This is a continuation of what'll be a series of blog posts about my trip to the UK this September. Part 1 of Day 1 is here. Part 2 of Day 1 is here. Here is Day 2. This is Day 3.
My third full day in the U.K. started on a cool, bright morning in the small town of Haltwhistle, just south of Hadrian's Wall. I woke up fairly early, had some breakfast (I'd bought myself some oatmeal the night before), packed a lunch for myself, and headed out to the street in plenty of time for the 9:00 bus that would take me to Hadrian's Wall. It was a good thing I left myself some extra time; I had some difficulty finding the actual stop. I'd expected a pole with a sign on it, but the bus stop was actually marked by a sign flat against a building's wall. That threw me, but I still caught the first AD122 bus of the day (the AD 122 is a local bus that goes east-west along a large portion of Hadrian's Wall and hits a lot of main attractions).
The bus went through Haltwhistle (adorable little town, made up mostly, as are the majority of British towns, of old stone houses) and then headed north, past sheep pastures. The land was rocky and craggy and dramatic, and the sun shone magnificently. As we turned eastwards onto the road paralleling Hadrian's Wall, we caught sight of a mile castle upon the side of the hill in front of us, tilted at a madhouse angle to match the pitch of the hill. I snapped the best picture I could out the window:
|Mile Castle 42, there on the hill at the center|
of the picture on the horizon (click the picture and zoom in a bit).
As we careened along a two-lane road that seemed too narrow to be two-laned, I hurriedly whipped out bus schedules and brochures and maps, because I realized that I hadn't actually decided where I was going to get off the bus and what I was going to do. My initial thought was to go to Housesteads, because previous research had led me to mark it as the "best bet". But then I saw that the first stop was Vindolanda, and it was only 2 miles from there to Housesteads (a long-ish walk, but only a fraction of the 12 miles I'd walked the other day), and later buses didn't stop at Vindolanda, and I probably had time for both, and . . .
Well, I ignored the advice of Past Me and hopped off the bus once it reached Vindolanda, having rumbled down a narrow country lane flanked by cows and sheep and banks of heather. The place wouldn't open for another twenty minutes, but it was a lovely morning, if chilly, so I was perfectly happy to sit there on a stone wall and wait. I'd broken out some of my literature to refine my plans for the day when I noticed that the door was actually open, so I went in. The very kind lady on the other side said she'd opened a bit early because she'd seen me there. I was so pleased! I wouldn't have minded sitting there and enjoying the quiet scenery, but it was wonderful to get a start. I paid for my ticket and a guidebook, and headed onward.
The first stop is a room with a large scale model at its center of the Roman fort.
Should I back up a bit? Let me back up a bit. Vindolanda is an ancient Roman fort. Wooden versions of the fort predate Hadrian's Wall, built in the 2nd century AD. The Romans had invaded Britannia twice--under Julius Caesar and then, in the 1st century AD, under Claudius. Despite the uprising of the warrior queen Boudicca, this second invasion stuck and Britannia became a Roman province from the English Channel to about Hadrian's Wall. (By the way, aside from my being interested in Roman Britain as a time period generally, I did, in fact, write a novel about Boudicca's daughters which is now sitting in a digital "trunk" where it will never again see the light of day. That was my reason for visiting Hadrian's Wall.) Hadrian's Wall was, of course, defensive in a sense, but it was mainly used to regulate the flow of people and goods. It's about 80 miles long, stretching east-west across the breadth of England, with mile castles and forts all along the way. The wall has survived for 2,000 years (and running), with different sections in varying degrees of preservation. Later generations happily reused the stones from the forts and the wall to build their own homes/barns/walls/whatever. What survives at the Vindolanda site is the first many courses of stones that went into building the fort (again, as mentioned, there were wooden forts predating this). Basically, it's the foundations/outlines.
Forts, of course, did not exist in isolation, and upon emerging from the visitor's center into the dewy morning, the first thing I came upon was the vicus, the civilian settlement surrounding the fort. There were workshops and wells and temples--and a lot of wet grass!
|Modern coins, ancient well.|
I was more or less alone since it was still early. I had a good time wandering about from place to place, reading all the plaques. I eventually got to the fort proper and wandered around, trying to read everything and absorb it and take lots of pictures.
|Panorama of the site--gives some idea of the dramatic landscape.|
After spending a bunch of time walking amongst the ruins of the old fort, I headed down the (steep) hill to the museum and cafe in the valley below (the hill beyond apparently was forested during the Roman period and had a look-out tower of some sort, which would make sense--you can see in the panorama picture what high ground it was).
The museum is fantastic. It's a real treasure trove of archaeological finds, from everyday things like shoes to tons of military detritus like swords and horse gear and severed heads. You know, the usual. Yes, I just said severed head:
And some more military stuff:
|A selection of javelins and spears for|
your discerning Roman soldier.
|These shoes were mostly found in ditches...|
|...where anaerobic conditions preserved them.|
|The Gladiator Glass.|
|Cleaned-up picture of the gladiator glass.|
The museum also has an extremely rare and important set of finds: an abundance of writing tablets that, millennia ago, were lost in the build-up of moss and hay and rushes on the floors. The tablets were very thin pieces of wood that people wrote on in ink. They wrote all kinds of things, from begging for clemency from the Emperor to passing along some oysters to letting friends and family know of the writer's safety and welfare. One of the tablets is an invitation to a birthday party written by a woman, perhaps the earliest surviving example of female handwriting in Latin.
|One of the Vindolanda tablets.|
The clouds had piled in as the morning progressed, carried on a sharp wind, and the temperature didn't seem to have budged upwards at all since sunup. So while it was a lovely walk, past those cows and sheep and the heather, it was a long and rather chilly one, too. A few stray raindrops plopped on my head from time to time. It looked a bit like this:
But at last I got to The Sills, where I waited a few minutes for the bus and had a little more to eat (I'd downed my packed lunch back at the museum). I got on the bus and took it to Housesteads, the next major site along the Wall.
By this time, rain was beginning to splatter the landscape intermittently, with flashes of sunlight between. Getting off the bus, I decided to spend a few minutes in the visitor's center, where you buy tickets, to wait out the rain. But I got impatient and went outside to get started in spite of the rain.
Housesteads is situated directly along the Wall--it's a wall fort. To get to the archaeological site, you go down a hill and back up--and through a sheep pasture, because this is England, I guess! It was pretty amusing. The sheep didn't even seem to notice the people walking through their pasture. The dogs that people brought with them seemed not to care about the sheep, either, which I considered a minor miracle. I grew up with a Shelty; I know she would have lost her mind trying to herd those sheep if she were there.
Having spent several hours roaming an ancient Roman fort earlier that morning, I was somewhat halfhearted in my resolve to see everything there was to see at Housesteads. I was mainly interested at this point in THE WALL. I took a cursory look at the fort itself (and managed to miss the "famous" toilets in the corner!) and went to its northern edge, which was built into Hadrian's Wall. It was a heck of a view out across rolling pasture land, with the stone wall rising and falling on its journey eastwards. But I wasn't quite satisfied. I wanted a more dramatic view.
I started poking around, trying to get towards the Wall where it wasn't part of the fort, and eventually, after dodging much sheep poop, I found a path paralleling the Wall, passing through a shady corridor of old trees. On the south side, a tranquil path; on the north, the ancient wall, mossy, broad, about three feet high, and then, beyond that, a sharp drop with pastures upon pastures in the distance.
|The path beside Hadrian's Wall and the Wall itself on the right.|
|It's a little hard to tell, but that is a precipitous|
drop from the foreground to the pastureland beyond.
I walked along until I found a spot where you could climb directly onto the wall itself. It's plenty broad enough to accommodate a path across its breadth. For about a quarter mile, I walked along a 2000-year-old wall, and that was pretty damn cool. At last, I came to a gate and a sign telling me I could go no further along the wall itself. Beyond that point, the landscape also opened up, because the trees disappeared. I got a few lovely pictures from this spot. The sun had, by the way, come back out.
By this time, I was pretty exhausted. I'd had a long day, starting at like 7:00, and it was now, oh, 1:00 or 2:00; all this, of course, was after two very long, very full days. I did stop briefly at the Housesteads museum, but it was much smaller than the Vindolanda museum, so I just cruised through on my way back out of the archaeological site.
I had some time before the next bus back to Haltwhistle, so I bought a snack at the visitor's center and sat at a picnic table as rain (again) threatened. I fiddled around on my phone and chilled for a bit. I still had to get back to my hotel, pick up my bags, get my tickets for the next train journey, and then make 2 train connections and take one bus to get to my next destination. So I needed a bit of a respite.
I got on the bus and actually had a lovely time on the ride back because it took a slightly different route going to Haltwhistle. We passed one of the most famous sites along the Wall, Sycamore Gap:
I got off at the train station because, as mentioned, I still needed to collect my train tickets for that day's journey. I wandered around that train station (which was abandoned, with no ticket office or anyone nearby) for about fifteen minutes, wondering where in the heck I was supposed to get my tickets. Was there a kiosk somewhere? I didn't see one. I noticed that it looked like it was going to rain any minute, so I hurried off towards the hotel, thinking that the lovely people who ran the place could help me. But along the way, I noticed an "Information" sign. The information point was actually within the library. So, gathering my courage, I just went right in and asked the guy at the library circulation desk if he was the one giving "information" and if he knew where I could get my tickets. He didn't know, unfortunately, and suggested that the ticket-taker on the train could use my confirmation code to print them off for me, so no need to worry. I was still a bit uneasy, but luckily a young lady who was sitting at a table nearby with a book spoke up and told me there's a kiosk on platform 1. I hadn't seen one there, but I thanked her and went off to collect my bags and hurry down to the train station, because it was definitely about to rain now.
I bustled up and down platform 1, looking for the alleged kiosk, and for the love of God I could not find it. Then, at last! There it was, in plain sight. I have no explanation for why I didn't find it earlier, except that it wasn't actually well-marked. Sure, it was there in plain sight, but it looked like any other rectangular sign (for time-tables or an ad for candy bars or whatever). It didn't say TICKETS in big, bold letters or anything like that. Anyway, as I pulled my folder-full of info out of my bag to get the necessary confirmation code, it began to rain. Big drops dropped onto my head, onto my paperwork (nooooooooo) and onto my bag. My glasses were covered in raindrops, but I was juggling ten different things and couldn't do anything about that. I went as fast as I possibly could, but still I and my stuff got pretty wet as I brought up my tickets and printed them. Stashing everything hurriedly away into my bag, I rushed towards the stairs. Remember me mentioning in a previous post how I would be leaving from platform 2 and would have to go UP a huge set of stairs, across a bridge over the tracks, and back DOWN another set of stairs? Yeah, well, I was now faced with doing that as it poured down rain. Keep in mind I could barely see anything because of my glasses, and I was wet, and my bag was wet and heavy, and it was just not fun. I did have an umbrella, of course, but I couldn't use that AND lug my bag up and down the stairs, which required both hands.
But I got to the other side of the tracks and SPRINTED for the waiting room.Once inside, I tried to dry things off a bit, starting with my glasses. I still had some details to figure out, and I had time to have a bite to eat and look at my paperwork before packing it back up (still damp) into my bag and getting onto the train.
This journey required a transfer at Carlisle again and then at Lancaster. I got off at Keighley, where I walked to the bus station (about a ten-minute walk) and hopped on the B3 bus that took me to Haworth, about a fifteen-minute ride. Luckily for me, my hotel in Haworth was just across the street from that bus stop, so I mercifully didn't have far to go.
It was full dark by this point, so I didn't get much of a chance to see Haworth. But the hotel was delightful. It was built into two or three old stone rowhouses and had charm in abundance. I was in the cherub room on the top floor, with a ceiling of many angles and a bathroom built into the eaves with an old-timey toilet. I headed right back down for dinner because I was very hungry (it was 8:00 and I hadn't had much to eat since 11:00 that morning). I could've gotten something like Yorkshire rarebit, and I'm sure it would've been wonderful, but I would not have been able to stomach anything very rich. Instead, I got myself some delicious asparagus soup.
|Beautiful tile-work on the fireplace near my|
table at dinner (these look Edwardian to me).
As I sat there in the dining room, I got talking to a wonderful older Yorkshire man who was sitting nearby by himself. He was something of a regular there, and he'd obviously noticed I was American. He told me he'd been to quite a few places in the U.S., and we had a great conversation. What stands out to me was his surprise and confusion over the fact that there are multiple places in the U.S. with the same name, like Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. I said it wasn't likely that people would attempt to go to Portland, OR and end up in Maine. And besides, if it becomes necessary, you just specify which state you mean. And in addresses, you always include the state anyway, of course! He also mentioned driving across the Dakotas and being amazed at how much nothing there was out there. I just kind of nodded. Yep. Whole lot of nothing on the high plains. Imagine crossing that in a covered wagon.