Magic and Mystery in the British Isles

Tintern Abbey was famous to painters and poets such as Turner and Wordsworth for its Romantic charm and aura of magic.

There's no question about it. The British Isles must be the international center for magic, mystery and weirdness. The unexplained and imagined is everywhere, inhabiting the lakes and sea, scampering about the moors and hill forts, filling the nooks and crannies of the old castles and buildings, arching across the day and night skies.

It's no wonder our libraries and our heritage is filled with so many tales and our pantheon of the spooky is as extensive as the human imagination. Just a partial list is enough to make a grown man whimper: wizards (including, of course, the Master of All, Merlin), witches, dragons (worms), Banshees, ghosts, elves, monsters and Ladies in the lake, harpies, flying horses, Green Men, Black Nights, wishing wells, leprechauns, crop circles, sea serpents, harpies, faeries, kelpies, lights on the Moors, haunted castles and of course, probably the two most famous oddities in the world, Stonehenge and Nessie.

So we did our part in researching the Twilight Zone. Everywhere we went we hunted for them. On the advice of friends we searched for rocks with holes in the middle, a "guaranteed way to catch glimpse of faeries, you know." We crossed our eyes at sunset hoping to squint protoplasmic specters. We asked for haunted B&Bs, walked in cemeteries late at night, and down lanes we were told were floating with ghosts.

And all our work and effort resulted in only two faeries sightings, one ghost and a recent crop circle that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and salute. It made us wonder how real any of this nonsense really is--I mean, no dragons, trolls, beasts of wonder, no rainbows at the end of which were leprechauns and pots of gold, no majestic magicians in purple robes or witches with bent noses. The only ogres were in the pubs and all the witches were knock-out attractive women.

Like the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal of India, Stonehenge is known the world over. A brooding, mysterious circle of stones that have stood silently for millennia as a testament to something that we're still trying to figure out.

We began our tour into the UK with a drive out to Stonehenge, the epicenter of the known universe of weirdness. The sky was an intense blue with small whiffs of clouds as we drove across the Salisbury Plain. We parked in the large lot and made our way to the ticket booth as if going to a Saturday matinee. A brief tour of the interpretive center and a short walk to the site, and suddenly, there it was, in all its ancient strangeness. A circle of crude stone sentinels guarding a secret nearly as old as the pyramids. Despite the protections that keep you at a distance, the effect still takes your breath away as it has since its earliest recorded discovery at the time of the Norman invasions.

The entire area was the inspiration and work of thousands of our ancestors over a period of fifteen centuries, beginning in 350 BC and finishing around 1600 BC. After that it became a convenient source for rocks that farmers could dismantle to build their walls and ditches.

The magic and mystery of the standing stones of Avebury was one of our favorite places to visit.

We stayed for a night in a small rural village near the legendary Avebury. This is the location for the most magnificent and oldest stone circle in Europe. Begun around 2000 BC the complex has two impressive avenues of standing stones that stretches for a mile in either direction. In the center lies a quiet hamlet that two hundred years ago took upon itself the divine mission of removing as much of the "devil's work" as it could. The huge stones were overturned into fire pits, heated and smashed. And the resulting chards used to erect a new church and a few stone walls. But still much remains of the original Neolithic site.

After settling into our rooms we ambled down a path through the sheep fields to the local pub for dinner. There we met "Lofty," so named because he was 6 foot 7 and grew up in these parts. (The Guiness World Book of Records lists the tallest man also coming from this area, a strapper at over 8 feet). Lofty "luved" his nightly pints of ale, and after a few would tell tales of the local land. When I asked him if any places were haunted, he answered: "Naw. All the ghosts have gone. Except, of course, the old lady that wanders down the lane." The very same lane we had walked.

Sure enough, walking back that night, under the mantle of stars and darkness, there was a movement, a slight shadow, a hint of feminine presence. She, or it, pressed by us in the still of the night and left the impression she'd been there, for us, just for us.

It is nearby where the peculiar phenomenon of crop circles seems to have begun. Some say the official start date was 1966, while others claim to have reference to them dating back to the Middle Ages. Everyone's heard of them and seen the press photos--those circular designs in the crop fields that mysteriously show up in one night and get everyone excited--starting with the farmers who'd lost a bundle of money on their flattened crop, and ranging to the UFO fanatics who traipse out to pay homage and flatten still more crops.

But we were excited when we learned that a new one had just appeared, and we jumped in our car and sped off, driving along Britain's oldest road, an ancient rut skirting a ridge past Iron Age hill forts. We managed to get lost a few times but finally found our way alongside a 40-acre track of blooming rape seed. From our angle we could make out some apparent design matted down in the bright yellow field. We drove back up the hill for a better view and were shocked at what we saw. A massive, intricate, complex design was etched into the field. From our distance we could see no means other than aerial for making this, and more so, its symmetry and perfection were difficult to imagine creating at ground level. Despite the fact that several blokes claim they've been behind this hoax for years, for many the jury's still out.

For the next two months our journey through the UK continued to amaze us. Twice we saw a very strange phenomenon that others called "fairies." The second time we were staying at a farm in northern England. We'd just gone to bed and turned out the lights when both Salli and I saw something "flit" into the room. In the darkness Samantha asked in a most serious tone, "Do fairies bite?"

Yes, we did find a fresh crop circle made the night before and beautiful in its pattern.

Outside of hectic London is the quaint, ancient and, we hoped, haunted village of Chiddingstone (only one old lady would confirm this, however). And tucked in the bushes was this traditional British telephone booth. Haunted? We never found out, but we do enjoy spreading rumors.

But the real capper was our search for the Loch Ness Monster. What trip to Scotland could be complete without making some attempt to spot Nessie?

The first recorded "sighting" was in 565 AD. Since then hundreds of stories have circulated about the legendary monster of the depths, and numerous efforts to document it, capture it or prove it true have been made. At least one sensationalist tabloid holds out a bountiful reward for an undisputed photo of the legendary beast, so I loaded my camera and went on the hunt for new income. But Nessie is a sly devil, cleverly eluding our best technology.

We drove to the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the north shore. Here, it is said, is where the majority of sightings and photos have been made. It was raining and bitterly cold as we stood along those foggy shores waiting for Nessie to pop up and make our fortune. But nothing. Nada. Nary a ripple. So our fifteen minutes of scientific investigation had finally proved there was no such beast and we drove off rewardless, disgruntled and very wet. Imagine our surprise when we learned that two weeks after we were there, at the same place, a photographer grabbed the most recent shot and won this year's $100,000 pound Sterling award.

OK National Enquirer, pay up that reward for a real picture of the Loch Ness Monster, Nessie. Here she is, a raging, raring real life bronze monster in the pond next to the Nessie Museum of Loch Ness, Scotland.
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