See the gateway to Snowdonia and its magnificent Medieval Castle, Town and Bridges
Borrowing my title from Daniel Defoe’s early chorography, my first circuit is from Chester to Edinburgh. Now on our second stop we are taking a virtual tour of the gateway to North Wales – the delightful town of Conwy.
For a small town Conwy has everything – an absolutely magnificent Medieval Castle, a City Wall that is still intact around the entire Circuit. Some of the great feats of bridge and tunnel engineering, and a pocket sized town containing historic buildings, nice pubs, and the ‘smallest house in Great Britain.’
It is not only picturesque but was a settlement of enormous strategic importance in the invasions by the Romans and the English. And to finish the tour we will take a small excursion into Snowdonia to see what it guarded
Julian Cope, of the Teardrop Explodes, wrote a wonderfully illustrated guide book of the megalithic sites in the UK. While you read why don’t you listen to the wonderful ‘When I dream.’
I lent the Modern Antiquarian to someone so have to use the website to share what he said about the standing stones of Bwalch-y-DDeufaen, near Conwy.
‘I’m really taken with these stones. The sense of deep time seems to hang around them, from the ageless mountains, through the monument builders, the tramp of Roman soldiers, into a hinterland of iron and wire. Rather than detracting, the pylons add to this sense that we’re standing in the midst of a palimpsest, layers of time and people still there, just below the surface. And perhaps we’re a shadowy presence in earlier and later times, too.
I’m working on a virtual tour of Conwy (Monday 7th March 7pm) and I remember a wonderful story from my several visits to Conwy pre-Covid. So, in my own words:
A Cobbler with a string of old shoes to be repaired hanging on a string around his neck, came upon a Giant carrying two huge stones in his hands. Behind him walked his wife carrying smaller stones in her apron. They were struggling over the Pass with the weight of the stones, and asked the Cobbler anxiously how far it was to the the Island of Anglesey? The Cobbler asked why they wanted to know and the Giant answered. ‘We plan to settle there and these stones are to build a bridge across the Menai Straits’.
The Cobbler came from Anglesey and was alarmed by the idea of the havoc a couple of Giants would cause. So he replied ‘ I don’t know how far it is but I have worn out all these shoes on the way.’
The Giant looked at the string of worn out shoes, looked at his wife and they decided to abandon their journey. He threw the two standing stones in the air and they landed in the ground where they have stood ever since, and his wife threw her smaller stones away too.
This is an explanation of the 2 large standing stones and two smaller ones at Bwalch-y-Ddeufane. They are either Neolithic or Bronze Age. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, int eh Twelfth Century, that the indigenous inhabitants of Britain were giants, descended from Poseidon, and the daughters of Albion. They were wiped out by King Brutus, the Trojan (for that tale come to my Myths and Legends of London Walks).
Bwalch means gap or pass and the track here was the prehistoric track and Roman Road that lead to Mona from Conwy and Chester. In fact they even considered it as a possible route for Euroroute 22, before deciding to continue the route along the A55 through Conwy. It was a massive construction project costing £200 million pounds and only made possible by European money as it was a strategic route to Holyhead and Ireland.
Below Bwalch-y-Ddeufane at Caerhun was the Roman Auxiliary Fortress that controlled this vital crossing of the Conwy. It is thought that this became the Civitas Capital of the Deceangli, who controlled the land from the Conwy to the Dee Estuary before and during the Roman period.
The daisy-like plant is flowering about now and Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 suggests that the ‘fumes of the dried leaves taken through a funnel’ is good for those with coughs and shortness of breath. He suggests that it is smoked like tobacco and it’ mightly prevaileth.’
This idea, Mrs Grieves in her herbal, says is endorsed by’ Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny and Boyle’. and is ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs’.
Also Violets and crocii are coming out. The crocus represents many things but according to www.icysedgwick.com/ ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metaphoses: ‘how Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers. All these stories I will pass by and will charm your minds with a tale that is pleasing because new.’
Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.
Blossom is also coming out in London, a little early and following an earlier false spring when Cherry Blossom came out. Blackthorn (I think) is coming out in profusion in my local park.
The 20th was the beginning of Pisces and also Sexagesima Sunday, which is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday and it a time when we should be reflecting on our sins and lifestyle before we enter Lent.
Old Moore’sAlmanac for February suggests questions will be raised about the future of the Monarchy and that ‘Russia is entering a period of major restructuring’!
23rd February is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.
Just in case you have not heard of the recent discovery of this mosaic on the Bankside in Southwark. Below is what Salon, the online newsletter for the Society of Antiquities, said about it. Below that is the Guardian’s coverage.
This site is next to a site that was worked on in the 1970s/1980s, called Calvert Buildings. The site was developed in the early Roman period with strip buildings made of timber, which were replaced by a stone building identified as a possible ‘Mansio’ – an official Roman travel lodge. I think, although useful details are hard to find in the gush of admiration for the mosaic. that it is thought the Mosaic is part of the Mansion.
Just minutes from the Shard, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a beautiful Roman mosaic, featuring colourful flowers and geometric patterns. The mosaic, at over eight meters long, is the largest found in London for over fifty years and dates to the late second or early third century.
The main panel of the mosaic features large flowers, surrounded by twisted-rope bans, across a red tessellated floor. A smaller nearby panel, as well as the main mosaic, feature geometric elements and lotus flowers and both are remarkably well preserved. David Neal FSA, an expert in Roman mosaic, says that the design likely was created by a team of mosaicists known as the Acanthus group, who had a unique style. Indeed, there is an impressively close parallel between the smaller panel and another mosaic discovered in Trier, Germany, demonstrating that the
group travelled across Europe.
It is believed that the mosaic, which was discovered a month ago, was part of a triclinium, a dining room with couches on which people would recline to eat and drink. This was likely part of a Roman mansio, an upmarket establishment offering accommodation, stabling, and dining facilities for state couriers and officials travelling to and from London.
Perhaps appropriately, the site is being redeveloped as ‘The Liberty of Southwark’, a complex of offices, homes and shops. The mosaic will be lifted later this year to be preserved and conserved off site, and the eventual aim is for the work to be on display publicly.
Richard Coates in a ground breaking article ‘A New Explanation Of The Name Of London’ Transactions Of The Philological Society Volume 96:2 (1998) Pgs 203 – 229 suggested the original name of London was Plowonida – or settlement by the wide flowing river. He deduces its name by comparing different versions of ‘London’ in different Celtic dialects and traces them back to what he believes is the common origin. This is the root *pleu meaning fleet flowing river, and onida which means ‘settlement by the’.
So, in the 2nd Millennia BC – the Bronze Age, there was a settlement by the flowing River. He thinks the Thames was the name for the river upstream of the Pool of London, and where it widened into an estuary it was called the Pleu. Etymonline.com says of the name Thames:
Thames – River through London, Old English Temese, from Latin Tamesis (51 B.C.E.), from British Tamesa, an ancient Celtic river name perhaps meaning “the dark one.” The -h- is unetymological (see th).
So, in the Bronze Age there must have been a small settlement probably in the area of the City or on the south bank in Southwark. It’s possible we have already found it in the occasional findings of post-holes, gullies, plough marks, brushwood platforms and burial mounds (particularly in Southwark) that have been found or we may be yet to find it. Or we may never find it. And if we do, unless it is significant in some way or has a signpost on it saying (“You are entering Plowonida”) we will never know.
Of course Coates may be wrong, but he is the most distinguished linguist of recent years to put his head about a dangerous parapet. Antiquarian journals were full of suggestions for the name of London. Previous suggestions include Lake Side Town, Lud’s Castle, Londinos’s settlement. None have survived scrutiny, and very few people were willing to make a guess after the late 70s, until 1998 and Richard Coates. However they all seem to accept that the name is pre-Roman in origin.
Archaeologists since the 1970s have been completely convinced there was no City before the arrival of the Romans. So, why bother finding the original name of a place that did not exist? However, last year in an excavation underneath Amazon’s new HQ, Principle Place, just north of Liverpool Street station, was found over 400 pieces of neolithic pottery, and evidence of extensive feasting. If you put this together with the burials found in the water margins of the River Thames, and the incredible finds of prestige metal objects: helmets, shields, swords, cauldrons, etc. from the River a case is beginning to be made (by David Keys in the Independent for example) that the area of the City of London might have been an important place for gatherings. So is it possible that the origins of London are as part of a ritual landscape?
If this is taken seriously it has a lot of implications for received opinion.
The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the West and North by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they are moving East again.
Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. The Raven was the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was the King of Britain and his sister, Branwen, married, the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I will tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled to the scullery, and sent a message to her brother by sparrow. He took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.
Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed and he told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years. At last they got to London and his head was buried on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain was safe from invasion. This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’
But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.
The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales. A Palladium is something that keeps a City or Country safe, and was named after a wooden status of Pallas Athene, which was taken from Troy to Rome by Aeneas. What was Arthur doing? Vanity, the story is clear. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.
The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiss when one goes missing.
Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell, when working at the Tower of London, searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the story before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.
i am doing a Virtual Tour of Chester on Sunday night and you will find a link below:
Sunday I am doing a Virtual tour of Chester. Here is a podcast as an introduction.
A VIRTUAL TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN. NO. 1 – CHESTER
Sunday 20th February 2022 7.30pm
A Virtual Walk Through Chester from Amphitheatre to Canal
Borrowing my title from Daniel Defoe’s early chorography, my first Circuit is from Chester to Edinburgh. We begin with a virtual walk around Chester.
Chester is one of Britain’s best known historic Cities. One of those places where the history of Britain can be told in one town. It was founded as a Legionary Fortress when the Romans sought to expand their imperium into the North and West of Britain. It remained an important military town with a thriving port. It is not clear exactly what happened in the centuries following the Roman withdrawal from Britannia but it retained its importance in the Saxon and Medieval periods before being besieged by the King’s Forces in the English Civil War.
The Industrial Revolution largely by-passed Chester but helped bring on the decline of its traditional industries, and soon it was relegated to a secondary status to Liverpool and Manchester in the North West. However, this meant the City retained much of its historic character, and we will enjoy the surviving Wall circuit, the timber framed shops and houses as we walk from the Station to the Amphitheatre, through the Roman town and into the Medieval Cathedral, before leaving by the Canal.
Yesterday, I wrote about the Lupercal and Parentalia festivals in Ancient Rome. Today, I listened to an old ‘In Their Time’ Radio 4 Podcast on Ovid which reminded me that the poet wrote more than the ‘Art of Love’ and the ‘Metamorphoses’. And so I explored his ‘Fasti’ which is a sadly unfinished set of verses on the Roman year. I’m looking forward to dipping into it as I explore the coming year.
It is a major source for the Lupercal and Parentalia, and does a better job than I did yesterday explaining how the name of the month February came from purification
I hoped to begin mining ‘Fasti’ today but this is what Ovid says about the 16th February ‘Next day is vacant.’ This is surprisingly encouraging to me because I have found it hard work finding something to say about some days. You can fill in with generalities, but the specific feels so much better, and if Ovid can just say nought happened. Then its good enough for me. If you want to read ‘Fasti’ for yourself this is the translation I am using.
I said ‘sadly unfinished’ because Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō was exiled by the Emperor Augustus when he was half way through the Fasti. So the last entry is for 30th June where he says: ‘put the last touches to my undertaking’ suggesting he knew he was ending it here. He was exiled until his death ten years later in Tomis, on the Black Sea. Its not clear exactly why he was exiled ostensibly for the immorality in ‘The Art of Love’, but as that was published almost a decade earlier it seems strange. Was he involved with a plot against Augustus that saw the Emperor’s own daughter exiled? Her lover was Lullus Antonius, son of Mark Antony. Unlike Julia’s other lover’s he was forced to commit suicide. But this also happened years before Ovid’s exile, so neither does it make any great sense of the great man’s punishing exile. However, Julia’s daughter was herself exiled closer to the time of Ovid’s exile and her husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was executed for treason. Ovid said the reason for his exile was a ‘poem and a mistake’. The nature of that mistake is not recorded but he said the crime was worse than murder and more harmful than poetry.
Here is one of my favourite Ovid quotations. I quote from my own book which you can buy at the link at the bottom of the page.
‘Ovid, writing in Augustus’ reign, provides our guide to the flesh-pots of a Roman town. Here he recommends how the aspiring male should dress for a night out on the town:
Don’t torture your hair, though, with curling-iron: don’t pumice
Your legs into smoothness. Leave that
To Mother Cybele’s votaries, ululating in chorus
With their Phrygian modes. Real men
Shouldn’t primp their good looks …
… Keep pleasantly clean, take exercise, work up an outdoor
Tan; make quite sure that your toga fits
And doesn’t show spots; don’t lace your shoes too tightly,
Or ignore any rusty buckles, or slop
Around in too large a fitting. Don’t let some incompetent barber
Ruin you looks: both hair and beard demand
Expert attention. Keep your nails pared, and dirt-free;
Don’t let those long hairs sprout
In your nostrils, make sure your breath is never offensive.
Avoid the rank male stench
That wrinkles noses. Beyond this is for wanton women –
Mother Cybele’s votaries were castrati, hence their high pitched voices. Cybele fell in love with Attys, who made her jealous, so Cybele turned him mad, whereupon he castrated himself and bled to death. The Mother Goddess had him resurrected body and soul and he enjoyed divine bliss ever after. A Cybelian castration device, dredged out of the Thames, can be seen in the Roman Gallery of the British Museum.’ The translation is from Green, Peter (Trans) ‘Ovid The Erotic Poems’ Penguin Classics, London 1982‘
Its quoted in In Their Own Words – A Literary Companion To The Origins Of London‘ D A Horizons, 2009. Kevin Flude
To buy Kindle version click here. To buy paperback (for £5.99) email kpflude AT anddidthosefeet.org.uk
Lupercalia was a Roman feast of purification, dedicated to the she-wolf who saved Romulus and Remus who were the traditional founders of the City of Rome. The centre of the festivities in Rome was a cave called the Lupercal, traditionally the site where the wolf suckled the twin brothers until they were rescued by Faustulus, a shepherd.
The Lupercalia was also called dies Februatus, which seems to be derived from proto-italic word februum for purification by making an offering and from the the purification instruments which were called februa. This is the basis for the Roman month named Februarius and our February.
Marcus Terentius Varro wrote about the Roman year, dividing it into 8 phrases and his spring began on 7th February. This is when the west winds began to blow warmer weather and so farmers ‘purged’ the fields readying them for planting. They would be cleared of old growth and debris, blessed, weeded, pruned with particular attention given to preparing the grain fields, the vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees.
We are also in the middle of the Parentalia, which began on the 13th February and lasted nine days. It honoured parents and family ancestors. People would visit the family tombs found along the roadsides outside of the City. Here they would honour the ancestors by making offerings. There would be a family banquet and offerings made to the Lares – the household deities. Romans had a household altar for their worship. The Greek Goddess Hestia was the Goddess of the Hearth – the centre of any household, and Vestal was the Roman equivalent. Dickens borrowed the concept of the Household Gods in his Christmas book ‘the Chimes’.
According to Wikipedia the Codex-Calendar of 354, shows that 13 February had become the holiday Virgo Vestalis parentat, a public holiday which by then appears to have replaced the older parentalia .
This is the first reference to St Valentines as a romantic day. There are at least three Saint Valentines who were martyred in the Roman period and their relics are scattered around Europe (have a look at this National Geographic article for the full S.P.) But until Chaucer no one seemed to link any of them with love.
Chaucer’s poem suggests one possible route to the link with romance. This is about the time when birds pair off – if they want to have their chicks at optimal time, then they need to get going before spring has really sprung.
This is my translation.
For this was St. Valentine’s Day When every bird came there to chose their mate. Of every type that men think may And that so huge a noise did they make That earth and see and tree and every lake So full was, that hardly was there space For to stand so full was the place.
Magpies are my favourite love bird, because you see one, and then look around and you soon seen the pair. There is an old tradition that you are supposed to say
‘Hello, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife’
and its good luck if you see her and not if you don’t. But I normally do. As to the seven, ten, or thirteen magpie in various versions. They always seem in pairs to me.
One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told. Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss, Eleven for health, Twelve for wealth, Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.
For details of the versions of this poem click here: