Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ with the Romans

Today, it was back to being a tourist, rather than a theatre buff, as I took a day tour to Hadrian’s Wall and the Borders.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the Great Wall of China, but the Romans were amazing! Their empire stretched so far and they were so technologically savvy for the time, it’s impressive to walk in their footsteps.

Hadrian’s Wall, named for the emperor under whose reign it was constructed, ran the breadth of northern England, for 73 miles (80 Roman miles; 117.5 kilometres) about an hour south of the Scottish border.

Hadrian’s Wall crosses hill and dale through the British countryside

It marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire when construction of this stone line of demarcation started in 122 A.D., although later the Romans gained a toehold in Scotland and built a new barrier north of Edinburgh. (The Antonine Wall, as it was called, was built largely of turf. Given that the Romans didn’t control that northern frontier for more than a couple of decades, it’s probably lucky that less work went into it.)

The wall today only exists in sections, since the locals often used its stones for construction of other buildings in the centuries after the Romans left. In places, grass grows atop the wall, as well as wildflowers; in other spots, it’s simply stone.

Grass grows atop some sections of Hadrian’s Wall

It was built by British regiments of the Roman Legion and allowed the Romans to keep the Picts and other northern tribes out of England. A series of forts built every 13 miles south of the wall housed troops to defend the frontier and made it possible or them to  attend to administrative tasks pertinent to ruling Britannia.

Not only did I get to see the wall, touch the wall and stand on the wall, I was able to visit one of these forts and to enjoy the wonderful rural scenery of the Borderlands on either side of the England-Scotland border.

A piper marks the border between England and Scotland

It’s green – no surprise, since half of our explorations were done in the rain – and it’s home to more sheep than I’ve ever seen in my life! An added bonus: the heather was in bloom! We could see purplish patches all over the hillsides.

Heather in bloom near Hadrian’s Wall

Between my visit to Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve had a bit of a crash course in the Roman Empire, something I don’t think was given much weight during my school years in the “anything goes” years when they did away with mandatory courses about Western Civilization. The more I learn, I find, the more interesting a period of history becomes. Rah, rah Rome!

The tour experience was also great fun. I opted for a van tour with only 16 people and the driver-guide. The latter turned out to be a very sweet, down-to-earth Edinburgh native who loves his city and gave us a real flavour of life there. There was also a family of Canadians from Barrie, north of Toronto, who were lovely, and a friendly Aussie woman. The Canadian kids, 12-year-old twins, were always the first up the hills and through the mud, but I managed to do my bit. (Note to self: staying fit is important for travel.)

It was a wonderful way to end my Edinburgh escape, although I am sad, too. So much more to do and see here. However, London is calling …


Fringe Benefits

Here I am in the midst of the madness that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I thought Toronto’s Fringe Festival, with its 150+ shows in two weeks was impressive and enjoyable, but Edinburgh has about 1,000 offerings that include comedy, music, theatre and tours.

A little street theatre to promote a Fringe show

In addition to its usual summer visitors, the city is filled with theatre buffs gorging on a banquet of one-hour performances by troupes from all over the world. Not only is there wonderful theatre; there’s a chance to chat with people from everywhere!

Today alone, I ate breakfast with a woman from Buxton, England, had cream tea (tea and scones) with a pair of chance-met Canadian sisters, one from Vancouver and the other from Regina. All we needed was someone from the Maritimes for a coast-to-coast sweep! I also conversed with a couple from Germany over a later cup of tea, chatted with a young couple from Sheffield, England, in the waiting line for a show and went to see some young women from Northwestern University (outside Chicago) whom I’d met accidentally on Thursday perform in a show.

With Northwestern U. actresses Chamaya (left) and Carrie (right), performers in Atlantic: The Scottish Story

Yesterday, I took a walking tour with a pair of Italian sisters and did a whisky tasting with some Americans and a German. Tomorrow, I’m off on an organized day tour, so heaven knows whom I’ll meet. It’s absolutely wonderful – it adds such spice to an already tasty experience.

With so many shows going on, as well as a classical music festival, Edinburgh is packed with tourists. If you look at this photo taken on the Royal Mile (the street running from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace), you would think you were at Times Square in NYC! It’s tough to get anywhere fast if you’re walking downtown, so you need to build time into your schedule.

The masses flood Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

I toured Edinburgh Castle this morning, and its name is something of a misnomer, because it’s a walled fortress with myriad building inside. It’s still a working military venue in the evenings, but during the day, tourists rule. Since I’ve been spending so much time at the theatre, I wanted to be sure to add a bit of Edinburgh history to the program.

Edinburgh Castle

It was a real treat because the castle is now home to the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, the stone on which all Scottish kings were crowned. The British moved it to Westminster Abbey a few hundred years ago to be used in conjunction with the Coronation Chair, and the Scots so bemoaned its loss that a group of university students broke into the Abbey on Christmas Eve during the 1960s and liberated the stone, planning to bring it back to its rightful land. Although they had to return the stone anonymously when the trail got too hot, their efforts obviously struck a chord at Buckingham Palace, because 20 years ago, the stone came home. There’s a wonderful movie about this caper, so I just had to see the stone myself!

Now, it’s off for my last Fringe show – the third today. Fittingly, it’s a Canadian production written by the wonderful Toronto playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, about her father’s family and its Romanian refugee roots – so, a little Jewish-Canadian connection, too. We Canucks have a large presence on stage at the Fringe this year in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Fringe madness this may be, but it’s a great party!