On our Wednesday night in Durham, Michael Shanks threw out some interesting thoughts about Hadrian’s Wall. The Wall as a concentration of energy. The Wall as connection, as much as anything. The Wall as threshhold—threshholds being “where things get noticed.”
You could feel all those things working, as you stood at the top looking out, considering the vastness in conjunction with the square inches of soil we would concentrate on again the next morning, scrutinizing each for traces of the Romans who had come and gone, and trying that way to connect. (Uncovering the stones of more immediate thresholds, the doors of buildings, barrack rooms.)
The Romans were all about being noticed, making a statement writ large in the landscape, but what did they notice themselves there, in that foreign place, with time stretching as hugely as the green land around them? Syrian archers, Gauls; soldiers from Germany, Spain, far parts of the empire, desert lands, out of their natural environment. What was it for them, to be there?
The Wall is about regionality, Michael went on. It plays a big part in defining the region, he suggests—that nebulous sense of regionality, crucial to who we are. Isn’t a region connected with boundaries? It was the borderlands that Walter Scott wrote about. The region near the Wall. The north—that liminal space, charged with possibility—there, where we felt so energized, so very much alive, exploring its present and past.
It’s also about finding similarities in difference, I think. Recognizing affinities. Like archaeology; like travel of that best sort.
Michael jotted notes for that evening lecture on the bus back from Bamburgh and Lindisfarne, after recounting to us the story of the Laidley Worm, and reading to us about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens. We had half an hour between the bus dropping us off and walking to the lecture hall at Durham University to find some garlic shrimp tapas and Spanish red wine; and afterwards would take the river path back to our rooms at University College, the path in its dense covering of trees gone all dusky and still.
I sat among the archaeology students imagining being one too, someone who studies ancient kilns and builds them, the woman with her treacley Northern accent who sorted and cataloged the bits of bone and pottery and crusted iron at the dig. Imagining belonging to that region, truly, and what that might mean.
Durham, that far northern city on “the edges of empire,” was a special time-out from the world below—meaning the southern regions as well as the busy everyday bustle below the castle and Cathedral hill, with its grand outlook over the slow, winding River Wear. It seemed a bit shameless to have a castle to myself (Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, the original 11th-Century fortress with a fine-arched Norman chapel at its foundation), other than all those weekend wedding parties in blue kilts, but I decided I wouldn’t look a gift house in the moat.
There in the bracing north, in the Cathedral Close, in University College, sanctuary of both mind and spirit, it was light by 4:00 a.m., and all the way till 10:00 at night—a generous stretching of time. What night there was, was counted off by bells, comforting watchfulness. I rose early, drank coffee spiced with cardamom, made instant oatmeal with dried tart cherries and hazelnuts, went out exploring with my camera and climbed up again the 39 steps winding up the castle tower to my dorm room with its turret view and the adjacent bathtub (good for washing out the mud from my once off-white archaeology pants, now and forever off-off-off-off-white).
I went to the sung Eucharist in the Cathedral on the last day before the choirs went on tour for the summer, and then to a Sunday luncheon of roast pork with Yorkshire pudding, roasted vegetables, and a St. Cuthbert’s Slice. The peals of bells reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsey and The Nine Tailors; and being resident in the college over the summer, of Harriet Vane’s similar stay at Oxford in Gaudy Night. Dinner one evening early in the week was at the Almshouses, a quiet welcoming retreat next to the Close police station where singing practice could be heard in a back room, with choice of wholesome fare—salad and soup, or quiche, or mushroom cashew nut Madras on rice, and maybe just a slice of pear and almond tart with cream (another special time-out).
We were charmed by the sign on the door of the library in the Close, “No milk today, please.” By the 37 days of grace given those who came and banged the sanctuary knocker on the main Cathedral door. In the cloisters I saw notices for Eucharist and Evensong; for Wednesday evening organ concerts, Thursday photography from 18:30-21:00, an endangered colony of Pipistrelle bats.
I was charmed by so many things:
learning that wattle is willow or hazel, woven
a crab stottie at Bamburgh (local crab on seeded whole grain bread), and Farne Island Bitter
the potato and egg shop, and
the farm shop offering potatoes:
the flavors of crisps, like Strong Cheese and Spring Onion, or Prawn
the container of “Grit” at Durham Cathedral
the Celtic cross with its commemorative war scenes and its panel of birds
the Grouse and Claret Bar
the town of Wallish Wall
two Labradors crossing a bridge
the college toaster with its moving belt
the story of the Laidley Worm
Hadrian Veterinary Group (and later, the Keats Pharmacy)
After an icy, blowy day digging at Binchester, a hot bath, damson gin, and more tapas—potatoes fried with onions and peppers, pork stew with thyme, almost-Mallorcan bread with tomato and garlic (pa amb oli), and Ropa Vieja—in this variation with garbanzos, eggplant, and turmeric.
I was pleased to notice the marks in a planted field that show the presence, even in absence, of the planter. To hear about a model village created to satisfy the aesthetic taste of the local landowner who would have to look down on it from his adjacent castle. To learn that the broken bit of pottery I found, with its high-polished red glaze, was maybe not the elegant Samian ware of the Romans, but fake Samian ware—an earnest if not quite successful imitation of the fancy stuff that everybody craved.
To think again of Michael’s talk, in that connection, his description of path dependency. The width of Roman roads was axel width, he pointed out; and one gets stuck with axel width, in ideas also. Dere Street, of the Romans (from York to Scotland, through the Cheviot Hills), the Great North Road of Medieval times, running straight and impressive and sure through those border regions. But consider instead the more ambling country lanes, the sheep paths, the line of stakes along the mud flats where the pilgrims cross to Lindisfarne at low tide. All those, just as surely, are ways of going, ways of interacting with the landscape, ways of making a region your own.
A Roman bead, the faintest outline of a boar over a ruined window, a trace of sunlight on a tower step—these are quieter threshholds of the past, the other, the vast exhilerating realms of knowing and un-.
Appropriately, just now when I looked on Google for the story of the Laidley Worm, I was led to Michael’s archaeography site, and this comment of his that perfectly concludes my rambles here, the happy journey from immensity to tiniest detail— “The specifics, often overlooked, the mundane and unspectacular are often what create a sense of place.”