Hadrian’s Wall

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“Why Hadrian’s Wall?” you ask. I’ve been interested in Roman history and the great leaders that amazing culture produced for many years. A few years back I was in Rome and saw Villa Adriana, Hadrian’s villa outside of Rome, which thoroughly enchanted me. When we began planning this trip we decided to see England first and make our way north to Scotland. I wanted to stop along the way and visit Hadrian’s Wall.

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Many people commented that “it’s only a pile of rocks” in barren fields in the middle of nowhere. I was told that every farmer and builder in Northumbria used stones from the wall to edge their fields and construct their homes and churches. Despite all this negative input, I continued to plan to not only see the wall, but to lodge by it, and to visit Roman sites in the vicinity. I’m so glad I ignored all the nay-sayers because seeing the wall, standing upon the wall, and visiting the fascinating sites nearby, has been the highlight of my trip.

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What most interests and amazes me is the enormity of the task the Romans undertook: to build a wall that traverses, the breadth of the country from Carlisle Castle on the west to Tynemouth Priory and castle on the east–73 miles stretching over hilly, craggy, rough, and wooded terrain sparsely populated by local inhabitants who had few resources other than what the land provided. There weren’t any cities or bountiful fields or livestock available to the Roman soldiers stationed in the area. Their first fort, Vindolanda, was built of wood in about 80CE well before Hadrian’s legions arrived in the 120’s. Extensive archaeological work has gone on at Vindolanda for the past forty years.

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Hadrian was interested in consolidating the Roman Empire not growing it. To hold the northern most part of the Empire he directed 20,000 troops to Britannia to build a military complex and a wall dotted by forts situated at one mile intervals along the length of the wall. These soldiers created an extensive complex, raised livestock, cultivated crops and built relations with the surrounding people. The original wall was 15-20 feet tall with a ditch on either side. The flat-bottomed ditch on the south side of the wall was called the vallum. On the north side of the wall, the sentries gazed out at the land of the Picts.

 

In some cases, Roman women lived within the fort complex. There is a fascinating tablet recovered at Vindolanda from Claudia Severa inviting Sulpicia Lepidina to a birthday celebration. This is the oldest extant written communication by a woman to a woman found in Britain. An amazing discovery–a treasure. It is remarkable to imagine women carrying on activities that traverse culture, time and boundaries.

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We stayed at the Vallum Lodge which is about 200 meters from Twice Brewed pub and the Visitor’s Center in Once Brewed. Our hosts were warm and helpful. They have lived in the vallum for generations. The lodge included: chickens, ducks, two dogs, a rooster, a pony and three youngsters. Many of the folks we met there were walking the wall–sometimes 10-12 miles/day. Not much late night revelry among this group!

 

Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Sir John Soane, and the Royal Academy

What do these places have in common? Synchronicity.  We went to the Royal Academy to see the annual Summer Exhibition featuring contemporary artists’ work in paint, collage, ceramics, sculpture, print, photography and mixed media.  The vast space, high ceilings and enormous rooms of Burlington House were chock-o-block with new work hung and organized by contemporary artists who are themselves masters of their field.  It was an enormous show.  The pieces are for sale–at reasonable prices for the most part–and selling.  All the red dots testified to the British buying public’s taste for fresh work by upcoming artists.

One smaller room was hung with woven pieces by Grayson Perry.  I took a photo of one and then was politely admonished by a “warder” that photos are not allowed.  Mr. Perry’s work is amazing.  Huge tapestry-like pieces, colorful and amusing with a bite.  This series comments on British society and the gentry’s need to pay more taxes. Sound familiar!

 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10117264/Grayson-Perry-Taste-is-woven-into-our-class-system.html

Sir John Soane, an eminent architect of the 19th C, was a member of the Royal Academy, only one of his many titles, and was himself a brilliant collector and architect and painter.  Yesterday we went to his home(s) in Holborn an area just north of Covent Garden in London central.  He and his wife owned three adjacent row houses in which they and their two sons lived amongst Sir John’s collections.  Happily these homes are essentially as the Soane family lived in them; the collections as Sir John arranged them.  This is a rare case as most of the homes of famous people bear little or no resemblance to their original owner’s taste or possessions.

Sir John collected many things which is a great understatement. But you can read more about it all if you’re interested. I was bowled over when I entered a small room “The Paintings Room” and saw before me a large Canaletto so close I could have touched it if I dared. Above were two smaller ones. “Yes,” the warder assured me, “these are originals. There are no copies in this collection.” He then went on to display the complete set of Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” guiding us through foolish Mr. Rake’s awful decline and death.

Finally, a triumph of ingenuity and proximity. Sir John purchased Seti I’s limestone sarcophagus when the British Museum in the 1880’s declined to do so. He paid 2000 pounds for this mammoth item, had it carted home and installed in a lower level portion of his home. (To put that purchase in a context: the home where the piece sits cost Soane 1400 pounds.) There it sits covered in hieroglyphs which were once highlighted with cobalt blue paste that was rubbed into the images which has long since faded. This is a masterpiece rarely seen outside museums. The warder said the British Museum couldn’t afford it because they had just purchased the Elgin Marbles! Poor Egypt! Poor Greece!

After viewing hundreds of marble fragments from Greece, Italy and who knows where, one marble cornucopia about 18″ long and 6″ high caught my eye. I was delighted to read that it came from Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s villa) outside Rome. I seem to have a psychic link to Hadrian!

Starving, we walked across the street and into Lincoln’s Inn Fields park and on to Fields for lunch. We sat outside overlooking the public tennis courts. No action–too hot, I think. Relaxing, I heard a young man encouraging his friends to sit outside as it was prettier than being inside. I watched the friendly banter and he turned to me and said “What are you drinking?” “Agua, pura agua,” I responded in Spanish–don’t ask me why–and then he proceeded to engage me in a charming discussion about where I was from and where he was from (France) and all in fluent Spanish which thankfully I was able to manage. Eventually he joined us and we had a fabulous long talk about Europe, France, and the U.S. Tomas is going to Detroit later this year. Detroit! Yikes! He’s employed in the automotive industry and his employer is sending him to Detroit–probably to uncover what not to do! Perhaps a visit to Seattle can be arranged??

And so, three venues somehow all linking themselves in my brain–synchronicity leading to unimagined connections and future adventures.

British Museum

It poured yesterday so we decided to take cover in the British Museum. Bad idea. We and 10,000 desperate parents many pushing strollers had the same idea. There are only three restrooms and as far as I could see one “lift” suitable for transporting strollers from ground level to level 3. Need I say more. Fortunately, we can still walk stairs.

Bust of Hadrian
Later in our trip we will be staying at Hadrian’s Wall in a little town named Twice Brewed. I wanted to view the Romano-British collection so we headed to room 39 where it is housed. This bust of Hadrian was plucked from the Thames near London Bridge in 1834.  He visited Britain in 122 CE.
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This is a mask of a Roman Centurion from the same time period.  The image of the young soldier is very beautiful.

Mesopotamian artifacts are in the adjacent room.  This spectacular tile with the image of Ashtarte/Ishtar intrigued me.  I love her owlish companions and her bird feet. My Hebrew name is Esther which derives from the same root as Ashtarte and Ishtar. Ish means woman in Hebrew. All interesting.
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I found one other piece very interesting. It’s titled “Ram Caught in Thicket.” I immediately thought of the ram caught in the burning bush from the Bible and wondered if there was a connection. I wonder who made this statue.

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