In 1991 Sting released his third solo album, “The Soul Cages“; for a while it was my favourite record, and the lyrics haunted me for long time after – as much as I understood of them at the time. One verse especially held me intrigued for years, from the “All This Time” single:
Teachers told us the Romans built this place
They built a wall and a temple in a edge of the Empire garrison town
Growing up in a land the Roman Empire had never reached, somehow I was always fascinated by the idea of borders, frontiers and limes; at the time I was not really aware Sting was singing about a real place – much less that one day I’d get to visit it.
But first things first; we drive down from the campsite to the nearby Craster. Back in the day, Craster was famous for its herring curing business, and for a while, the name of the village was almost synonymous with kippers, like that of Arbroath is with smoked haddock. Sadly, with the herring shoals gone, only one curing house now remains in the village, and most tourists now flock here to see another attraction: the Dunstanburgh Castle.
The Northumbrian earls liked to build, and liked to build big. Nearby Bamburgh is a sprawling monstrosity, but Dunstanburgh is even larger in scale. It is a long walk from Craster to the castle gates – a mile or so across green fields and pastures – and if the gates seem closer than they are it’s because they are so much bigger than they should be. So big in fact, that at some point they became regarded useless as an entrance: the gate was sealed off, another wall was built a bit further out, and the gatehouse became the actual main keep of the castle.
On a good day, visiting the castle is a nice half-a-day distraction; the views from the ruined walls towards the Farne Isles are splendid, and there’s just enough of the ruins left to enjoy a three-dimensional play of jagged edges and shadows. Nobody knows why the 2nd Earl of Lancaster found it necessary to build a castle this big in such a remote place; it never took part in any wars or battles, and simply deteriorated through lack of use.
There is an overabundance of castles in Northumbria; just a few minutes drive from Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh lies Alnwick, another giant of a building. This one isn’t a ruin – on the contrary, it’s still inhabited by its rightful owners, the Dukes of Northumberland. It’s the archetypal medieval castle, probably nearest of what people imagine something like this to look like – not least because it played so many medieval castles in movies and TV, from Blackadder and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood to the Harry Potter movies.
Due to its fame and popularity, and the fact that it’s still inhabited and only open to public for a few months in a year, the entry price is rather steep, so sadly, we decided to skip it for now, contenting ourselves with just admiring its ramparts from outside – ramparts decorated with strange carved figures, resembling the French Knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which seem like recent additions, but are in fact as old as the castle itself.
It was now time to visit the place mentioned above; the garrison town at the edge of the Empire: Newcastle Upon Tyne. One of the largest cities we’d visit on our journey, and one of the oldest – as old as Hadrian’s Wall, as old as Roman Britain.
Having started from a trade outpost at a Roman bridge over the river is not the only similarity Newcastle has to London. From what we saw during the brief visit, it somehow seems like a Greatest Hits compilation of the capital city; it’s got a bustling riverside, a slightly run-down-once-posh bohemian district in the centre, a quickly gentrifying post-industrial wharf area (at Ouseburn, where, aptly, Newcastle’s first and best coffee roastery is situated next to an organic farm growing lettuce in raised beds over lead-poisoned ground), and even a Chinatown – albeit, uniquely, a Chinatown surrounded by medieval walls. There’s even a small underground railway network, to complete the picture.
The Roman past is what we were mostly interested in this time, in keeping with what we’ve been seeing throughout the journey. There used to be a grand Museum of Antiquities in the city, but now all the museums have been moved under one roof, to Great North Museum: Hancock, and the Hadrian Wall bits now take only one, though large, room on the ground floor.
Visiting this room spared us running around the many nearby Roman sites and monuments, as most of the interesting finds from the area is gathered right here. One day we’ll go to Corbridge and South Shields and all the other sites, but for now we were quite happy to admire the swords and helmets, altars, tombs and sandals all in one place. I was looking forward to seeing the reconstruction of Carrawburgh mithraeum, which used to be in the Antiquities, but to my disappointment the reconstruction is not there – rather, there’s just a screen with a movie of it. Not quite the same thing. The original altars and sculptures are still there, casting a little ray of light onto the mysteries of Mithras’ cult.
Apart from its opulent Hadrian’s Wall section, the antiquities rooms contain finds from other eras, from Stone Age to Saxon Age, including a large collection of standing crosses and a fantastic array of bronze weapons and tools. There is far, far more to see at the Great North, and it’s all free, so it’s definitely a place worth at least another visit one day.
The day ended on a high, as we went to meet with a bunch of friends who happened to live in Newcastle and thereabouts – people I’ve known since the early days of the internet, but somehow never got around to seeing in the flesh. It was a multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic meeting, as befitted the great harbour city at the start of the 21st century; good times were had, and good food was eaten, and we dined and talked until it was time for us to head into the darkness of southern Northumbria in search of a campsite.
It may look beautiful and thought-provoking by daylight, but in the middle of a misty night, the ancient ruin of the Finchale Abbey – at the end of a narrow, unlit, rural road, among dark, empty fields – is nothing short of creepy; still, it’s a rather unique place to camp, and that alone makes it worth spending the steep £20 per night. It’s also within stone’s throw from Durham – there’s even a walking path straight to the cathedral, a few miles away.