Beyond Notability: Hadrians Wall

The stories of Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson.

Beyond Notability (BN) is an academic project. Click here to find out more about it.

I have been commissioned to devise & tell four stories about women from the BN database– including their contradictions and complexities. I was expected to undertake some of my own research as well as getting help from the BN team. it’s been fascinating, fun and really difficult.

Read about the other stories: Alice Bertha Gomme / Edith Blake / Charlotte Stopes.

Okay, what’s the story?

Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson met once on Hadrians Wall. Aside from that they had completely separate lives.

It was my lead, Dr Amara Thornton, who asked me to create a story about both of them, and she accepets full responsibility! We both knew how tricky it was going to be. (Aside from anything else, I knew nothing about Hadrians Wall. I’d never even been there!)

Luckily, Amara is a bit of an expert on Jessie Mothersole, who was a radical bohemian artist and writer. I was soon up to speed on her life and work. Better still, Mothersole was an author who wrote a lot in the first person (Her book is called Hadrians Wall -it’s a great read.) I felt as if I could hear her voice and imagine her quite clearly. She also lived close to where I grew up in London, almost a neighbour. So far, so good.

We knew much less about Elizabeth Hodgson who was involved in an un-glamorous excavation of an earth ditch, measuring and sketching cross-sections. While important, this is not exactly dramatic story material!

We had a long and interesting meeting with Dr David Breeze who was able to tell us a lot about the wall and especally the “pilgrimages”, special meetings which happen every ten years. We were delighted that Dr Breeze was inspired by our project to do some more research and write a short paper on Elizabeth Hodgson’s work. This was a gift, it enabled me to begin to imagine what Hodgeson might have been like as a person.

Even so, I knew very little about her. My story so far was as follows: “Two women meet once on a Roman wall. I know lots about one of them and hardly anything about the other.” I could only hope that a visit to the wall itself would bring some clarity.

I headed up to Hadrian’s Wall in November. It is not the best month to visit, especially if you are a soft Londoner. It was wet, stormy and bone cold. I was amazed by the profound darkness overnight – I got totally lost on the way to the AirBnB and ended up in a quarry.

The next day I headed to Corbridge Roman Museum which is expertly curated by Dr Frances McIntosh. It is a vivid and brilliantly laid out exhibition. I loved the way that it showed in the WHOLE history of the wall, not just the Roman era. Last year they had an exhibition about the Edwardian excavators.

Dr McIntosh was very generous with her time. We learned about the entire 1900 year timeline, not to mention getting a grounding in the key characters (like John Clayton) who made Hadrians Wall what it is today.

I also spoke to two volunteer guides. They told me if I wanted to make my story about the two women relevant to someone in the North East, I should say “what team they supported.” (I have done this.)

I also got a sense of the profound loss which was felt by the entire community about the tree which had been felled in Sycamore Gap. As one of the guides said, “people scattered their ashes by that tree, people proposed marriage by the tree, people had their Christmas walk there, they bought their grandchildren. Now it’s gone.” All of this seemed really important but I couldn’t see how it fitted into a story.

I managed to see the museum, chat with Frances and the two guides and the front desk officer, AND see most of the length of the wall before it got dark. It is quite extraordinarily dramatic and I definitely needed our visit in order to make the story.

On the long drive home, I went over what I had learned. The more information I had, the more complex it seemed. When I got in, I made a timeline from post it notes with key moments in the history of Hadrian’s Wall. It stretched from one end of the room to the other.

I worried over the facts like a child with a Rubiks cube, turning them this way and that. After a fortnight of puzzling, I decided to cover a sheet of paper with story titles and see if anything jumped out at me. That night, I went to sleep and at four a.m. I woke up with a brainwave.- I should choose the title “Wall of Stories”! After all, it’s the truth. The wall is made of thousands of bricks and also thousands of stories. Each story is like a brick in a wall.

Then I discovered that probably the first mention of the famous Sycamore tree was in Jessie Mothersole’s book! After that, everything fell into place. I was able to build each little story together into a strong structure, just like the wall itself. You can hear it on 8th March at this event.

Read about the other stories: Alice Bertha Gomme / Edith Blake / Charlotte Stopes.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Notability: Hadrians Wall”

  1. Wow Vanessa very interesting and such a lot of research. There are so many interesting women hidden in the background of men’s lives so it is great to have them highlighted in their own right and with their own stories to draw us all in. (Goid on you for driving all that way – dedication !)

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