Exploring from Home

With things the way they are in the world at the moment, it’s become difficult (to say the least) to explore not only Northumbria, but the wider world too: you just need to ask the Newcastle University Classics Society who were set to visit Rome in April! But all is not lost! Technology has improved so much recently, especially the items we keep in our pockets, that it is now a breeze to visit sites, both ancient and modern, and museums from the comfort of your own home!

Visiting Sites

Firstly, something that may not be new to everyone is really coming into its own in these circumstances: Google Street View! While perhaps not the most immersive of experiences in this list, it is certainly something worth exploring, winding through the back streets of Rome, and seeing the views of the monuments and across the Tiber. Plus, you’ll never get lost!

Another engaging experience is that offered by Prowalk Tours on YouTube. They have a large collection of guided walking tours that have been filmed, and give a great feeling of the buzz that surrounds many of the sites! They even have some 360-degree tours, where you can explore as the camera is moving (even better if you can pair this with a VR headset!).

For those looking to explore Rome in slightly more detail, FutureLearn has a free (yes, that’s right, free) course which explores the “the architecture and history of Rome, walking around a 3D digital model of the ancient city” with Dr Matthew Nicholls from the University of Reading. Find out more here.

Of course, we can’t leave out the Hellenists here, but why would we want to, when the Acropolis of Athens can be explored at your own pace at https://www.acropolisvirtualtour.gr/, even offering extra information. (Bonus points for the view of the Acropolis at sunset!)

A screenshot from https://www.acropolisvirtualtour.gr/

If there is a particular site that you want to visit, wherever in the world it may be, it’s always worth having a brief search online and seeing what resources there are.

Museums

For those disappointed not to see the Elgin marbles on their online explorations of the Parthenon (whether in global lockdown or not!), don’t worry! The British Museum has partnered with Google Arts and Culture (more on that later) to offer a virtual tour of the gallery, and it also has the whole of the rest of the museum thrown in too! It acts a lot like Google street view, and lets you explore with reasonable freedom and excellent detail. The Museum also offers an excellent “Museum of the World” online experience, with a lovely interface, and lets you explore the items while also seeing how they connect, forming a web of history: https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.com/.

Another one for those hoping to visit Rome, now, with the Vatican museum’s online tours and collections: http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/tour-virtuali-elenco.html. The 360-degree tours of the Vatican includes the world-renowned Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms, thankfully free of the many visitors that it attracts each year, and without the huge queues to get in! You can also find an excellent set of 360-degree images to explore of St Peter’s Basilica here: https://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/vr_tour/index-en.html (again, bonus points for the view at night!)

A screenshot from the virtual view of St Peter’s Basilica, from: https://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/vr_tour/index-en.html

The Capitoline Museum is one of the many others that also offers a virtual tour. The Louvre doesn’t offer a fully virtual experience, but does have many of its exhibitions available to visit virtually, including “Founding Myths: From Hercules to Darth Vader”, here.

Google Arts and Culture’s exploration of di Cosimo

Another permutation of a virtual visit to a museum is the one offered by the Uffizi gallery. Having also partnered with Google Arts and Culture, from this link (https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/uffizi-gallery) one can explore the historic gallery in multiple ways. For the ‘purists’ of museum-goers, then the “Museum View” is a must, like the British Museum. If there is a particular exhibit that one is interested in, though, then you can explore the individual items in each collection too. There are two particularly nice features to this: one is the “Stories” section, that explores a particular work in detail, working through individual elements of a piece and giving information about it (one example of this that will be of particular interest to classicists is the “Story” of Piero di Cosimo’s ‘Perseus Freeing Andromeda’, inspired by Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses).

Another truly excellent feature can be accessed through the Google Arts and Culture App on your phone. On the app, if you click the ‘View in Augmented Reality’ icon, then it allows you to see the work (in astoundingly good detail, and real size) in your own home, through your phone’s camera. It really is a wonderful feature, and helpful for if you are planning on redecorating with some Botticelli or a Caravaggio! I’ve recently discovered that Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ is unlikely to fit above my bed (I’m not sad, just disappointed…).

Another truly excellent feature can be accessed through the Google Arts and Culture App on your phone. On the app, if you click the ‘View in Augmented Reality’ icon, then it allows you to see the work (in astoundingly good detail, and real size) in your own home, through your phone’s camera. It really is a wonderful feature, and helpful for if you are planning on redecorating with some Botticelli or a Caravaggio! I’ve recently discovered that Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ is unlikely to fit above my bed (I’m not sad, just disappointed…).

It is really worth exploring Google Arts and Culture, it provides free access to a huge range and variety of works from all over the world, and also has 360-degree videos of many places, including Palmyra (which has been rather dangerous to visit recently and Richmond, which we were lucky enough to visit in real life this year with Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria.

Of course, this blog does not have the scope to reveal every single way of remotely visiting ancient sites and museums, but I whole-heartedly recommend having an explore online and discovering the many wonderful resources that are out there. This is, of course, a terrible time across the world, but I hope that one of the many good things to come out of it is the widening of access to cultural sites and pieces to those who can’t visit, and who knows how this technology will be used and improved in the future? A school trip on your phone, anyone…

Joyce Reynolds: A short introduction

The following article was researched and written by Naomi Bloxham, PhD student in History and one of our 2 Classics JobSOC interns for 2019–20.

An exceptional teacher during testing moments

Image sourced from https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/newnham-news/a-century-of-excellence-classicist-joyce-reynolds-receives-an-honorary-doctorate-6-months-before-her-100th-birthday/

 

Dr. Susanna Phillippo and I were set to interview Joyce Reynolds in March to gain an insight on her experience as one of the few female academics at Newcastle in the 1950s. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this visit was cancelled. Whilst we are in these uncertain times, this is a short introduction to an exceptional woman.

Born a hundred and two years ago in 1918, Joyce Reynolds is one of the world’s leading ancient historians.  Joyce attests her mother (Nellie Reynolds) to be the reason she became so invested in learning and was so well educated as a child. Nellie, a primary school teacher, was committed to teaching her two children a challenging and creative educational programme. Joyce remembers fondly being 8 and conjugating German verbs with the only German speaker in Highams Park.[i]

Joyce did not go straight into academia, surprisingly. When the Second World War began, Joyce, aged 31, joined the Civil Service. After the war she planned to continue there – only to fail the entrance exam. “It was depressing,” she recalled. “I took my time over each question, but in fact you have to go like the clappers. Nobody told me this, so I was giving each answer due consideration and I ran out of time.”

Unsure of her next step, Joyce took up a research scholarship and headed to post-war Rome, to find that a French researcher had just published an important article on the very subject that she had planned to work on. Fortunately for her, her supervisor needed help with some inscriptions from his excavations. Joyce suddenly found them fascinating and found her specialism.[ii]

Joyce was appointed as an assistant lecturer in the Classics department at King’s College, Newcastle in 1949. Joyce remembered that “you couldn’t bank on them (her students) having read the key texts. Sometimes you couldn’t bank on them knowing anything. Things I reckoned I knew when I was ten, they didn’t.” Joyce was not dismayed by this though. Instead she strove harder to make up for this, especially in the case of her female students. She stated that “sometimes for the first time they (her female students) were being taken seriously and their reactions were indeed exciting.”[iii]

Three years later, she became a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. Joyce then became a University Lecturer in Classics from 1957-1983 and Reader in the Epigraphy of the Roman World at Cambridge from 1983-1984. She has received the Kenyon Medal for her outstanding achievement in Classical Studies and Archaeology.[iv] Reynolds is now Reader Emerita at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Fellow of Newnham. She is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville, the Oxford College where she took her undergraduate degree. At one hundred and two, she can still be found in the library at work on the major publications.[v]

Our hope is to interview Joyce and ask her questions about the development of academia over the last 60 years. She is the source of an incredible wealth of information and a truly inspirational woman.


[i] This and subsequent quotation from Tessa Dunlop’s The Century Girls: The Final Word from the Women Who’ve Lived the Past Hundred Years of British History (Simon & Schuster, 2018), 11, 179–180.

[ii] Quoted from Newham College’s Celebration of Joyce’s 100 Birthday in 2018.

[iii] Quoted from Tessa Dunlop’s The Century Girls, 236.

[iv] Quoted from Newham College’s Celebration of Joyce’s 100 Birthday in 2018.

[v] Quoted from Newham College’s Celebration of Joyce’s 100 Birthday in 2018.

Armchair exploring 4: Holy Island & Bamburgh: By the utmost margin of the loud lone sea

Probably our last trip of 2019/20 was to have been this past weekend, to either Bamburgh or Holy Island (Lindisfarne).  Both are reachable by public transport — with careful homework into tide-determined bus timetables for Holy island 🙂 — though not in the same day! (deciding between the two was going to be a challenge…)  Both are major Northumbrian highlights, steeped in history and legend and central to the story of the region’s 7th–8th C golden age and the establishment of Christianity.  They also both happen to have some of England’s best beaches….

Our visit to Bamburgh in 2017, where after a bit of history we were lured to the seashore! (picture credits: Elizabeth Cooper)

Far too much to write about in a short post.  For Bamburgh, the legend of the Laithly Worm, the golden Bamburgh Beast (look these up!), the 140ft-deep well bored down through the great castle rock at Bamburgh long before explosives were invented, heroic women (Matilda Mowbray, Queen Philippa, Dorothy Forster, Grace Darling)….   In medieval times the castle was identified with Sir Lancelot’s castle Joyous Garde (as in the Swinburne poem from which this blog’s title tag is taken).

For Lindisfarne, tales of saints, ducks and otters; the romance of the tidal causeway; the evocative medieval abbey ruins and traces of the famous Saxon monastery where the Lindisfarne gospels were created (exciting recent excavations have uncovered more).  And an Elizabethen castle remodelled by Sir Edward Lutyens (which also features in a film of The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Ian McKellan as the villain!).

For both sites, the history of King and saint Oswald, ‘White-blade’, and St. Aidan.  Oswald grew up in exile on Iona (he was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) and, after he reclaimed his father’s kingdom, invited missionaries from Iona to come and settle in Northumbria and assist in spreading their faith.  Aidan is one of the more attractive saintly figures: after the first Ionan mission had hit the rocks and its leader returned home complaining of the ignorance and intractability of the Northumbrians, he is said to have responded to the effect, “Brother, couldn’t you have been a little kinder?”  And when challenged to do better, stepped up to the task.

Oswald, though a king and a warrior, comes across well too: once at an Easter feast at Bamburgh, presented with a crowd of beggars, he ordered the silver plates from which they were eating to be broken up and distributed among the poor.  (How exactly do you break up a silver plate….?!)  And he had a pet raven who heped preserve his head after his death in battle…

Sadly, we can only visit ‘virtually’ just now.  But we will be back.

 

Hadrian’s Wall: Armchair exploring 3: Housesteads Hadrianic hymns, Hotbank hiking and Hipposandals

Yesterday we’d have had our traditional Maytime second trip of the year to Hadrian’s Wall.  We’ve done this trip many times with various itineraries — we sometimes include Vindolanda (when the bus remembers to go there 🙂!).  Usually this second trip includes the energetic Housesteads to Steel Rigg walk and the tranquil Chesters fort and bathhouse with its travel-back-in-time Edwardian museum.  A few snapshots from recent years:

Hymn to the Sun at Housesteads

Hymn to Sun largerCombined with our Housesteads visit in 2016 was a student performance of music by the emperor Hadrian’s court composer Mesomedes, directed by Dr David Creese, our ancient music expert, accompanied by Northumbrian smallpipes!
Rain was lashing down as we climbed from carpark to the fort, clearing as we set off for a short Wall walk before the performance, then vanished in a blaze of blue sky in good time for the singing!  Appropriately enough, our first piece was a Hymn to the Sun….

Hot(bank) hiking

…mind you, the Northumbrian sun’s frequent companion, brisk wind, was also along for the ride!  Even so, we’ve been lucky to have had so much sun on our Wall walks over the years.

Given the challenges of the switchback hike westwards from Housesteads & Hotbank Crags to Steel Rigg, a cooling breeze is usually welcome.  (I never can manage to keep accurate count of how many more ups and downs we have left to tackle….)

Hipposandals at Chesters

Chesters fort and bath-house in its halcyon riverside setting is an altogether gentler proposition.  We’ve been lucky to encounter there, in our time, a falconry display and snowy Roman re-enactment cavalry horses.  Who probably weren’t wearing these:

Chesters horse sandals

“Hipposandals: iron hoof coverings worn when travelling over very rough ground” (for which much of Hadrian’s wall would qualify!).  One of Chesters museum’s many quirky delights, of which another perennial favourite is the Roman ‘Scottie dog’ votive which would be quite at home in a Scottish Highland tourist shop…

Chesters Scotty dog

York: Armchair exploring Part 2: baths, basilica, arson and steam

This Sunday’s trip (planned to follow Saturday night’s student production of Aristophanes’ Frogsnext year, let’s hope!) was to be to York: again, historically in Northumbria (capital of Deira, the southern kingdom to Newcastle’s Bernicia).  The Minster apart, York is perhaps most famous nowadays for its historical Viking connections.  But it was also major Roman military base and town Eboracum: African Roman Emperor Septimius Severus governed the empire from here for a while in the 3rd century (208–211): he was in Britain to deal with those troublesome Caledonians — regulars on our trips will recognise a recurring theme here 🙂🙂!

IMG_3611
Dr Phillippo trying on replica helmets in the legionary bath-house…

And here, Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor by his troops about a century later.  Though he apparently didn’t hang around long.  Remnants of the Roman glory days can be tracked down including parts of the basilica, and the fortress baths — now in the basement of a pub…. as well as a corner tower of the fortress wall.

York has too many highlights to list all of them in this short post, but mediaeval enthusiasts can also ‘fill their boots’, with the walls, towers and church architecture — the stone carving is a particular treat.

Stories abound too, including the tale of mad Jonathan Martin who in 1829 set fire to York Minster in a burst of apocalyptic reforming zeal (his brother was the more creatively apocalyptic painter John Martin, whose work can be seen in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery).

And then there is steam… railways, that is, with the superb York National Railway Museum.

15890639893514033759442752159759
My unfulfilled childhood ambition was to own one of these!!!

I grew up on the original Thomas the Tank Engine books (I am the proud owner of the complete, much thumbed collection), so the museum is a particular highlight (and has free entry!).

Britain’s (and the world’s) history was transformed by train travel in the 19th century (standardised national time, for instance, was established because of this), and York’s museum is a fine place to explore the story.  As well as the trains, of course: the mammoth ‘real’ ones like the record-breaking Mallard and the fascinating scale models — IMG_20200509_110805050showing e.g. luxury carriages complete with baths (now that’s a journey I’d like to have taken!).

We’ll have to wait until next year, but a trip to York remains firmly in our plans.

IMG_20200509_110850101

Barnard Castle: Armchair exploring Part 1: Castle, cones and a classical clock

IMG_2961

Our explorations of classical and historical Northumberland have regrettably though rightly had to come to an end for this academic year.  As a small way of keeping the tradition going, over the next few weeks there will be short blogposts giving a ‘taster’ of the places we had planned to visit.  Hopefully students will be able to join us on actual rather than virtual visits in future years!

This weekend’s destination was to have been Barnard Castle (historically in Northumbria, if now in County Durham).  Dramatically sited on a steep riverside by the Tees, the town is graced with a superb castle, an octagonal market cross/Butter market which bears marks of being used for target practice, IMG_2965 at least one superb ice-cream shop (🙂🍨), and a museum disguised as a French chateau… better known as the Bowes museum, complete with mechanical silver swan. Historical and literary connections abound (Balliol of Scottish royal, and Oxford college, fame; Richard III; Walter Scott; Charles Dickens). 

IMG_2992
Sappho, by J. Pradler, 1848. The inscribed poem is a prayer to love goddess Aphrodite.


Classical connections are generously supplied by the Bowes museum collections.  A few of our favourites from our last visit in 2017: Sappho the poetess in silver, lines from her Greek verses inscribed on her scroll; Odysseus meeting princess Nausicaa in a pupil’s copy of a Rubens masterpiece; and a clock we all coveted, showing a diligent female student reading under the gaze of Homer’s head!

 

 

 

 

Richmond

[Note from site editor: This trip (14th March 2020) took place before the current COVID19 lockdown; nonetheless safety (as the references to repeated handwashing below are intended to convey) was a concern taken very seriously.  Naturally, if regretfully, all subsequent planned trips for the past term and the rest of the academic year have been cancelled. Classics & Ancient History Facebook post]

For once, the weather wasn’t the biggest concern for those Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria, COVID-19 (or Publius Covidius Naso-XIX to give it its full name) saw to that…

While a little further afield than some trips in the calendar, Richmond is more than easy to get to: Less than half an hour on the southbound train from Newcastle station (allowing 5 minutes to wash your hands on arrival) and then another half an hour on the X27 bus from Darlington station brings you into the beautiful marketplace in the centre of Richmond in North Yorkshire. Just a short walk away is Richmond castle, which dominates the surrounding town and countryside.

Having washed our hands and having tried some of the excellent (if a little strong) English Heritage mead, we entered the stone keep of the Norman castle, one of the oldest of its kind surviving in Britain, with parts constructed in 1071AD.

On land gifted by William the Conqueror for his aid in the Norman invasion, it was built by Alan Rufus who is believed to have been proportionally the richest man ever to have lived in Britain (his wealth accounted for 7% of the national income at the time, which is estimated to be the equivalent of more than £100 billion today). The castle also boasts a wonderful grassy inner bailey, enclosed by the 14th century defensive walls. The castle has a history spanning almost 1000 years, and includes William the Lion of Scotland being held captive in one of the towers, being home to Lord Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) when he was commanding the Territorial Army in the 19th century, and being reused (and partially restored) in the 20th century by the Non-Combatant Corps. The Richmond Sixteen, who refused to take a military part in the First World War, were held captive here before being sent to France to enact the death penalty before it was commuted to hard labour. There is even some rather moving graffiti of those held captive here, although this is not open to the public.

Having washed our hands, we then moved to the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, and were taken round by our excellent tour-guide, Dave. (This, as with all the entry prices to sites on our trips, was paid for by the department) We learnt that it was built by Samuel Butler for his (technically illegal!) touring theatre company just three months after the law was lifted in May 1788, and is the only one of eight that survives. A night at the theatre originally cost 1 shilling, which is the rough equivalent of a premier league ticket now (a quarter of a servant’s weekly wage), and would have been rather smelly and smoky, owing to the tallow candles and tobacco smoke. The Georgian theatre is the only one in Britain that is still going as a working theatre, having been given two restorations, and is almost entirely original (with some modern touches, of course). It has a capacity of around 200 or fewer, but originally would have seated over 400! However, I doubt they would have been seeing the Carpenters tribute band that was on that evening…

Having (once again) washed our hands, we visited what was (to my shame) my personal highlight of the day, Edwina’s Cakes, for a hot chocolate and a cake: an excellent tradition of days with Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria!

Yet again we washed our hands and headed down a path along the river, avoiding the mud and the energetic water. We soon came to a rather unassuming stone, set on a pedestal, which tells the story of a legend that King Arthur and his Knights once slept in a cave beneath Richmond Castle. The tale goes on to tell of the Drummer Boy who was sent down a narrow underground passage to find King Arthur’s treasure and told to keep drumming as he went. Eventually the drumming stopped, and the boy was never seen again. Rumour has it that the drum can still be heard on a windy night in Richmond…

Richmond is a charming town in North Yorkshire with an incredibly rich history that appeals to classicists and non-classicists alike, is easily accessible from Newcastle, and – if nothing else – boasts a top-notch cake shop that’s worth the visit.

Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria: Carlisle

Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria: Carlisle

Not even Dennis, Ciara’s blustery younger brother, could keep the Classicists and friends away from the sunshine that Carlisle offered (no, I’m being serious, there was sunshine!).

Having disembarked from the Northern train from Newcastle (only £11.60 with a 16-25 railcard, or £13.20 each if you buy the ‘Duo’ ticket) we headed straight for St Cuthbert’s church, only to be blown into Bruce and Luke’s for an early lunch and enjoyed their excellent donuts! Once the weather (and our appetites) had calmed slightly, we headed back out into the town.

One of the first things that strikes you as you walk through the streets of Carlisle is the distinctive red sandstone that makes up many of the buildings, from St Bees in the west of Cumbria, which also supplies much of Dumfries and Holy Island. The first that you come across walking from the station is the Citadel: originally built for Henry VIII and restored in the 19th Century, it is one of the many buildings designed (at least in part) by Stephan von Haschenperg to fortify Carlisle against the Scots. A statue of Thomas Telford stands outside, a monument to arguably the most influential British railway engineer (although pipped to the post of most famous by Isambard Kingdom Brunel).

There seems to be a theme with Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria for stained-glass windows, since our next stop was to marvel at the offerings of St Cuthbert’s church. My personal favourite windows are the one telling the story of St Cuthbert and his re-watering of the Roman Well in Carlisle, and the portrait of St Cuthbert himself, with the vibrantly coloured glass picking up the best of the sun’s rays (plus the adorable wildlife gathered around him!). 

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery was next, and showcased a wide variety of local and national history, and a lot of it there was too! If you didn’t believe it before, the museum certainly shows the turbulent past of a town on the border of two ‘unfriendly’ (to put it mildly…) neighbours. The museum boasts a wonderful Roman collection, including a replica of Hadrian’s Wall from when it was made out of turf, really allowing the viewer to get a sense of the sheer size of the wall and its imposing nature for the dissident natives! The museum also houses a tin of tuna paste from Roman Cadiz, which is a nice artefact for the movement of goods in the Roman empire. The museum is a must see for anyone (classicist or otherwise) interested in Roman life in a frontier town, with an excellent permanent exhibition in the basement, including a wonderful trail activity for children and those young at heart!

Tullie House's reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall

Carlisle Castle, now owned by English Heritage, was first built in stone in 1122, and was actively used by the Border Regiment until the 1960s. It has also recently been home to the moving memorial to those who died in the world wars, the Weeping Window installation, comprising of thousands of ceramic poppies. The castle boasts multiple buildings, and perhaps the most interesting is the Half Moon Battery, again built by Stefan von Haschenperg, which shows the change in the terrain since it was first built, as now the gaps for the cannons to fire through look out about 5 metres, before the grassy bank of the filled-in moat would be fired upon! I’m not sure how much of a defence that would offer nowadays… Having negotiated the wind as we walked around the battlements, we encountered some etchings on doors and walls in the keep, including the boar sigil of the future Richard III.

Our last stop was Carlisle Cathedral, a wonderfully spiritual (even for the non-religious) space from the 12th century.  Unusually it has a very short nave, since a lot of the original stone was dismantled and re-used for repairs to the castle by Parliamentarian Scots after one of many Sieges of Carlisle in 1645-6. Having arrived during Choir practice, the sensory trail around the cathedral culminated in an excellent moment of relaxation, laid on the floor looking to the beautiful ceiling (as per the instructions for the trail!) with a wonderful accompaniment.

Carlisle is a beautiful town, within easy reach of Newcastle, although its excellent architecture stands to show the turbulent past of the towns along the border.

Carlisle Cathedral's ceiling

Brancepeth Castle and Hexham Abbey, Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria

St Brandon’s Church and Brancepeth Castle

On a rainy day in November, a group of Classicists and friends stepped off the train at Durham station, heading to catch the X46 bus, and after just 15 minutes we were walking up the drive to Brancepeth Castle.

Having waded through the swamp that was the carpark, we headed into St Brandon’s Church for shelter from the rain. With stones dating from 1070 CE, the beautifully modern interior seems a little incongruous at first, until you hear the story that the church burnt down in 1998 in a devastating fire that was so hot it vaporised the 17th Century woodwork inside, and left only the outer walls standing. The church reopened in 2005 and is a remarkable space, full of light and a wonderful mix of modern and medieval.

First comes the font, conserved and re-formed from the pieces that exploded in the fire, and from it you look down the nave to what seemed (to me at least) the highlight of the church: the glorious ‘Paradise Window’, designed by Helen Whittaker and made in York. The nave is lined with remnants of the past, including various cross slabs (medieval grave markers), mixed seamlessly with the new interior.

The Neville chapel, at the far end of the church, was built for ‘The Peacock of the North’, Robert Neville, shortly after his death, by his father, Ralph, and includes a stone effigy of Robert with marks of melted lead, from the 1998 fire. The chapel also includes a wonderful copy of the richly decorated Lindisfarne Gospels, believed to have been originally written in the 8th Century by Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, possibly in honour of St Cuthbert.

Next, we went into the grounds of Brancepeth Castle, built by the Bulmer family, and later home to the Nevilles, who had it confiscated by the crown following their heavy involvement in plotting the Rising of the North. A later owner’s daughter, Mary Bellaysyse, fell in (unrequited) love with Bobby Shafto, and Dr Phillippo gave us a rousing rendition of the folk song/nursery rhyme of the same name. We also found out about the scandal that was the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by means of Anne Turner and her poisoned tarts and jellies!

Brancepeth Castle’s Christmas Craft Fair was running while we were there, and we all enjoyed looking round the offerings of the 81 different stalls. Clearly, they knew we were coming, as Theon Nectar Products from Sunderland was offering Honey, Olive Oil, and all things Greek! (I certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a taster or two… Clearly Overbury’s example had no effect on me!)

The Summer craft fair is running this year from 24-26th July, when I imagine the weather will be considerably better!

Hexham Abbey

The pre-Christmas break trip to Hexham took place on a (yes, you guessed it) wet and windy day in Northumberland in December. There seems to be a theme here…

Taking the 685 (or the X85) bus from Eldon Square stop A, we arrived in Hexham after about 45 minutes and walked past the Old Jail, which was built in 1333 from stone from the nearby Roman Fort at Corbridge, famous for housing Border Reivers, and also home to the Border Library Collection. Passing through Hexham (helped enormously by the wind!), we came through the square famous for the Hexham Riot of 1761, resulting in over 50 dead, and into the Abbey.

An active place of worship since the 7th Century, the Abbey has had a tumultuous history, including being sacked multiple times by both Viking and Scottish raiders, and now stands as a stunning monument to both its history and present usage. While the Abbey was preparing for ‘Messy Church’ for toddlers, we explored and saw the Tombstone of Flavinius, a Roman standard bearer and cavalryman, discovered in 1881, and probably from Corbridge.

A real highlight was the Saxon crypt, underneath the Nave: down the rather treacherous steps, a few small rooms reveal themselves, and Dr Phillippo showed us the recycled stones that bore Latin inscriptions, including to Maponus Apollo (a merging of Celtic and Roman deities). While it’s a great visit, I wouldn’t recommend it for the claustrophobic!

The Abbey also has a wonderful museum experience section, called ‘The Big Story’, which explores the building of the Abbey, as well as the mischievous deeds of the Abbey’s choirboys through time…

Coming back out of the Abbey, we stopped into The County, a lovely pub with a very reasonably priced coffee and cake deal, a perfect way to round off the afternoon. The bus journey home was made quite exciting, since we were racing against the coming storm, and managed to stay just ahead of the weather!

Highlights video from the International Conference of Byzantine Studies, Mapping the Sacred in Byzantium: Construction, Experience and Representation (Newcastle University, September 20–21, 2019)

Mapping the sacred_Screen.001

This video presents highlights from the International Conference of Byzantine Studies, Mapping the Sacred in Byzantium: Construction, Experience and Representation, organised by Dr Mihail Mitrea at Newcastle University on September 20–21, 2019, under the dissemination activities of the Sacred Landscapes in Late Byzantium (SLLB) research project, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 752292.

The conference brought together leading experts in the field of Byzantine studies from leading universities and research institutions across Europe and the United States in order to explore new ways to think of, and assess, the construction, experience and representation of sacred space in Byzantium, aiming to contribute to research on spatial paradigms and practices. The conference addressed spatial themes from the varying disciplinary perspectives of archaeology, art history, history, literature, and theology. For more details, please visit the webpage of the event.