Today I was off on a small group tour to south Scotland and northern England to see, among other things, Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda, a former Roman fort. I met up with my driver Ally and the remainder of the group and we were soon driving south of Edinburgh through lush rolling hills and farmland, which included more sheep than I could count.
We made a brief stop at the Leaderfoot Viaduct, a sandstone and brick viaduct constructed in the mid 1860s on the site of a former Roman viaduct. The viaduct crosses the Tweed River and was used by the railway decades ago, but is not longer in use. Instead, its just a really cool heritage site.
We then continued south to the little town of Jedburgh right on the Scottish/English border. The town not only had a lovely little castle, but a gorgeous old abbey as well as a 16th century house where Mary Queen of Scots spent time when she was ill.
Given that our stop was only for 45 minutes, I passed on the castle and went straight for the abbey up on a small hill near the center of town. King David I of Scotland constructed the Norman abbey in the 12th century and it endured multiple attacks by the English in their many invasions of Scotland. The abbey was finally closed down during the Reformation when Henry VIII shut down the abbeys and took over the land. At one point, the abbey was used as the local parish church, but unfortunately, the abbey has fallen into disrepair and pieces of the stone continue to fall off. As a result, the abbey has been fenced off and I could not go inside. Nevertheless, I wandered around the front and side of the structure and was able to see relatively well into the abbey. Lovely.
I then wandered down the street to the little stone house with the sign on the front gate announcing that Mary Queen of Scots had stayed there in 1566, 21 years before her execution on orders from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.
The old stone house had been converted into a little museum with a storyboard of sorts describing the life of Mary. There was also a display of Mary’s needlework (she was quite skilled) as well as Mary’s death mask. Apparently, it was common to make a mask from the severed head of the more infamous condemned persons and hence there is the death mask for poor old Mary.
By now it was time to head back to the mini-bus. I made a quick stop for some tea just as it started to rain and then jumped back on board as Ally continued with his running commentary of the history of the area as we passed more pastures and rolling hills with cows and sheep hanging out in the rain.
Next up was the border crossing into England marked by a huge stone marker. We climbed out of the mini-bus into driving rain. Now on a clear day, the views from the little pass we were on are supposed to be pretty amazing. However, the rain put a damper on the view and so we were left to imagine what it would look like through the heavy mist and cloud.
We quickly pulled up stakes and moved on to our next stop: Hadrian’s Wall. I had long wanted to see the wall so I had actually signed up for this trip solely to see Hadrian’s Wall. And as luck would have it, as we drove, the sky brightened and the rain let up (YAY!).
The drive took us along a narrow country road through tiny little villages and more farmland. We soon started spotting hikers who were walking the wall route across Northumberland (the location of Hadrian’s Wall). As we drove along the narrow little road, we periodically spotted the wall. Eventually we turned off at Steel Rig and drove up the very narrow strip of a road to the parking area. We then walked through this funky little gate that only opens to let one person pass at a time, and into a pasture where … there were some cows (maybe bulls) grazing. YIKES. We hustled past the cows and moved into the field beyond where we could get up close and personal with Hadrian’s Wall.
Construction on the wall began in AD 122 under Roman Emperor Hadrian. The wall, which lies entirely in England, eventually ran the width of England from one side to the other and marked the boundary between Roman Britannia and unconquered Scotland to the north. At one time, the wall was between 12 and 16 feet high (and thought to be approximately 2 feet below ground). However, today the wall stands only a few feet high. Nevertheless, it was incredible to see the wall and walk along portions of the wall in front of us. Simply awesome.
I could have easily spent a lot more time walking along the wall, but it was now time to move on to Vindolanda, a nearby Roman auxiliary fort in use between 85 AD and 370 AD, and which had been the site of some incredible finds. The trip from the wall to the fort took less than ten minutes and we arrived just in time to take in the 1:00 tour. Unfortunately, I thought the tour left a lot to be desired. The tour guide spent the first ten minutes outside the entrance telling us about the site and what we were going to see in site and in the museum. Sorry, but just show us. No need to hype the site.
I quickly lost patience with the tour guide and began to wander the site on my own and found that the little signs at each of the unearthed buildings provided more than enough information. I passed a small aqueduct that once carried water, a military bathhouse, the frame of stone houses used by military personnel and support people who lived in the fort, a military headquarters building and even a Temple to Jupiter at the far end of the site. (And what I found very weird is that the tour did not take them to the Temple of Jupiter, which I thought was the most fascinating building at the fort.)
As I wandered, I ended up going to watch the archeologists at work. The site continues to reveal ancient treasures thanks to three on site archeologists and a crew of volunteers who work from April to September. (Anyone can sign up to volunteer for 2 week slots.). The work was tedious, but incredibly interesting. While I was there, a young man was working on what appeared to the be remains of a floor. So fascinating!
After a quick bite to eat, I wandered through the little museum that was filled with finds from the site. There was an entire case filled with shoes, including childrens’ shoes, jewelry, boxing gloves that were little more than knuckle coverers, jewelry, statutes, vases and on and on. One of the most fascinating pieces was the glass remnants of vase that featured painted gladiators on the side. I have seen hundreds (probably thousands) of Roman artifacts and never seen anything like this. It was amazing.
The other items of note were the Vindolanda tablets, a set of wooden leaf-tablets that were, at one time, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. Pretty cool although the dim lighting (obviously necessary to ensure their survival) made it difficult to view.
By now it was time to leave for our journey back north to Edinburgh. About an hour into the drive, we stopped in the little town of Moffat, home to the lovely St. Andrews Parish Church built in 1884 and the narrowest hotel in the world as certified by the Guinness Book of Records. And to be honest, I don’t know which was more impressive. I will let the pictures do the talking.
After the quick rest break in Moffat, we continued on to Edinburgh. We made one more stop in a spot known as Devil’s Beeftub. Apparently, it was popular between 1300 and 1610 for klans such as the Johnstones, Armstrongs and Moffats to cross the border into England and steal the cattle of English thieves and then hide the stolen cattle until the cattle could be taken to market for sale. So I guess it was thieves on thieves.
Anyway, after the quick photo op, we got back in the mini-bus, enjoyed a selection of Ally’s tunes (some good and some not so good) and before we knew it we were back in Edinburgh after a rather long day. Tomorrow, it is a pretty light day with only a tour of Edinburgh Castle on the list and then on Sunday it is on to Glasgow.