Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Celtic Britain--my first tour of the UK

I wrote this article in July 2001, upon my return from a university tour of England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. This was the first of four (so far) extended trips to the UK. A joint effort of the English and religion departments, the tour members prepared research papers beforehand, and presented them to the "class" during extended coach trips. This article was published in La Sierra Today magazine in December 2001. There was also a travel journal, which I'll publish to this blog separately.
The Celtic cross, with its circle behind the cross beams, symbolizes the eternity of God.

May those who love us, love us,
And those who don't love us,
May God turn their hearts;
And if He doesn't turn their hearts
May he turn their ankles
So we'll know them by their limping.
(old Celtic blessing)

I admit, I limped. A lot. But I have a note from my doctor, so don’t tattle to my pastor. (Besides, she’s seen me with my walking stick.) There were times I felt like roadkill, after a long day of pounding the cobblestones or dragging up six flights of un-air-conditioned stairs to get to the Celtic Britain display in the British Museum. The castles or cathedrals we visited were always at the hill’s crown (for defensive purposes), often surrounded by an ancient stone wall (and we had to leave the bus at the bottom of the mount). But no one did it to me: it was my choice. And my clothes are much looser after all that exercise, so who’s complaining?

The trip was a class for some, and business for several others. So I probably shouldn’t mention that it was fun. The IRS or the academic vice president might take exception to our claims. 
The Celtic Britain tour group visited a church in Dublin, Ireland.

The Celtic Britain 2001 tour, June 18 to July 3, was offered for academic credit in both religion and English departments. Students researched and wrote papers before the trip, and presented them from the jump seat at the front of the coach. Non-academic tour members were educated right along with the students. There were twenty-two tour members, including directors Dorothy Minchin Comm, PhD, professor of English, and John Jones, PhD, professor and dean of the School of Religion.

We were an eclectic bunch: retired medical missionaries, university grad students, the two directors of the LSU Women’s Resource Center, elementary school teachers, nurses, an actor, musicians, history buffs. Seasoned travelers and first-timers. One had hardly been out of her small town, and was terrified of her first trip on a ferry across the Irish Sea. Soon she was savoring the sea air, something like Funny Girl singing, "Don’t rain on my parade," thanks to the helpful and encouraging attitude of her new friends. Some of us stayed grouped together in twos or threes, others ran out the door alone. 

Kit Watts and Penny Shell enjoyed the summer solstice at Tintagel, Cornwall.
We visited places we’d read about all our lives, from books or magazines on history, art, culture, and religion. Stonehenge was our first stop, and the thirteenth-century Salisbury Cathedral was our second. The architecture of cathedrals, castles, and Neolithic hillforts were equally stunning. We went to sites as diverse as southeastern England, Cornwall, Wales, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and back into central England. In Wales, we found a stone circle in a traffic roundabout.

Our mission was to walk in the footsteps of the Celtic saints, David of Wales, Bridget, Patrick, Ciaran, Columcille/Columba, Brendan the Navigator, Cuthbert, and many others. Those footsteps included the monasteries at Clonfert and Clonmacnoise, Glastonbury, Iona and Lindisfarne, Downpatrick, and Glendalough, as well as the tiny 1600 year-old drymasonry oratory of Gallarus. The saints, of course, have many miraculous and (frankly too-fabulous) legendary feats attributed to them. In fact, they were pioneer missionaries to the pagan Celtic and Saxon settlers in the British Isles. They fearlessly risked their lives to preach the Gospel to some very wild, sometimes savage pagans!

1600-year-old Gallarus Oratory, Dingle, Ireland.
We saw the original Book of Kells (illuminated Gospels) in Dublin, and a Magna Carta in Salisbury. We walked through stone cells where the Gospels were laboriously copied and illuminated with fanciful animals and Celtic Christian symbols. What would be the quality of our work, if we thought that it would be scrutinized and appreciated 1200 years from now? La Sierra Today in a climate-controlled Plexiglass box, with hundreds of pilgrims lined up daily to pay their £4 admission ticket? I wish!

We found the tiny Adventist church, literally in the shadow of the large Bath Abbey. We worshiped with fellow believers in churches in Dublin and Edinburgh. Members of the tour took parts of the services there, giving prayer or special music, and even the sermon. We had devotions on the coach, rolling across the green, sheep-dotted moors of Cornwall, past the Norman keeps and church towers of Wales, and the medieval city walls of Ireland. I committed myself to silently praying before the altar of every church or cathedral or abbey that we visited.

"Wear British Wool: 40 Million Sheep Can't Be Wrong," said a bumper sticker. Island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland.
Chi-Ro carpet page from Book of Kells
Those were the high points of my experience, really. It’s hard to choose which place was more beautiful or perfect than the last. The 1500 year-old Clonfert cathedral was tiny and dark, with birds flying in the rafters above, and electric space heaters stored in the vestry. Glastonbury was immense, but roofed in blue sky and carpeted in grass. My ancestors prayed and took Communion 840 years ago, in that place, when it stood in all its glory. St. Margaret’s Chapel, a tiny barrel-vaulted chapel on the rock at Edinburgh Castle, was dedicated to Queen Margaret by her son and my ancestor, David I of Scotland. Two generations of my Neville ancestors were interred at Durham Cathedral, the largest medieval building in Britain. I took Communion at Westminster Abbey, where other ancestors were crowned or buried; and at St. Paul’s, a monument to God’s glory. Holy places, all, for more than a millennium. Hard to fathom, when you’re native to the American Southwest, really only habitable since the advent of air conditioning.

But my favorite place was the tiny, tidal island of Lindisfarne, off the North Yorkshire coast. The coach drove across the causeway scant minutes before the tide stranded us on the island for more than three hours. The rest of the group were scattered around the castle, town, and museum, and I was alone in the priory church. Again, it was green grass below and blue sky above. The afternoon sun shone through glassless windows, as I sat to rest on a low stone wall at the center of the chancel, and thanked God for bringing me to this sacred place. In my spirit, I heard, "Present yourself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship." I knew it was God speaking, but why here, and why that text from Romans? I realized I was sitting at the very place where the stone altar had been placed in 600 AD. How many opportunities does one have in a lifetime, to be sacrificed on a stone altar? Thanks be to God, we are living sacrifices! 

The trip was a religious experience for all of us, at some points. Who could not be impressed by the dedication of the pioneer missionaries and saints? Who could not hear God in the organ of a colossal cathedral or the peace of an ancient churchyard on Iona? Who could fail to see His handiwork in a brilliant rainbow shining over a Scottish loch? Who could miss the symbolism of a white dove perched on the stone arch of a ruined abbey?

But one could not ignore the anticipatory shiver as the bagpipers marched through the gates at Edinburgh Castle, the thrill of the chill wind and stray rain drops in your hair as you coasted on a rented bike down a hillside, or the growling stomach when it was overdue for that Cornish pasty you promised it three hours ago. Answering your email from an Internet cafĂ© in Cork, Ireland, has a certain boast built in ("I’m in Ireland, and you’re not"), even if you try to sound humble!

You could find your own joys and shivers and introspective moments, even plenty of Kodak moments, on other trips offered by La Sierra University. This year [2001], the University sponsored trips to South America, South Africa, the Mediterranean, the Holy Land. Modern Languages sent students to Paris and Central America. In 2002, LSU President Lawrence T. Geraty, director of the Madaba Plains Project, will lead an archaeological dig in Jordan. (I’m planning on that one!) And there will be others, as well. How about China and Asia? You’ll learn as much from your own and fellow students’ experiences as you do from the professors who are expert in their fields.

Glendalough, Republic of Ireland
The trips are not cheap, but neither are the memories. My scrapbook weighs 20 pounds! And if you start saving and sacrificing now for next year, you could do it. Sure, on the trip you’ll have to wear the same few outfits over and over, drench them with Febreze fabric deodorizer, and wash them in the hotel bathtub. You’ll try new and sometimes bizarre dishes in restaurants. You’ll be crammed into a jet plane, and wish vainly that your bus could stop and let you have a still picture for once, instead of madly dashing to meet the ferry. You could ride a real bike, not the stationary kind. Your bags will be sniffed by dogs and maybe even some stern-looking security agents. You will put significant mileage on those athletic shoes, so put gel inserts in them. Take your ATM card to draw foreign currency there. Be sure to take your walking stick, no matter where you go or how fit you are. After I walked two miles to arrive at all those stairs at Clifford’s Tower in York, my knees were jelly, and I still had miles to go that day!

I’m afraid those modern Britons knew me by my limping, but it wasn’t my unloving attitude. (It was my 1982 accident.) This was a journey I’ve wanted to make since I was a teenager, and that was several dog-years ago. I can hardly wait for Jordan in July 2002. Maybe Israel or St. Paul’s journeys the year after. There are still blank pages in my passport, and I can buy new tips for my walking stick! 

Here are the four sections of the Celtic Britain travel journal:


  1. Hi Christy,

    I am just getting starting on reading about your adventures through Celtic Britain. I enjoyed this article a lot...you have a very wonderful style of writing that makes me feel like I am right there with you. I have never been to Europe, not to mention never flying, but I hope to go next year, hopefully with the Marshal tour that is being developed with Elizabeth Chadwick. So I plan to read-up on all things English that I can. I am mostly English, and have many of the same ancestors that you do, including the Marshals (as I believe you are). I am related to John FitzGilbert both thru his son William via his daughter Eve, and have 2 lines thru his John II FitzJohn, so I am really interested in going on the tour.

    Marilyn Smith
    Eugene, Oregon

  2. Thanks for your comment, Marilyn. I wrote this journal as online-bonus to accompany a magazine article for La Sierra University (Riverside, CA).

    I encourage you to do everything in your power to make your trip not only the first, but BEST experience of your life. This was my second trip overseas, but my first to the UK. I had a big road map of UK on which I'd written as many places as I knew then, of where my ancestors had lived, worked, died, or were buried. Our coach driver actually needed to borrow it several times!!

    Wow, to be going on Elizabeth Chadwick's tour would be just incredible. Keep me posted (maybe through Facebook? I'm "Christy K Robinson" in Phoenix, AZ).


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