London: A Testament to Survival

England is a lesson on the longevity of our planet, the tenacity of our species, and our need, as human beings, to connect.

Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile barrier built to keep out barbarian tribes, stands “as a testament to survival and adaptation.” (Steven Fruitsmaak/Wikimedia Commons)
Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile barrier built to keep out barbarian tribes, stands “as a testament to survival and adaptation.” (Steven Fruitsmaak/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s October 2019, in the Time Before, and I’m standing on Hadrian’s Wall, high atop a scarp over- looking the green hills of Northumberland. Thick, scattered clouds cast shadows on a land so vast, it feels like the world will march on forever. Little do we humans know what is marching toward us.

Construction began in 122 CE on this border wall, a 73-mile barrier of stones and dirt that defined the northwest reaches of the Roman Empire, erected for the express purpose of keeping the “barbarians”—in this case, the Picts, a Celtic confederation of tribes disparaged for their failure to settle down—on the other side. I puzzle over humanity’s propensity for prejudice as I hike along the wall’s undulating remnants. Everything about this scene is big, but I keep thinking of things very small.

Inside the nearby Chesters Roman Fort and Museum is a display case holding 34 hairpins that look like tiny spindles or spoons. Archaeologists unearthed them from grounds around the fort, built about two years into the making of Hadrian’s Wall. The museum, the artifacts, their preservation—nearly all of it can be credited to an Englishman named John Clayton, whose father bought the land beneath the old fort ruins in the late 18th century. Clayton grew up rich, studied law, got richer, then acquired several old estates so that he could excavate and preserve their Roman remains. He is remembered as the man who saved Hadrian’s Wall.

Almost everything in this museum commemorates men. The fort, in its day, sheltered some 500 soldiers and their horses—a cavalry regiment deployed to help secure the Roman frontier. The hairpins, though, belonged to women. Or at least they resemble what women would have used to tie up their hair. “It is possible that some hairpins could have had other utilitarian uses, such as holding together a soldier’s trousers,” writes archaeologist Stefanie Hoss in her book Small Finds and Ancient Social Practices in the Northwest Provinces of the Roman Empire (2016). But, she continues, why would a soldier have a hairpin in the first place “if it was not for the presence of women at a fort?” Until the end of the second century, Roman soldiers were forbidden to marry, the museum text explains, but “many had unofficial relationships with women.”

Who were these women? What were their names? What did they do as their friends, lovers, fathers, and sons patrolled that wall? Inevitably, when history recounts the stories of men, some- where in the background, women are doing laundry and chores. No doubt, the hairpin-wearing women of the Roman frontier also cradled their sick men and babies through fever and disease. That’s what women do.

It is because of a woman that I am here at Hadrian’s Wall, on a family vacation with my husband, his parents, his sister, her husband, and their two kids—all of us brought together by my industrious mother-in-law, who conceived and organized this expedition. Not until months later will the memory of these days become magnified in ways that, in the moment, could not have been imagined. Experience changes us, as well as our sense of the past. With the perspective of time, we become different travelers, and in this way, a journey never ends; it evolves as we do.

Looking back now, I see our time in England as a lesson on the longevity of our planet, the tenacity of our species, and our need, as human beings, to connect. From Jurassic rocks to cobbled streets to a Nottingham pub that is said to have served 12th-century crusaders, relics of the distant past exist everywhere in England. It’s easy to miss the significance of these reminders, distracted as we are by tweets and TikTok. But now, months into the Time After, I see the physical persistence of antiquity as a testament to survival and adaptation.

My husband and I arrive in London a few days later than the rest of the family. We’re woozy with jetlag, but three hours later, everyone is seated at Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express, a restaurant that was featured on an episode of the Netflix show Chef ’s Table. All eight of us pack into a corner of an upstairs room with daylight streaming through big, paned windows and a ceiling beam covered in living vines. We grow silent as we feast on yellow rice, minced beef with spinach, garlic chili prawns, and tall glasses of lassi. I’m a devotee of Indian food, but it’s Khan herself who has drawn me here. The Chef’s Table episode had told her life story, of the gumption she acquired as a second daughter in a culture that prizes boys. “In my community … women, we are hidden,” she says. “It is an anonymous, faceless, nameless existence.” She dreamed of a day when the world would know her name. Khan followed her husband to London and earned a law degree, but her calling turned out to be cooking. Today, Khan calls her kitchen “an oasis for women,” where South Asian women in search of a name, a home, and a comfort zone can leave life’s gendered restraints. She says, “This is what happens to women when other women stand by them.”

Khan and her ideas on gender equity would have made a prudent addition to the 25 barons who rebelled against King John in 1215 and prompted the creation of the Magna Carta. That pillar of democratic thought was a medieval cry for the freedom of man under the rule of law. The 805-year-old document sits just a few miles from Darjeeling Express, sheltered in glass, deep inside a low-lit room of the British Library. Visitors crowd around it (no distancing, no masks, no reason to think they would ever be needed). In the centuries since the signing of the Magna Carta, historians have expounded on how democracy was built on foundations the document established—often to the exclusion of certain religions, cultures, classes, skin tones, and women of any stripe. Yet much like those in the U.S. Constitution, the principles set forth in the Magna Carta inform many of our most pivotal debates today about the Founding Fathers’ intentions and the need for democracy to evolve.

On a sharp fall afternoon, a couple of days after our meal at Khan’s restaurant, we visit Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor in the heather- covered hills of Derbyshire. We follow a trail past fat, woolly sheep through scrubby trees to a clearing of boulders arranged in a circle. Despite the site’s name, there are 10 stones, although one has fallen away from the rest. Folk legend has it that here, nine ladies had danced to a fiddle on the Sabbath and, as punishment for their religious infraction, were turned to stone. Although no one knows the true significance of this spot, such sites are often associated with burials. Perhaps the ladies danced in mourning. Perhaps they had a remedy for grief.

As a journalist, I report on archaeology and, like most of the researchers I meet, I am always searching for the most elusive finds: identities and emotions. Archaeologists can unearth pots and bones, but not feelings and thoughts. Who were the inhabitants of an archaic place? Who were the women who wore the Hadrian hairpins or danced until they turned to stone in sacrilege?

And what did they feel? That’s what we really want to know now, in our sorrow and outrage. We long for someone to share a similar experience now buried in time, someone to tell us what to do.

Ten miles up the road from the Nine Ladies is a little village called Eyam, famous for what it lost and for how it persisted. In 1665, the local tailor received a package of cloth from London. It arrived in a damp bundle, so his assistant, a man named George Viccars, spread the cloth by the fire to dry. An infestation of fleas awaited inside, and within days, Viccars was dead. The village spent the next 14 months in lockdown. By the end, a horrific number of its inhabitants—75 percent by some accounts—had succumbed to plague. One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried her husband and six kids in the span of eight days. There is no way she had time to prepare.

But somehow, she survived. So did Eyam; so did we as a species.

It’s a wicked cold couple of days when we visit the fishing town of Whitby on the North Sea. I rise at dawn, just as radiant scarlet streaks blaze through the ruins of an old church across the harbor overlooking the River Esk. This place has survived centuries of upheaval and renewal. In 657 CE, a devout Christian named Hilda (venerated as a saint after her death) founded an abbey here. It later hosted the Synod of Whitby and brought Celtic and Roman religious leaders together to overcome differences in their Christian traditions (like how to calculate the date of Easter). The ruins we see today are the remnants of a 13th-century monastery built on the same site; it was disbanded in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when King Henry VIII sacked hundreds of religious houses and seized their wealth. Three and a half centuries after that, the crumbling skeleton of this landmark monastery served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Downhill, beneath the abbey ruins, is a shore- line renowned for the fossilized remains of Jurassic-era ammonites found in mudstone nodules and shingle on the beach. According to legend, the ammonites formed when Hilda of Whitby drove a plague of snakes over the cliffs toward the sea. In later years, the Victorians came to these same beaches, looking for jet to wear at funerals and in times of mourning. Today, tourists buy the shiny black stones from jewelry stores to adorn gothic clothing.

The ruins of a monastery above the fishing village of Whitby, a place that “persists beyond the plagues that once defined it.” (Peter J. Hatcher/Alamy)

Whitby, like all else, persists beyond the plagues and suppressions that once defined it. When need be, people and places remake themselves, time and again.

We spend several days of our trip in the former gardener’s quarters of an 18th-century mansion in North West Leicestershire called Donington Hall. Now it’s a rental house with spacious bedrooms, a giant kitchen, and ample room for children to frolic. My 10-year-old niece is a ballerina; her seven- year-old brother just moves, constantly, whenever he can. There is jumping and screaming, tickling and giggling, and groggy mornings on the couch with coffee in front of the TV—normal routines we’ve all had to revise in our own Covid-era ways.

My memories of England have shifted. The minutiae mean more to me now. It’s not just the giant ruins that lend insights about perseverance; it’s all the little things we can easily miss when we are not so attuned to our vulnerabilities. Just down the road from that rental house was a stone wall covered in a mosaic of greens. Most notable was the liverwort, one of the world’s oldest land plants, its fossilized ancestor dating back 470 million years—the very essence of resilience.

I think about how my niece and I sat side by side in the back seat of the rental car as we drove across the countryside. She would bury her head in her iPad, pounding away on her latest book, one of dozens she has tapped out, imagining stories for the future. She’s already finding her words, unwittingly enjoying the enormous privilege of emerging from a family, a time, and a place that have never (yet) stifled her voice. One night, after we returned from dinner, she declared she would perform. We sat in a plush red chair, upstairs in the landing space between our bedrooms. Her iPad played Rob Thaller’s Music for Ballet Class as she twirled and pliéed to tunes of earlier eras. My husband took a video, and as I watch it now, I see her breathing, smiling, assertive, and alive.

“As an archaeologist, I know that events we can’t control shape the future in ways we can’t imagine,” Egyptologist Sarah Parcak wrote in a recent Boston Globe essay. “Human resilience in the face of impossible odds is astounding and should give us no small measure of hope.”

And if we all make it past this pandemic— however we do it, whenever that is—I can’t wait to see how my niece writes the history of this harrowing, breathtaking life.

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Karen J. Coates is an independent journalist in New Mexico. She and her husband, Jerry Redfern, are producing a documentary film based on their latest book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.


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