Saturday 1 November 2014

The Roman Baths ... in Bath ...

Yes, we're still on the trail of those pesky Romans, as Emi works his way slowly through his half-term homework assignment.

On our way back to London from Devon we stopped off to take a look at the Roman Baths in ... Bath. No prizes for guessing how this city got its name!

I've been here so many times I think I could hire myself out as a tour guide. Everyone who comes to visit us from overseas gets dragged down to Bath at some point during their stay. It's such a great place to visit, and it was a real pleasure to show little Emi around. He's been pushed around the sights in his pram before, but claims not to remember a great deal about it.

Have you ever seen a more timeless looking place than this?

It's like an onion with every skin a different age. 

Before the Romans the Celts lived here. Some of their gods are still in evidence at the complex.

This sacred trinity of mother goddesses was dug up at Bathwick. They were being venerated here long before the Romans started polishing their lances and wondering whether or not they should cross the Rubicon.

And even after they'd been conquered the ancient Britons still managed to do Roman things their way. Take a look at this wonderful carving that once stood proud on the central plinth of the temple here in Bath. Is it a (male) Gorgon with the snakes for hair, Neptune, god of the seas or our good old Green Man, Master of the Celtic Wild Wood? It's anyone's guess, but whichever way you cut the cake he's gorgeous.

The temple here was dedicated to Sulis Minerva, the goddess of the heavenly hot spring.  Is it just me, or does anyone else think she looks a bit like Margaret Thatcher? Maybe it's just the way she's had her hair curled.

And when we got right down to pool level there were still a few Romans hanging around enjoying the party. I wonder what they're talking about. Where's the best place to get your chariot serviced? Why doesn't anyone in this country know how to cook a decent stuffed dormouse? I wouldn't know where to begin, but at least they did a good job of blending in with the tourists (not).

Here's another chap who's been standing around for so long that he's turned to stone. I think he's drawing his sword to clear a way through all the tourists to get to the pool. It was standing room only when we passed through. And everyone - absolutely everyone - was listening to the talkie guide they hand out at the door.

The water rises out of the ground heated to a steaming 46º C (115º F). It's the only place in the UK where this happens, and those old Romans thought that it was the work of the gods.

It would be amazing to go for a dip in that ancient pool with all those regal statues looking on. These days they've got an amazing modern spa where you can do just that. The best bit is the rooftop pool where you can drift around admiring the view of the rooftops through the steam rising off the water.

It's a brilliant spot to pass an afternoon and Emi seemed to learn a load of stuff about the Romans. But it would be magical to go at night and have the place to yourself. Can you just imagine floating around in the hot water with a glass of something cool and delicious, watching the stars twinkle overhead? How very decadent!

All the best,

Bonny x

Thursday 30 October 2014

The Lonely Grave of Rosa Bevan ... #photostory #halloween

It's Halloween ... .

Do you want to hear a spooky story?

This one's a weird tale, and, if I  live to be a hundred, I don't think I’ll ever be able to come up with a rational explanation for what took place that day. 

It had been a bitterly cold October. Normally in London, we enjoy soft, gentle autumns with just a hint of summer lingering on into November. 

But that year winter had come early. 

Back then I'd been working as a junior reporter for a small suburban newspaper, an old rag that had been around since the year dot and rarely got read by anyone under fifty. It wasn't a great job: I spent most of my time brewing up and doing the photocopying, but everyone's got to start somewhere.

That day I’d been sent to the cemetery by my editor. 

Look for a story, a scary story. Find something we can print for Halloween, he’d said. 

It wasn't exactly news, which probably explained why he'd trusted me to run with it. My editor liked to punctuate the passing months with the occasional seasonal piece that would appeal to the reader's sense of tradition. It usually featured in the doldrums of the paper, somewhere round about page 33, before the news morphed into the sports section.

So there I stood, clutching a takeaway coffee for warmth in the cold dampness of the old cemetery. From memory I was in the unconsecrated bit, where they'd buried the unbelievers, the dissenters and all the other folk who'd not been in the embrace of the Established Church at the time of their passing. 

The grass was veiled with a half-hearted frost that was slowly melting in the watery sunlight, leaving everything wet and slimy in its wake. The sun hung low in the sky, throwing great elongated shadows across the ground.

I walked around for fifteen or twenty minutes, my breath condensing in the cold air, as I wondered where I could find a story.

Maybe the inscriptions on the headstones would give me a start, I thought, taking a slug of the hot coffee and looking around at the massed ranks of graves and tombs that surrounded me. 

Then one particular headstone seemed to call out to me from the shadows. It was in the form of a long, thin gothic arch, carved from Portland Stone. It listed slightly to one side, touching its neighbour, as though it were leaning on the shoulder of an old friend. 

How very understated, I thought, contrasting its simplicity with the extravagance of its neighbours. I’d always thought the Victorian love of ornamental angels and wreathed funeral urns was a bit over the top.

I stood squinting at the stone, trying to make out what it said. The surface was weathered and pitted with the passage of the years, making the engraving hard to decipher. 

In Loving Memory 
Rosa Bevan
Wife of Charles T. Bevan
Died August 28, 1884, Aged 24
"Thy Will be Done."

The words seemed sparse and controlled. Surely a life lost at the tender age of 24 ought to have elicited a greater out-pouring of emotion. In fact the Thy Will be Done bit spoke of a certain indifference to what had taken place. And then there was the expanse of unused space that stretched all the way down to the earth beneath, which suggested that, in the fulness of time, other names ought to have appeared there too, names such as Charles T. Bevan, the husband left behind with his loving memories and his economical way with words. 

I was suddenly overcome by the blackest depression. I felt desperately sorry for poor Rosa, keeping her lonely vigil in the shadows, at a discreet distance from the main path. I had a strong sense of her unfinished business. I don’t understand why. There were hundreds of other life stories carved into the various memorials and tombstones round about that could have touched me, but it was Rosa’s cold, sad presence that reached out.

I was lost in my thoughts when I heard a twig snap behind me. I looked round, but couldn't see anyone.

Then a man's voice whispered urgently in my ear, My Will be Done.

I could have sworn that I felt his breath, cold and clammy, against my skin as he exhaled the words.

The whispered words jarred with the inscription on Rosa's headstone: Thy Will be Done.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose in terror. I had a sense of someone of imposing stature standing right behind me. I turned and looked again, but there was no one there.

'Ello, Miss. Lost your way, Miss?  

Startled, I turned around and saw a young woman walking towards me from the other side of Rosa's grave. I'd been distracted by what I thought was going on behind me and, as a result, I hadn't noticed her approaching.

She smiled at me, as though she sensed I was afraid and was trying to reassure me. Although now that I think about it, the smile on her lips never quite reached her cold, black eyes, which seemed to look right through me, as though they were searching for something - or someone - hidden amongst the graves behind me.

I'm fine, thanks. I said, noticing that she was wearing a long, black dress that looked as though it had been created by a Victorian seamstress. 

W-why are you dressed like that? I asked. 

I'm an actress, she said, pinning a wispy strand of light brown hair back into place in the bun that she wore low on her head.  I've got an audition up in town later this afternoon.

I thought it strange that she should be wearing her stage clothes before she got to the theatre, but said nothing more about it as I was distracted by the sound of footsteps, walking off briskly along one of the side paths behind me. I looked round, but could see nothing other than some branches moving in the undergrowth where someone had brushed past them.

Pass no remarks on him, she said. He's always here. He doesn't like it when I talk to anyone.

Why not? I asked. Who is he?

He's nobody important, not any more, but he's worried I'll tell you his secret, she said, smiling that strange half-smile, that never touched her eyes. Come with me, Miss. You've come looking for a story, haven't you Miss? You've got to write a proper, good story before the end of tomorrow, ain't that right, Miss?

Surprised that she seemed to know my reason for visiting the cemetery, I conceded that she was, indeed correct, and that I would face the wrath of my editor if I hadn't produced a few pages of copy before we went to print.

She beckoned me to follow her, and then set off between the tombstones, but before I could take a step I felt a sharp poke in my ribs, and then the urgent, disembodied voice whispered in my ear again.

 My will be done, it said in tones that suggested it would broker no contradiction.

This time I couldn't control myself; I shrieked in fright.

Oh, don't go upsetting yourself, Miss. He just doesn't want anyone to know his secret. You pay him no heed, Miss.

By this stage she was fast disappearing down the pathway, and, as I had no wish to be left on my own with whatever it was that was poking me and insisting that its will should prevail, I rushed after her. 

The old cemetery is in two parts, the East Cemetery and the West Cemetery, one divided from the other by Swiggin's Lane, a winding alleyway, only just wide enough for a hearse to drive up. I'd lost sight of her by the time I reached the gate, and, when I set eyes on her again she'd already gone across to the West Cemetery. I could see her pale face and shadowy form waiting for me on the other side of the railings.

I was out of breath, and panting as though I'd run a mile by the time I reached the lane. I could hear my blood pumping in my ears, and it felt as though my heart would burst through my chest, whether from running or from fear I'm not sure.

Perhaps I went too slowly across the lane, and didn't pay attention. I don't remember. But suddenly, out of nowhere, a horse-drawn hearse was bearing down upon me. The horses, all frothing at the mouth, and red in the eye from their exertions, were moving at breakneck speed, their tall feathered head-plumes dancing in the air. In the very nick of time, I came to my senses and jumped out of the way as it went careering past, missing me by millimetres.

Stunned, I watched as it disappeared noiselessly round a sharp bend in the lane.

How strange they didn't make any noise or stop here at the gate to the cemetery, I thought, as I caught my breath. I was badly shaken up, as you can imagine, but I'm pretty sure that I didn't give voice to my thoughts.

Their kind never make any noise, she said, by way of answer to my unspoken question. He's not stopping because he's got no business in here today, other than in trying to stop you coming through the gate, Miss. 

Turning around she set off at a brisk pace up the hill.

I had no wish to be left on my own, so I set off after her, although, now that I think about it, a wiser person would have made a break for it, back down Swiggin's Lane to the land of the living.

We passed tall plinths, bearing veiled funeral urns, any number of stone angels and the large, ostentatious stone vaults of the better-off dead.

Finally she stopped in front of a handsome tomb. She paused and, resting one frail, white hand on its heavy pediment admired it in contemplative silence for a moment.

It was in the form of a classical casket with elaborate scrolled edges but little other decoration. The proportions were handsome, the carving had been expertly executed on good Portland Stone and the overall design, whilst restrained, was pleasing to the eye. 

 He always had such good taste, much better than mine she said, looking up at me as though she were checking that I was still there. It's just right, isn't it Miss? He's made it look so distinguished.

I was struck by the note of pride in her voice, as though she harboured some affection for the person responsible, and as though his good taste somehow reflected well on her.

But the thing is, Miss. The thing I want to tell you is that he made me do it. He wanted me out of the way so that he could be with her. 

She looked at me with a pained, beseeching expression as though she were desperate to be believed.

Come on over here, Miss, and have a read of this, she said, waving me towards her, and pointing to the inscription on the side of the tomb.

Sacred to the memory of
Charles T. Bevan
Died 1st November, 1896
Aged 41 years.

And of his infant son
Joshua Bevan
Died 21st January, 1885.

And of Caroline Jane Bevan
Wife of the above Charles and
Mother of the said infant.
Died 31st January, 1901
Aged 37 years. 

As I was bending closer to decipher the writing for myself I felt a sharp push in the small of my back. For a moment I lost my balance, and fell towards the tomb. Putting my hands out I was able to stop myself before my face smashed into the stone.

Come on Miss, we'd best be off. He's getting angry now. Let's go, but remember when you tell them my story, Miss, you have to tell them that he did it. 

She started walking off, back down the hill to the cemetery gate, but this time she was going so fast that I just couldn't keep up. She seemed to glide over the ground. 

At one point she paused, and turned around to look back at me.

He made me do it, Miss. That's all I want the world to know. He stood over me and made me drink it all down. 

Do what? Drink what? What are you talking about? I asked, but she'd turned around and was quickly disappearing from sight. 

I ran after her as fast as I could, but I slipped and came crashing to the ground. By the time I'd gathered myself up and made it down to the cemetery gates she'd already crossed Swiggin's Lane and was back in the East Cemetery. 

Wait for me, I called. Where are you going?

For a brief moment she turned and, for the first time she looked me directly in the eye, as though she were surprised by the question. Her gaze chilled me to my core. The black eyes were lifeless pools of unspeakable sadness; they had a hypnotic draw that left me powerless to look away.

Sorry, Miss, she said softly. I've got to leave you now, and where I'm going, you can't follow.

And then she disappeared off between the tombstones. I went into the East Cemetery and looked around for her, but she had gone. Vanished into thin air. I didn't feel like lingering long on my own in case the other thing caught up with me again, so I made my way back to the gate. 

By this time there were a couple of people standing around in Swiggin's Lane waiting for a funeral or something. I asked them if they'd seen a pale lady, dressed in a black Victorian dress. They looked at me, shaking their heads as though I were mad, and walked off without replying. 

As I stood there, alone and embarrassed at having been taken for a nutcase, I heard the urgent voice, whispering in my ear. 

Ain't you scared? It asked. She's gone somewhere you can't follow. 

And then it laughed a horrible mirthless laugh.

I didn't bother to look around for it.  I knew there would be nobody there. Instead I ran down Swiggin's Lane, towards normality and the office, as fast as my legs would carry me. 

When I got back my editor wanted to know what I was planning to write about, and I was so shaken up that I told him, straight out, exactly what had happened.

OK, he said. It sounds mad, but let's search the archives for the month and year she died. We've got all the old back issues on microfiche so it should be easy. 

He must have been impressed by my sincerity, because he came down to the basement with me to look through the files for himself. 

We pulled up the year 1884 and leafed our way through the months to August. Then we picked out the 28th of August. It was a Thursday. And there she was on the front page of the evening edition, wearing the same black gown she'd worn in the cemetery.

Rosa Bevan, celebrated stage actress, and much loved wife of Charles T. Bevan of Bayswater House, Porchester Terrace, died  this morning following an overdose of Laudanum. Early accounts suggest that she died by her own hand. We understand that the police are not treating her death as suspicious. 

She committed suicide, my editor said.

My will be done.

He made me do it, Miss. He made me drink it all down.

Their words rang in my ears.

No, I said. She didn't and what's more I think she'd like the world to know the truth.

And that was my very first story, although my scoop would probably have sat more comfortably in a history book or a compilation of ghost stories than on page 33 of the newspaper.

All the best and Happy Halloween,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday FindsOur World Tuesday and image-in-ing

Monday 27 October 2014

Exeter Guildhall

The other day, when Emi and I were on the cold trail of the long-gone Romans, we happened to pass by the Exeter Guildhall ... and the door was open.

Guildhall, Exeter
The Tudor front facade of the Guildhall, Exeter

Come on, Mum, let's check it out, Emi said.

And who could have resisted this wonderful open door?

Guildhall, Exeter
Nicholas Baggett's magnificent door, the Guildhall, Exeter

Although it has to be said that it was designed for people who were a bit vertically challenged - and that's coming from someone who stands all of 5' 0" tall.

Looking out the other way, it's just as impressive.

Guildhall, Exeter
Nicholas Baggett's door from inside the Guildhall, Exeter

The Guildhall has stood on this site since 1160. The present structure was originally built in the fourteenth century and refaced with the current porticoed front facade between 1593 to 1596. Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating of the roof timbers in the magnificent vaulted ceiling of the chamber shows that the trees from which it was built were felled over the period 1463 to 1498. 

The amazing oak door, which was too good not to walk through, was made by Nicholas Baggett, a local carpenter, in 1593. I love the fact that they remember his name, and deservedly so, because it's a gem of a door.

Meetings of the full town council still take place inside, making it one of the oldest working municipal buildings in England. Exactly how old is a matter of some debate. There's been some sort of guild operating down here in Exeter since the year 1000 AD, and it's likely that their original hall stood on this spot. 

They used to keep the city stocks under the central arch of the porticoes, just in front of Mr. Baggett's wonderful door.  The weekly market also took place on the High Street,  just outside. There's still a hook in the ceiling from which they used to hang the scales for weighing meat, wool, corn and the other goods that would have been sold here on market day. 

Moving inside, this is what the chamber looks like: 

Guildhall, Exeter
The Chamber of the Guildhall, Exeter

Under this magnificent room there is a 14th century cellar that once functioned as a prison, known back in the day as ye Guyldhall pyttt. 

In the time of the travelling Assizes, the King's Justices held their courts in here, trying those who had been indicted for felonies, and who would have been incarcerated, awaiting trial, in the Guyldhall pyttt beneath. Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys presided over the Bloody Assizes in this very room after the Duke of Monmouth's failed rebellion in 1685. James, Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate Protestant son of Charles II had risen against the Catholic James II, leading many West Country men to fight for the Protestant cause, only to be defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the last battle ever to be fought on English soil. 

In the aftermath of the rising the defeated men were tried for treason against their King in the Bloody Assizes, notorious for the severity of the sentences handed out to dissuade other would-be rebels from following suit. These trials were held in a number of towns across the South Western Circuit including Dorchester, Exeter and Taunton. Hundreds were condemned to death and transportation to the Americas. 

Here in Exeter 40 men stood trial for their part in the rebellion, of whom 13 were found guilty of treason and sentenced to a traitor's death, which was a particularly grisly business involving being hung, drawn and quartered.  How they must have shivered with terror in this room as their sentences were read out. I can almost feel the ripple of horror that would have run through the people crowded in to witness the drama unfold. 

Here's the Lord Mayor's Chair, in which the presiding judge of the Assizes would have sat as he administered the King's justice. 

Guildhall, Exeter
Mayor Bale's chair in the Guildhall, Exeter

It was made for Mayor Christopher Bale who held office from 1695 to 1697, and it bears the city's coat of arms and its motto semper fidelis, always faithful. 

Around the walls are numerous coats of arms of important benefactors, mayors and the city's trade guilds.

Here are some benefactors:

Guildhall, Exeter
Benefactors' Coat of arms displayed in the Tudor panelling of the Guildhall, Exeter

I was especially interested in the trade guilds, which give a window into the economic history of the city down the years. The medieval trade guilds emerged to control and represent the interests of the different trades within the city. They were somewhere between a governing body, a secret society, with their own secrets and rituals, and a trade union. The very wealthy guild of Weavers, Tuckers and Shearmen, had their own guildhall, the Tuckers' Hall, built nearby in 1471. Exeter grew rich on the wool trade, which prospered from the 1430's right up to the 18th century and the weavers, tuckers and shearmen, who were the skilled finishers of the product, did rather better than most.

The guildsmen met in this hall to discuss their business. They fixed the rates at which they would sell their produce, sometimes they pooled their buying power and negotiated terms on which they would purchase their raw materials, or considered trade alliances with guilds in other cities, and from time to time they reviewed the necessary skills to be taught to their apprentices so as to maintain the standards within their ranks. They also met to consider the admission of new members to the guild, and to consider whether apprentices had shown the necessary expertise to qualify into the ranks of the masters. A candidate apprentice would be required to produce a master piece, a sample of his work in which he demonstrated all the skills of a master of the trade. Can you imagine the masters sitting around the walls of the chamber unpicking some poor apprentice tailor's stitching to see whether his robes were up to the mark, or passing an exquisitely fashioned kid glove around to see whether someone was good enough to become a master glover?

Guildhall, Exeter
The arms of the Tailors' Company displayed in the Tudor panelling of the Guildhall, Exeter

The haberdashers (below) would have dealt in all the small items of sewing: the needles, thread and buttons. They would have worked in conjunction with the  tailors (above) and the mercers, who were the cloth merchants.

Guildhall, Exeter

As I've explained the weavers, tuckers and shearmen worked in the local woollen industry, producing the finished cloth. In the early days the weavers wove the wool into a rough fabric called kersey. After about 1615 they also wove a finer fabric called serge. Then the tuckers treated the cloth, shrinking it and creating the nap, the textured surface of the cloth. The shearmen came along at the end of the process and trimmed or removed the nap with their shears to produce the finer qualities of fabric.

Guildhall, Exeter

Guildhall, Exeter

Guildhall, Exeter

The coopers (photo below) were the people who made and repaired the casks, kegs and barrels that just about every sort of liquid was moved and stored in. 

Guildhall, Exeter

Guildhall, Exeter

My personal favourite was the Guild of Merchant Adventurers founded in 1556. These were the merchants who traded overseas, the import/ export guys. Mostly they would have been involved with the export of woollen cloth, but they would have also grown rich importing foreign commodities such as sugar, chocolate, tea, coffee, furs and wines to sell at home.

Guildhall, Exeter
Add caption

Emi and I spent a fun half hour piecing together all the different trades that once flourished within the city walls, and trying to understand what they actually did. It all seemed far removed from the world of today where so little of what we use is actually manufactured in this country, and in which so few of us seem to be involved in work that produces a tangible, hold-it-in-your-hand, product at the end of the day. 

If you're passing and you'd like to visit for yourself you can check out the details on their website: Exeter Guildhall Website

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Our World Tuesday and image-in-ing

Friday 24 October 2014

Dracula ... the perfect Halloween read ...

With Halloween just around the corner I've got the perfect late night spooky read for you:

It's one of my favourite Gothic horror stories. I recognise that it has many flaws, but the magnetic pull of the Vampire Count and Stoker's masterful handling of suspense are more than enough to make up for its shortcomings.

It's a novel that I think would be heavily edited if it were brought to the market through a commercial publisher today. They'd surely do something with Van Helsing's awful clunky speech. Stoker was (I think) trying to convey something of his Dutch-ness, but the words he put in his mouth often detract, making him sound much less dynamic and compelling than he ought to. These days I'd also like to think that Stoker would be told to draw his women with a bit more edge. Both Lucy and Mina, the principal female characters, are a bit too conventionally Victorian and two-dimensional for my taste.

Having said all of that it's still a great read. It was first published way back in 1897, and is now well out of copyright. If you'd like to read it you can download a free copy by clicking on the link: Kindle edition of Dracula.

Many people have wondered what could have inspired a nice middle-class Anglican from Dublin to write the greatest Vampire story of them all. A number of sources suggest Stoker was influenced by Highgate Cemetery, and, although I understand there is no firm evidence that he actually visited, it seems very probable that he would have done given how most of fashionable London were bending their footsteps in that direction at the time.

It has been suggested that his notion of a Vampire, surviving death, and, in particular, the listless Lucy Westenra, who grew more beautiful in death than she had been in life may have been inspired by the story of Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth had been the muse of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. She'd caught pneumonia, posing in a cold bath for Sir John Everett Millais, when he painted her as the dead Ophelia. Luckily she survived, but her angry father insisted on sending all the doctor's bills to Everett Millais, whom he held responsible.

Elizabeth as Everett Millais' Ophelia

 In time she caught the eye of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who fell hopelessly and completely in love with her. He grew possessive of her, and would not allow her to pose for any of the other painters. They married in 1860 and, for a time, were blissfully happy together, but then Rossetti started to dally with other women, which caused her huge amounts of grief. Her health went downhill, and she started taking Laudanum. Soon she was addicted.

Rossetti's wedding portrait of Elizabeth
She overdosed on the drug in 1862, and was found by her husband in an unconscious stupor. He called the doctor and when the doctor said there was nothing that could be done for her, the desperate Rossetti called another three doctors to see if they could do any better. They pumped her stomach and tried to revive her, but all in vain. The beautiful lady passed away. There was some talk of a suicide note, but they were careful to suppress that lest she be denied a Christian burial in consecrated ground.

At her funeral Rossetti was prostrate with grief. In her coffin he placed a copy of the Bible and a little volume of his unpublished poetry, which was said to contain the only copies of a number of the poems within. Accounts tell of how he laid the little book gently on her pillow so that it was partly hidden by the tresses of her magnificent auburn hair. And so she was laid to rest in the West Cemetery at Highgate.

But her repose was not to be of the eternal variety. Some seven and a half years later in 1869 a struggling Rossetti was in need of funds. His career as an artist had hit the buffers as a result of his failing eyesight, and his addictions to drugs and alcohol. He was convinced that he was going blind. He had written some further poems, but obsessed about the old ones that lay buried and forgotten with his wife. His agent, Charles Augustus Howell, petitioned the Home Secretary for leave to exhume Elizabeths' body and retrieve the volume of poetry.

Remarkably permission was granted, and in the black of a cold winter night, they lit a bonfire by the graveside and dug the coffin up. Rossetti, who felt squeamish about the project, had stayed away, doubtless drowning his sorrows in strong liquor. But Howell was present, and, by the firelight, he caught sight of the dead woman as they prised open the lid of her coffin. Her magnificent copper hair filled the casket, and it appeared as though her body had not decayed. He reported back to Rossetti that her delicate beauty was still intact, and she looked as though she were merely sleeping.

Rossetti's portrait of Elizabeth painted a year after her death

Rumours of what had taken place began to circulate, and the Victorian popular imagination, which was macabre at the best of times, was excited by news of a body that did not decay. No doubt, a man like Stoker, who was at the centre of the city's cultural life would have known about the affair. And who knows, maybe a little bit of Elizabeth Siddal went into his fashioning of Lucy Westenra.

Happy reading and all the best,

Bonny x

Thursday 23 October 2014

Roman Exeter ... Isca Dumnoniorum ... on the edge of an empire

We've come to Devon for the half-term holidays, and it's all looking very autumnal down here. The weather's been pretty balmy for the time of year so most of the trees are still wearing a full compliment of leaves, but with the new-season's colours coming to the fore. And happily Hurricane Gonzalo has blown through without doing us any damage.

It was very atmospheric being tucked up in bed listening to him howling outside. There's something especially delicious about being able to snuggle under the duvet, and let the weather do its worst. Normally, in my work-a-day existence, I'd have been out there, coated and booted, battling through the worst of it.

Emi has been given a half-term assignment on the Roman conquest of Britain, which has taken us into Exeter, or Isca Dumnoniorum, as those wily old centurions would have known it, to search them out in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

Exeter was on the very edge of the Roman empire. It was their most South Westerly garrison in mainland Britain. The city walls, of which about three quarters survive today, were originally built by the Romans. They enclose an area of roughly 42 acres and give us the outline of the old Roman city that was established in 55 AD. Of course, over the years, there have been fix-ups and repairs with the result that a lot of the stones on top are medieval.

Here's a shot of the city walls.  Ah, if only those old bricks could talk, what a tale they'd have to tell us.

Here's another one, taken on the way back to the car park, with Emi standing in front for perspective.

They believe that the Second Augustan Legion was garrisoned here from 55 to 75 AD. The Second Augustans had been part of the original invasion force, arriving during the Claudian landings back in 43 AD, when England had first been invaded by Rome. They were commanded, here in the West Country, by the future Emperor Vespasian. They've excavated their barracks (under the Guildhall Shopping Centre) and their massive stone-built bathhouse, which stood on Cathedral Green.

Here's Emi busy taking photos in Cathedral Green so that he can write about where the Roman baths used to be.

Apparently the baths were huge. They were supplied by a local spring, piped in using an aqueduct, and could have accommodated several hundred guys at the same time. They were supposed to have been more advanced in design than many of those back in Italy, and were certainly way ahead of anything in either Pompeii or Herculaneum. The archeologists reckon that this is one of the most important Roman sites in the country and are pretty enthusiastic about digging it all up again. The only problem is that the baths are literally at the front door of the Cathedral. The Dean and Chapter and the City Council are putting their heads together to see what, if anything, can be done. I don't envy them their task. It's going to be a tough one excavating and showing off the Roman baths without destroying the appearance of the magnificent Cathedral.

Back in the museum we found some touching bits and pieces. One of my favourites was this broken cup, which still shows its owner's name.

OK, so it's not the most exquisite piece of porcelaine ever to see the light of day, but it's kind of thrilling to read this guy's name, Lucius Julius Hipponicus, scratched down the side. They reckon that he was a soldier, who lived here in 55 to 65 AD. Whatever the way of it Lucius Julius Hipponicus is one of the earliest residents of Exeter whose name is still known today.

Some of the soldiers died during their time in the city and their cremated remains have also been unearthed, together with an assortment of personal effects and food and wine with which they were buried. It seems to have been the practice to provide a little bit of sustenance to get the deceased started in the afterlife.

The amazing German glass jar in the photo below was included in one such burial. It must have been one of the dead soldier's most prized possessions. I was amazed by how well it's survived for the better part of two millennia, and I was also slightly humbled to behold someone's favourite thing from all that time ago.

Emi was impressed with this lovely carrot amphora in which a soldier had been sent some exotic fruit. It's a nice touch to see how the Roman soldiers enjoyed care packages courtesy of their Roman mums and wives back at home. Emi thought that it would have made a very fine receptacle for an obscene amount of jelly beans, but we wont' go there ... .

Then we had a go at laying some mosaic flooring, which was a bit like doing a jigsaw.

But, as luck would have it, there was one that someone else had made earlier - about two millennia earlier.

And we got to lark around in the museum dressing-up box. How scary is this fierce centurion? He certainly thought he was the business with his mohawk helmet. 

But after a while we went a bit off-piste with a Greek helmet and lyre. Although I must say I think it's a winning combo ... the singing Spartan anyone?

It's fair to say that there's not a lot of Roman Exeter on display, but with a bit of imagination, some colouring pencils and a spot of googling Emil will hopefully have enough material for his assignment.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds