Before there was an England: The Empire and the Natives
My first stop was Vindolanda, a major troop center along the Wall. It had had a small fort and a civilian vicus there before Hadrian got around to his wall-building. As the area grew in importance, the fort was expanded several times. It was manned and ready well into the fourth century.
The site is immense and full of fascinating detail. The foundations of bath houses, granaries, headquarters, circular huts against the wall by the gates, temple and church and latrines have all been exposed. An on-going dig was in progress while I visited. I was particularly interested in the apse built into the precentorium (HQ), which was an early church building. An ancient Roman workplace and shrine have been re-created down by the museum. Next to the archaeological site itself, a tower has been fully re-created (except for the modern nails – /snark).
The signs explaining what was before one were in various languages. I noted with satisfaction that right after English, and before French and German, all the explanatory notes were also given in Latin.
The oldest known writing in Britain was found at Vindolanda. Several wooden tablets with shopping lists, personal notes, and whatnot have been dug out of a ditch. Such tablets were the notebooks of ancient times, and were once extremely common. Vindolanda has produced more of them than all other ancient Roman sites combined. Recently, these tablets were voted the top treasure of the British Museum.
From Vindolanda, I went up the Military Road to the Museum of the Roman Army. Lots of artifacts were on display there. Just across the road was an old quarry at the foot of a cliff where you could still see the Wall marching across the countryside.
Settling in for the night
There was a major District encampment celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Hadrian Council of Scouts and Guides when I got to Dilston Scout Camp. I established myself in the far corner of the field, then went into Hexham to find some supper. I wound up in the Argyll bar, where I had a fantastic thing on draught called Titanic Stout. Yum.
The next morning, I was up early and heading down the road for York. Just before I got to the city, I stumbled across a sign saying, "Ancient Church," and turned off to find myself in the little village of Kirk Hammerton. There, the local parish church of St. John the Baptist was presented to my view. The original stonework of the aisle and tower is Anglo-Saxon work from the tenth century (c. 950). The nave and other aisle date from the Middle Ages. It was astonishingly beautiful, inside and out, and I was enormously pleased to see it in active use.
I parked outside the city centre of York and walked up Mickleburg Gate. My first instinct was to find Jorvik, the viking museum. I did, but it didn't seem like such a big deal, so I wandered about a bit to look at the living history recreators and other stuff, but didn't pay to do the exhibit. Instead, I walked over to Clifford's Tower, which is all that is left of the main castle at York. I climbed up the motte and took the steps up to the battlements. Quite a piece of work!
In the midst of my walking about, I stopped at an internet café to send word home that everything was okay with me. Outside the café, a man on a mounted bicycle was wearing an outfit that made it appear that he was riding down a hill, with scarf and coat flying (they were actually stiffened in place). He and his rig were all painted purple. I guessed it was "performance art"; either that, or somebody left the door to the bughatchery open.
I also noticed in my walkabout of York an amazing number of oversized mammaries on display. Young women not otherwise hefty certainly were putting up a good front; you might say, they stood out in a crowd. Perhaps they were all wearing push-up bras, but even then, you've still got to have something to push up. I wondered what could account for the presence of a statistically improbable number of women with such a body type. My best hypothesis is that the British male has a certain taste in women, which over time exerts significant genetic pressure towards über-boober-heit. Well, no time to do the research, but I leave my hypothesis to a grateful world to be investigated by any graduate student looking for a worthy project for his thesis.
I made my way over to York Minster, the seat of the Archbishop of York. It was an astounding, overwhelming building. It was too much to take in in a single look. You had to walk around and poke into corners. The choir stalls, with named seats reserved for all the bishops of the province, was very cool. The stained glass and the ceiling of the chapter house were awesome. I climbed all 275 steps to the top of the tower and looked out over the city.
A eucharist was being celebrated in the central nave. The celebrant and worshipers were oblivious to the presence of tourists, cameras, guides, the gift shop, and the buskers performing outside. It was very medieval, if I may put it so. York Minster was probably always the center of a multi-ring circus of activity, some sacred and some less so.
I had a wonderful lunch of fish and chips and then headed back north, to Durham.
From York, I made my way to Durham. The castle and cathedral sit on top of a very steep hill in a bend of the River Wear. It has been a stronghold of politics (and faith) from a very early time. The castle today is the center of the University of Durham. The cathedral is, well, the most beautiful large building I have ever entered in my entire life.
Durham as an institution is very different from York. They don't allow for pictures inside, for one thing. After all, it's a church. Oh. Yes, it is, isn't it? And what a beautiful church it is. The stonework and the decoration is simply beautiful. Durham was not built to impress people with the power of the Church, as York Minster was, but to testify to the glory of God.
I asked the way to St. Cuthbert's shrine, and was directed down to the chapel immediately behind the high altar. And there it was. Again, the design and furnishings were simply beautiful. There was a kneeling bench with a prayer of St. Cuthbert before his grave. I knelt there, my eyes filling with tears. I spent a while in prayer, asking for the spirit of that good and holy man to be mine and enable me to do as he had done. Then I moved on. I found a bench and sat for a while, digesting the experience.
I viewed the Chapel of the Nine Altars, then went to the other end of the cathedral, where I found, to my amazement, the tomb of the Venerable Bede. Next to it was a shrine to all the heroic wandering monks and missionaries who brought the faith to Northumbria and beyond. I knelt and prayed at Bede's tomb, too, and then I went on my way. All in all, Durham cathedral was a true place of pilgrimage for me, and provided a profound encounter with God.
Scout camp ghost story – no, really
I returned to Dilston, where I was told the local history. Dilston Hall (hidden in the trees above the camp) was the home of Lord Derwentwater (James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater), who in 1715 rode down the hill and over the bridge to review his men on what is now the campground and parade field of Dilston Scout Camp. He then marched them off to join the Jacobite revolt. He surrended after the battle of Preston, and was beheaded in 1716 for his part in the rebellion.
His wife's ghost is reputed to haunt the bridge over the Devil's Water (the little river that runs through the camp to the Tyne). I walked over the bridge and up the hill to the castle and took a few pictures. The camp was utterly deserted that night. I listened to the night jar, a bird which sounds like a howler monkey trying to whisper. I don't believe in ghosts, but I could have been creeped out, if I'd let myself.
Next: the Road to Ben Nevis!
Click on a pic to enlarge.