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Sunday sit-down with… Ellie Turner and Maddie Maughan at the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival

Hadrian’s Wall isn’t just a wall, guys. It’s a wall that’s 1,900 years old in 2022 – and it’s having its own, year-long festival to celebrate.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 05.02.2022

Its sprawling stone has inspired history lessons and local legends alike; some of us have grown up with rural hikes along its ramparts, while others have passed its ruins on bus routes through the city. Heck, some of us even live in towns where the very buildings are crafted from its stone. But how often do any of us actually stop and think about the feat of craftsmanship and ingenuity that is Hadrian’s Wall?

Well, this year it’s about time we did. Because 2022 isn’t any old year for this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Oh, no. This year Hadrian’s Wall turns 1,900 years old.

Not a bad innings, right? And the wall doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Why? Well, what started as simply a fortress to guard the ‘wild’ northern frontier of the Roman Empire in AD122 has always been more than just a barricade. Immediately after it was completed (after six years of building), Hadrian’s Wall became a vibrant and multi-cultural military zone of mile-castles, barracks, ramparts, forts and settlements, sprawling almost 80 miles in length from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. And its significance to the local community has not wilted since.

So much so, in fact, that Hadrian’s Wall Country – the brand developed by the Hadrian’s Wall Tourism Partnership and The Hadrian’s Wall Trust to promote the heritage site as a tourist destination – has crafted a year-long programme of events, activities, exhibitions and performances as part of this year’s Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival.

We caught up with two of the festival’s Coordinating Producers, Ellie Turner and Maddie Maughan, to find out more…

WHY IS HADRIAN’S WALL SO SPECIAL?

It was almost 2,000 years ago – when the modern world was taking shape thanks to the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire, and Britain was divided between the conquered territories in the south and the fierce resistance of the Celts in the north – that, from his senate in the Italian capital, the Roman Emperor Hadrian first commissioned the building of a wall nearly 1,500 miles away.

While emperors before him had always sought to expand the reach of the Romans, Hadrian was a man focused on consolidation. Being constantly beset by attacks from the Celts, he decided a wall would be the most practical and cost-effective way of what he called ‘separating Romans from barbarians’. A wall of such a size deterred attacks on Roman territory at a far lower cost than a massed border army, and it could serve as a means of restricting immigration and smuggling.

The wall’s construction required vision and an outstanding level of engineering skill, especially when you consider the rugged Northumbrian and Cumbrian landscapes it is built upon.

‘It’s bonkers that they even attempted to build a wall of such size within this landscape, let alone that they did it all in six years, 1,900 years ago!’ says Ellie. ‘A lot of people think it’s just a wall. But when you consider the effort it must have taken to construct, it really is extraordinary.’

Especially because, notwithstanding the unforgiving terrain it sits upon, the wall still impresses today as a testimony to the power and reach of the ancient Roman Empire. But while his ambition meant his name has been forever etched in the history books, Emperor Hadrian never saw the finished wall that bears his name – and which would go on to become world-renowned.’

‘There are only 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites globally and Hadrian’s Wall is one of them,’ Maddie explains. ‘It really is significant historically – not just to our country, but as a global asset.

‘UNESCO World Heritage Sites represent the achievements of humanity and the beauty of nature across the world. Other sites include the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Great Wall of China. Hadrian’s Wall is held up by UNESCO as being equal to all of these in terms of its importance to our culture.’

WHAT’S PLANNED FOR THE HADRIAN’S WALL 1900 FESTIVAL?

‘We have loads of things happening!’ says Maddie. ‘Everything from dance and theatre productions, walking tours, astrology, flora and fauna masterclasses, activity challenges and art exhibitions. Some will be free, some will have fixed fees and some will be on a pay-as-you-feel basis.’

‘Our festival model actually took a lot of inspiration from Ouseburn’s Late Shows. So, rather than us planning and delivering all the events, we’re curating Hadrian’s Wall 1900 as a grassroots-up festival. We’ve set a loose set of criteria and anyone who wants to celebrate the wall’s 1900th anniversary can get involved however they want. That way, the events and activities taking place will explore all 1,900 years of the wall’s history – it won’t just be about the Romans.’

‘One of our keystone events is the Festival of Saturnalia, which will run from 17th – 23rd December,’ Ellie continues. ‘Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that celebrated the god Saturn and started our concept of Christmas festivities – parties, feasting, mischief, gifts and a real carnival atmosphere.

‘We want to see in Saturnalia in the same way we’re seeing in the whole 1900 Festival – by encouraging people to help us celebrate with their own themed activities. We’re also busy developing a touring installation that will visit communities along the length of the wall. And another really lovely aspect of Saturnalia is to acknowledge somebody within your community who is doing brilliant things by crowning them the “King” or “Queen” of Saturnalia, so we’ll be encouraging that too. Saturnalia is the perfect opportunity to really celebrate everything that the festival has achieved, wall-wide.’

‘One of the biggest things about this festival is its emphasis on community,’ says Maddie. ‘What 1900 is trying to do is create that sense of a worldwide community, who are connected to each other through Hadrian’s Wall. To help that, and in response to concerns arising from the pandemic, we have a lot of online events which everyone can get involved with, regardless of their location. We want to create a real legacy with this festival which will hopefully inspire an even stronger network of partners dedicated to working with the Hadrian’s Wall community and protecting it for future generations.’

View the festival’s programme here.

WHAT ARE YOU HOPING PEOPLE WILL TAKE AWAY FROM THE FESTIVAL?

‘Hadrian’s Wall is nearly 80 miles long,’ says Maddie. ‘It goes through rural areas, urban areas and everything in between. There are villages built from its stone and their entire existence is embedded within its history. So many people feel very passionately about it because the wall informs so much about their lives. And yet, in other, more urban areas, there are people who live alongside the wall who don’t connect with it at all. That’s one of the main things we wanted to address in the festival.

‘With 1900, we’re encouraging people to tell their stories of the wall through history, music, folklore or whatever else has come out of that connection. Hopefully, by sharing their connections, these people can inspire others to develop their own connection with the wall.’

‘Helping people to find their connection with Hadrian’s Wall means that they will want to protect it for future generations,’ Ellie continues. ‘Encouraging as many of us within the community to care for it, understand it and respect it is key to its survival.

‘We were in Northumberland National Park yesterday and discovered there’s some land that’s still referred to as “The Debatable” because there was a time when no-one knew who it belonged to. We’ve also found out about the “Geordie god” who was worshipped in Benwell Temple. The Romans would have local gods along the length of the wall which were native to Britain, and Antenociticus was the god worshipped in the west end of Newcastle. He was believed to be a source of inspiration and intercession in war and historians think a life-sized statue once stood in the temple.

‘These little nuggets of the wall’s history have shaped different communities and we’re so excited to learn about more of them and see how they’re creatively communicated within the festival. It gives people a renewed sense of place, discovering how we’re linked by our landscape in different ways.’

HOW CAN WE GET INVOLVED?

‘Even if you don’t have a firm idea of an event yet, but you know you want to get involved, we’re encouraging people to fill out our proposed activity form,’ Ellie explains. ‘Then you’ll become part of our Hadrian’s Wall 1900 community and may find inspiration there. We also provide toolkits to help people with fundraising and events management and we run workshops and sharing sessions online too, so there’s plenty of support available for those who would like it.’

‘It’s a rolling programme, so there are no strict deadlines for potential activity organisers,’ Maddie adds. ‘We’re running an open call all year, so the programme and the audience will always be evolving – which is exciting! We’d recommend joining our mailing list, then you’ll be notified of any new events as and when they’re added to the programme.’

To browse the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival’s events listings, to become an activity organiser yourself or to volunteer to help, visit the festival’s website.

Keep up to date with everything happening throughout the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival by following them on Facebook and Instagram.

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