Classics at Cheltenham -- and Chedworth Roman Villa
Last weekend, I hoofed it to Cheltenham Literary Festival. The prime objective was to be junior partner, with Peter Stothard and Llew Morgan, in the third of our "How to read a Latin poem" gigs at the festival... and by Latin, I mean Latin, in Latin.
This year we did an epigram of Martial and a couple of passages of Juvenal (from Satires 3 and 10). And, let's brag a bit, we had a full house of 330 people, actually enjoying the real Latin -- and they were of all ages from 15- to 75+. Quite a lot of people said they were coming back to Latin after 30 years or so.
That was in the morning. In the evening, I had a fun discussion with Natalie Haynes about classics, blogging and All in a Don's Day; then a discussion about "What is a University For?" Why, oh why, do politicians who should know better -- Lord Adonis in this case -- always kick off with a bit of Oxbridge bashing, as if there were only two universities in this country, and then move on to brag about their own achievements (in Adonis's case it was the "Teach First"scheme, which I much admired until it was sound bited into the discussion with minimal relevance at every possible opportunity, then tweeted... counter suggestible, moi?)
But between Juvenal and talking to Natalie, Llewelyn and I zoomed out with one of the generous National Trust curators to have a fresh look at Chedworth Roman Villa. I had been there moons ago (I think the last time was c. 1973) and sort of remembered the Victorian museum in the centre of the site and the supposed water shrine just outside the main building area. But it had recently been done up, and (unusually with these things) done up for the better.
One of the best bits was the new range of display buildings constructed over the main mosaics on the site. These included great viewing areas of the pavements and bath installations -- integrated with a working area for kids (including, as you can see, some Romano-British dressing up clothes).
These big Roman villas in Britain are really very odd.. and always odder than you remember. Chedworth is vast, and whoever owned it must have been loaded. And it's such a weird mixture. Some bits of it seem very upmarket (these are the best level mosaics that you can get in this not very posh province), and other bits of art and decoration seem plonking in the extreme (I know this is a dead unfashionable view, but there are some little sculptures which really are "bad", and by that I dont mean "not classical in style" -- I mean "bad").
What's also puzzling is what the villa was for. It is so big, and it has such an extensive bathing suite that some people have suspected that it was more than a big private house. Perhaps some kind of hostel associated that holy spring. But others have been suspicious of that religious rabbit out of the hat, and insist that it was just a very big country house.
Actually Llew and I got a bit entranced by the natural history of the place, especially the snails (above). The standard line goes that the descendants of the (eating) snails introduced by the Romans were still alive and kicking in the immediate area. How cool an example of continuity is that?
Well worth going.