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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 7 February 2014


Roman burials, St Albans, Havercroft Close, King Harry Lane
This is the skeleton of a man.  In life, he was a wealthy middle-aged Roman.  He died sometime around 200AD and was buried in a fine lead coffin that must have cost his family a heap of denarii (think ‘pennies’).  It was – and still is - decorated with scallop shells, apparently a symbol of re-birth.  And now the man's remains, and his coffin, rest together in the excellent Verulamium Museum, St Albans.  

The man was found in 1989 during building work in what is now a quiet residential area of the City.  I won’t tell you the name of the road (though I gather the gardens thereabouts do very nicely), but Watling Street, the Roman road that ran from the ports at Dover and Richborough via London and St Albans to Wroxeter in the West Midlands, is nearby.

Richard Neave, Verulamium, Roman Britain, museum St Albans
And this is what he might have looked like.  A forensic facial reconstruction was undertaken by expert Richard Neave and the bust now sits close to its model in the coffin.  Next to them, you can watch an award-winning video about this man’s life and times, in which an actor plays the part of our lost and found again Roman.  They have named him ‘Postumus’, which my perceptive reader will recognise is a pun.  Postumus was also a real Roman name – there was an Emperor Postumus in the 3rd century. 

Now, what do you make of this?  Are you gazing into the face wondering what he was like?  Or are you contemplating his remains feeling uncomfortable at the idea of a human being displayed as an exhibit in a museum?  When does something fairly personal – and things don’t get much more personal than a person’s remains – become fair game for the public to gawp at?

Me? - I’m humbled and intrigued.  Humbled partly because this was once a living person, a human being with feelings just like you and I, and partly because I’m gazing at the remains of someone who experienced a bit of our story.  Postumus and his contemporaries are in their way a fragment of us, possibly biologically but certainly culturally.  This was, I imagine, a civilised man who enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle in a community based on the rule of law.  He’d meet friends and business associates, maybe at the baths; perhaps he took his wife to the theatre.  His home would have been comfortable, probably centrally heated.  He would have enjoyed imported goods, such as wine and olives, from all over the Empire.  Obviously, he would have had a mum and dad.  You can’t help wondering what his dreams were, whether he had any children himself and, if so, what became of them.  This man’s genes could be flowing through your body (or whatever it is that genes do).  And I want to know how he managed to keep so many teeth.

Lead coffin, scallop, rebirth, visit Britain

Monday, 3 February 2014


Roman Forts, North West England, visit Cumbria

The men of the 4th Cohort of Dalmatians were a long way from home.  They were undoubtedly cold and Hardknott Fort, which the Romans knew as Mediobogdum, must have seemed like the end of the world.  Certainly, situated in the mountainous northern region of the most northerly province of Imperial Rome, it was one of the most remote postings in the Empire.  Today, it is in the English county of Cumbria, on the edge of the Lake District.  The approach was the same 1800 years’ ago as it is now – either east from the port Glannaventa (Ravenglass) or west from the fort at Galava (Ambleside), a hard trudge through tough terrain.   The Dalmatians, who came from the eastern Adriatic (modern Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro) have left little trace of themselves at the fort they built sometime between 117 and 122AD, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.  They were a 3–4 month march away from their homes, but most of them are unlikely to have ever seen their families again anyway.

Hardknott Fort, Roman Britain, Brigantes, Roman Army
Hardknott was constructed of local stone, as well as red sandstone and timber that the soldiers would have hauled up from the coast.  The Romans had pushed into northern Britain by the latter part of the 1st century, but not all native Britons submitted easily and we do know that the early 2nd century was a violent time.  Forts were situated at key points along the roads built by the invaders, to facilitate the defence of their new possession and ensure the safe passage of goods.  To secure northern Britain (modern northern England), the Romans had to subjugate the dominant tribe in these parts, the Brigantes, and possibly a sub-tribe of the Brigantes, the Carvetii.  Many believe that Glannaventa – Ravenglass – was both a Roman naval base and the main port for the north of the province, where produce from throughout the Empire would have landed.  So Hardknott’s commanding location above the valley of the River Esk guarded an important trade route. 

Roman fort construction, about Britain, Mediobogdum
We don’t know how long the 500 or so men of the 4th Cohort stayed, but it is thought the fort was vacated during the Roman incursion into Caledonia (modern Scotland) in the late 130s/early 140s.  It was regarrissoned later in the 2nd century and then abandoned in the early 3rd century, its gradually decaying structure providing shelter for passing travellers heading over the pass.  The reason for its abandonment is not known, but perhaps this part of Britain was at peace; or perhaps the garrison was needed elsewhere.

Eskdale, Roman Lake District, Roman ruins in England
Roman forts were normally constructed on a standard design.  This was a highly efficient process – everybody knew what to do – and saved a fortune in architects’ fees.  At Mediobogdum can be seen the stone outline of the Horrea – granaries, which had raised floors so that air could circulate and reduce the risk of infestation; the Principia, or headquarters, which would have included administrative offices and a temple; and the Praetorium, the commander’s residence, which was unfinished.  Building on this rocky and uneven ground must have been very difficult.  There are no traces of any barracks or stables - these have just disappeared; perhaps leather tents were used.  The fort is roughly square, with a gateway in each wall.  There would have been a tower at each corner, with entrances from a walkway that ran round the walls.  Outside stood the bath house, one touch of civilisation in what must have otherwise been considered very basic conditions.

Roman bath house, Hardknott Pass, explore Roman Britain
Even now, Hardknott, can be a lonely, unwelcoming, place.  You can, of course, walk there; some, for reasons best known to themselves, cycle.  By far the easiest method is to drive – either up from the coast, or from Ambleside.  The latter is a spectacular route, but not for the fainthearted; the road is a single track, with passing places, that snakes its way around hairpin bends and up/down slopes where the gradient is 1:3 (33%).  Beware of suicidal cyclists – there is not enough room for a car and bicycle to pass each other safely.  Unless you’re mad, or a rally driver (or both), you cannot hurry.  At times, the car bonnet will, unnervingly, rise up and completely obscure your view of the way ahead – which can be pitted with perilous pot-holes; and at times your wheels will be rather close to the edge.  It is a treacherous road in bad weather and you should not even consider it in those circumstances.  At the very least, it is not the sort of place you want to be stranded – anymore than those poor Dalmatians did, I guess.

Drive from Ambleside to Hardknott, good drives in England

The route from Ambleside

Take the A593 in the direction of Coniston.  About 1 mile after Skelwith Bridge, take the minor road on the right signposted for Little Langdale.  Stay on this road over Fell Foot Bridge and ascend Wrynose Pass.  The road will then take you through Wrynose Bottom before ascending again up Hardknott Pass.  You will see the fort on your right as you come down.  There is a small parking area, but no other facilities.  The ground is invariably extremely wet; take footwear to change into (preferably boots) and suitable warm, weatherproof, clothing.