Celia Fiennes—Highland cattle—Aesica fort—purpose of the Wall—Vindolanda writing tablets—dilation of historical time—engineers and farmers—Beowulf’s landscape
HALTWHISTLE’S HEYDAY was forged from a combination of sheep, lead, coal and the railways. Lead, coal and water together suggested a good place to make paint, and so the town exported colour east and west. Now the railway carries mostly tourists who come for the Wall and the Northumbrian landscape. An earlier intrepid traveller passed this way in the 1690s and recorded, in her wonderfully chatty, waspish Restoration English, an encounter with the natives of these parts:
This Hartwhistle is a Little town, there was one Inn but they had noe hay nor would get none, and when my servants had got some Else where they were angry and would not Entertaine me, so I was forced to take up in a poor Cottage wch was open to ye Thatch and no partitions but hurdles plaistered. Indeed ye Loft as they Called it wch was over the other roomes was shelter’d but wth a hurdle; here I was fforced to take up my abode and ye Landlady brought me out her best sheetes wch serv’d to secure my own sheetes from her dirty blanckets, and Indeed I had her fine sheete to spread over ye top of the Clothes; but noe sleepe Could I get, they burning turff and their Chimneys are sort of fflews or open tunnills, yt ye smoake does annoy the roomes.23
Sarah and I, setting out from the town one Sunday afternoon, could console ourselves with the idea that the natives look much more comfortable these days, plumes of smoke from wood and coal fires rising lazily from brick and stone chimneys as we passed by. Higher up the gorge of Haltwhistle burn (the name Haltwhistle means ‘height above two streams’; and has nothing to do with steam trains), pausing to look back down on the Tyne, we encountered a herd of magnificent shaggy orange Highland cattle chomping on hay from a manger, their breath like panting locomotives. We reflected that these sympathetic creatures, peering curiously through their fringes at gawping passers-by, have no idea at all that they could savage us should they choose. They posed patiently to have their pictures taken before we moved on, crossed General Wade’s military road and made a reacquaintance with Aesica fort on the Wall, forty-two Roman miles from the estuary of the Tyne.
Within half a mile of the fort to the south are the remains of no fewer than nine Roman camps, temporary accommodation for the legions who constructed it and the Wall sections either side. The Wall is not the product of a single build; it went through several incarnations and west of Birdoswald was originally constructed from turf. In places a wall-walk topped it; in others the thickness varies as a reflection of about-turns by military planners. Nothing new there: like Rome, the Wall adapted to reality. Over three centuries dozens of modifications and adaptations reflected local conditions and changing times. Parts of it were abandoned or overrun. For a time in the late second century the frontier stood nearly a hundred miles further north, along the Forth–Clyde isthmus. But the idea of the Wall endured, and as late as the 370s, after it had been comprehensively outflanked by Pict and Scot, it was still being reinforced and garrisoned. I suspect that one reason for its longevity, apart from its value in keeping troops busy, was that it lay just to the north of highly productive lead mines, the most northerly in the Empire. The Romans were great consumers of lead, being very fond of their plumbing, and if at times mines in Spain and elsewhere in Britannia provided the bulk of the Empire’s needs, the Pennine mines never lost their value. Britain was a Roman mineral prospector’s paradise. As for Aesica, or Great Chesters as it is called these days, its outline survives as part of a farm whose builders scavenged much of its stone; but an altar stands close to the south entrance and on it offerings of coins have been left (none of them worth nicking: they are all pennies or twopence pieces, with the odd five-pence piece glinting silver). I doubted if the gods of the Wall would bother listening to such paltry pleas for their favours.
We felt cheated by the day’s weather. It had promised much when we left the house at 6.30. The sky might have been made of locally sourced lead sheets and even the magnificent view from the Whin Sill was more imagined than experienced as we trudged up and down, in and out, barely bothering to count off the milecastles and turrets. The film-strip of the Wall was beginning to look like a repeat. Looking south, the uncompromising slick grey eel of the military road rationalised our eastward trend. Sometimes the line of the vallum stood out even in this dismal light; beyond both, hidden by the next ridge, lay the Stanegate and the famous fort at Vindolanda where hundreds of writing tablets, dating to the first and second centuries AD, excavated in a decades-long campaign from the early 1970s, have cast a fascinating light on the lives of Roman squaddies of the decades before the Wall was conceived. Would that we had their equivalent for the centuries after Rome.
It set me thinking about the dilation of historical time. The tablets, written in ink in cursive script on folded wooden sheaves the size of postcards, record the mundane—party invitations, purchases, fort business. The mundane is, naturally, what we would most like to know about those distant epochs whose narrative is a fragmented, compressed, skewed and otherwise barely legible account of battles, royal succession and the march of ecclesiastical progress. The only equivalents of the Vindolanda tablets from the Dark Ages were retrieved from the preserving conditions of a bog in County Antrim early in the twentieth century: the Springmount tablets, texts cut with a metal stylus into wax set in yew wood sheaves bound together by a leather thong looped through holes. They are extraordinarily precious but, while they tell us something about monastic technology during the late sixth century, they do not offer any gossipy insight into monks’ lives: the texts are from the Psalms.
When such detail emerges from the historical or archaeological record, it intensifies our gaze. Without Bede, who allows us to look at events from the seventh century decade by decade, sometimes year by year, we would know very little about the rise of the great kingdoms, of the conversion of their kings. His narrative spans more than a century; but try to map the events of a single year through the months and one comes unstuck: Bede’s story is ruled by annual events: ‘in this year’; ‘at about the same time’; ‘at the beginning of so-and-so’s reign’ are the phrases he uses to tell us when important events occurred. His own chronology was constructed from monastic annals which recorded interesting or important events in the margins of Easter calculations; and from lists of kings, so that he was able to draw events together under what are called regnal years. Such and such an event occurred in the seventh year of the reign of this or that king. When his evidence was contradictory, he became vague or fudged a compromise. We should be grateful, though: Bede was a master scholar of time: he wrote a book on it, adopted the AD form of dating and towers over his contemporaries as a true historian.24
Archaeologists are usually delighted if they can pin events down to within a half century. In this period pottery is found rarely and when it does turn up it is not diagnostic even of a century, let alone a decade. Roman coins stopped flowing to Britain at the end of the fourth century and it is not until the end of the seventh that they reappear; even then, not enough of them are found in the right contexts to help us with the major questions: how long was a site occupied? When did a settlement burn down? Which saint founded a church? As it happens, radiocarbon dating for the first millennium is also poorly refined: no fault of the scientists, it is just that the amount of atmospheric carbon absorbed by living things fluctuates, and in these centuries so much so that any sort of precision is difficult to achieve. In Ireland, whose bogs provide anaerobic conditions, dendrochronology occasionally comes to the rescue. The tide mill at Nendrum monastery in County Down, for example, was built in the year 619, dated precisely by the timber used in its construction. In some of our towns—London and York, for example—wood also survives in deeply stratified deposits, and can be dated. In most cases, however, while archaeology is very good at describing sequences of events—sometimes in stunning detail—those sequences often hang suspended, drifting between the generations. For the fifth and sixth centuries the problem is acute: the securely dated archaeological sites from these two hundred years barely fill the first term of an undergraduate degree; and these are precisely the years when historians are almost silent. They have the same trouble with individuals: there is a sequence to St Patrick’s life—from his childhood somewhere along this Wall, perhaps, to his capture and slavery in Ireland; his wanderings and return; his Bishopric in Ireland; his confession and a letter to the soldiers of King Coroticus—but no one can agree whether these events happened in the earlier or later fifth century. Patrick floats above our timelines, in perpetual limbo.
One thinks of Roman Britain as a better recorded, chronologically tighter period; in fact, although we possess a lot of general information about emperors and governors, know much about the development of the Wall and have seen hundreds of villas and forts excavated, and although we have detailed insights into particular military campaigns, it is a striking feature of the Roman period in Britain that there was no native chronicler of those centuries: they are foggier in many respects than even the misty patches of Bede’s history. Just like the Wall, which in places stands above head height and which elsewhere has disappeared, or must be located by excavation, our sense of Early Medieval time is disjointed and incomplete. The period between the end of Rome and King Alfred of Wessex is about the same as that between the accession of Henry VIII and the year of my birth.
We stopped for lunch dangling over a steep drop above a small turret enjoying our cheese, oatcakes, hard-boiled eggs and coffee. At Shield on the Wall a minor road cuts through the line of the Hadrianic frontier, and to the north a cluster of very comfortable-looking houses shows that in good times sheep farming has provided a secure living, although the unseen labour of generations of farmer-engineers must have gone into draining and improving the pasture. Also unseen from here is the sinuous, contour-hugging line of a Roman aqueduct which brought water to the Wall forts in their heyday. For the next couple of miles the Wall line rises to the magnificent heights of Winshield Crags at more than a thousand feet above sea level. Here are the grand vistas of so many calendar and postcard views of the Wall in its prime, the high country of south Northumberland. The sky is big, the air limitless as the oceans. The swell of the land is like a country where Beowulf’s foe, the monster Grendel, had his lair in ‘wolf-fells, wind-picked moors and treacherous fen-paths’.25
The trail descends briefly to a gap where another small road cuts across; there is a car park where over-large vehicles disgorge wellied and gloved children and their clucking parents; the path rises steeply back to the ridge of the Whin Sill, dips down to the famous Sycamore Gap, then along a ridge that drops precipitously down from a sheer cliff onto Crag Lough. Here Sarah and I stopped to watch two swans, perfectly white against the blue-black water, probing among the reeds that fringe its banks. At the evocatively named Hotbank Farm, we came down off the Wall and walked back to Haltwhistle along the Military Road.