seem to mind being in an out of the way, obscure little corner of Den Bosch.

Picture of the 53rd Welsh Division Memorial was taken with my iPhone.
The other pictures were found here and here.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Tall Tales & Family Legends

Clan Menzies Tartan

Anyone fancy a game of myth busting?

I grew up with the following story.

Once upon a time there were three brothers (why is it that stories always have to have THREE brothers?!) who belonged to the Scottish Menzies clan. I'm picturing rough and rugged red-heads now, just so you know. Dashingly handsome too obviously. Said brothers came to the Netherlands to fight as mercenaries in the army of the Prince of Orange, in the battle of Heiligerlee. The year was 1568.

One (or maybe all, the family legend is a bit hazy on the details) of the brothers survived the battle - yet never made it back to Scotland. He (or again, maybe they) stayed on in the Netherlands, settled down and started a family. And over time, the name of Menzies changed to a more 'latinised' version: Menses. Yes, I do know what it means, thank you*. Every single GP I've ever seen (granted not too many) will at some point in the conversation come out with: 'Say, do you actually know... etc'. I have to admit I snarl when that happens. Not pretty.

Growing up, there were tons of books in the house, including lots of books of myths and legends. Celtic legends mostly. I loved the idea of having a Celtic background - even if it was in the very distant past. So as a child, whenever someone would comment on my unusual surname, I would casually say something along the lines of 'Oh well, it's actually Scottish you know'. Kids. Oh alright, yes, I sometimes still do it.

But then as I grew older, I started to question the family legend a bit. There are basically two camps in the current generations of Menses'. One holds on to the story with all their might, the other says it's actually absolute bollocks (that would be dad). Pardon my Dutch. So let's have a closer look. Let's pretend I'm Jane Marple (but tons younger and prettier and with not a hint of spinster about her - well yes I'm single at the moment but that's beside the point).

Is it plausible for three Scottish brothers to come fighting in the Netherlands as mercenaries in that day and age? Hmm, yes actually. There were many Scottish mercenaries about in Europe in those days. It would not have been unheard of. The yes camp says that the army records of that time still exist - and that when one of them checked said records, there they were. Three Menzies brothers. Or in any case three men from clan Menzies. Sadly they failed to make a copy. Bit of a pity that.

Then there's the 'physical' evidence. You may know that the Dutch are a very tall people. And among the Dutch, none are taller and lankier (think blonde giants) than the people over in Groningen, the most northern province of the Netherlands. Where the Menses family originally comes from (fact). Where the battle of Heiligerlee took place. But the Menses men are a lot shorter and stockier than the average Groninger. More Celtic in build perhaps. Food for thought you may think. Ah, but the no camp have a trick up their sleeve.

One of my uncles dabbles in genealogy. He takes great delight in scouring all possible records for traces of our ancestry. What evidence has he found so far that links us to bonnie Scotland? Er, let me think. Ah yes, I remember. NOTHING. Nothing whatsoever. And hang on - what about those army records? Has he checked those as well? To be honest: I don't know. But what good would it do to prove there were Menzies clan members in the army at that time if you can't link them to the Menses family anyway?

If you want to know what I think: I say myth busted. With pain in my heart though. I do have a thing for the Celts. And I loved visiting Scotland last year. I fell in love with Edinburgh as well as with the highlands. And yes, in spite of it all, when we drove through Perthshire and saw a road sign saying 'Castle Menzies, next exit', my heart skipped a beat. So if you must know, yes, I did end up buying some Menzies paraphernalia. I got my parents a Menzies tartan scarf (quite smart in black & white), two clan booklets and (no sniggering please) a tea towel with the Menzies crest and motto: Vil God I Zal (God Willing I shall).

There is one small consolation though. While in Scotland, I discovered that the name Menzies is actually not pronounced 'menzies'. It's pronounced something like 'mingies' (rhymes with thingies). Well. I'm not so sure about that. Sounds more like a funny sort of condition if you ask me: 'How's your Angus doing, Mrs. Burns, I heard he was ill? Oh yes, thank you for asking Mrs. Dunbar, he's ill indeed. He's got a bad case of the mingies'. So I'm thinking I might be better off with a non-mingies related surname after all. I mean, check the following limerick I found and tell me I'm not right. Mind you substitute the 'enzies' sound for 'ingies'. 

There wis a young lassie named Menzies,
That asked her aunt whit this thenzies.
Said her aunt wi a gasp,
Ma dear, it's a wasp
An you're haudin the end whaur the stenzies!


* Just in case you don't know what it means: menses means moons or months in Latin, but is nowadays mainly used to indicate a woman's menstruation. Aargh.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Stairway to ... the fence (a cat story)

Oh dear.

I really want to post this story. 

But if I do, I'll have to confess to an embarrassing little secret. Something I'd much rather keep hidden. As my own dark little vice.

But this is a CAT story you see.

And a good cat story at that. With a happy ending. We're talking mucho contented cat. MUCHO.

So there's nothing else to it. I'll have to fess up.

Here goes (coughs and shuffles feet).

I sometimes read online tabloids. The gossipy ones.

Yes. I know.

The articles are mostly mind-numbingly idiotic. With more than a hint of misogynism when the next female celebrity gets slashed and burned for allowing herself to get photographed with a touch of cellulite (oh the shock, the horror!). Or worse: for not being back at pre-baby weight within two weeks of giving birth. The way these women let themselves go... it shouldn't be allowed. According to tabloid 'journalists' anyway. Whom I suspect have never been able to get near a woman. Something like Revenge of the Sad, Angry and Pathetic therefore.

WHY do I read them then (on occasion)? Er. Because sometimes it just feels good to give my brain some time off? Especially after a very busy day? Like it feels really good at times to go for a Big Mac instead of a home-cooked meal or dinner in a fancy restaurant?

Anyway - enough about the dark corners of my psyche. Back to the cat story!

I found this article on Daily Mail online a couple of weeks ago. 

Ginger tabby Tom is getting on in years a bit and sadly, so is his arthritis. Which means that it has become increasingly difficult for him to climb the fence of his owner Adrienne's backyard. To overlook his territory and mingle or mess with the neighbourhood cats. And jumping down the fence is obviously not doing his poor old joints a world of good either. 

One day, Adrienne's boyfriend Gareth couldn't stand the sight of it anymore. So he set to work to make Tom his very own spiral staircase to the fence. In my book, Gareth is the man of the year. Check it out.

The next pic is my favourite. Look at his smug little face. Doesn't it have 'I'm the King of the World' all over it?

So Adrienne: I'm saying this one's a keeper.

If you INSIST on reading the original article, it can be found here.

And for another bit on people who built some great stuff for their kitty, read this post over at Linda's blog. Them's good people.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The forty rules of love

In case you were wondering: it's NOT some sort of wacky dating manual. It's a novel.

My Turkish friend Güner was in raptures over this book by Turkish author Elif Şafak - even to the point that she admitted she had developed a tiny crush on one of the main characters, Shams of Tabriz (we won't tell her husband Ali). She urged me to buy an English copy and I'm glad she did. It was an interesting read.

The word 'interesting' obviously has several meanings. People frequently use it when they're not overly impressed by something but don't want to sound too dismissive (I've been known to do that too!). I'm not using interesting in that sense of the word here, but the book did have some aspects that appealed to me a bit less. On the other hand, it is a well-written book and some of its content also came to me at just the right moment.

This is a book with a story within a story. Ella Rubinstein is a house wife who has been trying to convince herself for some time that she really has a lot to be thankful for - a (well-to-do) husband, three children and a comfortable home. But something is lacking in her life and most definitely in her relationship with her husband David. She takes a job as a reader for a publisher and her first assignment is to read a novel by a new author, Aziz Z. Zahara (who turns out to be Scottish - you didn't see that one coming did you?).

The book tells the story of the renowned Sufi mystic Rumi whose life and perceptions change forever when wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and his forty rules of love come into his life. Rumi and Shams become inseparable companions but their spiritual love for each other does much to upset those close to them, let alone the establishment in 13th century Konya in Anatolia, Turkey.

Ella has only just started reading the book, called 'Sweet Blasphemy', when she decides to find out more about the author - and ends up corresponding with him. And as you would have it, her life will also never be the same again after that.

Each chapter of the book is told from the view point of one of its (many) characters. This could have been distracting, but I have to say it adds to the atmosphere of the whole. The 13th century story in particular really comes alive through this. It is a good introduction to the life and times of Rumi, whose poems I've always loved. Elif Şafak knows how to tell a story. And yet, in spite of that, some of the characters remained two-dimensional to me. The modern time story of Ella and Aziz somehow fails to convince me, it lacks a certain depth. It has more than a hint of chick-lit for grown-ups about it. Which is perfectly fine, it's just that the story falls a bit flat. It's as if the author poured all her inspiration into the 13th century story-line and characters and had too little left to make these two really come to life.

And then of course there's the all-consuming love between Rumi and Shams. It would have moved me more if they hadn't shown, in my perception at least, an extraordinary lack of compassion for the people closest to them. Sometimes things that annoy you tell you something about yourself and I know that I could often do with a touch more 'detachment' - but it feels as if to Rumi and Shams 'the others' don't seem to really matter anymore. The cold indifference some of their supposed loved ones are treated with doesn't just border on cruelty in my eyes. So no, I did not develop a crush for Shams myself. Even though he does do a lot of good deeds and does show many good traits in the book that do endear him to you. Same goes for Rumi.

Still I have to say this book touched me. I began to really feel for some of the secondary characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Suleiman the Drunkard, Rumi's wife Kerra and his adopted daughter Kimya. I even began to feel for his son Aladdin - and he's not the most likable character in there. 

Over to Shams' forty rules. At times the way another one of them is introduced in the book comes across as a bit, well, contrived, but there are some things in there that do really ring true. Without it sounding like just another self-help manual. Some of the rules just happened to strike a chord with me.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. Has anyone else read it? I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

Oh and did I already mention I LOVE the cover?

Monday, 17 October 2011

When life gives you lemons

After yesterday's little episode, I felt the need for some comfort food. And I knew just what I wanted.

On my last trip to the UK I tried a delightful dessert called 'lemon posset'. I had never come across it before, although I do vaguely seem to recall that the word posset was already mentioned in the Scottish play. Not quite sure though - I may just be making that up! And I can't really see lady Macbeth serving this to her dear spouse - that would sort of disturb the whole sinister image. Although, perhaps lemons and sugar would have sweetened that little hand. Wasn't posset some sort of alcoholic drink? A hot toddy type thing? Oh never mind!

I LOVED it. It is rich, creamy, and delightfully lemonny (is that a word?). So I was determined to find me the recipe and make this at home one day. And what do you know? Easiest recipe for pudding in the world! I took that to be a sign. What do you mean I'm interpreting things to suit my own wants?

You need 500 ml of cream (Brits would use double cream, but we don't have that in NL, so I just took our regular variety), the juice of three lemons and 120 grams of sugar. And that's it!

Put the cream and the sugar into a sauce pan and bring to the boil while stirring so the sugar disolves. Let it boil for a good 3 minutes. Then take the pan off the heat, and pour the cream into a jug. Add the lemon juice, give it a good stir and then pour the mixture into containers of your choice. I used tea cups - looks ever so cute. This is a very rich dessert - you may want to use smaller containers. I'm a greedy pig so my relatively large tea cups suited me just fine.

The next bit in the process is the one I hadn't really thought about: it needs to set. In the fridge. For AT LEAST 3 hours. So much for the instant gratification I had in mind. Oh well. At least that means I won't have to think what to serve for dessert for this evening's girlie get-together.

I sampled one of the cups this morning. Had me a teaspoon of pale yellow loveliness - to die for. The acid in the lemon juice sets the cream which doesn't curdle the way milk does, because of its high fat content. You really end up with the smoothest of puddings with this recipe! I added some candied peel on top - just to make it look a bit more interesting.

Obviously I do need to reprogramme myself and not go for food the moment something upsets me. I'll sort that one out yet. For now I've got lovely lemon posset to look forward to tonight!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Dragon of the Marshes

The city I live in goes by many names and nick names. One of the more notable is 'the (invincible) Dragon of the Marshes', as of old it was surrounded by marsh lands which made the city very hard to conquer in medieval times. I guess I don't need to mention the name is borne with great pride. Today however I met the real dragon of the marshes. And let me tell you - it wasn't pretty.

As today was supposed to be one of the last truly glorious days we'll be having this autumn, I decided to make the most of the fine weather and go out on a nice stroll. It was a bit nippy but the sun was shining and the skies were clear, and the Duke's Forest was looking its most gorgeous. I actually had me one of those 'I'm so glad I get to live here' moments.

As I was enjoying my stroll so much I thought I might actually chance venturing on to the marsh lands again, the so-called 'Bossche Broek' - this time wearing the appropriate footwear.

It was lovely at first. There were a few more people about than usual, mainly walking a dog or two. I was getting friendly with some lovely pooches and their owners before long, patting heads and calling them a good boy (the dogs, not the owners, although admittedly one of them was quite a dish - and he looked as if he wouldn't have minded a pat or two).

Now everyone who knows me, knows I'm from a loooong line of cat lovers. That doesn't mean I hate dogs though. I like dogs (not all dogs). But I adore cats (pretty much all cats). Spot the difference right there? Today however, I came close to adopting a dog. Here's what happened.

Towards the end of my stroll I saw another dog and owner coming towards me. The dog was HUGE. Size of a small bear (don't ask me the breed please - I can distinguish a poodle from a chihuaha but that's pretty much it). In spite of its size though it was acting like a playful puppy. It ran circles around the woman who walked him, leapt in the air, wagged its tail, and kept running off and running back. Very high on the cute scale!

The dog's owner however kept barking commands at him and sounded genuinely angry. Maybe that's why when he spotted me he came bounding towards me - in search of friendlier company perhaps? I didn't stop walking but I do admit I slowed down a bit - hey, about 80 kilos of dog coming towards you at full speed - wouldn't you have been just a teensy bit apprehensive?

At one point it became clear to me that the dog did not. intend. to.slow.down. I stopped and held a hand out to him but before I knew it, I had two huge paws against my chest, lost my balance and fell backwards on my (in this case fortunately ample) bum. The dog was bouncing up and down beside me, wagging its tail.

It's was such a ridiculous situation that I was about to start laughing (in spite of being quite sore) but by that time the dog's owner was standing in front of me. And without any provocation she started off on the most vile and vicious rant. She was screaming at me for having been so 'incredibly stupid' to stop and hold a hand out to the dog, because 'any person with a fraction of common sense' would have just kept walking on and ignored him, etc. etc.  And from there on she went quite graphic and abusive - I'd best leave those bits out.

I was flabbergasted. Just stunned. I couldn't believe she was actually saying those things to me. SHE had no cause to be angry with ME at all!

I won't go into detail about what she had to say to me when I protested. Suffice it to say that it involved more very vile abuse. Not all directed at me though. The dog got his fair share - and she lashed out at him physically as well. The poor thing was looking absolutely miserable - probably not understanding what he had done wrong. I just wanted to send her flying off the dyke and take the dog home with me. Tell him everything would be OK and he would never ever have to see Cruella de Vil again.

It didn't get to that though. An elderly couple walking their (exceedingly ugly yet cute) dog that I passed some time before caught up with us and started protesting at her tirade as well. They had witnessed the whole thing happening. Instead of having a go at more swearing she turned abruptly, and walked away at a brisk pace. The dog gave us one last pathetic look and followed suit.

I would have wondered if the whole episode had been real if it wasn't for my sore back side. But what a weird character that was! I would have laughed at the whole 'dog runs woman over' thing if it hadn't been for her throwing the mother of all tantrums. She must have forgotten to take her pills this morning!

So for the second time in a short period I found myself limping off the marsh lands, again feeling very sorry for myself. Once home I discovered that even though I had not had the sensation of having fallen on to something sharp, there was not only a small tear in my (new) jeans but in my undies as well - plus quite a big bloody scratch. And I think I'm going to be black and blue tomorrow. Yes, sympathy IS in order!

Note to self: never wear new clothing when on a country stroll. If at all possible, avoid sociopaths.

All pictures taken by me with iPhone - but country stroll pictures taken on an earlier occasion.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

9 little streets

There are times when a girl just needs a little retail therapy.

Even if it stays limited to a little window shopping. Sometimes the eyes and the soul just need a little taste of the colourful, the wonderful, the exotic, the quirky or even the just plain weird.*

Whenever that mood hits me there's no better place to go than to one of Amsterdam's nicest quarters, the  '9 little streets'. Which happens to be exactly what I did on Saturday afternoon.

And if after doing the 9 little streets I still haven't had enough, there's always the Magna Plaza on the way back. With its Sissy Boy Homeland store. I really heart the below mirror. And that chandelier. Serious attack of the gollumses - we definitely wants it my precious.

Obviously I now have a wish list longer than my arm.

* And believe you me, in Amsterdam they know a thing or two about weird. Yes yes, I AM of Rotterdam descent. Brits: think Liverpool versus Manchester. 'Nuff said?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Book Crossing

It's a book by Simon Carmiggelt.

And I found it yesterday - only a few steps away from my apartment building. A little present. For free. To pass on to others after I've enjoyed it myself.

I had heard of the concept of Book Crossing before and it really appealed to me. It starts with people buying a book (or using one of their own), then labelling it and 'setting it free' - hopefully for a journey around the world. But I had actually never come across a 'released' book before (let alone set one free myself). Did I already mention I LOVE this idea?

I haven't read anything by Carmiggelt in ages, but I used to quite like his books. They're a bit on the melancholy side but with lots of humor in them all the same. He did great cat stories too. I actually came across Carmiggelt several times in Amsterdam when I was in my early teens - he was always mumbling to himself. Probably working out a great plot!

I'm going to enjoy re-reading him. And then I'll lovingly put the book back in its plastic wrapper and set it free again.

I've already thought of just the spot. And I know I'm going to love checking its whereabouts from time to time.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Getting spooked Welsh style

'In the castles dark corners and creaking stairs abound. The Welsh take great delight in their child-like fear of the unexplained. Who dares?'

That little paragraph had me at hello. You know how I love me a good ghost story, and tales of myths and mystery. And you may remember my fascination for Wales. So those combined make quite a treat! Well, for me at least.

Here's another delicious headline snippet:

'Halloween, but for real. You get to experience it in Wales, where haunted castles and unexplained phenomena are rife.'

Two years ago my dad brought me a newspaper clipping which he thought I might like. And as is so often the case (not always though!), he was right. It was quite a lengthy article from the travel section of the AD (one of Holland's main newspapers), titled 'Ghost Hunting in Wales' (very appropiately issued towards Halloween).

And as I liked it so much I've now decided to share it with you. So remember, I didn't write the below (meaning don't go looking at me if there are any mistakes in there). I only produced the (not all-too-literal) translation. The original article was written by a Egbert Jan Riethof, a free-lance travel journalist. Nice bit of work there Egbert Jan (yes, bit of an old-fashioned name - no, can't blame you if your mind immediately wandered towards Dilbert or Dogbert). Mind you don't get upset at EJ's sometimes cynical view of things. It didn't stop me from wanting to hop on the next plane to Wales to soak up the atmosphere!

Getting spooked Welsh style

At the bar of the Talkhouse we find Welshman John Wake, age 63, a former inspector of Cardiff's homicide squad and now a successful business man. He downs another whisky. It's precious Penderyn Malt, one of the few local whiskies. He'll shortly go up to his room, that bears the name of Myfanwy. It is decorated in shades of blue, with a bathroom in the style of the twenties. But John is stalling his retreat for a bit.

The Talkhouse is more than a pub, it is a white-stuccoed property dating back to the 15th century, well-kept, where Steve and Jacqueline Garratt serve top meals and accommodate guests as they would have been in the 19th and early 20th century. The place smells of good wine and old wood. Floorboards are creaking and window frames are groaning. The silence outside is all-pervasive, as not many people reside in Pontdolgoch, a hamlet near the town of Caersws in Mid-Wales. John would have preferred a different room than the one allocated to him, but he's determined not to let it get to him.

Myfanwy is haunted.

Which means that strange phenomena are known to occur in the room. Guests have spotted apparitions, like a woman walking through a wall. In olden days there wasn't any wall there obviously. Land lady Jacqueline contributes to the story.
'I don't believe in the supernatural at all, but what I'm about to tell you is a fact. I had been cleaning Myfanwy, locked the door behind me and walked down the stairs. I then realised that I had left a bucket in the room and walked back. But there was something heavy against the door, on the inside of the room. It took a lot of effort from both Stephen and myself to get it open. It turned out to be the wardrobe that had always been against the wall by the door. It had moved a couple of metres. It's unexplainable.'
The room is furthermore always cold - virtually impossible to heat up. John bends over his glass and shakes his rugged head. He mildly swears under his breath: 'blast'.

Pontdolgoch at dusk

We don't need to feel sorry for John Wake. He could have easily booked himself a room at the Sheraton, a couple of hours' drive down the road. But he's been through some tough times before and the man is actually enjoying his own fear. Welshmen like him take great pride in their ancient celtic culture, that distinguishes them from large neighbour England. Their spiritual heritage is delivered through age-old myths and legends of heroism, mystery and magic. In Wales, people like mocking their own tales of ghosts and spirits. At the same time they are fascinated by them.

Take Ian Crawford (age 40) for instance, who lives in Caldicot in the South-east of Wales, next to a cemetery. 'My mother was a psychic' he says, 'I am more of a sceptic'. However, even this sceptic feels something weird is going on at the cemetery - several times a week. At around 1 AM he goes there to take pictures. He shows me a couple of them. 'Look' he says, 'you can see orbs here and here'.

Orbs are of course celestial bodies. In this case however, they are strange balls of light that appear to float over the headstones. All energy according to Ian. In the balls you can vaguely distinguish squiggly lines. This can't be explained in any way. It's paranormal. No, it's not an effect of digital photography. Ian has already looked into that. In that case the orbs would be in every picture. And they're not.

St. Mary's church yard Caldicot

Wales has several more of these spooky places. Per square kilometre there are more ancient castles and mansions than anywhere else in the world. In total over 600 of them. And as you would guess, many political and family dramas are known to have taken place there. No wonder a ghost or two have lingered. Like in Llancaiach Fawr Manor, near the former mining village of Nelson for instance.

According to a recent poll, people view the manor as one of Britain's most haunted houses. The building dates from 1540 and played a role in, among other things, the English Civil War (1641-1651), in which followers of king Charles I and the Parliamentarians fought each other to the death. There are 7 ghosts haunting the mansion, or so a chap dressed in 17th century garments who introduces himself as Jonathan tells us. Jonathan guides visitors around the place and also does nightly ghost tours, that allow people to sit in the creepy rooms with torches, in the hope of experiencing the energy.

But the local ghosts are good sports and also show themselves during the day-time. 'There is a strange energy in this house. Sometimes you can hear voices in places where no one can be found. Some visitors can feel little hands. There have been sightings of a man in Victorian dress. He walks through the walls and once he even went outside. Where he promptly caused a traffic accident.'

In Llancaiach Fawr Manor, scientists are investigating the phenomena as well. Once they spotted a cat strolling past on video. The camera had been placed in a locked area of the manor, where no one had ever spotted a cat before. Jonathan states: 'We don't make any promises, but many participants do pick up on the emotions of the place, in particular in the upper stories of the house.'

A bit further north, in the overwhelmingly beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park, we can find Craig-y-Nos Castle, literally meaning the 'Rock of the Night' Castle (built in 1846). Here, in the Swansea valley with its boisterous river Tawe, world-famous opera singer Adelina Patti made her home from 1878 onwards. The private theatre the Italian had built is still in existence and even in use, complete with its original, albeit somewhat dusty stage props and sets. The famous composer Richard Wagner stopped here once to listen to the diva (note from little miss know-it-all: obviously Bertie came a-visiting as well - when he was still the Prince of Wales).

Craig-y-Nos isn't just a place to stay on for a week or so in one of its suites and to walk in the solemn surrounding nature. This grim-looking building, partly renovated, partly with miserable looking corners, gaping holes, dilapidated staircases and rooms in which no one has moved anything for decades, is very popular with die-hards of the paranormal. Participants of the Night Time Ghost Tours hold candle-lit seances in the basement, sitting around wonky tables in the presence of psychic mediums. Either that or a specialist of The Paranormal World makes an appearance. The Paranormal World is an association that strives to give good information about supernatural phenomena and that is seeking for evidence for the existence - or non-existence - of spirits. They can for instance show you how you can make a table 'float'. Dinner, an overnight stay and breakfast included.

Adelina Patti

'The first owner of Craig-y-Nos, a Captain Rice Powell, was cursed, which explains why things are so weird here' says Sandeep Bacheta, the castle's PR man. Via the internet, people can watch images of the most eerie rooms direct. They are sending daily e-mails to inform the Paranormal Team of Craig-y-Nos of their findings. Ghostbusters Sandeep calls them. 'Their numbers are increasing and more and more people come in person to partake in the investigations.' His eyes are glistening. 

And so everyone has his or her own incentives to believe or not to believe that there is more between heaven and earth. Colourful Geraint ap Iorwerth is a vicar of the Anglican church, stationed at Pennal, in National Park Snowdonia. Welsh is Geraint's first language, his English being only slightly more understandable than Moldavian. He gained nationwide fame when he applied for a drinks license for his historical church, St. Peter ad Vincula. 'Everyone is welcome here, from every faith', he says. 'We have a lot of people coming to this valley, 'The Valley in the Mist', the mystical and mythical heart of Wales. There is so much ancient history here, the mist hangs so low... There are things happening here you cannot put in words.'

St. Peter ad Vincula Pennal

He himself has seen visions of the Divine Feminine, the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung, who passed away in 1961, and several knights crusaders. The energy Geraint experienced at those times was magical. He also stepped into 'a white ball of light' once. Some of his colleagues say he is 'possessed of the devil'. But he says he accepts the visions as part of life. 'The turning point for me was 25 years ago when I saw The Green Man, a central figure in celtic mythology. He became my spiritual guide. My church superiors are not really happy with me. But everyone is still welcome here.' He gestures towards the drinks cabinet. 'Even though I'm not too sure how long I'll still be here'. (note from Sacha: I checked. He's still there alright. Last got into the news for burning pages from the Bible, the what he called 'negative, nasty bits'. Not your average vicar indeed!).

The further north the traveller penetrates Wales, the more rugged and at the same time lovelier the land becomes and the more patriottic its - very hospitable - people. Welsh is the official language next to English. In the south, English is usually mentioned first on street signs (slow / araf), in the north its the other way round. The pronounciation (note: in Dutch!) of Llangollen, known as the 'spiritual town' is Glengoglen, with very harsh guttural g sounds, as if someone is suppressing a sneeze with much force (note from Sacha: this comment I find really funny - we Dutch are always told our language sounds like we're trying to cough up furballs and here this guy is commenting at another language with hard guttural sounds. It's got a bit of a 'good to know we're not the only ones' feel to it if you ask me!).

Plas Newydd Llangollen

Nearby we find the medieval castle of Plas Newydd, which became famous throughout Britain when tv show Most Haunted set up camp there. Another gloomy, angular building with a rich history in a setting that makes a person stand in awe, it's that beautiful. Here too you can participate in ghostly activities, for things appear to go bump in the night in this place as well. The caretaker investigated the castle's history. 'I don't believe in these things myself, but once I was standing in a doorway when all of a sudden someone put a heavy hand on my shoulder. But there was no one there. You don't have to believe in the supernatural, but you don't have to go and deny a fact either.'

Mystical and supernatural phenomena abound and there are plenty of places to enjoy getting spooked here in North-Wales. Take Castell Dinas Bran for instance, full of mystery, an enormously complex castle high above Llangollen, and Ruthin Gaol, a building that was already a prison in the 16th century in the charming town of Ruthin that is full of houses in the Tudor style. A lot of men have been put to death in this place, you can tell.

And then there's Gwydir Castle in Llanwrst, 20 kilometres away from the northern coast. Peacocks have kept watch at this house that is creaking in all its joints for the past 180 years. Sightings have been reported here of ghosts and even of strange smells. Peter and Judy Welford bought Gwydir in 1994 and have since then been busy with its restoration. 'We have always listened to Gwydir's subtle frequencies. They have developed over the centuries and are an extra plus over the history and matter of the place. It has its own dense and layered atmosphere. My wife and I protect that vulnerable soul. Everyone who comes here, must experience it for themselves. If you enter a sceptic, you won't experience anything. You have to want it.'

And maybe that's just it. You have to want it.

Towards the east, near the northern shore is Bodelwyddan Castle. In the Watts Hall, many people can hear footsteps, if they want to, footsteps of inhabitants long gone. Rachel has been guiding tours of people trying to experience something for the past three years. 'I sometimes hear a few things myself, but in all truth not really much. We have recorded sounds that you can listen to over the internet. We experiment with for instance equipment that measures electromagnetic fields. They tend to be 'off' when there's a ghost somewhere. Sometimes groups pick up on all sorts of things, other groups leave heavily disappointed.'

Gwydir Castle

"I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them".

Mark Twain

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Paradise. Also known as Glen Affric

I can feel such longing, gazing at the pictures of Glen Affric.

Fab and I were here in the spring of 2010. And whereas we fell in love with all of Scotland (the bits we saw anyway), this place just felt exceptional.

It was peaceful. Quiet. Unspoiled.

The air was so fresh and clean. And all you could hear was the sound of the birds and the cascading water. We could have stayed forever.

With things being so hectic lately, I'm so grateful to have my home as a safe haven, where I can recharge my batteries.

And yet I could also really do with being back at Glen Affric. To take a step back, clear away the cobwebs and just breathe.