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.