|The hypothetical hunters of Banna
||[Apr. 20th, 2014|06:21 pm]
Birdoswald is a fort on the Roman Wall, which we have visited before, but long ago - certainly not since the metal bridge at Willowford was built in 2001. Our first visit was while it was still being run as a farm - until 1984 - but we've been back since then, surely? Though not since it came into the keeping of English Heritage. Anyway, I keep saying I want to visit, and we keep saying we will and then not doing it; it's just that bit longer a journey.
I said some of this to S., who is organised and efficient, and she replied that it would be a good trip for the three of us to make this weekend. So that's what we did on Friday.
It's a drive of about an hour west from Newcastle. The sun was shining and the hedges were heavy with blossom on the blackthorn, and the verges golden with dandelions: I've never noticed them blooming as thickly as they are this spring, and though it could be that I've never paid attention in the right place at the right time, I don't think so, I think there is a particularly good crop. We arrived at Birdoswald in time for coffee in their tea-shop, and for a look around the exhibition - all new since my last visit. The guidebook is lavishly illustrated with items found on the site, but these are mostly in the museum in Carlisle. The exhibition maintains that the really exciting things are here, or are intangible: the archaeology that revealed a great wooden hall from the post-Roman 'Dark Ages' built on the foundations of the granaries, the altar inscribed Deo Sancto Silvano Venatores Banniess ('dedicated to Silvanus by the Venatores [are they hunters?] Bannienses') from which we infer that the fort was known to the Romans as 'Banna', though it seems a substantial inference to build on one inscription. Nor could I see any sign of lettering on the stone which identifies the third century garrison as I Aelia Dacorum, though this I will take on trust, since I am pleased to learn how early the first recorded Romanian immigrants arrived.
I had a brief failure to grasp the layout of fort itself; leaving the courtyard, you walk round the old farmhouse (now available to rent, if you need hostel accommodation for 40) and find yourself in a fenced area like a gravelled garden. Beyond the fence is lush grass and a massive stone wall leading away - but this isn't the Wall, it's the wall of the fort, and the field it encloses contains not only sheep but the humps and bumps of the remaining buildings. It has, I think, all been excavated, but then covered over for conservation. We wandered around the granaries, and I took many pictures, but the camera doesn't see what the eye does, and refuses to convey the compositions of stone below, blue sky and bare trees above, and sheep peacefully grazing in between that I thought I was photgraphing. Still, it's hard to go wrong with Roman stone:
This is the masonry of the east gate. When we had circled the entire perimeter of the fort, and gone to the edge of the headland to peer down at the river Irthing below (not far at all, and some of the outer buildings have already vanished over the edge), we were ready for lunch. We found this close by, at Slack House Farm, where I ate a ploughman's lunch consisting of two massive wedges of their own Birdoswald cheese (I preferred the younger, creamier version, though the aged was a perfectly respectable cheddar-type cheese), good wholemeal bread and pickles. Beyond the viewing window, someone was hard at work making more cheese.
After this we felt ready to return to the Wall, and follow it away from the fort, to the point where it crosses the Irthing - or rather, to the point where it used to cross the Irthing, which has now moved a substantial distance away. It's a steep descent from the milecastle to the new footbridge, and a path of loose stones which isn't pleasant to walk on. I took it slowly, and paused to admire the blackthorn, and two tiny violets huddling together in the grass. But the bridge abutment was well worth the effort, and we had the satisfaction of confirming that the climb back up from the river was much easier (I was expecting this, and was still surprised how much easier it was).
We drove back to Newcastle along the Military Road, which follows the line of the Wall: and S. gave us tea and biscuits and sent us home.