Sunday, April 25, 2010

Diligentia maximum etiam mediocris ingeni subsidium*

It's probably time to admit that, apart from my garden, walking and steam trains, I have a fondness for ruins! Scotland's tower houses are a big interest. But I wasn't in Scotland today.

You probably won't know that I have an O-level in Latin. I'm actually quite proud of it. Three years of study of the language though gave me no interest at all in Roman history and culture, and the reason for that was a teacher who certainly did not inspire me. Perhaps I should just leave it at that.

A trip to Rome in the late 1970s galvanised some enthusiasm. But it was my friend Antony Kamm, an editor and writer, who has been the one to stimulate more recently my interest in all things Roman.

This is one of Antony's books, published in 2004. Wamphray lies 'Between Two Walls', which just happens to be the title of one of the chapters of this book. Skip itself sits on the line of a Roman Road. In fact, on quiet winter nights, you can hear the marching of Roman soldiers on the road outside. (Or it may be just the rumble of passing goods on the nearby West Coast Main Line, you decide.)

Antony's best known work, The Romans: An Introduction (second edition 2008), has its own website here, if you like your history presented onscreen. I recommend both book and website.

But I digress.

I remember learning about the finds of Roman military and private correspondence written on wooden tablets, amongst the most important archaeological treasures ever unearthed in Britain. Vindolanda was a Roman fort at Chesterholm, just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England. It guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The first fort was built here around AD 85. Hadrian's wall was built some forty years later.

Making a trip to Vindolanda has been on my 'must do' list for a while. Today was not really a day for the garden, so I headed south from Skip. The first stop was the Houghton Hall garden centre near Carlisle (needs must), but it was overflowing, and not pleasant. So it was in and out quickly, and on to the A69 and Hadrian Wall country, looking for the signs to Vindolanda.

The setting is impressive, as is the extent of the area which has been excavated.

These are the remains of an early bath house.

Remains of a mausoleum.

The museum (and coffee stop) is in this building, which was originally the cottage of Chesterholm, built in 1831 for Antony Hedley, Vindolanda's first excavator. What an amazing collection of finds are on display in the museum! Just the right size too, not overwhelming. And the interpretation of the Vindolanda tablets did not disappoint.

The gardens and open air museum contained even more of interest.

This is a replica timber milecastle gateway, constructed in 1972, alongside a section of turf wall. Interestingly I read that there is no longer the enthusiasm for reconstructions like these as there once was.

One highlight of the visit was the opportunity to see volunteers working on the excavations. The aim of the current investigations is to examine the fourth and fifth century remains of barracks and other buildings in the north west quarter of the fort. This should reveal information about the standard of living and activities of those living inside the fort compared with that of the residents outside the walls.

Andrew Birley is director in charge of the excavations (that's him on the right) and he was only too willing to answer questions from visitors.

I asked where the stone for all the buildings had come from. The quarry at the top of the hill on the south (top of the pic above) is one of the Roman quarries. There are others on the far side of the hill.

There really is so much to see and do. The photos above only scratch the surface of the place. I will certainly make another visit. The Vindolanda website is here. More Romans in future posts!

(*The title of this post 'Diligentia maximum etiam mediocris ingeni subsidium', I think translates as 'Diligence is a very great help even to a mediocre intelligence'. No doubt someone will tell me if I've not remembered correctly!)

Pics © Skip Cottage

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