A country diarist walks the Vale of Llangollen

William Hazlitt, one of Britain’s finest essayists, discovered the ‘natural mysteries’ of this part of north Wales more than 200 years ago. Henry Eliot follows his lead

Arnol Blackhouse

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides

The small village of Arnol lies on the north-western coast side of the main A858 on the island of Lewis and Harris. At the far end of the village is the Blackhouse Museum, an unmissable visit for anyone interested in how some people used to live in this part of world up until 50 years ago and, as such, it’s more a time capsule than a museum.

Built in 1885, this traditional blackhouse – a combined byre, barn and home – was inhabited until 1964 and has not been changed since the last inhabitant moved out. The museum staff rekindle the central peat fire every morning so visitors can experience the distinctive peat smell in the interior, which I first became aware of about three steps before entering the building. There’s no chimney, and the smoke finds its own way out through the turf roof, windows, door and attached to the outer garments of any visitors.

All homes built in Arnol up to 1900 were blackhouses. These double-walled dwellings were simply called taighean (‘houses’). But new health regulations introduced around this time, required the complete separation of byre and dwelling by a wall, with no internal communication, which was not the case with the blackhouses such as those at Arnol. Therefore, a new type of house appeared, built with single-thickness walls cemented with lime mortar. It presented such a contrast that people coined the term taigh-geal ‘white house’. The term taigh-dubh ‘black house’ was then applied to the old houses retrospectively.

Callanish Stones

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides

After I visit places such as Callanish I am always bewildered, as I am sure that I can’t satisfactorily answer any of the obvious questions – why was it built, how was it built, who built it, what was the reason for building it here rather than on any other hillock in the area? Even the question as to when the site was constructed is open to discussion.

Callanish comprises several different elements – a stone circle containing a central monolith and a chambered tomb, three rows of stones intersecting with the circle, and an avenue of stones heading roughly northwards away from the circle. All the stones are Lewisian gneiss and were quarried locally.

The stone circle consists of thirteen stones, with an average height of 3 metres. The circle is not quite perfect as the east side is slightly squashed. The circle covers an area of 124 square metres with a diameter of 11.4 metres. The circle was built between 2,900 BC and 2,600 BC making it slightly older than Stonehenge.

The 6.4-metre-long chambered tomb, in the central part of the circle, was almost certainly added after the circle was set up and was used for many centuries, as not only local pottery was found, but also Beaker vessels dating from 2000BC.

The central monolith stands 0.8 metres west of the true centre of the stone circle. The monolith is 4.8 metres high and 1.5 metres wide. This stone is on an almost perfect north to south axis, making me wonder how people 5,000 years ago could align a 7-tonne stone so accurately.

Beaghmore Stone Circles

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides

Taking the A505 westwards from Cookstown in County Tyrone, I found my right-hand turning to the Beaghmore Stone Circles after about 15 minutes. Having just visited the Giant’s Causeway, I was expecting to be one of many visitors to these Bronze Age relics. The drive through the countryside afforded wonderful views of the Sperrin Mountains, though I had to be careful as the road was narrow in places. After about four miles, I saw the sign pointing into a field. There were two other cars. The sun was out and the wind was blowing from the south-east. According to the information board, this area had Northern Ireland’s darkest sky, meaning there was little light pollution here, even in this modern age of 24-hour street lighting, car headlights, and planes flying overhead.

In a way, the fact about the darkest sky might have applied whenever the Beaghmore Stone Circles were created. For anyone expecting a Stonehenge-size spectacle, please read your guidebooks before you travel. Beaghmore has hundreds of stones, arranged in 7 circles, 10 rows, and a dozen cairns, but none of them are more than three feet in height.

The stone circles are in pairs, apart from one, which is filled with over 800 small, upright stones. This individual circle is known as the Dragon’s Teeth and is thought to represent a comet. The alignments of the circles correlate to movements of the heavenly bodies and three of the rows point to sunrise at the summer solstice.

Rosslyn Chapel

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides.

Before the book, the Da Vinci Code, was first published in 2003, Rosslyn Chapel received between 5,000 and 5,500 visitors per year. After the release of the film of the same name in 2006, 176,000 visitors arrived in the next six months. This figure is now the average number of tourists the chapel receives each year, meaning there will be quite a crowd of people there whenever you arrive.

Rosslyn Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St Clair, 3rd Prince of Orkney, as the Collegiate Church of St Matthew and was completed 40 years later. Sir William died in 1484 and never saw the completed masterpiece he’d initiated the building of.  Excavations in the 1800s indicated there had been plans for the chapel to be 30 metres longer. The village of Roslin probably began as a worker’s village for the chapel with the masons, blacksmiths, and quarrymen all needing somewhere to stay whilst they crafted the chapel.

The most famous features of the chapel are the two pillars carved by the master mason and an apprentice mason. The story goes that the master mason carved his rather simple column and then went on a tour of European cathedrals, looking for inspiration for the other major pillar in the chapel. While the master was away, an apprentice had a dream and was inspired to carve his pillar. When the master returned, he was so jealous of the apprentice that he hit him over the head with a heavy implement, killing him straightaway.

Northern Spain road trip: pull over for pintxos

There’s great food and striking design on the route from the Basque country to Galicia, taking in boutique hotels and beautiful beaches