Roman Gems


Last month I went on my third trip to Rome, and it was absolutely heaving with tourists. Noticeably, they all seem to be concentrated in certain areas, while other equally, or more, impressive sites slightly off the tourist trail go unnoticed. Our hotel was alongside the Trevi Fountain so we walked past it every day and there was a barely any room for anyone else to fit into. I did start to wonder though how many people were really looking at the fountain, admiring the skill or design (not that it’s to my taste) or considering its history, and how many were there just because you “have” to go there. By contrast, at other sites, we almost had them to ourselves. Not that I’m complaining of course, because it’s nice to enjoy them in relative peace and quiet, but  I do think people are missing out.

For instance, how many people have heard of Pompeii? Oodles. How many have heard of Herculaneum, a few miles away? Probably considerably fewer. Well I’m betting that even fewer have heard of Ostia, which was ancient Rome’s port, a short and easy train ride away from the city, and which is just as much of a gem. In fact it’s amazing. I’m not going to try to compare it with Pompeii and Herculaneum because it’s not really fair. But it’s certainly interesting that the vast remains are there because they’ve just been left alone – it’s not that the town came to a sudden halt and was frozen in time for two millennia. Unfortunately we were beginning to feel the effects of the climbing temperatures so we didn’t see all we could have (I doubt we would have got all the way round in any case). But I loved what we did see. I’m a sucker for a good mosaic (more of them later) so those of a cart driver and in the Baths of Neptune were right up my alley – huge floor coverings with pictures of wonderful quality and in great nick. Going up the stairs at the baths also gave a great vantage point from which to view the layout and expanse of the surrounding buildings. There were streets with at least two storeys of their apartment blocks, windows giving you views to wall paintings still inside and original road surfaces (though rather in need of maintenance!). Talking of which, if you do go you should definitely wear suitable footwear, not high heels like some we saw! The other potential hazard was the falling pine cones – huge they were, and likely to do a bit of damage with a direct hit. But I digress.


One of the gems is the theatre. There’s been some work done to it, but as this was my first time in a full size, complete Roman theatre, it certainly made an impact. The view from the top of the seats over both the theatre and the town was stunning, and the view up from the stage was just as good. I think my highlights though were the remains of some of the businesses, and this is certainly one area where Ostia has the edge over the Vesuvian towns (OK, I’ve done it). Firstly there was the bar with the counter (so far, so Pompeii), but this was a two-roomed affair, with menu painted on the wall, a great amphora sunk into the floor, and a courtyard for your al fresco dining. Then there was the presumed fishmonger, with fish mosaics, counter and oven. And then the best bit. Behind the theatre is the Forum of the Corporations, an open-ended rectangle around the Temple of Ceres. It’s the ancient equivalent of a shopping parade I suppose, three perfect lines of shops. Only the foundations and floors survive, but that’s the best bit, because outside the front of each one was a mosaic advertising what the business was. There were elephants for ivory traders, ships and lighthouses for the ships for hire, grain traders and various animals. Some were just pictures; others also noted where the traders came from. They were featured in Mary Beard’s TV series a few months ago and I feared it was the usual special access for a TV crew, but happily all visitors can get up close to them.


The other knockout of the trip was the Baths of Caracalla. They’re in the city centre, but enough of a walk from the main sites that they obviously get overlooked by the tour groups and a fair amount of independent travellers as well. The remains are huge. Huge. Most of the layout remains, and many of the walls stand 30m high, giving you the chance to walk through the rooms as they would have been. Sadly, of course, the architectural features and fittings have long since been plundered, but what remains is the impressive shell of a facility that would have catered for 6-8,000 people a day. We know the Romans liked their baths and that the state provided them, but this really was a public service on a grand scale. Happily for the mosaicist there are plenty of examples of the floor coverings left. Some of the smaller rooms still have their complete floor and there are large chunks of others propped up against the walls for a good look at the design and structure. All sorts – black and white, colour, geometric patterns and scenes from mythology, there’s a great variety. You can also go underground to see some of the service tunnels, which contain examples of the stonework, and which are wonderfully cool on a hot day.


I really enjoy going to Rome, and I have no doubt I’ll go back again. I tried to resist the superstition, certain in this knowledge, but couldn’t help throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain just in case. The trouble is, I think each trip might have get longer. We saw a lot of new things this time, but there’s still a lot to do, and I can’t help visiting some old favourites again. I have a real soft spot for the Pantheon (not sure why, although it seems quite cosy to me, nestled into the small piazza), and I love sitting in the Forum surrounded by so many ancient buildings, where there’s always a new nook and cranny to find. Then there are the things that have been seen, but have to be revisited for a better look, like the Theatre of Marcellus (and while there, might as well go back to the very cute 1st and 2nd century BC Temples of Portunus and Hercules Victor, the oldest surviving marble building in Rome). Of course the rest of Ostia needs to be explored. And the things we couldn’t get into this time, like the Colosseum’s underground tunnels, the lower level of Trajan’s Market and the houses on the Palatine. All of which could fill a holiday quite nicely, except there are so many brand new sites to visit too. As this last trip was a week, up from five days, maybe the next one will have to be ten days. Or maybe that’s a bit excessive really – after all, if it can’t all be fitted in, there’s always the next time.


One or two holiday snaps



I’ve just got back from my third trip to Rome and a few differences stood out. It was much hotter (even though the first trip was at the same time of year), it was much busier, and I took many, many, more photos. All told, I must have taken about 1,200, which isn’t bad going in a week. Some would say excessive. So why so many?

Obviously it was facilitated by the fact that I have a digital camera now, but has that changed the way I approach photography? To an extent, yes, because it’s so much easier now to point, click, check whether it’s what I wanted, and try again. Another angle, another level of magnification. My camera allows me to zoom in on objects in a picture and crop it, or correct the lighting, which then creates another picture. On the open-top Archeobus I kept clicking away, hoping that some came out in focus and showed the view, rather than lots of people’s heads. I also now take a lot of pictures of information boards – occasionally for printing but mainly so that when I come back to a photo I know which bit of ruined building it is. I never would have been so carefree in the old days, when sometimes it seemed to take ages to finish a film. It was quite striking last weekend that after sifting the photos from a family event I was left with 35, which didn’t seem that much when I looked through them. Until I realised that was the equivalent of a film – and not a standard one of 24, which is what I usually used, but a long film of 36 – on one event! Not so long ago that would have seemed rather extravagant. So what’s changed?

OK, it’s slightly cheaper to print now without the extra cost of buying a film, but not significantly, and it still adds a fair bit to the holiday bill to print a few hundred. Partly I suppose I’m more phlegmatic about cost now I’m a grown-up with my own income. But I think what it really boils down to is an increasing need to record everything, just in case. Maybe I won’t want that photo later, but if I don’t take it now I won’t get another chance and I’ll never have it. Obviously I’ll never need (or want) all 1,200 photos, but I go back with a fresh eye, discard the completely duff ones, the ones that don’t actually show much after all, or are pretty much or even totally duplicates. I’ve got some natty software which I think came with my camera that can ‘stitch’ pictures together to make panoramas, so once I’ve got those I can get rid of the composites.

But once you’ve done all your sifting, then what? Do you save them all, steadily clogging up your hard drive? Print? I still like to print photos and keep them in albums (an increasingly old-fashioned past-time I get the impression). But I certainly don’t need all of them printed. So I’m currently selecting which to print and stick in an album. I’ll then transfer all the ones I want to keep (just in case!) to some sort of external storage device. I’m trying to be careful about that too – how many discs do I want lying around? After all, I rarely used to keep negatives for reprints. So a lot are  deleted when I’ve finished with them, but some I’ll keep – special occasions, like weddings and trips to Rome.

Because you never know when you might want an old photo – for uploading to a blog for instance…


Keep this one?

Keep this one?


Or this one?

Or this one?

Richard III: Gone but certainly not forgotten

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery


Being a historian with a side interest in archaeology, who particularly favours the medieval, I’ve watched the uncovering of Richard III in Leicester with fascination. So I was very excited to find out about the lecture being given by the university about it. I would have liked a little more detail perhaps, but I suppose I just have to wait for the various articles and reports to be published. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear the story from some of the team firsthand. How the main goal from the university’s point of view was to find evidence of the Greyfriars Friary, and if they could identify which part they were in, or even find the church, so much the better. The fact that they found Richard at all, let alone so quickly, was so astounding because it was so unlikely. And yet there he was, his knees a mere 90mm below the floor level of a demolished modern building. Had those builders dug a fraction deeper, the remains of one of the more (in)famous English monarchs really would have been lost forever. Despite that, in one of those quirks of fate, somehow his oddly-positioned head also escaped damage. Photographs show his head and shoulders to be propped up, as if he’s leaning against the end of his grave. Although it was cut in a much less regular and tidy fashion than the others around him, it was still long enough for him to be laid flat had they taken the time to straighten him out. But given this was some days after his death, the monks can perhaps be forgiven for not spending too long on perfecting the presentation. We also heard about the practical aspects of such a project that never would have occurred to me. While transporting a bone sample to France for DNA analysis, a letter to customs officials was carried to explain that this was a member of the project team carrying a bone fragment, which was securely packaged to avoid contamination and please do not open it! And on the return journey, another to say that the white powder being carried was a ground archaeological specimen and please do not open it! All in all, well worth the two-hour journey down from Leeds.

I think what has struck me most about the whole thing though, is the scale of the reaction. Naturally enough the media has had a field day, particularly the local news broadcasters. Also obviously there have been comments from several historians, some of whom seem to be suffering from a severe case of sour grapes that they or their fields aren’t the ones who’ve caught the public’s imagination.  Bewailing the fact that it’s kings and queens again and what about learning about ‘ordinary’ people is missing the point. Apart from the fact that in general Brits like to hear about kings and queens, there has to be a hook to interest a casual observer, and obviously that’s going to be easier with someone with a recognisable face and name. I’m not going to get into where he should be re-interred, because to be honest I’m not bothered one way or another. But somehow it’s become almost the biggest part of the story, rather than the more important things like whether we can corroborate or disprove anything we thought we knew about him. Was he dug up and thrown in a river? No. Are his injuries consistent with being killed in the thick of battle? Yes. Was Shakespeare lying about him having a physical deformity for dramatic effect? No, although he could have been exaggerating. Did he have a withered arm? No, although he did have slender bones for a man. Did he murder the Princes in the Tower? Well that’s the question that everyone wants answered and which probably never will be. And it’s also the one that’s ensured that this king of only two years is so well known, why opinion is so sharply divided, and consequently why so many preposterous things have been said over the last few months. Like Leicester don’t deserve to have him now because they lost him for 500 years, that because he happened to have a car park laid over him that they’ve mistreated him. Well it’s not like that was the intention in 1485 was it. That the facial reconstruction shows he looks nothing like a tyrant – and what does a tyrant look like, pray tell? (And actually I can more easily imagine a tyrant in the reconstructed face that I can in the medieval portrait.) There also seems to be some debate about whether he should be (re)laid to rest in an Anglican church when he would have been Catholic. Let’s not forget though that he was originally buried in a friary church, and you can’t get much more Catholic than that. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that we should exhume, say, Mary I or any other medieval monarch and move them from their now Anglican church to a Catholic one.

But I like the fact that history, and proper history at that, not 20th century Europe for the umpteenth time, is making headlines for a change. And this is at a time when there are concerns about decreasing numbers of history students in narrowing areas of study. Yet many people seem to have at least taken enough of an interest in the story to have some sort of opinion on it. Hopefully it will encourage a greater interest in history in general, and medieval history in particular. And maybe even some more medieval history on TV!

For starters, let’s not forget the other aspect of this project – the knowledge we have gained about Greyfriars. Beforehand, very little was known about it, but now we have information about, amongst other things, the layout, the floor tiles, the other people buried there and the fact that the church may have been faced with brick. Hopefully one day the archaeologists will be able to go back and find out even more.

Waes Hael!

What did you do with your weekend? I learned and performed some Old English and Anglo-Norman carols as part of Waes Hael, a day of exploring the development of the carol from dance and folklore to its part in Christmas. As I was jotting down some inital thoughts before bed that night, one of the tunes was on a constant loop – the two-line easy-to-remember one, obviously. It’s called Nay Ivy Nay and the lines in question were the chorus, which came between the verses which were being sung by the four professional singers who were doing most of the evening concert, as opposed to us bunch of enthusiastic amateurs who were there to have a fun day trying something new. Apparently, back in the day, men and women would have sing offs, the men’s songs telling how they were the best and the women’s how they were. Naturally, since the vast majority of history has been passed on by men, most of the songs which have survived belong to them. Nay Ivy Nay was a men’s song, describing how the holly (representing men) was better than ivy (women). But we all sang it good-naturedly anyway! Being the easiest, that was the one we learned first, to get us in the mood.

Then came the drinking song – A Saxon Wassail – which was to open the show. This was more of a challenge, not least because we’d sometimes adopt one of the other parts instead of our own after listening to their turn at learning a bit. This may in part be down to the fact that we were learning by listening, rather than by reading a score. Whenever I’ve been in a choir I’ve had the music in front of me, so this way took a bit of getting used to. But why would it make that much difference, given that I pick up songs from the radio or a CD? I suppose for a start I never did very well in the aural tests of my music exams (e.g. clapping back a rhythm) – my memory just doesn’t work that efficiently. But also a score shows you the direction you need to go in – it reminds you that while the altos are about to go for a lower note, you (the soprano) need to go up. It also tells you how many notes you’re going to sing on each syllable, which having just the words doesn’t.

But I digress – back to the drinking song. It was basically a bit of Anglo-Norman propaganda. A few decades after the Norman Conquest, Wace (c.1110-1174) was recounting a song which the Anglo-Saxons allegedly sang on the eve of the Battle of Hastings. He was saying that while the Normans were decent, pious chaps, the locals were a raucous, undisciplined lot who needed to be conquered and shown the error of their ways. I’ll leave you to decide for yourself who you’d sympathise with. Interestingly for the linguists, although the words were Old English he used Anglo-Norman spellings of them, which I suppose is logical enough if you don’t know the language. I’m not one to be put off by unfamiliar words and pronunciations though. Over the years I’ve done pieces in, for example Latin, German, Russian and Hebrew, and usually didn’t have much clue at all about what I was saying. The pleasure after all is getting together with a like-minded group and creating beautiful music. The third song was a 15th century lullaby. It was shorter than the drinking song but I found it harder to pick up – back to my problem with remembering rhythms. But once we cracked it, a very beautiful song.

After Christmas Dinner at the pub over the road was the concert. And oh dear – the tunes were not as firmly in some of our heads as we hoped (especially me!). But nevertheless I think there was some excellent improvisation, it still sounded great and it’s not as if the audience knew what it should have sounded like anyway. And I think we did a pretty good job considering we’d only done them for a bit more than an hour each. The ‘proper’ singers showed us what other songs they’d unearthed, including the 9th century Carol of the Star, the 13th century Wynter Wakeneth poem with Latin plainchant and the 16th century Boar’s Head Carol. There was also the most effective ending of an interval I think I’ve seen. Without warning, they started an extract from The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors (in early modern English), which sounded like some hooligan had come in causing trouble, with two of them imploring everyone to sit down to escape his wrath. Very clever! And it wasn’t quite over for the choir either. There was a tune which was later used for Ding Dong Merrily on High, and volunteers were invited to learn a simple dance – naturally us in the choir gave it go, and yes it was very straightforward. It was a shame we didn’t do it for a bit longer actually. We also had a rendition of Here We Come A-Wassailing with audience participation. So really we learnt four songs rather than three.


In keeping with the learning about the history of the songs, this all took place in the medieval church of All Saints, Childwell, Liverpool and we started the day with a talk from one of the church wardens about its history. There has been a church on the site since before the Domesday survey, but most of what is there is from the 14th century or later. A few of the interesting features were:

Some Saxon stones reused in the porch (they were possibly part of a preaching cross for intinerant priests).



A squint window through which the excommunicated or ill could watch the service from outside the church.



The medieval piscina (used by the priest to wash the communion vessels), which is now at floor level but would have been at waist level. The church was originally built to take advantage of the downward slope in order to further obstruct the view between the congregation and the priest performing the mass (since it was a secretive process the laity shouldn’t see). The floor at that end was raised in the 19th century by about 3 1/2 feet, but even now you can still feel a slight slope as you walk the length of the church.



By the time I was leaving after the concert, humming the tune about the holly (which incidentally I woke up humming too), I was absolutely buzzing after my fun and interesting day in its beautiful setting.

2012 – What a year for British sport

It’s nearly time for the latest BBC Sports Personality of the Year to be crowned – and I’m very glad that I wasn’t involved in drawing up the shortlist, because how on earth do you choose from all of those who achieved such amazing things this year? In fact, in recognition of all those feats, they’ve increased the number from 10 to 12. The runners and riders were announced this evening, and they are (in no particular order of course):

  • Bradley Wiggins
  • Ben Ainslie
  • Ellie Simmonds
  • Jessica Ennis
  • Chris Hoy
  • Nicola Adams
  • David Weir
  • Rory McIlroy
  • Mo Farrah
  • Andy Murray
  • Sarah Storey
  • Katherine Grainger

Now I’m not the most sports-minded of people, but even I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they’ve all being doing this year, which just goes to show how prominent sport’s been recently (bit hazy on the golf though).

The least surprising thing about this list is that after the furore of last year, there are some women on the list, and it’s a fairly even gender split at that. Also unsurprising is that the most represented sport is cycling, given how well the British cyclists have done this year (and that’s a bit of an understatement really isn’t it). Tour de France 1st and 2nd places, winner of the most Grand Tour stages, and sweeping the board on the Olympic track, despite the rule changes that a cynical person would say were put in place to spoil our party after we did so well in Beijing. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

So who’s going to win on 16th December? I have absolutely no idea, and if I feel the need to vote (which I don’t usually), I have absolutely no idea who I would pick up the phone for. It’s so hard to compare the different sports and what each person has done. And you can’t even use milestones, because most (if not all) can claim some kind of record. Would I be influenced by my new-found interest in cycling? Or by having seen Mo in the flesh when I went to the Olympics and watched him playing mind games with the opposition in the 5,000m heat? Or is there some other defining criterion I haven’t thought of yet?

So how about an incredibly unscientific opinion poll? Who would you give your vote to? Or who would you have put on the shortlist instead?

Heritage Open Days

Whoever came up with the idea for the Heritage Open Days needs a pat on the back. For four days every September we’re given the chance to learn more about our local history and heritage than we might otherwise be able to. Historic buildings and sites are opened up in a way that they aren’t during the rest of the year. This might mean that buildings that are in private hands are opened to the public, behind the scenes tours are laid on, entry fees are waived, or volunteers are on hand to answer questions or give tours. Every year I intend to make good use of the opportunities and I usually fail, so I was especially determined this time. I had a whole weekend of activities planned – I didn’t manage all of it, but I did good.



My first goal was to have a snoop inside the Tetley headquarters building. For those that don’t know, there’s been a brewery on the site since 1791. Joshua Tetley bought it in 1822 and the present building was built in 1931. The brewery was closed in 2011 and most of the site has now been demolished. I had a couple of reasons for waiting to go. Firstly, it was a nice opportunity to see inside a historic building that hadn’t been open to the public. Secondly, what does an art deco office look like and how many of the original features have survived? And thirdly, it would be interesting to see the “before” picture before it embarks on a new life next year.

As to the first point, there’s something quite exciting about going where you couldn’t go before, like being let into a secretive world. And who doesn’t like to be a bit nosy?! Unfortunately there weren’t any old papers lying around, but the plaques on the doors denoting who would have worked there fed the imagination. The answer to the second point was – quite a lot. From the original lift to the fireplaces and little hatch between the manager’s office and the one next door, there was no sense that modernity had come along and spoilt everything. For instance, there were new lights, but they were subtle and in keeping with the rest of the building. Not to mention the wonderful life still being there. The next phase of the site’s life will be as an art exhibition space, under the auspices of PSL (Project Space Leeds), a local organisation set up to create professional exhibition opportunities for young and emerging artists based in Leeds and the north of England. It’s going to be fascinating to see how such a creative group makes use of the site. It opens in spring 2013, so we don’t have long to wait to find out.



My second visit was to the Roundhouse, a building that thousands of people drive past every day, probably without giving it much thought. But actually it’s rather significant. It’s alongside Wellington Road as you approach Armley Gyratory from the city centre, and was once part of the sprawling railway network around Leeds. And this is where my reason for visiting comes in, because from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, several of my family were railwaymen, and I want to know more about what it was like. The building predates them, but nevertheless gives an insight into the world they knew.




It is one of the few, if not only, surviving examples of a complete roundhouse of the 1840s, complete with original 50’ timbers in the ceiling. It was used to ‘stable’ (a term I find quite cute for some reason) the locomotives – in the centre was a turntable on to which you’d drive and then be turned in the direction of the appropriate berth for the night. I’m sure anyone who’s read or seen Thomas the Tank Engine can picture the scene. Despite the building of a half roundhouse next door (now Majestic) and another roundhouse nearby (demolished in the 1960s), their full use was short lived as locomotives being bigger and the sheds were no longer practical. A larger, more flexible, facility was built on the other side of the city centre and the roundhouse began to have other uses.

Ordinarily you would never get to see inside, but because of the interest of the occupants, Leeds Commercial Ltd, it was opened up on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon (hard to picture that over the last few days!). Some real care and attention had gone into it, with vans being parked up inside to act as temporary display boards for all manner of old photographs, site plans and maps, which I could quite happily look at for hours. I’m glad it survived, a part of the early history of the British railways and a remnant of the vast railway infrastructure of Leeds, much of which has long gone. It’s also helped me to imagine a small part of my great grandfather’s working life – he was a driver and would have put his engine to bed in something similar every day. He died long before I was born so I’ve never been able to ask him what it was like to be a train driver, but at least I now have a prop for my imagination to work with.

But I’m also glad that there are people out there who are so interested in the history of their buildings that they’re willing to give up their time to share it with the rest of us. So to everyone who’s involved in the Heritage Open Days, thank you.

The Olympics are here!

After years of planning and talking about it, we’re nearly underway (I don’t count the football matches that have already taken place I’m afraid, why on earth were they before the opening ceremony?). I’ve no patience with the nay-sayers and doom-mongers, this is going to be great. Is it expensive? Yes, but would the government really have spent it on anything more useful? Was the ticketing a fiasco? Yes, but we’ll get over it. Will there be traffic congestion? Yes, but surely we can cope for a few weeks out of a lifetime. People were also saying that we’d never manage the construction. But we’ve come in on budget (which was only revised once as far as I’m aware, and that was pretty early on), and way ahead of the start. Don’t forget that in previous years other countries were still building practically up the opening ceremony, but our last permanent venue was finished a year ago and all the major venues at least have been holding competitions, and making sure things are working properly. That’s pretty impressive for a project of this size.

No, I’m really looking forward to this, and not only because I’ve been lucky enough to get a ticket (and no it’s not for the 100m final). It’s a spectacle and the pinnacle of so many sports. Everyone wants to take part. Who or what are going to be the big stories this time? The glory of winning a medal, or even more than one? Or will it be someone with indomitable fighting spirit that we all get behind, like Derek Redmond hobbling over the line on his dad’s arm when his hamstring snapped in ’92 just because he had to finish the race, or Eric the Eel, who had only learnt to swim a couple of months before the Sydney Games and was cheered to the end by a crowd who thought he wasn’t going to make it.

The Olympics also give us the chance to watch sports that aren’t normally given much, or any, air time. I think I’ll tune in for some archery and canoeing, and now I come to think of it, I’ve never seen any water polo, so maybe I should give that a go this time.

I heard a surprising statistic this morning – that for 75% of the GB&NI team, this is their first Olympics. It shows how much new talent we have in this country, and presumably a lot of that has happened because of the investment brought about by bringing the Games here. For the future of our sports, that surely has to be a good thing. Given how wonderful it’s going to be for them all to perform on home turf, I just hope this doesn’t spoil them for the next time!

This won’t be quite as interactive for me as the Olympics Games of my youth, where I’d conscientiously (obsessively?) make a note of all the results in whatever book tie-in had been produced that time. That doesn’t really seem as “necessary” anymore, now that we have the results published for ever more on the internet. A far cry from one games when I was getting them off Ceefax and wondering how to get the ones I’d missed. But nevertheless, this is all going to be great fun. And one of the best things about it? No time zone problems to worry about for a change!