Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Ghost Roads

I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.

There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.

Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.

I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.

Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.

It didn’t.

But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.

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I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.

A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.

Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.

And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.

The Old Way 6

Poem #6 of 6. The end of the journey.

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The Old Way 6

 

When the square sails of the invading Romans

First appeared over the horizon,

This path was already ancient.

When the first sword was forged,

When the giant stones were placed

In mysterious alignments,

This path was already old.

Only when the great ice giants

Relaxed their grip on the land

Were these paths young.

These are paths to tread reverently,

Mindful of those countless others

Who also once passed this way.

Friend, take your place on this journey,

You are in fine company.

Libya – Leptis Magna

Libya certainly seems to have suffered more than its fair share of misfortune over the years.

I was there in 1988 for six months – not that I’m suggesting that was one of their misfortunes – which should have been a good opportunity to get to know one of those countries that chose to be rather secretive and closed off to the outside world. It didn’t work out that way, of course.

As Westerners, we found it very hard to penetrate Libyan society and, to be honest, we really didn’t try that hard. There were almost no opportunities for socialising with local people, we were regarded with great suspicion by the authorities (although so were most of the general population, of course), and so we ended up in our enclaves even more than is usual in most ex-patriot societies.

But despite that, I discovered that the majority of the Libyans I did meet were wonderful, warm-hearted people. A few were slimeballs, but the same goes for the Westerners – many were great folk, but a few of them were also slimeballs, including the so-called friend who amused himself one evening by spiking my drinks with near-neat alcohol, knowing I was driving home afterwards. If by any freak of chance you ever read this, Shaun, you really are a shit.

It was always said that, as unpleasant and bad as Gaddafi undoubtedly was, there were others around him who were even more seriously dangerous and unhinged. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of them and their colleagues are still wreaking havoc in the country, along with the twisted followers of Isis and various other militias.

But the purpose of this post is to put up some photos that I took in Leptis Magna, which was a huge Roman city a couple of thousand years ago, and is located on the Mediterranean coast near the town of al Khums, some 125 km east of Tripoli. It is the largest extant Roman city outside of Turkey, and is a Unesco designated World Heritage site. I had visited Rome in the past, and I was astonished to see the extent of the remains at this site, which easily dwarfed those in the Roman capital.

Libya was certainly a place where I generally felt uncomfortable taking photos, and so I took very few other than these ones. The quality of the photographs, though, are generally very poor, I’m afraid, since all I took with me was an incredibly cheap camera. I was warned that there was a good chance that anything you took into Libya might get confiscated or simply stolen. The prints have also faded badly over time, and so these are presented purely for general interest.

I do have some more photos of Leptis Magna somewhere, which might be in better condition, so I will try to hunt them out for another time.

Leptis Magna is another one of those ancient sites that is under threat of destruction by the fanatics of Isis, and although I have followed quite a few threads on the internet, I am unable to find out whether there has been any actual destruction there yet. What I do know is that a group of very brave Libyans have formed a kind of militia to protect the ruins. I can only hope that they, and the ruins, are all well.

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Roman  Amphitheatre

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Roman basilica – converted to a church in the fourth century AD

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Roman baths

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Along a Roman street…

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Through doorways and buildings…

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…and along another Roman street.