Ravenglass, Hardknott and on past Wrynose

Ravenglass to Ambleside roman roadThe Romans were fairly active in the English Lake District. It was a good jumping off point for their campaigns to try to subdue Caledonia, and when they gave that up, for building Hadrian’s wall. I’m writing this while on holiday up here for the week, and one of the things that always strikes me about the Roman activities here is how the small matter of the highest mountain range in England didn’t seem to worry them. They looked at the most direct route between the places they wanted to go to, and then built straight roads to get there. If there were mountains in the way, well, they just went over them. No mean feat up here.

Ravenglass estuaryRavenglass on the Cumbrian coast is a pretty place these days, and would have been during the Roman period too. It has a natural inlet that makes it an ideal place for a port, and if you want to import goods from around the Roman empire up to the north of England, it also has the benefit of enabling you to do that by sea, rather than traipsing up the length of England over land. But, the downside is that you have to get people and goods over the Cumbrian mountains to get them to where you want them.

remains of roman bath house RavenglassThe Romans built a fort and port at Ravenglass (Clanoventa), and the remains of the bath house there have been remarkably well-preserved. Some of the walls still stand to around 14 feet high (picture on the right) and still have some of the concrete rendering and small parts of red and white plaster visible. They really did build things to last! On the day I visited and took this picture it was warm and sunny, but it can be bleak, cold and wet up here, and I could imagine that a nice warm steam bath and plunge pool would be one of the first things to be built. Along with a good hypocaust central heating system!

Eskdale from hardknot fortOnce the goods had been landed at Ravenglass, they would begin their journey over the mountains. At first, this is a fairly easy and very beautiful trip up Eskdale. This is a classic Lake District valley, sheltered and wooded with a lovely river running along its base. Lots of places to rest and plenty of drinking water for your journey.  But it doesn’t last. Blocking the way at the head of the valley is Hardknott, the first of two steep ascents over the mountains. But Hardkott also commands an excellent view back up Eskdale to the sea at Ravenglass, and makes a perfect location for a fort. So, of course, the Roman army built one there.

Hardknot fort and the pass

The picture to the right shows the view of the remains of the Roman fort at Hardknott (Mediobodgdum), with the present-day pass running up over the dip in the mountain behind it. A 1 in 4 ascent with terrifyingly tight hairpin bends, not helped by a road surface that breaks apart regularly. We have driven this on family holidays many times, and it never loses its excitement for me – particularly if I’ve drawn the short straw and it’s my turn to drive! Trudging up and down this pass with carts, mules and people-power must have been a much more challenging effort than just driving over it, especially in the biting cold, ice, wind or driving rain. Once over the pass, you descend into Wrynose bottom, a desolate, bleak valley with high mountain walls on all sides. There is a way out to lower land at the Hardknott end, but if you want to keep heading east towards what is now Ambleside, there is no alternative to another 1 in 4 climb. This is Wrynose pass. Once over it, you can see the way down to Ambleside, a beautiful descent towards green woodland that gladdens the heart after the hard beauty of the high fells.

Galava 1The Roman fort at Ambleside (Galava) must have been a welcome sight to anyone who had made the trip over the mountains. Its pleasant lakeside position near Windermere is a lovely spot, and once again the traveller could indulge in a bath, if he or she had access to the fort. The fort included large granaries that would have ensured a supply of bread and cakes as part of the diet of the soldiers and local occupants of the vicus (civilian settlement) outside the fort. The size of these granaries suggests that the fort may have been a distribution centre for the Lake District area.

The whole trip from Ravenglass to Ambleside is only around 18 miles, but they were probably 18 of the most testing and spectacular miles on any Roman road in Britain. Following the route of the road today is a wonderful way to spend a day, particularly if you’re a fan of Roman roads, like me. I can highly recommend the trip!

Sadness and science

Today is a sad day. I received a letter from the family of Dr Elaine Morgan, author of The Scars of Evolution and other inspirational books on human evolution, letting me know that Elaine died last Friday. She was 92 years old and had lived a wonderfully full life, so her passing is not a tragedy. But it is still sad that such an inspirational, intelligent, kind and humble woman is no longer with us.

She has been a tremendous inspiration to me. It was reading her books on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), and her ideas in the seminal “The Descent of Woman”, that led me to write Watermark. But it wasn’t only what she wrote that I found inspirational. Her bravery and dedication in taking on the scientific establishment in arguing the case for the AAH was a wonderful example to us all that there should be no holy cows in science. If science really is an objective search for evidence, then challenges to accepted thinking would be welcomed, you would think. But that wasn’t the case for Elaine, and her trials and tribulations in getting the role of water in human evolution taken seriously shone an interesting light on the difference between the ideal view of what science is, and how it is actually practiced.

The philosophy of science fascinates me. But that term, “philosophy of science” confuses some people. What is there to be philosophical about? Science is an entirely objective pursuit, surely. But, it is carried out by humans, so can it really be entirely objective? And, do we want it to be? Perhaps objectivity is a laudable goal, but maybe one that will never be achieved. In any case, there is something chilling to me about the idea of an entirely objective scientist, motivated only by evidence and not by an acceptance or understanding of the human condition (whatever that may be!). Elaine was motivated by the human condition. By the curiosity and wonder that is characteristic of our species. It may be true of other species, but we have no way of knowing that, at present. We do know it about ourselves, though.

There are four books that have had an enormous effect on my understanding of science:

  • “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” Karl Popper
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn
  • “What is this Thing Called Science?” Alan Chalmers
  • “The Descent of Woman” Elaine Morgan

All four are fascinating, but of those four, Elaine’s book has had the greatest influence on me, probably because I’m a woman who, like her, had become heartily sick of the “man the hunter” theories of human evolution. Men stood up to hunt better, men made and used tools, men have strong upper bodies for spear-chucking etc etc. Women co-evolved as a side-product; they were relegated to picking up berries off the floor, making themselves sexually attractive to men and looking after the resultant babies. But what about this great big thing in our heads? That’s what really differentiates us from all other species on the planet. All the time our brains were evolving to be larger and larger, there was very little change in the tool sets we were making. Sorry, men were making. We just didn’t need all that brain power to bang rocks together a bit more accurately.

The arguments are very persuasive that our brains developed to accommodate language, and so it must have given us a significant advantage to be selected for so effectively. And with language came music and laughter and empathy and all the “touchy-feely” stuff which had been ignored in theories of what drove human evolution. We are fundamentally communicators, not hunters. Sure, we have to hunt and scavenge to survive. But many species do that very effectively in social groups; lions, wolves, orca etc.  You don’t need a massive brain like ours to do that well. And which sex is generally accepted to be more adept at language? I leave that question hanging 🙂

Elaine has been described as a “housewife” in newspaper and media articles many times, as if there is something truly amazing about looking after a family and being able to think outside the box. I agree with Elaine; humans have evolved the way we have because women were, and still are, adept at doing both.

Rest in peace Elaine. You lived a wonderful life.

Pen on paper

closed book on tableI use computers all the time and wouldn’t dream of going back to writing on paper as a matter of course. The convenience of word processing, and being able to blog and tweet to my heart’s content, is a wonderful convenience.

But, that doesn’t mean I have lost the thrill of a blank, fresh, crisp piece of paper, just waiting to take its first mark. I love stationery shops too. Ranks of coloured paper, card, pens, markers, envelopes… mmmmmmm. My writing improves when I’m in one of these moods;  a nice plump pen with a good grip and a smooth roller tip just sliding over paper in a notebook, leaving a satisfying trail of words. The writing changes the nature of the paper, too. It feels fuller, completed, and sounds muted when the pages are turned. I love to just feel the pages. To leaf through them and listen to the words rustling on the page.

So you can imagine my delight when, in a magic shop in Glastonbury, I found a deep green leather-bound book of hand-made paper, with a scarlet velvet inside cover. Blank. Empty. Waiting. It’s by my side as I write this now, and I can hardly wait to start writing in it. But I will wait. In the book I’m currently writing, The Salt Man, archaeologists find a journal. When I’ve completed the journal part of the book on my computer, my beautiful leather book with a Green Man embossed on the soft leather cover will contain the hand-written version. And I will enjoy the tactile, sensual experience of writing it in ink, on paper.  Because writing is a physical activity, as well as a mental one.

ash man and closed bookI wish I could carve wood. I greatly admire those who can. I’m amazed at how they can see a shape in the raw piece, and release it with saws and chisels. The picture on the right is of a carving in my garden created by Ian, a genius we met at a country fair. I love Green Men, and this ash branch had a rather grumpy one hiding in it. Ian found him, though.

Physical writing with a pen on paper is the nearest I can get to carving. It has a similar sense for me; seeing the shape of the words on the paper, and setting them loose to run across the page. It will take a lot of self-control not to start writing soon in my green book. But it will be worth the wait.