|Heritage Open Days
||[Sep. 18th, 2016|01:11 pm]
Another year, another Heritage Open Weekend: it was last weekend, and this post has been sitting here in an incomplete state ever since. Some years we plunge in and rush about madly, but this year we took things very gently, and visited only three sites.
It's two years since we visited the Roman site at Binchester, for an Open Day at the dig then in progress. Writing about it then, I concluded: "There is funding for another digging season next year, but after that, no-one knows what will happen..."
We took the opportunity of Heritage Open Days to find out. On Saturday morning we headed to Binchester for the guided tour. At first sight, not much is going on: the excavation has finished, and the fields have returned to grass, with only a few notices and railings to hint at the excitement of the last few years. But as David Mason, Principal Archaeologist for the County, explained, the future is full of promise:
Here he is on the steps of the bath house inside the fort, the first part of the site to be discovered and excavated, introducing his colleague Claudius, who has been in the service of Durham County Council for - over thirty years, I think it was - and is shortly to retire. On our last visit we saw archaeology in action, digging holes in the ground, but this was meta-archaeology, the archaeology of how we present ancient sites. The history of ideas about this is found in the documents; but the archaeology of those ideas is in the physical traces (in this case, the carefree application of mortar to stabilise the Roman masonry, the false walls, Claudius himself).
The holes in the ground have not - quite - all vanished. There's no longer even a suggestion of just how big the vicus was (and incidentally, David Mason answered a question we were asking when we were on the Wall with J and J: yes, there does seem to have been a vicus associated with every fort), but those mesh panels surround a hole in which the bath house is visible. The plan is that this should be stabilised, formalised and kept on display, and the new ownership makes this more likely. So that's good news.
We had to dash to reach our next destination, and reached the meeting point - the railway museum - just as the group was setting off. Westbrook is a private street in Darlington, and we had chosen to visit because we had never heard of it. One of the residents led us across the main road, and then through a gate into an alleyway which looked as if it would end in someone's back yard. Instead we tumbled out of the rabbit hole in front of the Centenary Guesthouse, at one end of a tree-lined street. Once upon a time, explained our guide, in the very early days of the railways, the line had run along the edge of the valley in which we stood, and the area immediately below it was used for coal drops: that is, coal was dropped from the train as it passed, and collected by the businesses who used it or sold it on. The valley below had been made into pleasure gardens; it was unclear how well this fitted with the noise and dirt of the trains and coal dust. Later the upper part of the gardens had been sold as building plots, each permitting the construction of two semi-detatched villas. So now, all along the left hand side of the street were pairs of Victorian houses, while on our right, a fence kept the greenery at bay:
The abundance of trees, and the curve of the street, meant that there was no single moment of revelation: each plot became visible as we reached it. That's my excuse, anyway, for a set of photos of details. A pair of gothic mansions, complete with gabled towers and fancy brickwork, beatufully maintained:
were followed by classical doorframes with peeling paintwork. I was quite cheered by the evidence that real people lived in this street, and that long-term residents were valued for themselves - and for their cats, of course!
At the far end, we turned up the back lane, and here for the first time I had some sense of how the houses were fitted in below the railway. But the brick walls had been turned into an art gallery: a project by students at a local school was lovingly preserved and displayed:
Returning to the front of the street, we came finally to the grandest house of all:
Number 8 had reportedly been built for a spirit merchant, in the local white brick, the bunch of grapes above the door a mark of his trade. Don't be fooled by the lamp-post: when the council changed the lights to LED, they retained the old-fashioned style, but the brighter bulbs require a taller lamp that any Victorian lamp-lighter could ever have reached.
By now it was three in the afternoon. We were ready for lunch, and more than ready to sit down. Our first thought was the café at the railway museum, but this wasn't open (why on earth not?). We were planning what durham_rambler calls "a little light shopping" on our way home, so we headed for Morrisons supermarket. Their cafeteria menu was much like the one at Boroughbridge (which we treat as a 'just off the motorway' break), but the cafeteria itself was a bright airy space decorated with a large mural, in which images of the four seasons, amalgamating local features, were overlaid on old-fashioned maps. I couldn't find any information about it on the internet, but this gives some idea:
if not of the mural itself then of the way it fits into the cheerful decoration of the café.
And on Sunday, since it was a lovely sunny day, we visited the Other Allotments. When we visited the St Margaret's Allotments open day, someone had mentioned Durham's other allotments, which I hadn't know. They are tucked in above Flass Vale, and slope down steeply to the nature reserve there. And apparently it is autumn: