The Grotto, Stourhead

Posted in Caves, Fountain, Gardens, Grotto, History, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2016 by mysearchformagic

In the autumn I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. With its pretty lake surrounded by wooded hillsides dotted with follies of all shapes and sizes, Stourhead has a dream-like quality about it, an eighteenth-century recreation of an ancient Roman paradise. It’s got its own version of the Pantheon, complete with grand portico, dome and marble sculptures, a medieval cross, and a even a quaint ‘Gothic’ cottage with rustic windows and a thatched roof.


The beautiful Georgian landscape of Stourhead, Wiltshire

But surely the most atmospheric spot at Stourhead is the Grotto, constructed in 1748 for then owner Henry Hoare, and designed by Henry Flitcroft. Wealthy Georgian gardeners, it seems, had something of a taste for magic, and a dark and creepy underground cavern was an important element in any grand garden of this period.

From a distance the Grotto at Stourhead, which sits right of the shore of the lake, looks like nothing more than a huge pile of mossy rocks. On closer inspection, however, a set of twisting steps can be seen leading down to a shadowy doorway.


The twisting staircase down to the Grotto at Stourhead

Beyond lies a dark – very dark – underground passageway, the only light coming from small apertures in the roof and the side, the latter offering wonderful views over the lake outside.


Looking out onto the Stourhead Lake

Lined with flint, pebbles and tufa, the interior of the Grotto is constructed to resemble a rough natural cave. Since Henry Hoare was rather taken with ancient Rome, the grotto is inspired by the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, both of whom wrote numerous tales of magical, poolside caverns, which were often home to nymphs, monsters or even gods and goddesses. Neo-classical sculptures in the Stourhead Grotto add to the atmosphere of ancient mystery, with a gushing spring and pool decorated with a water nymph and some poetry inscribed into the floor:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave.

Further along, hiding out in a gloomy, water-filled cavern, sits a dramatic bearded river god, a spring from the River Stour pouring noisily from his urn.


The river god in the Grotto at Stourhead

I may have visited the gardens at Stourhead a little to late to see the amazing autumn leaves which attract thousands of visitors every year, but in a way I was glad to catch it at a quieter moment. Wandering alone through the tunnels of the Grotto, the weak November sun setting over the damp Wiltshire hills, it really was possible to experience the sublime wonder of this magical place, and feel the thrill that has been enjoyed by visitors to this place for over three and a half centuries.


The magical Grotto at Stourhead

Le Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, King Arthur, Legend, Tree, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The forest of Brocéliande is filled with magical places – standing stones, prehistoric tombs and miraculous fountains, many of them associated with Arthurian legend. It is also home to some natural magic in the form of several ancient trees. A while back I visited the incredible Chêne de Guillotin, and this time round I went to take a look at its younger but no less magical neighbour, the Chêne des Hindrés.

Unlike the Chêne de Guillotin, which sits on the edge of the forest in a pretty meadow, the Chêne des Hindrés lies hidden deep in the forest, around a kilometre from the nearest car park. A “Chêne” is an oak, and apparently “Hindrés” means damp, wet places, although I couldn’t see any signs of swampiness when I visited. The route to the tree is well-signposted and follows a clear path through the historic woodland.


The ancient Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Even in this dense forest, the Chêne des Hindrés itself, with its monumental trunk and huge mass of snaking branches, is hard to miss. Apparently the tree is around five hundred years old, which is not hard to believe – it really is enormous! I particulary liked the fact that other, small plants had made their home on the oak’s massive branches, with small ferns sprouting from its broad boughs.


The huge snaking boughs of the Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

The Chêne des Hindrés reminded me of the Ents, those living, breathing and walking trees that feature in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or even Enid Blyton’s charming Faraway Tree. Given its location, it is hardly suprising that the tree has also been associated with legend, and is sometimes referred to as the Chêne des Druides, or the Druid Oak. Supposedly Druidic ceremonies have been held here over the centuries, which makes sense – I can’t think of a better spot for invoking natural magic than this otherwordly place, the ancient heart of a mystical enchanted forest.


Merlin’s Tomb and the Fontaine de Jouvence, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fountain, King Arthur, Legend, Sculpture, Standing Stones, Uncategorized, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My recent visit to the Fountain of Barenton in the mythical forest of Brocéliande was just the beginning of a long day filled with magic. My second stop on this mystical adventure was another site with Arthurian associations, namely the Tomb of Merlin on the eastern edges of this ancient woodland.


Merlin’s Tomb on the edge of Brocéliande Forest

Once a huge neolithic burial mound, this spot has long been known as the grave of the legendary wizard. In fact, it was probably this myth that led to the destruction of the mound, with its late nineteenth-century owner stripping it in search of ancient treaure. Today only two large boulders survive, hemmed in by a modern wooden fence. Despite this, the place is obviously well-visited and much-loved, the stones surrounded by autumnal offerings of berries, mushrooms and fruit.

Next I headed off into the forest, along a winding path which crossed a babbling brook. As I walked deeper into the woods, I noticed small piles of stones along the side of the track.


A babbling brook in the mystical Forest of Brocéliande

It wasn’t long before I reached the place known as the Fontain of Jouvence, or Fountain of Youth. It has been suggested that the name of this spring derives from the fact that it was a Druidical site where babies were baptised. If a baby missed the ceremony then they would be baptised as a new-born twelve months later, and thus effectively become a year younger. Whatever the roots of this magical moniker, the rather murky, leaf-filled waters were distinctly unappealling, and I decided not to risk a sip.


The Fontainte de Jouvence, Brocéliande

Keen to explore a bit further, I continued along the path, and noticed more of those peculiar little piles of stones. Suddenly the path opened up into a clearing, and I was greeted by an unexpected sculpture, an anthropomorphic figure created from pebbles and branches and decorated with fruits, leaves and funghi.


A strange stone sculpture in the Forest of Brocéliande

Beyond the figure lay a quarry. But this was no ordinary quarry, because it was filled with countless little piles of stones.


A mysterious quarry in the Forest of Brocéliande

I am not sure who or what made these odd little sculptures, or indeed why. Some contained notes giving thanks, or making dedications. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet, or any references to it in guidebooks. It remains something of an intriguing mystery. All I know is that it was a eerie, atmospheric place, and one that I won’t forget in a hurry.




The Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Fountain, King Arthur, Woods with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

One of the undoubted highlights of my recent visit to the Forest of Brocéliande in Brittany was the Fontaine de Barenton, a mythical fountain long associated with the region’s Arthurian legends. Not only was the fountain itself rather magical, but the journey to get there, which involved following a winding path through the autumnal woodland, was pretty wonderful too.

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

As I set out, the path was wide and flat, not particularly taxing. As I got further into the forest, however, it became narrow and muddy, crossing rocky outcrops and traversing knobbly tree roots.

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The autumn leaves were just begining to fall, and the ferns and bracken were turning a rich golden hue. From time to time I spotted huge red mushrooms which had sprouted up from the loamy forest floor. A small stream appeared to my left, trickling its way gently through the undergrowth.

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Finally, after about twenty minutes or so of pleasant wandering, I arrived at the Fontaine de Barenton itself.This spot is mentioned in a number of medieval literary texts, including the twelfth-century Roman de Rou, and for many centuries it has been said to be the place where Merlin taught the magical arts to the fairy Viviane, a sorceress who is perhaps better known as the legenday Lady of the Lake.

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

To the left of fountain’s source can be found a huge stone slab known as the “Perron de Merlin”, or “Merlin’s Step”. Legend tells that whoever sprinkes water from the spring onto this slab will not only bring about a huge thunder storm, but also rouse the Black Knight who is said to guard the magical fountain. Twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes tells how Arthurian Knight Calogrenant visited the fountain, and was defeated by its fearsome protector. Later his cousin Yvain followed in his footsteps, but ended up defeating the Black Knight, and thus became the new guardian of the magical fountain. Arhur himself is said to have been intrigued by this wonderous place, although whether he ever visited it or not is unclear.

Merlin's Step, the Fountain of Barenton

Merlin’s Step, the Fountain of Barenton

In the fifteenth century, one Guy XIV, Lord of Montfort-Laval, claimed to have inherited the ability to bring about rain by dropping water on the step, although we can assume he did not invoke any pugnacious knights in the process. In more recent times, local people would dip the foot of a cross in the water in times of drought, appealing to Saint Mathurin for rain. And in case you are wondering, I didn’t attempt to awaken any storms – it was a long walk back to the car park after all, and since I was not dressed for rain, I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The ‘Courtil des Fées’, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This month I’ve been back to Brittany, one of my favourite (and most successful) hunting grounds. Every time return to Morbihan, a region steeped in myths and legends, I wonder if I will finally run out of weird and wonderful places to discover, but every time I uncover more magical locations. This visit was particularly fruitful, so you can expect my next few posts to be filled with my Breton adventures!

My first destination on this trip was the enigmatically named Courtil des Fées, a phrase which translates roughly as ‘fairy courtyard’. As with many of my expeditiions, the journey to the Courtil des Fées began with a track leading into shady woodlands, in this case the Forest of Houssa. Althought it was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s, this ancient wood is slowly reestablishing itself, and still retains its magical wildness. At this time of year, the path leading into the forest is noisier than usual, littered as it is with crackling branches and crunching acorns.

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The Courtil des Fées is located on a ridge high above the Oust valley, not far from the tiny village of Beaumont. Archaeological investigations suggest that this ridge was inhabited by humans for many centuries before the trees reclaimed it. The first evidence of these ancient inhabitants that I encountered was the remains of a four thousand year old neolithic burial mound which lies deep in the forest, sitting in a pretty clearing surrounded by oaks, birches and ferns.

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

Just a few metres away can be found a small standing stone, which no doubt also formed a part of this ancient burial site. Some evidence of carved ‘cup marks’ can be seen on this mossy menhir.

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

It’s just another short walk to the Courtil des Fées itself, a raised round earthwork with a diameter of around twelve metres surrounded by a ditch. Known for generations as a magical place, the Courtil has long been considered the haunt of fairies. But these fairies are not the sweet little winged sprites of Disney cartoons, but nasty, wicked imps who were reputed to steal local babies from their cots. Not surprising then that I approached this place with some trepidation.

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The Courtil is not particularly easy to decipher, or indeed to photograph, at this time of year, its ditch and mound rather lost in the autumnal undergrowth, but its raised platform is hard to miss. As I entered its circle, the sky darkened and the wind suddenly lifted, sending a shower of acorns and chestnuts clattering to the ground around me. If I hadn’t known better, I might have suspected that someone (or something) didn’t want me to be there.

I had been promised a great vista of the valley below from the Courtil, but in fact the view was almost totally blocked by the dense wall of trees that surrounds it. In the end I didn’t hang around for long, taking a couple of photos before I headed off back towards Beaumont. As I walked away the sun reemerged and the wind faded. Back in the peaceful forest of Houssa, the Courtil des Fées far behind, I’m not ashamed to say that I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Posted in Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , on October 9, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My last post featured a return visit to the lost gardens of Penicuik, a wonderfully wild park designed in the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. On the same day that I visited Penicuik, I also took the opporturnity to explore nearby Mavisbank, another house and garden created by Sir John which now lies in ruins. Just like Penicuik, Mavisbank is currently emerging from years of ruin and neglect, but still retains a remarkably magical atmosphere.

The easiest route to Mavisbank is along the river Esk, where a footpath has been created which leads from  the outskirts of the village of Polton along to the house and estate. The approach to the house itself leads up an old, overgrown driveway which is rather magical itself, giving just a hint of the faded grandeur to come.

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Built (and largely designed) by Sir John during the 1720s, Mavisbank was once a beautiful country retreat, with one eighteenth-century visitor exclaiming that it was more like Tivoli in Italy than Scotland. Since the nineteenth century, however, the house’s fate has been less happy – sold by the Clerks in 1815, it later became an asylum. By the 1950s the land around it had become a scrap yard, and in the 1970s the house was gutted by fire. Now it is a sad and fragile, but undeniably picturesque, ruin.

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

You don’t have to be a structural engineer to see that the ruins of Mavisbank are in a pretty bad way. Subsidence caused by mining in the area has taken its tool, which huge cracks snaking across the house’s buckling walls. In fact, parts of the building looks like they are only being held up by the network of scaffolding that pokes out from its windows and roof. On the rather damp afternoon that I visited, the place felt lonely and abandonded, empty apart from me and the flock of noisy rooks that seem to have taken up residence in Mavisbank’s shattered shell.

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A trust has been set up to rescue Mavisbank, however, and work has already been done to clear the land around it of bushes and trees and allow more public access. High on the hill behind the house can be seen the earthworks of what enthusiastic antiquarian Sir John believed to be a Roman camp, but is more probably some sort of medieval fortification. Out in front are the swampy remains of an ornamental pond that once sat at the centre of a carefully landscaped garden, and in the distance is a pretty pigeon house.

My favourite part of the house was the south side, which I suspect contained the service quarters. Featuing a deep basement, now filled with undergrowth but still retaining its wooden window frames, this wing was tantalisingly shadowy and eerie.

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

At one point it looked like Mavisbank would be lost forever, its ownership contested for years as it slowly crumbled. Now the Mavisbank Trust are working with Scottish Heritage and the local council to secure the future of the house and grounds, and preserve it for future generations.

In the meantime, it remains a marvellously evocative ruin with a uniquely magical aura.

For more details of the Mavisbank Trust and their work, click here.

Return to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Castle, Caves, Gardens, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by mysearchformagic

It’s been well over a year since I made my first trip to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik, but I have thought a lot about this wild and wonderful place since that visit. Last week I was able to visit again, and explore more of its magical corners.

First on my list of things to see was Knightslaw Tower. Although it may look medieval, the tower was actually built in the middle of the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an enthusiastic antiquarian with a taste for the ancient. When first constructed the tower could be seen from miles around, and dominated the rest of the Penicuik estate. Since its heyday, however, the tower has fallen into disrepair, and the high trees which have grown up around it hide it from the outside world. The result is a rather melancholy, but definitely quite magical ruin.

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

Next I walked on past the majestic ruins of the huge mansion of Penicuik House, built by Sir John’s son James in the 1760s, and into the valley below. Here I found the river Esk, which babbles its way down from here to nearby Roslin Glen, another of my favourite spots. Once over the river I crossed a field, heading uphill until I reached the Hurley Ponds.

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds are another of Sir John Clerk’s creations, part of his ambitious plans to landscape his park at Penicuik. Once used as fishing ponds, they have now largely returned to nature, spookily quiet apart from the odd quack from the resident flock of ducks.

Sir John was obviously rather partial to a magical experience himself, and evidence of this can be found in his construction of the Hurley Cave, a rock-cut underground passage which leads from the side of the hills closest to the house into this secluded valley. The original entrance to the cave was over a bridge across the Esk, where a cascade waterfall was constructed to add to the sense of drama. Visitors would presumably have been guided through the cave with candles or burning torches, and half way down would have found a carved Latin inscription Tenebrosa occultaque cave, beware dark and hidden things. The other end of the cave emerges from a rusticated stone doorway in the hill, and can still be seen today.

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Unfortunately vandalism and structural problems mean that the Hurley Cave has had to be locked up. Its heavy metal door does, however, have a large gap at the top which allows a glimpse of the dark depths beyond. I couldn’t resist sticking my camera into the gap and taking a picture. It offers an enticing hint of what lies beneath.

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Much work has been done to consolidate and preserve Penicuik House and its estate in recent years, largely thanks to the hard work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust. Apparently both the cave and the tower are on their list of works for the future, but restoring both will be an expensive job, and fundraising is ongoing. In the meantime I was happy to enjoy the overgrown, rather sombre mood of the lost gardens, and imagine the dingy depth of the Hurley Cave. I like to think Sir John would have approved!

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

For details on how you can support the sterling work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, click here.