I was in the UK for a couple of conferences in Oxford, and then headed north through the ancient Roman and Viking site of York, the pilgrimage destination of Durham (breathtakingly beautiful), Newcastle (more Romans – this time in museums), and finally out along Hadrian’s Wall.
Cloister at Durham Cathedral
So in a couple of weeks, I went from discussing life writing and celebrity with historians and writers, and then gender and love with academics from many fields, to researching three writing projects at once. And I walked a long way.
Hadrian’s Wall, near the village of Once Brewed
I also flew a long way, which not only gives a busy person plenty of time to catch up on movies and TV shows I’ve missed (Poldark! Agents of SHIELD!), but also endless hours to read.
Sadly, what you read at 3am somewhere over Albania after being awake for twenty hours doesn’t tend to stick in the brain for long, so I stuck to re-reading favourites on my Kobo.
But here’s what I’ve been reading or rereading since:
- The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins. Like taking a long walk with a thoughtful friend who points out details you’d otherwise miss.
- The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters’ latest, and yet another novel perfectly evocative of time and place.
- The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume, which I decided to re-read while I also delve into Lucy Sussex’s book about Hume and his book, Blockbuster.
- Cloudwish by one of Australia’s finest writers of young adult fiction, Fiona Wood – yet another inspiring visit to her fictional contemporary world.
Now I’m onto Oxford, by one of my writing heroes, Jan Morris, which is just as wonderful as I expected, and keeps me laughing aloud at the antics of students and dons over hundreds of years and in delight at its perfect phrases and word choice.
Has she ever written a bad book? Or essay? Or travel story? I don’t think so. Every one is a treasure.
Right now, I’m in the north of England and heading for Hadrian’s Wall.
I’ve always wanted to see it, and to walk its length. This time, I hope to walk along at least one stretch and look at some of the excavation sites. I’m researching Roman and Viking history here in the north for some future children’s books, and also writing about several key pilgrimage sites for Sublime.
So I’m making my way toward the Wall from Oxford . I stopped in York , one of the most important Roman cities, base for both Septimus Severus and Caracalla – Constantine the Great was declared Emperor here in 306, a long way from Constantinople. York was founded by the famous Ninth Legion in AD 71 – readers of Rosemary Sutcliff will be pleased to hear that York Cathedral houses a rusted Eagle of the Ninth.
The Multangular tower – the western corner of the legionary fortress 200 AD
Today I’m in Durham, founded by the Normans and one of the great sacred sites of Britain. Pilgrims have come here for centuries to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert. I’ll do that tomorrow. But today I made my own pilgrimage, to the other end of the gob-smackingly beautiful Durham Cathedral, to the grave of the Venerable Bede, “Father of English History.”
I think he might have played a supernatural scribe trick on me, because I left my notebook in the quire stall after Evensong.
Very funny, Bede.
Oh I know. I’m blogging all over the joint at the moment. I can’t keep track myself.
So here are a few of the most recent, from my current travels:
On literary pilgrimages (on my Sublime blog)
On the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley (on my Field Notes)
Going to Grasmere (on Sublime)
Going to Bletchley Park (on Field Notes)
(I like to post on tumblr as well as here, because it is a great place for finding resources, especially images, and sharing them – but it does get confusing.)
I’ve been in England and Ireland the past few weeks, researching lots of things at once.
But I keep getting distracted by the many ancient stories all around me, some of them told in stone, brick, weeds and rubble.
I’m reminded of the lovely book The Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macauley (I like it so much I have two editions – one with photographs by Roloff Beny).
The intoxication, at once so heady and so devout, is not the romantic melancholy engendered by broken towers and mouldered stones; it is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs.
Especially on the west coast of Ireland, the ruins of cottages and whole villages often tell the story of the Famine or the Rebellions and their aftermath, or the expulsion of small farmers, or mass emigration of people like my own ancestors, or simple poverty – or all of these.
Then there are ruined castles and towers, churches and abandoned graveyards, wells and tombs and ancient monuments.
So many stories can be read – or imagined – in ruins, in stone.