Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Venerable Bede

Roman Britain is one of my passions.  But I am also a medievalist by academic training, if not by profession.  In my historiography class in graduate school, we had to present an oral report on a well-known historian.  I was assigned The Venerable Bede, also known as the Father of English History.  Who was Bede and why is he known as the Father of English History you ask?

Before I deliver this short history lecture, here is a photo of his tomb, in Durham Cathedral.
Bede was a monk in the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow from approx 673-735 A.D.  The monasteries are located in the northeast of England.   He was only 7 years old when he was sent to join the monks, where he eventually became "the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon scholars."   He wrote and translated dozens of books on many subjects including nature, astronomy, poetry and naturally, Christianity.  Bede is most famous for writing The Ecclestical History of the English People.  The original work was in five volumes, in which Bede gives some geographical background at the beginning, and then presents his history of England from the time of Caesar's invasion to his own days. 

We visited Durham Cathedral two years ago.  I was particularly thrilled when I opened the guidebook and saw that Bede's tomb was located in the cathedral!  The cathedral was built in 1093 and it took 40 years to complete.  It is an amazing piece of Norman/Gothic architecture. 

Durham Cathedral

I could drone on and on about Bede and Durham cathedral, but for more information, visit this site:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hadrian's Empire (the book)

Whenever we travel somewhere, I try and buy a new book.   When we went to Seattle last fall I purchased A LOT of books at a wonderful used book store.  But more on that another time. 

When I was at The Wall last year, I made it a point to go to Waterstones bookstore in Hexham, where I bought two fiction books about soldiers serving on Hadrian's Wall.  This year, I bought Hadrian's Empire by Danny Danziger and Nicholas Purcell.

I am just now reading the book and I certainly recommend it.  The theme is the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century C.E.  The book is a "popular history" and is not a biography of Hadrian.  The first part is about Hadrian and how he became Emperor, but the majority of the book tells the reader how people lived during the time of Hadrian.  My only criticism is a lack of footnotes and annotations.   For instance, the authors quote an ancient writer's description of Hadrian but do not tell us the identity of the author.  But that is ok, because if I really want to know about what the ancient writers said about Hadrian, I can read an official biography.

Speaking of Waterstones, I love their bookstores.   For those of you unfamiliar with the store (which is probably most of the Americans who may wander by and read this blog) here is their website:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hexham Abbey

Hexham is one of my favorite English towns.  It is a lovely place and has an amazing abbey. 

There has been a church on the site for over 1300 years.  It was originally built around 670 and served as a monastic church.  It was destroyed by the Vikings in the late 800s and then rebuilt as a priory in the early 12th century.  I visited the abbey in the summer of 2010 and again this June.   My favorite area is the night stairs, that the monks used to come from their dormitory into the church to attend late night and early morning services.   I walked up and down the night stairs and you can see grooves in the stairs from the feet of those long-ago monks.  Here is a photo:

On the landing at the top of the stairs, there is an ancient wooden door.  Naturally, it is locked to keep out the tourists but I can just see the monks, half-asleep, trudging through the door and down the stairs to sing the night office.  Another amazing thing is the bishop's chair, called a cathedra.  Hexham has a particularly interesting and very ancient cathedra.    Here it is:
You can spend a long time in Hexham Abbey.  Hopefully I will return again someday!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sites Along the Wall - Part II

In a previous post I said there are many sites to see along Hadrian's Wall.  There are milecastles, turrets, forts, museums, quarries, temples, etc.   English Heritage and the National Trust manage a lot of these sites.  English Heritage is our personal preference, even though I used to work for the National Trust when I was a volunteer guide at Corfe Castle. 

Corbridge Roman Town is managed by English Heritage and is highly recommended.  Corbridge is just off the A69, between Hexham and Newcastle.  When you visit Corbridge, you are walking along the main street of a Roman garrison town, surrounded by the ruins of granaries, temples, workshops and other buildings.  Originally, Corbridge was the site of a fort, but when The Wall was completed, it became a town instead.  The soldiers serving on The Wall were good customers for the town.  When a soldier was off duty he could indulge in the bars, brothels, shops and bath houses in Corbridge. 

In August, the Romans are returning to Corbridge!  On Aug 28/29, Corbridge is hosting a special show called Romans and Gladiators.   Wish I could be there!

When you visit Corbridge today, you can see remains from several time periods.  Ian visited Corbridge and took some great photos. 

In the above photo there are two time periods represented.  On the right, the lower level is from the first century.  On the left, the higher level is from the 4th century.  This really gives a good perspective on how much things change over 300 years. 
Visitors can drive to Corbridge, if you are brave enough to navigate the A69.  Or, in the summer months, you can take the Hadrian's Wall Bus, the AD122.  There is also a train station, which is about 1 mile from the Roman site.  Speaking of navigating the A69, it is nothing compared to the B6318, known locally as the Military Road.  If you drive the Military Road, put on your rocket propellers because that is how the locals drive on the road.  It is truly scary.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Vallum

Hadrian's Wall was a massive undertaking, but the Romans didn't stop there.  For added protection, they also built the vallum - a ditch and earthwork south of the Wall.  The vallum follows close beside the Wall for almost the entire length. 

There are various theories about why the vallum was built.  One is that it was a kind of exclusion zone along the wall.  Others think it was some kind of communication route, with military traffic on one side and civilian on another. I don't think we can ever know for sure but it is fun to speculate. 

Speaking of the Vallum.  We stayed at the most wonderful bed and breakfast, the Vallum Lodge, which sits on the vallum!   It is truly a touch of luxury on Hadrian's Wall.
Here is a photo of our rental car and myself in front of the Vallum Lodge.  Notice that I'm trying to stay warm! 

Ann and Helen took wonderful care of us and served a delicious breakfast.   Their trusty assistant, Rocky the Cat, also helped to make our stay feel like home. 

The Vallum Lodge is about 200 yards from the Twice Brewed Inn, which makes it very convenient to walk to dinner.  The Twice Brewed has a pub quiz on Monday evenings, and is noted as one of the worst pub quizzes in England.  If you get lots of answers correct and rack up the points, you would think it would be a good thing.  But alas, the other teams get to play a joker on your team and reduce your point total.  We know this from experience, since our team actually was pretty smart.  You also get points deducted for "being clever."  It may be a strange way to run a quiz, but it is a lot of fun!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Walking the Wall

When Emperor Hadrian ordered the wall to be built in the 2nd century, I'm sure he never dreamed that it would be so famous over 2000 years later.    And I'm sure that no Roman legionary stationed on the Wall could ever imagine that "Walking the Wall" would become so popular.  People come from all over the world to walk the Hadrian's Wall National Trail.

As you can see from the above link, there are many ways to walk the Wall.  You can do it all yourself and carry your gear on your back.  Or you can have a tour company carry your luggage to your next destination and only walk with a daypack.  You can camp out or stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast. 

We met several walk walkers while staying in our B&B a few miles from Haltwhistle, in Northumberland. 
Visiting the forts and walking a bit of the Wall is my idea of fun.  But I confess that I have no desire to walk the entire 73 miles, even with a luggage transport. 

Romans in Scotland

You never know where you will find a great historical site.  There are several small castles scattered around Scotland that are not well-known.  We found Hungtintower Castle outside a small village. 

We were the only ones there and it was lovely and peaceful.   We also discovered that the Romans were there first.  Many centuries before the castle was built, the area around Huntingtower was the site of a signal station that formed part of the Roman empire's northern frontier.    The Romans built a line of small forts and signal stations along the Roman road linking their main legionary forts at Ardoch and Bertha (just north of modern-day Perth). 

Eighteen signal stations have been discovered and there are probably more.  They were about half a mile apart and consisted of a square timber tower enclosed within a palisade and ditch.  The stations were built between 79-80 when Agricola's armies reached the Tay area, and abandoned after about 7 years.Nothing is visible of the signal station at Huntingtower.  But it is nice to know that this lovely castle sits on the site of a Roman signal station.