Roaming like a Roman: Some thoughts from off the wall

Catherine Olver and Michelle Anya Anjirbag are both doing PhDs at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge (CRCLC). Catherine, a second year, is looking at depictions of the five senses in fantasy for young adults through an ecocritical lens. Michelle, a first year, is looking at depictions of diversity in Disney’s fairy tale adaptations. They think at roughly three miles an hour, but tend to talk faster.

From July 9 through July 17, members of the CRCLC traveled to and walked Hadrian’s Wall from Newburn to Carlisle before returning to Cambridge. Though it only took nine days total, this walking seminar and trip along the wall has been on both our minds for several months now. 72 miles and many conversations later, we interviewed each other about the experience while taking the trip home (a decidedly simultaneously shorter and longer journey when done by train, with fewer stinging nettles and broody cows).

MAA: Catherine, you were the one who persuaded me to do this. Why did you want to walk Hadrian’s Wall?

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CO: For me, the wall is a monument to human relationships with nature. It marks the Romans’ determination to protect the land and people they had conquered and ‘civilised’ from the resiliently ‘barbaric’ and wild tribes in the North. On a map, it’s obvious that the planners picked a narrow section of Britain and, in true Roman fashion, drew the straightest line they could (as they did with its short-lived sibling the Antonine Wall, started twenty years later in 142 AD, which stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde). But when we started walking, it became apparent just how much the builders adjusted Hadrian’s wall in response to natural features of the landscape and climate – zig-zagging to incorporate the natural defences of crags or adding tiled roofs to the milecastles so the sentries didn’t get too grumpy keeping watch in the rain. Treading a cross-section of the country helps you understand in an embodied way (not just from a geography lesson) the different affordances these landscapes offer: the rivers that enabled the bustling cities of Newcastle and Carlisle, the farmland that continues to supply them, and the beautiful windy Pennines (nicknamed the backbone of England) to climb across for two days in the middle. It’s a mysterious and magical place up there, and it lives up to its representation in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (1995-2016), which made me determined to experience the mystery of the Wall firsthand.

CO: What did you find mysterious and magical about the Wall?

MAA: I think what struck me most – and this may be the influence of reading both Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways while walking – was the idea of the wall as a border but also a liminal space in the landscape. Through every terrain we walked it was possible to read the stories and folklore and legends about Britain that have persisted, about dragons in the hills, or doorways to other worlds tucked into hills and fences and the wall itself. Like in Stardust, people on both sides of the wall have told stories of what might be happening on the other side. This remains true in contemporary fantasy literature, as in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books mentioned above. Walls, gaps, and mounds have also been a part of the fabric of the many intertwined bits of British history and folklore, both on local and national scales through different periods of conquest, national mythologising, and folklore revivalism. Additionally, the wall acted as a time portal, something real and tangible and of contemporary experience, but also inextricably connected to an age gone by that is itself committed to both history and legends, which I have worked with in the format of adaptation and appropriation, not only as a children’s literature scholar, but prior as a medievalist and folklorist.

MAA: Speaking of books, you read The Eagle of the Ninth before walking the wall, because it was an example of the wall being used in specifically children’s literature. Did it make you feel more Roman?

CO: Yes, it did. The 1954 children’s classic by Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my mother’s favourites, so it has always been on the shelf, and it was nice to finally read it because of my own interest in literature grounded in actual-world geography. Sutcliff’s story is about a son who follows his father’s footsteps through the wilds of Britannia chasing a lost Roman aquila (the eagle standard carried by each legion of the Roman army) and in the process comes to feel at home in Britain. Our own standard, Irving the Flying Hedgehog, came dangerously close to mimicking the plot when he lost his wings. Fortunately they hadn’t been stolen and swept down a stream, but the march did for several days involve a side quest to find more glue. It was worth it. Irving garnered much admiration from fellow walkers and proved a practical and morale-raising walking stick for Vera (a.k.a. Claudia, due to her blister-induced limp). Carrying him proudly as we joined forces with several groups of school children certainly helped me feel like a Roman. The experience confirmed for me how fiction can enrich our engagement with place, because relevant scenes from the novel animated the landscape as I walked through it.

CO: I had fun teaching the children about aquilae, but mainly we were learning from one another. What would you say you learned from our seven days of walking seminar?

MAA: I learned a lot about stories and storytelling, which was sure to happen walking with people who teach and write in different ways. Rachel’s seminar on how landscape evokes legend helped me to think about the ways I might consider emplacement when it is deconstructed in a global media-scape, especially considering postcolonial constructs, as seen in Moana (2016). I also learned that you never know when certain random-feeling skills that may have been acquired in another life are going to become very useful, from first aid to orienteering, so to me it was very much an argument in favour of learning everything and being flexible, and truly, adventurous, in one’s acquisition of knowledge. On that note, and in a very practical-academic sense, I’ve learned that I need to be better about changing my academic routine even when I’m not able to be physically away from my work space. Especially when the time came to organise things, or teach my own seminar at the end of a day, I was made very aware of how much mental fatigue I’ve become used to ignoring, and it suddenly wasn’t possible to ignore it when compounded with the physical fatigue. So that was a very useful piece of knowledge and awareness that came out of this walking seminar for me.

MAA: What about you, did this experience teach you anything unexpected?

CO: It was fascinating to see how places along the route mythologised their local histories through the embodied media of food and drink, both for the tourists and to create a sense of identity for the community. We saw this most through the names of inns where we stopped at the end of each day, and through their offerings. After spending last term thinking about taste it wouldn’t have been forgivable to pass up the opportunity to sample local beers along the route: from The Tyneside Brown through the Northumbrian Gold and Sycamore Gap (at the Twice Brewed Inn in the town of Once Brewed) to the Belted Will, named after Lord William Howard (1563-1640) who – after a degree at the University of Cambridge, obviously – lived at nearby Naworth Castle and restored order in the area, and later appeared in Robert Scott’s ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ (1805). However, the prize for most interesting taste experience goes to the Hadrian’s Wall gin, infused with pimento, chamomile, coriander, bay leaves, garden mint and other botanicals favoured by the Romans. Historians of the senses work hard to dispel the assumption that the past smelled bad; this was certainly a different kind of aroma, but it was wonderful.

CO: On the subject of how we think about the past, what will you remember about this trip?

MAA: I am going to remember the people we did this with, because they were a big part of why I wanted to have this experience in the first place. We get so used to seeing people in certain settings with certain rules, but the disruption of settings and rules led to learning a lot about different people and how they see and imagine the world, but also opportunities to feel comfortable sharing unfinished thoughts and unfinished work in a less formal setting. I found our last writing exercise before leaving Carlisle incredibly pertinent to this experience. It was interesting to see how when writing the same landscape from both an omniscient narrator’s and a character’s viewpoint, my experience as a journalist made me more comfortable with the narrator’s view, while your poetry writing made the embodied character’s experience more natural for you. I’m also going to remember a lot of what I saw and heard – cattle, sheep, learning what a stinging nettle was the hard way, and the spiny beauty of thistles in the green against a grey foggy morning.

For more on the seminars and writing experience, don’t forget to read Nic and Vera’s post on the trip, Escaping the Desk: Reflections on a Walking Seminar along Hadrian’s Wall.

To check out more photos from our adventures, search #hadrianschildren on both Facebook and Instagram.

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