As a teacher, a lot of things in my working life are neatly compartmentalised. The school day runs to a strict timetable. An amorphous mass of students is painstakingly organised into year groups, houses and classes. And subjects are tidily delineated. History and biology, for example, are taught in different buildings, have different coloured exercise books, and have staff who occupy different corners of the staffroom. In the real world however, things are a bit messier. Recently I have become aware of how history and biology seem to merge. I look at my son’s face and see a flash of my mother’s smile, a flicker of my dad across his eyes, a hint of his great grandfather’s jowls. My history, and my husband’s are, through the everyday miracle of biology, written in his features.
But it isn’t just this small and familial history that resonates. It is happening on a grander scale too. It can’t be a coincidence that I have rediscovered an interest in the past soon after having a child. Suddenly I am more aware of my role on a longer continuum, of questions of lineage and legacy. I get that same feeling, an awareness of the confluence of my biology and my history, when I take my son out for the day. I watch him playing in the park and flashback to the first time I went too high on a swing and my stomach flipped over. And, a couple of weeks ago, when I took him to Hadrian’s Wall, I wondered if I had ever traced these same piles of stone, or had ever toddled along the same crumbling foundations with the same jubilant smile on my face, whilst exploring a place which is so central to our region’s heritage.
Hadrian’s Wall is one of two UNESCO World Heritage site in the North East (Durham Cathedral is the other). Housesteads is just one of many locations along the wall overseen by English Heritage and is possibly the most spectacular. Reached by a steep and bracing walk from the car park off the military road, the site’s contours are unforgiving, but the bleats of grazing sheep chivvied us on up the hillside. The newly redeveloped museum is worth the climb alone, elucidating the Emperor Hadrian and his imperial strategies in a glossy and concise exhibition. From there it is a further short hike to the site itself. Situated on an elevated ridge which formed the most northerly frontier of the Roman territory, the views from the top edge of the fort are awesome in the original sense of the word. Breathless from the walk to the top, we stood with the wind lacerating our cheeks, looking at the fields and forests to the north, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were in fact at the edge of an empire.
If you are so inclined, you can figure out which bit of the site was the granary, which the barracks and which the latrines, and admire the clever and careful design of the fortress. Or you can, as our toddler did, see it as a sort of unusually geometric and merciless adventure play ground and obstacle course, full of potential hiding places and thrilling stony summits and walkways. I am hoping the historical appreciation will come later.
Not far from the roundabout joining the A69 and the A1, just as the scenery becomes drearily suburban, there is a sudden hunk of the wall which seems to erupt up out of the ground, a Roman interruption in amongst the modern backdrop of crash barriers, streetlights and bus lanes. As we passed it on the way back home, I reflected on how layer upon layer of history permeates our landscape. Soft play centres will come and go, and the paltry attractions of theme pubs and garden centres will fade, but sites like this one will, under the custodianship of organisations like English Heritage, hopefully still be around for my grandchildren to explore. We are lucky to have them on our doorstep.