Londinium. Roman Baths. All roads lead, etc. I’ve been in various parts of the former Roman Empire, from Hungary, Egypt and Jordan to Rome itself.
It’s always fun to find little bits of older civilisations in layers under the current one. It’s like etymology for landscapes – the backstories that help to describe, to a degree, how the current narrative unfurled.
The guide was brilliant at bringing stones and dirt to life, describing the uses of the larger buildings that once stood here, and the remaining chambers, and drawing parallels with modern life (dodgy builders, cost-cutting measures, lovers’ trysts, unsolved mysteries).
Very much worth the visit!
Of course, the Romans inhabited Britain for several hundred years, from the southern end right up to the Antonine Wall, north of the more famous Hadrian’s Wall, built in AD122.
Which, not coincidentally, is the number of the bus that runs in a circuit between Hexham and Haltwhistle, enabling those short on time or the inclination to hike to visit key sites along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall.
Our first stop was Chester’s Fort, which predates the wall, then boarded the bus again for Housesteads. The remains of a Roman fort are here too and, key for us, a large segment of the wall.
Tim had done a little googling. A walk between Housesteads and the next stop, Steel Rigg, should take about an hour and a quarter, claimed Google, giving us a topography map and a false sense of confidence. It’s only 4.6km, said Google slyly. It’s a sunny day. Go on. Walk a bit of the wall.
Off we went, wreathed in sunshine, the wall on our right, a song in our hearts. We were striding hilltops where nearly 1900 years ago, men from across Rome’s vast empire piled up stones to mark the extent of their Empire’s territory.
They served as citizens, or in the hope of becoming citizens. They maintained the border, defended it as required. They waited for letters from home, looking out over green hillsides and the vistas of all that weather rolling in, clouds gathering and parting, looming and clearing.
Black-faced sheep eyes us warily; very large cows were more sanguine. Energetic people with hiking poles passed us in either direction, cheerily saying it was hours to go until Steel Rigg, and with much rougher and muddier terrain.
We would have thanked them, but we were too busy negotiating steep rises and falls and trying not to face-plant among the rocks.
Finally, two hours into our one hour walk and still only half way to our destination, we came to a little farm, with a lovely little road leading right back out to that wonderful main road that had buses on it. We decided it had been fabulous. Beautiful and breathtaking and thoroughly worthwhile to have walked those hills alongside that amazing wall.
Then we went straight on down that farm road and caught a bus to the next stop. Sandwich and soup in the brand-spanking-new centre at The Sill fuelled us for a final bus ride to Vindolanda.
Weary with our triumphs, we got the bus back to Hexham – transported by AD122 back to 2017 and the joys of a hot meal at a Hexham pub and a hot shower at our B&B.
On the morrow, the AD122 took us to a brief stopover at the Roman Army Museum, which makes brilliant use of audio visual and a little 3D movie to bring the people of the Roman Empire to life. In the process, all those stones along which we tramped, all those walls razed to a few feet high, were depicted evocatively as the lonely outposts, for these soldiers far from home.
From AD122 to Haltwhistle and thence to Carlisle, where the Tallie House Museum gives up a little more of the region’s Roman history – including a murder mystery! The body of a man found dumped in a well was doubtless done in by foul play.
I’m sure Richard III would empathise, even if Sherlock Holmes is unlikely to ever solve it.
Tim and I visited all these museums thanks to Visit Britain; accommodation in Carlisle was courtesy Accor Hotels.
All roadslead to Rome, and also to my most recent fiction.
Ravenfall, a paranormal thriller and gay romance set in contemporary London,
Near Miss, a short lesbian love story with yarnbombing, set in Melbourne.
I hit the ground running on my first day in London, what with the Britmovietours Sherlock Holmes walk and the much less strenuous delights of staying in the Langham Hotel.
My second day in London, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” was spent even more energetically.
“I am the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather—that is, when the fit is on me, for I can be spry enough at times” ~ Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.
I hesitate to say I was spry at all, but I was far from lazy.
I’d always assumed the famous waxworks museum would be cheesy though slickly presented. I wasn’t especially tempted to visit, although I’ve been fascinated to read about the history of waxwork models and their role in studying anatomy through the publications of the now-defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum.
The waxworks is every bit as cheesy as I’d expected, and also very slick – and a huge amount of fun. It’s a curious collision of the historical and the new, because Madame Tussaud originally made her waxworks of famous figures in the late 18th century. Here we are in the 21st with essentially the same technology and the same purpose – but now we can take selfies with our celebrity substitutes. Knowing they’re wax replicas doesn’t diminish the fun. In fact, if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you can imagine them all as Autons about to come to life and the fun just doubles.
Naturally I had photos taken with a few of my favourite historical and theatrical faves: William Shakespeare, Freddy Mercury, Helen Mirren and Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s a labryinth inside, but eventually we came across the entry to the Sherlock Holmes Experience. Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock stood sentry in the chamber, designed to look like a Victorian London Street.
The Experience is a bit of a mixed bag – the Baker Street set is good fun, and Mrs Hudson’s greeting and explanation of the puzzle is full of pizzazz. It’s fun to be sent through doors and find yourself at the docks, the morgue and other locales. The final part of the story gallops a bit quickly to a close and feels like it runs out of puff. But never mind: the crypt in which you find yourself is full of headstones with fabulously silly puns which you’ll get if you know your Conan Doyle canon.
Not content with punishing the shoe leather as mentioned, Tim and I went on to join the regular Friday afternoonSherlock Holmes’s London tour run by London Walks.
Our guide was Richard (the Fourth of his name at the company) who was led us on our two-hour tour with its focus on Arthur Conan Doyle’s life and inspirations in London as well as locations from the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories he gave us.
Richard not only knows his ACD and Sherlock Holmes stuff, he speaks with warmth and wit. On the rare occasions this walk overlapped with the Britmovietour’s, Richard provided different anecdotes, so nothing is lost by going on both walks.
If you’re more a fan of the original stories than the various film versions, this is probably the walk for you, as it winds around places where Conan Doyle lived or visited as well as locations he used or was inspired by in creating his iconic characters.
In any case, for £10 it’s a great look at London and Sherlock Holmes, set at a pace that even Mycroft might easily manage, let alone Sherlock on a lazy day.
Speaking of which, my Holmes + Watson story The Problem of the Three Journals, an alternative universe tale of Holmes and Watson as a pair of Melbourne hipsters who run a cafe and solve mysteries, will appear in Baker Street Irregulars 2: The Game is Afoot in 2018. You can pre-order your copy now!
I am off on one of my semi-regular jaunts to the UK for the purposes of research and fun (which are usually the same thing).
2017 marks 125 years since Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published (1892) and 130 since A Study In Scarlet first saw print.
In fact, VisitBritain is all about 2017 as ‘the year of the literary hero‘, referencing anniversaries related to Jane Austen, Enid Blighton, the Harry Potter books, the death of war poet Edward Thomas and more.
My own special interest in Sherlock Holmes – in both queer and bromance interpretations – is leading me to Holmesian London over a the next three days. I aim to incorporate a few of these details into both Victorian and modern Holmes stories I’m working on.
The Langham Hotel on Portland Place (off Regent Street) has more than one connection with The Great Detective.
Famously, it was at the Langham’s dining room in 1889 that Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle (not yet ‘Sir Arthur’) met with the publisherJoseph Stoddart. They were commissioned to write A Picture of Dorian Grey and The Sign of Four respectively (and even gave each other cameos in the resulting books).
Doyle went on to assign the Langham as the hotel of choice for three of his characters: The King of Bohemia (A Scandal in Bohemia), Mary Morstan’s lost father (The Sign of Four), and the former tearaway and poet Mr Phillip Green (The Disappearance ofLady Frances Carfax).
The Langham remains every bit as charming and elegant as its literary history suggests. The various restaurants and bars are lovely spaces to visit the hotel and raise a glass to Conan Doyle and his creations.
Britmovietours:Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour of London
Chris is enthusiastic and, even better, knowledgeable. I know a lot about the world of Holmes, having researched and read the stories multiple times as prep for writing The Adventure of the Colonial Boyand some upcoming short Holmes + Watson stories, but he was still able to surprise me with some tidbits about canon and BBC Sherlock.
The walk starts on Piccadilly Circus at The Criterion Bar, where John Watson’s old friend Stamford famously noted that he knew someone who might want to share ‘comfortable rooms at a reasonable price’ with him.
A meandering two hour wander took us past filming locations, over Waterloo Bridge and past some of Conan Doyle’s real-life haunts and inspirations (including the former Northumberland Hotel, now the Sherlock Holmes Pub) to fetch up at Somerset House. The latter is no longer the repository of records of Births, Deaths and Marriages but it stands in as a less reputable location in one Holmesian film.
The walk is £12 for adults: very reasonable given Chris’s energy and knowledge shared over two hours. If you want to know more, visit and book here.
I am about to topple over from lack of sleep (I touched down this morning, and headed out with half a globe and five hours sleep under my belt – GO ME!).
Tomorrow I’ll visit an exhibition and take another walk – so more reports from the field (hopefully more useful than Dr Watson’s during The Solitary Cyclist) are coming!