Vindolanda, weekend

We had two days free between our first and second weeks of digging. We had planned a lot of activity, including a trip to Hexham, the local town, a forest walk, and a walk along Hadrian’s Wall. However on the first day we woke up to pouring rain, and had a lazy day inside followed by a quick trip to Hexham.

On the second free day however we hit the wall, walking from Steel Rigg, near the Once Brewed visitor centre, to Housesteads fort – about 3 1/2 miles. We would then catch the Hadrian’s Wall bus back to the visitor centre and walk back to the car from there.

This is one of the most spectacular sections of wall and I took a lot of photos…



A milecastle. These were placed at every Roman mile along the wall, with two turrets in between. Forts were at roughly a day’s march from each other.


Sycamore Gap, otherwise known as the Robin Hood Tree, as the tree was apparently made famous in the Kevin Costner film.



We arrived at Housesteads and looked around the museum before checking the bus timetable and finding the next bus was at 5pm. We got down to the car park where the bus was due at 4:55, only to see the bus whizzing past.

Time for another 3 1/2 mile walk down the road…

Vindolanda pre-dates Hadrian’s Wall so is actually situated about a mile south of the wall itself.

When we saw Sycamore Gap again I knew we were nearly there.

Then it was a final push up a steep hill to where we had parked the car, before I could finally enjoy a well-deserved pint of local ale at the Twice Brewed pub.

Vindolanda, week 1

I was a bit apprehensive on our first day of digging! I’ve never really thought of myself as an outdoorsy person, despite growing up in New Zealand and spending several years living on a farm. And outdoor sports, with mud, rain, and cold? No thanks!

However, there’s something very invigorating about the country air, and surprisingly I didn’t suffer at all from hayfever while I was there, so my energy levels were high. We were each given a wheelbarrow, a bucket, a spade, a shovel, a hand shovel, trowel, garden kneeler and brush. Armed with these we followed our supervisor Beth up the road, through a gate and into what was called the North Field. This was actually part of a neighbouring farm where we had permission to dig.

Beth explained that the building we were digging up was some kind of aisled barn – one very large room, divided into aisles by columns. We could also find traces of walls from an earlier building, and to the north some drainage ditches that were possibly used for some kind of industry. The building had already been excavated right down to floor level; our job was to dig under the floor to the natural clay below, to see if we could find any more clues about what the building was used for.



The first few days were rough going, as the patch we’d been assigned to contained a lot of large rocks. However, it also contained various bits of Roman pottery and extremely rusty iron nails. The digging got very addictive, as we never knew what would be under the next rock. I started to build some muscle up and rocks that I couldn’t lift at the start of the week, I could effortlessly lob onto the spoil heap by the end of the week.

This is Beth holding up a slate roof tile someone found on the first day of digging. Beth was thrilled as before then we didn’t know whether the building had a slate or thatched roof.

Typical pottery finds

Base of an amphora handle, from the huge pottery jars that were used to store and transport olive oil, wine and other goods.

Tania found these lovely pieces of Samian ware. This kind of decorated pottery was made in France and imported.

Some kind of iron pin. This was my first “small find”. Most of the items we found just got put into large bags that were labelled with the area we were digging in. These would be cleaned and then sent to the museum. Slightly more important finds got their own “small find” bag.

Ignore me and the nail I’m holding, and look down by my feet. The rocks down there are the beginning of a wall I found near the end of the week. This would have been from the earlier building on the site.

One day we arrived to find that some ramblers had opened a gate, letting some cows into the field. One of the cows had a calf so we were a bit wary. We managed to get past them to the dig site safely, but then they got curious and came over to inspect:


They were a bit aggressive but finally lost interest and wandered off. It definitely lent some excitement to the morning though.

Tea break! The North Field is visible over my shoulder.

On the final day of the week we were rained off. Work stops if the rain is just too heavy to work in. So we spent some time in the Vindolanda museum before driving down the road to Chesters fort. Chesters has been well excavated and includes an impressive bath house:

Cubby-holes in the changing room.

The hot bath.

There’s also an underground strong room in the headquarters building.

The Waiting Room

Finally I have a little time to tell you about my trip. I’ll start with where we stayed, because it was where the magic began.

The Waiting Room is a holiday cottage that used to be a station waiting room, built in the 1850s.


It was very cosy and comfortable inside, with a lovely fire to warm us up. When we arrived there was a tray set out in the kitchen with home made scones, gingerbread, and eggs laid by the hens outside!


In the corner of the station house, facing away from the road, there is a Royal Mail postbox that no one knows about:


The house really is in the middle of nowhere so it’s only used by the owners and anyone using the holiday cottage. It’s cleared twice a day and was painted just before I took this photo. The Royal Mail take their Universal Service Obligation seriously!



As you can see the station platform is still there, but the tracks are gone. I did get woken up in the mornings by a busy woodpecker though! The wildlife in the area was incredible, we saw huge tawny owls, pheasants, grouse, quail, mice, fat glossy rabbits and hares, and some mystery mammal scurrying across the road one night with a slightly fluffy tail that wasn’t a ferret, stoat, or squirrel. I’d love to think it was a pine marten as they are extremely rare but I don’t think it was. We didn’t see any red squirrels, sadly.

Our hosts were lovely and full of suggestions of things to do and places to go in the area. They were very supportive of local, independent businesses. It was on their recommendation that on our final night there, we went to the local pub, the Crown in Catton. It was hands down the best pub I have ever been to. We happened to go on “Music and Pie night”. The pub was split into three rooms – the big(ish – it was a small pub) room with the bar, and two smaller rooms off to the side. One of these rooms was packed to the gills with musicians who entertained us with traditional Northumbrian music all evening.

The pies were all homemade, and I had a tomato and goats cheese pie that was delicious. The choice of drinks was also excellent – I started with a locally distilled sloe gin and tonic (incidentally Northumberland produces the best tonic in the world in the form of Fentimans), and moved onto one of the selection of locally brewed real ales from the Allendale Brewery. These were actually made by the barmaid’s brother! The staff offer generous tasters of every ale before you choose. I chose the ironically-named “Indecision” ale, which was fantastic.

Dessert could not have been more local – apple crumble made from apples from a tree 50 yards down the road! And delicious too, although we suffered from eyes bigger than our stomachs and could have done with sharing a portion.

The pub had a great welcoming feel to it and was clearly well-supported by locals. They do Indian Curry Nights, Scrabble and Games nights, and all sorts of other events. There were community notices up on the walls. If only every pub was like that.

Big ol’ foody catchup

I arrived back from Vindolanda nearly a week ago now, and have been dying to blog about all of my adventures. But disaster struck, and the gods of BT have decided we need to go through the Labours of Hercules in order to get our internet back and running again. Combine this with the kind of carnage that ensues after being away from work during the final stages of a major project, and you get the picture…

So let’s rewind, and catch up on a few of the things I got up to before I went away.

On a baking hot Sunday (pun intended) I went down to City Hall to see Sarah Kemp from Wild Card PR, who was selling some of the baked goods she had made with the help of a very shiny red Kitchenaid. I tried a tasty Earl Grey lemon cake.

Sarah was selling these at KioskKiosk, a sort of travelling stall set up and run by her boyfriend, Jack Hemingway. It small creative businesses the opportunity to sell their creations rent-free. I resolved to tell all of my designer friends about it. And now I have (are you reading this, Kalman? Orli?).


Children playing in the fountain.

KitchenAid board and cupcakes
The kiosk. Shiiiiny Kitchenaid.

The recipes for all of the cakes Sarah made are in the Kitchenaid 90th anniversary cookbook, and Sarah kindly gave me a copy. I flicked through it eagerly on the Tube on the way home, it is a beautiful book and the recipes look delicious – this was confirmed by the couple craning to read it over my shoulder!

A couple of days later I went out for dinner with Kavey of Kaveyeats and Su-Lin of Tamarind and Thyme at Ten Ten Tei, a Japanese restaurant in Soho. This was the first time I had met either of them, despite earlier attempts to meet up, and they were both lovely. We ordered what seemed like everything on the menu – the grilled mackerel, grilled aubergine with bean sauce, tofu steak, crispy salmon skin were all delicious. When a visiting friend asked me to take her to a Japanese restaurant, I had no hesitation in going back there.



I met Kavey again at the UKFBA stall at Covent Garden, where she was selling a range of sweet treats and jars of goodies from her mum’s recipe site, Mamta’s Kitchen. I bought the Spicy Tomato Ketchup, which disappeared fairly quickly so now I will be consulting the recipe to make some more.

In final foodie news, in a shock internet/real life crossover I teamed up with bloggers BiggestJim and MsMarmitelover to do Allegra McEvedy’s cookalong on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog. Usually Jim and I read about each other’s cookalong trials and tribulations in the blog comments, and this was the first time we had done the cookalong in the same kitchen. Underground restaurateur and woman of mystery MsMarmitelover (y’know, if you’re going to have a secret identity I really think it should be “Marmite Woman”) was a cookalong virgin, so it was a real shame for her that unfortunately the Guardian folk were having severe technical difficulties. We really appreciated Suse’s efforts in getting Allegra’s instructions up, and we still had a lot of fun making Allegra’s fritto misto.


And that’s it for my internet time today. I’m off to meet my dear friend Marissa and then work all weekend. Normal systems (according to BT, but they’ve been wrong before…) should resume on Monday!