Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hail, Caesar!

That Hadrian was a top bloke.

Not satisfied with building ace stuff in Rome like the Pantheon - a building so perfect it made me come over all emotional -  he schleps himself to the furthest northern reach of empire and builds ace stuff here too. The jury's still out about whether introducing hipsters to the empire by making beards fashionable was a good or a bad thing, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

As I said in my last post, Hadrian's Wall is something I've wanted to see since I was back in Highland being taught History by Mr Regan. Jim Regan was a wonderful teacher. I've never met anyone here in the UK who was taught history in such a fantastic manner - from prehistory to WW1, hopping countries and continents to look where the most interesting stuff was happening. I learnt to think about how one event led to another and ideas spread from place to place rather than knowing a list of dates and battle names. Mr Regan inspired me to want to see these remarkable places we were hearing about.  I'll always be grateful to him for bringing so much history to life for me.

So, off Mark and I went first thing on Saturday morning for points North.

For my pals not from the UK:
 I live in Leeds, Yorkshire.  Hadrian's Wall is about 125 miles away roughly due North, about 2 and a half hours drive. On the map below, if you follow down the east coast from Hadrian's Wall to a downward pointing snag on the coastline ( the River Humber estuary) Leeds is inland from that. Not an unmanageable distance but quite a long way for a day trip.

We grabbed our breakfasts of choice - toasted cheese bread with marmite from Haley and Clifford for me, a McDonalds sausage McMuffin for Himself. I definitely win at breakfast - and made for Gateshead to pay homage to the Big Man, the Angel of the North.

He's a good looking fella, the Angel. I'm immensely fond of him.

Something I hadn't seen before were young trees planted nearby with decorations, stuffed toys, artificial flowers and memorabilia hanging off them.  They appeared to be shrines or memorials to people - a sort of Christmas tree to the dead.  Is this now A Thing?
Most unexpected.

Driving past the Sage and over river Tyne on the bridge those nice people from Springwatch tell me is a major nesting site for kittiwakes, we cut through Newcastle and headed out to drive alongside the Wall for as much of the journey as we could.

My ridiculously fit and active cousin Gaz O'Connor once ran the entire length of the wall in 13 hours 42 minutes.  Gaz is three weeks older than me and a world apart. He's amazing, and he mystifies me completely. A fun run is a contradiction in terms in my experience. I chose the more indolent option and navigated while Mark drove. I love maps.

We explored the Roman fort and village at Vindolanda, and the museum there. My lovely internet mates Sarah and Katie agreed with WI mate Morticia that it we should definitely visit it. I love having recommendations from mates, it makes trips more exciting somehow.

Amongst the remarkable discoveries in the excavated site there was a mystery. A body of a child had been found under the floor of a room in the barracks. It was against Roman law to bury people in forts or towns; the mausoleums were just outside. Whoever hid the body of that 11 year old girl didn't want her found, poor love.

Vindolanda is most famous for the Roman 'postcards,' the wooden tablets with letters, pleas and a birthday party invitation written on them.  There are photographs, translations and fragments in the museum, but the main collection is with the British Museum. However, the other finds there were also amazing.  The domestic details, the shoes, the child's sock and woman's hairnet are incredible. such small, human touches. I loved the betrothal pendant with two heads kissing on one side and clasped hands on the reverse. The carefully painted glasswork was crazy - two pieces of the same piece found 20 years apart.

One fascinating aspect of Vindolanda was a result of their reconstruction.  In the mid 1970s they built a reconstruction of both the earthworks and timber wall and tower and the stone wall and tower.  In the 40 years since, the earthworks have settled so much the height of that wall is now two metres lower than its stone counterpart.  No wonder they rebuilt in stone!

We had a lovely lunch sitting out in the roman style garden of the museum. Daring little chaffinches, tits and robins were darting from a nearby bush to pinch crumbs from under the tables. There were martin nests at the top of window lintels and a great many swallows zigzagged across catching insects.  It was a delightful way to spend a warm afternoon.

Driving on to Steel Rigg we had a short stroll to the Wall itself. It's a lovely thing. It snakes up and down the hills, sometimes disappearing where stones have been taken and used for other things over the centuries, sometimes rising up from the farmland abruptly.  Steel Rigg is absolutely beautiful, and I had my Wish You Were Here moment.

I am a tactile soul at heart, so I climbed over to the Wall to feel the warmth of the stones. I was there, I touched it, I saw the stonework follow the contours of the landscape and I thought of the men who built it and the men and women it was designed to keep out.

I only wish Mr Regan had been with me.