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Bust sparks Wall odyssey

PEOPLE are motivated by many different things to embark on epic journeys.

Writer Laurence Shelley tells David Whetstone about his blister-plagued Hadrian’s Wall odyssey.

Laurence Shelley

PEOPLE are motivated by many different things to embark on epic journeys. Some want to explore, some to get fit and some – like those hill walkers who tick off Scotland’s Munroes – are driven by a relentless numbers game.

For Laurence Shelley, who lives in Bideford, Devon, it began in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

“I went in to look at an art exhibition but on the way I passed these Roman busts in a corridor. For some reason I was drawn to one particular face.

“In those days they conveyed every little nuance of expression accurately. That was the ethos of Roman sculpture – it had to be realistic. But you could see the menace in this one face.”

These were the features of Emperor Caracalla (186-217AD), son of Septimius Severus. As Laurence rightly points out, not a lot of people have heard of him these days, but he was one bad apple. The internet encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, calls him “one of the most psychotic of Roman emperors”.

The gentlest fact about the man born Septimius Bassanias, and who followed Hadrian (76-138) by a generation, is that he earned his nickname, Caracalla, because he used to wear a Gallic cloak.

But the face in the New York museum was not that of a gentle trend setter. Laurence explains how Caracalla and his brother Geta became joint emperors on their father’s death, having been tasked with extending the Roman territories northwards, beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

Not being the sharing type, Caracalla had Geta killed, along with his family and supporters. Eventually, after a lifetime of atrocities, so Wikipedia tells us, he was murdered by one of his own bodyguard while engaged in a roadside pee.

But back to Laurence in the corridor.

“There was a lady alongside me looking at this bust and she said, ‘I never liked him’. It was just those four words. It was as if she had known him personally, as if he’d moved next door to her and grown a huge leylandii hedge which took all her light away.”

This sent Laurence into a flurry of research which took him to Bath, Exeter, the British Museum and finally to Hadrian’s Wall. The footpath following the length of the wall had just opened and suddenly Laurence realised that he must walk it, tramping over the ground trodden by the legions of Rome.

By his own admission, Laurence had never been much of a hiker. “I hadn’t done a long trek and the sheer naivety of my approach is documented in
the book. I bought my boots the day before I set
off and, as I now know, that is the last thing you should do.”

The book Laurence refers to is his account of his walk, starting in Wallsend and heading west.

It records his initial excitement: “I’m like a kid who’s broken up for the holidays, raring to let off steam.” For a time he marvelled at the sights and sounds of Tyneside, a world away from rural Devon, enjoying the relative openness of North-East strangers but also the bracing economy of a muttered “All right” (probably more of an “Ah reet”) from a man passing in the opposite direction.

The euphoria didn’t last. Hopelessly ill prepared, he had blisters within 40 minutes.

Pain dogs the reader over the following pages until our hero reaches the village of Greenhead. Thoughts of the Wall, of Caracalla and of his journey of discovery became subsumed in a sudden desire for sandals to cushion his damaged feet.

He explains how he approached a cottage that had a vacuum cleaner outside the door, assuming this signified an imminent car boot sale. He knocked on the door, a woman opened it. There, on the stair behind her, Laurence spotted two pairs of sandals.

Somehow he got the woman, Eileen, to agree to let him put on one pair of the sandals to walk to the nearby pub where her husband, Geoff, worked.

Try to imagine Geoff’s feelings on being approached by a total stranger wearing his sandals. The vacuum cleaner, it turned out, was there because a chimney sweep was at work inside.

It’s all in the book. But Eileen and Geoff had no idea Laurence was writing a book and they can have no idea that he still possesses the black sandals which he trudged off in. They carried him to the end of his Hadrian’s Wall journey which took him to some unexpected places geographically and inside his own head.

His book is called Off-the-Wall Walking: A different kind of journey. The book is a beautifully written account of a walk undertaken largely on a whim. It has changed Laurence’s life to the extent that he has developed a philosophy for living, encapsulated in 13 rules which he includes as an appendix.

Number one is: “The first step counts, the one that stares you in the face. Take it again and again and nothing can old you back.”

Number 13 is: “Where you are is the right place, so you win even if you can’t see your way to the finish.”

Laurence has done all sorts of things in his life. But he says all he really wanted to do when he left school was to be a writer.

Now, at the age of 66, and with his first, self-published book in print, he has achieved his goal. “Retirement is ridiculous,” he declares, saying it’s a shame so many people are too constrained by work to pursue the things that really interest them.

His philosophy, which crystallised out of the
little games he played on his walk, is all to do with travelling in a more open-minded way. “If you
travel more slowly, you notice so much more,” he says. “Do you have to travel as fast? And why not change your routine so you see things differently?”

Serendipity, or the beneficial effects of pure chance, have become a guiding principle.

It was this that led him to Hilary Paynter who lives near him in Devon. A mere description of one of the artist’s engravings in the North Devon Journal was enough to make him contact her and she duly agreed to illustrate his book.

He didn’t know at the time that she, too, had been to the North-East. She is the artist responsible for those wonderful laminated panels of Tyneside displayed at Central Station Metro.

Laurence is to talk about his walk and his book at Hexham Abbey on Friday at 6.30pm in an event organised by the local Cogito bookshop. Books and copies of Hilary’s prints will be on sale.

He will also sign copies of his book at Borders, Silverlink, North Tyneside, at 1pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. Published by Thetis (www.thetispublications.co.uk), it costs £8.99.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer