Over the summer, I received 2 exciting emails. One was about speaking at Lambeth Palace, the other about working for a week at the Vindolanda/Chesterholm fortress site just off Hadrian’s wall. Vindolanda is the site of some of the army barracks and associated accommodation and trade for the battalions in charge of manning Hadrian’s wall, that is the wall that separated the civilised Roman Britain, from the barbarian Picts. The first fort was built in AD 80, from wood, knocked down and rebuilt several times over. There have been nine forts since built, all on the same site, creating an environment justly fit for archaeological excitement – 9 distinct layers chart the progression of a Roman Britain over 300 years, and with them the archaeological finds that have stunned the world: the Vindolanda letters. This year was its 30th anniversary of being open to the public, and the 1900th year since Hadrian became Emperor, in 117AD. So, it is an exciting year for the site, and as you can probably tell, I was stupidly excited, and accepted the week, without a second thought to where I would stay, or how I would get there. It didn’t matter, I thought – if worst came to worst I would make a camp on the wall, and walk in every day. I mean, if the Romans had done it, couldn’t I?
Well, clearly not. Firstly, I was chucked out the girl-guides (though I’m now a Brownie leader – but let’s not dwell on that perversity), and although I had attempted several times ‘camping’ in the tent in the back garden as a child, I never made it through the night without being scared off by the shadow of a fox, enlarged to monstrous proportions by torch-lit canvas. Secondly, I had avoided DofE at all costs, and would have no idea where to start with routes, poles, sleeping bags, stoves or anything, really. Thirdly, I suspected my brother was angling for the trip too, so that he, who has managed to make it in a tent, stay in the Scouts, undertake a week-long survival trip in Scotland, is undergoing Silver DofE, and reckons himself to be a more musically talented version of Bear Grylls, would be able to enjoy the Northumbrian countryside, the way it should be. Putting him and I in a tent together for a week, in the rain, would be anything but peaceful. Fourthly, though I could not have known it, but could have guessed, storm Brian was on his way. And if my brother and I have learned one thing from playing ‘Brians of Britain’ (a to and fro verbal exchange of naming Brians in Britain, sad I know), it is that I do not want to be in a tent facing anything that shares its name with Brian Blessed or Brian Cox. I would either be rudely awoken by a sudden boom, or would be bored to death about stars. And either of those things could have happened in a tent next to Hadrian’s wall – or, more likely, this Brian would have blown us off the face of a hill, we would have rolled in canvas, and landed wet, bruised and distinctly miserable in a muddy bog.
So we had to look for accommodation. We looked at cottages, B&Bs, hotels and everything. But it was half term, prices were up and availability was low. We let it rest for a while. And we received the kindest of offers to stay around 40 minutes from Vindolanda, in the home of the parents of one of our Cathedral friends, the father of whom is a priest, and the mother of whom is the RS Chief Examiner. So, it couldn’t really be better, just a shame that, it being October, and the dreaded holiday preceding A level and GCSE ‘practice papers’ (because we can’t call them mocks because, oh no, that’s just too scary for poor little children), neither J or I study RS. But, suddenly the issue of accommodation disappeared, and for that we were inexpressibly grateful. Despite Brian and the biting wind, and the rain, it looked like there would be a bit of sunshine: it looked like we would have a hot shower, and a bed. The tent went back in the attic. It was at this point that my father decided he was going to come to; with no obligation to sleep in a tent, he was in. And he’s meant to be a Scout leader.
And so, as the academic half term drew to a close, I was increasingly growing in both excited anticipation, and nerves as to what was ahead. The realisation set in that I was giving up the whole of the first week of October half term, during which I should probably have been revising or writing essays or practising cello or something along those lines, to go to bordersland, cold, windy, wet and 7 hours’ drive away, to work with people I’d never met, to do daily presentations on bones (which I knew nothing about), and to stay with people I’d really never met. What on earth had I got myself in for? Well, sometimes, you just have to take a leap into the unknown, and you find your way.
But literally finding our way meant going north. And very north. We decided to drive, it was going to be the easiest way not only to get from home to where we were going to stay, but from the house to Vindolanda. And the route looks somewhat like M25, M1, A1, A1M, A68. And you can’t go far wrong, all the signposts have ‘THE NORTH’ written on them in huge letters.
The North/South divide is quite a big thing in our household. My Mum is from Liverpool, she definitely sees herself as Northern. So does my brother, except he’s always lived here, down South. My Dad is definitely a Southerner, though his family hail from the Blackburn area. And from the number of times I received the comment ‘yeah, the presentation was good, but you’re like, well posh like, ain’t ya,’ you could probably glean that I am a Southerner. So that’s a 50:50 split in self-identification under one household. A couple of years ago, we all took one of those online quizzes which you know are rubbish, but are quite fun to do – How Northern are you? They’re about the only thing that pops up on Facebook these days. Anyway, I took the test, and I got Guernsey. That’s how far South I am – off the scale. The rest of my family were probably as expected, Mum North, J midlands ish and Dad in the south. But they all managed to stay in England. So I always get teased for being a posh Southerner. Which is probably fair, but gets incredibly annoying.
So for me, going anywhere north of Watford, is north. I realised pretty soon that we were going to be not just north, nor North, but NORTH. My brother carefully took pains to remind me that, yes, we would be NORTH, seeing as Hadrian’s wall was built to keep out the Picts, the Scots. I’m not stupid, I said. And then he brought up the time when I was about 10, doing a whistle-stop overview of British history, and proudly told my parents that I’d learnt about Hastings’ Wall. It took them a while to work out that I meant Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, I got over their teasing a long time ago.
But our journey raised serious questions in my mind about the North/South divide. I mean, I’d think that once you’d got to Manchester, you’d be quite North. Nope, the signs kept on with THE NORTH. Even when we got to Newcastle, we again followed signs to THE NORTH. So where is THE NORTH? It is just a fictional place? At what point does North become South, and South become North? Clearly not Watford. Scotland? And if on the way home, the signs to Manchester also are labelled THE SOUTH, are Mancunians southerners too? If so, my Scouse family can’t accuse me of being a Southerner anymore.
You can tell I got quite caught up in all of this, and the arguments that we had in the car over the divide were vocal, to say the least. Thankfully I was sitting in the front, and J in the back. No-one got hurt, although he did have the power to deny me my share of the we-might-get-stuck-forever-on-a-motorway-so-we-need-snacks Maltesers. And I’m not the happiest of people if I am denied Maltesers. So eventually we shut up, and turned to Melvyn Bragg for entertainment instead. Although, entertainment is potentially not the right word. If I had had to last any longer than 49 minutes of a woman get confused between Poland and Prussia whilst supposedly lecturing on the Congress of Vienna, I might well have fallen asleep.
After about 4 hours, with a stop at Leicester Forest East for a share in their mouthwatering cardboard sausage rolls and over-priced coffee, we arrived in Thirsk, our stop-off point on the way. I think I have mentioned the inhabitant of Thirsk before. His name is Jo, he was my father’s history teacher, he thinks he is living 200 years ago, and he also thinks he is a dog. Suffice to say, it is a very weird experience to stay in his house, excluding the fact that he used to teach my Dad – my teachers would be imprisoned if I were invited to stay at their houses. It is a four storey house, with a basement housing the kitchen and pantry, for the servants, the first floor with the dining room, library, and study, the second floor with the bedrooms and bathroom, and the attic with the servants quarters. The Victorian bell system is still in place, and there is a coal hole.
Titled Miss Catherine, and quarantined in the Library to read ‘improving literature,’ something I don’t mind too much, Jo set to in preparing us a feast of mushroom soup, followed by stew and boiled potatoes, and baked apples, followed by cheese, followed by port. The Churchwarden was coming round for dinner, and we had to impress. The fear of a Churchwarden’s disapproval was such that everything had to be perfect. It is one of the things that I feel I have missed growing up in a Cathedral – I have never experienced such angst over a Churchwarden. Are they really as bad as all that? Perhaps Cathedral politics are worse.
J was put in place as the footman and general dogsbody, hanging up the washing (on a line in the garden, in October, after spending quite some time working out how a prop worked) and I was told to look pretty, be charming, and I might find a good Christian husband. You can guess how I feel about that. You learn to smile, nod, drink, and retire early to bed. Conversation that night ranged from the failure of the local building contractor to fulfil the agreement on affordable housing, to the local fracking protesters, to the state of the gravestones in the Churchyard, the poor range of vegetables in Aldi, and the deterioration in local refuge collection. All very important I’m sure, but not particularly stimulating topics of conversation. I managed to extract myself from the Library around 23:00, and after a battle with the wooden shutters, and failing to extract any hot water from the tap, I fell into bed.
I occupied the guest room, a sad room, frozen in time. It was a nursery, the walls cheerfully painted yellow, with stuffed toys on the shelves, and classic novels, and paintings of dogs and pigs on the walls. Jo never had any children. It is a room that sings of the longing for a child, and the pain of impossible dream. I feel incredibly guilty to draw the sheets, and sleep in the bed of that child, whose image dances in my dreams.
I woke with a start when I realised it was 10 o’clock, and texted my Dad to work out where everyone was in the house. It would not be acceptable to cross the hallway in my pyjamas, a young lady improperly dressed. But it was a necessity to reach the bathroom and take a shower. Like a spy I crossed the cold floor, and dashed in and out as fast I could. Dressed, I made my way downstairs to the dining room to take breakfast. We were all thinking one thing – it is manageable to spend a night in the Doghouse, but how quickly could we extricate ourselves, and get back on the road? Clearly, we still had a long way NORTH to go. We managed it after lunch. Hastily saying goodbye and receiving woofs and grunts in return, we bundled ourselves into the car and went onwards.
We were back on the A1M, and discovered that Dad had brought his rock album, and 80s rock is what you need when you’re really sick of motorways but still have an hour and a half left to go. Our next stop was a little village about 13 miles from the Roman town of Corbridge, our home for the next week. We were met by copious amounts of tea and three different types of cake to choose from, all handmade. We were never to go hungry again. Dinner was roast chicken, with roast potatoes, sprouts, beans, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, parsnips and the nicest gravy ever. There was chocolate pudding with ice cream and thick Jersey cream for pudding. A similar pattern occurred each day. Tea and cake at four. Roast beef, ham, lamb. Sticky toffee puddings, profiteroles, meringues and roulade. And cooked breakfast every morning. It was delicious.
Every day, when I came back from working, and the boys came back from walking miles over rugged moors, battered by a biting wind, and lightly dusted with rain, there was a splendid feast awaiting us. It felt like home. Added to which, I had my first experience of an electric blanket. As the nights drew to a close, and the coldness set in, you didn’t have to do the wriggle-around-under-the-covers-to-get-warm dance, the bed was already comfortingly warm. I don’t think I will ever look back. Electric blankets are life changing.
I had my first taste of radish (watery, peppery, unharmful). I ate chips and cheese and gravy for the first time (mushy, wet, less attractive). I saw a sheep-dog ‘come-bying’ for the first time. I thought that only happened in episodes of James Herriot. I found confidence, and by the end of the week I ran half-hourly workshops, allowing children to hold 2000 year old animal bones, telling them about what we can learn from anthropology and archaeology. People thought I was much older than 17. I walked along Hadrian’s wall, dressed to all intents and purposes like a Michelin man, with hat, scarf and gloves. It is mighty cold up there. I saw enough rainbows to last a lifetime, the sunlight catching the drops of rain on the wind. I saw the sun rise, its rays cutting under the black cloud, and casting an ephemeral light and warmth over the hills. I saw the stars. I went book shopping. I realised that my imminent study in the secret lives of flower ladies would have to include northern flower men. I drank about a gallon of tea. I met thousands of people, talked with hundreds of visitors, and slept the best I have slept in a long time.
And yesterday I came back SOUTH, storming back down the motorways, fuelled with monster shepherd pie, and with no need for cardboard service station offerings. We munched our way through some kind person’s Christmas gift of a box of chocolates that we still hadn’t eaten and had surpassed their ‘eat by’ date by quite some time. We sang our way through Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sailing to Philadelphia and How to Save a Life. We listened to an hour of the ‘Drowned man’s inn,’ read by someone for the BBC who has a poor French accent for someone reading Maigret. We got stuck for an hour on the M25. Because, after a week of peaceful escape in beautiful countryside, each respectively doing what he loved, and indulging in food so good the sides of our stomachs are still recovering, what better way to be plunged back to reality. London welcomes you home, with open arms. The fumes, the chaos, the busy-ness, the traffic jams. No sheep in sight, no cake on arrival, no electric blanket.
Take me back, please.