Learning the craft

Such a busy time of year if you work in education! I hadn’t realised it was so long since I last posted here, but I’ve not been idle with the writing side of my life. I’m still at the research stage of The Salt Man, and thoroughly enjoying it. In October I spent a couple of weekends at Chedworth Roman villa in Gloucestershire, just on the far side of Cirencester from here. They run some wonderful craft sessions, so I attended a couple of workshops on tablet weaving and mosaic making. It’s a great way to get the sense of how some of the things we see in museums now were made, and to appreciate the skills of the people who made them.

green man closeupThe picture to the left is my first attempt at a mosaic, which I made at the workshop – it’s meant to be a Green Man with a bee in his beard, but I made all kinds of mistakes! Not enough definition around the mouth and face; the beard tesserae are too similar in colour and I tried to get too much detail in the hair leaves. Nothing like making mistakes when learning though! So I had another go at home and thought I’d try to do something simpler while I learn. Also, I’m fascinated by the geometric designs on roman villa floors, so I thought I’d try the twisted rope design.

mosaic rope closeupIt turned out to be harder than it looks 🙂 The tops and bottoms of the loops ended up with different radii, even though I used the same template top and bottom when I sketched the rope on the board. So the bottom part of the rope looks more pointy than the top part. But, outside of that I’m quite pleased with this result, as I learned so much again. The tesserae are still too far apart I think, which you can tell from the visible blobs of grout in places. I wonder how long mosaic artists were apprentices? Judging from my attempts, quite a long time! My next project is a sign for my son’s new business, so I’m motivated to try to make a good job of it.

braids smallTablet weaving is a fascinating craft, and one that is very difficult to understand without a loom and tablets in front of you. Well, it was for me, anyway. It works by threading warp threads through tablets with holes in them, and then loading a table loom with the warp threads. The weft thread pulls the warp threads together to make the pattern, which is altered by turning the tablets between each pass of the weft. Told you it was difficult to understand without seeing it! The result is a very decorative and very strong braid, of the types shown in the picture on the left. Again, it’s a craft that takes a lot of practice, both in setting up the pattern in the first place, and in actually carrying out the weave.  You can see my mistakes quite clearly in the picture. The top braid is meant to be an arrowhead design, and the bottom one was an attempt at a roman key design. Ah well, another apprenticeship looms I think! Sorry about the pun 😦

Braids and mosaics both feature prominently in the story of The Salt Man, so I’ll keep at my apprenticeships I think. The more I can understand the crafts, the more the story comes to life for me 🙂

Ravenglass, Hardknott and on past Wrynose

Ravenglass to Ambleside roman roadThe Romans were fairly active in the English Lake District. It was a good jumping off point for their campaigns to try to subdue Caledonia, and when they gave that up, for building Hadrian’s wall. I’m writing this while on holiday up here for the week, and one of the things that always strikes me about the Roman activities here is how the small matter of the highest mountain range in England didn’t seem to worry them. They looked at the most direct route between the places they wanted to go to, and then built straight roads to get there. If there were mountains in the way, well, they just went over them. No mean feat up here.

Ravenglass estuaryRavenglass on the Cumbrian coast is a pretty place these days, and would have been during the Roman period too. It has a natural inlet that makes it an ideal place for a port, and if you want to import goods from around the Roman empire up to the north of England, it also has the benefit of enabling you to do that by sea, rather than traipsing up the length of England over land. But, the downside is that you have to get people and goods over the Cumbrian mountains to get them to where you want them.

remains of roman bath house RavenglassThe Romans built a fort and port at Ravenglass (Clanoventa), and the remains of the bath house there have been remarkably well-preserved. Some of the walls still stand to around 14 feet high (picture on the right) and still have some of the concrete rendering and small parts of red and white plaster visible. They really did build things to last! On the day I visited and took this picture it was warm and sunny, but it can be bleak, cold and wet up here, and I could imagine that a nice warm steam bath and plunge pool would be one of the first things to be built. Along with a good hypocaust central heating system!

Eskdale from hardknot fortOnce the goods had been landed at Ravenglass, they would begin their journey over the mountains. At first, this is a fairly easy and very beautiful trip up Eskdale. This is a classic Lake District valley, sheltered and wooded with a lovely river running along its base. Lots of places to rest and plenty of drinking water for your journey.  But it doesn’t last. Blocking the way at the head of the valley is Hardknott, the first of two steep ascents over the mountains. But Hardkott also commands an excellent view back up Eskdale to the sea at Ravenglass, and makes a perfect location for a fort. So, of course, the Roman army built one there.

Hardknot fort and the pass

The picture to the right shows the view of the remains of the Roman fort at Hardknott (Mediobodgdum), with the present-day pass running up over the dip in the mountain behind it. A 1 in 4 ascent with terrifyingly tight hairpin bends, not helped by a road surface that breaks apart regularly. We have driven this on family holidays many times, and it never loses its excitement for me – particularly if I’ve drawn the short straw and it’s my turn to drive! Trudging up and down this pass with carts, mules and people-power must have been a much more challenging effort than just driving over it, especially in the biting cold, ice, wind or driving rain. Once over the pass, you descend into Wrynose bottom, a desolate, bleak valley with high mountain walls on all sides. There is a way out to lower land at the Hardknott end, but if you want to keep heading east towards what is now Ambleside, there is no alternative to another 1 in 4 climb. This is Wrynose pass. Once over it, you can see the way down to Ambleside, a beautiful descent towards green woodland that gladdens the heart after the hard beauty of the high fells.

Galava 1The Roman fort at Ambleside (Galava) must have been a welcome sight to anyone who had made the trip over the mountains. Its pleasant lakeside position near Windermere is a lovely spot, and once again the traveller could indulge in a bath, if he or she had access to the fort. The fort included large granaries that would have ensured a supply of bread and cakes as part of the diet of the soldiers and local occupants of the vicus (civilian settlement) outside the fort. The size of these granaries suggests that the fort may have been a distribution centre for the Lake District area.

The whole trip from Ravenglass to Ambleside is only around 18 miles, but they were probably 18 of the most testing and spectacular miles on any Roman road in Britain. Following the route of the road today is a wonderful way to spend a day, particularly if you’re a fan of Roman roads, like me. I can highly recommend the trip!

Pen on paper

closed book on tableI use computers all the time and wouldn’t dream of going back to writing on paper as a matter of course. The convenience of word processing, and being able to blog and tweet to my heart’s content, is a wonderful convenience.

But, that doesn’t mean I have lost the thrill of a blank, fresh, crisp piece of paper, just waiting to take its first mark. I love stationery shops too. Ranks of coloured paper, card, pens, markers, envelopes… mmmmmmm. My writing improves when I’m in one of these moods;  a nice plump pen with a good grip and a smooth roller tip just sliding over paper in a notebook, leaving a satisfying trail of words. The writing changes the nature of the paper, too. It feels fuller, completed, and sounds muted when the pages are turned. I love to just feel the pages. To leaf through them and listen to the words rustling on the page.

So you can imagine my delight when, in a magic shop in Glastonbury, I found a deep green leather-bound book of hand-made paper, with a scarlet velvet inside cover. Blank. Empty. Waiting. It’s by my side as I write this now, and I can hardly wait to start writing in it. But I will wait. In the book I’m currently writing, The Salt Man, archaeologists find a journal. When I’ve completed the journal part of the book on my computer, my beautiful leather book with a Green Man embossed on the soft leather cover will contain the hand-written version. And I will enjoy the tactile, sensual experience of writing it in ink, on paper.  Because writing is a physical activity, as well as a mental one.

ash man and closed bookI wish I could carve wood. I greatly admire those who can. I’m amazed at how they can see a shape in the raw piece, and release it with saws and chisels. The picture on the right is of a carving in my garden created by Ian, a genius we met at a country fair. I love Green Men, and this ash branch had a rather grumpy one hiding in it. Ian found him, though.

Physical writing with a pen on paper is the nearest I can get to carving. It has a similar sense for me; seeing the shape of the words on the paper, and setting them loose to run across the page. It will take a lot of self-control not to start writing soon in my green book. But it will be worth the wait.

Time and tides

Sunset off the port side“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune: Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Shakespeare is my favourite author, by a long way. It seems a bit predictable and trite to say it in some ways, as he’s had such an amazing effect on the English language. But even though I’ve been seeing his plays and reading his work since I was first introduced to him in school at the age of 14, I still never fail to be moved by the way he expressed ideas. The quotation above is from Julius Caesar (Act 4, scene iii) and perfectly captures the masterful way he used metaphor in his writing. Paraphrased, it means “just go for it!” But metaphor says so much more. In Shakespeare’s use of the sea to evoke a sense of rising up to an opportunity, we also are reminded how easily we can get carried along by circumstances (currents) and how hard it can be to steer a direct course to a goal.

I find writing often feels like being on a rough sea. Some days I’m lifted by ideas and experiences; on other days I’m sliding down the wave into a trough of self-doubt. Can I really do this? Is this idea actually any good? Does the story have enough complexity and pace to keep a reader enthralled? And sometimes the sheer energy required to paddle back up to the top of the wave feels like too much. I’ll just stay here at the bottom. That’s much easier.

This week has been a week at the bottom of the wave. My day job is very demanding at the best of times, but at the moment it’s particularly busy. I love it, though, so I’m not complaining. And I’m planning to reduce my working hours in September to concentrate more on writing, so I’m not too worried about the ups and downs. But I’ve still been feeling like I have to expend more and more energy to try to get back up to the top of that wave. Then I remembered the Shakespeare quotation above, and it brought to mind a particularly rough crossing of the North Sea I experienced on a cruise ship a couple of years ago.  Storm force winds and high seas battered the sides of the ship as it ploughed on; up and down, up and down. And then it struck me. It went up and down with no effort. The sea did all that work. As long as the ship kept moving forward, the ups and downs were by the by. It just had to float.

And that’s all I have to do. Just float. Just wait for the ideas and enthusiasm to rise up again. Because I know they will. And I’ll take full advantage of them when they do. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading Shakespeare.

Magic at the crossroads

I’ve always had a fascination with maps. It seems I can’t just look at one quickly to find my way somewhere. I have to pour over it, spotting all sorts of places, names, and clues in the landscape. And I’m always particularly excited by finding a Roman road. I have no idea why they have always interested me so much, but ever since I was a child, and my father first pointed out these amazingly straight lines between towns and cities, I’ve had a fascination with them. I’ve climbed the fells to the north of Ullswater in the English Lake District several times, looking for the track of High Street, a Roman road that ran across the tops of the fells, but to no avail. It’s the only time I’ve been disappointed in a map – the Ordnance Survey actually seem to have got it wrong! Or maybe my map-reading skills aren’t all that good. Hmm, I wonder which is more likely 😉

Fosse_Way image licensed under GNU

The route of the Fosse Way

Despite my dodgy navigation skills, researching The Salt Man is turning into a delight! The Fosse Way was a major Roman road that ran between Exeter in the south west to Lincoln in the north east. And it goes straight through Bath. It would have run right by the temple and baths being built there around 60 – 70 CE. Today its route is clearly visible, both on maps and on the ground. In fact, the modern A367 between Bath and Ilchester follows it fairly faithfully. But not completely. In some places the modern road wriggles off to one side or the other to accommodate access to later towns. But the route of the old road is still clear, striding its way through woodland on the Mendip hills

Fosse Way crossingCrossroads have long been considered to be magical places. Places at boundaries; places where worlds meet. Some believe that supernatural spirits live at crossroads and strange things can happen there. They seem to represent interfaces; places that don’t really exist; places that are neither here nor there.  So when I spotted a crossroads between the Fosse Way and another Roman road on the map, I just had to go and see it for myself. The road that crosses the Fosse Way at Beacon Hill is a much less famous route between Old Sarum (near modern Salisbury) and the Roman lead mines at Charterhouse on the top of the Mendip hills. Last Sunday we set off in search of the crossroads, and I managed to map-read well enough to guide my husband, who was driver for the day. Without too much difficulty, we found it. And it was magical. Not in the hocus-pocus sense, but in the sense of having a real presence – a place that, far from being neither here nor there, gave me a palpable sense of reality; a sense that real people had trodden these roads for centuries, making deals and trading their wares, or buying food or drink from roadside sellers.

This part of the Fosse Way is quiet now, a path in a leafy wood that crosses the lead mine road with no fuss or fanfare.  But with magic and history.


salt crystalsAs I’m writing a book that I’ve titled “The Salt Man”, and the importance of salt as a commodity is a key part of the story, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of salt. So I got a book called “Salt“! And it’s a fascinating read.

All of us who did chemistry in school will no doubt remember it being drilled into us that “acid + base = salt + water”. There are many salts, particularly of reactive metals like sodium and potassium. But, of course, it’s the sodium salts that we generally think of when we use the term. Particularly sodium chloride. This salt preserves, dries, lowers the freezing point of water, kills bacteria and keeps away evil spirits. The devil and demons apparently hate salt; I guess the myth has developed because salt is an anti-corrupting agent. And since we began to farm animals and crops around 6-7 thousand years ago, we’ve needed to supplement our diet with salt, and the diet of farmed animals. We simply can’t live without it.

To the Romans it was vital. They taxed it, controlled the price of it from time to time and even sometimes paid their soldiers a part of their salary (hence the term) with it. And they used it to preserve food, especially fish. They also made the smelly but highly-prized fish sauce called “garum” with it too. They developed salt works throughout their empire, including both mining and brine evaporation methods. But the thing that has interested me the most is the mythology that has grown up around salt. How many of us still throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill any? Left, because that is the “sinister” side and is the shoulder the devil is meant to look over, if you’re of a Christian persuasion. Sorry to any left-handed folk reading this 🙂

There are many legends about why the sea is salty, too. In some Norse tales a whirlpool to the north of the Orkney Islands, known as the Swelki (from the old Norse meaning “mill”), is caused by the sea water being drawn into an enormous mill which is being constantly turned by two female giants. The mill originally turned out good things, but the giants cursed it to  turn out only salt after they had been enslaved there.

All human cultures and societies have legends about salt, from Native Americans to Chinese. But I think my favourite thing about salt is that it facilitated the making of ice cream!

The “elevator pitch”

Butser round houses and villa

Butser Ancient Farm

So, what is the book I’m just starting to write, actually about? I should be able to answer that quickly and succinctly – the “elevator pitch”. In other words, I have as much time to explain my idea as I would have in a medium-length elevator ride. Well, OK, maybe an elevator ride to the top of the Shard 🙂 I should also be able to answer this as it’s the question I constantly ask my research students. What is your research about? How would you explain it to the person who casually asks you in the pub, taking into account their likely attention span? Tough. But here goes.

I’m fascinated by information. Particularly how it travels. Today we’re used to being able to find out pretty much anything we want to, wherever we are, as long as we have a mobile device and a comms link of some sort. But how did information travel in other times? At times of significant social upheaval when many people lived in fairly isolated communities – the Roman invasion of Britain, for example? Information can be a commodity; it’s often traded like other commodities. Like, say, salt. Salt is vital to life and has always been an important way of preserving and treating food. So Romano/British people needed salt. It was produced in various different locations in Britain at the time, as it had been for thousands of years previously, and salt trading networks were already established by the time the Romans arrived in 43 CE. Suppose the salt man on a particular trading round was a native Briton, and a bit of a gossip, who liked to put his feet up and share a drink with a friendly guy who is part of the Roman establishment at the fort and bathing complex at Aquae Sulis (Bath). But this guy is from a distant land and is a subject of conquest too. They might have quite a bit in common, one way or another. And suppose one day the salt man tells his drinking companion about a strange thing that has happened at one of the settlements he visits on his round. How a young girl who works for one of the Romano/British elite in their fancy new villa, has mysteriously disappeared. Suppose the Roman establishment guy becomes enthralled by this story and tries to find out was has happened to her. But he needs information, and the salt man is his main source.

Then suppose an account of this is found in the present day. Would our modern information systems shine any more light on the case, around 2,000 years later?

That’s what the book is about. OK, maybe the elevator would have to break down on the way up, and it isn’t the whole story by any means, but hopefully it paints a picture. Can’t say too much, or I’d be telling you the plot!