Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rome in the Center of Britain

By Chuck

We are in the geographic center of Britain, Haltwhistle, according to the road signs.

Haltwhistle, Campground, 8:30pm at night

We left Cumbria and all the bunnies, squirrels and pheasants this morning; we are now in border country. More precisely, we are now at the Camping and Caravaning site in Burnfort Park Village in Haltwhistle, Northumberland. I guess with all that nomenclature, they figure they don't need street addresses. We found that Susan was of limited usefulness, today, and finally turned her off and relied on our maps with fingers crossed.

We wanted a full day to explore the Roman remains of Hadrian's Wall and related sites; but, we had to wait until 9am to exit our campsite, a minor frustration, since we wanted to: explore the Wall, a small museum and the best preserved Roman fort ruins in Britain, then drive to a better museum with a partially reconstructed site at a live archeological dig—all before finding the campground.

There was one minor mis-step on the way to the campground: We missed the turnoff to the site because it was green and partially covered by grass; Claire noticed it just as I roared past; fortunately, I am more cavalier about where I turn Homer around these days—nine months along and still learning. But, the good news is: We did it!

It is uncertain why Hadrian's Wall was built. It may have been used simply to define the northern boundary of the empire, to protect Roman Britain from Scottish clan border raids, or to occupy an army to keep it from getting bored and into mischief. It stretches 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England; it was built and defended by almost 20,000 troops. At every mile there was a castle, guarding a gate; between each castle were two turrets. There was a road running south of the wall through the fortress gates.

Our first stop was Housesteads Fort, among the most complete Roman forts in Britain. It once housed 1,000 soldiers.

Housesteads Fort

As we wandered the grounds and stood on the Wall, enjoying the incredible views and the perfect day, we thought how lucky the school children were to be able to travel to such historical sites as part of their curriculum. We had to pay for parking; however, this was valid for parking, today, at 8 other sites; but, this did not apply, naturally, to our one other site. Luckily, as National Trust members, our admission was free to the first site! The second site was an English Heritage site; we got concessions for advanced age, but no freebies for this one.

The Wall

Hospital for the Fort

Chuck "Up Against the Wall..."

North Gate of the Fort

Fort Barracks

Main Gate of the Fort

Wear & Tear on the stone from the Wheels of Roman Carts

Roman Fort Latrine - Before. The benches were wooden; the vessels in the center were used to hold and clean the sponges they used in lieu of toilet paper. All this in 400 A.D.

Roman Fort Latrine - After

Tree pictured in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, along Hadrian's Wall. The stand-in limb, used by Costner to climb the tree, is now missing.

In between sites, we picnicked in Homer, one of the pleasant cost-saving opportunities we enjoy. Our meal consisted of Orange Fanta, wheat rolls, cheddar cheese, tomato, salami (me) or ham (Claire).

We got mildly lost as we made our way to Vindolanda; they had several signs all bunched together and we pulled into the parking lot grateful that there was adequate room to park Homer. A brief conversation with the docent revealed that we were at the wrong place, but close! She also provided an explanation of two signs we had seen nearby—one for the Once Brewed Youth Hostel and another for the Twice Brewed pub: The latter story is that English General Wade was ordered to pursue Bonnie Prince Charlie to Carlisle—near one terminus point of Hadrian's Wall; he was unable to do so because the roads were too poor—the Roman road from West to East had been obliterated with the ravages to time. After the rebellion, workers were building a new road and stopped at an inn for refreshment; they complained that the ale was too weak and demanded that it be brewed, again, to make it stronger.

In 1934, Lady Trevelyan of Wallington Hall, a lifelong teetotaller, at the ceremony which opened the Youth Hostel commented that it was terribly close to the pub which sold Twice Brewed Ale, but the hostel would only serve tea, and it would be brewed only once.

The museum at Vindolanda has many artifacts that give a sense of what Roman life in Britain was like 1600 years ago. In fact, the Roman engineering trick of sealing off buildings before constructing the next layer—early buildings were wooden and did not last more than about 9 years in this area—created a seal that preserved things buried beneath and we have as many as 9 layers of civilization at this site. The British Museum declared one set of finds—the Roman writing tablets—Britain's Top Treasure! It is the earliest example of writing in Britain; the tablets are wood and wax and used a stylus to form the letters. They have to use special techniques to preserve them once they hit the air. There was the only surviving example of a hair moss helmet crest from Roman times. I especially liked the die and tumbler on exhibit—the die was loaded and comes up six, eight times out of ten; human nature hasn't changed that much, I guess. I was surprised to find that, in addition to their baths and toilet systems, the Romans also had iron stylus pens! I thought these were only invented much, much later.


Archeologists at one of the Vindolanda digs

Colored Tiles with Grafitti or Animal Paw Prints embedded

Replica of Milestone-with distances to next points and the name of the reigning emperor-in original position, along the Stangate, Roman military road

To top off a really fine day, we even managed to find a service station where we could fill up with LPG (propane) for our stove, refrigerator and heater tank. We have been surprised at how difficult it can be in some countries to find this. This was the first time we found a station in England; our last fill was in Freiburg, Germany!

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

Hadrian's Wall Poem


David said...

Thanks, Chuck..beautifully written and I love the Roman history.
Say are you guys going to Liverpool-land of the Beatles?

Happy Trails,

Chuck and Claire said...

You're welcome. Don't know yet about Liverpool. So many cities, so little time. We'll let you know.

Elisabetta said...

Thanks from central Italy, also, where this article's title put a smile on my face! Wonder if we can look fwd to a report on Stonehenge ~ or did you tell me that was covered in previous trips?

England has been a treat for this reader -- Ttfn -- Ta ta for now!

Carolyn said...

Such beautiful country! Thanks for reminding us of how green it is in England. We loved The Wall when we visited in 1993. Your trip continues to be so interesting every day! I don't know how you do it! Thank you for another wonderful blog entry!