I’ve just celebrated the Solstice and ten days thereafter way up above the Scottish mainland on the gentle green hills of the Orkney islands where the North Sea meets the Atlantic at a white tide line just beyond the Fowl Craig (crag) on Papa Westray, the northern most isle. Here in the wind and rain a young Ranger tramped me across a maritime sedge heath to where a flock of Puffins cavorted about on a black cliff face, their vermillion feet and chubby little bodies silly and wondrous at once. They shared the granitic ledges with breeding Guillemots–big black and white sea birds –all lined up facing the cliff and dropping guano generously down the rocks, while the airspace was patrolled by big orange beaked Oystercatchers and fleet Arctic Terns. The heath was alive with daisies, buttercups, the rare Scottish Primrose and two species of orchids–one pink, the other, a brilliant magenta and both standing about five inches high.
Here in Papa Westray (Papay)–land of the priests as it was a pilgrimage site long ago –is the oldest house in Northern Europe–the Knap of Howar–two structures made of perfectly laid flagstones with central hearths, cupboards and bed steads–and these dated at 3200 BC –before the pyramids at Giza, before Stonehenge.
On Mainland Orkney are many other stunning Neolithic sites.
I hiked for miles up the sodden heathered Wideford hilltop to a cairn hidden way above the verdant farms filled with new lambs and young calves. The cairn, a communal tomb, had a trap door leading to finely slabbed chambers where ancient peoples left their ancestors’ jumbled bones. The Cuween cairn had me crawling on hands and knees through puddles and muddy rocks to discover a fine korbelled roof and several cells.Two major cairns–Maishowe and Unstan– were more accessible and filled with Viking runes.
At 3am on the Summer Solstice I joined about 40 Druids and assorted pagans honoring the gods and goddesses of the Earth at the ancient Ring of Brodgar, 346 feet in diameter with 22 of its once 60 monolithic stones still standing in a perfect circle overlooking two lochs (lakes). The sun never appeared but we imagined its coming on the longest day of the year and celebrated its arrival by sharing cups of Mead and bites of Honey Cake.
Nearby the Ring are so many ancient stone structures that the area has been declared a World Heritage Site. For several days and for many many miles I rode a bike past the endless Kelly green pastures, stone farmsteads and sea inlets to visit stone circles, village remnants, standing stones, and the amazing Bronze Age Gurness Broch (a tower fortress with many rooms built on a promontory overlooking an exquisite white sand and Caribbean blue water beach). The most exciting of all was the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. A storm uncovered some of the many elegant homes here, each with a formal layout of beds and a central altar/dresser. Joined by covered passageways and serviced by a drainage system, these dwellings are so finely crafted in stone that I imagined Frank Lloyd Wright being inspired by the Stone Age peoples’ designs.
What was a big surprise in Orkney was that I arrived in the middle of a magnificent music festival–the St. Magnus Festival –which offered everything from jazz to grand scale choral works, lectures to folk music. Lest I lurked too long in the Neolithic, I was fascinated by Ian Crockatt’s poetry reading of Old Norse and his own English translations of compositions by the Viking Earl Rognvald, hero of the Orkney Saga. The PhD Crockatt looked like a hero himself –6′ 4″ at least, wild white hair and the fit bearing of a warrior come back to tell us how poetry was as important to a Viking Leader as was battlefield valor. I am reading his “Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claws” and his imagery is breathtaking–the title itself shows how, as it refers to what a valiant warrior does–his victims provide carrion for raptor’s repasts.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Kirkwall Chorus presented a thrilling Mozart Vespers; a Celtic cum rock band The Chair had us all up dancing; and a Finnish band of harmonicas opened my ears to this instrument’s range of rhythm and sound–no simple blues riffs from Svang! At night at the local pub, The Reel, there was always music, the best being a band of young women–Granny Green–playing trumpets, accordion and tuba–no lie. And out on the street the day I arrived was a full dress bagpipe and drum band marching in their kilts up and down Main Street in front of the 12th Century Cathedral that Rognavald commissioned and in which there was a Festival Sunday service that was so full of wonderful hymn singing and inspirational words that I was transported into the joy I felt as a youth in the choir of our local Methodist Church in New Rochelle, NY. Back then I was an Anderson after all, a Scot somewhere in my lineage!
Music and Scottish folk dancing finally put a coda on my visit. With a friend I met bicycling I danced reels and rounds to a live band at the cathedral hall Monday night Ceilidh…complete with cookies and tea. Then early after the all night deep ultramarine sky gave way to another day of looming gray clouds, I flew back to London on a propeller jet three seats wide, thinking I’d like to come back next summer to participate in the new excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, where they’ve already unearthed 18 new buildings–larger than any found before. And of course there’s about eight more islands in the Orkneys left to visit……
Said to be the Brooklyn of London, Shoreditch does share a number of that NYC borough’s traits:
- it was “the worst slum in Europe”
- the dreaded East End–just 15 years ago and is now so gentrified that few natives can still afford a room here.
- it’s full of artists and hipsters and every other person has tattoos.
- it’s buildings are old brick and its streets, cobbled But Shoreditch writes its own story.
The walls are filled with graffiti and art–brilliantly colored joyful paintings–chickens and sci-fi characters, huge finely drawn portraits and whimsical cartoons, a half-city-block long hedgehog, an abstract fish head, a sailing ship tossed by a two story high turbulent sea…There’s already a London Walks tour of the graffiti round every bend. Actually speaking of bending lanes, the narrow streets and alleyways wind around absolutely randomly. It’s sort of charming the way sheep and cows’ meanderings seem to have laid out London.
People range from disheveled old men who were born and raised here, to Muslim mothers in black chadors; concave-bellied hipsters buttoned up to the neck and wearing pegged pants over their Converses, to the odd tribe of tourists always identifiable by their a) colorful t-shirts, b) their down vests and their c) Bermuda shorts–no Londoner would be caught dead in anything but black. But mostly Shoreditch is home to young cool casually dressed folk who have plenty of time to drink a Lager, smoke a rolled one and chill out…if it’s not raining that is. And where you can surely find East End Londoners will be on the street itself outside any bar in the district–smoking and having a pint–by 4 pm every pub has an ever burgeoning crowd surrounding its doors and spilling generously onto the street, a crowd blithely oblivious to the little black boxy taxis trying to wend their way through. These classic British taxis have looked the same for decades, the only difference being they are now made in China. People here are friendly and take time to talk–one evening at the Owl and Pussycat I met some Irish-born police investigators, an advertising girl from New Zealand and a Scottish salesman, each of whom chatted me up and treated me to either a shot of Kahlua or a half pint of Old Speckled Hen Ale. I’ve made fast friends with Dan and Adam, a couple of artists who’ve rented a corner closet with windows–a pop-up–for £650/week–to show their whimsical animal drawings and Popsicle prints–they couldn’t be nicer. And the Moroccan fellow Majid who guards the local grocery remembers me every time I come in, always ready with a smile and a chat. I have walked into the Financial District with its suits and tied men streaming rapidly past me but Shoreditch is miles and energies away from that rather uber-Wall Street world. It’s so driven over at the Bank tube station that the men are caricatures of themselves! Stiffer, swifter and more somber than judges–all but the Lord Mayor who unbelievably ambled by me at the City of London’s chamber offices, the gloriously Gothic Guildhall.
But I digress — in Shoreditch the old buildings in the neighborhood are mostly 4 and 5 story original “counsel” housing from the 1800s–well built, gable roofed and patterned brick, movie-
set ready..or quaint one room wide two story homes now with shops, bars or restaurants on the bottom floor. So what have these old buildings become? Witness Redchurch Street and Brick Lane.
REDCHURCH STREET is the posh one, with elegant “artisan” shops appearing here weekly. Nudie Jeans is walled with endless stacks of jeans and, claiming its motto of “Social Responsibility”, a sewing machine where jeans are repaired for free or recycled or resold. T2 is a tea shop with every green, black or herbal tea imaginable presented in lovely little cubes so one can enjoy the texture and aroma of each…meanwhile the boxes of tea and the collection of Victorian cups and teapots are in full intensity rainbow colors–this shop being in complete contrast with all the black white and gray clothing stores. There is a brush and tea towel shop with bins full of twine, jam jars, soaps and spatulas, even a stack of buckets invites purchase. On Redchurch there are more men’s shops than I’ve ever seen in one place, each tastefully appointed with rhythmically displayed stacks of striped jerseys, a ladder with a few leather shoes draped thereon, lovely racks of antique tools, man cave corners harboring shirts and dapper shoes–oh shoes are IT here possibly because ALL the clothes are so monochromatic. Each store is more like an art installation than a retail site– a levitating rack of black and white shirts sways above a solitary pair of wing tips on the floor; a single red chair occupies most of one wall–space around each item Is key to design here. Often too a shop selling clothes will have a surprising area of something totally irrelevant–school notebooks and stationery supplies or exactly a dozen carefully selected books laid out in precise small stacks –titles like “A Good Parcel Of English Soil,” Sourdough: Slow Bread for Busy Lives” and Volume 7 of Plant featuring thistles.
Here too are little restaurants with bushel baskets of luscious golden beetroot, baby fennel, haricot vert, heritage tomatoes at the door, fresh tarts and jams inside. All have odd and original menus–coriander dusted cauliflower with lightly sautéed courgettes; lemon-braised lamb on a bed of quinoa aubergine–and of course all are pricey…a small plate can often set one back $20/US. These bistros have tables on the sidewalk and one wants to sit outside here when the weather is nice–as it has been this first week of June–pillowy clouds in clear cobalt skies, 70 degrees, a light breeze.
Walk to the east end of Redchurch and you’ll find BrewDog known for artisan beers listed by their alcohol content–Punk IPA 5.4%; Dead Pony Club, 3.8%; Vagabond Pale; Born to Die; Alesmith-Old Numbskull and Lagunitas among them–who knew?.–and an absolutely monochromatic 20-30 something crowd of Caucasian urban hipsters.
Cross Bethnal Green to BRICK LANE where there’s another batch of beautifully decorated clothing shops and bars staffed by mixologists creating the most unique drinks–I tried a Pimm’s lemonade with mint, cucumber and strawberry one day and a Gingerella–gin, elderflower liqueur, ginger syrup, apple juice lemon and cucumber –the next and I’d love to keep sampling these masterworks, were they not a cool $17 + each!!! Brick Lane has a greater diversity of both stores and people than Redchurch. For one thing, rich and poor fill the streets; for another, there’s old and new establishments. Here are lots of real vintage shops with cheap clothes and vinyl records; there is a locksmith; here, a collective of young designers presenting one-off fashions; there, a half dozen old leather goods shops. Brick Lane is home to a pre-gentrification classic “Beigel” shop where you can get a fresh bagel, lox and cream cheese for 1£ 60 p. ($2.50), the cheapest food in London and everyone
- the construction workers in hard hats taking a break from plastering a nearby old building
- the scruffy old man with a muzzled hound
- the barkeep from across the road
- the backpacker in tight jeans
- and me
eats these bagels daily out of raggedy bits of paper as they walk and talk their way down the street. The Fifties rules Brick Lane with girls wearing Bettye Page dresses, an orange and turquoise vinyl-boothed bowling alley, and the best coffee shop on the block with thrift shop Mid-Century tables and chairs. Interestingly coffee shops here are NOT filled with iPads and iPhones–
people come here to talk, catch up, enjoy the freshly brewed Americanos and the newly baked carrot-cocoanut bread and croissants. Outside a thin old man in white Fedora and clean lab coat polishes his ice cream cart, at the ready for the afternoon swarm of passersby. There’s an antique shop full of clutter, old dolls and lace, teacups and 78 rpm records–run but a jaunty old fellow in his mid-80s enraptured by the clear notes of a jazz standard emanating from his 1934 hand-cranked Victrola–“best they ever made” he tells me as he pats the bottom of his ancient wife.
What is amazing about Brick Lane is that mid way and abruptly it changes utterly, becoming a warren of curry shops and Indians in white turbans, women in scarves and money transfer shops–a parallel world to the hipster paradise that arrived recently–in fact this end of Brick Lane is its original cast. My Brooklyn-inflected Shoreditch is surely a Johnny Come Lately but quite a lovely one, a perfect place to spend a summer.