Strange new worlds

A first try


snapseedI’m a frequent poster on Twitter but although  I like the 140 character limit, short punchy and sometimes precise I decided the need to expand the wordage merited the addition of this little blog, if nothing else a reminder of my wanderings.

Romans in Lakeland

The English Lake District in Cumbria is best known for its outstanding beauty, soaring peaks and wooded valleys and named in the language of old Norse which arrived on Cumbrian shores over 1000 years old. It has left us the rich legacy of names we still use today, Dale,Fell and Thwaite for a forest clearing our Sheep are Herdwicks and carry a Viking heritage in their woolly frames but less well known to visitors who pass through the Lake District on their way to Hadrian’s Wall is the less oblivious presence of Rome within the national park.

After the arrival of the roman legions in AD43 to southern Britain they slowly advanced their influence northwards through conquest or coercion, the Brigantes tribe in the area north of the Humber was the most numerous and ruled in part by Queen Cartimandua, when she ran into trouble in the mid 1st Cent as a client of Rome they used this excuse to push north and by AD73 they had founded a fort at Carlisle then known as Luguvalium. The Lake District seems to have been bypassed until later when the first fort is recorded at Ambleside in around AD90. The remains of the fort are still visible on the shore of lake Windermere a short walk from Ambleside and in the Armitt museum there is a grave stone to a soldier killed in the fort in the late 2nd Cent proving the lakes wasn’t always a quiet posting.

From the late 1st Cent onwards the Romans occupied the lake District from a series of forts though many went out of use over time, from Ambleside the famous Roman built roads spread west over the stunning Hardknott Pass to Ravenglass and east over Kirkstone to Patterdale and onwards to the fort of Voreda near Penrith. Many can be traced today as earthworks and can be walked such as the route over High Street reaching over 2000ft.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone from Italy amongst the Roman troops, those manning the forts would have been auxiliaries ,men from conquered lands who gained roman citizenship after service with the army, the troops at the remote fort of Hardknott came from an area around Croatia.

Around most forts a Vicus or village sprang up outside their gates, perhaps locals wishing to sell goods to soldiers or discharged men now making a living from their comrades. As auxiliary troops could not officially marry until they left the army many would have partners and families living outside the fort.

The influence of Rome finally began to wain in the late 4th Cent and troops where moved onto the continent to flight civil wars and external pressure on the empire, by around AD410 the reach of Rome was gone and the forts were robbed of stone or left to collapse back into the earth, the roads proved longer lasting with many still being used as lanes today without the visitor even knowing they are treading in the footsteps of their Roman predecessors.

Where to see Roman heritage

Ambleside Roman fort – free to view at Waterhead

Hardknott Roman fort – follow the Roman road over Wrynose and Hardknott to Eskdale, the fort with its bathhouse and parade ground sits above the valley floor.

Ravenglass bath house – continue on from Hardknott to the coast, the bath house is a short walk from the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway station.

There are Roman finds to see at the Armitt Museum (Ambleside) also Kendal and Carlisle are worth calling in to see.

If you would like to hike through Emperor Hadrian’s landscape then follow Hadrian’s High Way which passes close to Elterwater


Walking Hadrians High Way

Last summer I was up along Hadrian’s wall to visit the excavations at Vindolanda Roman fort and finding I had a day to spare I got in touch with the writer of the Hadrian’s wall footpath Guide Mark Richards, Mark and his wife Helen had very kindly invited us for Christmas the previous winter after Storm Desmond flooded my house, we’d talked about walking together but never got round to it so this time I was keen to meet up. Mark was up for a wander but mentioned a new route he was working on and he was currently researching and walking a section in the south Tyne valley and did I want to come along? I was aware of the Roman fort at Whitley castle and the Maiden Way roman road that ran over the Pennine hills up to Magnis Fort on Hadrian’s Wall so the idea had me hooked.

So we met up on a fine June morning and walked my first length of Hadrian’s High Way up towards Hadrian’s famous wall. I’d done my homework and researched the visible remains of the roman road and this seemed to impress Mark and from then on we tackled more and more of the route together as free time arose.

Walking with Mark gave me a real insight as to how the guide book writer operates when “in the field” so to speak, too much chatter and the gates or route direction changes can be easily missed, features of the landscape overlooked so we developed an easy silence and I learned to stop at each stile or gate to let Mark note its arrival along the route. As the unofficial photographer I spent time ahead or some way behind getting the long shots of Mark on the route so quite often we walked apart each making mental notes or Photographing the landscape from our own perspective.

The route research wasn’t totally without incident; we both went off route trying to find the actual line off the roman road one day on Wrynose and ended up in thigh deep in muddy bog in a hidden stream running down the fellside. Mark did stop laughing long enough to check I was Ok!

One of the most interesting and rewarding sections for me was in the Eskdale Valley, a place I thought if knew reasonably well but a little research with old maps and Archaeological reports plus walking with Mark and his  encyclopaedic knowledge of the lakes through his Fellranger guidebooks was a revelation. Finishing that evening at Hardknott fort as the sun sank low was a highlight of the route.

So now it’s done, it’s your turn to follow the route through from the Cumbrian coast across Lakeland and the Eden valley onwards to Vindolanda Roman fort. I wish you all the best on your travels.

An Excavators tale

“Wonderful things”

A chance meeting over the fence with an enthusiastic volunteer who was excavating in the north west part of the roman fort at Vindolanda back in 2009 sent my life in a whole new direction. That summer an ancient and beautiful altar dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus had seen the light of day after nearly 1800 years and its discovery fired my imagination, I’d excavated in the 1980’s at Wroxeter roman city and other sites but my interest had been on the back burner as family and work took me into my middle years now after seeing that block of old carved stone  I was re fired with a desire to discover the past that lay sleeping under the turf. I signed up that winter and joined the 2010 excavation and 8 years later I’m still getting my hands dirty in the soil (and sometimes ancient horse manure!).

Vindolanda sits roughly a mile south of Hadrian’s wall but by the time the wall was built in 122AD Vindolanda had been in existence for at least 35 years or possibly longer as part of the fort system along the Stanegate roman road which ran past Carlisle to Corbridge roman fort.It operated for the whole of the roman period and ongoing excavations are revealing its use in the post roman period, this faint footprint of a world after the roman period has survived unlike other sites which were swept away in the rush to reveal the Hadrianic levels by the 19th cent excavators.

The stanegate west of Vindolanda

I walk to the site everyday when digging in May, the stroll down the Stanegate roman road to the Vindolanda west gate is a good warm up for a days work with a trowel and wheelbarrow. Feet on an ancient route underfoot with new life overhead and in the fields as curious lambs skip to the fence and skylarks endlessly chatter on the wing. My companion, Tim from Wisconsin in the US is a veteran of Vindolanda and is one of many international excavators adding to the melting pot, we talk as we walk and sometimes we just enjoy the landscape in silence, we are friends brought together by decisions by a long dead roman surveyor 2000 years ago and by the determination of the Vindolanda trust to create a unique place to experience the past through archaeology.

I have friends all over planet now that I didn’t have 8 years ago, bonded by shared experience on site and in the evenings and days off, tales of finds, pub quiz’s lost, beer consumed and aches proudly announced. We share the trenches and the diggers tea shed with its rich tea biscuits and sometimes home made cakes from Normans wife. We plan trips together and study the newly cleaned pottery drying after the post excavation team have cleaned away dust and dirt.

The Vindolanda excavation team are now completing its “frontiers in transition” project looking at the people who lived along the wall. Visitors to the site ask me what’s my best find as a volunteer, tough question? The incredible preservation at Vindolanda has produced some jaw dropping finds over the years and I’ve been lucky to have been on site to see just a small fraction lifted from the trenches, last year I excavated a writing stylus tablet which once would have been filled with wax to write in, the ipad of its day. This year I witnessed the uncovering of roman shoes to add to the over 6000 uncovered so far now in the Vindolanda trusts collection. My favourite find was a section of crowbar buried in the timber it  last gave its attention to, why did it end up there? For me it was a personal connection with one individual some 1900 years ago who lost it, We’ll never know I guess, its frustrating not to be able to tell him I’ve found it! My finders reward is more than money ever could be, it will live in my memory for a long time.

On a sunny day the walk back up the Stanegate past its roman Milestone is a good way to talk over the day and unknot tired muscles, on the grey days there’s never a lack of offers of lifts which are gratefully accepted.

Vindolanda opened new doors for me, gave me a new sense of worth, brought me friends and lifts the spirits as the new excavation season approaches and also I’m more wary of leaving my tools lying around as they may not be found for 2000 years!

further reading :


All aboard the 555

img_4961The main route through the Lake district is the A591 which runs from Kendal in the south to a small village in the north called Bothel where it ages and becomes the A595, as a red blooded British Male I pride myself on this knowledge of the A road system but I hide a secret shame of not being as well aquatinted with the B road pantheon.

But I digress, if the A591 is the main artery through the rocky body of the lake District then the 555 bus is the red blood cell delivering the life giving tourist oxygen to the vital organs along route, Pubs, Cafes, Outdoor Walking  shops and places that sell vast quantiles of  Beatrix Potter merchandise and do a side trade in painted wooden distressed signs saying witty or poignant phrases  “Love conquers all” “white wine is bad for you so I only drink red” etc etc .

The 555 is almost always a double decker bus (excluding low bridge incidents) allowing for raised viewing as it bounces along the route taking it the Lakeland classics Windermere, Ambleside ,Grasmere and Keswick from the top deck. I have a mental check list for each journey I take, perhaps I should create my own I spy guide book? There is a point system accompanying the list so see how you get on next time you ride the great divide or Dunmail Raise as its normally known.
:The retired couple with a packed lunch on the top deck front seats = 3 points
:Sullen hotel staff sitting at the back with a Tesco bag = 2 points
:The girl talking loudly on the phone to her mate forgetting she has an audience who are getting a real insight into the parole system through the unfolding conversation = 6 points (8 points if you get the offense)
:A couple blissfully unaware they are heading south away from their intended destination =4 points (5 if you catch the “who’s to blame” argument)
I took the bus last weekend and as it was a wet day the windows had steamed up, some had wiped the wet film off the window glass with their sleeves to see out but the Japanese girls in front didn’t bother but carried on photographing through the misted window with their Phones! Did they have special app for shooting through steam? Perhaps they were capturing shots for Steamedupbus.com or maybe they just didn’t care?
Truly a ride on the 555 is a joy, one for the bucket list?

Two by two

img_1502the zen of rucksack packing

“What sort of walk is it?”
“long or short?”
This conversation happens quite regularly on a day we decide to go hiking.

Which brings me to the subject of backpacks! large or small? I usually walk with my trusty Berghaus 35ltr arête with everything thrown in and more often than not containing things not essential to that days walking. I once did a weeks walking on la Palma, one of the canary islands, only to find towards the end of the week I was carrying a 1:25,000 map of Hadrian’s wall shoved into an underused corner! Then there’s the level of rain or wind that will be encountered and whether to take a big jacket or that thin one hanging on the back of the door. So over the years I’ve started to acquire two of everything just to keep the family of rucksacks I own stocked however it never seems to work as I intend because seemingly the more of something I own the more I can’t find of anything, take for example the humble pocket pen knife, I had two now I can’t find either! I know they’re somewhere just not the somewhere I happen to pass through. This turn of events happens more often with larger volumes too, last week I couldn’t find a single fleece hat despite the fact I own enough to keep a penguin colony warm! I did locate a missing pair of reading glasses though so that’s something. I have managed to hang onto a bar of Kendal Mint cake however, if you’ve never seen mint cake its a block of solid white sugar flavoured with mint and diabetes although its  a life saver if you are lost and low on energy on some misty mountain. I don’t even think it has a expiry date.

So finally I’m off with the smaller daysack its gong to be a hot day, oh hang on there’s a dark cloud think I better swap for the bigger pack instead!

Out on the Maiden way

Our weather here in the British isles means we get milder winters on the whole than our latitude suggests due to the Gulf Stream heading up from warmer climates, it also brings a considerable amount of rain however on the odd day when the winds shift or the Atlantic clouds are kind the weather lends itself to exploration of the landscape. My friend the writer Mark Richards has hit upon a new route between Roman forts called Hadrian’s High Way so as the seasons have rolled along I’ve joined him for sections of the 100 mile route. As the route is linear across the north west from fort to Roman fort a certain amount of car juggling goes on in this case leaving one at either end of the days route. Public transport in the remote areas of the Eden Valley is not really an option. I’ve found walking with Mark involves the ritual of the pre walk tea room where the lure of a scone versus the biting wind of a winters day outside always wins. Suitably refreshed we head out onto the trail. Today’s walk started from the village of Kirby Thore which the busy A66 road passes on its southern side, once the Roman road into the east connecting with Dere St on the other side of the Staimore pass. Our path however lay with picking up the line of the Roman Maiden Way which runs north to meet Hadrian’s Wall at Magnis fort. The route passes the 12th Cent church of st Michael’s and heads north east towards the site of Newbiggin Mill. The Roman road is Mainly ploughed away in this section apart from a nice stretch of Tarmac road at Hale hill which is on the line.
The joys for the history minded walker at this time year is the lack of vegetation and constant low sunlight picking out features which are missed in the pleasant warmer walking days later in the year. The photographer in me prefers these days of cold air which give clarity to distant lens shots. Our afternoon wore on and in low but golden light we arrived at the tiny Hamlet of Kirkland. The Maiden way begins its climb over the Pennine hills from here leading into the south Tyne Valley and the famous wall. The sunset though glorious was without heat but was the final icing on the cake.