Melrose Abbey, Scotland (and Greenknowe Tower)

At last, we drive into Scotland!  There is nothing remarkable about the boundary.  The land, like much of England, is gently rolling and heavily farmed.  We stop at a town along our road just to explore a bit.  The houses of England are frequently gorgeous to an American’s eyes, often stone or Tudor and frequently delightfully charming, but this town

also has some kind of a mansion – which, I might add, is actually pretty common here in the UK.  For some reason no one rushes out from the manse to invite us in, so we travel on.

Greenknowe TowerWe encounter, unanticipated, this roofless ruin just off the road and decide to investigate.  There’s nobody here but us and an historical sign to tell us what we’re seeing.  It’s a “tower house”, apparently common in medieval Scotland, built by owners of small estates (a Scottish laird) as a defensible residence.  This tower, built in 1581 (the date and owner’s initials are inscribed over the door), is a later tower house, built more as a residence than for defense.  Many castles here have been modified and re-purposed over the ages, but this tower house has not seen much change!  We think it’s neat to see what a “real McCoy” was like.  So let’s go in!

The entrance is to a vaulted basement with a kitchen.  The fireplace is huge, with

amenities like a built-in slop drain to the outside.  Stairs lead to the hall level, with a large fireplace and 4 large windows (enlarged in the 1600’s when times were safer).  Originally

there would have been wood floors above separating the two upper stories.  A smaller stair accessed the bedrooms; there were two rooms on each floor, each room with a fireplace.

View from the windowPretty cool, isn’t it?  Life in the 1500’s, and you are there.  Large gardens used to be located nearby, as well as an “outbuilding”.  Throwing sewage out the window was apparently a city phenomenon.

The pastoral scenery continues as we travel further, along with occasional “mini-mountains”.  They’re just too big to be called hills.

Finally we arrive at the small town of Melrose, site of the ruins of the Melrose Abbey.  Like

many UK towns, it has a lot of charm.  And like many (all?) towns in the UK – Scotland in particular – there is a store here specializing in Scotch Whiskey.  One of my goals for our Scotland tour is to become knowledgeable of this local firewater.  In general, during our travels, we try to focus on learning , choosing our countries carefully.  The red wines of Spain, the beer of Belgium, the wines of New Zealand … so why do you think we’re now headed straight to Scotland?  Good planning, I say!  I do know a bit about Kentucky bourbon, but basically nothing about single malt Scotch whiskey – although I know it’s highly regarded (and can be very expensive).   So I’m off on my exploration!  Starting now!  One of the things I Taste profile map of single malt Scotch whiskeyquickly learned was the value of a “Scotch map”.  For some reason they’re hard to come by in hard copy, but right outside the Scotch store there’s a huge sign.  Laddies, I’m tellin’ ya, if you’re drinking Scotch, this graph is invaluable!  My gift to you.  And we will be visiting some of these distilleries, so stay tuned!  Sorry about all the glass reflections, couldn’t help it.

Presenting some history of the Melrose Abbey is in order, because it has a lot of history associated with it.  An earlier monastery was built nearby in the early 600’s, dedicated to St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (remember Aidan from the post “Bamburgh Castle“, Feb 23, 2015?).  St. Cuthbert grew up here and was Prior in 662 before he moved to Lindisfarne (remember him from the post “Durham and its Norman Cathedral“, Feb 6, 2015?).  That earlier monastery was sacked in 839.  Much later, King David I of Scotland decreed that a new abbey be built.  The east end was completed in 1146, in Gothic style, and the rest was finished over the next 50 years.  It had a hard life.  The abbey was destroyed by the English King Edward II in 1322 but rebuilt by King Robert the Bruce (national hero of Scotland who decisively defeated Edward II in the Battle of Bannockburn to create an independent Scotland; more on him in an upcoming Stirling Castle post!).  The rebuilt abbey was then destroyed by Richard II of England in 1385, but rebuilt again beginning at century’s end and continuing into the 1400’s.  It is the ruins of that last church that stand today.  The Melrose Abbey, internet pictureMelrose Abbey was one of Scotland’s richest and most powerful medieval abbeys, its late-14th-century architecture among the best in the UK.  Robert the Bruce asked that his heart be buried there, and a number of other Scottish kings lie there as well.  Alas, the abbey’s problems did not end; it was again damaged by English armies in 1544 and never fully repaired.  The last monk died in 1590.  Cannon fire further damaged its walls in 1650.

Even today the ruins are impressive.  They’re commandingly big, the massive construction

contrasting with the large but delicate, lacy windows.  There would have been a lot of statues decorating the building – the empty pedestals attest to that – but the Protestant

Reformation defaced even these ruins.  Nevertheless, intricate stonework is everywhere; the abbey must have been very impressive indeed.  Below are examples; badly weathered,

to be sure, but the detail can still be admired.  I also love all the little heads that show up

under pedestals and at arch ends.  Nicely done!  And of course the gargoyles.  The first one, in case you’re wondering, is a pig playing a bagpipe!

There’s a small museum associated with the abbey.  In addition to things like medieval

monk urinals and (sometimes) macabre arch bosses, there were some fabulous large mosaic floor tiles from the abbey, dating from the 13th century.  The floors would have been magnificent!

Communicating - or ex communicated?In spite of my most fervent prayer, I did not make the cut for Monkhood.  So back on the road again.  Next stop is the most important castle of Scotland, Stirling Castle.  There’s a lot of Scottish history associated with that castle, which I’ll touch on, but after that post the history lessons will pretty much go away.  That might make you sad, but the rest of Scotland is so amazingly spectacular that you will not care.  Promise!


Bamburgh Castle

The hill on which Bamburgh Castle sits was a defensive site for thousands of years, taken and lost, damaged and rebuilt over the course of many centuries.  The Britons had an early fort here which was captured by the Anglo-Saxons in 547.  Later, in 607, King Aethelfrith expanded this region to create Northumbria and in 615 renamed the fort Bebbanburgh after his wife, Bebba.  His death in 634 was followed by the usual fight over succession, and his son Oswald fled to the Scottish isle Iona for safety.  This was the home of the monastery that introduced Christianity to the Picts.  When Oswald returned in 635 to oust the Welsh pretender and claim his throne, he brought a monk named Aidan with him from Iona.  Aidan established Christianity’s tenuous toehold in England at nearby Lindisfarne (see previous post “Durham and its Norman Cathedral“, February 6, 2015).  Rival kingdoms continued to contest the region for several centuries, until Bebbanburgh was left in ruins by the Vikings in 993.  The conquering Normans built a new castle on the site, Bamburgh Castlewhich forms the core of today’s Bamburgh Castle.  That square keep in the middle of the picture was built in 1164.  In 1464, during the War of the Roses, Bamburgh endured a 9-month siege; artillery was brought in to the attack, and the castle (but not the sturdy keep) was heavily damaged.   Bamburgh gained the dubious honor of being the first castle in England to be defeated by cannon fire.  During the 18th and 19th centuries the castle was restored by various owners.  The restoration was finally  completed by the wealthy Victorian industrialist William Armstrong in the 1890’s.

Bamburgh Castle, entranceThe front of Bamburgh castle is formidable.  The entrance has features similar to the Moorish forts of the 8th and 9th centuries (described in a much earlier post  – Malaga, Costa del Sol“, Jul 10, 2013).  Given that the bones of this castle were built in the 1100’s, maybe that early style was still in vogue.  An attack through the front gate would have been tough. The approach to the gatehouse was pretty exposed;

once through the first gate, attackers would have had an uphill climb between high inner and outer walls to reach a second gatehouse and those walls would have been well-defended.  Attackers who managed to make it through the second gate would have found themselves in yet another uphill walled corridor, both trapped and exposed.   Run fast and duck a lot!  A model of the castle is shown below.

Before going inside to the staterooms, we’ll show a few exterior pictures.  That last

picture is Lindisfarne Castle, seen from Bamburgh Castle’s battlements.  Lindisfarne, now called Holy Island, is that close.

Into the staterooms we go!  The staterooms bore the brunt of the cannonball attacks and are a rebuild; in particular the (privately lived-in) interior is from the Victorian 1890’s.  That’s a little disappointing given the medieval exterior, but here goes.  We enter a medieval kitchen with 3 giant fireplaces.  It was originally built in the 1300’s, largely destroyed in 1464, then rebuilt in the 1700’s (note the cool bicycle).  After passing a few

small storage rooms we enter the impressive King’s Hall.  Take a look at that fantastic ceiling – it’s teak!  Wow!  Straight ahead is the Cross Hall.  This was the site of the (targeted) owner’s apartments that were destroyed in 1464.

From there we wander halls and and can only peek at the stairs that lead to the current owner’s private rooms. It’s quite a refined castle, really.  Cold and drafty it is not.

There is an armory with interesting armor and weapons, including a crossbow.

At  last we get to go into the keep, descending to a room called the Keep Hall.  The

ceilings are the typical barrel vaults used by the Normans.  In addition to the fireplace, the room has a well, the oldest of 3 on the grounds:  “There is on the west and highest point of this citadel a well, excavated with extraordinary labor, sweet to drink and very pure to the sight” – A History of the Kings of England, Simeon of Durham, AD 774.   The well is 6 feet in diameter and 130 feet deep, through solid stone.

Finally, take a look at this carved stone, discovered in the 1800’s and originally thought to be a piece of a standing cross, but more recently identified as the arm of an Anglo-Saxon

stone chair or throne from around 800 AD.  Since Bamburgh was a royal site, there is a chance it was part of a royal throne, a reconstruction of which is outside the keep.

I’ll finish with 2 more pictures of Bamburgh Castle.  The castle exterior is certainly

impressive, isn’t it? It too has a cinematic history, having been used in films such as Ivanhoe (1952), El Cid (1961), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), and Elizabeth (1998).

Next stop, Melrose Abbey.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick CastleAlnwick Castle, like all of England, has history; let us give you some of its flavor.  We’ll begin some 3 decades after the Norman Conquest, before the Castle was built.  The city of Alnwick lay within the region of overlapping claims by English and Scottish kings; as a result, this area was the site of frequent raids.  In about 1096, in response to these raids, the English Baron Vescy built the first part of Alnwick Castle on a natural bluff guarding a road that crossed the River Aln.  The castle was captured by King David I of Scotland in 1139, but was reclaimed (along with the rest of Northumberland) in 1157 by King Henry II of England.  In 1172, and again in 1174, it was besieged by the Scottish King, William the Lion, but in the second siege he spread his army too thin and was captured by English knights.  Some 50 years later the Scottish kings signed the Treaty of York, formally abandoning their claims to the region, and establishing Scotland’s current border.  However, the area was still considered a great source of plunder, and Scottish raids continued.  In 1309 the castle was purchased by Baron Percy, who began construction resulting in the castle pretty much as it appears today.  He built an extensive outer bailey with a series of strong towers, a middle gateway to an inner bailey, also with towers, and added semi-circular towers to the keep, making it a

major fortress along the Anglo-Scottish border.  The garrison in 1314 consisted of 3 knights, 38 fully armed soldiers and 40 mounted troups.  The castle balanced military requirements with the family’s residential needs, and became the template for castle renovations in the 1300’s.

The castle became a focal point in the War of the Roses (1455 – 1487), changing hands 5 times between 1462 and 1464, but it ultimately ended up back in Percy hands.  However, the 7th Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Percy, loyal to the Catholic Church, was a leader in an unsuccessful effort to restore Mary Queen of Scots to the throne and was beheaded for treason in 1572.  After his death, the castle was uninhabited and fell into decay; the Italian Canaletto’s romantic view Detail of Italian painter Canaletto's picture, "View of Alnwick Castle", 1752of the castle, painted in 1752, barely masks its forlorn state of crumbling, cracked, and plant-infested walls.   Fortunately, in 1750 a descendant of the Percys,  Elizabeth Seymour, and her husband the Duke of Northumberland inherited the castle  and decided to make it their principal country seat.  Famous architects including Robert Adam whom we met earlier (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”, Dec 11, 2014) were hired to transform a medieval castle into a modern (Gothic) palace.  Parts were torn down and rebuilt, a chapel was added, and the interior of the keep was completely transformed (state rooms, grand staircase, etc. were added).  Finally, in the 1850’s the Fourth Duke (Algernon) replaced many of the Gothic decorations with the finest Victorian vision of an opulent Italianate style, and this is the castle one sees today. 

Before we show off this castle, let us mention that there is recent history here too, of the cinema type.  The Castle is picturesque, and has been the site of many movies, including Becket (Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton), Mary Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave), Ivanhoe (Anthony Andrews, Sam Neill), Robin Hood- Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner), Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, Joeseh Finnes), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (you know the actors) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

So let’s see it!  As shown in the first picture below, you must admit the entrance looks pretty imposing.  Actually this current entrance is not the original main gate that led to the outer bailey; instead, as you pass through this gate what you see ahead of you is … another

Inner bailey - and home to Harry Potter's quidditch matchgate!  That gate ahead of you (with imposing towers) goes directly into the keep.  And if you turned to your right, you would be looking at the inner bailey – quite a large area for stables, growing crops, etc.  Does it look familiar?  It’s Harry Potter’s quidditch field, of course.

The entrance to the keep looks impressive (below), but we’ll get to it later.  We turn to the left and proceed through the  “Middle Gateway”, arriving in an even larger open space, the

outer bailey.  In that last picture above, we’ve walked across the outer bailey and are looking back at the keep, with the Middle Gateway on the far right.

The pictures below show Alnwick’s original main gatehouse that led into the outer bailey.  This gatehouse is Alnwick Castle’s most distinctive military feature, the barbican.  Believed to have been built in the 1300’s, the gatehouse front was built with ditch, counterpoised

drawbridge, and outer tower and gate, which lead to … another gate!  It would have been a deadly arrangement.  Invaders who managed to make it through the first gate would have entered a narrow, high-walled, roofless area with another barred gate ahead, and no place to hide.  The defenders on the walkways above, protected by the tower walls, would have Outer bailey, site of the Whomping Willow inHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secretshad easy targets.  You might recognize this gate as the one that the Weasley family car flies through in the Harry Potter series.  The outer bailey is also where Ron and Harry fly the family car into the Whomping Willow tree, which was situated to the left of this picture.

Now, into the keep!  It’s the oldest part of the castle, some of it dating from 1096 (but remember it was extensively

renovated in 1750).  The pictures below look back toward the entrance to the keep, an

archway from the early 1100’s decorated with Norman chevrons.  It is picturesque!

Alnwick Castle is only open to the public in the summer – and then, only some of the rooms in the keep’s palace can be seen.  Like the Harewood estate in the earlier blog noted above (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”), Alnwick Castle is a privately-owned home – in this case, home of the current Duke of Northumberland.  There are a bunch of public tours offered at the castle, but we only had time to take 2, one being this palace tour, the other the Harry Potter tour (of course).  The palace was renovated in Italianate style, and although the official website says a large amount of Robert Adam’s Gothic work survives, none of it is in the rooms shown to the public.  A bigger “alas” is that no photos were allowed!  So we bought their Alnwick Castle book and took pictures from it, just to give you an idea (once again) of how the English aristocracy lived – and lives.  Below are some rooms and details ….

Posh, we would say.  Maybe over-the-top?  But we’re not finished.  Oh no.  Throughout we’re talking major flaunt by wealthy people collecting art for 10 or so generations.  Our favorite piece of furniture is this ebony (!) cabinet from the drawing room (ahem – one of

a pair …) made in 1683 for Louis XIV’s Versailles.  I wish I could have taken pictures!  That’s a picture from the book.  Those panels you see?  The designs are made from inlaid semi-precious stones.  They are jaw-droppingly spectacular.

We should also mention the (plentiful) paintings by Van Dyck, Turner, and a slew of incredibly famous Italians, examples below.  Museum curators would drool.

After finishing our tour of the keep, we went to see the Percy coach.  The first picture is my picture of the coach (it was outside the keep), the second picture is from the book.  The coach was built to transport the Third (Percy) Duke as King George IV’s personal

representative to the coronation of Charles X in France in 1825.  It was last used for the wedding of Lady Melissa Percy, youngest daughter of the current Duke of Northumberland, in 2013.  Gosh, why didn’t we think of using something like that, instead of Ginger arriving for our wedding in the family car?  Yup, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

I’ll finish with Alnwick Garden, originally part of the Castle grounds.  The gardens started with Elizabeth Seymour in 1752, and have undergone centuries of development (how do you get such a beautiful lawn?  Start by rolling it for 2oo years …).  The latest update of the gardens was begun by the current (12th) Duchess of Northumberland in 2001.  She decided to “do it right” and create a garden for all seasons.  Some of the best garden

designers in England and Europe were hired, a charitable trust was created, and the Duke and Duchess donated a great deal of money and the 42 acres on which the gardens sit.  We visited in September.  The hillside of ornamental cherry trees was not in bloom, but the meandering garden still had some flowers and a slightly bombastic charm.  The ornamental section was ordinary but nice.

Pretty birds had the run of the place.

Bamboo mazeWhat really impressed us was the garden’s bamboo maze.  We did indeed get lost in it, in spite of there being several exits.

On the grounds of the Garden, off to the side, is a beguiling and intriguing place to explore.  High up in the treetops, amid wobbly rope bridges and wooden walkways, is an enormous treehouse with a small shopping area that included a fancy restaurant and a funky laid-back bar.  It was a delightful way to end a very long day!

Next stop, Bamburgh Castle.

Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman Empire extended nearly to Scotland.  The Romans arrived in southern England in AD 43 and set about subduing the population; it did not go easily!  Revolts were common.  Originally the Romans provided infrastructure and protection (therefore promoting stability and a better economy, thereby allowing higher taxes), but otherwise they worked through treaties with the tribes of England and allowed local government rule (client state allies).  Local fiefdoms could thus hate each other and the Romans, with ensuing wars and revolts, principally by the Brigantes in northern England but also local tribes such as one that destroyed Roman cities like London and St Albans.  In the AD 70’s the Romans had had enough of the Brigantes and client states, and conquered instead, occupying the land and establishing Roman rule by Emperors.  They drove deep into the north (today’s Scottish Highlands) and consolidated their grip on northern England.  Continuing battles in the north caused a withdrawal from what is now Scotland, and around AD100 a frontier zone of forts and watchtowers linked by good roads was built to hold the native tribes in northern England in check.  However, fierce fighting continued (some forts were burned down).  In AD 122 Emperor Hadrian arrived shortly after some hard fighting.  Hadrian had a “defense before expansion” philosophy.  Realizing that the cost of conquering Scotland would far exceed the economic gains (“It’s the economy, stupid”), he decided to build “Hadrian’s Wall”, an admission of the limits of Roman power.  It would prevent the southward movement (raids) of the unconquered north, and allow the Romans to develop the economic potential and prosperity in the growing Romanized southern provinces.

depiction of Hadrian's Wall with watchtowerThe accomplishments of the Romans are so impressive.  Somehow the Romans knew where the narrowest width of England was located (and how did they do that, in 122 AD?), and built a 73-mile-long coast-to-coast wall.  Oh, it gets better.  A wall of quarried stone, 15 to 20 feet tall (!), in the middle of nowhere.  A ditch on either side, with earthen ramparts on the southern side, and a service road (“the Military Way”) between the ramparts and the wall.  Slightly less than every mile along the wall was a castle guarding a

gate, with turrets on either side, 80 castles in total.  During construction the plan changed, and some castles became full-fledged forts.  For perspective, the (longer, bigger) Great Wall of China of the Ming Dynasty was built 12oo years later….

Today, Hadrian’s Wall is really “Hadrian’s Shelf”; what’s left is about 3 feet wide and 3-6 feet high, when it doesn’t disappear into a hill.  It’s still pretty cool, but Hadrian's Wallreally there is so much more to see than just a wall.  There are a dozen or so Roman forts along or near this wall, ongoing archeological digs, and some pretty amazing artifacts in museums.  The remains of the forts themselves are a fascinating glimpse into a 2nd-century soldier’s life.  We’ll look at two of them.  Let’s start with the Housesteads (originally Vercovicium) Roman Fort, which was a fort attached directly to the wall.


Below are pictures of pictures showing what it looked like then vs now.  Note the

similarities in the “then” picture with York’s precursor Roman fort (Eboracum), shown in an earlier post (York’s History and the building of the The York Minster“, January 20, 2015).  Roman forts followed a standard template everywhere, making it easier for construction and for (standardized) regiments to move easily between them.  The existing ruins of this fort, when seen up close, are much more interesting and impressive than the present day arial overview above would imply.  Although the remaining walls are only a

few feet high, they’re enough to provide the “you are there” effect.  The commanding overview of the countryside is also pretty impressive, as is the steep hill that the soldiers had to walk A Victory statue adorning the East Gateup and down every day.

Let us give you a quick tour of some of the sites.  As you entered the East Gate of the fort, you would have passed this giant Victory statue, symbolizing success in battle and protection against death (and a foot on the world).  Four such statues were recovered from Housesteads.  Within the fort, we’ll start with the soldier’s quarters – the remaining ruins and an artist’s reconstruction.

The first picture below shows the remains of one of the 10 barracks in the fort.  Completed soon after 120 AD, it was altered and repaired for almost 200 years.  Each barrack

was a long, low building that accommodated 80 men, an army unit called a “century”,  in 10 compartments – plus a larger apartment for the centurion in command.  Usually each compartment was divided into a rear room for sleeping and a front room for weapons and kit.  As you can see, space was at a premium.  A roof extended over the front of the building, supported on stone columns, to provide a dry covered area.

Keeping soldiers healthy was important; all soldiers were trained in first aid, and every army unit had medical staff trained in surgery and the treatment of wounds, and with some knowledge of pharmacy and medicines.   Housesteads even had a hospital building,

usually found only in larger fortresses.  Even more rare, there is another hospital on Hadrian’s Wall at the fort at Wallsend – perhaps they were required in a region that saw a lot of action.  The hospital here was built around a courtyard (in the foreground in the left picture above) where a covered walkway provided access to the rooms.  A large room along the top side (the stone floor in the left picture) may have been a surgery.  The smaller rooms were for the sick or wounded, and there was a latrine.  And when all else failed, a soldier could appeal to the gods for aid – in the Housesteads museum there is a votive foot that would have been offered to the gods in exchange for a cure for a foot ailment.

Speaking of latrines, the main one here is the best preserved anywhere.  It’s located at the

lowest downhill corner of the fort.  Pretty fascinating!  With 800 men in the fort, good hygiene was important.  The latrine had a deep sewer, originally covered with a raised wooden bench with holes.  The sewer was flushed by rainwater in drains brought from all over the fort, and went out via a culvert under the fort wall.  In dry spells, flushing was with rainwater collected from the roofs of nearby buildings and stored in stone tanks (two are still there).  Within the latrine, the central platform had a stone channel along which water flowed for washing.  The two stone basins were used when water supply was restricted.

Artist rendition of the fort's bathsOf course no Roman fort or city would be complete without baths, and an artist’s rendition of the fort’s bath house is shown here.  Finally,we should mention the granaries.  800 men needed a huge quantity of food, which had to be dry and safe from hazards like fire, mold and vermin.  Granaries had strong buttressed stone walls with air

vents, an overhanging roof to keep rain away from walls, and raised floors to allow the circulation of air and to stop moisture and rodents.  This granary was on the highest and driest region of the fort; originally it was a single building, possibly 2 stories high.  It was later modified into two buildings.

We’ll end our Housestead’s tour with a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, and the view it presented into the scary north.


A model of Vindolanda (and its associated village), 213-276 ADVindolanda was a bigger fort than Housesteads, housing at least 1000 soldiers and likely many more at various points in its history.  Vindolanda guarded the Stanegate, a major Roman road, and was an important fort (and village) for 40 years before construction started on Hadrian’s Wall.  The fort itself is only about 2 miles away from the Homesteads fort, and less than a mile south of the Wall.  So why would Housesteads have been built at all, with Vindolanda so close?  The answer is likely due to the more complicated history of Vindolanda, which was occupied for 325 years – but not occupied continuously.  Vindolanda is the site of at least 9 forts, built (and demolished) one on top of the other.  The first, built in 85 AD, was a timber fort, as were the next 4.  After Housesteads was built, many of Vindolanda’s soldiers were moved further north to the Antonine Wall (oh, you didn’t know there was a Roman wall built north of Hadrian’s?  We’ll come across that in a later post).  To cope with a diminished number of soldiers, a smaller stone fort was built at Vindolanda.  Subsequently that was destroyed and 3 more, usually larger, stone forts were built.  Finally Vindolanda was abandoned in AD 410.

What you see today is a sprawling expanse of low walls.  It looks like it was a big fort, but you’re not seeing the earlier versions!  Some of the earlier timber forts were 3 times the

size.  There is a full-size replica of the fort wall on site, where you can take your turn

at guard duty.

These ruins are generally not as impressive as Housesteads, but they’re still pretty interesting.  Remains of a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus, 220 ADThe temple to the left is an extremely rare find.  It was built inside the fort walls around 220 AD; the shrine to the god is located in the center of the main room.  The temple was dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus, an ancient weather god widely adopted by the Roman Army.  The building was eventually destroyed around 370 AD when paganism was being replaced by Christianity.

The most important (and most impressive) building in a fort would be the headquarters building (principia), which was placed at the fort’s center.  It acted as the treasury, holding

money for the soldier’s pay, held the regimental banners and honors, extra weapons, etc., and was the center where all the records and administration for most aspects of military life took place.

Another take on a granary is shown here – twin granaries, really.  These were 3-story

structures and would have held grain, beer, sides of ham and smoked pig, hay for horses, and spare military kit.  They would have held enough food to supply Vindolanda from harvest to harvest.

The bath house (for 1000 soldiers) was pretty complex, and was built early – written tablets show it was repaired in 100 AD.  In addition to cleansing, it served important social

functions where soldiers (and their families) could work out, relax, gamble, gossip, etc.  It also provided access to a public toilet.

I should also mention the plumbing.  It is, of course, everywhere – these are Romans, after

all.  The main draw of Vindolanda is not the ruins as much as the museum.  This is still a working archeological site, of major importance (and you can talk to the people out on the site cleaning things freshly dug up).  I mentioned there were (at least) 9 forts here, one on top of the other.  Two things make this site exceptional.  One, the Romans sealed the foundations from each previous fort and built fresh; the 9 forts go down nearly 20 feet deep from what you see here, each isolated from the others.  Two, the water-logged site is very anaerobic, preserving thousands of items that normally do not survive, like clothing, shoes, and wooden writing tablets.  The site has produced the largest collection of Roman Empire leather items, but it is particularly famous for the preservation of wooden writing tablets that provide a singular look at Roman life on the frontier.  We’ll share views of some items from the museum!

We’ll start with leather shoes.  Romans could choose from a range of footwear.  A common type was the carbatina – it was cut from a single piece of leather, had scallop-shaped holes along the upper edge and was tied with a single lace criss-crossing the foot.

Two other types of shoe are sandals with simple toe thongs, and wooden clogs that would have a leather strap to secure the shoe to the foot (this one was made for wear in the bath

house).  Personal items are intriguing – they’re so normal.  There are hairnets, gold

earrings, combs (including one still in its leather case), and hairpins (or dress fasteners).  The silver hairpin with a hand holding a chain is particularly interesting – at the end is a small mirror with hook that attached to the wearer’s hair.

Roman tools are also amazing.  This is like 200 AD, right?  Well, they have shears and

hammers and crowbars that look pretty familiar!  The (new) sheep shears we saw in New Zealand last year looked just like those from 200 AD.

The museum had a lot of other stuff, like stone carvings; you’re on the frontier, in a fort, and you have art??

And, of course, there were coins and armor and pottery.

Finally we come to the greatest discovery from Vindolanda, the tablets.  More than 400 tablets were found, mainly in a waterlogged rubbish heap at the corner of the A Roman letter, beautifully preservedcommander’s house.  Most dated from AD 97-103.   The tablets were made from wafer-thin slices of wood, 1-3 mm thick, and about the size of a modern postcard.  The correspondent wrote with quill-type pen using carbon ink, then folded the leaf in half and wrote the address on the back.  The letters have provided invaluable insight into the military and private lives of those on the frontier.  In particular, they put a very human touch to the well-oiled bureaucratic machine that was the Roman army.  Let me give you some examples!  The first is from one of the commanders leaving notes for his successor, complaining of the problems facing a guerrilla army that fights very differently.  “The Britons are unprotected by armor.  There are very many cavalry.  The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.

How about this one?  “Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings.  Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow.  Are we all to return with the standard, or just half of us?…(missing lines)…most fortunate and be well-disposed towards me.  My fellow soldiers have no beer.  Please order some to be sent.

The one below I find humorous, as it describes a businessman’s problems with cash flow, logistics, and competition.  Some things never change!  “Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings.  The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus, I will settle up.  From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me.  I have several times written to you that I have bought about 5,000 modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash.  Unless you send me some cash, at least 500 denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about 300 denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible.  The hides which you write are at Cataractonium, write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write.  And write to me what is with that wagon.  I would have already have been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad.  See with Tertius about the 8½ denarii which he received from Fatalis.  He has not credited them to my account.  Know that I have completed the 170 hides and I have 119 modii of threshed bracis.  Make sure that you send me some cash so that I may have ears of grain on the threshing room floor.  Moreover, I have already finished threshing all that I had.  A messmate of our friend Frontius has been here.  He was wanting me to allocate him some hides, and that being so, was ready to give cash.  I told him I would give him the hides by the Kalends of March.  He decided that he would come on the Ides of January.  He did not turn up, nor did he take the trouble to obtain them….  I hear that Frontinius Julius has for sale at a high price the leather ware which he bought here for five denarii apiece.  Greet Spectatus and …and Firmus.  I have received letters from Gleuco. Farewell.

Finally, below is an invitation from the commander’s wife; reading it today, the wording is a bit foreign, but those 2000 years that separate us dissolves away to show how unchanging our human bond is.  “Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings.  On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are here.  Give my greetings to your Cerialis.  My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings.  I shall expect you sister.  Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

Enough for now!  Hope you enjoyed this look at the Roman Empire.  Next post, the Alnwick Castle, site for Harry Potter’s Quidditch match.

Durham and its Norman Cathedral

Durham has England’s 3rd-oldest university, a medieval atmosphere, and, reputedly, England’s best Norman (Romanesque) cathedral.  The cathedral is spectacular indeed.

We passed through Durham on our way north, so our visit was very brief; we would love to go back again.  It’s a charming little place, built along a tight curve of the river that has protected it on 3 sides for hundreds of years; it also occupies some seriously steep hills.

Its Market Place square was designed about 1100 AD; in order to maximize the number of

shops that could occupy this prime real estate, the Market was marked off in long, narrow plots only 25 feet wide.  Now, 900 years later, most of the store fronts on the Square still appear to be that narrow, although many of them are actually multiples of that original

A pub, with history width on the inside.  Pretty quaint.

On the left is an example of a town building that is not on the Market Square. The building, which houses The Shakespeare Pub, dates back to 1109.  It was an inn (the Ostler & Groom) in 1468.  Obviously it has seen a lot of modernization, but I love the preserved lineage of the buildings in Europe!  The connection with a past is palpable.

Now off to the Cathedral!  It was built to house the bones of the revered St. Cuthbert, who was instrumental in returning Christianity to the UK after it had drifted back to paganism.  St. Cuthbert was bishop of the Lindisfarne (now Holy Island) monastery in the mid 600’s, and was buried there.  Eleven years later his body was exhumed (building project) and found to be perfectly and miraculously preserved, enhancing his fame and attracting even more pilgrims to the site.  When the Lindisfarne monks fled the island in 875 to escape Viking raids, they carried his body and the famous illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels with them.  After 120 Durham Cathedralyears of roaming, the monks finally settled in Durham and built the “White Church” to house St. Cuthbert’s relics.  A hundred years later construction began on a monastic Cathedral to replace the White Church; and what a Cathedral it is!!  A renowned  masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, it is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of only a few preserving the unity of its original design. The nave, choir and transepts are all Norman; the nave contains what is thought to be the world’s first structural pointed arch.   There have been some updates; the Galilee Chapel is late Norman 11oo’s; the chapel at the opposite end is 1200’s in the Gothic style.  The western towers are from the 1100’s and 1200’s, and the central tower is from the 1400’s with Gothic detailing.  Picky details, it’s all pretty darn old!  You might have noticed that it’s also immense – nearly 500 feet in length.  Unfortunately, my pictures couldn’t capture its magnificence.

Before we head inside, take a look at pictures of the cloister, below.  While it was begun at the same time as the Cathedral, much work was done on it from the 1400’s on.

Durham Cathedral naveThe true beauty of the Cathedral is inside, but, alas, photography was forbidden.  I found some pictures on the internet that I will share here.  The nave is particularly striking; built in only 40 years (started 1093), it is harmoniously textbook Norman.  You may have noticed that other aspects of the Cathedral, such as the transept windows shown on the exterior pictures, are proto-Gothic – built by French masons and architects familiar with Europe’s latest innovations.  The Cathedral is just amazingly beautiful, as you’ll see in the borrowed pictures below.

Bronze knocker from the 1100's used by criminals seeking sanctuaryOne interesting aspect of the Cathedral’s history is the big lion-faced knocker on its door.  In the Middle Ages the Cathedral provided a refuge for fugitives.  Anyone who was accused of a serious crime could claim sanctuary by knocking on this door.  Fugitives were given 37 days to organize their affairs and decide whether to stand trial or (safely) leave the country by the nearest port.

Next stop – Hadrian’s Wall.  Getting closer to Scotland!