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!

Magic at the crossroads

I’ve always had a fascination with maps. It seems I can’t just look at one quickly to find my way somewhere. I have to pour over it, spotting all sorts of places, names, and clues in the landscape. And I’m always particularly excited by finding a Roman road. I have no idea why they have always interested me so much, but ever since I was a child, and my father first pointed out these amazingly straight lines between towns and cities, I’ve had a fascination with them. I’ve climbed the fells to the north of Ullswater in the English Lake District several times, looking for the track of High Street, a Roman road that ran across the tops of the fells, but to no avail. It’s the only time I’ve been disappointed in a map – the Ordnance Survey actually seem to have got it wrong! Or maybe my map-reading skills aren’t all that good. Hmm, I wonder which is more likely 😉

Fosse_Way image licensed under GNU

The route of the Fosse Way

Despite my dodgy navigation skills, researching The Salt Man is turning into a delight! The Fosse Way was a major Roman road that ran between Exeter in the south west to Lincoln in the north east. And it goes straight through Bath. It would have run right by the temple and baths being built there around 60 – 70 CE. Today its route is clearly visible, both on maps and on the ground. In fact, the modern A367 between Bath and Ilchester follows it fairly faithfully. But not completely. In some places the modern road wriggles off to one side or the other to accommodate access to later towns. But the route of the old road is still clear, striding its way through woodland on the Mendip hills

Fosse Way crossingCrossroads have long been considered to be magical places. Places at boundaries; places where worlds meet. Some believe that supernatural spirits live at crossroads and strange things can happen there. They seem to represent interfaces; places that don’t really exist; places that are neither here nor there.  So when I spotted a crossroads between the Fosse Way and another Roman road on the map, I just had to go and see it for myself. The road that crosses the Fosse Way at Beacon Hill is a much less famous route between Old Sarum (near modern Salisbury) and the Roman lead mines at Charterhouse on the top of the Mendip hills. Last Sunday we set off in search of the crossroads, and I managed to map-read well enough to guide my husband, who was driver for the day. Without too much difficulty, we found it. And it was magical. Not in the hocus-pocus sense, but in the sense of having a real presence – a place that, far from being neither here nor there, gave me a palpable sense of reality; a sense that real people had trodden these roads for centuries, making deals and trading their wares, or buying food or drink from roadside sellers.

This part of the Fosse Way is quiet now, a path in a leafy wood that crosses the lead mine road with no fuss or fanfare.  But with magic and history.


salt crystalsAs I’m writing a book that I’ve titled “The Salt Man”, and the importance of salt as a commodity is a key part of the story, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of salt. So I got a book called “Salt“! And it’s a fascinating read.

All of us who did chemistry in school will no doubt remember it being drilled into us that “acid + base = salt + water”. There are many salts, particularly of reactive metals like sodium and potassium. But, of course, it’s the sodium salts that we generally think of when we use the term. Particularly sodium chloride. This salt preserves, dries, lowers the freezing point of water, kills bacteria and keeps away evil spirits. The devil and demons apparently hate salt; I guess the myth has developed because salt is an anti-corrupting agent. And since we began to farm animals and crops around 6-7 thousand years ago, we’ve needed to supplement our diet with salt, and the diet of farmed animals. We simply can’t live without it.

To the Romans it was vital. They taxed it, controlled the price of it from time to time and even sometimes paid their soldiers a part of their salary (hence the term) with it. And they used it to preserve food, especially fish. They also made the smelly but highly-prized fish sauce called “garum” with it too. They developed salt works throughout their empire, including both mining and brine evaporation methods. But the thing that has interested me the most is the mythology that has grown up around salt. How many of us still throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill any? Left, because that is the “sinister” side and is the shoulder the devil is meant to look over, if you’re of a Christian persuasion. Sorry to any left-handed folk reading this 🙂

There are many legends about why the sea is salty, too. In some Norse tales a whirlpool to the north of the Orkney Islands, known as the Swelki (from the old Norse meaning “mill”), is caused by the sea water being drawn into an enormous mill which is being constantly turned by two female giants. The mill originally turned out good things, but the giants cursed it to  turn out only salt after they had been enslaved there.

All human cultures and societies have legends about salt, from Native Americans to Chinese. But I think my favourite thing about salt is that it facilitated the making of ice cream!

The “elevator pitch”

Butser round houses and villa

Butser Ancient Farm

So, what is the book I’m just starting to write, actually about? I should be able to answer that quickly and succinctly – the “elevator pitch”. In other words, I have as much time to explain my idea as I would have in a medium-length elevator ride. Well, OK, maybe an elevator ride to the top of the Shard 🙂 I should also be able to answer this as it’s the question I constantly ask my research students. What is your research about? How would you explain it to the person who casually asks you in the pub, taking into account their likely attention span? Tough. But here goes.

I’m fascinated by information. Particularly how it travels. Today we’re used to being able to find out pretty much anything we want to, wherever we are, as long as we have a mobile device and a comms link of some sort. But how did information travel in other times? At times of significant social upheaval when many people lived in fairly isolated communities – the Roman invasion of Britain, for example? Information can be a commodity; it’s often traded like other commodities. Like, say, salt. Salt is vital to life and has always been an important way of preserving and treating food. So Romano/British people needed salt. It was produced in various different locations in Britain at the time, as it had been for thousands of years previously, and salt trading networks were already established by the time the Romans arrived in 43 CE. Suppose the salt man on a particular trading round was a native Briton, and a bit of a gossip, who liked to put his feet up and share a drink with a friendly guy who is part of the Roman establishment at the fort and bathing complex at Aquae Sulis (Bath). But this guy is from a distant land and is a subject of conquest too. They might have quite a bit in common, one way or another. And suppose one day the salt man tells his drinking companion about a strange thing that has happened at one of the settlements he visits on his round. How a young girl who works for one of the Romano/British elite in their fancy new villa, has mysteriously disappeared. Suppose the Roman establishment guy becomes enthralled by this story and tries to find out was has happened to her. But he needs information, and the salt man is his main source.

Then suppose an account of this is found in the present day. Would our modern information systems shine any more light on the case, around 2,000 years later?

That’s what the book is about. OK, maybe the elevator would have to break down on the way up, and it isn’t the whole story by any means, but hopefully it paints a picture. Can’t say too much, or I’d be telling you the plot!