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Standing on the Toes of Giants

In 2003 I was waiting to stand on the stage of the Llansilin Village Hall in front of 200 or so people. (I say ‘so’ because the Llansilin Local History Society, who were hosting the event had put out 200 chairs and all of these were occupied, and in addition several more people were stood at the back of the hall).

It was six years since I’d begun my research into the site of Sycharth motte and bailey castle (Latitude 52.824530; Longitude -3.1808960). In the intervening period I’d discovered how much there was to learn – about archaeology and academia.

A few weeks previously, whilst putting the lecture together, I’d decided the title would be ‘Has Anyone Seen The Confounded Bridge’. In 1891 a tile drain had been laid in the ditch around the motte, and during this work, a piece of timber 21 feet long had been found. The 1914 ‘Inventory of Denbighshire’ published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (and now available as a free of charge download) http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/HI/ENG/Publications/Bookshop/?book=66 duly noted this, but offered no further information as to the whereabouts of the timber.

A piece of timber 21 feet long in a castle motte ditch is likely to have been part of the bridge sill beam, from which the bridge superstructure would have been built. As I liked to use catchy titles for my lectures, I thought using a Led Zeppelin lyric would be quite off-beat and quirky, and would highlight the fact that this piece of timber had gone missing and that maybe the local population might be able to help track it down.

My mum had come along, mostly as moral support, because she was by now very, very (you know how it is), very familiar with my research. As we sat there on a couple of chairs I told her that a woman called Dr. Enid Roberts would be attending. Dr. Enid Roberts was a legend. In the 1960s she had provided a translation of the poem to Sycharth to Douglas Hague, the Director of the original archaeological excavation, and during the 1970s had published a series of articles on the genre of medieval Welsh Praise Poetry to houses. The fact that she had come to hear me lecture was an absolute honour…and had made me just a little nervous.

As we looked round we spotted a man reading a copy of the 1960s excavation report. Someone had obviously decided to do their homework, and I thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. The introductory slide for my lecture was up on the screen on rotation with slides advertising the forthcoming Llansilin Local History Society, and I noticed the man laughing at my slide and pointing it out to his friend sat beside him.

And then it dawned on me who the man was. It was Robert Plant, former singer with Led Zeppelin. He was laughing at the fact I’d used lyrics from one of his songs as my lecture title. I went outside and told my friends who was in the Hall. They said “Aren’t you nervous of standing up in front of Robert Plant to give a lecture?” I said, “No. He’s come to listen to me, but Dr. Enid Roberts is in there in the front row and I’m petrified!”.

After the lecture, Dr. Roberts told me that I had done some excellent work and gave me some pointers as to what I should look at next. Whilst my friends ended up in the local pub with Robert Plant. But I learnt soon after that some academics were not always going to be as immediately helpful as Dr. Enid Roberts.

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