Just returned from a jaunt to Northumbria and Hadrian’s Wall. Weather was pretty much lovely throughout, which was a surprise – the owner of the caravan site where we stayed said it gets down to -20C in the winter and they often get snowed in for weeks at a time. The site, Fallowfield Dene (thoroughly recommended and cheap), used to be a lead mine and our caravan stood next to a large spoil heap – today covered in trees and vegetation and looking very pretty.
The main point of the break was to see Hadrian’s Wall and we explored a variety of sections and their Roman remains: Corbridge, Chesters, Birdoswald and the most spectacularly situated Housesteads – half a mile from the car park along a pretty steep track it should be noted. The walk from Housesteads westwards along one of the best preserved sections, where it snakes along the contours of the ridges, is probably one of the finest in England, although we could only manage a couple of miles having to carry our two-year-old son – the light rain produced rainbows in the sunshine and the whole scene was impossibly beautiful.
I thought the best Roman site that we visited was not one of the English Heritage places but Vindolanda, a short distance from the wall, sited on the earlier Stanegate. It is the most heavily excavated with really impressive ruins of a fort and associated buildings; the magical dell with recreated temple at the far end was a pleasant surprise. The museum, while old-fashioned in layout, had many interesting and unusual artefacts, particularly the well-preserved leather and textiles which I’ve never before seen in such quantities. The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets are kept at the British Museum and none could be seen here, which was a pity, although there was an extensive display about their discovery and contents. Just down the lane outside stands the only Roman milestone in its original position.
We also had a day in Newcastle: first we went to the Laing Art Gallery, where strangely there was a display of work by David Jones, a poet and artist I had been reading about recently and wondering where I could see some of his work – most of it was on loan from the Tate. There are also two classic Burne-Jones paintings and Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
The Hancock Museum nearby houses the contents of the former Museum of Antiquities, mainly from the Wall. The best section for me was the recreated Mithraeum from Carrawburgh, which we had visited a couple of days previously – the carving of Mithras being born from the Cosmic Egg with some of the earliest depictions of the astrological signs was fascinating. I have visited Mithraea in many parts of the Western Empire – if only the sad remains in London could be re-housed more sensitively and with a suitably numinous atmosphere. The whole trip made me realise that Hadrian’s Wall and its associated forts probably provide the most important group of Roman remains in Britain.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact