Harrogate History Festival (2) - Romans, shopgirls and Vikings

HarrogatehistfestAfter my awayday in London, I arrived back on Saturday evening at The Old Swan in Harrogate in perfect time for a glass of red with Conn Iggulden, Simon Turney, Angus Donald, Harry Sidebottom, Derek Birks and Giles Christian. And what a sparky group that was; Viking axes, Roman ball-bearings and medieval sex!

Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden


This was to be a Roman evening and one I had scheduled as a “must attend”. First up was Conn Iggulden in a wide-ranging, often moving and highly entertaining talk about his writing, research and family. His book The Gates of Rome (the start of the Emperor series about Julius Caesar) had engaged me ass soon as I started reading it. Author of the famous/notorious Dangerous Book for Boys, he’s now writing about the War of the Roses.



Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield and Anthony Riches

Next, it was the much anticipated film of the 194 km Romani Walk film from Capua to Rome by Roman authors Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield and Anthony Riches. Russell had talked about it on this blog in May. Now it was the real thing. Hilarious, laddish and moving at times, the three of them toughed it out, following the route taken by the ancients. Foot problems and falling in ditches went hand in hand with admiration for the scenery and a deepening respect for the original Romans. And they fell into character, too: Ben, the wounded veteran, Russ, the moaning squaddie and Tony, the tough, impassive centurion. A real treat, masterminded by Phillip Stevens and narrated by Ian McKellen (or Gandalf, if you will).

Here’s a taster they made when training: http://vimeo.com/99783796

So far, they’ve  raised over £20,000 for their joint charities Médicins Sans Frontières (or Doctors Without Borders) and Combat Stress. Hats off (or should that be helmets off?) to them.

Antonia Hodson, Dr Pamela Cox, Lucy Lethbridge and Tessa Boase

Antonia Hodson, Dr Pamela Cox, Lucy Lethbridge and Tessa Boase

Sunday morning I was entranced by Antonia Hodgson (The Devil in Marshalsea) and colleagues Lucy Lethbridge, Tessa Boase and Dr Pamela Cox talking about women’s work, specifically about those in service or serving in shops. Apart from details of how tough, prestigious or precarious those jobs were, I was particularly struck by how many million women kept the domestic and retail economies going. The panel demonstrated in clear detail how our perception of stereotypes (Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey, The House of Eliot, Mr Selfridge, The Paradise) was a broken one.

My immediate reaction was to want to find out more. Off to the bookshop…

Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow

Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow

Another Roman treat followed with writers Simon Scarrow and Harry Sidebottom in conversation. Historical reality, interacting with fans and research flavoured the cheerful banter. I’m a keen fan of Simon’s Macro and Cato, but both writers are renowned for their action-packed tales of Rome where imperial politics were decided as much behind closed doors as during epic battles, and the small people caught in the backlash had to fight to find their power or event survive.

Next, we were deep in the age of blood and poetry with the Vikings of the north with ferocious warriors, intrepid explorers and tough women.

VikingsChair Gareth Williams, Margaret Elphinstone, Rob Low, Giles Kristian, Phillip Stevens teased out the differences between perception and reality, brutality and democracy, Christianity and paganism.

Giles_axeAnd Giles showed us his axe.

And the weekend ended with debunking myths: Tom Harper, Angus Donald and James Wilde under the chairmanship of William Ryan deconstructed Robin Hood, Templars, Arthur and the Grail and Hereward the Wake.

What a weekend! I have to admit to a certain amount of overstimulated brain as I waved good-bye to Harrogate for another year.


First report from the Harrogate History Festival here


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, and PERFIDITAS. Third in series, SUCCESSIO, is now out.

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