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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey.'

8 January 2022

The magical Winter-wonderland landscape has disappeared and is replaced with lush green partitioned pastures on this bright sunny day. Last night's prediction of heavy snowfall did not come to fruition, thank goodness. We have to return to York later today.

At the Vindolanda site, it is still crunchy underfoot, but the landscape is renewed beautifully in several shades of green. From the Visitor's Centre to the remains of the fort is a short walk. The site also includes a large museum set in a garden in which full-sized reconstructions of Roman buildings and a Northumbrian croft are displayed. The gardens are open but the museum is not so I concentrate my attention on what is on the hill; the Roman auxiliary fort, which predates Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads, where we visited yesterday.

The earliest Roman forts here were built of timber and turf and these remains may be as deep as four metres below my feet, sitting in the waterlogged soil. There is evidence that five forts have been built and demolished over the centuries.

Forts are traditionally built on hills where visibility of approaching marauders is guaranteed. Today, 2000 years later when these threats are no longer valid, the hilltop site exposes me to the elements with the wind whipping around my face, freezing any exposed flesh. My neck warmer is pulled up over my face, exposing only my streaming eyes as I battle to see as much as I can in the sub-zero temperature.

Unlike other Roman forts built along Hadrian's Wall, it appears that Vindolanda was much more than a garrison. Originally built of timber, Vindolanda may have supported a population of 4000-6000 people, which included not only soldiers and their families, but traders, merchants, servants, and slaves. Although there is evidence that it was abandoned between c280-304, rebuilding began in 305 and it continued to be a town of some size for 300-400 years after the end of Roman occupation.

This site is unique in that the layers of history lie several metres below the surface. Due to the unique preservation conditions, items left here 2000 years ago may be found today in the same condition they were at the time. As the layers of history are revealed in the years to come, we will have an opportunity to gain a real snapshot into the everyday life of a Roman-British town over a long period.

Today I am exploring Vindolanda alone and as I wander between the partially excavated remains, I can only imagine the busy streets during Roman times. A bathhouse, complete with stone furnaces for heating, is located at the far corner of the site. It appears that bathing in Roman times was not a form of relaxation, rather a production line, where bathers entered through one large changing area and worked through a series of rooms before exiting after a dip in a cold plunge bath. I find the physical baths and accompanying information fascinating. Here in front of me is the best of the technology of the time, which includes heating spring-fed baths for the health and well-being of the community.

Being able to wander in solitude amongst these relics arranged in the shapes of houses, temples, and even heated baths is an experience I won't forget. If only the stones could talk, they would have a few good stories to share. But that is the role of the archaeologist and this site is still an archaeological dig during the summer months as they strive to bring to life the history of a Roman fort in the harsh Northumbrian landscape.

Our journey to visit Hadrian's Wall is over now and we must return to York this evening. Somehow we make the decision not to return the way we came yesterday and to instead drive to Harrogate through the Pennine Mountains and the Yorkshire Dales. We will regret this decision momentarily, but upon reflection, the route we do take will provide us with an experience that is uniquely our own.

After a short coffee stop in Carlisle, we continue our journey south following the instructions provided by Google Maps. One of the highways has been closed since early this morning due to an accident and it appears to be still closed. After driving a few kilometres, Google advises that we can save twenty minutes by turning off the road on which we are travelling. Aware of the time and how quickly the evening pervades the day, we decide to take the shortcut that will almost guarantee our arrival in York before dark.

We are thrust into the Yorkshire Dales as the fine weather of this morning begins to deteriorate quickly. In the 1970s, I loved the books written by Yorkshire vet, James Herriot. Set in the Yorkshire dales these beautifully-written memoirs provided an insight into the rural landscape of post-war Britain. As we take a turn onto a very narrow road, I notice a sign warning trucks not to use this road in winter.

Perhaps we should also heed this warning.

We drive a few kilometres into the most beautiful scenery and very shortly I feel very much like James Herriot as we meander across the country in our little car. The weather takes a turn for the worst and visibility decreases as snow begins to fall heavily, whitening the landscape very quickly. I stop at a turnout and decide that we have gone far enough. Without knowing where this road leads and how long we will be driving on a single lane, it is not ideal for us to continue on this route. As the snow falls and the lowering temperatures begin to freeze the car's sensors, we do the sensible thing and turn back towards the wider road. Taking care to crawl along the way we came, and hoping that we do not encounter any traffic, we make our way back to the turn-off.

Then it happens!

A Sainsbury truck delivering groceries to the householders of rural Yorkshire is approaching and there is nowhere else to go but off the narrow strip of asphalt. Careful to keep one rear wheel on the road, I move into the ditch to allow the truck to pass. Before making a decision - do I go forward, or do I go backward, I get out of the car to assess the situation. The last thing I need to do is get bogged in the wilds of Yorkshire. There is no guarantee that our phones will continue to work in this environment. Suddenly from out of the falling snow, the truck driver materialises, and whilst Natasha sits in the driver's seat, car in reverse, he pushes the car back onto the road. Whilst he is apologetic about running us off the road, we are grateful for his assistance to get us back on track.

With the turnoff one hundred metres ahead, we clean the collected ice and snow off the car's sensors before rejoining the double-lane road and continue our journey.

I have little experience driving in the snow. We've made the right decision to turn back in this situation but something deep inside me yearns to return to the dales one day in better weather just to immerse myself into this beautiful landscape.

The weather starts to clear as we continue along the road and we begin to make decent progress towards York as the afternoon darkens. Before long the snow begins to fall again and I realise it is probably too dangerous for two inexperienced snow-drivers to continue. As we arrive in Long Preston, a village larger than those we have passed through already today, we decide to call it a day and stop for the night. The Boar's Head pub includes accommodation so we park behind the building. As we enter the bar, snow on our clothes instantly melting in the heat of the open fires, everyone inside the tiny bar stops and stares at us. Like one of those faintly-suspenseful movies of the 1960s, I feel a little uncomfortable under the stares of the local patrons, especially the bloke holding up the bar in the corner. I have already pegged him as being the 'local identity'. We ask for a room and are given one upstairs at the front of the hotel where the traffic through the village provides a whooshing, but comforting sound all night. Opting to eat in the 'restaurant', to use the term loosely, I am convinced that the items we have selected from the menu have come directly out of a can. My chili-con-carne is probably tastier than Natasha's mushroom soup. With images of us shaking the snow off ourselves, I order a brandy and a St. Bernard dog. I don't get the dog, but I do enjoy the brandy at the end of this amazing and eventful day.

We have an hour's drive to York tomorrow and we decide to leave early to give us plenty of time.

Title Quote: John Boswell

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