Reality T.V. And The Roman Town House And Disquieting Views Of The Past

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This 4th century Roman house is quite a landmark. It sits beside a rural crossroad below Wenlock Edge, and even though we know it is there, it always takes me by surprise whenever we drive that way to Shrewsbury – its time-slipped Mediterranean demeanour striking false notes in the midst of 21st century Shropshire farmland. But then this was once the style de nos jours across most of England – the way we were, almost fully Romanized, twenty to sixteen centuries ago.

And of course it is a re-creation, but then that is surprising in other ways. For a start it is built on the site of an actual Roman city, otherwise known as Wroxeter or Viroconium, and it is not usual for the heritage-powers-that-be to allow building work on their sites of international archaeological importance. For another, it is a product of a Channel 4 ‘Reality TV’ show broadcast in six episodes back in 2011. ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day ‘ was a piece of experimental archaeology turned mainstream viewing, in which a team of UK builders was set the task of building the town house using ONLY traditional Roman methods.

They had 6 months to master new skills, guided by a 2000 year old manual written by engineer Vitruvius, and under the watchful eye of project planner Professor Dai Morgan Evans, who had based the design on an actual building excavated at the site. By all accounts it was a bit of a bumpy ride.

These days Wroxeter is in the care of English Heritage and if you follow the link you can find out more about the once fourth largest Roman city in Britain. The site’s immense historical importance meant the town house project could only proceed by first creating a foundation raft that would protect the remains in the ground. Originally, too, it was intended that the house would have a limited time span. However, it is still with us, and we finally decided to make an actual visit in November last year – on Remembrance Sunday in fact, when many of us were pondering on quite another momentous historical event, the centenary of the end of World War One.

A strange case of mixed millennia then. The day was bright and blustery day with an icy wind blowing up the Craven Arms gap between the Shropshire Hills. As we peered into the re-created domestic quarters  (in much need of some serious house-keeping) we could hear the peeling bells of Shrewsbury’s churches several miles away. It sounded joyous too, this commemorative toll on so many million wasted lives.

And so it was one of those moments of complete chronological, if not ontological disorientation when you wonder what life, the universe and everything means. A ‘Who am I? Why am I?’ reaction. I took a few photos and fled back to the warmth of the visitor centre where there were two lovely young English Heritage women to chat to, and where one could also submit to the soothingly anodyne effect of graphics panels on topics Roman.

I came away thinking there are many versions of ‘reality’ that we buy into, man-made, manipulative and specious. Nonetheless, there are still some actual Roman remains at Wroxeter, the rising facade of the great Baths Basilica. And of course I remember a couple of weeks I spent here in the 1970s, a Prehistory and Archaeology undergrad, apparently gaining some required excavation skills in order to obtain my degree.

In fact I probably learned more from the gang of prisoners let out each day from their penal establishment. They worked close behind the line of us middle class student excavators, emptying our spoil buckets, barrowing the dirt into skips, all the while intent on shocking us with talk of lurid prison doings. One among them, though, grew so fascinated with the excavation process that he was promoted to the digging line and even worked through his lunch break. ‘I’m going to do this when I get out,’ he said, head down, trowel in hand, scrape-scraping away. Yes. That was a real reality glimpse. I learned a lot from that.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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Lens-Artists: Architecture

Borderlands ~ Distance In Time And Space

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We’re in border country here – between the Shropshire Hills and Wales  and I’m standing inside a Bronze Age stone circle, Mitchell’s Fold, looking in a northerly direction. And if the circle is a little raggedy  after three millennia, then its location is surely still impressive.

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Here is the southerly view towards Corndon Hill on whose flanks are the remains of several prehistoric burial cairns. To the right are the hazy Welsh uplands.

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This westerly view towards Wales shows more of the Bronze Age circle. Several of the stones have been laid flat or damaged, and this apparently happened long ago. Perhaps when the land through the circle was being worked. You can see here the rig and furrow outlines of medieval fields. I think the climate must have been milder back then or they grew very tough crops.

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Now looking east, the furthermost ridge is one of Shropshire’s most mysterious and curiously named hillscapes: the Stiperstones with its lunar Manstone and Devil’s Chair outcrops. This ridge is formed from quartzite laid down some 480 million years ago.

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All these places loom darkly in local legends and folklore. I’ve told the story before of Mitchell, the wicked witch for whom Mitchell’s Fold is named. You can read about her grim deeds and sticky end in an earlier post: Witch Catching in the Shropshire Wilds which also comes with snow-scene photos courtesy of he who no longer uses his camera.

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: In the distance

An Ancient African City ~ Great Zimbabwe

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Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers…a fortress built of stones of marvellous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it…and one of them is a tower more than twelve fathoms high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.

Captain Vincente Pegado, Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, 1531

 

This scan of a photograph from our 1993 trip to Zimbabwe looks like one of those hand-coloured postcards from the days before colour film was invented – a fitting medium perhaps for these medieval ruins (and yes it’s probably appeared in earlier posts). Anyway by the time Captain Pegado was reporting from his base in Sofala, Great Zimbabwe had been in decline for a century and more.  It was begun in its stone-built phase by the cattle owning Shona people around 1200 CE. In its heyday (mid 14th century) it seems the rulers of Great Zimbabwe were controlling the passage of high value goods (certainly gold and copper, and probably also ivory, slaves, textiles) across the Zambezi valley, and exporting them by caravan to Sofala on Africa’s east coast (present day Mozambique).

By this time, Sofala had long been a trading centre for Zambezi and Limpopo gold, and was subject to the great Swahili city state of Kilwa to the north (present day Tanzania). Thus the merchants of Great Zimbabwe, through their contact with the Arab-Swahili dhow merchants, were part of a trading network that extended across the Indian Ocean to China, and north to the Arabian Gulf and thence into the Mediterranean and Europe where African gold was much in demand during the Middle Ages. This last factor was responsible for tempting the Portuguese around the Cape to come and fetch it for themselves, hence the presence of Captain Pegado in Sofala.

Great Zimbabwe inside the great enclosure

Of course when the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were re-discovered by Europeans in the late 19th century, specifically by one Carl Mauch, it was thought that the city could not possibly be the work of indigenous people. Surely it was the lost  kingdom of Ophir whence King Solomon received regular cargos of gold, silver, apes and peacocks. Even in the 1970s when Zimbabwe was still colonial Rhodesia, all the considerable evidence (revealed by a series of archaeologists over previous decades) that showed it was built by the local African people was officially censored by the Smith regime.

Quite apart from perverting the course of scholarship and its all round offensiveness, the stance seems somewhat odd when you discover that Great Zimbabwe was not a ‘one off’. There are scores of similar medieval stone-built complexes across southern Africa, including Chisvingo and others in Zimbabwe. When Great Zimbabwe fell into decline at the close of the 15th century, another centre of power grew up at Khame, near Bulawayo in Matabeleland. It was the capital of a royal dynasty that lasted some two hundred years, all of which is food for thought on days when one cares to re-adjust one’s picture of the history of African peoples before the white folks arrived.

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The stone built complex of Great Zimbabwe originally covered 1,800 acres (730 hectares). There were also several enclosures on the hilltop where I’m standing to take this photo, including one that revealed evidence of gold smelting. The gold items found on the site were worked into coiled wire, small rods and discs or cast into beads – all highly portable. Copper was also worked, either cast in soapstone moulds to produce ingots for trade, or made into ceremonial spears (ceremonial because unalloyed copper is too soft a metal to be militarily functional).

Finds that demonstrate the city’s external trading contacts include glass beads commonly used in the medieval Indian Ocean trade, glass shards from vessels made in the Near East (13th-15th century),  and pieces of Chinese celadon export ware from the Ming (1368-1644) and earlier dynasties.

The classic work on the excavations is Peter S Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe. It also makes detailed reference to related sites.

 

Lens-Artists #Cityscapes

The Ancient ‘Cloud’ hedge Of Brampton Bryan

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It’s 300 yards long too, so one can only imagine how much time and effort it takes to keep this yew hedge looking so fine. It surrounds the grounds of Brampton Bryan Hall, and its next-door predecessor, the ruined Brampton Bryan Castle. It and the whole village are remnants of the feudal past, the manorial Harley family having been in continuous residence here for 700 years. I have not been able to find out when the form of this hedge was first conceived, or who thought of doing it. Or, indeed, who has the job of trimming it.

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The village is in Herefordshire, but close to the borders of Wales and Shropshire. There is mention of a castle here in Domesday (1086) and of building work in the 13th century. Doubtless it played its part during the Norman domination of Britain. Four centuries later, during the Civil War it was subjected to two sieges by Royalist forces.

During the first attack of 1642 that lasted several weeks, the castle was held for the Roundhead cause by Lady Brilliana Harley (there’s a name to conjure with) along with a band of locals and 50 soldiers. Her husband, Sir Robert, statesman and member of the Long Parliament which sat throughout both Civil War periods, had left her ‘to man the fort’ while he was in London attending to parliamentary business.

There was something of a truce during 1643, but by this time Brilliana was ailing and she died of pneumonia in October 1643. In the following spring there was a second siege. This time the Royalist forces arrived with mines and more powerful artillery, and so had their way. The castle was sacked and burned, the three Harley children taken off to be imprisoned in Shrewsbury. But not long afterwards the Royalist cause was lost, and Sir Robert was paid the equivalent of £1 million in compensation for the destruction of his home.

Looking around the peaceful little village today, and at that apparently all-enduring hedge, it is hard to envisage the place as a battle ground. These days we have entered the Age of Quaint & Picturesque. Which reminds me, the hall grounds were used in scenes from the Merchant Ivory film of E M Forster’s Howard’s End.

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The parish church stands in front of the castle gatehouse, and my photo of the latter was taken looking over the churchyard wall. Built in the 1660s, it is one of only six churches built in England during the Commonwealth period. Timbers from the castle’s great hall were re-purposed here.

Time Square #16

Seeking Light In The Night Garden ~ More From Powys Castle

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Here we are, walking between high, high hedges, the castle terraces in the gloaming above, and overhead, stars pricking the black. It’s quite a climb to the castle from the formal garden: several flights of stone steps, and paths wending between the ancient yew trees that have been sculpted into strange shapes over three centuries. On this December evening many are lit from within, so that as you approach they barely glimmer, but when you draw level they open up like grottoes, revealing contorted arboreal workings beneath the close-clipped exteriors.

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And now for some treescapes and garden views that did not feature in yesterday’s post:

Time Square #11

 

Welcome To The Night Garden ~ Yesterday At Powys Castle

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As darkness closed in and yet another squall blew up, we slipped over the Welsh border and headed for Welshpool. We had  hemmed and hawed up to the very last minute of departure: should we or shouldn’t we go; it could be muddy; the parking a nightmare; too many people; the prospect of getting soaked; nearly an hour’s drive on unlit winding country lanes. So many reasons not to go. And then we simply gave up the argument and set off.

It was not promising. The constant swish of wipers; rain that felt set-in; roads awash and headlights picking up flooded fields and burst river banks. But as we reached the outskirts of Welshpool the rain suddenly stopped, and ahead and high on its rocky promontory Powys Castle glowed like some fairy-tale bastion. And as it turned out, parking was easy; we were not mired in mud despite days of rain; and though there were plenty of visitors, we all soon lost ourselves in the castle grounds and it quickly became a big, magical adventure.

And not a little bonkers, I must admit – going round the steeply terraced castle gardens in the dark – the whole thing laid on by the National Trust as part of their season of festive celebrations at the castle. Anyway, here are a few other-worldly scenes from the night garden of this ancient Welsh borderland fortress.

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Lens-Artists: celebrations

No Need To Wind This Clock

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This magnificent sun dial was erected on the wall of Eyam parish church in 1775.  I’ve posted a photo of it before, but this one was taken in October during our stay in Derbyshire. The village of Eyam is famous for its extraordinary response to an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665 wherein the villagers agreed to quarantine the entire village so as not to spread the infection. You can read more of this story at an earlier post: In Search of Lost Time in Eyam and an Outbreak of Plague. As to the accuracy of this sun clock, well according to my camera it was exactly one hour slow when I took the photo, but then that may have more to do with the way we keep shunting the hour about at different seasons.

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Time Square #8  Pop over to Becky’s for this week’s squares round up.

Six Word Saturday

Chatsworth Again

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If you read my October posts on Chatsworth, you will know that our wander through the grossly sumptuous interiors made us very, very grumpy – with ourselves for one thing – for pandering to this piece of (very successful) private heritage enterprise and paying £50 (including guide book) for the doubtful privilege of doing so.

And then there’s the history that riles. However you look at it, this great family pile is founded on all that continues to be wrong with English society: the dubious acquisition of great wealth, status and power, and the fact that we STILL bow before the titled, rich and famous as if rampant social climbing and an unearned and unjustified position of superiority is worthy of our respect. Furthermore we then confuse the act of procreation by such people with the passing on of hereditary titles, as if the first justifies the second. It does not. It need be considered no more real than a mass belief in fairies. Yet we  have embedded it in our institutions – the monarchy and the House of Lords being its most obvious expressions.

The first, admittedly, has been reduced to soap opera status (although the royal family still holds on to a vast amount of wealth and property so long as it does not rock any political boats), but the Lords, by contrast, exercise considerable authority over the passing of our laws. And while there are very good reasons to have an upper house to provide check and scrutiny of the doings of the House of Commons, the fact is the Lords are unelected – bishops and peers whose titles are the only membership credentials required to get in there to lobby and pass judgement on matters of national and international importance.

And we the English people, through habit and unquestioning apathy continue to be complicit in a system where wealth, class and newspaper magnates shape and control the society we live in, and often against our best interests. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes writ large – in all its intricately self-serving, pernicious nastiness. So why do we still buy into it? Or are we too distracted by our cell phones to pay attention?

But back to Chatsworth. Now I’m left wondering if it would be more acceptable if it were owned by the National Trust. Probably. Although I have to say that in recent conversations with friends and relatives who, like us, are Trust members, we increasingly agree that the stately homes themselves leave us cold, their current presentation often afflicted by bad cases of Downton Abbey-itis that make too much of surviving family members who (by accident of inheritance) may still live in them. Instead, it is more the National Trust’s thoughtful management of landscape and countryside, and the pioneering of green technologies that wins our hearts and minds.

Meanwhile at Chatsworth the Cavendish family take pains to make themselves politically acceptable by presenting themselves as great patrons of the arts, and particularly of contemporary art. They do this to the extent of mining their own mitochondrial DNA in order to commission artwork that fixes it in a public display in the North Sketch Gallery. Many of you commented on this bizarre piece of self-regard-made-art in Back to Chatsworth and a bad case of over-gilding?

But of course, all this leaves me with a terrible dilemma. You see I have the photos, and Chatsworth is nothing if not photogenic, and especially in the October sunshine. And so now I’ve had a little rant, here are the pictures, the selection inspired by Paula’s word prompts at Lost in Translation. (See the list below).

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P.S. But in case you’re thinking Chatsworth is an isolated example in the history of England’s aristocracy, and how its members acquired riches, power, titles and unwarranted social and political influence, then architectural historian, Dan Cruikshank’s BBC series The Country House Revealed  gives further examples. We came upon it last night on YouTube, and it reminded me how angry I’d felt at Chatsworth. Anyway, Cruikshank tells a grim, if fascinating story in episode 1 at South Wraxall in Wiltshire, though be warned, his whiffling, whispering mannerisms may prove a little irritating to some. On the other hand, the revelations in the content make it worth putting up with the eccentric delivery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dywRbbDsqnY

 

Related posts:

To Chatsworth and how Mary Ann went to the ball

Back to Chatsworth and a bad case of over-gilding?

 

Thursday’s Special: Pick a word in November : palatial, cerulean, spurting, radiating and comic.

A Very Big Climb Up To Peveril Castle But Beautiful Views If You Reach The Top

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The header photo shows only the topmost portion of the path to the Castle of the High Peak. There were times as I hauled myself up there when I thought expiration – as in breathing  my last gasp – was a likely outcome. I had to sit down on every available seat (and thankfully there were several). There were also places along the way that were rather too vertiginous for my liking. On top of this we had been warned by the girl on the reception desk that that castle keep was closed for restoration works – so, you might think, why on earth were we bothering?

Frankly, if the keep had been open to visitors, I don’t think I would have made it up the spiral staircase to the main door. I like to think I’m fairly fit too, but I don’t seem be fit on the vertical. Phew and double phew.

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But then once you’re up there and can breathe again…

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What views of Derbyshire’s Hope Valley:

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The earliest fortification on the site, i.e. the extensive stone curtain wall, was already in existence in 1086 when it was recorded in the Domesday  Book. It was one of the earliest Norman fortresses in England, and held by William Peveril, a follower and so a beneficiary of William the Conqueror when it came to receiving territorial rewards. The castle served as an important administrative centre for extracting taxes from the local Saxon Pecsaetan people of the Hope Valley. At this time Forest Law was also strictly enforced, meaning people were brought before the Forest Court at the castle and fined for deemed infractions of the king’s royal  hunting forest that extended over much of the High Peak district. As time went on, and more and more forest was excised for settlement, farming and pasture, the fines for encroachment were seen more as rental payments than as penalties.

But back to the Peverils. Things did not go so well in the next generation. Son of Peveril was accused of plundering and treachery by the soon to be crowned Henry II.  On ascending the thrown Henry confiscated the castle and kept it for the particular purpose of overseeing the Forest of the High Peak, his personal royal hunting grounds. This was in 1154. He visited the castle three times in the next ten years. When he was not there, the place was apparently manned by one porter and two watchmen.

This all changed during the 1173-4 uprising when Henry’s three sons, Henry Young King, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland, along with their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against Henry’s rule – a family argument of epic proportions. Peveril then became a garrison housing 20 knights who roved between the High Peak and Bolsover Castle some miles away. After the uprising in 1176, Henry built the impressive keep at a cost of £184. You can see from the photos above it was originally handsomely finished with dressed stone, an attractive proposition for later stone robbers.

Further improvements were made during the 13th century to cater for royal visits. And a very nice model shows us how things would have looked back then: stables, chapel, workshops, kitchens, bakery, a great hall for entertaining, new high-status apartments – an upscale self-sufficient community in other words, the whole perched atop a beetling limestone eminence and visible for miles around.

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The private chambers that backed onto the curtain wall came with their own garderobes or loos. The one in the photo coming up next would have had a wooden seat with a central hole, and waste would have dropped down into the Peak Cavern Gorge beyond the castle wall. The garderobe was also traditionally the place where noble personages kept their clothing, the whiffy draughts therein checking moth predation. Which also reminds me that Voltaire opined that the legendary bad temper of Edward 1, aka Longshanks and prolific builder of Welsh castles, was down to chronic constipation induced by the cold sea wind gusting up Caernarvon Castle’s royal garderobe. I always thought Voltaire might have a point.

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As time went on, the castle ceased to be of particular strategic importance. In 1374 King John ordered the lead stripped from the roofs for re-use at Pontefract Castle. And although local courts were still held there until 1600, by 1609 it was described as ruinous and serving no use. Thereafter its destiny lay in inspiring Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak and providing a romantically rugged upland landmark for the first major flushes of tourists to Derbyshire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Oh yes, and  for inducing near asphyxia in people not good at hill climbs.

Lens-Artists: Big can be beautiful too

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell