Sunday, April 5, 2009


What the Romans did for me

Some time at the very end of the 19th century, my maternal grandmother lived with her parents and siblings in a house close to the Roman Newport Arch in Lincoln. I’m not sure if it was the house just visible through the arch in the picture, but it was either that one or one very close to it. My great uncle was a chorister in the cathedral, which is only a few hundred yards away, and my grandmother and various great aunts were getting their schooling nearby too. And each evening they came home through the only surviving full-size Roman arch in Britain.

Lincoln began life as a fort for the Ninth Legion in about AD 60 or 61. The Ninth were succeeded by another legion, the Second Adiutrix, but soon after, as at many Roman forts, the legion moved on and the place was resettled as a colonia, in other words a town for retired legionaries and their families. It was fortified, at first with walls that followed the line of those of the original fort, though later the walls were expanded to take in a larger area as the town throve.

My grandmother’s Roman neighbour the Newport Arch formed the town’s northern gate and was built in the early third century. It would originally have looked taller – the road levels have risen over the centuries with the accretion of stone and tar – and it has been restored several times (including once in 1964 when it was partly knocked down by a lorry). But it’s still an impressive fragment and a tantalizing hint of the scale and grandeur of the Roman city.

I’m not sure how having ‘roots’ among the Roman remains of Lincoln has affected me, though I do know that a visit to the city when I was about eight years old opened my eyes to the beauty, fascination, and oddity of old buildings. More recently I’ve lived for long stretches in London and Gloucestershire, both places in different ways haunted by the presence of the Romans. Though so much of what they built vanished quickly, Roman remains surface in all kinds of ways, from the more predictable (artefacts in museums, place names, the routes of roads) to the surprising (such as Saxon churches built partly of re-used Roman bricks). And there are some fields on the Cotswolds where it is still possible to pick up fragments of Roman pottery. So a resounding ‘thank you’ my ancestors for tipping me off about our ubiquitous Roman neighbours.


Peter Ashley said...

Ron Combo and I once walked through this arch and completely ignored it, so preoccupied were we with a conversation that had started in a nearby hostelry. We were trying to name a make of car for every letter of the alphabet. Alvis, Buick, Clyno (that was me) and so on. It was very dark, drink had been taken. I promise to take more notice next time.

Neil said...

I've just read today about plans to film Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, and wonder if you've read it - if not, you should. Not absolutely her best, which is The Mark of the Horse Lord, but still a great read.

Ed said...

The first house I owned was just south of Newcastle upon Tyne's West Road and was built directly on the vallum that ran parallel to Hadrian's Wall. I liked to think that I could heat the distant echoes of legionaries as they wearily patrolled the border. Usually, though, it was the mating call of Newcastle's feral youth returning home from a night out o the 'toon'.

Thud said...

For many an introduction to Roman Britain in childhood is something that haunts the present for ever...for me anyway.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for a fascinating bunch of comments.

Peter. I too have played this game though not when walking under Roman arches. But Clyno? Whatever next? Mixing the obvious and obscure, Dodge, Essex, Ferrari, Gogomobil, Hupman, I suppose.

Neil. I've not read Eagle of the Ninth, but it's on my list: thank you.

Ed. Old arches, market crosses, town gatehouses - various historical remains also provide shelter for the youth of today, so that historical echoes and modern voices often come eerily together.

Thud. Absolutely. Introducing young people to the Romans is also very rewarding, as one hopes that the memory will linger long.

Anonymous said...

I never thought about where I was brought up having a bearing on my interests of things old and unusual, but spending my time in a Roman/Saxon/Norman town steeped in history and religious violence must have had an effect.

Ed said...

What's a Hupman, Philip? Do you mean Hupmobile as in "Rich the makes of motors purring / Past the pine plantations purring / Come up Hupmobile Delage..." (Indoor Games near Newbury by Betjeman). Incidentally, if you want somewhere good to eat in Lincoln, try The Old Bakery Restaurant, Burton Road - highly recommended.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Doh! Yes, Hupmobile was the marque I meant. The brain's obviously in need of nourishment - at the Old Bakery Restaurant, perhaps.