Romans, Myths and Medieval Castles

by Shane Boocock

As horizontal sheet rain lashed the bleak Northumberland countryside I tried to negotiate a single lane, country road trying to find my accommodation for the night in the unusually named Twice Brewed Inn. Draped over me was a black-crepe gloom that enveloped the countryside, but then moments later it passed and a beautiful veil of sunshine lowered itself onto the raised hump-like moors and across undulating fields dotted with grazing sheep.

Twice Brewed was a colloquial term for a drovers track in between the ‘brew of two hills,’ and it was hard not to be impressed. It was still only September but the iciness in the air gave a forewarning of what a real winter would deliver in these parts. For in this isolated and desolate place 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers would have been staving off the wintery conditions when building one of the most famous structures and frontier boundaries in the world. Today we know it as Hadrian’s Wall.

Having found the warmth of the inn I could see Hadrian’s Wall snaking over a large crag before dropping down into a windswept saddle. In this historic spot it was easy to imagine the three Roman legions who built it trooping down the slopes not knowing it would take over six years to complete the 67 mile wall (or 80 Roman ones) stretching from coast to coast – North Sea to Irish Sea.

“We’ll start at Housesteads Roman Fort, but what you really need to see is Roman Vindolanda,” said Neil my volunteer tour guide, a native of South Africa but now a converted Roman historian as we trundled up the pathway to one of the best preserved forts on the wall. Neil had soaked up all there was to know about all things Roman and indeed presented his own hypothesis on some questionable facts.

Housesteads has some magnificent ruins including a multi-seated latrine, hospital and perimeter wall and some truly spectacular moorland views but it was the stunning ‘ribbon’ of wall, Rome’s ultimate border control and line of military defence that to me was the most interesting. Much of the wall has of course disappeared but there is enough left to gain a great understanding of what it must have been like to live here two centuries ago.

In places it is still possible to walk in the footsteps of Roman soldiers. ??There were once 30 forts on the frontier, including 16 on the wall itself alongside coastal, outpost and supply forts, not to mention 160 turrets and 80 Milecastles (small fortlets built every Roman mile were termed ‘Milecastles’; the 80th Milecastle at Bowness marked the western terminus of the Wall). The result was 300 years of supremacy and 2,000 years of indelible legacy. It would have been a busy, noisy multi-cultural zone occupied by soldiers and civilians from all over the Roman Empire.

Beyond to the north lay the so-called ‘Barbarians;’ behind lay what the Romans referred to as the civilised world. ??A few miles south of Hadrian’s Wall is the Roman fort of Vindolanda (translated as Field of White). On the day I arrived Neil was telling me about the body of a young child no more than eight years old, that they had just unearthed a few days earlier below a stone flag. It was now under investigation that made front page headlines across the nation. Romans it seems never buried their dead so it had become a 1,800 year old murder enquiry!

Vindolanda is older than Hadrian’s Wall, built around 212 AD. It is an archaeologist’s dream location and may take dozens of years to excavate fully as much of the surrounding lands and fields have never been uncovered. This is a place that offers volunteers a week’s work fossicking in mud and rain for a few months every year in summer. However it is often over-subscribed days after their website applications go live!??Back at the inn, ruddy-faced hikers from all walks of life and far afield were tucking into an early dinner and a few pints.

“I’m totally stuffed,” said a bald-headed man still in shorts and hiking boots, “I’m even struggling to sup this pint,” he admitted. ??Locals stood at the bar chatting and chucking back pints of Two Brewed Bitter. I overheard one of the lasses say, “I’m the best shepherdess around you know.” The other lass nodded her head and then remarked, “Well, if you’re the best shepherdess, I’m the best bantam breeder hereabouts too!”

On the road the following day I made my way west crossing Northumberland National Park. This was a beautiful drive on back country lanes and roads that snaked through small rural villages and farmsteads where the occasional partridge and odd rabbit crossed my path. In some hillsides shards of sunlight turned russet coloured bracken to gilded coronets.

In the medieval town of Aldwick (pronounced A’lwick) is Aldwick Castle, home of the Percy family for 700 years. The gardens here are also renowned and a big draw card for many visitors. The castle has been open to the public since 1954 however the extensive gardens are relatively new and can be viewed separately. (Don’t miss the special Poison Garden tour).

There are only six family rooms open to the public out of 63 as the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and their family still reside here for five months ever year (it is especially worth visiting their library that holds 14,000 books dating from 1475). However there is also a number of exhibits open to the public located in the perimeter walls, so the visit is still good value for money in a very picturesque countryside.

For a side trip I drove down country lanes to the pretty seaside town of Craster. Here I had just enough time to complete a three hour round trip walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. Perched high on a cliff, Dunstanburgh is now largely ruinous although it rated at one time among the largest and grandest castles in the north of England. Dating from the 14th century, the castle is protected on two sides by the sheer cliff face and the sea and is a worthy photographic opportunity.??My proposed night stop was on the coast at a seaside town called Seahouses, a small typical fishing village that is as pretty a postcard picture as you might find.

After checking in at the Bamburgh Castle Inn I wandered the streets and harbour where a stiff onshore breeze sent shivers down my spine and me back to the pub.?? After dinner at the inn with an acquaintance I’d just met, we wandered over the road to The Olde Ship Inn, a tiny pub not much bigger that a fishing trawler’s cabin. It was chock-full of locals in fine fettle and also chock-full of shipping memorabilia with brass or wooden adornments hanging from the rafters and walls, from sextants and lobster pots, to diving helmets, floats and old knotted ropes. There was no music as I remember – just loud conversation, a dog fight and lots of laughter. Good people and a good place to stop in for a pint.

Just up the road was one of the most well-preserved medieval castles on the east coast. Claire the PR girl I had had drinks with the night before had arranged for me to have a personal tour before the public arrived, so that’s how I found myself driving through the arched entrance past the guard house and right up to Bamburgh Castle’s front door. ??Once the royal seat of the Kings of Northumbria, a castle has stood guard over this beautiful coastline for over 1,400 years and its immense presence is a sight to behold. Over the centuries, the castle’s formidable walls have witnessed sinister tales of royal rebellion, bloody pitched battles and spell-binding myths and legends.

The oldest part of the castle is The Keep or Great Tower which was started in 1164 with walls 11 feet thick in places. This iconic fortress became the first castle in Britain to fall to cannon ball fire in 1474 during the War of the Roses. ??Once the location for films such as Ivanhoe, El Cid, Becket with Richard Burton, Macbeth and The Tempest, its rebuilding started in 1894 by the 1st Lord Armstrong, continues today. As I walked the battlements I couldn’t help but contemplate Anglo Saxon occupation, knights on horseback, swords and suits of armour, dungeons, cannons, barbarians and Viking invaders.

Northumbria is definitely a rich windswept land haunted by Romans, myths and medieval castles.

??FACTS:

Remember to buy the Great British Heritage Pass before you leave home as it is available through www.visitbritainshop.com/newzealand. With the Great British Heritage Pass you can visit them all – just buy an affordable one-off pass for either 4, 7, 15 or 30 days and you will be granted entry to over 580 UK heritage properties. This is the turn-key to unlocking Britain’s best kept secrets.

Note – VAT was raised from 17.5% to 20% on the 1st Jan 2011

  • Twice Brewed Inn, Military Road, Twice Brewed, Barden Mill, Hexham, Northumberland. ?Rates per room incl breakfast: Single £33, Double £55, Double en-suite, £70, Double premium £82?, T: +44 (0)143 434 4534, www.twicebrewedinn.co.uk??
  • Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum, ?Open 1 Apr-30 Sep 10am-6pm daily,?1 Oct-31 Mar 10am-4pm daily?Admission: Adults £4.80, Children £2.40?, Barden Mill, Northumberland, ?T: +44 (0)143 434 4363, www.english-heritage.org.uk/housteads??
  • Vindolanda Fort & Ruins, ?Open 13 Feb-31 Mar and 1 Oct-31 Oct 10am-5pm daily,?1 Apr-30 Sep 10am-6pm daily?Admission: Adults £5.90, Children £3.50, ?Barden Mill, Northumberland?, T: +44 (0)143 434 4277, vindolanda.com
  • Aldwick Castle, ?Admission: Adult £10.50 Gardens, £12.50 Castle, £20.50 for both, Child £5.50 for both, ?T: +44 (0)166 551 0777, www.alnwickcastle.com??
  • Bamburgh Castle, Seahouses, ?Open all year round Nov-Jan on weekends,? Feb-Oct 7 days a week. ?Admission: Adult £8?, T: +44 (0)166 821 4208, www.bamburghcastle.com
  • ??Bamburgh Castle Inn, Seahouses, Northumberland, ?Rates per room incl. breakfast: Sea view rooms start from £65 single to £90 double?, T: +44 (0)166 572 0283, www.bamburghcastleinn.co.uk

 

Shane Boocock flew to Europe courtesy of Etihad Airways in their wonderful Pearl Business Class flat bed service from Sydney to Manchester via Abu Dhabi, go to: www.etihadairways.com and would like to thank Visit Britain, for all the ground arrangements during his stay, go to: www.visitbritain.com