Day 8:  Chester, Hadrian’s Wall (Birdoswald and Chesters Fort), the town of Wall, Durham


Day 8 Photos (134)

It was in the breakfast nook at the Chester Racecourse Holiday Inn that we learned the real secret of full English breakfast…Heinz baked beans right out of the can. Really. This was missing from our more high-class morning meals so far, and we made up for lost time. At least I did. There was something altogether yummy about that brown sugar molasses flavor on my eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, and mushrooms!

We hoofed it into city center in a slow steady shower and followed directions for the Roman amphitheater, but got side-tracked on some more city wall walking and came upon the Roman Gardens first. Archeological finds from elsewhere in town have been arranged in an open garden space right alongside the section of the city wall that was blasted through back in 1642 or so. King Charles I took refuge in St. John the Baptist Church (which was the local cathedral back then) and the Parliamentarians tried very hard to get to him.  He’s the King who later lost his head to those who no longer wanted a monarchy. His son, Charles II got it back a few years later. Just think of all the drama and pageantry (and the purses) we’d have missed over the last few centuries if he hadn’t sat down again on the throne. 

Learned all about hypocausts (heated flooring) in Roman baths, which was great preparation for our later trip to the bathing complex in Bath itself. Across a street or two and we were in the Roman amphitheater which also lies just outside the city walls. A mural has been drawn on one side to bring the place to life—very effectively we thought. I stood on the tethering stone and tried to look intimidating—as the ankle-shackled day’s entertainment was supposed to look.

Much excavation remains in-progress around Chester which was a significant Roman enclave in its day. Thanks to our British neighbors Simon and Deborah, we knew it would be an important stop. The next place we wandered into turned out to be the church where Charles I hid out and where some seminal events happened years earlier. A pagan site, a Celtic Christian site (550AD), an ancient Christian (non-Celtic) site (689AD), etc. 

Of critical historical significance for England is that King Edgar the Peaceful was crowned in 973 the first king of ALL England. The actual crowning was in Bath. He was then transported to his palace in Chester, rowed on the River Dee from there to the Minster Church of St, John the Baptist by the 6 next most powerful kings in a display of submission. In the city center, they swore fealty at the Saxon Cross, the ruins of which still stand. This event is considered the defining moment for the country from then on known as England. And we just stumbled upon it on our walk in the rain!

The church was eventually superseded by a grander cathedral built a few blocks away, but we preferred the old and historically rich St. John’s. At either end of the main buildings there are fascinating remains of towers, one of which came crashing down on Good Friday 1881. Oops.

In amongst the tower ruins at the other end of the church is a wall containing the remains of a medieval coffin high up above an arch. Inscribed on the inside and visible are the words “Dust to Dust.”

The rain was letting up as we ambled over to enjoy some of the architecture in town and walked past the Saxon Cross. Warmed ourselves inside and out at a chain restaurant called “Pret a Manger” with delicious veggie-stuffed wraps and hot soup. Making our way with a sub-standard map back to the hotel car park, we passed more industrial areas of town and the bus station. Always good to remember that locals are going about their normal days while we are soaking up the ambiance of the ages right under their noses.

We had our most repetitive roundabout experience getting out of Chester, tracing nearly all the spokes of the hub before we landed on the correct highway heading north.

There were some blessed stretches of highway on this afternoon that had no roundabouts for as much as 20 miles! Pure bliss….I was at the wheel and when the sun came out, I know my right foot got very heavy on that gas pedal. Miles and miles of agricultural land, small villages, and the occasional industrial town whizzed past.  We went past exits to the Lake District but were eager to explore Hadrian’s Wall before dark, so we kept on going. We were also acutely aware that our own corner of the world contains spectacular scenery. The Lake District is wonderful, no doubt, but we had decided to focus on history and architecture. So onward to the north of England!

After more than 3 hours driving, we saw road signs for Birdoswald, one of the most significant of the garrisons situated next to the wall. You can see the wall itself from time to time off a ways, but it’s also hard to know whether what you are looking at is Hadrian’s Wall, or the farmers’ walls, constructed of the abandoned Roman garrisons. It’s all the same stone…

At Birdoswald we got the clear sense (with the help of terrific graphics and commentary) of the fact that each garrison on the wall was a large village, fortified and guarded by soldiers 24/7. Entrance gates and the layout of buildings remain in stubble form, but the sketches show the height and breadth of the communities that were thriving here right up until the Romans left in the mid 400’s. And then the locals swept in, commandeered the building materials, and hostilities with the Scots just over the former barrier vigorously recommenced.

The gift shop clerk advised us on several things. 1) the delicious elderflower wine available only from English Heritage, which we bought and drank with pleasure, 2) the best place to take another look at the garrisons (Chesters Fort) and 3) a trivia point along the way – the sycamore growing in the wall itself that appeared in the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. We kept a sharp lookout for this most important landmark and found it! As there was no traffic just then, we stopped and took a couple of photos. Grade C movie, but grade A tree and photos.

Chesters Fort combined a museum of Roman artifacts (some with captivating inscriptions), an extensive garrison complex, and a bit apart from the main buildings, luxurious Roman baths nestled by the River Tyne. Just across the river lie large blocks of stone that anchored a bridge here in Roman times. 

They were shutting for the night when we drove off from Chesters Fort, armed with the recommendation of a roadhouse called “The Hadrian Freehouse” in the nearby village of “Wall.”  Seriously. Dinner was a little delayed when the young server brought out a large platter of ham that we had not ordered. Her response when we so indicated was the altogether charming “Are you sure you didn’t order this and change your mind?” She stood undecided for way longer than a tip-hopeful server might have, but eventually the kitchen got it right and we had beef brisket cottage pie to share that came with “mash peas.” Hmmm, not sure we’ll order mash peas again, but the rest was delicious.

At the end of this action-packed day, we expected to settle into our Airbnb accommodations for 2 nights so that we could explore the area around Durham. Billed as an 18th century manor house, it proved difficult to locate in the dark with no internet or phone service. In exasperation, we pulled into the only public building we could find—the Chiltern Bowling League—and roused a couple of men drinking at the bar with the bartender. They were at first amused and then helpful. They didn't know our hosts personally but identified them as, ‘Oh, those people that took the old manor house.”

With their clear directions, we found the manor by 9:30pm. A small sign directed us to park and use the back entrance. Not the warmest of welcomes, especially as there were no lights to guide us. And in fact, no one there when we entered to a foyer and large family room.   A car screeched out front and the hostess swept in, showing us immediately to our upstairs room. She explained the rules of engagement for our shared bathroom (they call it “Jack and Jill”). Two construction workers would be using it as well, so both parties needed to remember to unlock the opposing door when done. Both our room and the bath were high-ceilinged, starkly furnished, and rather intimidating. But that was okay—we were really tired by then. Our hostess said she and her husband live in another part of the manor and that if we needed anything, we would have to text them. And she left. I  realized we hadn’t been given a room key, and I picked up the latch to secure our door. It cracked off its base. A little wary, I turned the door handle and it fell out of the door.   Time to text our hostess…the man of the manor appeared with screwdriver and assured Hank that the door handle was “just that way.”  He began to putter with the latch as he mentioned that there are no keys for the doors and that they’d never had any problems or complaints.

I had reached the conclusion by then that I wasn’t comfortable with this arrangement, given that we had planned on leaving our luggage the next day.  When I stated this, he went and got his wife. She appeared offended that we would question the integrity of their security. Though Airbnb does screen the person who makes a reservation, it does not screen anyone else, so her assertion, while lovely, is relatively meaningless. She finally blurted out that she had been in hospital all day, gotten some bad news, and didn’t care what we did. I expressed regret for her bad day but said we were leaving.

Turned out that the Chiltern Country Club and Inn was just down the lane. We booked a room, and were on the phone with Airbnb a minimal amount of time. They were absolutely first-rate in their handling of the situation, refunding our money and even (over my protests) covering the cost of our new room. In fact, their main concern was whether we were now in a safe place. Had I been a single woman using Airbnb in any number of countries in the world, I would have felt VERY grateful for their concern.  I have found, however, that because we “cancelled” our stay, I am prevented from leaving a review indicating WHY. Which means, I guess, that this might have happened to others who wanted to post an alert about the lack of security, but couldn’t. Of course, there are probably plenty of folks who wouldn’t have cared. They certainly had lots of good reviews on the Airbnb site. 

So our day ended unexpectedly in a truly country inn sort of accommodation, with the local Rotary Club engaged in its monthly meeting and eating event in the large dining room. 

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