After the day completed yesterday we felt a bit of a respite was quite definitely required and some time at Vindolanda was the perfect method of doing so whilst continuing the roman theme. We agreed half a day at vindolanda and the other half walking what seemed a comparatively short run to the Roman Army Museum where we’d look in for a while before closing the day.

The site at Vindolanda is extensive, not quite as large as the one at Corbridge, where we understood the Prefect had based herself in the early part of the proceedings, it being the centre for Roman campaigns Northwards, but Vindolanda is impressive nonetheless and has marked out much of the fort and village that has stood there for between 1,600 nearly 2,000 years.  The ruins were interesting not to mention quite detailed, the houses and shops and baths were very discernible by their features and they have reconstructed a stone and timber tower to represent what it would have looked like when it was standing originally.  The village at Vindolanda is the equivalent of a garrison town, the like of which were still common in Ireland to the East of the Shannon in the 19th century, it predates the wall and it was the failure to stabilise towns like this and give necessary support to the campaign headquarters at Corbridge that led to the need to construct the wall in AD122  roman friendly locals were able to live with relative protection and sell their wares to the large cohorts of Batavian and Gaul Auxiliaries stationed there.

You might say that ruins are ruins and that once you’ve seen one set you’ve sort of seen them all but the scale at Vindolanda and the ongoing archaeological excavation uncovering more and more all the time is something that you do not generally see at such sites.  There’s the expanse too, there is enough of the town and fort visible to really lend itself well to imagining oneself there as it would have been. The jewel in the crown that Vindolanda boasts though is something unique amongst such places, the tablets of handwriting that have been found there represent the earliest handwriting found in this country.  Moreover the handwriting of the women found unearthed represents the earliest known by women in western Europe as a whole.  What is fascinating ironically is the sheer mundaneity of the content: birthday party invitations, inventories of stores, requests for more supplies including beer for the soldiers, appeals against punishments, and a response from what was probably a mother confirming the sending of socks and pants!  This gives an invaluable insight into the actual daily lives of the people stationed there and their interpersonal relationships not to mention how remarkably similar so much of human existence is across geographical boundaries, centuries and millennia.  I have rarely if ever found a sight so comprehensive in the tangible feeling of the past that it gives off and the combination of modern reconstruction and original features and excavations is done sensitively and to inform rather than to glorify and exploit.

At Vindolanda there was also a reconstructed temple to the nymphs which I decided to go and make promises of offerings and vows of allegiance if they would bring the Dutch ladies back into my path again.  Well, if you don’t ask…!  In their defence there was immediate delivery of a nice redhead involved in the current excavation so that boded well for the nymphs’ immediate power.  We ate a very tasty but not terribly Roman lemon drizzle cake in the cafe and after watching the archaelogists and volunteers in the trenches as they steadily revealed more and more of the sites size and splendour, not to mention brief speculation about whether the lovely redhead with long hair in bunches and the spade might have been an immediate respnse from the nymphs* (distilled to the actual exchange comprising Tina stating facetiously that I was in love and me protesting, apparently unconvincingly that I was not!) at the shop gifts for children and friends were purchased and Simon and I now have maps detailing the route we will have taken.  Herewith will begin the myths of Centurion Marcus Dominicus and Optio Gaius Simonensis and their perilous journey of strength and endurance on the orders of evil prefect Tina Aurelia that shall enthral lucky pockets of the populations of South East London and a small corner of Leicestershire, their children and their children’s children. Bronzes will be cast in the 22nd century and such will be the reverence that parents will instruct their children that if they want to grow up like Marcus and Gaius they need to eat their cake and not just their greens!

As we led our intrepid, and fictions, legionaries back on the walk again from Steel Rigg we knew we had done the hard bit, *(we thought we had done the hard bit), the Picts had not been sighted and we were happy in the knowledge that this would now be a nice leisurely stroll.  We reckoned without Walltown crags which had other ideas.  The large rocky hills were just as large as the hills yesterday but the drops and ascents were often sharper and in places quite treacherous.  The steps up put pressure on the already complaining thighs and the steps down tweaked the calves which then started to complain as bitterly as the thighs were.  On the plus side the views were often made better by some large sections of undulating wall snaking over the landscape and this perhaps more than any other is the day that gives the sort of pictures that you think of in your mind when you picture a walk along Hadrian’s wall.

We had figured on 2 hours at most to do what the road sign said was 7 miles, we revised that estimate by about an hour halfway through the crags due to their severity but still thought we would make it in reasonable time. The crags chose not to let up though we manfully tackled them.  Where there were paths skirting round the the sharper climbs we took on the peaks, for anything else would have seemed pointless having come this far.  We were not going to be defeated by some rocks that the Romans had not only clambered up but built a fecking wall on.  It was only when a microlyte passed soaring high above the valley and yet still below where we were that we became aware of just how far we had walked upward.

As we got to a particularly boggy section of field (right up a bloody hill mark you) we found another herd of bulls.  We had laughed about the bulls yesterday and made up funny stories about them hunting us down but we had not swayed from our path and they had been happy to let us pass save for the occasional glance or chorus of deafening mooing reverberating across the gap.  They were clearly the lookouts, our progress had been monitored, and Brown 833 was to prove somewhat less accommodating about public access.  You may think that bovine menace is a contradiction in terms but you weren’t fucking there man you wouldn’t understand!  As we crossed the stile and into the field a group of bulls between us and the fence had started to move away as if they were behaving in the same way as those that had been before.  Brown 833, or the ringleader as is clear now, who was amongst them did not seem to feel that they should vacate their position and took umbrage at our presence.  He advanced on us suddenly, we backed off slightly thinking that he might be merely trying to get out of the way, he did but only in the sense of wishing to occupy the space we were in he advanced on us with a little more haste. We very briefly and futilely tried to reason with the animal and engage it in debate on the fact that this was a public right of way and that we meant no harm merely wished for safe passage through the field.  Brown 833’s response reminded me of Bill Hicks telling of Jack Palance in Shane, or even the same actor in City Slickers, the contempt for ‘city folk’ was certainly of the same mould.  At this point we did not feel that remaining in the field in an incendiary standoff, being ourselves the weaker of the two parties in matters of both firepower, bulk and menace, and thus proceeded, at some velocity, back over the stile whence we came.  It is amazing how adrenalin seems to keep a little energy in reserve for just such eventualities and it should be pointed out that whilst potentially tempting neither of us pushed the other one out of the way in our dash for safety.  As we stood there laughing nervously Brown 833 advanced to the point of completely blocking the path right in front of the stile and gave clear indication that he was not prepared to move.  In addition he eyed us in a sinister fashion.  He had an itch on his side but each time he went to scratch it with his tongue he would suddenly wheel round to look at us just to make sure we weren’t trying to make an escape into his territory, which after the first two occasions of him doing it we had stopped trying to do.  This situation might well have lasted into the hours of darkness were it not for two ladies coming over the rise of the hill.  We tried to draw them to the attention of Brown 833 in what was, I concede, not our most gallant hour!

The ladies must have wondered what the two imbeciles were doing cowering behind a stile laughing fit to burst whilst a brown bullock stood motionless on the path.  We tried to warn them of Brown 833’s malevolent temper but they walked on it what could have turned out to be an unnecessarily cavalier manner.  The reality was that Brown 833’s backup man, who was standing directly behind him in order to look brave without being so, decided that a two pronged attack from front and rear was odds he didn’t fancy and started to leg it at which point the incensed ringleader of the worm-turning rebellion pursued and butted him instead making it quite evident that we had adopted the correct strategy.  We made our speedy apologies to the advancing bemused ladies who were yet to even have shortened their stride on approach and we walked legged it through the field declining to look round in the hope that the childhood adage of if ‘I can’t see you you can’t see me’ worked on bulls. We half expected the rumbling of advancing hooves in charge mode and me with my weight and Simon with his injured knee began silently to weigh up options of how to disable the other enough to ensure escape at their expense.   When out of the field we agreed that the praying to the nymphs whilst not delivering the two Dutch girls that I had asked for did make good on the delivery of two Australian ladies who had saved us from the bull and we shouldn’t be churlish about this as a granting of a wish.  So I got what I needed even if not exactly what I wanted.  In order therefore to have any chance of evoking the Dutch girls we would have to return to the temple and this lamentably was not on the agenda.  I bear the animal no malice and since he was a worthy adversary I would feel strangely disappointed to hear of his demise.  I would like him to live out his days long and healthy, just never in the same county as I happen to be.

The crags continued to come for what seemed like a never-ending age and we had to admit defeat on our ETA and that we would not be able to visit the Roman Army Museum after all, now the only aim was to get to the museum before the Prefect Tina got so bored of waiting that she decided to leave us there to teach us a lesson.  The joking idea of spending the afternoon in the Twice Brewed Inn photographing their marvellous selection of real ales had never appealed quite so much.

Crags can be aesthetic when in isolation and looking up but when having to incessantly ascend and descend them the brand of scenery tends to seem rather homogenous after a while.   At the end of the crags we found a place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea and slab of the fine Hadrians Wall cake. Some men arrived in a jaguar and strolled up to the Walltown crag turret, we laughed at their amateurism as we sat and enjoyed our tea and cake!

The prefect back at base camp was substantially less pleased to see us than we were to see her, which may have had something to do with us being really quite ready to sit down for a long long time whilst she had been sat for what seemed like a long long time waiting more for the ability to avail of the facilities and not to see the brave intrepid conquerers of the horned sheep and vengeful bull-infested crags of doom. We will remember the frequent bogs, the fabulous undulating wall, the size and history of Vindolanda and Brown 833 who will haunt our darkest nightmares with Bovine malice, occasional inexplicable cold sweat and face of terror will ensue.  It was hell and only men of the greatest fortitude could have survived.  When the story is told to grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews Brown will be the size of a house and the field 3 miles wide, the two saviour ladies will have been mysteriously forgotten having a generation before been labelled as harpies and the evil prefect will have imprisoned the two heroes in a latrine upon their return!

As ever for the viewpoint of my erstwhile compatriot see here, for the views of the High Priestess hired help highly strung Tina see here

Songs Of The Day ~ Villagers – That Day; Tubelord – Night of the Pencils

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