The Discovery Museum

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The last time I saw the Turbinia, once the fastest vessel at sea, it was being housed in its old site, a ramshackle building seemingly miles from anywhere.  I don’t think it was accessible by public transport in those days.  Now it is in a beautifully restored building just around the corner from St James Park, together with some of the most memorable exhibits I have seen in a museum.  The website, https://discoverymuseum.org.uk, describes exactly what you will see, but doesn’t prepare you for the effect the exhibits have on you.  The Newcastle Story starts with the Roman invasion of Britain and ends today.  The ancient history, which we have been exploring ever since we arrived in England, is interesting, of course.  But it is the more recent history, the history that is part of our lives, that is most fascinating.  While I didn’t grow up on Tyneside, much of the history of the post-war years in Newcastle reflects my own experiences until we left for Australia in 1958.  Then, of course, I came back here in 1978 and lived on Tyneside for almost a year, and after that we came back to visit every couple of years.  So all the post-war history of Tyneside is, in part, my history, too.  Photos, books, costumes, interviews with people, all touched a chord.  I think we spent the better part of an hour in that gallery alone, and we intend going back as soon as possible to watch the films, which we didn’t see.  Michael covered the whole museum in a short time and then sat around silently studying his phone and making us feel guilty about the time we were taking.  The other gallery that fascinated us was the history of ship building on the Tyne, sadly almost finished, and then there was the Life of the Soldier,  and the gallery devoted to people who had moved to the area from other countries and other parts of Britain.  In fact, if our feet hadn’t been so tired, and our tummies empty, we might have stayed even longer, even in the face of Michael’s disapproval.  So when he’s at work on Thursday, we’re going back to do it all again, and more.  We might even eat there this time, instead of the delightful Greek place we found in the Bigg Market.  A Greek place run by a man from Melbourne.

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Who buried the baby?

Yesterday was fine and sunny and expected to reach the magnificent heights of 20 degrees.  It may have reached 20 degrees, but the breeze was very cool and although we went out in our shorts, we never took our fleeces off.

After our trip to Housesteads and Chesters, were were keen to see the restored Roman fort of Arbeia at South Shields, that we hadn’t even known existed.  Perhaps because it is run by South Shields council, and is free, they don’t feel a need to advertise.  But it was really much better than Chesters.  When we arrived we could tell there weren’t many visitors because we were able to park right outside in the street (and it wasn’t pay and display, either).  The rebuilt gatehouse is very fine, and imposing from the road. But I like the bones best.  While it is possible to circumvent the official entry I had read that there was a museum, which was in the modern building containing the shop and help desk.  Directly in front of us, at the entrance to the one room museum, lies a skeleton, under a sheet of glass, just as it would have been found.  The ribs lay scattered around the breastbone, no longer connected by muscles and ligaments, the tarsals and carpals also abandoned in the dust.  There were glass cases holding various items unearthed during the excavation of the fort, and details about funerary rites.  And a departure from anything else we’ve seen, the skulls of two murdered men, and the tiny bones of a baby found buried under the walls of the barracks.  The information next to this exhibit suggests that perhaps the burial was due to some sort of funeral tradition.  As an inveterate reader of murder mysteries, I am of the opinion that this was a baby no one knew of, buried to hide its existence.

Arbeia has been excavated to show the rows of granaries, the baths and the barracks.  But two other buildings have been reconstructed as they would have been.  The barracks building holds bedrooms for thirty soldiers (and very cramped they must have been).   Each has a small hearth, but it must have been difficult to choose whether to be warm or breathe, given that there are no chimneys for the hearths.  Behind the barracks building is the commandant’s quarters.  Spacious, decorated and furnished as it would have been (sparsely), the most obvious conclusion one comes to is that privacy was never going to be expected.  Or perhaps that should be respected.  The house was used as offices, accommodation, and what with constant visitors, slaves, and hangers on, it must have been very crowded – and probably noisy.

We headed back to Gateshead with a new understanding of life in a Roman fort, for the soldiers (not allowed to marry), the horses (no stables) and the commandant (the aforementioned lack of privacy).  And we now know that the Emperor Severus visited in AD208-10.  He died in York in AD211.  I don’t remember seeing a memorial to him there.

On the way home we stopped in at Westoe Village, and had a drink for old times’ sake at the Westoe pub, where Kevin and I used to meet for lunch some thirty seven years ago when he was at College.  And it’s hardly changed.  Apart from selling cider that tastes like Ribena.  Michael assures me it was very popular at York Races.  Probably because it doesn’t taste like alcohol.

So now I must find out about the buried baby – or invent the answer for myself.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

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Thursday being a fine, and somewhat sunny day, we headed off to the Roman wall for a history fix.  We started at Housesteads, which (after a long climb up a path strewn with rocks, goat droppings and cowpats) took us up to where the original fort was built.  A commanding view of the surrounding countryside, particularly to the north, home of those pesky marauding Scots, was probably not much appreciated by the soldiers on cold, wet, Northumbrian winter days.  But the Romans looked after their own.  Latrines (using the lavatory was very much a communal exercise), under floor central heating, baths and well ventilated storerooms for grain would have meant a degree of comfort many people would not object to today.  A lot of the buildings have been excavated and it is easy to see how the Romans lived – right down to the shops and possibly comfort stops outside the camp walls.  The small museum featured stories, aimed particularly at children, showing day to day life in the camp, but merchandising is the main aim of the game.

From Housesteads we retraced our steps (in the car) along the long, straight Roman road to Chesters.  Here a Roman main street, with soldiers’ quarters on one side and civilians’ on the other, is remarkably well preserved.  We wandered around, admiring the thickness of the walls, the methods of heating (under the floor again), and the layout of the storerooms and the underground prison.  The museum here holds the Chesters horde, a collection of artefacts (clothing, jewellery and household items) excavated from the area.  The ear picks look delightful.

WH Auden wrote a delightful poem about the trials and tribulations of the Roman soldier’s lot, entitled Roman Wall Blues.  I keep expected to see it everywhere I go on the wall, but perhaps it is still under copyright.  I learnt it at school when I was very young, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
WH Auden

Visitors from Oz

Old friends from Perth arrived in Newcastle yesterday and this morning we met them at their hotel to go for brunch and a catch up.

Mike and Robyn haven’t changed and we had a lovely few hours with them.  We started at the local Wetherspoons with a full English to prepare us for the drizzly morning outside.  After yesterday’s sunshine, the rain was back, but only in a half-hearted fashion, which didn’t stop us taking a walk down the quayside markets, across the Millennium Bridge and into the Baltic Centre, where we took the lift to the fourth floor for views of the six bridges and a close acquaintance with the rather smelly kittiwakes.  Their chicks are all gone now, but still they sit in their messy nests, their beaks to the wall and tails overhanging the unwary walkers beneath.

We decided to walk back to the house, with Mike and Robyn perhaps a little unprepared for the climb, but they were revived with hot drinks in our cosy living room while Robyn tried to remember the password so she could read her email, sadly to no avail.  Mindful of the time, their cruise ship leaving North Shields late in the afternoon, we piled into the car and took them for a tour of the part of Newcastle we know best, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth.  The sun struggled to brighten up things a bit, and Tynemouth Priory, while not perhaps quite at its best, impressed with its grandeur and antiquity.  Admiral Collingwood surveyed us serenely, but we left the stuffed dog to his own devices, and drove down to the fish quay, where the Boudicca could be seen from an angle its passengers were unlikely to share.

We bypassed unlovely North Shields, arriving at the cruise terminal at exactly the right time, unloaded luggage and friends, admonished them to have a good time and say hello to everyone in East Perth, and waved them on their merry way.  It’s times like this that we realise where all our friends are.

St James’ Park

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A crowd of thirty thousand, sunshine, and the Germans to beat.  What more could a Geordie lad want?  Well, he would have preferred a win, and the team to wear black and white instead of blue and white, but a game’s a game.

Monchengladbach and a small group of supporters (in their tiny corner stand) came to Newcastle for a friendly – the first of the season.  I’ve never been in Newcastle on match day, and this was everything, and more, I’d expected.  In their thousands, nearly all clad in a Toon strip, old, new, away and home, granddads to babes in arms, they descended on the ground.  They poured up the stairs, into the building, through the bar and into, in our case, the Milburn Stand.  There were plenty of seats, even twice thirty would not fill St James’.  Some pockets were filled, others were sparsely occupied, and the top decks were all empty.  The big screen (the one that apparently nearly fell down a couple of years ago) was directly across from us, and the booming audio left no one in any doubt of what was happening.  The grass was so perfect it looked artificial, but a studded skid in the first half proved that it wasn’t.  When we sat down the players were warming up on the pitch, and we were warming up in the sun.  I had a lump in my throat when The Blaydon Races erupted from the loudspeakers, two large banners were positioned on the field, and a small army of tiny supporters arranged the logos of the sponsors on the field.  They gripped the edges of the large circle of fabric and tossed it up and down, bundled it up and brought it off again.  And then the crowd rose to its feet, clapping the arrival of the teams.

It was a friendly game, the visitors won, their cheer leaders encouraging them on, and the new players all had a go at the end.  Each was cheered as he was seen warming up on the edge of the pitch, and each graciously responded by clapping the crowd of supporters.  It was quite an experience for me.  I’ve never been to a ground bigger than Subiaco oval, and never seen so many people.  I hope to see it when it’s full.

No one seemed downcast by the end result, and to the strains of “I’m coming home Newcastle”, a cheery crowd left in an orderly fashion, filling the afternoon streets as they headed for buses and trains.