Two years ago, when I retired, I thought of things I might do with my time. I even told friends and family that I was going to take up cooking. My wife was delighted and presented me with a Delia Smith cookbook when I arrived home from my last day at work. Two years on, Delia is still languishing at the back of a cupboard. (Nigella – I might have taken the book out to look at the cover once in a while.) However, during this time I have written several novels, two of them published.
Unfortunately for the cooking venture, I had already embarked on writing the first chapter of what became my debut novel, Starting Over. No one in the book makes anything more complicated than scrambled eggs. (Vegetarian lasagna gets a mention, but don’t ask me how to make it.) In fact, scrambled eggs make several appearances. (This is something I can cook…write about what you know!)
During my research on pottery—as one of the main characters is a potter—I stumbled across Vindolanda, the site of a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall. My interest was further piqued when I discovered they had an ongoing volunteer dig programme. I could actually volunteer to spend two weeks on a real live archaeological dig. So, I booked a place for the start of the next digging season, April 2014.
I drove up to Northumberland on a beautiful early spring day. It’s roughly a three-hour drive from where I live so I took my time, but even so I was too early to book into my accommodation. To fill in time I visited Housesteads, the largest excavated fort site on the Wall. It was a rainy, windswept day and looking out from the high point of the North Gate, I could imagine how bleak it was for the soldiers on duty.
From there it was just a short drive to Vindolanda. Approaching it from the north, I realised I had chanced on the best way to see it for the first time. The sun came out and lit up the landscape. It was an impressive sight, when I turned off the main road and saw the excavation laid out below.
Why is Vindolanda so interesting? One of the main reasons is the discovery of the writing tablets. (The Romans gave us a lot of things, but no, they didn’t invent the iPad.) From the 1970s onwards, a number of these postcard size scraps have been found each year – small strips of wood with writing on them. It’s taken decades for scholars to translate the Latin handwriting, and the words offer amazing insights into how the occupants of the forts lived. And there is more than one fort – thought to be at least nine separate forts dating from the first century to the fourth.
So, I find myself on the verge of a return to Vindolanda. It won’t be the same…a different group of volunteers, later in the season, and seeing what was uncovered after I left the year before. But I’m looking forward to spending another two weeks on my knees, scraping away in the dirt, culling the debris of the past.
And it helps pass the time while I await the publication of my second novel, Arc Over Time – published by Affinity Ebook Press on 15 May 2015. Head over to their website if you want to read the first chapter.