Wednesday, October 3, 2007

6 July: Edinburgh to York via Hadrian's Wall

Today marks the beginning of the end of our UK tour. For the next three days and two nights we are officially on the “way home”. We will drive from Edinburgh to York today and from York to Dover on Saturday, and then we’ll have a marathon drive home to Stuttgart via the Euro Tunnel on Sunday. Before setting out this morning, we were fortified with another delicious breakfast courtesy of the Elmview – slices of fresh mango and strawberries with Greek yogurt, followed by pancakes filled with sautéed apples and pears, topped with maple syrup and cream. We ate with the two sisters, a British/Dutch couple, and a young Indian couple from New Jersey. We shared a few laughs about Independence Day with Robin, and the Indian man commented that it took India four hundred years to accomplish what the Americans did in less than a century.

Before checking out we walked down the street to a grocery store with an ATM so we could withdraw cash to pay our bill, thereby getting a 5% discount. After settling up and bidding farewell to Robin (I told him they had the best B&B ever), we went to extricate the E-Class from the tiny carpark. Unfortunately there were two other cars parked next to us now and it was physically impossible to get the car out, so we called Robin and had to wait for some other guests to come and get their car.

We finally set off at about 10 am for our drive south to York. Once safely out of Edinburgh, John stopped at a gas station and I took the wheel to try my hand at English driving for the first time on the whole trip. I’m not sure how I managed to go all this time without driving, but John seemed to have it down pat and he liked me serving as navigator and co-pilot, so we never wanted to mess with our system. Quite frankly I was perfectly happy to watch the scenery on this trip (and was constantly on the lookout for good photo ops, of course). After sitting in the passenger seat for the past two weeks, I was pretty used to the sensation of driving on the wrong side of the road in our left-hand drive car, so it didn’t take much time to familiarize myself with it (although going clockwise into roundabouts felt awfully weird). I didn’t have to drive on any motorways, as we took two-lane A roads the whole way, including the A86, which was quite fun – lots of long straight stretches with blind crests and sweeping curves. We headed through the region known as the Scottish Borders – a pastoral landscape of rolling hills, pasture, and forest – and stopped at the border between England and Scotland for the necessary photos. (For some reason there was a big multilingual sign at the border reminding people to drive on the left, even though you couldn’t have gotten yourself to this point without driving on the left for hundreds of miles. We found it especially funny because the German translation was misspelled – “links fahran” instead of “links fahren.”) We didn’t want to drive south back through England without visiting at least one site along Hadrian’s Wall – the massive line of fortifications that once marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Stretching 73 miles across the breadth of England from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west, the wall was used for more than 250 years to protect Roman-occupied Britain from invasion by the Scottish barbarians. Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the wall in 122 AD (it was completed in only four years) and Emperor Severus had it repaired 80 years later. The wall was originally 15 feet wide and 9 feet thick, with a 20-foot wide, 10-foot deep ditch behind it called a vallum. Large forts housing 500 to 1,000 legionnaires were constructed every five miles or so. Smaller forts called milecastles, manned by about 30 soldiers, stood at every mile point, and between each milecastle were two smaller turrets housing four men each. Much of the wall was dismantled during the Jacobite uprising of 1745; the stone was used to pave the Military Road that is now the B6318. A few substantial stretches of the wall survive, particularly between Housesteads and Birdowald, along with the remains of several forts, and the route is popular with hikers. We knew we would probably only have time to visit one site, and our Fodor’s guidebook made the choice easy: “If you have time to visit only one Hadrian’s Wall site, Housesteads Roman Fort, Britain’s most complete example of a Roman fort, is your best bet.”

After parking at the main visitor center just off the B6318, we hiked about ten minutes through open sheep pasture to the museum and the fort, which is spread over several acres, its crumbling walls and towers exposed to the ravages of time and weather. It had rained off and on all morning, but it stopped raining long enough for us to spend an hour or so exploring the fort and admiring the views of the surrounding countryside, including an impressive span of Hadrian’s Wall itself, which extended down the hill from the fort and disappeared over a crest in the distance (photo, above). Excavations have revealed many artifacts which are housed in the small museum, and well-designed interpretive signs scattered across the site help recreate the scene of a bustling Roman fort, describing the construction and purpose of the granaries (which had elevated floors to keep the grain dry and protected from vermin), the barracks, the hospital, the colonnaded headquarters building adorned with the stumps of stone columns, and the commandant’s house, which featured a heated floor (the floor slabs were elevated on stone pillars so heated air could circulate underneath). At the two gates on either side of the fort you can see the deep depressions carved into the stone by the passing of countless cart wheels. The best-preserved structure is the public latrine, located at the lowest point of the fort (the southeast corner) to allow for the best water flow. You can clearly make out the well-engineered system of stone troughs that funneled water into the stone channel circling the rectangular seating platform (photo, right).

At the gift shop I decided to buy a translation of Seutonius’ biography of the first twelve Caesars, since I really enjoyed reading the biography of Augustus. When I went to pay for the book I saw a photograph for sale by the cash register of a tall sycamore tree in a very distinctive gap between two hills, which I immediately recognized from a scene in the 1991 movie “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner. I turned the photo over and sure enough, it was “Kevin Costner’s Sycamore Tree” (the spot is also known as Sycamore Gap). I had never realized that the wall they climb around on in the scene was Hadrian’s Wall. I asked the lady at the cashier where the tree was and she said it was just a mile down the road, so we drove past it on our way out (photo, below). John and I shared a tuna and cucumber sandwich and a Coke from the visitor center snack bar before we left. We turned south at a place called Twice Brewed and took a narrow B road to hook up with the A86 again.

We made good time to York, despite continued rain, arriving around 6 pm. We found the Acer Hotel (actually a B&B) in a quiet neighborhood of brick rowhouses a few blocks from the old town (photo, right), parked on the street, and were greeted by Karen, who showed us to our tiny, floral-decorated room on the top floor. We hauled our suitcases upstairs and then set out to explore the old town and find dinner. Karen had warned us to bypass the bars and pubs on the way into town because they are notorious for “stag and hen” (bachelor and bachelorette) parties, especially on the weekends. She was right – the place was a madhouse even at 7 pm and we counted at least a half-dozen stretch limos (including a stretch Hummer) on our way into town. En route we passed through the impressive Micklegate in the well-preserved medieval wall and crossed the Ousse River, which is lined with old warehouses turned into posh nightclubs and restaurants. The sun had come out and it was a lovely, balmy evening. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the maze of narrow cobbled streets and alleys that make up the old town. We quickly found the Shambles, York’s famous shopping street of leaning 14th-century houses (photo below), and then the York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England. It was closed for the evening but quite impressive from the outside. Karen had recommended the evening ghost tour and we saw one getting started in front of the Minster, but we were hungry and didn’t want to stay out late, so we set off to find a restaurant. We walked down Stonegate, another pretty shopping street, and made a big loop around the old town, but most of the restaurants we looked at were too fancy or too expensive.

We finally settled on a casual Italian restaurant called Bella Italia and were seated by the front window. We were waited on by a very nice woman who was actually Italian and the food was surprisingly good. We both had Caesar salads; John had a pizza with pancetta, arugula, mozzarella and olives and I had baked penne pasta with chicken, bacon, cheese, tomatoes, and red onion. We shared “The Godfather” for dessert – a chocolate brownie topped with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate crunch topping, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. With a bottle of wine it came to about £50; not too bad considering the value of the dollar! The streets were filled with young partygoers on the way back and the police were out in force. Apparently York is the Key West of England!

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