Vindolanda via Britannia – part 1.

Before Covid-19 struck, Dr Andy Birley (the CEO and Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust) and Gary Calland (the Vice Chair of the Vindolanda Trustees) had hatched a plan to celebrate the  50th anniversary of the Vindolanda Trust and fundraise for the excavations at the site of Magna on Hadrian’s Wall. The original idea was to undertake a 13 day, 3500-mile round trip to Rome taking in various other countries and sites along the way. With travel to Europe becoming increasingly more difficult, this fundraising journey became an impossibility, but rather than give up, they decided to visit the four corners of Roman Britain instead, 1800 miles in 6 days, and along the way highlight the incredible wealth and diversity of the province of Britannia. What follows is a diary of the trip and the places and experiences that they encountered along the way.

Day 1-

Nervous excitement and a very early start. We left Vindolanda just after 6:30 in the morning, knowing full well that the distance we were about to travel, some 360 miles, would be punishing. In the early morning mist, we headed north east from the site and along the line of Hadrian’s Wall and towards Dere street and the Roman road into northern Britain. Our first stop was the impressive site of Risingham (Habitancum), once garrisoned by the 4th cohort of Gauls, before they came to Vindolanda. After a quick leg stretch and photo, it was back on the Vespas and heading for Newstead (Trimontium), the pre-Hadrianic regional base which Vindolanda commanders would have likely reported to. We then pushed further north to Rough Castle, an Antonine Wall fort, garrisoned by Nervians, 4th cohort, like Vindolanda’s 2nd cohort of the same. Crossing the River Tay, we reached Spittafield, close to the most northerly Legionary base in Britain: Inchtuthill. From here we headed south back towards the Solway Firth for our first overnight stop near to Birrens.

Rough Castle

Gary’ highlights: Rough Castle, the fortifications were really impressive, very well preserved, you can still see the front pits -the lilias, where wooden spikes were positioned.

Andy’s highlight: Riding alongside Dere Street and through the sun-kissed landscape of the borders. Newstead’s potential and the wonderful Rough Castle part of the Antonine Wall.

 

Day 2

Bath house at Ravenglass

Our first site of the day was Bowness-on-Solway (Maia).  While the forts and Hadrian’s Wall is mostly hidden here, this stretch defends the mudflats of the Solway Firth. Next to Maryport (Alauna), home to the 3rd cohort of Nervians amongst others. Then down the coast to the fort of Itvnoclum (Ravenglass) and the wonderfully high standing remains of the bath house. From there we headed to Hardknott fort (Mediobogdum), arguably one the most bleak but spectacular Roman forts in Britain, the home of Dalmatian mountain soldiers, the same regiment that served later at Magna on Hadrian’s Wall. From the Lakes, we made our way to the final site of day 2, Segontium in Caemarfon, North Wales. Garrisoned by Cohort I Sunicorum from Belgium, close to the home of the Tungrians, Batavians and Nervians who all served at Vindolanda and overlooking the scene of the storming of Anglesey by the Roman army.

Hardknott Fort 

Gary’s Highlights: Hardknott pass fort. What a location. Through 21st century eyes it feels dramatic and romantic, but I bet it was a tough and dangerous place during Roman times

Andy’s Highlights: Not falling off my vespa going down Hardknott pass and the incredible views.

Day 3

From our overnight camp near Segontium, we picked up a winding series of roads and headed down the coast of Roman Wales. Our first stop was the hidden gem, Tomen-y-Mur with its amphitheatre and reconstructed fort wall. Then onwards to Caersws and eventually the southern legionary base of Caerleon (Isca Isca Augusta) and the walled town of Caerwent (Venta Silurum): you cannot visit Roman Wales and miss these two impressive monuments to Roman occupation. Next another Roman icon, Bath, and then onto the Fosse Way to our last destination for the day, at the most south-westerly Roman fort in Exeter.

Gary’s Highlights: Tomen-y-mur, a hidden gem of a place. Stunning location, lots of archaeological remains and I loved the various eras of occupation that can be seen. You could easily while away a couple of hours here.

Tomen-y-mur

Andy’s highlights: The incredible roads of Roman Wales and the realisation that Roman Wales is so ridiculously under appreciated. Surviving a complete drenching between Caerwent and Bath whilst navigating the Severn Bridge and the M4.

Caerwent

Gary and Andy's Vindolanda via Britannia adventure was in aid of raising funds for the Revealing Magna Appeal. the Roman fort of Magna is next to the Roman Army Museum.  The site covers an area larger than Vindolanda and has the same preservation layers of organic remains and it is now under threat from climate change. The appeal is still open and all contributions towards the project will help the Vindolanda Trust excavate and understand this fantastic site.