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Monday, 1 October 2012

Two tramps abroad... and a visit to a Roman settlement

‘You must be as mad as I am.’ The hiker was wearing a waxed jacket, a pair of green moleskins, and a baseball cap. He was on his way to Hadrian’s Wall, about two miles away, and barely visible through the veil of rain sweeping in from the west. He was very, very wet.

We weren’t doing too badly, as it happened. Caught in the downpour, we’d parked our bikes and were lunching under a tree, in a ditch, beside a more or less deserted road. Hot soup, the previous day’s leftover bread and cheese, and hey presto! By the time we’d eaten the rain had eased enough for us to set off again. It was a good day to be two tramps abroad.

We’d left home on Saturday morning in halfway decent weather (see the picture above), taken the train to Newcastle, a second to Wylam, and pedalled east along the banks of the Tyne towards Hexham. There were signs that the river had been in flood recently - namely, grass and leaves stranded in the branches a good eight feet above the current level, which was high enough.

I have to hold up my hands here and say, yes, this was my idea. Had I studied the map more thoroughly I might’ve noticed that the Roman road we planned to follow from Hexham to Haltwhistle, another 20-odd miles to the west, crossed a number of  contours. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. I don’t suppose it was that steep  really, but we were cycling onto a stiff headwind, about a Force 6, for the better part of two hours. It was damned hard work.

Still, it was worth the effort. Along the way, which shadowed the line of Hadrian’s Wall, we were able to call in at the remains of the Roman settlement at Corbridge (and at Grant’s, a fabulous cake-shop and bakery).

This isn’t the best photo, but it does show the basic set-up, which is the ground-plan, foundations and remaining fragments of a main street, a plaza and various buildings - including granaries and storehouses - that comprised the old fort and town 1,850 years ago.

There’s also a rather splendid museum housing some beautiful finds - everything from spear heads to gold rings, hammer-heads to pottery lamps, carved stone pediments to an exquisite clear glass flagon. I’m afraid to say I had no idea that the Romans had perfected the manufacture of clear glass. But then, until we went to Rome a few years ago I had no idea that they had invented concrete.

Further along the way, and close to the Wall, we had a surprise view of the larger and more complex remains of Vindolanda, a substantial settlement where the excavations are still in progress. ( We will be returning there another time. I don’t think it’s the sort of place you want to whizz around in half an hour - especially when you have wet feet.

We camped at Haltwhistle, the only tent among a collection of mostly empty caravans. Once we’d eaten the pot of chile beans we’d brought with us we headed to town, and soon found the Black Bull pub. We arrived somewhat dishevelled, but received a very friendly welcome. The landlord was that unusual breed who comes out from behind the pumps and engages with his customers, chatting with a Canadian couple, making fuss of a large friendly Labrador dog who was sitting with his owners as they ate, giving us a wave and a loud farewell as we departed. Simple social skills, but in my experience not common amongst publicans. I was particularly pleased to find this guy stocked, among other beers, a York Brewery ale: Constantine (named after the Roman Emperor who was crowned on the site now occupied by York Minster).

The great thing about struggling uphill, into the wind, as we had most of Saturday, is that you can allow yourself to anticipate a return journey which should be a piece of cake. You hope, of course, that the wind hasn’t turned around - as it has been known to do. No such worries yesterday. We sailed along, made good speed and even had time to forage amongst the hedgerows and fill the empty chile pot with brambles before  picking up a train home from Corbridge.     

This is a busy week: tomorrow I head York to meet Mr Pannett, our publisher, and the  photographer who’s working on the picture book, due out a year from now. Thursday it’s Harrogate to address a gathering of romantic novelists. Friday… Hexham races, weather permitting. So I don’t expect to produce a lot of writing. That’s probably no bad thing. I had a lot of input last week, did a lot of thinking, and need to let it all sink in, maybe even ferment a little. After Andrew Wille had reported back on my 450-word synopsis, I took his advice and tried to draft an outline of the proposed book. I came up with thirteen chapters. Seven of those are written - in draft form, that is. What I need to ponder over the next few days is, can I accommodate all thirteen? Should I add a couple? Can I make them all serve the purpose of the book? And what exactly is the purpose? Not easy, this writing lark.  Or should I say, it’s easy enough to put words on paper; but then you have to plan, and shape, and edit - and as often as not, do it all over again.

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