Tag: Roman history

Big Heritage Chester article for Tortoise Magazine

The next issue of Tortoise magazine is out soon.

I’ve written an article for Chester’s new independent publication about Big Heritage, the not-for-profit organisation installing heritage attractions in historic buildings.

It’s based around an interview with Managing Director Dean Paton, who I met at Sick To Death [pictured above], the attraction about the history of medicine.

Here’s a sneak preview of the story:

“I always loved history and archaeology but, traditionally, it has been seen as a sport for the middle classes,” says Dean.

He is showing me around the Sick to Death exhibits, including a section dedicated to the first recorded incidents of The Plague in Chester in the early 17th century.

By 1603, we learn, 92% of deaths in Chester were due to plague.

“The problem with a lot of heritage attractions,” he adds. “is that there’s no excitement, no love.”

The organisation has also just completed a major project to reopen Western Approaches, the former secret WWII bunker under Liverpool. Dean is now working on a new project in Chester.

Read the full article in Tortoise magazine, available in independent shops, cafes and arts venues around Chester.

Unlocking Chester: A heritage trail through the ‘curated city’


A new Chester heritage project is taking never-before-seen artefacts from the archives of the city’s Grosvenor Museum and installing them in situ in locations round the city.

The Chester Unlocked project goes live this weekend and aims to highlight the rich heritage of the Roman city.

Dean Paton, Managing Director of social enterprise Big Heritage, which has collaborated with CH1ChesterBID to establish the trail, said:

“This is guerrilla archaeology. Chester is part of an ongoing narrative and I love the idea of curating the city to tell this story.”

Visitors collect a map of the self-guided ‘Hoot’s Route’ tour around the city to follow the trail to some 30 locations around the city.

Amongst the artefacts are Victorian scent bottles in Penhaligon’s and an 1883 glazed teapot, originally manufactured in North Wales, now installed at Cinderbox Coffee independent coffee shop.

“Historically coffee shops were places to meet and discuss ideas,” says Cinderbox owner Jez Scott [pictured above]. “In some ways, we have now come full circle to the present day.”

The city-wide installation will run until November with an option to refresh and extend the displays. It will be accompanied by fringe events over the summer, such Roman menus at local restaurants and ancient wine tastings.

The city of Chester was founded by Romans as the military fortress of Deva in the first century AD.

More from Chester Unlocked.

Liked this? Try also World Town Crier Championship in Chester.

Story of the week: Remote trekking in Turkey


* Heading back in the archives this week for a story of remote trekking and welcoming home stays in Turkey.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

I’ve got a theory about visiting new places: two feet are best.

The best way to learn about local culture and meet local people is to tackle a walking trail.

So while city slickers were stroking their chins ponderously over art installations in Istanbul, last year’s European Capital of Culture, I chose a trekking trip to a rural backwater to connect with the traditional Turkish culture.

Blazing a trail

The St Paul Trail [pictured above], a three-section, long-distance footpath between Aspendos (or Perge) near Antalya in the south and Yalvac in central Turkey, is the country’s newest walking – a total of 500km, or 24-day, of serious trekking.

I say new. It was established around 2005, but is still very much in its infancy in terms of local infrastructure and visitor numbers. Some sections are remote and physically demanding.

A volunteer team of waymarkers marked out the trail last summer to encourage visitors and bring much-needed tourism revenue to the remote village communities.

I opted to walk a week of day sections along the more popular southeastern leg, running 120km south from Adada to Aspendos, transferring from trailheads each evening to local accommodation.

While independent travel is possible, my trip was booked through a local tour agency and included jeep transfers, a walking guide and accommodation in simple but friendly homestays along the way.

I join the trail amongst the Roman ruins of Adada, where the fragments of the settlement are blissfully lost in time. As I clamber over the ruined pillars, I am alone, silent amongst the ghosts of an ancient civilisation.

The path down to the village of Sagrak is the first truly iconic stretch of the trail, following the old Roman road through a rocky scrubland of gorse bushes and wild garlicky chives.

I spend the afternoon descending over huge Roman slabs to arrive at the tranquil village in time for the afternoon call to prayer and my first saccharine hit of sweat Turkish tea, served up by a group of old men from the mosque.

We sit in the courtyard, all smiles and gestures, before a jeep ride to the Kasimlar for the night.

Home sweat home

The house of Abdul Kokdogan and his wife, Serpil, is one of the best-established homestays on the southeastern section of the trail.

It’s also a benchmark for how the burgeoning infrastructure of the St. Paul Trail could develop over the years to come.

Most importantly, the well-connected family has obtained the only alcohol licence in what is a deeply conservative rural community, ensuring a sturdy kitchen cupboard is always kept well stocked with bottles of local, very drinkable Efes Pilsner for new-arrival walkers.

I bed down that night on a fold-down sofa in the living room with lots of thick blankets for those chilly village nights.

A breakfast of bread, cheese and homemade jam, washed down with glasses of strong, sweat tea, is served the next morning in the same room, while a wood-burning stove provides a cosy glow.

“We’ve made friends around the world,” smiles Abdul over breakfast.

“We learn about their culture and my wife shows them how to make Turkish bread or goats’ cheese.”

As I prepare to leave, the morning call to prayer echoes off the mountains, neighbours call by to chat and their spiky-haired teenage son animatedly describes his hopes for an influx of good-looking female travellers on the new trail.

I drain my tea, shake hands with the family and prepare to hit the trail. “I’ll be back to see how the route develops,” I promise.

Their smiles are genuine, not forced.

Remote access

The next day walk from Kasimlar to Kesme starts from the village graveyard and climbs moderately to the Belsarnig Pass, where the old Roman well marks the summit.

The going is good and I weave in and out of the waymarked path to dip under the shade of pine trees for water breaks. The snow-capped peak of Tota mountain soars above the climbing path, while larks, cuckoo and nightingales encourage me onwards.

As I approach the pass, moving into greener pasture, a herd of hungry cows offer a nonchalant greeting. I can hear the cries of a local shepherd in distance.

He’s telling us, explains my guide Deniz, he knows we’re coming and will try to keep his wolf-like dog under control. “Just remember,” warns Deniz, suddenly serious.

“Don’t get between the dog and the goats. Not ever.”

We transfer on from Kesme at dusk, avoiding a night of camping in favour of another family-run pension on trail at Caltepe.

I’ve got a long day ahead, heading south on the trail back towards Antalya but the warmth of the welcome by Erdinc Barca at his simple but atmospheric guesthouse instantly puts me at ease.

We sit on the terrace, picking out the stars over the mountains and sipping sugar-thick tea as Erdinc offers his advice for tomorrow’s walk.

A breakfast of fruit, bread and honey sets me on my way at dawn, following another old Roman road past chameleon rock formations and dipping into the shade of olive trees en route. The landscape on this leg had a more ethereal, twilight atmosphere with mossy, volcanic rock-carved grottos.

Heading home

The final leg takes me south via the Roman bridge over the Kaprulu Canyon to the well-preserved ruins of Aspendos and the dusty, sun-baked southeastern trailhead at the nearby aqueduct.

Strolling through the well preserved ruins makes for a suitably atmospheric end to the hike but after the freeze-frame pace of village life, the transition back to the real world is an uneasy one.

A women waves a 5€ note for a camel ride, a local man rubs his hands behind a counter covered with tepid cans of soft drink and the jobsworth ticket officer grumbles about me taking pictures.

I had to fight a mad urge to turn on my heels and start walking again, exploring another section of the trail, or embarking on one of the more ambitious sections.

After all, there was plenty more trail to explore.

* This story was first published in RedHanded Magazine in 2011. Liked this? Try Hiking Remote Trails in Turkey.

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Story of the week: Walking with the druids on Anglesey


* My next assignment is a trip to West Sweden on a folklore angle. Meanwhile, here’s a tale of history and folklore from Wales. 

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

“The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with disheveled hair like furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses.” – Tacitus, Annals XIV, 30

This evocative description by the Roman historian Tacitus of the final raid by the Romans on the druidic stronghold of Mona (Anglesey) in AD61 highlights the problem: the Druids, the priestly sect of ancient Celtic society, are both one of the most colorful and yet most misunderstood figures from ancient history.

They fire our imagination with tales of mystic powers and human sacrifice, but there are virtually no written records about their lifestyle, beliefs and values. Much of what we do know is recorded through this prejudice-heavy prism of Roman records.

Yet, while the Romans quashed the Druids without mercy, their influence is still strongly felt today, especially in Wales, where they bequeathed a myth-shrouded legacy of oral tradition, ancient wisdom and environmental awareness.

“What fascinates me about the druids is the way people have re-invented them over the past 500 years. With their dramatic and contrasting imagery, they’re a wonderful vehicle for our hopes, fears and prejudices in the modern age,” says Professor Ronald Hutton, historian and author about the Druids.

“The reinvented Druid taps perfectly into our desire to reconnect with the land and with our ancestors.”

Uncovering the clues

Delving beyond the fables and seeing past the Disney-styled stereotypes has tested historians for generations. But, if anywhere can offer clues to the real story of the Druids, it’s Anglesey, their ancient stronghold.

The island, jutting out of Northwest Wales towards Ireland, is home to the third most important grouping of ancient sites after Salisbury/Wilshire and Orkney. There’s no official Druid trail and a dearth of official tourist information, but its ancient Celtic heritage is increasingly inspiring visitors to the island.

If find a good guide, read up on some ancient manuscripts and devote yourself to some light detective work while driving round the rural Shangri-La, shards of clues will eventually shine through like the early rays of a solstice dawn.

The west coast of Anglesey, away from the main tourist hubs and lashed by crashing waves, is the starting point for my Druid odyssey. Bryn Celli Ddu, standing stark and alone in a sheep farmer’s field near Llanfair PG, is one Anglesey’s key Neolithic sites, dating from around 3000 BC.

The Celts found early Neolithic tribes, described as a “smaller, darker people” when they arrived in Wales around 500 BC and they adapted their sites of worship, turning Bryn Celli Ddu into a burial chamber.

It is laden with carvings evoking the cycle of birth and death, and providing a bridge to their ancestors.

Following the coast path around the sandy fringe of Rhosneiger beach, nearby Barclodaid y Gawres (built around 3010 BC) also has carvings reminiscent of other Celtic tribes from Ireland and France.

The twin, early Bronze Age standing stones of Penrhosfeiliw, stoically bracing the elements in a field heading west towards Holyhead, hint at the complexity of Neolithic geography given their inch-perfect alignment with other ancient sites all the way from Holy Island to the Lyn Peninsula.

Building a power base

By the Iron Age, the Celts were well established on Anglesey and the Druids were entering their golden age of learning, spiritual healing and community guidance. Between 100BC and 60 AD, it is believed that Anglesey became one of the leading Druid centers of learning in Western Europe.

The Druids were a class apart, some suggest they were hand picked like Dalai Lamas as children, and schooled for more than 20 years in the ancient arts.

Once ready to don the white robes, wear the gold necklace and carry the sickle to cut down the scared mistletoe, they took a vital community role, acting as astronomers, healers, political advisors and ritual leaders.

They even formed part of a powerful ancient spy network across Europe, and were revered by the Celts, a power that both alarmed and enraged Rome in equal measure.

One of their most important ritual sites is Llyn Cerrig Bach, a tranquil lake today located just across from the RAF Valley air base, where the future king of England is currently completing his training.

The lake yielded one of the most significant Iron Age finds in Western Europe when it was dredged in 1943. Swords, shields, slave chains and even war chariots returned to the surface after centuries of gentle slumbers.

For the all-powerful Druids, at one with nature and self-assured of their higher spiritual purpose in life, such largesse in offerings to their deities suggests the spy network had warned them of the impending storm as Rome grew increasingly suspicious of their revered status.

A key source of druidic power was their preference for verbal communication only. Aside from their Ogam alphabet based around the tress and the Coligny calendar with its 64 months, the Druids committed everything to memory, scoring their wisdom in musical triads and passing their knowledge via an oral tradition that today underscores much of the Welsh-language culture.

“I have a passion for the powerful mix of stories and landscape in Wales the Druids celebrated.”

“It tells me a lot about who I am as Welsh,” says Angharad Wynne, a heritage consultant working on heritage-inspired tourism trails in Wales.

This idea of linking ancient folk tales to the landscape, continuing the oral tradition of the Druids, underpins my journey around Anglesey, the lack of traditional interpretation more than compensated by tales of wizards, kings, dragons and giants for every ancient rock, or weather-beaten carving I encounter.

At the Holyhead Mountain stone circle, a group of low, stone-walled roundhouses with thatched or turf roofs, I join the Welsh-language poet Gwyn Edwards for a story-inspired yomp through purple heather and gherkin-hued gorse.

His poem, Bwrdd Arthur, filled with images of stone circles, hill forts, sacred groves and the Roman advance, was inspired by a summer-evening stroll around ancient sites on the east coast of Anglesey.

“I feel the druidic ideas are still relevant today as people need harmony and balance in their lives. They view the natural environment as a commodity,” he explains, the piercing intent of his hazel eyes betraying the softly-spoken constants of his Welsh-English patois.

“I see druidic ideas as a means to help people find peace with each other and with the world around them. In that way.”

He smiles, “They will never become old fashioned.”

Questions and answers

Driving east to Llangefni, central Anglesey, Oriel Ynys Mon is the main museum for historical interpretation about the island, but offers few clues to the legacy of the Druids.

The most significant artifact is the Hendy Head, a carved-sandstone deity with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile and world-weary eyes. Found on a farm near Llanfair PG, it’s one of the finest examples of stone heads found on Anglesey and a rare physical manifestation of the nature-dwelling gods to which the Druids made their offerings.

The Roman targeted Anglesey from AD43 onwards, completing the final fateful massacre in AD60, and returning to Anglesey in AD73, after battles with Boudicca, to form Romano-Celt communities, the likes of which still survive today at Din Llugwy near Moelfre amongst others.

The Druids were eradicated but their knowledge, shrouded in swirling ancient mists and buried deep in the livestock-roamed pasture, would live on.

The so-called “noble savage” may be one of the most maligned figures in ancient Britain, but their legacy shapes the national psyche of Wales to this day.

“The fascination for me is the way the Druids lived a simple but balanced life as part of nature not above it,” says Angharad Wynne.

“While so much of their story remains unknown, based on speculation shaped by archaeological finds, the enigma gives us space to use our imagination.”

* This story was first published in Discover Britain Magazine in 2010. Liked this? Try Exploring prehistoric sites on the Gower Peninsula.

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