Travel: Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland

A fragment of Roman glass found on the Vindolanda settlement. Picture: PA
A fragment of Roman glass found on the Vindolanda settlement. Picture: PA
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The word “holiday” has certain implications: a beach, a blue sea, a hammock, rum-based cocktails with umbrellas in… And a sense of doing very little for a week or two.

But the popularity of holidays that categorically do not offer these things is growing. Working holidays, or volunteer projects – where, for a fee, you lend your brains or muscle to a charitable project – are big business: from path-mending in the Highlands to monitoring turtles in Costa Rica, the choice is huge. Huge, too, is the demand for such opportunities: for many people, it seems, that hammock between two palm trees has lost its allure.

What is the appeal of such holidays? I decided to find out.

On a frosty, sunlit morning, I found myself driving on the B6318 in Northumberland. Hadrian’s Wall shone, gloriously, to my left. Wanting a coffee, and to know a little more about the wall, I took myself to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, a mile south. I’d intended to potter around their site and leave with a takeaway latte. As it was, I left with far more.

The actual structures in situ – bath-houses, barracks, strong-rooms, granaries, a butcher’s shop – were remarkable in themselves. But it was the items that lay behind the museum’s glass which truly struck me. I’d expected to see the odd nail, perhaps. In reality, as well as nails, there were delicate, intimate finds I never could have guessed at: wooden combs in leather cases, tweezers, oyster forks, pots with the potter’s thumbprint on, coins worn down by fingers, a ring engraved with “Mater Pater”, a betrothal pendant depicting two lovers in an embrace. There were graffiti of phalluses, paw-prints of dogs; under the granary, tiny Roman mice bones had been found. Perhaps Vindolanda’s greatest treasures of all are its Writing Tablets – frail splinters of wood that were, in effect, Roman notepaper. Found in a layer of anaerobic earth, the Tablets include such things as military information, shopping lists, a birthday invitation and the soldiers’ grim views on the Northumbrian weather; I stared at these, amazed. And the most amazing part of all?

Many of these treasures had been found by volunteers. Vindolanda has had a volunteering scheme since 1970. Its existence is understandable: between 85AD and 410AD, nine different forts were built in this exact, windswept part of the Empire’s north; with these forts came towns, or vicus, to serve them.

Vindolanda is, in short, an extremely lively site. With an estimated 100 years’ worth of excavating still to do, they needed help. Sipping that coffee, wide-eyed, I knew I wanted to offer mine.

The fact that I’d only ever held a trowel once before (to bury a dead pet when I was nine) did not go against me. Having learned that close supervision from Vindolanda’s team of professional archaeologists would always be to hand, I applied for a week of digging in early April. Thirty or so of us – of all ages, all professions – turned up with waterproofs, woolly hats and packed lunches. After an introductory talk and tour, we set to work.

I knew I would be excited; in fact, I was childlike in my joy. With each handful of soil came the potential of finding something – and I worked through each wheelbarrow’s load with a racing heart. Before long, I found a piece of pottery. It didn’t matter to me that orange Samian-ware pottery is everywhere in Vindolanda’s earth: it was 2,000 years old, and I was holding it. I imagined the potter; I imagined the last person (a slave? a wife?) who had held it before me... Later, I found a cow’s jawbone.

Later still, from those sticky anaerobic layers I lifted a bootlace off the tip of my trowel – black, soft and still knotted from a Roman soldier’s hands.

But the excitement was not restricted to my own finds. The sense of teamwork was tangible: when a hairpin was found, or the Roman equivalent of a cotton-bud, we all cooed at it. The cleaning of tools or the uphill trudge to the car at the end of the day was easier, by far, with the knowledge that, say, a glass bead had been held in a fellow digger’s hand – earthy, as blue as an eye.

We’d work from 9:30am until lunchtime. Then we had an hour for lunch – sandwiches, eaten with our black-rimmed fingernails, in the excavator’s hut – followed by another two hours, a tea break, and a final hour before ending for the day. It was in this final hour of my final day that I had my best personal find.

We were excavating in the pungent, putty-like layer several feet down. I was squatting by the wheelbarrow, working through the earth that had been passed up to me. I took a handful; slowly, I broke it apart – and there, in my hands, was a Roman lady’s shoe. I recognised it, instantly: a leather sandal, with a slightly pointed toe.

It was far from perfect – far better shoes have been found at Vindolanda before and since – but I was profoundly moved by it. Two millennia had passed since this shoe was last seen, or held. It was recognisable, personal, intensely human. The leather was thinner where, once, her heel and toes had been.

Such holidays have their drawbacks, of course: it is hard work, often in wretched weather; the body can come back bruised and tired. So why is the popularity of volunteering growing? We give our time and effort, but what do we get in return?

For me, there were many benefits. Firstly, I loved the sheer simplicity of it: a sole task, out of doors, in which it didn’t matter what I looked like, what I wore, what I knew. All that mattered was this square of earth. It was the peace, too – no mobile phones, no Facebook; there was no noise at all except for the quiet conversation of fellow diggers, the scrape of a trowel and a skylark, high up. I was glad, too, of colleagues – as a writer, I don’t tend to have them, and I loved the change. The act of volunteering is an attempt – in a tiny way – to improve the world, and to do it with others: this thought alone left me muddy, proud and content.

Above all, I think, volunteering gives perspective. It lends a sense of one’s own fortunes, and what truly matters. At Vindolanda, I was reminded how humans do not change: in 2,000 years, we may have invented iPods, space travel and organ transplantation – but we still wear leather shoes, still exchange rings, still hold birthday parties for those we love. Male genitalia is still the graffitied symbol of choice. Mice still like to live in barns.

And did I miss the hammock? Not even slightly. As I held the Roman lady’s shoe in my hands, the rain pattering on my anorak hood, I was reminded of the absolute brevity of life, and felt far more alive because of it. She was gone, now – but I was not. I’ve never had such moments on a beach-based all-inclusive.

And anyway, the local pub had an entire rum shelf – more than 50 different kinds – so I could still have that cocktail, if I’d wanted to.


The Silver Dark Sea by Susan Fletcher is out now in paperback, published by 4th Estate, £8.99; see for details of how to get involved.