Sunday, February 7, 2010


While Helen and Megan and I were staying in York, England, back in 2002, we took a trip north to Doune, Scotland, to see the castle that played a major role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

We're all fans of the movie. I remember us making Megan watch it on DVD— meaning we started to play it while she was nested in the living room couch and she did not get up. She had the usual skepticism of all teenagers about something her parental units liked. In the opening sequence, when the clip-clop sound proved to be a servant with coconut halves and not a horse, she took a slight interest, but it was when the serfs in the field took a Marxist stance on the divine right of kings that I could see the unspoken WTF forming on her lips. And that was all it took.

The trip was my suggestion. I had a few reasons for it besides the movie. I like castles. And I wanted to get us out into the countryside.

We went by train up the East Coast Main Line. Here's a train leaving York for the north, a few days later. Why don't we have stations like this? Look at that roof, and for cryin' out loud, they built the whole thing on a big curve!

As we passed through Newcastle I wished I had thought of bringing a couple of lumps of coal with me, so that I could step out onto the platform and leave them there or perhaps even hand them to somebody.

Where the line hugged the coast, we could see the legendary Holy Island, Lindisfarne. It would be great if I had taken a photograph of it, but I was saving the film for later.

At Berwick-upon-Tweed (pronounced Berrick) we crossed over the River Tweed on a viaduct called the Royal Border Bridge and not, I am sorry to say, the Tweed Viaduct. That's right, I am making an obscure reference to an incident in New York transportation history.

Then into Scotland. It was a longer journey than I had realized. I knew the travel times from looking it all up before we left, but I must not have thought enough about it. I'm glad we went, though.

I think we left York about 8:30, reached Edinburgh at 11:00, just two and a half hours, and then another 50 minutes on a local train brought us to Stirling. The local train had windows that could open, a welcome relief to us Americans with our crazy ideas of fresh air, instead of the usual British stuffiness. But a young Scottish woman got on and closed the one window that was open a crack. We decided not to create an international incident.

At Stirling, it was time to eat before we continued on our way. I checked where the bus station was, for later, and then we walked into the town proper to find something. In was in a pub, name forgotten, as I was considering the brews on tap, that the Scottish barmaid suggested that what I would like was a pint of "Old Speckled Hen". It was good. So was the food.

Here's a view of Stirling railway station. Look at those mountains.

There's an hourly bus service from Stirling Bus Station to Doune, and travel time is about a half hour. After leaving Stirling the bus runs mostly through fields and woods on a two-lane main road.

But just before Doune, we get a little peek at the industrial revolution in Scotland, as the bus turns off the main road to take a brief loop into a village called Deanston. It's a street of grey stone rowhouses, and a large grey stone distillery.

And then, we're over the River Teith and into Doune, where the bus once again loops one block off the main road to reach the bus stop in the heart of town.

Here's what you see from the bus stop. We're going to turn left at the monument. Doesn't this look great? I wonder how old these buildings are. And look how clean it is.

We're walking down the street. It looks we got there at 1:30. Look at the D A Calder business with the sign painted right on the stone. The next place, with red trim, is a pub, and I think the green sign beyond the church is another one. I would love to pass through a place like this regularly. It uplifts the soul.

Just a few blocks farther, it's the edge of town. The road gets narrower, and... really. How do they do this? Look at the detail on the houses! And that little bridge up ahead! How do they get people to collaborate on such a beautiful built environment? Is it the malt whisky?

Over the bridge and a few hundred feet more: it's... Castle Doune!

There are many castles in Britain that are larger and more intact. So why come here? Monty Python are responsible for many of the visitors. See here for a few stills and the backstory of why they used this one castle for so many scenes.

There are so many interior photos better than mine all over the web, and I hate just yelling "me too", but I have to put some here, don't I?

The Camelot song—

Castle Anthrax—

Possibly the window in the scene before the wedding—

The wedding scene was in the open space enclosed by the castle walls—

You can go up to the castle roof, if you don't mind some scary stairs. Helen and Megan didn't want to go up, but I did.

Here's Doune, seen from the roof. You can see how the buildings are all huddled together. The same population here in the States would probably be sprawled out over all the open land you can see here.

Looking east, Doune at our back. Cows and mountains. Hardly a building in sight. The only clue to this being and old and populated country is how carefully the fields and stands of trees are laid out. There is no wasted land.

Looking west, Doune just out of view to the right. That's the River Teith and the Brig o' Doune that we came over on the bus.

All right, you've got me. I think they just call it the Teith Bridge. That might be funny to orthodontists. But the Scots call this kind of structure a brig, and it's at Doune, so, come on, it's not a big lie I'm telling you.

The ride back was long and tiring. By good fortune the local train pulled into Edinburgh just minutes ahead of a train to York, a connection I didn't expect to make. That saved us almost an hour, and we ate a late supper in York.

We saw a lot more on our two-week Tour de Britain, and maybe I'll pick out something else for you one of these days. You never know.

Postscript: Years later, to my joy bottles of "Old Speckled Hen" appeared in the local wine and beer shop. The label on the back of the bottle explains that it is not an ancient brew, but dates only to 1979 when it was created the 50th anniversary of the MG car company. The name comes from a paint-spattered car they kept in the factory that was known as the Owld Speckled Un. The quotation marks around "Old Speckled Hen" thus signify that, as Lewis Carroll might have appreciated, the bitter is named for what the car's name was called.

Next time: Winterlong.

1 comment:

  1. I never knew that about Speckled Hen, interesting!
    They've a fairly entertaining TV advertising campaign on here in the UK at the moment, unusual for a real ale.