Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Roamin' with the Romans

I took the chance during the countdown to Christmas to do something I'd always planned; walk at least part of Dere Street, the Roman road between the Scottish border and the fortress at Trimontium. My wife dropped me off at Jedfoot, close to where the road crosses the river Teviot and I set off up what looked like a muddy farm track that headed directly south towards the Cheviot Hills.

The legionary marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviots is where I made my first real connection with the Romans as a 16-year-old labourer on a Youth Opportunities Scheme. Every morning during the summer of 1972 I'd be packed off in a smelly old van driven by Taff, the Arnhem veteran, and put to work by Jock, the tall, wiry foreman of the labouring gang. The camp had been ploughed up by the Forestry Commission to plant trees and our job was to turn the peat back into its original position in the three foot furrows. The turf banks the Romans created at Pennymuir to protect their camp are still there and it's always struck me that using my mattock and shovel to cut the peat into manageable chunks, I was doing exactly what the legionaries would have done to create the place in 80AD or thereabouts.

Dere Street begins in York and continues as far north as Edinburgh, probably following the line of march of governor Julius Agricola's invading force. Most of it now lies under the A1 and A68 trunk roads, but there are sections between Pennymuir and Jedfoot which still exist more or less as they did when it was built, with the ditches and banks still visible and a carriageway as much as twelve paces wide. It's what we call 'clarty' underfoot, but wonderfully atmospheric and you can imagine yourself meeting a marching century round every corner. Look back north from any rise and the road heads arrow straight for the triple peak of the Eildon Hills which gave Trimontium its name. Agricola's cavalry would have scouted this route ahead of the main army and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out the reaction of the locals to the arrival of the armoured might of Rome.

I walked out about five miles to Cappuck, where there was a permanent Roman cavalry station as well as at least four marching camps. The signal station was built by the Twentieth, the legion which was home to my character Valerius, and we know at least two of the men who were stationed there. Aulus Julius Severus, a tribune of the Gaestetae auxiliary cavalry, and Gaius Quintius Severus, who commanded the First Cohort of the Faithful Vardulli, left altar stones which are now built into the fabric of Jedburgh Abbey, and have incredibly survived two thousand years and the ravages of half a dozen more invading armies.

Look carefully and you can just see the peaks of the Eildons

The Romans have still left their mark

You can just imagine the legions marching north 
Cappuck: these fields would once have thronged with infantry and cavalry
From Cappuck, I walked back over the hill to Jedburgh, for a pint at the Tavern with my mate Iain and brother in law Jimmy, and a perfect end to the day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yay Doug. I've done stretches of Dere Street, since I live half a mile from it. Most of the bits I've done are around me in North Yorkshire, around Ebchester and Lanchester, or north of the wall up to High Rochester. I'd love to do the Scots parts too