They built a wall…

…the Romans, that is. Starting in 122 CE (or AD if you’d like). They built a wall from one side of Britain to the other, to regulate travel and keep the south safe from Barbarica - in this case, Scotland.


In Rome, the army is power. Caesar came to power because he had support of the troops. When Octavian wanted to claim his inheritance, he bought off the army first. Any ruler worth his salt kept the army happy. And busy. Because a bored army is recipe for rebellion.

Emperor Hadrian was smart enough to recognize this, and put them to work building a wall, some forts and a milecastle every Roman mile. Sure, it was a lot about defence and transportation too. But the most important this is that the legions stationed in the North were too busy to come around and repeat the events of 69 CE (the year of four Emperors, all to fresh in the Roman mind).

Newcastle Upon Tyne stands at the Eastern-most edge of Hadrian’s Wall. Within a short journey is several major forts (Segedenum, Arbeia, Vindolanda, Birdoswald) and some of the most important Roman excavations going on now.


Being in Northeast, I’ve had a chance to visit some Roman ruins. We went out to Vindolanda about a week and a half ago. At Vindolanda, they found surviving examples of Roman papyri. Written in strange cursive Latin, the Vindolanda tablets show us daily life on the Roman frontier. From birthday party invitations to requests for leave, the tablets offer an amazing insight.

They’ve already done extensive excavations at Vindolanda, and they’re in the process of doing more. You can see a bathhouse, a granary, and several other buildings from the fort and the town that grew up around it to cater to the Roman army. You can see the complex system of wells and waterways that made it possible to supply water to almost every building. You can also see the remains of how they kept themselves warm in the cold Northeastern winter - the heated floors.


The second place I went was Birdoswald, where one of my professors is leading an excavation on a Roman cemetery. He led us through the excavation, and then we walked out to the Wall and followed it for a few miles to see a milecastle and a Roman bridge.


So I have a new goal. There is a path that follows the 80 miles of Hadrian’s Wall, from coast to coast. There are hotels and hostels on the way. I want to walk the Wall…. in the summer. Apparently it only takes about a week to get from Newcastle to the West coast.

A love affair

The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.

~Isak Dinesen

I lick my lips and taste salt. The water rushes towards me and I dance away - acutely aware of my clumsiness because how can any human have grace when compared to the sea? The waves crash angrily against the pier. The wind sweeps by, carrying with it the smell of the ocean. I close my eyes and breath in deeply.

I am having a love affair with the ocean. It has been going on for years. It started long ago with waves and fresh water, the beautiful crisp smell of a lake on the breeze. It’s culminated in this - I feel better when I’m around water. In Galway, I lived minutes away from the ocean and beside the river. And when I got lonely or sad or a little too drunk, I would walk down to the infamous Galway Bay and listen to the swans fight, watch the waves crash into the rocks. Suddenly, you feel small and your problems unimportant. You feel freer, imagining that you can hitch a ride on the wind and explore the seemingly infinite ocean.


Last weekend, I had my first encounter with the North Sea. It was beautiful. The waves were so strong that they crashed into the Pier and sometimes splashed over. It was cold and windy, but it was awesome, in the truest sense of the word.


I spent longer in Tynemouth, on the coast, than I had planned. After exploring the Priory for a couple of hours, I decided I need to explore the coast. So I climb down this small staircase from the Pier and picked my way through seaweed and stones to watch the waves crash against the rocks.

I started picking up rocks to keep as a reminder of my trip - the beach was full of round pebbles, smoothed by the restless sea.


On the other side of the Pier was a small bay where people more adventurous than I were sailing, and a small boat rental place to serve them. But there was also a mass of rocks, covered in seaweed, and the ruins of something at the bottom of the cliff. I decided I wanted to walk over. It was treacherous.


I slipped and tripped and had to be very careful. The worst rocks were the ones covered with the slimy green seaweed, because if you stepped on it wrong you slipped and lost your balance. I only had one slightly scary experience, though, when my foot slipped and ended up wedged between two rocks. But I caught myself, and remained largely uninjured. Thankfully.

By the end of the day I was windswept, cold and hungry. And far too late to go explore St Mary’s Lighthouse like I had planned. But it was worth it. The North Sea made me feel better, the trip reminded me why I was here - to explore.


For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.

~e.e. cummings

The Road Less Traveled

How many of us spend our lives in a city we barely see?

It’s the same old story. Jaded by life, we go through our days with blinders on. Without the energy or the interest to see or do things. To explore.

There’s so much in Ottawa and around that I have never seen, and I lived there for 22 years. There was tons in Galway that I never saw in my four months there. I remember walking to work one morning in Galway, following the river back behind the Roisin Dubh, watching the swans and the garbage float side by side. And suddenly I was struck by the fact that, even though I was on my way to crappy job too early in the morning and even though it smelt like vomit and stale beer, I was in Ireland. It was so easy to forget. To concentrate on hating my job or on what club we were going to go to that night.

This time, I made a decision to change that.

I made a list. It’s a whole page of places to go around Newcastle. Most of them are either in the city or on the Tyne and Wear Metro system.

My best memory from Ireland was when we crawled underneath the Blarney Castle with only the little flashlight from my keychain. Because we were terrified and had no idea where we were going or whether we might get thrown out before we got to kiss the Blarney Stone, but we were there. In this little passageway underneath a castle. People had been there before - the bottles and garbage everywhere proved that. But in a place so chalk full of tourists, for that moment it was ours.


This weekend I became an adventurer. Living in alone in a new city is terrifying and lonely at times, but I made this decision for myself and I know that I can love this. So I went exploring, to distract myself from the small ache of loneliness that followed me to London and back again.

This weekend was Heritage Open Days in Tyne and Wear. Tyne and Wear is the area of between the two named rivers, including Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland. They were offering special tours of many places that weren’t normally open to the public, and even the places that were normally open were free. I admit that I forgot about it entirely on Friday, and slept in quite late on Saturday. But I still managed to make it to three places on Saturday and one today.

One of the buildings I saw, Alderman Fenwick’s House wasn’t normally open at all. And the highlight of my day on Saturday was the Bell Tower at St. Nicholas Cathedral. I had gone to St. Nicholas the first Sunday I arrived in Newcastle. It’s a gorgeous old church, and I walked around inside the seemingly deserted building for a while on my way back to my flat. I returned on Sunday for two reasons. The first was that it was close to the Holy Jesus Hospital, which I visited before it, and the second was that the Heritage Open Days booklet promised a display of the oldest books in the Cathedral’s collection.


I arrived just in time for the magic words.

“So I guess you all want to go up to the tower then?” The guide said to the gathering crowd. I immediately tried to blend into the group. I definitely wanted to go up to the tower.


The staircase up the Bell Tower is impossibly narrow, steep and dark. The first place we got to was the Bell Room. From here, the Bell Ringers (who have trained for years to be able to do this) use the cords to ring the eight bells in elaborate sequences which produce the tunes you can hear for miles from the Cathedral.


We had to leave our bags here, because the staircase got narrower from then on. Right before we left, our guide rang one of the bigger bells. As we climbed the staircase, the sound buzzed through the tower. The walls trembled with the vibrations. We stopped briefly at the Bellfry to watch the huge bell swing back and forth.

We continued on to the very top of the Bell Tower. Heritage Open Days is the only time they let the public up this tower. And so we stood, where not so many had stoof before, looking out at the city of Newcastle from perhaps the highest point in the city.


You should know, I’m terrified of heights. But as I looked up, my back pressed firmly against the stone wall of the Tower, I knew it was worth it. The climb. The shaky feeling in my knees as I glanced at how far away the ground was. I was looking up at the spires of the Bell Tower, from right below. From the centre. From a spot that so few people had before.


I’ll continue the next part of my weekend adventures tomorrow, with my first trip to the North Sea.

The Tower of London

As I start to think more seriously about a career in museums, I find myself actively evaluating the way that the museums I visit are set up. There are so many different things you can do to attract and engage visitors, and to teach the history of the site.

I went to the Tower of London on Wednesday. It’s one of the places I didn’t get to see the first time I was in London, two years ago.


I was a bit hesitant at first, because it costs quite a bit of money to get in. Especially when a lot of great things in London are free. Nevertheless, I decided it would be worth the gamble.

I didn’t know how much was in the Tower of London. There are three distinct sections (I lost my map halfway through so I’m hoping I didn’t miss any). There’s the Medieval Palace, the Jewel House and the White Tower.

I started in the Medieval Palace (Inner and Outer Wards on a map), and to me this was the most interesting part. It was built by Henry III and is still set up in medieval fashion. The most interesting part, for me, was that they had a display that outlined the different layers of the King’s bedding in the Royal Chamber. Underneath they had samples you could touch of what silk filled with feathers feels like, or linen filled with horsehair. There was a chapel set up as well.


It was here, too, that you could see the place where they later kept the prisoners and the really interesting carvings done on the walls by the prisoners. They had all of these covered by glass panes and then beside that they had the stories of the prisoners who carved them.


I thought both techniques were really good ways to give visitors the feeling of what it was actually like, back then. I loved touching the different fabrics. They also had sample tiles and other things you could touch. This is really important, I think, because I know that I always stand behind the barriers just itching to reach out and touch a wall or a rug or whatever. It makes it seem more real.

The carvings were great, it went along well with what people normally think of when they think of the Tower - imprisonment and torture. And to be able to read the stories right at the relevant carvings, it was like you could picture them sitting in the tower, making their mark on the walls.

There were also several videos throughout this section that told the general story of the royalty at the time it was built and stories surrounding the Tower. They were good movies because they were concise - they told the stories in an engaging way, but you didn’t feel like you were standing and watching a whole film in the middle of a historic building, like those videos often tend to do.

The next part I visited was the Jewel House and the enormous collection of the Crown Jewels. To be honest, I had no idea that these were here. It was a complete surprise to me (though I would’ve found out in about .3 seconds had I read the travel guide.) It was quite stunning, though. I liked the way they had this set up as well. There were cases with jewels and such, and beside was a text panel. The text was concise and interesting, focusing on the stories behind each crown or other jewel.


When you enter the bottom half, the very secure area which I believe is underground, you filter through a set of queues to go through the collection. While you stand in these queues you watch different movies on a screen in front of you. One shows the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The next show close ups of various pieces in the collection. They’re very interesting, but this is mostly designed to prevent a bottleneck effect and direct you through the building properly. I definitely found that about the Tower of London - they always know exactly where they want you to go next and you’re always being led up one way and down another, so that not only do you see everything without having to think too hard, but you also don’t run into people coming the other way. I’ve heard the Tower is extremely busy in the summer, so that’s probably why they have it so strategically planned. It’s interesting and something I’m not used to in museums - I’m used to people sort of wandering every which way.

Now you can’t take pictures in the Jewel House. I’m sure this is for security purposes. But I was a bit disappointed because I would’ve liked to have a few pictures of the collection, it was so stunning. At the same time, I also appreciate that if you were allowed to take photos than the very important line would be endlessly held up by people trying to take a decent picture of something behind glass and inevitably failing quite miserably.


The next part of my visit was to the White Tower. The White Tower is apparently the oldest part of the Tower of London. I say ‘apparently’ because I just learned that from Wikipedia, and didn’t know that when I was looking around it. This their temporary exhibit space, and it’s unfurnished save whatever exhibit they have at the time. The exhibit this time was called “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill.” It shows the evolution of King Henry VIII’s armour. They have little diagrams showing him getting fatter through the years, it’s quite entertaining. On the glass cases they have quotes from primary sources, first painting him as a glorious, brave and handsome soldier, and then in the later years talking a bit about his obesity and disease.

It was a very interesting exhibit. They had computers set up where you could see close ups of the detailing on his armour, which was really the most interesting part.

My only criticism of the White Tower is that because of this exhibit, you didn’t get to learn much about the history of that building or the architecture. Which was surely interesting.The other side, opposite the exhibit, had some information, but mostly it was just games and simulations aimed mostly at children. The games, though, were quite cool. You could try to shoot an arrow, see what it’s like to look through a metal helmet, sword fight, etc. This room was crowded and the lines for such activities were huge. It’s a great way to appeal to all ages though, to keep the kids from being bored at walking around all day looking at jewels and armour.

Obviously, the Tower of London has a fair bit of money to do what it wants as a museum. This definitely shows. Museums are evolving, incorporating new technologies and tactics to make history interesting. Museums are no longer drab places solely for history buffs. They’re for everyone, now. They’re completely approachable. And if they do it right, like the Tower of London, they’re still interesting to history buffs too. It’s interesting to look at the top museums and attractions in the world and see what they can do, to think about what I’d want to do with a museum that I (hopefully) someday work at. And to think how I would incorporate these ideas (even just a little bit) in the museums I’ve worked at in the past.

Weblink Wednesdays: Gnome

You may or may not have noticed that I have an obsession with gnomes. My sister and I collect gnomes and gnome paraphernalia. I have a traveling gnome statue that I bring with me everywhere, so he can be in pictures. My sister and I call each other Gnome, and make cheesy gnome jokes.

That being said, I am happy to live in a world where something like this exists: