Do you ever visit places because you’ve read about them in fiction? Writing can do that—conjure up places, educate you and inspire curiosity.. Years ago, I visited Rosslyn Chapel thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and this year’s spring break featured a trip to Vindolanda.
Vindolanda, in case you haven’t heard of it, is the remains of a Roman army camp in Northumbria, what was the edge of the empire for centuries. I’d read a couple of historical fiction books by Adiran Goldsworthy that featured Vindolanda, and as I find the Romans fascinating I was desperate to visit.
What a place… Northumbria is wild and rugged in places so picturing a Roman army in situ and their guarding of the fort and the nearby Hadrian’s Wall is easy to imagine. The remains of the fort and the surrounding villages are complemented by a museum, every artefact in there excavated from Vindolanda.
A remarkable set of conditions resulted in the find of the largest number of Roman empire leather goods in the world. (I know; in cold, damp England of all places.)
And Vindolanda is also famous for its collection of wax tablets—basically, cards people wrote on, from an invite to a child’s birthday party, to a letter to the commander from a soldier protesting at the injustice of a severe beating.
How does the past come alive? When people in those times write about their ordinary lives, and the curators of Vindolanda view the tablets as their most precious find. Rightly so.
Sir Walter Scott
Still on the writer theme, we visited Smailholm Tower, made famous by Sir Walter Scott. The famous Scots writer stayed at the nearby Sandyknowe farm when he was a child to recover from illness.
There, his aunt Jenny taught him how to read and the tower, by then unoccupied and derelict, stirred in him a lie-long passion for the history and ballads of the Scottish borders, from fairy tales to the legends of the Reivers. His second publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, tells many of those tales.
The tower has lots of little models that enact some of those ballads and fairy tales, created by a local artist. (I wish I’d taken note of her name because I can’t find mention of her anywhere.)
I loved them, and my picture here doesn’t do The Young Tamlane justice. The ghost horses, the woman who sits on his cloak to save him from the fairy queen… again, powerful imagery.
The Scottish Borders are studded with the remains of abbeys, and we visited three of them.
In the 12th century, King David I thought their construction would impress and awe his English neighbours—look how wealthy and sophisticated we Scots are, kind of thing.
Unfortunately for the abbeys of the Borders, their proximity to the English made them easy targets in times of war. Of the three we went to, Jedburgh (featured image), Kelso and Melrose (left), the most intact one is the Cistercian abbey at Melrose and it’s awe-inspiring.
Old churches and abbeys fascinate me, especially when you consider the work that went into building them. And given what happened to Notre Dame this week, the abbey visits felt particularly fitting.
Food, glorious food
If greed is your motto, Northumbria and the Borders offer plenty of choice when it comes to food and drink. We stopped off at a quirky place near Hadrian’s Wall for lunch one day, its walls festooned with beagle pictures and horse brasses. The Belter’s Bar in Jedbugh specialises in home-made beefburgers and the choice of toppings huge so we ate there twice.
And finally, the weather in Scotland hasn’t been great so far this year but on the final night of our holiday, it was warm enough to have that first drink outside. As you can seen from the background, drinking in the shadow of historical monuments adds gravitas to the occasion…