The last few days have been a rollercoaster of emotions. On Friday, I did two writing workshops with twenty talented young authors at Simply Books in Bramhall. The children planned and started writing their own versions of Gray Wolf and the Firebird, and went away with a copy of my book, a Moleskin notebook and their tummies full of lemonade and home made chocolate brownies.
Then it was up to Newcastle for a much more sobering activity. My ex-partner’s mum, a woman I have known and admired for thirty years, had been rushed to hospital. By the time I got there she had been sent back to the nursing home she’s lived in for the last few months. The weekend and the first half of the following week turned into a vigil as we watched her fade away, her pain kept at bay by constant injections of morphine. The care staff at the home couldn’t have been nicer and more understanding, and they often insisted we take a break from our duties.
I was too distressed and distracted to find solace in reading, or listening to music. So I decided to visit a few sites along Hadrian’s Wall, something which I’d been wanting to do for a long time but never got round to.
The first one I went to was Segedunum, an ancient Roman fort in Wallsend which was built to guard the port at the eastern end of the River Tyne. It marked the end of Hadrian’s Wall which had been extended from Pons Aelius further west in what is now Newcastle. No one knows where the name Segedunum means, or who its original inhabitants were but we do know that during the 2nd century AD, the second cohort of Nervians where stationed here, followed by the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones in the subsequent two centuries. Both units were 600 strong, 120 cavalry and 480 infantry. A civilian village mushroomed outside the fort, catering to the soldiers’ needs.
The fort was active till circa 400AD when it was abandoned. Slowly, the area returned to farmland until a colliery was established in late Victorian times when terraced housing was built over the remains of the fort. Today, the houses have been demolished and Segedunum is a World Heritage Site receiving some two millions visitors a year from all around the world. It boasts an interactive museum with an observatory tower from which you can see the outline of the fort and its buildings. These include a granary, barracks, water tank, hospital, and the commanding officer’s house.
There is also a reconstruction of a bathhouse, which in Roman days would have been outside the fort. The original ‘wash spot’ is under a pub today, which seemed to be shut for good when I visited. I think it’s hoped that the land can eventually be annexed to the museum and the present bath house moved there. This one is based on remains and information gleaned from a nearby Roman fort at Chester.
Having just laughed my way through Caroline Lawrence’s The Sewer Demon recently, I was really keen to have a look inside. I’m glad I did. The layout followed the same pattern in Roman military bathhouses all over the empire. The first room was a hall which was used as a changing room as well as a meeting place for political and social gatherings. This led on to the cold room, the frigidarium, in which was a plunge bath where a soldier could freshen up before entering the heated rooms, or cool down after a hot bath. From here it was on to the tepid tepidarium, where military men could have a massage and be rubbed down with scented oils.
The last room was the ultra-hot caldarium, built right above the furnace that heated the whole bathhouse. Here was a hot bath were soldiers could have a body-shave from slaves wielding oiled stirgils. The ablution not only removed unwanted hair but also grime. Punters didn’t linger very long in the caldarium, cooling themselves at a fountain before hurrying back to the tepidarium. Standing there on my own, looking around the walls most of which were decorated with crude frescoes showing nymphs and sea-creatures, it was easy to imagine the soldiers joshing with one another, gabbing about women, or work, or their families back home. It wouldn’t have been much different from the changing rooms in my gym, really. Had I come under different circumstances, I would have whipped out my notebook and started outlining a story, or taken notes. As it is, I was too distracted. I’ll have to come back another day!