§ CHAPTER EIGHT
Picts and symbols—Roman roads—Inchtuthil fort—Gask Ridge—Stirling Castle—Antonine Wall—Dere Street—Escomb church—Catraeth and Gododdin—Aldborough Roman town—Goodmanham—the Conversion—Humber bridge—Barton-on-Humber—Stow—the kingdom of Lindsey—Lincoln and Paulinus—Ermine Street and Icknield Way—St Albans—Stone chapel—Reculver—Isle of Thanet—warriors and popes—Canterbury—Roman churches
THE VILLAGE of Meigle straddles the A94 on the south side of Strathmore in the old Scottish county of Perthshire. Immediately to the north-west the Braes of Angus mark the Highland line, the edge of the Grampian mountains. Meigle seems once to have been the site of a Pictish monastery and royal estate; the small museum, housing more than thirty carved stones in a former Victorian school house, punches well above its weight. Some of the greatest indigenous art of the ancient British reposes here, where the Dark Ages are not merely illuminated but animated: dauntless warriors ride prancing horses into battle with hounds baying at their feet, bulls lower their horns and face off against one another; strange winged beasts process across friezes. A hybrid repertoire of Christian iconography—crosses, crucifixions and defeated serpents—is decorated, intertwined and psychologically melded with Z-rods,79 mirrors, crescents and creatures of fabulous imagination, the encrypted semiotics of a proud and exuberant warrior culture. The Picts may be enigmatic, their language obscure and their symbols as yet defiant of the code-breakers’ arts, but there is no denying their love of self-celebration, their pluralist relish in embracing the iconographies of Christianity and their animist prehistoric past.
The stone called Meigle 1, the earliest of the collection and belonging probably to the eighth century, was recycled from a prehistoric standing stone that bears traces of Bronze Age cup-and-ring marks. Its ‘front’ bears an elaborately interwoven, ornate cross of hybrid Irish form, a stylised wheel-head pierced by four circles, not a square inch left without interlace or knot work. The corners are filled with what look like wild boar and deer, and creatures of the imagination that seem impossible to describe. On the reverse is an apparent jumble of pictorial thoughts: a fish, a mirror and comb, warriors on horseback, a snake and Z-rod; an angel with spreading wings. Perhaps set up, or reused, as a gravestone to a great warrior—the explicitly Pictish symbols are believed to represent rank, status, maybe names and probably clan affiliation—and possibly later ‘converted’ to overtly Christian commemoration, these stones tease us with the promise of insight into the rich emotional and imaginative Early Medieval mind: it is a mind both grisly and glorious, fantastical and pragmatic, inhabiting parallel worlds of subsistence and warfare in a mindscape of magic and wonder, the dreamtime of the ancestors.
I am struck, though, by the contrast with those crosses and memorials with which we had spent time in Moville. There, sculpture lives on in its landscape; in a museum, divorced from horizon, setting, sunrise and sunset or archaeological context, these beautiful works of a lost race are diminished: shop-window mannequins, not people.
I had hoped to walk among the Picts; but I had another story to tell that began at Meigle and ended 705 miles away on the coast of Kent. Meigle marks the very end, so far as we can tell, of the Roman road system in the British Isles that began with the armies of Claudius crossing the Channel inAD 43. The legions built outpost forts north and east of here along the coast of Angus and Aberdeenshire, as far up as the Moray Firth: the furthest reach of a grand experiment to tame and enrol the British peoples into the Imperial project. But no metalled road has been proven beyond Perth and none can realistically be projected further than the line of the A94. What better place to begin a mad dash along the highways of the Empire?
Dark Age landscapes are best seen at walking pace when land and sea, river and sky behave as they did for our cultural ancestors. To understand them more minutely one must dwell for a while, steep oneself in a locality with a bounded horizon. But there was another dimension to the Early Medieval world. Stepping across the threshold of native settlement and trail, farm, field and woodland, onto the stone highways of the lost race of giants, was to experience the world at warp speed. If the Roman legions were like land-grabbing tanks, then the roads its armies laid were their tracks: an unstoppable grid of militarised policing that subdued by shock and awe. The speed at which cross-country travel became possible during the Roman centuries distorted and distended the map of Britain to a degree that is difficult to appreciate since the revival of road building in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century the electric telegraph had the same effect, joining Europe, America and the Indian sub-continent in an information web that shrunk communication from weeks to minutes. The internet video call has been a natural successor, but is merely incremental. The railways are the inheritors of the Roman idea of a Europe united by the speed at which horses and armoured troops might move. Our contemporary equivalent of that travel revolution on the human, physical scale has been the linking of Britain and Europe by an undersea railway, an idea that seemed fantastic to earlier generations but which is a logical successor to Watling Street and the Fosse Way.
What impact did that streamlining of landscape, the removal of the land’s natural drag-effect, have on the Early Medieval world? How much of the Roman road network survived the fall of Empire? How many of those supposedly straight roads existed before Roman armies turned them into superhighways of suppression, co-option and commerce? In travelling from one end of the conveyor belt to the other, at speed, I hoped to experience something of that distortion of space and time; and to answer a few of my own questions along the way.
I travelled up from County Durham on the motorbike and spent a night in Perthshire with old friends, Malcolm and Fiona Lind. Malcolm was a fellow student in archaeology in the 1980s; both are teachers in schools around the town of Blairgowrie; both are gifted photographers. They look at the world from the edge of the Highlands, through a distinctly Northern lens. I was arriving in early autumn when the soft fruit harvest had been gathered and lorries full of tatties trundled along roads from farm to factory. It was a fortnight after the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum and I found my friends in despondent mood: this is nationalist territory. We talked of democracy and of Scotland’s cultural renaissance; of an idea of a North whose border lies somewhat south of Berwick, and of a long-nourished sense of estrangement from the centres of power, a conversation that might not, perhaps, have been unfamiliar to the clan chiefs of the second century; or the eighteenth. Plus ça change. We consoled ourselves with camera talk, with whisky, craic and music.
Beginning, the next morning, at Meigle, I followed the A94 back along the south side of the River Isla with autumnal orange and deep coniferous green Highland foothills of the Forest of Alyth away to my right. To the south the Sidlaw Hills separate fertile Strathmore from Dundee and the swift estuary of the silvery Tay. At Coupar, Angus I switched to General Wade’s Military Road in my search for the most northerly of the great fortresses of the Empire. The general understood Roman roads and their military potential better than anyone—he knew that flat, all-weather hard-metalled surfaces gave him moral and tactical advantages over the enemies of the state. One road built in the right place supported by strategic forts allowed deep and lasting penetration of untamed landscapes. Commerce followed; and as the pragmatic British mercantile state of the eighteenth century knew very well, the best way to keep a subdued nation down was to trade with it, after which economics conducted their own diplomacy. Revolutions usually start with an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor.
Inchtuthil (Pinnata castra—the ‘fort on the wing’), when I found it overlooking a broad meander of the Tay, looked like a gigantic abandoned football pitch whose touchlines were beyond vision: more than fifty acres in extent, with the odd inconvenient beech tree sticking up from a post-Roman burial mound along the touchlines slightly marring the appearance of rigid, squarebashing military order. It is a huge legionary fortress, ostensibly a memorial to the ultimately unfulfilled ambitions of Tacitus’s father-in-law Agricola in the early 80s and the only legionary fortress anywhere in the Empire to survive completely intact, the site undeveloped by later entrepreneurs aside from a small native fort that lies just beyond its south-west corner. These were, Tacitus says, the headquarters of Agricola’s XXth Legion during a triumphant three-year campaign to subdue the Caledonians; but it was a short existence: the legion withdrew, dismantled the fort, slighted the ditches and left behind nothing but a hoard of three-quarters of a million iron nails. Camp Bastion, a British airbase in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, lasted twice as long. Tacitus’s account of the XXth Legion’s Caledonian campaign is a celebration of martial spirit, of the patriotic obligation to overwhelm a barbarian enemy. His stridently propagandist and triumphalist tone would have found favour with Joseph Goebbels. Archaeologists are much more sceptical now that they have excavated some of the sites associated with the Roman advance into Caledonia and found, to no one’s surprise, evidence of a much more nuanced tale of success and failure, doubt, adaptation and response. Agricola has been demoted a few ranks from all-conquering hero to mixed-record C-in-C, Cal. Ops. The story of the Roman campaigns in Scotland appears to have been more complex, and to have lasted rather longer, than Tacitus wished his domestic audience to think.
Inchtuthil was full of melancholy; autumn seemed the perfect time to visit, with golden leaves falling in lazy arcs from trees, the skies leaden and portentous and my breath misty on the cooling air. There could, in a sense, be no more perfect memorial to the Giants than this unsullied, tangible imprint of their far-distant emperor and living god, re-absorbed by the earth like Fall’s harvest.
Passing signs for Scone, where medieval kings of Scotland were inaugurated at the Hill of Belief—a probable prehistoric burial mound—I picked up the first clear traces of the Roman road network west of Perth along the line of the Gask Ridge above Strathearn. The road’s straightness, its evenness, breadth and flanking drainage ditches were unmistakeable marks of legionary engineering. Constructed perhaps over a period of decades straddling the first and second centuries, it linked a series of intervisible signal stations and seems to have been intended not, perhaps, as a frontier like the Stanegate, but as a series of nodes from which basic military intelligence of native movements was gathered and transmitted up the chain of command: it is an early-warning system joined by a road that allowed the rapid movement of horses and infantry. On the bike, unless I stopped for a pee, to take a picture or refuel and consult the map, the dead-straight road was a worm hole, the landscape of forest and glen a blur, each crossroads passing too quickly to note the directions and distances of the places named on its finger posts. It was a sublime journey south, one of total concentration on the road and with no mental room for ambulatory musings on the Early Medieval landscape. Those were the indulgences of the walker. I was now travelling in the guise of a courier, not a moment to be lost, carrying news to distant parts in the hope that I might outpace their consequences.
There is evidence that Early Medieval couriers and their warrior lords relied heavily on the Roman road system. A remarkable story told by Bede, in his Life of St Cuthbert, relates how the holy man prophesied the destruction of the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith (r. 671–85). Succeeding his father, Oswiu, after a long and successful reign, Ecgfrith does not seem to have inherited the luck of the Idings. He married twice, but neither queen gave him a child. The first, Æthelthryth, retired to found Ely Cathedral, leaving her dower lands at Hexham to Wilfrid. The second, Iurminburh, who seems to have been a Frankish princess, but who took against Wilfrid, survived her husband, also took monastic vows and died childless. Such was the dynastic risk posed by a king without sons that Ecgfrith’s sister, Ælfflaed, consulted her holy man Cuthbert, then Bishop of Lindisfarne and in his last years, about potential successors. Ecgfrith had unwisely invoked Cuthbert’s anger, and that of Iona, by fighting a war in Ireland and taking Christian prisoners. In 685, the year in which he dedicated a church at Jarrow, the king alienated his bishop further when he took his armies on campaign in the land of the Christian Picts. Cuthbert saw that the moment of greatest danger was at hand.
He set off therefore to Carlisle, to speak with the Queen, who had arranged to stay there in a convent to await the outcome of the war. The day after his arrival the citizens conducted him round the city walls to see a remarkable Roman fountain that was built into them. He was suddenly disturbed in spirit. He leaned heavily on his staff, turned his face dolefully to the wall, then straightening himself and looking up to the sky he sighed deeply and said almost in a whisper, ‘Perhaps at this moment the battle is being decided.’80
Cuthbert immediately went to Queen Iurminburh and warned her to return to ‘the royal city’ (Bamburgh, probably; but perhaps York) in her chariot as soon as possible. Of many intriguing features in the story (not least of which are the survival of a Roman public fountain in seventh-century Carlisle and the queen’s mode of transport), the most telling is the arrival, three days later, of a refugee from the battle bearing ill tidings. At a place called Nechtansmere the king had met his end at the hands of Bruide mac Beli’s Pictish armies; his bodyguards slaughtered, his army routed. Never again would Northumbria so dominate the whole island of Britain. Even allowing for the narrator’s exaggeration, it is nevertheless striking that a courier was able to reach the queen within three days of the battle (one can see how the story was retrospectively put together by marvelling companions of the far-seeing saint). There has been much speculation about the site of this battle. Traditionally it was associated with Dunnichen, close to Forfar in Angus, a day’s march east of Meigle. It has often been suggested that a great Pictish stone at Aberlemno, which seems to depict a battle, commemorated the defeat of the Northumbrian armies. Alex Woolf, a pre-eminent Early Medieval scholar, has suggested another possible site: Dunachton in the Highlands, south-west of Aviemore. If one is to believe Bede’s very precise account of the timing, a location close to the end of the Roman road system is, perhaps, more plausible, although the jury is still out. One hundred and eighty-odd road miles in three days, if true, represents a system of Bernician royal couriers every bit as competent as that of the Imperial legions: impressive; but not miraculous.
That Dark Age armies used the existing Roman road system is clear from the number of significant battles which took place on, or very close to, Roman roads, especially where they crossed significant rivers. Many of the monasteries donated by kings to their special holy men were sited in or near Roman forts at key points on the road network. In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, King Ine of Wessex retained a company of Welsh riders, apparently as couriers. The constructions of the Giants were real and were used as assets by Early Medieval kings, shrinking space and time and giving them significant advantages in controlling access to land and territory. Military campaigns often took place over long distances: Welsh kings in Northumbria; Mercians in Scotland and Essex; Northumbrians in Wessex, the Welsh Marches and East Anglia. Nor should we underestimate the Anglo-Saxons’ awareness of what they had inherited. Bede knew that Roman engineers were responsible for roads, forts, walls and fountains, civic and military infrastructure. Inquisitive kings would have known from the learned men of the seventh century that the words of these ancients had also been preserved; that academic knowledge did not prevent them from constructing a mythological past in which Germanic and Roman dynastic progenitors conferred magical powers and inalienable rights on their line. Nor did deep-held pagan tribal traditions of ancestorworship and the king-as-god prevent them from signing up to the new deal offered by an entrepreneurial, savvy and opportunistic church: that in return for land, a rational idea of kingship and a Christian state, kings should hold their office by divine right.
South of the Gask Ridge the Roman road passes, more or less untraceable, beneath modern routes and towns, past Stirling—Bede’s Urbs Iudeu, where Ecgfrith’s father, King Oswiu, was besieged by Penda in the early 650s. Here an ancient crossing at the head of the navigable River Forth underlines the strategic im pact of Stirling’s imposing natural citadel, as perfect a Dark Age fortress site as can be imagined. I caught up with the ancient road again before a slow cruise through the streets of Falkirk, where road meets Wall. In this case, it was the turf and clay dyke constructed during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161), Hadrian’s overambitious successor, and abandoned within a generation. Bede, misreading his sources, attributed it to the later emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211), although he got its geography right: cutting directly across the Forth–Clyde isthmus from sea to sea. Not much of the rampart remains, but I parked up next to the best-preserved section at Watling Lodge. Sure, it’s impressive, like a tidal wave poised to crash onto the shores of some unknown country, seemingly toying with the antique beech trees which ride its crest and whose comparatively short lives of a hundred and fifty years are no more than flotsam on history’s grand swell. With such models to work from it is easy to see how Dark Age potentates like Offa might decide to build one for himself. If holy men wished their achievements to be fossilised in the construction of stone churches, memorials and crosses, why would their temporal lords, addicted to all things glorious, impressive and big, not wish for such a monument to their earth-bound power. And these monuments, like the roads built by the Romans, still stand fifteen hundred years later; they were permanent.
From Edinburgh (Din Eidyn: the seat of the Gododdin of poetic legend), I was able to follow a familiar road home: the modern A68—Dere Street, which leads north from York in Deira (hence the name), defying topography and superficial logic. The modern motorist, driving at speeds somewhat in excess of the legionary standard of thirteen miles a day, is warned to beware of sharp bends and sudden crests. Any number of road accidents litter this route every year. The unwary motorcyclist is vulnerable to the sin of hubris; and in winter weather the upland sections are quickly made impassable by snow. It is a rollercoaster ride across Lammermuir and Cheviot, through Lauderdale and the border town of Jedburgh, skirting the immense Kielder forest and endless miles of bare sheep-dotted brae. Dere Street allowed Roman armies before, during and after the building of the Wall to penetrate deep into the territories of satellite tribes, the Votadini and Selgovae, whose relationship with the Empire was an ambivalent mix of envy and antipathy. Forts at Trimontium, in the Eildon Hills, where the road crosses the Tweed near Melrose, at Bremenium (High Rochester) and Habitancum (West Woodburn), each one securing a section of the route and monitoring its wild hinterland, passed me by in a blur. I have ridden this road many times; now I was looking at it through different eyes as I tried to take in both the scale of the ambition in attempting to tame these Debatable Lands, and its ultimate folly. No king’s writ ran in these borderlands until there was a single monarch of both England and Scotland at the beginning of the seventeenth century. James VI of Scotland renamed them the Middle Shires, which shows, if nothing else, that he had a well-developed sense of humour.
Sometimes the modern road departs from its Roman predecessor, taking a more adaptive, empirical route across country, fording river and skirting steep slope. I have traced some of the abandoned route on walks through the Borders, where more human imperatives and practicalities allow the traveller on foot or horseback to respond to local realities. But in its essentials the Roman road survives; and that can only be because it has been in more or less continual use for nearly two millennia. Given the chance, nature eats roads for breakfast. Weeds appear within a year of traffic’s cease; trees follow; landslide, flood and frost wreak havoc. We do not suppose that major repairs were carried out to roads in the Early Medieval period (bridges, perhaps, excepted); routes were maintained by traffic.
At Old Melrose a loop in the Tweed makes an almost enclosed peninsula where a famous abbey stood in Bede’s day: here the youthful Cuthbert was trained by Eata (the abbot and later bishop so improbably commemorated in the church at Atcham on the banks of the River Severn (see page 71). The monastery was supposedly a foundation of Aidan, the first abbot of Lindisfarne; but there has always been a suspicion among scholars that it had earlier been a British foundation; Bede knew it by its Brythonic name, Mailros. There are sufficient signs of Romano-British Christianity in the Borders—Latin memorial stones, aligned cemeteries and ‘Eccles’ place names—to suggest that a Roman episcopal church maintained itself here long enough to be absorbed into Oswald’s Irish mission. That a native foundation like Mailros should survive close to Iron Age and Roman forts and a military road on a key crossing of the Tweed makes one appreciate the essential continuity of landscape foci. Roman roads and their crossings were centripetal. The three hills of Eildon in whose shadow Melrose lies dominate the horizon for many miles in all directions. They can be seen from the Border crossing at Carter Bar; from Cheviot and from the Lammermuirs. The logic of travelling through these magnificently open lands is ancient and compelling.
The village of Ebchester, which marks a crossing of the Derwent Valley and the boundary between Northumberland and County Durham, is the site of a former Roman fort, Vindomora. The modern place name suggests that it was appropriated by King Oswald’s sister Æbbe (pronounced Abba, as in the pop group) to found a monastery. Its parish church, which sits within the outline of the old fort, was originally constructed using Roman masonry and is still dedicated to the saintly Iding princess. She also founded a house in less hospitable surroundings at St Abb’s Head north of Berwick, on a rocky clifftop high above the sea. Appropriately, considering the martial history of her family, the church at Ebchester was later the burial place of celebrated sword-makers from the nearby village of Shotley Bridge. Joseph Oley, supposedly the last of a line of German craftsmen to settle in these parts with their armourers’ skills, was laid to rest here in the nineteenth century. Shotley Bridge is my home too: a resting place before the onward journey south.
In many parts of County Durham the line of the old road must be reconstructed by joining the dots, one fort or town to another. At Lanchester (Longovicium) on the River Browney not even a footpath survives. In odd stretches it coincides with a lane or B-road. The geography east of the Pennines is one of steep-sided wooded denes;81 the grain of the land is unclear, like the confused swells of the sea after a storm. The Roman road tends to survive on higher, flatter sections useful as drove roads. Close to Bishop Auckland the Roman fort of Binchester (Vinovia), situated in a loop of the River Wear, appears unconnected to the road system. On the opposite, southern bank of the river I stopped, one morning some time after my Scottish ride,82 at Escomb, where England’s most complete early church survives somewhat against the odds. It is an austere, very northern sort of building: tall and narrow, its exterior walls smutty from the smoke of coal fires. The key hangs by the front door at one of the cluster of modern houses that rings the venerable church—there is no pretension here. The churchyard is circular, a clue, perhaps, to Irish or British influence. The precise date of its construction is unknown, although it must belong to the late seventh or eighth century; some say Wilfrid had it built, but it seemed to me to lack his grandiose orthodox stamp. It is simple in its magnificence: constructed in stone quarried from Binchester fort (a legionary inscription has been built into one internal wall; the chancel arch has been lifted wholesale from a military site). From the outside it looks more like a Borderer’s defensible bastle house83 than a church. The original entrance was a low door in the north wall. There is no tower, but a simple nave and smaller chancel or sanctuary with small windows high up: one’s eyes are constantly drawn to the heavens. An incised cross, thick with layers of whitewash, survives in the wall behind the lectern; a larger cross, carved in relief and perhaps depicting a preaching high cross, now stands against the east wall behind the altar.
South of Bishop Auckland I picked up Dere Street again: unmistakably arrow-straight for several miles as far as Piercebridge, where a Roman bridge across the Tees, its ruined footings stranded in a field by the meanderings of the river, forced a small diversion through the village and over a modern crossing. A few miles further south, at Scotch Corner, Dere Street is joined by both the trans-Pennine A66 (Roman-built, too) and its big brother, the A1; the Pennines of Swaledale closed in to the west; the Vale of York opened out to the east with the North York Moors distant and grey-hazy beyond. The dual carriageway takes a wide, sweeping arc around Catterick, site of a racecourse and Roman fort (Cataractonum) and, probably, of a legendary Dark Age battle. The town’s prehistoric forebear may have lain upriver at Richmond, beneath the medieval castle below whose ramparts the Swale tumbles into a splendid cataract well worth the Latin name. Cataractonum survived into the fifth century and beyond. Inside the jaws of Swaledale a series of apparently defensive dykes is thought to belong to a period when Dere Street was a frontier between Deira and the British kingdom of Rheged, whose warrior lord, the fabled Urien, fought the kings of Northumbria as far north as Holy Island.
An epic battle lament that survives in much-evolved form as Y Gododdin (from the ancient British tribal name Votadini) seems to commemorate a siege here in the last decades of the sixth century, a tragic, failed pre-emptive attempt by a British confederacy of the Men of the Old North—theGwŷr y Gogledd—to turn back Northumbrian territorial ambitions. Bede, and the Gododdin poet, called it Catraeth and in siting a mass-baptism by Bishop Paulinus in the River Swale here in about 627, Bede implies that it was a royal estate under King Edwin. My memories of excavating at Catterick are three unpleasant months confined within the stinky stalls of a cow barn on a farm whose foundations lay deep in the Roman and Dark Age past. Construction of new slurry pit offered the chance for Catterick expert Pete Wilson and his team to get a sniff, so to speak, of the town’s end. We peered through the keyhole, drew narrow conclusions and moved on. The nearby British infantry garrison is a reminder that useful places stay useful.
Now, thankfully, I passed Catterick at speed and rode on to the civitas capital of the Brigantes, the confederation of northern British tribes, at Aldborough. Isurium Brigantium was shut—English Heritage hibernates until April Fools’ Day. The fifteenth-largest town in Roman Britain, nestling in a bend of the River Ure close to Boroughbridge and just above its confluence with the Swale, intrigues me because of its location. Like Wroxeter, it was intended to provide a less threatening replacement for the tribal headquarters, or oppidum, in this case at nearby Stanwick. It is the closest Roman presence to Wilfrid’s seventh-century foundation at Ripon and the only substantial civilian settlement on the road between York and Corbridge. There are thoughts in the academic community that perhaps Catraeth succeeded to its tribal functions and status, lying at the core of a Dark Age kingdom of the Tees Valley. Bede may be referring to Aldborough, or to Catterick, when he describes a siege at an oppidum between a Deiran pretender, Osric, and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd during the campaign that led to Oswald’s great victory at Heavenfield in 634. Aldborough is now just a pretty village off the main drag, deserted by legions, river and main road alike. But I stopped for a while anyway, peering over the fence to see what I could of its grassy-banked ramparts before taking a small, dead-straight road south-east towards York.
Eburacum, the greatest Roman fortress town of the North with its own colonia 84 and special place in imperial history, is worth its own journey. For now, I was able to spend a comfortable and cheery evening in the company of old friends, Bob Sydes and Sarah Austin. I first met Bob when I worked for him twenty-five years ago at an extraordinary lowland ‘hill-fort’ excavation in South Yorkshire called Sutton Common. It’s the only site where I have had the privilege of excavating ramparts with their wooden palisade still intact and with the axe marks of the woodsmen who cut the stakes still perfectly visible. Their extraordinary preservation was caused by the anaerobic conditions that prevail in wetlands, now sadly drained by agriculture. Bob and I chewed over old times and current archaeo-gossip; Sarah and I over a fascinating exploration of visualising complex archaeological data that she has in mind for a doctoral thesis. Bob had just been to a conference in Derry, so we compared notes on Ireland, on that interesting city and on politics.
From York, Roman roads run south-west to Tadcaster (Roman Calcaria) to rejoin the Great North Road, and east towards the chalk Wolds of the East Riding and the River Humber. My first appointment was with Bede’s most famous set-piece drama: the conversion of King Edwin. At Market Weighton, at the foot of the Wolds, I turned off the main road and wove my way through the back lanes of the town, up the gentle scarp behind it and into the village of Goodmanham. Here, Bede says, Edwin’s chief priest Coifi, having been persuaded by the Deiran elite to renounce his paganism, rode out on a stallion wielding a spear, and cast it into the precincts of a temple that stood here. For Bede, drawing on oral traditions inherited from Edwin’s descendants and preserved by his cult at Whitby Abbey, this was a decisive victory for Roman orthodoxy. Walking around the outside of the parish church (all locked up and no key to be had), perched on a raised rectangular graveyard in the centre of the village, perhaps on the exact spot of the earlier idolatrous temple, I contemplated what paganism and Christianity meant to the Northumbrians of the seventh century. So much of what we know about the church derives from medieval and later historical perspectives that it’s hard to say. Bede’s account is so coloured by both his distaste for paganism and his detestation of British schismatic practices that it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that the conversion was intellectually and spiritually decisive, at least at the level of aristocratic elites if not among the populace.
Pagan and Christian alike revered bodily relics; both found spiritual solace and magic in natural springs and places with special atmospheres. The lives of all Britain’s inhabitants revolved around the cycle of the seasons, the fertility of their crops and families, the celebration of quarterly festivals and the construction of places in which to contemplate, tender offerings and seek intervention from supernatural beings. Both pagan and Christian held deeply to animist sensibilities. It is easy to look at the monotheism of the Christian faith and see in it a rationalising, all-purpose, all-seeing god with the central redeeming figure of Christ unique in theological history. And it is similarly easy to miss the very evident parallels between the charismatic healers of the shamanic or druidic tradition and those of the New Testament. Jesus acts at the centre of a pantheon of disciples, martyrs, apostles and saints every bit as rich as the suite of ancestors and spirits that the Dark Age Germans, British or Irish employed as propitiatory agents. A host of local and celebrity saints fulfilled the same social and cultural functions as—and in some cases may have been identical with—animist deities residing at the bottom of wells, in sacred groves and caves, beneath rocks and still pools. Did not Pope Gregory, after first advising King Æthelberht to destroy pagan idols and their temples, then suggest to Augustine that he allow converts to raise huts of branches around his new churches and celebrate the Christian feast days as they had been accustomed to celebrate their former pagan feasts.85 And do we not retain Œastra, Woden, Tiw, Saturn and the Moon in our calendrical vocabulary?
No fewer than four springs rise close by All Hallows Church in Goodmanham, each of which might have attracted offerings, seekers of healing powers and the wisdom of obscure oracles, both before and after the conversion. In a world ruled by capricious fates, divination was an arcane skill practised by wise men and women inheriting the gift from their forebears; a chance to turn the odds in one’s favour or invoke sympathetic magic for the birth of a child or a calf, or for a bounteous crop. A similar impulse moves people to light a candle for a loved one or to pick ‘lucky’ numbers for the lottery. The animist spirit runs deep in the human soul. The Christian missionaries, at least the savvy ones, came bearing the promise of an upgrade, not a revolution.
In any case, on King Edwin’s death the Northumbrian elite very quickly apostatised; a political vacuum immediately ensued, during which anarchy seems briefly to have reigned (proof, by the rule of exception, that the Dark Ages were generally anything but anarchic). Bede recalled that year (633–4) as one expunged from the annals of history by ‘those who compute the dates of kings’. In the North, Christianity was very quickly revived in Irish form by a king who embodied the potency of royal saint and Christian martyr, tribal totem, virile battle chief and temporal overlord. Oswald’s life and post-mortem career as inspirational relic factory straddles that divide like no other.
In the compelling throwaway detail of a miracle tale, Bede gives us incidental evidence that the Roman roads in these parts had a recreational as well as military value in the Early Medieval period. As a youth, Abbot Herebald of Tynemouth priory had served under John of Beverley. John, a former Bishop of Hexham, founded a monastery in the principal settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds around the year 700. We are told that one day Herebald, and the other young men travelling in a party with the bishop, came upon a level and dry section of road that seemed to them to be the perfect spot for a horse race. Reluctantly, the bishop allowed the youths to have their fun, but he refused Herebald’s pleas to join them. Herebald eventually gave in to temptation, took his turn galloping up and down the course and was eventually thrown while leaping a great pothole, fracturing his skull on a rock. Needless to say, the powerful prayers and tender care of the bishop restored him to life.
I rode south, now, to the edge of Northumbria and the banks of the Humber, an immense arm of the North Sea that penetrates forty miles inland before it can be crossed by any conventional road, at Boothferry on the River Ouse. I ran out of road at Brough, formerly the Roman fort of Petuariawhich both guarded seaborne traffic and acted as a ferry station for the crossing to Lindsey during and after the Empire. Snowy squalls blustered out of an uncompromising, flat north-west horizon. The wind-ripped river seemed impossibly wide, its currents impassable, the blue and white polka-dot sky overwhelmingly massive, bleach-cleaned and rough-shiny. Only a super-giant might conceive of a means of crossing this ocean of rivers dry-shod.
I sped over the Humber suspension bridge (free to motorcycles), fighting to keep the bike upright, freezing, hardly daring to contemplate the big blue eastwards view towards Hull, Spurn Head and the open sea. Landing in a strange country, a new world, I parked the bike on a nameless street in Barton-upon-Humber and took shelter in a café where I was restored by bacon, scrambled eggs and tea. Fortified, I set out to find Barton’s famous church. St Peter’s is a marvellous expression of Anglo-Saxon self-confidence. The first church on the site was not built until the tenth century; the tower and its unusual bolted-on baptistery are original, and stood on part of a mound or spur which might just have been an ancient burial place. Decorative stone pilaster arcades, one stacked above the other and pierced by later round and angular arched windows, give the tower an exaggerated sense of height and create an exterior illusion of interior, of lordly secular power. They are skeuomorphs, copied from wooden models which might be ecclesiastical or secular.
The history of the site is intriguing: the church stands close to what was a sub-circular manorial earthwork enclosure, with a much earlier cemetery in the vicinity. The archaeologist Richard Morris raises the intriguing possibility that the church tower might have doubled as the fortified house of a thegn. St Peter’s is a redundant church, the most completely excavated in Britain. It was also shut (English Heritage again), so I couldn’t nose around inside and see its complexities for myself. Bob Sydes, who was part of the excavation team under Warwick Rodwell in the 1970s and who excavated many of the burials, had told me the previous night that several of the inhumations were accompanied by hazel wands (a distinctly pagan feature); one, in addition, by a ham bone which must thoughtfully have been provided as a meal for the occupant’s onward journey.
I tracked west to pick up the Roman road opposite Brough at Winteringham on the Humber’s southern shore. These are the flatlands of north-west Lindsey, a continuation of the Vale of York; so the road, now Ermine Street, aims like a slingshot due south for Lincoln, untroubled for the most part by cross-grained hills or rivers. A couple of miles off it, on either side, are settlements bearing recognisably pre-Conquest names: Brigg, Snitterby, Hibaldstow, Willoughton. But it is striking that so few existing villages lie along the route. The reason for this stand-offish relationship with the Roman road is that it lies on a chalk ridge; a little further west chalk joins clay, the land falls away and a line of life-giving springs shadows the road. To the east, villages, farms and hamlets line the edge of the lowland peat. I stopped at one of the few substantial villages on the route: Broughton, where a pre-Conquest church has a tower built in herringbone masonry with an external, cylindrical stair turret and a round-arched doorway. The scattering of names ending in –by was a reminder that I had entered the lands of the Danelaw, whose southern boundary ran roughly along the River Lea from the Thames at London and then north-west along Watling Street. These were lands ruled by Danish kings for two generations from the late ninth century following a treaty between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, leader of one of the Viking armies.
The uncompromising line of the Roman road now unrolled like a tape measure for mile after mesmeric mile until Scampton, where it has been forced to make way for the runway from which the Dambuster squadron (617) took off in May 1943. RAF Scampton is now the home of the Red Arrows. Here, too, a branch road leaves Ermine Street and heads north-west to join the Great North Road near Bawtry (site of King Æthelfrith’s epic defeat by King Rædwald in 617 (see page 133) where it crosses the River Idle. I turned off and took a break at Stow, where the magnificent Saxon minster church, currently undergoing restoration, stood shorn of its windows and deeply shadowed behind flapping plastic tarpaulins. The chancel, incidentally, is decorated with a very rare carving of what appears to be a Viking longship; but in the terribly dim light I could hardly make it out.
I stopped close to the cathedral at Lincoln, visible for miles around on its hill at the end of the long Jurassic ridge on which Ermine Street runs, looking down on the River Witham and surrounded by a jumble of cobbled medieval streets full of shoppers and tourists. A number of very early churches stood in or close to the former Roman colonia. One of these churches, excavated at St Paul-in-the-Bail, adjacent to the castle, was built close to the forum. It may be the church constructed by Bishop Paulinus in about 630 after his conversion of the city’s reeve, one Blæcca; if so, Paulinus seems to have been tapping consciously into the site’s Roman heritage, just as he did at York; there is a suspicion, in fact, that St Paul-in-the-bail might have been built on the foundations of a Roman church.
There must have been independent kings of Lindsey, but their genealogies survive only in semi-historical form and by Bede’s day the Lindisfaran had been absorbed into Northumbria, later to be transferred to Mercian overlordship. In the, perhaps, seventh-century Tribal Hidage, Lindisfaronawas assessed at seven thousand hides, the same tributary value as the kingdoms of the East and South Saxons. Very little serious attention has been paid by historians to the extraordinary and obvious similarity of the nameLindisfarona and Lindisfarne; was the latter an Anglian bridgehead in northern British territory founded by a warrior band from Lindsey? At any rate, by the end of the ninth century Lincoln had become one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw.86
York already seemed a long way behind. Heavy early afternoon traffic slowed me almost to walking pace. South of Lincoln the survival of the original road, cluttered with later settlement, is patchy; sometimes it is no more than a muddy track; I still had miles to travel, so I took the modern A15 to Sleaford; then to Bourne, strong and gusty side winds making it difficult to control the bike at times. Passing through a coppiced wood gave me a short respite. I briefly rejoined the Roman road where it becomes King Street, then cut across fen country to Market Deeping, skirting the sprawl of Peterborough. In low golden sunlight, dazzled by the intermittent flashing shadows of pollard willows lining the banks of massive straight-cut drains, I stopped briefly at Crowland, a small island in the fens where St Guthlac built a hermitage in the late seventh century and where a later, famous chronicle was kept by the abbey’s monks. Dusk was accompanied by glimpses of egrets, buzzards and a red kite.
I had no time for contemplation: a long day on the bike had chilled me and it was nearly dark when I made my destination: Bluntisham in Huntingdonshire, where my sister Sophie and her husband Roger made the weary traveller very welcome. Family chat; pointing out my route on a map; a bike check for brake oil, tyre pressures, lights and chain lube. Next morning, early, with the air still cool and breezy but in sunshine and with the promise of a warmer day, I edged back into the slipstream of the imperial road network on Ermine Street at Godmanchester (Durovigutum), just south of Huntingdon. Gradually the ruler-drawn road rose away from a flat land of fens, drains and sedges, over a distance of twenty miles, a day’s travel for the pedestrian, towards the eastern rump of the Chiltern Hills at Royston. I stopped at a very friendly market café for coffee, got my bearings and, leaving the Roman road, edged up onto the scarp for a view back across Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. I parked next to a small woodland on the north-facing crest, as close as I could get to the point where Roman road meets prehistoric highway: the Icknield Way, which had travelled all the way from Wiltshire on its route to Norfolk; a road older than the Romans and cited as one of the great royal roads of medieval England. For a moment I had trouble discriminating between a cluster of Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds and the grassy-banked bunkers of a local golf course, until I got my eye in. Several historians have raised the possibility that Claudius’s, Agricola’s, Hadrian’s and other Roman routes through Britain replaced existing originals, refining and rationalising them. In some cases that must be true; in others, the Romans drove entirely new lines through the landscape to connect arterial roads, adapting where they could but unafraid to float a new trail across bog, ascend steep hills and remove obstacles as they saw fit. There must, surely, have been many hundreds and thousands of customary trails—few of them, however, as substantial and long-running as Icknield—which underlie England’s staggering profusion of public rights of way that still charm those who bother to walk them and which must bemuse the foreigner, as they occasionally do the more liberated nation of the Scots—who may roam where they please at home.
The Icknield Way continues north-east from Royston, from where it was used as the line for the Roman road towards Newmarket. A mile or so before it reaches the home of horse racing it is crossed by the imposing line of the Devil’s Dyke, the most substantial of all Dark Age earthworks before the time of King Offa. Current opinion is that it was built by the indigenous Britons of the fifth century to demarcate or defend their lands from encroaching raiders or settlers to the north-east. If so, it is an impressive monument to the organisational skills of a people derided by Gildas as incapable of resisting foreign invasion.
After a small contemplative break I cut south-west, not far from the line of the Icknield Way which weaves along the natural contours of the chalk ridge among farms, villages and towns. Past Baldock (my favourite English place name—it derives from the Old French Baudac, meaning Baghdad, and was named in commemoration of the Mesopotamian city by the crusading Knights Templars who founded it in the twelfth century), where Icknield Way and Great North Road cross; then for a while, almost lost among the leafy back lanes and sensuous folds of Hertfordshire’s Chiltern hundreds,87 I passed a pleasant, contemplative morning. I emerged about lunchtime in St Albans on Watling Street—the old A5 whose acquaintance I had made on foot in a seemingly earlier age at Telford and Shrewsbury.
In my late teens I dug with Roman archaeologist and mosaic expert David Neal at the site of a prosperous native settlement and Roman villa, Gorhambury, a couple of miles outside St Albans on the road out from Verulamium; this was an old hunting ground.Verulamium, whose sprawling ruins lie across the River Ver from the hill on which the abbey and town sit, was founded on an older settlement of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe. By the end of the fourth century it boasted a theatre to go with its basilica and forum. Alban was a British martyr of the third or fourth century, persecuted under one or other imperial clampdowns on Christianity. The Gaulish bishop Germanus visited his martyrium in about 429; Gildas confirmed Verulamium as its site in the sixth century. Bede recognised it in his day as an important place of pilgrimage.
The mostly Norman abbey, with its distinctly Continental painted round arches and huge nave, almost a hundred yards long, sits in a fine place and may have been built over the site of Alban’s martyrial church. Alban’s cult was successful—he is one of only three named Christian martyrs in Roman Britain and the only one to have spawned a grand shrine and cathedral church. Intriguingly, lower down the hill in the old Roman town the parish church of St Michael’s appears to have been built on top of an earlier basilica-type structure; Christian citizens of the fourth and fifth centuries lived in more tolerant times.
It was time to put some miles on the clock. The M25, palisading London in a mad four-lane fury of impatience, gives the provincial an idea of what the British peasant must have thought stepping onto the metalled roads of the Empire, caught up in the whirling white water of a canyon with no choice but to go for it pell mell and hope for the best. The biker needs to make his presence felt, look big and keep an eye like a hawk’s on the stampeding migration to which he has inadvertently tied his fate. At some point I was aware of a narrow steel and concrete bridge with pedestrians dawdling across it whizzing above my head, an echo of my own earlier and saner route through Epping Forest; then we were through a chute, a short section of tunnel above which I had emerged from the forest into Epping itself. I crossed the Thames at Dartford, stopped at a petrol station for fuel and a short sanity break, then followed the unrecognisable route of Chaucer’s pilgrims—what was once the A2, towards Rochester and the Medway and running parallel with Watling Street. Rochester, the former Roman town of Durobrivae, was the seat of England’s second bishop, Justus, after Augustine at Canterbury. It marks the boundary between East and West Kent, ancient separate kingdoms.
I emerged from the conglomerations of Chatham and Gillingham, passed through Sittingbourne and found myself riding through a quiescent winter garden landscape of oast houses, orchards, hop fields and quaint roadside pubs. The land is densely occupied, fertile, giving of nature’s fruits. It is striking that this route, rather than repelling settlement as I had found elsewhere, attracts it. Pilgrims, traders and diplomats travelling between London and the coast have always been good business; one imagines a string of roadside hostelries, shops, stalls and markets dipping in and out of existence, morphing between overtly secular, religious and mystical.
Just before the town of Faversham a small brown sign pointing to a field caught my speeding eye. At the next roundabout I doubled back, parked the bike and walked across a flint-strewn chalky brown ploughed field to where a ruined flint and brick building stood, a small copse of bare trees as backdrop. This at first unprepossessing structure is one of a handful of Early Medieval churches in Britain proven to be constructed on the ruins of a Roman mausoleum. St Albans abbey may have begun in this way. Was a notable Roman holy man or martyr buried here? Known as Stone-by-Faversham, it is a really remarkable survival. The word ‘stone’ may denote more than the very obvious fact of its construction. Elsewhere it seems to echo the knowledge that the Giants had built in stone in days long gone; that stone was a special, magical material (like ink and vellum) whose secrets were lost to Dark Age builders. The flint and red Roman brick walls of the earlier structure have been exposed and defined by excavation; now green ferns clinging to the mortar add a decorative garnish and in the low sunlight they glowed with earthy colours, silver grey flint glistening against terracotta brick.
From Faversham I took a line towards the north Kent coast. At Reculver (Regulbium), as at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, a former Roman coastal fort became the site of an important early church. In this case, erosion has left the massive twin towers at Reculver perching perilously on a cliff; no art of man could have contrived a more dramatic ruin, Gothic in nature’s inspiration, Romanesque in execution. The sea was a perfect azure, sparkling in afternoon sunshine, the odd container ship or fishing boat floating on horizon’s haze and the breeze swirling through skeletal arch and ruined nave. The church was a minster foundation, originally of 669. The immensely tall towers were spared destruction in later centuries by an edict of the Admiralty who declared it a navigation aid. Richard Morris has suggested that the original church may have played a role, perhaps with a beacon and smaller tower, as a lookout or lighthouse, watching trade pass up or down the estuary. But looking on the map I realised that its location is more special than that of any old coastal fort. It once sat at the mouth of the Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent. I rode across its much reduced, canalised channel, barely eight feet wide, without realising. When I got to the small village of Sarre, I stopped on a road still called Sarre Wall, once a causeway that joined the Roman road between here and Canterbury, to have a better look at both the Wantsum and the map. This was once shoreline; now it looks out onto flat fields bordered by drains cut through old peat. A bridge stood here before the channel silted up in the late Medieval period. In the nineteenth century an ancient burial ground was excavated close by. Grave goods included many exotic objects, and a number of sets of merchants’ balances.
That got me thinking about St Augustine who, when his mission arrived in 597, was told by Æthelberht of Kent to wait on Thanet while he, the king, considered Pope Gregory’s petition and the party’s bona fides. Æthelberht had a Frankish Christian queen, Bertha, so he ought to have had some idea of what he was in for; even so, he was concerned to find out what these missionaries were up to. He was at first suspicious of some devilry. In the cast list of Early Medieval travellers they must qualify as either merchants or warriors come as an embassy from another great king. No uninvited traders.
These men had travelled all the way from the Bishop of Rome. They had impressive credentials, carried written documents which the king would not have been able to read, so Liudhard, his queen’s personal priest, may have acted as go-between and translator. The key to the account we have from Bede is that the king made Augustine wait on Thanet, where prospective merchants set themselves up—one thinks again of Brian Roberts’ idea of the caravanserai, camped on neutral territory on the edge of the king’s lands. Here he could decide whether to admit them or not. The Wantsum, with Reculver guarding its northern seaward mouth, was his vallum, his physical and psychological border. Eventually Æthelberht let Augustine and his mission come to the court at Canterbury (Durovernum), where Roman buildings (not just a church, but parts of the theatre) still stood. Allowing Augustine to preach and convert, the king subsequently gave him lands ‘suitable to his rank’. In other words, he accepted that the socially anomalous Augustine was of warrior rank, but not aiming to fight him for the kingdom (little did he know).
Sarre, then, and Thanet in general, had special significance in the Early Medieval landscape, as a frontier zone. I tried, as I stood on the sadly diminished banks of the Wantsum, to imagine a broad river with busy ferry boats crossing, the settlements on the island bustling with all sorts of travellers, hangers-on, traders, sailors, vendors and craftsmen, all living a liminal life and mostly hoping to be allowed to cross into the king’s lands and make their petitions to him. Social and cultural tensions must have made this backwater a lively place. I thought of ports that I have visited: Boston, Mahon, Syracuse, Rotterdam: exciting, marginal places. The Wantsum Channel began to look like Hadrian’s Wall in my mind’s eye—a landscape of edges and edginess.
Close to Sarre, a mile or so east along the edge of Thanet where it looks south over flat, peaty reclaimed marshes, once open water, I came to Minster-in-Thanet, formerly the capital of the island when, perhaps, it was its own small tributary kingdom, like the Rodings in Essex; and where a large parish church stands not far from the site of a seventh-century monastery. A venerable yew tree grew in its churchyard; all was peaceful and quiet; all very English. The church was shut.
At the far south-east end of the old Wantsum channel, now the outflow of the River Stour, lies a twin of the fort at Reculver: Richborough (Rutupiae), the bridgehead for Claudius’s invasion fleet in AD 43, subsequently a civilian settlement converted to use as a fort of the Saxon Shore in the late third century. It now lies inland, beached like a stranded whale, irrelevant. Across the marshes on the Thanet side lies Ebbsfleet, traditionally the site of Augustine’s original landing in 597 and once the site of a tidal mill. I briefly worked at Richborough for Pete Wilson when his Central Excavation Unit team was doing the rounds of Kent in 1985. Central Unit, as it was known, was the provisional wing of what had begun as a department of the Ministry of Works, then became the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and is now known as English Heritage. It was a good way to keep one’s hand in at some interesting sites, even if the trenches were small interventions in advance of drain-digging or new car parks. As it happens, before our arrival another team had been looking at a hexagonal stone structure elsewhere the fort. It looked very much like an early font; and stone foundations excavated many years ago in the north-east quarter of the fort are now thought to represent the remains of a church with stone footings and a timber superstructure. So it seems that a late Roman church stood here. Richborough is also where the Roman road network begins and ends. I had run my Roman road race.
Except, that is, for a visit to Canterbury itself. I stayed overnight near Sandwich with my aunt Karen Crofts—strategically placed relatives are a boon for the traveller, to be sure—then, an early-morning’s ride along the first Roman road in Britain: its exact route, oddly, is not known and the modern road that completes it is far from straight. I made the same mistake as I had at Faversham, missing a small sign to St Martin’s church a quarter of a mile outside the city walls. At nine in the morning it was shut; a sign promised it would open at eleven. I parked the bike up nearer to the city, opposite the entrance to St Augustine’s Abbey. My heart sank: English Heritage—closed until spring. Cutting my losses I walked through the old city gates and stood outside the fortress-like precinct of the great medieval cathedral. At £10.50 to get in, I thought better of a tour of Thomas Becket’s shrine, which I have in any case seen before. What interested me about the setting was that, first, it lies along a line of churches that includes the abbey and St Martin’s and second, that it is more like a castle than a cathedral, absolutely unapproachable except through either city walls or the mass of houses and shops that surround it. It is a religious citadel of spiritual princes; a Vatican.
The alignment echoes a frequent Roman pattern of roads and the cemeteries that grew up alongside them outside towns in the Empire. St Albans may be an analogous setting; there are many examples on the Continent. Where cemeteries and mausolea stood, some of them attracted the burials of martyrs or early Christian holy men. When, later, the shrines were marked by churches, the original cemeteries became Christian graveyards or were buried; only the churches survive above ground to mark that relict, funerary landscape.
I wandered outside the walls again. In a small garden, perhaps on the site of houses bombed during the war, stood bronze statues of King Æthelberht and his queen, original patrons of the Gregorian mission of 597. Tracking back to the car park I found, to my surprise and relief, that someone had opened the gates to the abbey; even if the museum and shop were shut, I could take a look at the ruins. At the west end stood the original church of Sts Peter and Paul, founded by Augustine and Æthelberht. The later abbey was built just to the east of it over the remains of a monastery founded by, and to house the relics of, Augustine and the members of his mission who became bishops or archbishops after him. Here too are the resting places of kings of Kent, including Wihtred (c.670–725) whose law code defined the relationship between king and church and the status of the traveller. The later structures: a crypt, now open to the sky; towering nave and choir walls; the abbey precincts, standing ruined among green lawns studded with plaques, telling the visitor what to look at. Towards the east end of the precinct are the stunted remains of a third church, St Pancras, which several scholars believe to be another late Roman foundation above a mausoleum or special grave, and still on the line of the road to Richborough.
At eleven o’clock sharp the doors of St Martin’s opened. I was its first visitor that day, so I had the company of Ruth Matthews, the guide, to myself. I had already seen the outside: the walls are fashioned, as they are at Stone-by-Faversham, of flint and red Roman brick and tile, in sometimes decorative string courses, sometimes in apparently random patterns. They tell of a complicated structural history: one can make out blocked doorways and windows and the odd reused inscription. Inside, much later plaster has been removed to show various stages of refurbishment and redesign. The western chancel appears to be the oldest structure still standing, identified in part by a hard pink mortar that looks very Roman and whose mysteries were unknown in the Early Medieval period, unless Augustine brought specialists with him. St Martin’s claims to be the oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world. But the shape and size, the feel and sensibility are those of a basilica; the inspiration is Roman. Bede says that Bertha (whose father was a ruler at Tours) and her priest Liudhard worshipped in a church dedicated to St Martin of Tours which had been built ‘while the Romans were still in Britain’. This is the prime candidate to match that historical evidence; its claims are reinforced by the nineteenth-century excavation of a hoard of metalwork that included a gold medallion bearing the name, in reverse, of none other than Liudhard.88Whether, in fact, it was a Roman Christian church still standing and refurbished, or a new church built on an ancient mausoleum, like St Pancras or Stone-by-Faversham, is still debated. At any rate Ruth and I had a proper chinwag debating this and that point as she showed me the church’s key features, glad, I hoped, to encounter a visitor who at least knew his Bede. For my part I had wanted to see this church in the flesh ever since Richard Morris introduced us to it in my undergraduate days. To be shown round arguably the oldest church in England by such an expert and passionate guide was a considerable privilege, a grand end point.