They say that as you grow older you start hankering after your home region, and in fact many of my friends have relocated back to the North East of England. I’m not sure that I would wish to do the same, as I feel most at home in cities like London, even if I put off seeing things simply because they’re all there right on my doorstep.
What I do miss about the North East, however, is the coastline, the castles and abbeys, and the Roman remains. It’s true that you can also see the latter in places like London, York and St Albans, Bath and many other towns and cities across Britain, but there’s nothing quite like the Roman Wall with its splendid forts such as Housesteads and supply forts like the one I visited last week at South Shields, quite close to where I was born.
It’s called Arbeia and consists of the remains of the fort, a restored or reconstructed gatehouse, and a nice little museum. Having spent a week in the Eternal City earlier this year, I had thus traversed the great empire from its heartland to one of its northernmost outposts, which I felt made an appropriately fitting end to my Roman period.
I also incidentally bought quite a few Ancient Rome-related books, for which I have scant space, but fellow bibliophiles will recognise the condition as being a familiar one: a book cannot be resisted once it beckons. At home my bookshelves are stacked two-deep, like the stone courses of medieval city walls, and finding a particular volume can take minutes or hours and becomes an adventure in itself, during the course of which long-forgotten tomes may be thrown up and ignite long-forgotten but still potently dormant enthusiasms.
Anyway, this magnificent old fort stands over the entrance to the River Tyne. As I child, I used to lie in bed listening to the distant foghorns, and often in the mornings as I walked along to the bus stop for school I couldn’t see a dozen feet in front of me for sea fret and dense fog clouds rolling up from the river. I’ve loved the stuff ever since, and in fact sometimes think I must have spent a past life stalking through Victorian London wreathed in it. It was probably as Sherlock Holmes, on the neverending trail of Irene Adler, whom he describes as The Woman, a dominatrix handing out recreational scolding to people.
This fort, to get back to the subject, guarded the main route from the North Sea to Hadrian’s Wall, and was a key military and garrison supply base for the major forts along the Wall. I had some difficulty negotiating the maze of suburban streets to reach it, but knew I was on the right track when the street names started having the names of the Roman emperors Vespasian, Trajan and Julian.
Incidentally, anyone who watches Game of Thrones on TV may be interested to know that Hadrian’s Wall was the inspiration for the iconic outsize wall in that series. I watched the first season on DVD as a matter of interest and was mildly diverted by it. After reading 50 or so pages of the first book I gave up.
There was a time when I could immerse myself effortlessly and indeed gratefully into fantasy worlds, but that time is long gone. Now, my creative/imaginative bolt-holes need to have some less tenuous connection with reality, which has become something less to escape from and more of a Medusa’s head that far from being boring threatens to turn me to stone with its increasingly uncompromising actuality. I hope I don’t sound too pretentious there. Maybe I simply started growing up at last.
Arbeia fort and museum, apart from its magnificently reconstructed West Gate and garrison buildings, has in its museum one of the UK’s best collections of Roman artefacts, and excavations are still on-going. There’s even an Arbeia Hoard, and events in its history include a devastating fire, high-profile murder and a visit by the Emperor Septimus Severus.
I bumped into a stray cat whilst exploring the strong room. Maybe the fort commander had a pet tabby. I can imagine it stalking the pillared portico and rubbing up against his legs as he dictated letters and orders for the day. I stumbled upon a charming little book by Don Marquis a couple of weeks ago. It’s about the life and times of Mehitabel, the ‘cat with the soul of Cleopatra’, typed up by a cockroach called Archy.
I especially liked the poem about the toad:
‘… warty bliggins
considers himself to be
the centre of the said
the earth exists
to grow toadstools for him
to sit under.’
This was much like the Romans’ attitude to their own divinely-ordained role in world history.