Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Day 10: The Wall

June 30, 2014

We set out in the morning for Hadrian's Wall via train to Haltwhistle (what a great name!) and bus to the first museum.  The bus, which runs along the wall from tourist sight to tourist sight, is amusingly numbered the AD122 bus.

While I'd certainly heard of it and knew it for a massive piece of engineering, there were many things I'd never heard.  For one, I hadn't realized just how gorgeous Northumberland was.

For another, I hadn't realized just how long the Romans had dominated the area.  Our first stop was at the Roman Army museum near Greenhead. The museum is spectacular, not just for its display of artifacts but for the films it uses to recreate the life of the common soldiers stationed at this remote corner of the Empire.  It gave a clear explanation of the organization of the army- which was astonishingly bureaucratic and modern by our standards- and a very human picture of what the lives of the people were like then.

From the museum, we moved on to Vindolanda.  It's still an active archaeological sight and it was tantalizing to think what treasures might still be undiscovered there.  Because the soil there is very wet and acidic, this site has preserved more organic matter- hair, leather, wood- than most.  Their collection of Roman leather shoes is amazing.  They have the horsehair plumes that ornamented a Roman helmet.  But the most spectacular of all are the letters.  When the army pulled out, they dumped a bunch of unwanted correspondence- letters inked on wooden tablets- into a well and lit it on fire.  Only the top layer burned- the rest was buried until it was unearthed by the Vindolanda excavation.

And they are remarkable- letters detailing the organization of the army, troop assignments, rosters, duties.  And personal letters- an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the fort's commander to the wife of the commander of another neighboring fort.  Correspondence from soldiers to friends in other parts of the Empire, asking 'why don't you write more often?' or 'please send more warm socks' or 'thanks for the barrel of figs'.   Really, not so different from soldiers far from home in modern armies.  

The site is expansive, and displays many of the sophisticated building features you expect from the Romans.  Warehouses for supplies with raised floors to keep them dry and make it harder for vermin to enter.
Hypocausts (underfloor heating) and expansive baths.  A lovely villa for the commander and barracks for the troops.

For more Vindolanda pictures, see here.

After leaving Vindolanda, we had one more site we wanted to see.  But, we also wanted to walk up along the wall.  And there wasn't a lot of time.   We decided that seeing more of the actual wall was the priority, so we hiked up to it.  Good choice- the views were spectacular.

And once again, I was impressed by the breathtaking scope of the project.  Originally the spanned the whole breadth of England, eighty miles.  The wall itself stood twenty feet high.  And for miles, it followed a giant escarpment that elevated it up to 200 feet higher- an impressive sight for the proto-Scottish savages that were forced to look up at it.  Not to mention an inspiration to engineers of every time.

Every mile, there was a watchtower, called a mile-castle:

A famous pass through the hill, known as Sycamore Gap:

Another view from the wall:

We did in fact make it to the Housesteads Roman Fort in time to see the fort and take a quick turn through the museum,  despite fairly inadequate signage. (There was a brief period of bushwacking through a thistle-covered pasture, but JT's superior navigational skills did not lead us astray.  Though it is possible that I suffered a certain lack of faith and muttered a few rude things during the thistle-dodging part of the walk,)

It was an interesting fort, if not as lavishly interpreted as Vindolanda, and we were in time to take a quick pass through the museum and get cold drinks before they closed.  Then, we had to hustle yet again for the bus back to the train back to Carlisle.  Where we had planned to eat Mexican food but found that being a Monday, the Mexican restaurant was closed.  But we had a perfectly fine meal at the local Weatherby's (an English pub chain), and fell into bed that night dreaming of the wind over the hills of Northumberland, and soldiers far from home shivering in the watchtowers as they stared out toward the wilderness of Scotland.  

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