A spiritual and historical expedition in Southern Scotland
I’m pretty dazzled by the strange chain of syncronicities that led to me being a part of the team that took author Ct. Nikolai Tolstoy and his wife Georgina up to Hart Fell spring in the Autumn of 2015. The 80 year old author last went up to the spring in the early 1980’s while researching his now famous book The Quest for Merlin. During my Heart of Merlin quest, I had been trying to get ahold of Count Tolstoy for months with no luck. I was successfully able to track down every other author that I wanted to interview for my research but Tolstoy had been a dead end. It seemed that no publisher or author knew how to reach him. I had found out that he lives near Oxford but that’s all the information I could get. Until I got into Scotland.
I knew that Tolstoy had given a lecture the previous summer in a small Scottish town called Moffat about Merlin’s historical connection with the region of Dumfries and Galloway. I wanted to find someone who had been to that lecture in hopes that they might be able to tell me what it was about and maybe reveal a video that someone had shot. I was having an extravagant homemade dinner with my couchsurfing host Luke and his friend Craig in Dumfries, telling them my plan. They both immediately said, “You need to meet Niamh!” (Pronounced Nieve)
After dinner, Craig told me he was going to the town of Moffat the next morning and if I wanted, he would introduce me to this Druid woman Niamh that seemed to have some sort of Merlin connection. Since I needed to go to Moffat anyway, I happily accepted the ride. I had some other spots on my itinerary that I had planned to visit before Moffat but I couldn’t refuse a new Merlin connection.
The next morning we got up and left Dumfries. I had only arrived the previous evening but I had no business in the town, so I didn’t think twice about leaving before I saw anything. We were soon cruising up the motorway in a teal convertible with the top down. I giggled at the lucky luxury I was finding myself in when compared to the stone circles and sacred sites I had been hiking to in the last few months. We arrived in Moffat in front of a beautiful old house that I was later to find out was the second oldest house in Moffat.
We were greeted at the door by Niamh. She was sweet and unassuming with her simple woolen dress and cane. We had a lots of conversations about her house renovation, spiritual path, and Merlin. I asked her if she knew anything about Tolstoy and the lecture he had given. She told me that she had met Tolstoy once before but hadn’t attended his lecture. She gave me the phone number of a woman named Elizabeth Roberts who organized the previous years’ talk. I called Elizabeth but she was busy and couldn’t talk. She told me that Tolstoy was coming back to Moffat in a month and I should talk to Jan Hogarth about it. I went online and sent Jan a message and friend request on Facebook.
From there I went up to the top of the Hart Fell mountain. This was the pinnacle moment of my four month spiritual and literary quest and I was prepared for magic. I fasted exclusively on apples and water from the spring on top of the mountain for 3 days. The water is said to have magical, prophetic, and healing properties. I went into a sort of altered state on my third day of singing and praying. I had a revelation about myself and the nature of Merlin. That’s the subject of another story though…
A few phone calls on the day I met Niamh changed my whole life. Jan came and met me at the Hart Fell spring the following day and after an excited first meeting, I was invited to be part of the Environmental Arts Festival (EAFS) that was happening a few weeks later. I was completely welcomed into the world of artists and healers that live in Dumfries and I later fell in love with the town.
Jan had indeed known about Tolstoy’s return to Moffat. There was a Russian Literature conference coming up and Nikolai Tolstoy, distant cousin of the author Leo Tolstoy, was the opening speaker. On the Sunday of the conference, Jan had organized an expedition up to Hart Fell Spring for Tolstoy and his wife along with about five other locals and I.
Let me explain why all this makes sense: In the mid 80’s, Tolstoy wrote a book called The Quest for Merlin, in which he made the connection between the Scottish Merlin Lailoken legends and a little known hill and spring north of Moffat called Hart Fell. He decoded a poem called The Romance of Ferguswhich had surprisingly detailed instructions on how to get to Merlin’s “Black Mountain” and the spring it holds that had given the mad Merlin his sanity back. By analyzing the descriptions in the poems with the help of ordinance survey maps, he discovered the hill and the spring that would have once been in the middle of the Caledonian Forest.
I had read Tolstoy’s book the previous summer and it had a huge impact on the research for my book and my trip. I really wanted to interview Tolstoy to see what he thought about the Merlin phenomenon thirty years later, but I had given up hope since it seemed I couldn’t reach him. Fate wanted to take me the long way around, I guess. While I was doing my research in San Francisco the previous year, Jan was in Dumfries reading the exact same book that I was. As she was conceptualizing an art project for the Environmental Art Fest, she discovered the reference to the healing spring which is only 30 miles north of her house. She proceeded to create a whole project around the sacred waters of the spring. She brought in a small team of people to help her execute the project and this same team would be the people that joined Tolstoy on his return to this holy mountain.
I met Jan for the first time at Hart Fell Spring. When she got my Facebook message, she saw the connection between our artistic and spiritual journeys and rushed up to meet me. I think it was important that we met there at the spring because it was the key to our whole connection. I had always had a feeling that something important was going happen up on that hill. I knew it was going to be the focal point of the trip as soon as I had learned about it. To discover that another artist was completely obsessed with the same spot at the same time was a bit mind blowing.
A month after our initial meeting and, the day had finally arrived to meet Tolstoy. We had an incredible team of people for the momentous occasion. Besides Jan and myself, we had Daniel who was a native of Moffat and had spent his whole life exploring, hiking, and camping on those hills and is also studying Geoscience in Edinburgh. I met Daniel on Hart Fell the day after I had met Jan and we had quickly formed a deep friendship. Next, we had Siân, who had grown up in a Buddhist monastery a few miles from Hart Fell called Samye Lang. She brought the local Buddhist tradition to the expedition and also brought the knowledge that the Buddhist masters who started the monetary had identified Hart Fell as a place of spiritual power back in the 70’s. A local adventurer and friend named Ross also came with us. Ross had just gotten back from the Caribbean and shared our interest in the Arthurian legends. Finally we had David and his 13 year old uber-hiking son. David teaches a masters degree course in Literature and the Natural World in Glasgow. He brought in a scholarly perspective and a lot of good information to the days discussion.
We all met up at 10am at the community hall that sits at the bottom of Hart Fell. Our plan was to have tea with Nikolai and his wife Georgina and then accompany them on the hour long hike up the hill. After introductions and tea, we started our trek. It was a great adventure and we had lots of interesting conversations as people paired off for the hike up the trail. Occasionally, we took breaks for rest and water and the conversational pairs naturally rotated so that by the time we got to the spring, everyone had talked to everyone else and we had all gotten to know each other pretty well.
We got up to Hart Fell spring just before noon. Nikolai was the first one to enter the little man-made cave that houses the well spring. He told me that this was the first time he’d been there in nearly 30 years. His wife had never been there so she went in second and then Jan and I both squeezed in. Jan, our water master, showed us which part of the cave held the clean, drinkable water. Everyone got a chance to go in and taste the mineral rich chalybeate waters. Some of us had been there before but some hadn’t so it was a joyous occasion.
We had a picnic lunch up on the hill and took some photos. Nikolai told us some stories of the first time he had come up there and I told him some stories about how I had spent three days up there fasting on apples and spring water. I managed to get a perfect photo of Nikolai sitting in front of the crag that leads up to the mountain top. The picture is almost the exact same shot that’s on the back of his book, only this time he’s in front of the camera instead of behind it.
After spending half an hour up there collecting water and exploring the space, we headed back down. The weather had gotten cold and we could see a rain cloud in the distance. We had considered going all the way to the top of Hart Fell to see the spectacular view but the rain made us change our mind. It started raining just as we got back to the community hall at the bottom of the hill. Perfect timing. We shed our raincoats and sat down around a large table that we had prepared for the days discussions. Joining us at this point were two members of the local artists’ collective, Debs and Ruardhi, and also Jan’s friend Sheila who was a local healer and vibrational medicine maker. Debs and Sheila had both read The Quest for Merlin and were eager to talk to Nikolai about his experiences today and also back when he wrote the book. About an hour later, the deer farmer that runs the farm at the bottom of Hart Fell hill joined us and brought a lot of local knowledge about the hill and its surrounding topography. He was also kind enough to give me some of the deer antlers from his shed. The deer is very special to the Merlin Lailoken story so I have overjoyed to get antlers from Hart Fell. I gifted one to Tolstoy, who also appreciated the special significance.
We sat there drinking tea and talking for nearly four hours. Nikolai told us all about how he had discovered the Fergus poem and obtained it’s secrets, enabling him to pinpoint where Merlin’s madness-curing spring could be found. He told us about the first time he had gone up there with his cousin and how impressed he was with its beauty and its view. It was a wonderful afternoon that we all enjoyed. I was able to record most of the talks for later reference.
We then decided to take a break and relocate. Jan took Ct. Tolstoy and his wife back to their hotel in Moffat. The rest of us cleaned up the community hall and left to go meet them an hour later. After the break, we were all refreshed and ready for more. A few members of our party had departed but the core group was still there. We switched from tea to ale. Nikolai drank the last bottle of the locally made Merlin Ale that the hotel had in stock. I thought that was especially fitting.
Nikolai then read us the entire Romance of Fergus poem. It was incredible. Having just done the exact same journey that the poet describes, it was very easy for us to conjure up mental images of every part of the story. The knight in the poem starts his quest in Carlisle and heads straight north across the Scottish border into Longtown. We had started our journey that morning at Siân’s house who lives a few miles from Longtown. We had nearly done the entire journey that the poem recounts and it perfectly described what we had seen, from the old Roman road which is now the motorway that we had driven in on, to the sloping sides of Hart Fell, and the incredible view that’s possible from the top. The only thing missing from our experience is the trees that once covered the hill and the evil Black Knight demon who lived on top. I guess he must have been slain when the forest was felled hundreds of years ago.
After the reading, we chatted for a bit longer about the amazing language the poem used to describe what we all had seen and done that day. We had another round of beers and said our good-byes. It had nearly been 12 hours since we met Georgina and Nikolai at the bottom of the Hart Fell mountain. We were still feeling very charged by the dynamic conversation and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nikolai was so inspired that he went home and started working on another Merlin book. He did hint to us that he had an idea for one.
We gave hugs and our last goodbyes and departed from the Tolstoy’s. They left us with an open invitation for any of the hiking party to come visit them near Oxford. That invitation starts the final chapter of my Tolstoy adventure. A month later, on my return journey home, I made a stop at the Tolstoy residence for dinner and I was instructed to invite John and Caitlín Matthews, heavyweight Arthurian authors and scholars who I had the joy of meeting earlier in my trip. The Matthews’ also live outside of Oxford, so we all met up at the Tolstoy’s charming farm house.
Dinner that night was surreal for me. Enjoying a delicious dinner with some of the most important authors that had helped inspire my own journey into the realm of Arthurian scholarship was almost unbelievable. We had a lovely conversations about all things Merlin, literature, and book writing. The highlight of the evening was when Nikolai offered to take us into his private library. In a converted coachhouse next to their main house sits the most impressive private collection of books I’ve ever see. The library was huge and books covered every wall and even bits of the ceiling. He had a whole wall of books on Celtic studies and a smaller wall that contained nearly every important Arthurian work and translation that exists. I would love to spend a weekend in there as I finish my book. His collection was incredible and even the Matthews’ who are serious book collectors themselves where in awe.
Just before the evening ended we snapped a photo in the library to commemorate our wonderful dinner and then we departed. I eventually returned to San Francisco to write my Heart of Merlin book and Nikolai went on to publish his 2016 tome The Mysteries of Stonehenge that contains a fair amount of Merlin material in it. John continued work on his current book exploring the mysteries of the Sangreal and both Caitlín and John continue their workshops and classes on the Celtic mysteries. All in all, it was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget. Thanks Merlin!
This article was adapted from material in my book The Heart of Merlin: Landscapes of the Arthurian Legend, which is currently looking for a publisher.
How to maximize your travels with rewards points and other tricks
It’s been a few years since I wrote my first travel guide and I’ve travelled a lot since then and have learned a lot of tricks to make travel cheaper so you can travel longer.
One secret is rewards points. Rewards points can fly you across the world for nearly free. They can upgrade you to priority booking. They can enable you to book last minute or cancel last minute with no fees.
The first step is getting a few credit cards with rewards points. The best two right now are Chase British Airways and Chase Sapphire. You might need to watch and wait because the key is the promotional offer. You want something like “100,000 points if you spend $5,000 in the first 6 months.” If there isn’t some kind of promotion going on then wait because you can only get promo bonus points when you apply and that’s a key part of this plan. Once you have your card with a promotional offer, the next step is to put all of your monthly expenses and especially rent on the credit card. PayPal is especially useful for this. You might get lucky and have a modern landlord who accepts PayPal but more than likely you’ll have to do something like pay a roommate via PayPal to pay your landlord every month. Then you can just send your roommate $5000 for rent for the next six months or whatever all at once from your new credit card. Then you will have fulfilled the terms of the promotion and you can get your points ASAP. I did that last year. I then flew from Chicago to Scotland for free.
You must adjust the way you manage your money so you can put 100% of your purchases on the card. Groceries, restaurants, shopping, bills, tuition, whatever you can. This is going to cause your points to rack up quickly. Offer to buy your friends’ high priced purchases on your card if they give you cash. Always be the one to put dinner on your card when everyone splits cash. It all adds up! Your initial 100,000 free points will do a lot but you can never have too many. Ideally you can do this 6 months to a year before you leave for your trip so you have a lot of points to play with. Also, buying plane tickets on your card usually gives you double points because they want you to travel!
I’ve been paying school tuition on my card and now I’m flying to Thailand for a few hundred dollars plus points and then to Jaipur for $2 plus points. Use the card for everything and they will rack up quickly. Then just GO.
If you’re using the British Airways card there is a special trick. You need to be efficient with how you use your points. If you want to get to Europe and use the minimum amount of points then you need to fly from Boston to Dublin. If you fly further than 3000 miles you jump into the next miles bracket and they charge you exponentially more. You also don’t actually want to fly on British Airways for that flight. BA has high taxes and you have to pay those in cash. The alternative is Aer Lingus. You can use your BA Avios points on Aer Lingus though they don’t want to you know that. If you look for flights from your BA Executive Club account page it won’t show Aer Lingus as an option. You have to actually call them on the phone and ask to book a flight on Aer Lingus. They’ll find the flight you want on the day you want and it will cost half as much as it did on BA. Maybe $250 total. That’s what the BA card does best and I hardly use it for any other flight because it’s a waste of the points.
Dublin to London is basically free with a small amount of points. Once you’re in Dublin then you can use a budget airline like RyanAir or EasyJet to get around (no checking luggage though). Or just keep using points to get around. From London you can go all over the place, Istanbul, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Rome, for not too much with Avios or a discount airline. The other great thing about Avios flights is that you can cancel them last minute with no fees. Though I’m not sure if this still works with Aer Lingus. Also, when you use your BA card abroad there is no transaction fee which is great because fees are not helping you travel longer.
The Sapphire card works slightly differently. This one let’s you get flights on several different airlines but you’re subject to the rules of all those different airlines. Chase is essentially acting like a travel agent for you and giving you tickets discounted with rewards points. I like the Sapphire system better because you can book very long flights to Europe for cheap. If you have a lot of luggage or are in a hurry, you probably don’t want to go to Dublin and then London or wherever. The downside is once you book a ticket there are no refunds and moving the date cost around $150. The good news is there are hardly any fees or taxes so you can actually get a ticket for $0, hence my free flight from Chicago to Scotland.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination you need to keep on being frugal and save money on your accommodations. This is where Couchsurfing comes in. One of the problems with solo travel is not knowing anyone and not having anyone to talk to. Couchsurfing solves this while making housing free. Once you have an account on the Couchsurfing site, you can search for hosts in the city you want to visit and hopefully someone has some common interests to start a conversation with. Or maybe you have nothing at all in common with your host and that can be a good starting point, too. Either way, a local knows the neighborhoods, knows the best bars, the best sites to see and knows all the nice people. It’s a great way to get to know the city. I’ve couchsurfed hundreds of times and also been a host. The community on that site consists of some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I recommend trying to stay with couples, especially if you’re nervous about the idea. Couples keep each other in check and are usually a blast to hang out with.
Another method for obtaining free housing is WWOOFing. WWOOFing is a work exchange program where you work on a farm or some kind of nature or agricultural based place and they give you food and housing in exchange for labor. This is great because you learn skills and have purpose beyond simple tourism. I WWOOFed on a horse ranch for two weeks last summer in Scotland and it was a blast and I know all about horses now. The only downside to WWOOFing is that you have to pay for the service and it’s country by country so you can only see hosts in the country you pay for. It’s about $50 per country but if you make a whole summer or year of this, it’s quite cheap. There are also some very very interesting opportunities on there.
My final piece of advice for now is to go places where things are cheap. This is obvious but should not be overlooked. The UK is expensive, not only because of the exchange rate but because the cost of trains is ridiculous. Europe can be cheap if you use budget airlines and eat the cheap foods. Asia is cheap both because of the exchange rate and the cost of living. Thailand is pretty cheap if you can get a cheap flight. India seems to be the cheapest with its delicious food for $1 a meal, cheap trains, and lots to see.
Good luck and if you find any more tips on free flights or housing, send em my way.
I wrote this for a friend that asked for some advice but it got so long that I decided to make it into a proper article. I’ve been in Bangkok for a few months while I’m in school so I have had the unique experience of living like a local with a normal 9–5 schedule and also needing to live very frugally.
My weekday budget is $10/day for food and housing but I recommend budgeting a lot more than that. $10 is totally possible if you eat only cheap food, drink no alcohol, walk a lot, and get the cheapest airbnb possible with no A/C. People reading this are likely on vacation so budgeting more should be no big deal.
The first thing to know is that the King died about a month ago (October 2016). I was here when it happened and shift was subtle. For a couple of days people were visibly sad/crying and carrying around framed photos. Most of daily life hasn’t changed much. The biggest thing is all the Thai people are wearing only black and white and bars and clubs close at midnight instead of late. They are mourning for three months. This should be over by Christmas though people are possibly wearing black for up to a year. Talking about the King or the Royal Family in any critical way is illegal so I recommend not talking to anyone about it at all.
Now the fun stuff, things to see and do.
Getting around Bangkok isn’t too hard though it’s not very quick due to congestion. I recommend picking up a sim card at a 7/11 or at a mall. Don’t get one from the airport because they are incredibly overpriced. You can get a month card for about $10 with internet. Then you will always have a map. The typical Bangkok way to get around is to take a train to the stop closest to your destination and then either take a motorcycle taxi (for 1 person) or a cab (for many). General rule of thumb for a taxi in fast traffic is a 15 min ride cost about 60baht. You usually have to negotiate the price before you get in as they rarely want to turn on the meter. Also, cab drivers rarely know where anything is so having a gps map to show them usually works. Otherwise I tell them the closest place with a Thai name, like a train station or temple, and they understand that. Then walk a bit.
Tuk Tuk’s are always a bad deal but it’s worth it one time to see what it’s like. They usually say 200baht for a ride and never come down in price. There are also busses but if you don’t know the traffic I wouldn’t recommend them because they are slow, get stuck in traffic a lot, and are hot. They are very cheap though and go to some places that trains don’t. Maybe you want to try it out? I ride them every once in a while if I need to. Jump on and sit down and a lady will come and shake a change box at you. Tell here where you want to go. She probably won’t understand where you mean but give her 20 baht and it will likely be ok.
The trains in Bangkok are great and easy to use. They also provide a nice moment of A/C if you’ve been out all day. I recommend figuring out which train is by your residency and then buying a reloadable card so that you don’t have to stand in line for a ticket everytime you get on. I live by the underground MRT line so I have a reloadable card for that and then if I need to transfer to the above ground BTS line, I will wait in line for that. Sometimes the lines for tickets are really long so having money on a reloadable card lets you skip that. Otherwise, wait in line to get coins and then wait in line to put the coins in the machine. Price is based on distance but the the range is 15baht to 45 baht so it’s really cheap and is the fastest way to get around. Google maps makes figuring your route very easy.
Be sure to take River Taxi’s while you’re here. The orange flag boats go to every stop and cost 14baht which is less than 50 cents. You can take the river taxi to the Palace or to the Amulet Market or anywhere around the Old City. This is another moment when google maps is helpful because it’s really hard to determine which stop you’re at without GPS. If you don’t get a ticket before you get on (sometimes you can’t) then pay the woman who shakes the change box at you and she will give you a paper ticket.
Bangkok is a city designed around shopping so if you like to shop, you will be very happy. The BTS train goes to many mall districts, but the biggest and brightest of them called Siam. It’s worth having a look even if you aren’t into shopping because the sheer decadence is a spectacle to witness: Themed multi-million dollar shopping centers that have footbridges to other shopping centers. Luxury shopping isn’t what drives my soul but I’ve browsed them a bit for a view into that world. Most of Bangkok is set up into districts so as you explore it you might notice themes, such as a neighborhood full of car parts, a neighborhood full of bathroom showrooms, a neighborhood full of gems and jewelry, a neighborhood full of disposable plastic bags. Shopping and commerce seems to be what makes Bangkok move so you will see it everywhere you go. Bangkok’s industry is not hidden from public view the way it is in other places. It’s usually right on the sidewalk and street with everything else.
If you are into gems and jewelry, make sure you visit Si Lom road and the Jewelry Trade Center. It’s like a mall full of gems and the neighborhood around the JTC is all gem shops. Bangkok is the heart of the world gem trade so I recommend checking it out. When else can you see huge rubies and sapphires in piles in shop windows?
Chinatown (Yaowarat Road) is the neighborhood for gold and Chinese food. They have an annual vegetarian fest which is great. It was in October and I caught the last few days of it. Well worth a look as it also has some interesting architecture and the whole neighborhood has a more old fashioned feel than a lot of the more renovated parts of Bangkok.
The Amulet Market is an interesting place to visit. It’s a sort of micro-neighborhood containing lots of little and big statues, coins, and other lucky things. Get there in the morning because it closes around 4. Worth a look and maybe a good place to get an inexpensive but authentic souvenir.
I would also recommend the Little India neighborhood which is also the fabric district. Phahurat Market is the name of the fabric center. About a block from there is the Indian Emporium which is a 4 story mall of fabric. Just to the left of the entrance of Indian Emporium is a soi (alley) that has about 30 Indian food stands and is really cheap. The food is good. Phahurat is interesting but totally claustrophobic. A site to see.
Not too far from Phahurat is the Flower Market which is also spectacle to see. It’s huge, it’s open about 24 hours, and if you’ve never seen a flower market, this is a bustling one. I’ve heard that 2am is the best time to witness it because it’s so busy but I saw it during the day and it was still impressive.
Chatuchak Market, also called JJ Market, is the thing to do on Saturday morning. It’s a huge market that sells just about everything you can imagine from art, to housewares, to food, to animals, to clothes and clothes and clothes. It’s claustrophobic, hot, crowded, and well worth a visit. Words can’t truly describe this place. It’s vast and almost unbelievable.
Inside the Paragon mall there is a movie theater that I highly recommend visiting. There is a thing called 4DX which means that during your normal Hollywood flick, the seats move according to the action, there are fans to blow you when the wind in the movies goes, there are little things by your ear that replicate actions like bullets whizzing by and they also say that they use scents, too. I went to one for about $12 or so and it was pretty cool. Also, the same theater has a 3D IMAX theater which is the biggest in Thailand. I saw a movie there for about $12 and it was a great movie experience. If you like movies, I highly recommend seeing a few in BKK.
After you’ve made you pilgrimage to the sacred centers of money, get out of there and see other stuff.
There are so many temples in Bangkok. They are all awesome and beautiful and ornate. I recommend the Golden Mount which is a temple on a tall hill. It cost 20baht which is less than a dollar and the view is great. It’s different than most temples and has a 360 degree view of the city. Definitely worth a visit and a view. Wat Pho is right next door to the Royal Palace and is where the famous reclining Buddha is.
Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is a different from most temples in that it’s a Hindu temple. It’s near the Jewelry Trade Temple and it’s incredibly beautiful and free to enter. You need to wear respectful clothing which means cover the arms and legs.
Bangkok is a fashionable city and the natives are accustomed to the hot and humid weather that Thailand experiences all year. If you want to show up looking like a tourist, wear a t-shirt, khaki shorts, a money belt, and sandals. If you want to blend in to the local fashion scene, you’ll need to up your game. No shorts. Thai people do wear shorts but it seems like hardly ever. Skinny jeans. Skinny shirts. Skinny everything. Fashionable lightweight dresses. That’s the Thai way because they’re skinny I guess. Sneaker fashion is popular so if you have a collection of rarities, they will be appreciated here. For men, button up shirts are the way. Look sharp with a slim, tailored cut. Sandals are great for everyone. Make sure they are something you can walk all day in. Skinny jeans with sandals is a regular trend for men and women here. One warning I will give you is don’t come to Thailand with one outfit and assume you can buy all new clothes. I did that once and I met a girl recently that tried that and it’s a bad idea. Thai people are tiny and I couldn’t find anything at all that I could fit into. Also the dirt cheap clothes are very poor quality. Better just to bring well fitting clothes and maybe you will get lucky and find some choice garments while shopping.
If you are into art, there are several good things to see. The Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center is free and has lot of stuff to see and really good ice cream on the 2nd floor. It’s very big and modern and has a circular design that slightly reminded me of the Guggenheim. It’s right off the BTS train and very easy to get to.
The National Gallery is free or near free depending on the day. It’s more traditional and worth a look though. It’s not huge though it has several rooms and a sculpture garden. A nice thing to see if you don’t want to spend all day looking at art.
On a totally different scale is Gallery VER. It’s run by local Thai artists and has the freshest and “on the pulse” vibe of all the art I’ve seen. It’s off the beaten path and requires a cab ride to get out there but it’s well worth it.
When you are tired of being around chaos and concrete, head to Lumphini Park. It’s the biggest park in Bangkok. There you will see lots of runners, walkers, and sports people. There is a pool and a basketball court. There are big ponds that you can take swan boats out on and benches to enjoy the view. There are also huge dragon looking lizards that live wild in the park.
Food is abundant in Bangkok and comes in all shapes and sizes. I am usually looking for good deals. At the cheapest end, food starts at 40baht (which is about a dollar) and goes up infinitely. The only things you can usually find for 40 baht is Thai food and mostly that price gets you Pad Thai. A usual cheap dinner for one might be 200baht and a decadent dinner gets into the thousands. Chinatown is known for food though I don’t eat meat so it can be hard to tell whats what. Food in the malls is obviously much more expensive. Food on street carts is cheap and tends to be some of the best food. I eat from a food stall for lunch 5 days a week and its cheap and provides some of my favorite meals.
For veg food, I recommend:
Mai Kaidee near Khaosan Road, is probably the best place but I find the location too far to be a regular.
Suki Jeh Ru Yi has great veg Thai food with interesting meat imitations.
Phahurat Little India for lots of veg Indian food.
Definitely try Fried Morning Glories in a Thai place. So good and you rarely see that dish in the States.
Try all kinds of fruit. If you’ve never had it, try a durian. It’s a mix between melon and garlic. Try lychee, try mango, try any fruit because they are all good and unusual!
Alcohol is not nearly as cheap as you would hope. To me it seems like midwestern US prices. Cheaper than a western big city but not nearly as cheap as the food is. If you buy a can of beer in a 7/11 or grocery it can be around $1.5 but in a bar or restaurant it’s much more. I went to a great bar the other night called the Havana Club and mixed rum drinks were around $10 each. By the way, I highly recommend Havana Club. It has a really cool Cuban vibe, very mellow with good music, and nice plush couches and chairs.
Other things to know. Don’t put toilet paper in the toilet. Get good at the “Bum Gun” because it’s awesome and a lot of public places don’t have toilet paper. (Watch a youtube video if you need instructions). Always have cash in your pocket because credit cards are not how Thai’s do business. Don’t drink the water though you can brush your teeth and rinse with it. 7/11’s are everywhere and have cheap water and snacks. The really touristy street is called Khaosan Road. Every tourist seems to want to go there but I always avoid it. If you want to hang out with a bunch of western people with backpacks and get harassed to buy things every 5 min, go there. I guess if you want to party and club and everything, go there. You will meet people. That’s not my thing and I never go there. I prefer to meet people other ways. Bangkok is pretty friendly either way. Drugs are really really illegal here. Night markets are awesome and you should seek them out. Night markets in other Thai towns and villages are usually the only things that are going on at night and they usually have great food and interesting wares for sale. If you are going to have clothes made, go to one of the best tailors. A good suit cost $500 so don’t even consider getting a $99 one. Bring your own sunscreen as all the sunscreen here has skin whitener in it. Good luck. Have fun. Talk to people. Eat weird food. Smile a lot. Learn some Thai. Experience the wildness that is Bangkok.
A few weeks ago, Katie and I spent a day roaming around the west side of Dumfries and Galloway seeking sites from the classic pagan horror film The Wickerman. It’s one of my favorite films, so when I found out that it was filmed only an hour away from where we live, I decided we NEEDED to go on an adventure. We had a great day exploring these sites. It’s amazing how most of the places look exactly the same as they did back in the 70′s! We even had lunch in the same pub that Sgt. Howie stayed in, though the barmaid was not cute and they had severely remodeled the inside of the bar. Still fun and lots of Wickerman photos on the wall.
May Morrison’s Post Office in Kirkcudbright might have looked better before they gave it a monochromatic paint job. It was easily recognizable once we knew where to look though!
The Green Man inn seems to have gotten a new paint job and sometime after 2001 they took out the window above the double front door. This is actually The Calley Estate offices in Gatehouse of Fleet. The inside shots were done at another pub that was in the next village over.
The inside of the Green Man Inn was shot at Ellangowan Hotel in Creetown. It’s almost impossible to recognize now. Not only have they changed the carpet but they remodeled the inside of the pub and moved some of the walls so it’s a very different space now. The bar seems to be the same though and they served a delicious curry chips lunch!
The ruined churchyard was filmed at the Anwoth Old Kirk and served a dual filming function. The yard in front of the church was used for the Maypole dance and it’s surprisingly small considering how many people are dancing in this picture. Then later in the film Sgt. Howie goes through the church graveyard looking for Rowan Morrison’s grave. We found the spot but sadly, the grave was a prop.
Unfortunately we had no eggs or babies with us to properly reproduce this scene.
The scenes that were shot around the Toll House in Kirkcudbright where Howie is looking for Rowan and following around members of the procession was easy to find. Not much has changed in 30 years which is incredible.
This was the first stop in our quest. This is one of the buildings that Howie enters when he’s looking for Rowan. It’s an old building that is now used as an art gallery.
All the shots on the beach were done outside of St. Ninan’s Cave. The walk out to the beach is pretty far from the road and the parking lot. We we’re pondering how they got all the props and gear out there. Did they have to walk the long path like we did or did they have special permission. The path isn’t really passable for vehicles which is what really perplexed us. Maybe the horse pulled the carriage with all the film gear on it? All in all, a really great day.
Minimalist travel with minimal money.
I got a random email from a stranger telling me that they were selling everything they owned and were going to leave their job and home to travel and live free. They asked me advice from my personal experience. Here is what I wrote:
Trust in the universe. I spent a year homeless and moneyless and it was amazing. The universe is supporting you but you have to be aware of the opportunities and stay smart. If you can let yourself relax into your environment and let go of the stress and fear of relearning what it is to be a wild animal, you can start to move into a flow of opportunities. This is what I came to believe after so many good things happened to me over and over again.
There is a dumpster full of free food behind every grocery store, every dunkin doughnuts, every bakery, etc. Timing is crucial but it’s so easy to eat decently for free. It’s a bit harder in a city like Chicago, but every college town is an all you can eat buffet if you can override the cultural programming about jumping in a dumpster.
Get a Bivy sack. It’s the perfect thing for urban sleeping. Get a long one and you can put your backpack in it below your feet. Waterproof and light and you dont need to set it up like a tent.
Craigslist ride share is THE BEST and cheapest way to get around. It’s really personal and really flexible so there are more opportunities to meet interesting people and be open for the strange synchronicities that come with this lifestyle. Watch out for the weirdo’s that want sexual favors or seem shady. Always trust your intuition. I have never had a bad experience from hitchhiking or ride shares but some do.
Here is all you need to survive (for a boy I guess): Backpack, 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts, warm hat, gloves, 2 pairs of underwear (one to wear and one to wash), 4 seasons sleeping bag, foam sleeping pad, long water proof bivy sack, dr bronners soap for skin/hair/teeth, toothbrush, inflatable pillow, jacket, wallet/money/id/passport. My preference for shirts and sweaters and socks is merino wool because it’s warm and light and doesn’t absorb smell. Chaco sandals are awesome because they can get wet and dry easy plus you don’t need a bunch of socks with you. They last a long time too. An iPhone is the most useful thing that has ever been invented for a traveller. This little thing replaces a computer, phone, camera, music player and journal. Even if you don’t have the phone plan you can make calls and texts over the internet for free. Thank you Apple.
Besides all this we have couchsurfing.com which makes it EASY! Though it’s also fun to sleep outside and meet people and go along with opportunities that get presented to you in other ways!
Along the way, you might need more money and the ETC section in craigslist jobs usually has some pretty interesting stuff; research studies, focus groups, etc.
Don’t make decisions out of fear and don’t fear your decisions. There is an overwhelming amount of belief and programming and friends and family that think that what you are about to do is stupid and backwards and self-sabotaging. You have to push past all that and just jump in like a cold swimming pool. Once you get used to it, it feels great and all those people standing on the edge of the water wish they were you. People are scared for you or they fight you because they wish they could be as brave and do something as daring.
The truth is that our culture kinda sucks for most people. Those people are making the best of a crappy social system. When they see someone breaking the chains of the cultural prison, it activates all kinds of crazy stuff inside. Some people will adore what you are doing and some will hate it. It’s all good.
We must follow our dreams. We have such a short amount of time in the grand scheme to do amazing things and it’s super easy to get caught in the day to day routine of working and eating and dating and paying bills. It feels good sometimes. Other times it feels like a trap that everyone has collectively fallen in.
I want out and I assume you do to. At least for a while. I need to wake up in the morning and know that my life is what I have made it and I am in control of my moment to moment experience (in cooperation with the divine flow and my personal destiny). I need to know that I can move freely with any opportunity that comes my way.
Be Safe. Trust in the Universe. Trust in your Intuition. Trust in fellow humans. The world is not as scary as the news makes it out to be. Even when it is, it’s ok. Try not to get killed but sometimes people die. Stay positive. Try not to be shy. Call your parents and friends when you need support. Make friends along the way. Your experience is the only thing that matters when you’re laying on your death bed, so max it out. This is the best way to find the truth, so seek!
Books that have helped me make these decisions:
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
The Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo
Evasion from Crimethinc.com
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Tao Te Ching
Also, the first 4 issues of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles comic speak a lot about the magickal nature of cities and how to survive in them from the perspective of a homeless mystic.
A month long road trip through Universal Studios and the UK
In the summer of 2013, my girlfriend and I decided to do a month long pilgrimage into the world of Harry Potter. We started at Universal Studios Florida for total immersion into the magic fantasy world and then we headed to the UK and visited every single Harry Potter Filming Location from all the movies.
Starting the Harry Potter Super Trip off in Orlando was a great idea. Hanging out in Hogwarts and Hogsmeade for three days was a blast and really got us into the magical mood! We rode all the rides many times, we visited all the shops everyday and indulged in Butterbeer, Pumpkin juice, rock cakes, treacle fudge, cauldron cakes, Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and Hogsmeade Beer! Yummmmm!
My favorite ride was the Forbidden Journey. The line took you all through Hogwarts castle. It starts at the front gate and takes you around to the green house. You enter the castle through the back and you go past a few statues of Hogwarts founders. You get to see the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, the mirror of Erised, and the counter for the House Points. The you get to walk through Dumbledore’s office and see all the shelves of knick-knacks that he’s got in there including the pensieve. Dumbledore speaks to you from up on his balcony as an animated projection.
It’s really awesome when you go past the paintings because they move and talk just like in the movie. You get to hear the fat lady at the entrance to Gryffindor and the four founders talk to each other.
Eventually you enter Prof. Binn’s History of Magic class and Harry, Hermione, and Ron appear from under the invisibility cloak (as projections) and start to set up the context of the ride. The last thing that happens before you get on the ride is the sorting hat talks to you. It’s really impressive how much detail was put in to the whole experience.
The whole village was amazingly detailed and you could tell that the creators did their homework when designing this. I look forward to coming back in 2014 when they finish the DiagonAlly expansion. I read that you will be able to ride the Hogwart’s Express from DiagonAlly to Hogsmeade! Wow.
2014 update: We went back to Universal Studio’s in 2014 after DiagonAlly opened and it was absolutely incredible. This time we went in full costume and spent a whole weekend in The Wizarding World. Now that the space is so big you can really immerse yourself and forget you’re even in a theme park. The DiagonAlly expansion is so vast and incredible and the addition of being able to interact with things in both parks with the wands is really fun and gives you so much to do. I highly recommend Universal Studio’s Florida for any Harry Potter fan. Go in full costume, you wont regret it.
London has been so amazing. We started out with the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. We got in at one of the earliest slots for the tour and we really used our time well. We spent 6 hours going from exhibit to exhibit. It’s absolutely incredible. They put so much effort into the presentation and the quality of information. You get to see TONS of awesome stuff including most of the major rooms such as the Great Hall, Harry’s Dorm room, the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, and best of all, the entire set of DiagonAlly! It was awesome to see this right after The Wizarding World in Orlando. You can tell that the designers at Universal Studios were working closely with the design team from the movie to get all the details right.
They also have some awesome behind-the-scenes stuff in terms of the effects. They show how they did some of the green screen effects with the brooms and other flying stuff. They go into great detail about the creature effects and the graphic design. It’s really satisfying for the super fan.
One of the most fun things was the room where you get in front of the green screen and they put you on the broom or in the flying car and on the screen it looks like you are flying through the movie sets!
Another great thing was getting to have butter beer again. In my opinion it tasted slightly better in London versus Florida. Also the gift shop here was the most extensive Harry Potter shop that I’ve seen so far
The next few days in London, we ventured all around the city and have seen absolutely EVERYTHING there is to see that I know of. We did a “MuggleTour” through the city. This was fun. A super-fan/guide took us around the city and showed us some sites. during the two hour tour we got to see the 2nd entrance to The Leaky Cauldron, the spot where the guest entrance phone booth to the Ministry of Magic was, some of the bridges that were shown in the movies, and the exact underground train entrance where Mr. Weasley got stuck. We also got to see a lot of the places that inspired JK Rowling and the directors in writing the books and movies. We saw the “real” DiagonAlly and the inspiration of NocturnAlly. Cool! A great tour that I would recommend to any fan
Then we did our own tour to see everything else. Starting with King’s Cross Station, we went to Platform 9 ¾. It exists! When you get to the train turnstile look to the right and you will see a Harry Potter gift shop and next to it on the wall is the special sign and also there is a luggage trolley that is halfway through the wall. If you stand in line you can take your picture holding on to the trolley cart so it looks like your about to walk through the wall. Fun! They have a professional photographer but they don’t mind at all if you take your own pics. They even have props and help you pose.
Next we went to place where they filmed the original entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. It’s in a fancy sort of market with expensive pubs. From there we went to the Australia house where they filmed the interior shots for Gringott’s Bank. You can’t go in all the way but you can look in the glass doors and see the very recognizable chandeliers and swirly marble floors. We took a secret photo!
Our time through London has been great. We have done some non Harry Potter stuff too. Good restaurants, pubs, shopping, exploring ancient history and modern innovations, free museums and more.
In our final day of London we squeezed more Harry Potter in. We visited Kew gardens which is an amazingly huge piece of land containing many gardens and greenhouses. One of which was an inspiration to JK Rowling in the creation of the Hogwart’s Greenhouse. One final candy shop and then we rented a car and left the hustle and bustle of London.
Our first stops were Salisbury and Winchester, home to HUGE cathedrals and also a recreation of King Arthur’s round table. The cathedrals are so amazing. The scale is basically incomprehensible and the ornate decorations are simply splendid. I didn’t have much luck with finding Couchsurfing hosts for the cities we are in so we quickly figured out how to comfortably sleep in the car. It’s really not bad. After our first car slumber, we woke up and headed to our first Harry Potter city. We got a quick sneak peak of our solstice destination as we drove by Stonehenge. Even just a momentary view from the car is awe inspiring.
We arrived in the tiny old town of Lacock. There were a few Harry Potter locations here, one we hadn’t even known about. Lacock Abbey is an interesting complex. One part of it is a 500 year old nuns abbey still in the condition it was built in. Other parts of the building have been lived in, mansion-style, until recently and we got to take a tour of how it was decorated in the early 1900′s. A journey through many histories! The Abbey was very recognizable as a setting in the first two Harry Potter movies. Snape and Quirrell’s classrooms and a hallway and courtyard that are sprinkled throughout the movie. There was even a black cauldron in one of the rooms that had been sitting there since the 1500′s! When we left the Abbey, we found the most perfect book in the gift shop: A Harry Potter filming locations guide. I snatched it up and we only had to walk for 5 minutes with the help of the book before we found the house that Slughorn was living in at the beginning of Half Blood Prince.
We then walked through Lacock village which is a real life version of Godric’s Hollow. Another serious time trip. All the houses are old and crooked. It was so surreal. It seemed like a movie set but people were living in them! At this point we were running a bit behind schedule and everything basically closes at 5 or 6pm in England so we made quick stops in Bath and Wells. I had a few flashback moments in Bath from my first trip to England in 2007. This was the first time I had returned to any cities from that first experience and I awakened some new memories!
We arrived in Glastonbury as the sun was setting, which was 10:30 pm! We found a quiet country spot to park the car and made it comfortable for the night. We woke up to a magnificent site of the Glastonbury Tor (hill) and the tower that sits on top. There is nothing Harry Potter related but it was on our road trip route so we thought we’d insert a little real life magic into the Harry Potter adventure.
Nothing could have prepared us for this town. It’s a New Age Mecca. There are at least a dozen new age shops, tons of crystal shops, metaphysical book stores, steam punk and fairy costume stores and health food stores. Plus, it was market day so there were many vendors selling wares on the street. Overwhelming is an understatement! After a few hours of browsing the shops and getting high on crystal vibrations I pressed us on to see the sites.
It takes about half an hour to walk to the base of the Tor which was known in ancient times as the Isle of Avalon because the base of the hill used to be surrounded by water making it an island. On the way we stopped at a man made brick cave containing a natural Well spring. It’s called the White Spring and its pretty amazing. It’s cold and dark, only lit by candle light. There is a giant pool in the middle that spring water flows into. You can submerge yourself into it as its known to have healing powers. I put my feet into because that’s all I could stand; the water is ice cold! We stayed in there for a long time, singing and praying to the water spirits.
After we left the White Spring temple we started the long trek to the top of the Tor. Once up there you have a beautiful 360 degree view of Glastonbury. It was beautiful and we sat up there for a while just soaking in the view and having a little picnic with the other people and dogs up there. When we got to the bottom we went to the other spring that the town is known for; the Red Spring or the Blood Spring. The spring has a strong iron content when causes it to stain the rocks red as it passes over them. This spring was outdoors and set in a large and beautiful sanctuary of plants, fountains, trails, and a healing pool. We spent time with our feet in the pool and then took a few sips from the lion head fountain. Both the White and Red spring have places to drink from so you can ingest some of the legendary healing power. We drank from both. Neither tastes very good due to the high mineral content but let’s hope it imbues me with strength and long life!
We left Glastonbury with a lot of driving ahead of us. We visited the southern coast and had a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking the English Channel. Then we took the long way to Cornwall which took us through Dartmoor national park. Most of Dartmoor looks exactly like the rest England but eventually it got steeply hilly and we started to see animal crossing signs. And then the animals! Sheep, goats, horses and pretty ponies suddenly appeared in the landscape and the road. They were grazing everywhere and we had to stop a few times to watch them. So cute!
When we descended, we were in Cornwall, the region in the southeastern most tip of the island. Cornwall has a distinctly different vibe than the places we’ve been so far. Even before talking to anyone I could tell. It has an almost isolated mysteriousness to it. It feels older. The villages are smaller and more spread out. The countryside looks different. It definitely has its own character.
After a series of tiny roads we found ourselves at a church on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. There were two churches actually. One large and old and made of stone. The other was like a one room modern wood thing that was much more utilitarian. And a tiny little sign: St. Cleran’s, 1 mile. We walked around these churches through some chest high tall grass. We went through a “kissing gate” which are so common in England and start our trek through the wilderness.
After a miles walk through a very pretty trail we arrived at our destination. St Cleran’s Well and Church. There is a natural spring here and since Celtic times people have been visiting the spot. There is an ancient church there and a well that is said to have healing powers. The elderly and sick use to come here to drink from it. At this point it didn’t look very clean so we merely touched it.
In the town of Bocastle, there is a Museum of Witchcraft that we visited. It’s three stories and we spent at least an hour checking out all the interesting stuff. We learned about witchcraft throughout history. There were tons of artifacts and relics and a few modern witches complete collections of tools. There was was small Harry Potter connection: the hand of glory. They had a real one in the witchcraft museum which is supposed to be the withered hand of a thief whose been hanged. In Harry Potter, we see one in NocturnAlly which grabs Harry’s hand when he gets too close.
After our side jaunt into Cornwall, we continued north. The night of the Summer Solstice was here so we had a plan to meet up with some people for a special ceremony at Avebury which is the largest stone circle in the UK.
On the Solstice I woke up near the Avebury stone circle at 4 am. After a few delays and jump starting a van, I headed out with a group of energy healers. We drove through the early morning fog to a small stone circle know as The Sanctuary in Avebury. It’s part of a larger group of four sacred spots “the serpent” or “dragon.” It’s said that every seven years on the Solstice the dragon awakes to eat prana energy on behalf of Mother Earth. It sends the prana down the Earth’s Kundalini channel. We all went and meditated as it rained on us and the solstice sun rose in front of us.
That night we drove to Gloucester so we’d be there in the morning. Gloucester was a bit disappointing after so many days in small villages. It’s big and crowded and expensive and kind of ugly and slummy. The old parts are really nice but they are few and far between.
The cathedral that we went to see there was awesome and completely satisfying. It’s huge and beautiful and old. We browsed around the cathedral and did a tour of the crypt under the cathedral. The tour guide was so nice and she could tell we were really interested in the history of the building so she took us all around and told us all this stuff we wouldn’t have known otherwise. Then she took us into the cloisters and gave us a personal tour of all the Harry Potter sites that were filmed there. There were many! The hallway with the writing in blood on the wall from Chamber of Secrets, the hall were the Troll was in Philosopher’s Stone, the place where Moaning Myrtle flooded the bathrooms, and more. The spots were awesome and really recognizable.
Then we jumped in the car and drove to Oxford. It happened to be graduation day so the streets were crazy and full of people. We eventually made our way to a parking garage and headed to a few spots that were closing soon.
We got to see the room where they filmed the Hogwart’s hospital scenes. That was fun. Then we went across town and saw the stairs where the students waited in Philosopher’s Stone before the sorting ceremony. This was cool because the stairs led up to a room that looked just like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. It was actually the inspiration for the Hall!
After this, everything was closing so we went to go meet up with our Couchsurfing host. This was the first night of the trip that we had a host to stay with, so we were excited. Her name was Kate and she was a police officer. She was really awesome. Kate and her roommate made us fondue because it was “like a potion” and it was delicious. Then they took us to a house party where we proceeded to get drunk with a gun that shoots alcohol shots into your mouth. Then we discovered the cupboard under the stairs and you know I had to get in it! After the house we went dancing at a club which was great fun. We danced for hours into the night.
We had a day to adventure into Wales before we headed up to Scotland. We were heading toward the capital, Cardiff, still trying to figure out the best city to visit when the answer jumped out of a book at me.
I brought a coffee table style book called Sacred Britain with me for moments like this. It had big color photos and a map of many of Britain’s sacred sites and stone circles. I found one that was close to Cardiff and started reading about it. It’s called Tinkinswood burial mound and it’s 6000 years old. The picture made it seem cool but the legend made it seem even better. According to local tales, Druids put a curse on the burial mound. If you sleep on the mound on Mid-Summers Eve or St Johns Day you would either go mad, die, or become a poet. I looked at Wikipedia and looked at the calendar and discovered that it WAS St. John’s Day!! What an amazing synchronicity! We knew we HAD to go there.
We got to Cardiff around 5 pm so everything was starting to close up. We walked around the city enter and saw the castle and some parks. We found a few good groceries and stocked up on food. Then we headed about 10 miles out of town to the burial mound.
We got there and the sun was still shining despite the time. We parked the car in a lay-by and put everything in the trunk so it looked empty. We took our bags and tent and hiked back a ways. The burial mound was next to a farm so we said hi to some sheep on the way. When we get there it was even better than the photos. A big mound with a half circle of forest around it. In the front was a very large stone monument. Like a little stone room with a large roof. The capstone is supposed to weigh as much a 22 double decker busses. An amazing feat to put it up on the 4 foot tall room. We sat up the tent and then sat inside the muddy monument for a bit, acknowledging the spirits of the ancestors that rested there.
We got in the tent and got settled for bed. The whole thing was definitely spooky and we were a bit excited to be there. We fell asleep but we both awoke in the middle or the night needing to pee. We didn’t want to get out of the tent because everything felt so spooky. After some convincing, we both got out and it wasn’t scary at all. No ghosts or anything flying around.
In the morning we got up and packed up our things and left. We then drove through Wales as much as we could before hitting Manchester.
We visited Manchester and stayed with a weirdly spiritual couch surfer. We drove north and sat in a stone circle in the Lake District. We drove much further north and went to Edinburgh. We took a Harry Potter walking tour and ate good food. We got to visit the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote part of the original book.
From Edinburgh, we headed southeast. We got to see two Harry Potter filming locations in one day. The first was Alnwick Castle where they filmed several scenes including the broomstick lesson in Philosopher’s Stone. It’s very recognizable because the castle has metal men on top that look like guards and you can remember when Harry was learning about Quidditch and the bludger went through the arms of one of these men. They also have a fun thing they do called “broomstick lessons” where people in Harry Potter costumes come out with all these miniature brooms and play games with anyone that’s interested.
After Alnwick, we headed to Durham and saw the cathedral which was really cool. Very Harry. It has a lot of very recognizable places in Hogwarts including one of the hallways and a grassy courtyard which was snowy with Harry sat with Hedwig. Another familiar room in Durham cathedral is Prof McGonnegall’s classroom, which was set up for class portraits on the day we were there.
On our way back to London, we visited Whitby, “England’s Spookiest Town” where Dracula was written. We ate fish and chips while looking at the English Channel. There was again a small Harry Potter connection when we found another Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum.
Next we visited Goathland train station which served as the arrival and departure point of Hogsmeade Station in the first movie. Also the last shot of Philosopher’s Stone takes place here when they fly up over the red walkway bride and you see Hogwart’s in the background.
Just outside of London, we find Harry’s Privet Drive house from the first few movies. In real life it’s in the suburb of Berkshire and recently sold for £475,000. The luxury cars in the drive kind of tipped us off!
Finally as we were getting back into London proper, we got to visit our last two locations. The first was the Forbidden Forest. There are a couple of very recognizable spots from the movies such as where they rode the Thestral pulled carriages from the train. The forest is near Pinewood Studios where they did a lot of the effects for the Harry Potter movies.
As we get towards the end of the trip, our chronology get’s towards the end of the series. Here we are in the London train stop called Surbiton which is were Harry flirted with the cafe girl before Dumbledore takes him to visit Slughorn.
And then finally we wanted to find the secret location of the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and Sirius Black’s family home. While the facade we see in the movie is not a real building, it’s based on a few squares in London and we thought this one looked almost exactly perfect and it even had a fenced park across the street from it.
It was a great trip and one that I won’t quickly forget. Now every time I watch the first couple of movie’s I can easily recognize every spot they filmed at and when they run through the castle corridors, it’s like they’re running across the whole Island of Britain as they do it. If anyone want’s to follow in my footsteps and make this journey themselves, I recommend the book we found “Harry Potter on Location.” Also check out the extensive itinerary with budget estimations that I prepared for the trip here.
In the beginning of 2008, my best friend Doog, my wife Lindsay, and I, were making plans to move from the midwest to upstate New York. We decided that the best way to do this was to go on tour. We booked a few shows across the country, we rented a car, and we invited our good friend Chris Barth aka Normanoak to play the tour with us. Doog and Chris are some of my favorite and most magical musicians, so this was to be a dream tour of mine.
The first show was in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. I asked one of my other favorite musicians, Castle Oldchair, to play with us that night. It was a great start to a great adventure. We left the next morning. During our daily drives, we would stop anywhere that looked beautiful. We would go on long hikes in the woods and then continue our drive. We would share stories and listen to strange new music.
Doog, Chris, Lindsay, and I on tour.
We showed up to a house show in Pittsburgh and the flyer for the show had a picture of Leila Waddell on it, the violinist who played at Aleister Crowley’s magickal rituals. Our magical nature had proceeded us and we were excited! It ended up being a great and intimate show. We met up with a friend Hanz Bronze that night and he continued on the tour with us for the next few days.
The next day, we got to New York and we had been excitedly planning to visit The Dream House before our show. Doog had been to the Dream House once before on tour and had told me all about it. The Dream House is a minimalist sound installation by LaMonte Young that has been in existence since the late 70’s. It is meant to be an expression of the ever present drone that is behind the physical reality of nature and the universe.
38 pure sine waves are played into a room from four corners. The tones go on forever and they never change. They range from super low bass to super high, barely audible and everything in between. There is a light sculpture in the middle of the room to stimulate your eyes as your ears try to comprehend what you are hearing.
When you go into the room, you sit down in the middle and all these tones are hitting your body in all kind of ways. When you move your head, it changes the way the sound waves hit your ears. A true demonstration of the magic of physic and sound, you can create melodies in your ears just by subtly moving your head.
We were in the Dream House for about 20 minutes, starting to understand what it was like to interact with a space like that and quietly reflecting on it, when this older guy with a long white beard comes in and sits down on the other side of the room. Chris exclaims “That’s Daniel Higgs!!” When I first saw him, he looked to me like a member of the Hell’s Angels. He was covered in tattoos, wearing all black, and had a long white beard. We all took in the site of this legendary mystical singer going wild with the tones. He was literally freaking out in there. He was spinning his head around, shaking himself as he played with the interaction of the tones.
Dream House Light Sculpture
We watched him for a minute and took a cue from him. We proceeded to get a bit wilder and more free with our experience of the tones. We all started shaking our heads and moving in all kinds of way and let the sounds dance in our ears. Eventually we had to leave. Chris was really excited about what had just happened. I wasn’t ready to fully appreciate that moment, as I hadn’t heard the music of Daniel Higgs yet. Years later, I would develop a obsessive relationship with his music and the music of his band Lungfish.
The story mystically comes full circle four years later when Doog and I happened to be in Oakland, California together. Daniel Higgs was playing a show on Halloween and I invited Doog to go with me. I picked him up and we drove to the show in a noisy and crowded punk house. It was the first time Doog had been able to see Daniel Higgs play and I was really happy to have been able to give him that experience. There was a woman called Pod Blotz that played before Daniel Higgs. She told Doog that she was Daniel Higgs’ sister and then she started her set by yelling and looping the phrase “RETURN TO THE DREAM HOUSE!” Doog was shocked at this phrase and how it seemed to be related to our mutual history with Mr. Higgs.
To take it to another level, a mutual friend of Doog and mine named Paul Smith completes the story…
A year before Doog and I first visited the dream house with Chris and Lindsay, Doog first went there with Paul Smith. They laid in there for an hour or so while Paul was recording the strange dream drones on a cassette recorder. A few months after they visited the Dream House together, Paul moved into a new house in Bloomington and started listening to the Dream House tape regularly. A few months later, our friend Nathan shows Paul a picture of Daniel Higgs and his band Lungfish playing a show in the 90′s in what was now Paul’s basement in Bloomington, where he had been listening to his Dream House tape that he recorded with Doog.
Also Lindsay reminded me of another seemingly supernatural syncronistic spinoff to this tale:
About six months after we saw Daniel Higgs at the Dream House, Lindsay was invited to play a show with my friends group at a music festival in France. She flew out there not knowing anything about the festival and when she arrives, guess who is also the playing the festival? Daniel Higgs. Totally unexpected and random, even in France.
It NEVER ends and it maybe spirals around the Dream House and Daniel Higgs. The Mystery…
(This story comes from a collection of strange tales about my best friend Doog. You can read more here: A Brief History of Doog)