Hadrian's Wall and Durham

I’m now more than a week behind in writing up our holiday. However …

Given that we only had a day at Hadrian’s Wall, we couldn’t see everything we wanted, so we concentrated on just a few things. We started with the Procolitia Fort and Temple of Mithras. The Fort is a bit hard to work out, as it hasn’t been excavated, so it is basically just ridges in a field (with lots of sheep and cattle), and because it is private property there’s not a lot of signage. Fortunately the owner happened to walk past while we were there (collecting molehills, which apparently make good topsoil) and she showed us the rough layout. The Temple of Mithras was in the next field over, and was a bit more obvious as it has been excavated and partially restored.

We then went to the Steel Rigg carpark, which is a starting point for some good stretches of Wall. We went for a bit of a walk, but didn’t really have time to make it extensive. The Wall was impressive, and the views were spectacular.

Next stop was Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort that was originally set up before Hadrian’s Wall was built, and so is located a little south of the Wall. Excavations of the area are ongoing: as well as the archaeologists, they have volunteer workers every year, a number of whom we saw digging and dragging wheelbarrows around. There’s not much in the way of high walls, but there is a growing picture of the layout of the township.

There was also a rather good museum, with interesting pieces, and a video about the Vindolanda tablets – wooden tablets with ink writing containing all sorts of lists and messages (including one to the fort commander’s wife, from another, nearby, fort commander’s wife, inviting her to a birthday party).

After Vindolanda, we went to the Roman Army Museum (discount ticket if bought at the same time as a Vindolanda ticket) which proved to be a bit disappointing.

Our final stop was Housesteads (Vercovicium), a fort actually on Hadrian’s Wall. Like Vindolanda, there are no full walls or anything, but it has been more extensively excavated. We were lucky enough to arrive just as a guided walk was starting, so we went on that, and learned a fair bit more than we would have got just from the signs. As well as the fort itself, the views over the landscape (and of some intact/restored sections of Wall) were spectacular.

After that, we drove down to Durham, where Anelie and Neil had very kindly offered us a room for the night. It was great to catch up with them again.

After we’d gone out for dinner, we all went for a walk along the riverbank, and Anelie and Neil showed us a lovely view of the Cathedral.

The next day, we went to see the Castle and the Cathedral. They are opposite each other, with the green in between them. However, because the graduations had just finished, the green had been completely covered by an enormous great marquee. By the time we got there, workmen had started disassembling it, but it was still half up, and they appeared to be on a break of indeterminate length. So we weren’t able to get any nice photos of the area.

It turned out that Castle tours didn’t start until the afternoon, and there were services in the Cathedral all morning. However, we were still able to see some sections of the cathedral, and the cloister. And it was lovely to be in the Cathedral while the choir was singing.

We went briefly into the Museum before meeting Anelie and Neil for lunch, and then after lunch went back and saw the rest of the Cathedral. It really is vast, and must have been incredibly impressive when it was all painted inside (it was pretty impressive just with bare stone!)

The first Castle tour was at 2:00, so we walked over about 5 minutes before, only to have the people in front of me by the last two tickets. So we booked for the 2:30 instead, which was probably better since the 2:00 had 41 people on it, and ours was much smaller than that. We got a history of the Castle, and saw a number of rooms, the Great Hall, the two Chapels and the kitchen. Because the Castle is now student accommodation, the kitchens are still in use – in fact, they are the oldest continually-in-use kitchens in Britain. There were also two original kitchen tables, taken out of use in the 1970s as they were deemed unhygenic, which were kept in other areas. (The bigger one was in a large room upstairs – apparently the rugby team of the day had carried it up!)

We then went back to Anelie and Neil’s, said our goodbyes and headed to the B&B near Newcastle airport that we had booked, ready for the flight to Jersey the next day. They had advertised as having no aircraft noise – which did prove to be true – but neglected to mention that they were right next to a busy roundabout. Fortunately the traffic did ease off later in the evening, but it definitely at the lower end of the B&Bs we had stayed in. On the other hand, the pub dinner we had was very good.

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