This is a a taster for something I should have featured long ago on the blog: the curiously English work of Arthur Mee. Arthue Mee was a writer and journalist of the late Victorian and interwar period, who was known for writing The Children’s Encyclopaedia, Children’s Newspaper and a series of English county Gazetteers called ‘The Kings England’.
The King’s England was published as a 41 volume set in 1937, and I have collected all but three of the volumes, each forming a catalogue – or gazetteer – of each county. They are written in a very robust, hugely self-assured yet flowery language. They are patriotic, authoritarian, and occasionally historically very inaccurate, but they are also wonderfully enjoyable.
Sometimes astonishingly right-wing, the potted review of each village and town Arthur Mee felt important enough to visit and record is a wonderful time passage. Trapped between the wars, with a fast fading nobility, an England of orchards, grimy industrialisation and hugely eclectic architecture was faithfully recorded. Many people have done this kind of work since, but few have matched it.
I love gazetteers and have noted so before; I have equal respect for the work of Henry Thorold in his Shell Guides of the 1970s. The mission both of these travellers felt is clear. They were both recording their own fading age.
It was while I was passing through Wall on Friday that I thought once more of Arthur’s work; unique in tone and wonderfully bombastic. His phrase came back to me whilst overlooking the Roman remains, ‘There is a wide step worn smooth by Roman sandals’. This is just such a simple, lovely human connecting thought that I just had to dig the Staffordshire volume out. I lost a lot of last night reading it again.
While we’re on the subject, Wall seems to be getting it’s act together; the remains are, of course, free to visit these days, together with the small museum, but there is now a heritage walk to undertake. Leaflets detailing the walk are available from the Parish noticeboard by the car park at the bottom of the village, and people taking one are invited to pay a 20p honesty fee, so I won’t scan the entire leaflet here. The walk is great, and doesn’t just cover the Roman stuff, as you’ll see.
If you can, visit Wall. It’s gorgeous. Follow in the footsteps of Arthur. And Me. And the Romans.
The Lost City on Alfred’s Boundary
WALL. The Romans built here a city and called it Letocetum. It flanked their Watling Street, crossed not far away by Icknield Street.
Then danger to the Eternal City called the legions home, and Letocetum, a prey to invading Saxons, fell into ruin.
Alfred used the road as a boundary between his kingdom and that of the Danes, but heeded it not as a place of strength and comeliness. The wonders we see here were as nothing to our ancestors. Not all was lost, not all fallen; Camden wrote of it in the 16th century as taking its name from its Roman walls; Plot, the 17th-century historian, described its Roman pavements; and there are 18th-century records of a military barricade of great oak trunks standing erect in close order.
Slowly the soil covered up the remainder, while much was carried away to make roads, houses, and farms. Less than a century ago the church with its tower and its little spire rose on the hill, a landmark in the beautiful country round. When this was completed the village bethought itself of the imperial city under its feet, and dug for it.
Three excavations were made last century, and a search resumed in 1912 was continued up to the time of the war. The results will be lost no more, for the site is scheduled as a national monument.
Here are Roman baths ranking with the best in the country, marvellously preserved by the soil which so long hid them. There is the hot bath, the tepid bath, and the cold bath. The furnace is perfectly revealed with its floor of splendid Roman cement intact, there are evidences of three floors having existed at different times in the Roman era. There is a wide step worn smooth by Roman sandals, and the remains of a niche in which was a statue. There are foundations of the walls which enclosed the exercising-grounds; and near by is the site of a Roman villa which, having been explored, is now again buried.
Here dwelt the Romans to whom Nero was lord of the world; here were Romans who trembled at the name of Domitian. Coins of both these tyrants circulated here. Not all is lost of the citizens of that proud Empire, for in the little museum is a black urn, still charged with the bones and ashes of some lordly Roman of that long ago. Roman tiles abound, and there is part of the flue which once conveyed hot air from the hypocaust, which we see still wonderfully preserved.
Shelters have been built over the remains now exposed, and security against weather and pillage is assured to the most impressive relics left of a Staffordshire ruled by the consuls and legions of Caesar. All trace of the Saxon is gone, but Rome remains.