Lens-Artists’Challenge

Lens-Artists Challenge #176- One Image/One Story


I love a mystery, don’t you? Why was this young couple undergoing such an intense cleansing? Had they done something terribly wrong? Was it a type of Merit-making? On the other hand, maybe they were being cleansed before undertaking a journey, a project, or even a marriage? This was the third bowl of ‘crystal water’ I’d seen poured over them and it seemed as though there was more to come. I wish we’d been able to wait to ask some questions but time didn’t allow for this.




No, no, no. Find a policeman if you want directions. These children in Caracas may seem to know exactly where the Change Bureau is but they will probably send you to the nearest Emerald seller as every other person there seems to have a contact in the business, working from a street corner or a shop doorway. Emeralds and Cambio, the two things tourists are looking for in Bolivar Plaza (don’t mention cocaine).

It was the year 2000, and we did ask a policeman in the crowded square where we could exchange some money. He recommended his ‘cousin’ in a nearby bank as the best person with whom to do a deal, and he took us there and waited for his ‘cut’ from the bank clerk, at the end of the transaction. Cultural expectations overturned at every corner in a fascinating city.

Caerleon – The Sculptures

Caerleon town, just five miles from Newport in Wales, is a pleasant, charming little town of mostly Georgian houses, narrow streets with good shops and some excellent restaurants. A historic town, famous for its Roman amphitheatre and the Roman Museum, it is easy to spend a good couple of days here just enjoying the fascinating history of the place. See my post Camelot in Wales.

But Caerleon has more to offer than ancient history.  Just off the High Street you can walk through a reconstructed arch of the main Roman gates, across cobblestones and into an eighteenth century walled garden peopled with sculptures of King Arthur, Merlin, Mordred and Morgana, and, at 44 feet long – the world’s largest love spoon.  Alongside these carvings of mythical figures are carvings of characters from classic Welsh folktales from The Mabinogion, a collection of sculptures that has no equal anywhere in Wales.

Caerleon has FFWRWM

Lifesize Head

So here, in the heart of Caerleon town, is Ffwrwm Arts where people can meet, sit and talk, shop, view an exhibition, have holistic treatments, enjoy fine arts, eat or even join a workshop.  And all around you are wonderful carved works of the imagination. If you’ve ever wondered about the Welsh myths, this is the place to find out exactly what they mean.

The range is eclectic, the themes bookish and mythical.

We’ll finish with some Roman Legionairres fighting, because Caerleon was one of the most important military sites in Britain under the Roman Empire, home to the 2nd Augustan Legion of 6,000 soldiers.

Camelot in Wales

Although most scholars today regard the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table to be legendary more than historical, there are still locations that claim a link with Camelot, the place where Arthur held court and the supposed location of the famous Round Table. 

Where was Camelot?

The top four claimants for this honour are Winchester with its round table dating from the 13th century, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall whose claim to the title rests on a 1,500-year-old piece of slate bearing two Latin inscriptions, Cadbury Castle in Somerset where the first reference to its connection was written down by John Leland in 1542 and Caerleon in Wales, one of three Roman legionary forts in Britain, chosen as Camelot by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes. 

Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon, Wales

On purely subjective grounds I’m going for Caerleon.  It’s a magical place and when I go there not only does the Arthurian legend seem less a fiction and more a fact of history, but the presence of the Roman Legion of 30,000 men that was stationed here in the 1st century BC is very palpable. 

The top thing to do in Caerleon is to visit the Roman Baths, housed in an inconspicuous building that opens to reveal the remains of a Roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house.  The ancient stone foundations that are on display give some idea of the original building but when you enter the enormous natatio (open air swimming pool), the basilica (indoor sports hall) and the frigidarium (cold baths) it all comes suddenly to life. Modern technology allows the projection of water onto the remains of the baths, complete with sounds and images of people swimming, and this is truly amazing: there is a short, informative, but humourous film to accompany this.

Entrance to Roman Baths

This was where the Roman Legionaries in first-century Wales would come to escape being shouted at by the Centurions or skirmishing with the local ancient Britons.  Here, they could hang out with their friends in the immense open-air swimming pool that held more than 80,000 gallons of water, and after a swim they could play ball games, or gamble, have a massage and even buy fast-food snacks.  The whole complex would have been much like a modern-day leisure centre/sauna, with a tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room).

A Roman as he would have appeared at the time

Procedure before Swimming in Roman Baths

Before swimming the soldier would have had a bath in one of the lofty vaulted halls next to the swimming pool where he would strip, hand his clothes to one of the bathhouse slaves and enter the frigidarium (cold bath suite). After a cold dip he’d coat his body with perfumed oil and then visit the warm and hot suites in turn.  In the last room, heated from wood-burning furnaces (you can look down and see the stacked pillars under the floor that allow heat to circulate) he’d scrape the oil and sweat from his body with a metal tool called a strigil, before finishing off with a final cold plunge.

Bathing was done naked but as mixed bathing was frowned on, women and children used the baths in the morning while the soldiers would use it in the afternoon.  On some days though, prostitutes were allowed in and on these days mixed bathing took place. 

Thanks to modern technology and film projection, you can see and hear the splash as a Roman soldier dives into the water, and you then see him swimming in the pool.  Then watch as women enter the water and swim together.

Replica objects on display testify to the cleanliness of the Romans, tweezers, ear wax cleaner, toothpicks, nail files and body scrapers.

From baths to Amphitheatre

After the baths it’s outside to see the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain, built to entertain the legionnaires and keep them happy in their time off.  Walk through the great north entrance to this huge arena build around AD 90 to seat up to 6,000 spectators, and imagine the din of those 6,000 people baying for blood. 

This impressive amphitheatre was the Roman equivalent of today’s multiplex cinema or a massive sports stadium. Wooden benches with seating for up to 6,000, were provided for the spectators who would gather to watch bloodthirsty displays featuring gladiatorial combat and exotic wild animals. 

Long after the Romans left the country, the amphitheatre took on a new life as the Camelot of Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century scholar, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Arthur was crowned in Caerleon and that the amphitheatre was actually the remains of King Arthur’s Round Table. 

I’m happy to go along with that because I think I saw Merlin flit across the grass one evening as dusk was descending. Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to Richard Burton singing/speaking one of my favourite songs from the musical Camelot, Finale Ultimo. https://youtu.be/HmOhwkVFFQM

NB.  The Caerleon Amphitheatre, which boasted eight vaulted entrances and a shrine to the goddess Nemesis, is the only fully excavated Roman amphitheatre in Great Britain.  It was maintained until its abandonment in the 3rd century when the Second Augustan Roman Legion departed to protect what remained of the diminishing Roman Empire.

The Welsh Government is to be congratulated on this imaginative place and when I was there it was entirely FREE. I urge anyone who is in the area to visit it.

To read a full history of the place and to watch some excellent videos (including an aerial one of the amphitheatre) click on http://www.caerleon.net

And back in the 21st century, don’t miss the Sculpture Park in Caerleon town, a truly wondrous journey through myths and magic and the power of the artist.