I saved myself a treat for the last of my 40 before 40, and I was so excited to be spending the last day of my 30s dining in style. Given my love of food, enjoying my first three Michelin star experience was a perfect start to my birthday celebrations.
There are only 4 three star restaurants in the UK: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London, and The Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire. I selected the Waterside Inn, which describes itself as a ‘restaurant with rooms’, because I was attracted by its promise of a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere. I wanted to enjoy great food and fantastic service without feeling uncomfortable or patronised.
The Waterside Inn was opened in 1972 by brothers Albert and Michel Roux. It gained its first Michelin star in 1974, added a second in 1977 and was finally awarded a coveted third star in 1985. It is the only restaurant in the UK to have held three stars for over 30 years. It is currently run by Michel’s son, Alain Roux, a pastry chef. Alain is only one of three UK based chefs to have been invited to become a Master Pâtissier in the International Association Relais Desserts, demonstrating how highly thought of he is in his field. This honour marks him as one of the world’s best Pâtissiers.
I decided to do this in style, so I booked us a room for the night along with dinner. On arrival, we checked in and I was delighted to find that our room had a four poster bed. I’ve never stayed in one before, so that was very special.
Once it was time for dinner, we were shown in to the dining room and given a table with views of the River Thames on three sides.
As you would expect, every detail was attended to. There was a little ‘footstool’ next to the table on which to place my handbag so that it wasn’t on the floor, every time a glass was emptied it was whisked away immediately and appropriate cutlery was delivered with each course and cleared once we’d finished eating.
To dine, we opted for the seven course ‘Menu Exceptionnel’:
Flaked Devon crab with ginger scented cucumber jelly and oscietra caviar
Pan-fried escalopes of foie gras Grenoble style with caramelized slices of orange
Fillet of turbot flavoured with marjoram and roasted in a nut-brown butter, root vegetables and morels, “vin jaune” sauce
A choice of:
Saddle of milk lamb stuffed with morels, served with baby vegetables and a minted hollandaise sauce
Grilled pigeon breasts and crispy leg served with sweet pepper piperade and a potato terrine, devil sauce
Chocolate cannelé with hazelnut praline and lime
Warm rhubarb soufflé enhanced with raspberries
Café et mignardises
I chose the lamb as my main course and David chose the pigeon so we were able to sample both dishes.
With this menu we enjoyed a flight of five paired wines; a white with the crab, a sweet botrytis with the foie gras, a champagne with the turbot, a red with the main course and a dessert wine.
The restaurant does not permit photography, so there are no pictures of the dishes. I’ll have to do my best to describe them for you.
The seven courses were not the whole story! We chose to have kir royale as an aperitif, before starting the evening with canapes, beautifully presented on a rectangular white dish with a carved beetroot rose. We had a cube of pulled pork terrine, a smoked salmon and cream cheese dome and an anchovy puff pastry twist. Small bread rolls were served to us from a bread basket made from actual plaited dough, followed by an amuse bouche of cauliflower soup with a king prawn, served in a miniature tureen.
The crab was served as a small compressed disc topped with the caviar and centred on the cucumber gel. I would not normally choose crab but it was beautifully subtle and the flavour of the cucumber gel was amazingly intense. It was served with a spiced tuile biscuit, which made an excellent platform for the crab.
The foie gras was my favourite course of the evening. It was served pan fried and was meltingly soft. Combined with the sweet citrus of the caramelised orange and a bitter orange sauce it was one of the best things I have ever eaten. The botrytis dessert wine with which it was paired was the perfect complement for the dish. Absolutely outstanding, and hugely memorable.
Had I been choosing from the a la carte menu, I would have been unlikely to choose the turbot, as I generally avoid fish when eating out, but it was a pleasant dish, especially paired with the blanc de blanc champagne. The amazing attention to detail continued here with a small stack of perfectly circular alternate discs of carrot and celeriac, with diced morels in the centre of the stack.
My lamb main course was also excellent. Lovely soft lamb served just pink with perfectly turned miniature vegetables arranged beautifully on the plate. The minted hollandaise which accompanied the dish was another favourite part of the evening. The flavours were excellent together. David enjoyed his pigeon dish, but as I suspected the ‘devil sauce’ was a touch too hot for me.
Before the desserts were served, we were given a palette cleanser of basil sorbet with passionfruit mousse. Once again the flavours were amazingly concentrated for such a tiny morsel, with the sweetness of the sorbet contrasting brilliantly with the sharpness of the passionfruit.
Then came the chocolate cannele. This was my second favourite dish of the evening. A thin chocolate shell, filled with a light hazelnut praline mousse served with just a few tiny caramelised hazelnuts to give a little crunch. It was absolutely delicious.
The meal finished with the soufflé which was, as you would expect, perfect. A lovely toasted pink, standing an inch or so proud of the dish, it sighed gently as the top was pierced for the sauce to be poured in. As we ate our desserts, a firework display started upstream so it was beautiful to watch the fireworks going off and the colours reflecting in the river.
Before coffee we were served a praline milk chocolate selected from a box of chocolates brought round to the table. It was literally a box made of chocolate, and looked like a treasure chest filled with dark, milk and white chocolates.
I was treated to a small slice of coffee flavoured opera cake, delivered with a candle and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ elegantly piped onto the plate. Everything was done with such precision and care.
We chose to accompany coffee with a glass of port, and finished the evening with the beautiful little petit fours served on a small tiered silver stand which included a palmier, an intense chocolate truffle, a miniature lemon madeleine, a tiny raspberry financier, a small traditional sponge cannele and a mint macaron.
We were thoroughly full by then and grateful that we had only to walk upstairs to get to bed. We found more chocolates awaiting us but I’ve had to bring those home as we couldn’t eat another thing!
As a restaurant with rooms, a continental breakfast is served to your room in the morning. I couldn’t think of a better way to start my 40th birthday than with breakfast in bed:
The croissants were gloriously buttery and the pastries included gently spiced ever so soft hot cross buns in honour of it being Good Friday. The pear and rhubarb compote was a welcome addition being sweet and soft and a lovely contrast to the excesses of the pastries.
I felt thoroughly welcomed, relaxed and indulged during my stay, and I’m pleased to have completed the final on of my 40 before 40 challenges in style. A great start my weekend of birthday celebrations.
I included this challenge in The List because I felt that along with all the fun things to do, there should be some things which I learnt from and which resulted in something useful. I chose a sewing challenge partly because I thought it might be helpful to be able to make my own clothes and partly because (a long time ago) I used to make my own dance costumes so I already have a sewing machine and a tailor’s dummy. Other than knocking up the odd fancy dress costume, neither of them have seen the light of day for over 10 years so it was time I actually made use them.
This wasn’t, however, the challenge I was most looking forward to, as you can probably tell from the fact that I’ve left it nearly ‘til last! If the impending deadline of my 40th birthday hadn’t been looming, I probably still wouldn’t have got around to it, but it got to the point where it was looking like it would be the only challenge left unfinished and of course having set myself a target I had to hit it.
I chose to make a dress, because I like dresses and I struggle to find ones which are casual enough to wear to the pub or out for a meal without being too ‘evening dress-y’. This was an ideal opportunity to create exactly what I have been looking for.
I thought because I had some experience of sewing and could use a sewing machine, this challenge wouldn’t necessarily be difficult, just time consuming. How wrong I was. Turns out that although I know how to thread the sewing machine and I have an idea how to sew things together, because I’ve never actually been taught properly (Textiles lessons at school having not entirely usefully involved just three projects: a pencil case, stuffed toys and a pair of tie died boxer shorts), there is a lot I don’t know.
I’m not used to working with a proper printed pattern, as my dance costumes were usually based on something someone else had made so I’d get a one size pattern cut out of newspaper and have to guess whether to cut the fabric bigger or smaller than the pattern pieces I had. I thought that working from a proper pattern, with proper sizing, would be a lot easier. Not necessarily so. Even choosing a pattern was not easy. Looking online was bewildering as there was so much choice and because the manufacturers seemed to assume a level of prior knowledge. I found I needed to actually be able to see the instructions on the back of the pattern to work out how difficult I thought it might be. Luckily, I am blessed with a proper haberdashers in my hometown, and their assistance was invaluable. I was able to pop in, look at physical patterns and then ask their advice about the right type of material, the sundries required and so on.
Having chosen a pattern in a style that suits me – (also the one which had the fewest pattern pieces and no fastenings because I’m rubbish at putting in zips. Fancy dress and dance costumes can be closed via the medium of Velcro, which is a lot easier!) – I bought it home to read it thoroughly and ensure I understood it before diving in and purchasing the fabric. So glad I did. I’m not used to the language and symbols on proper patterns and I needed some help. Before going any further it was off to the library, to borrow books on basics of sewing. (Apparently under the Dewey decimal categorisation system, these are stored not under arts and crafts but instead with DIY. I found them eventually.) One book in particular proved invaluable: “Stress Free Sewing: Troubleshooting Tips and Advice for the Savvy Sewer” by Nicole Vasbinder, literally starting right from the basics of setting up and using the machine, cutting out and marking fabric and understanding patterns, before then going through everything else up to how to use different fabrics and how to finish garments. It was a godsend, without which I would not have got through this project. In fact, without the help of this book and the staff at the haberdashers, I seriously doubt I would have produced anything wearable at all.
Having got the pattern, next I had to choose a fabric. The pattern told me how much fabric and which sundries to buy but I wasn’t sure I understood it so I took the pattern back to the shop with me. Lucky I did. The shop assistant showed me that I had to have a stretch fabric (jersey) and there was a little line on the back of pattern to indicate that the fabric needed to stretch a certain distance. If I’d got that wrong, the dress wouldn’t have stretched enough to go over my head to put it on! Disaster averted. Fabric chosen. Just as I was paying for it, the shop assistant asked if I had the right needles. Right needles? Yes. Jersey is a knitted fabric, if you break the thread the whole thing will ladder, like tights, so you have to use a rounded end (ballpoint) needle. And then there’s the correct thread. 100% polyester for sewing stretch fabrics because apparently that has some stretch in it too. Cotton doesn’t and will either break, cause puckering or restrict the stretch of your garment. I was learning a lot and I hadn’t even started yet! I was so thankful that I had easy access to the haberdashers and its knowledgeable and helpful staff. If I’d just tried to buy all this online without the benefit of advice I’d have made so many mistakes and wasted so much fabric.
The first step towards actually making the dress was cutting out the pieces. I had to check the measurements given on the pattern to confirm which size to cut out, and then remember to cut on that line and not the other four sizes also printed on the same pattern. Luckily the book had warned me not just to go with my normal dress size, stressing that patterns are often smaller than standard dress sizes. (I would have cut too small if I hadn’t read that bit!) It took me about two hours just to cut out the pattern, then another hour to pin it to the fabric, carefully following the instructions about right sides, wrong sides and folds. Luckily I hadn’t chosen a fabric which needed to be pattern matched; I fear that would have been too complicated for me.
I had a bit of a wobble at this point. If I have to use special not-so-sharp needles for this fabric, I wondered, do I have to use special not-so-sharp pins too? Research indicated however, that dressmaking pins were dressmaking pins and that there were not different varieties of dressmaking pins available. I guessed I could therefore use normal pins. I assume this may be because the force of manually pushing a pin into a fabric isn’t enough to tear a thread, but the mechanical force of a sewing machine needle pushing into a fabric is.
It took me a few days to psyche myself up enough to actually put scissors to fabric. This was the point of no return. If I cut this wrong, I would have to buy more material.
The first piece I cut, I cut slightly wrong. The pattern had little triangle markings all over it. These were ‘notches’ and are intended as markers to indicate where pattern pieces should be matched up with each other. Cut the notches outwards, the pattern said. I forgot. I cut straight along the edges of the pattern, without stopping to cut little triangle notches outwards… Not a total disaster, it just meant that when transferring the other markings from the pattern I had to remember to mark where the notches were too.
Transferring markings was something I’d never done before. Markings are really useful things. They indicate where things should happen or be matched up. For example, my pattern had an instruction to ‘sew a gather stitch between the small circles’. Working from a makeshift pattern, I would have had the garment endlessly back and forth on and off of the tailor’s dummy trying to adjust it to fit. Getting the fit right was so much easier using a proper pattern with these markings.
Just the cutting out and marking had taken about seven hours, so I was worried about how long this project was going to take, but it turned out that actually that was the difficult bit. Once I’d started the sewing, the dress went together reasonably easily. I’m familiar with using the sewing machines, but both the pattern and the book were helpful with suggestions about the correct settings for the machine, how to use the seam guides and how to sew the various different hems required. I worked my way steadily through the 23 stages of the instructions and the only section I struggled with was attaching the neck edging because I’d got it confused with a facing and couldn’t understand why the instructions seemed to want me to end up with part of it showing on the right side of the dress. Once I’d referred back to the picture on the front of the pattern, that made total sense; it was, in fact, exactly what I was supposed to do.
In total, it took about ten hours to sew the dress together, and I was able to use some of the more advanced features of my machine such as elastic stitch (which I didn’t know it had), different feet and the sleeve arm.
The pattern kept telling me to ‘press’ the seams after sewing them. I thought this meant iron them. But no, it seems there is a difference between ironing and pressing. Luckily the book explained this and stressed the importance of pressing when dressmaking. (In case you don’t know either, ironing is moving the iron over something to remove wrinkles, pressing is holding the iron still on a particular part of the garment so that the heat ‘fixes’ it.) Pressing ensures the seams lie flat and fall in the correct direction, making a great deal of difference to the overall neatness and finish of the garment.
I was really pleased with the end result.
The dress suits me, fits well and looks good. Once I’d figured out using a proper pattern, it was easy enough to do, although time consuming. It’s a lot of fun going out in a dress I’ve made, showing it off and knowing it looks good.
The dress has had quite a few outings already; to my sister’s for family tea, to the pub for our regular Sunday afternoon session and out for dinner with the other half. I daresay it will also make an appearance on my birthday weekend. After all the challenge was not only to make the garment, but to wear it too.
Would I do this again? I’m not so sure. In total, there was about 17 hours work involved in putting this dress together and I don’t have that much spare time so it was a ‘time expensive’ exercise before even taking account of the cost of buying the pattern, the fabric, the thread, the elastic, the correct needles… I spent £42.60 on these things, and the fabric was in the sale so it was 50% cheaper than it should have been. Dressmaking isn’t the thrifty, money saving activity that it used to be. Sadly, if you cost your time, it is much cheaper and easier to buy clothes off the shelf. However, it has demonstrated to me that I can do it, so if in the future I need a garment in a specific style or colour that I can’t buy, I know I’ve got the option of making it. And in the meantime, I have a unique outfit to wear that I can be proud to say I made.
#35 – Visit all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in England: Durham Castle and Cathedral and CHALLENGE COMPLETE
Durham Castle and Cathedral perches atop a rocky promontory around which the city of Durham has grown up. Listed as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding Norman architecture, which is considered as among the best in Europe, it is also believed to be one of the country’s greatest monuments to the Norman Conquest. The site comprises Durham Cathedral built from 1093 to house the remains of St Cuthbert (former Bishop of Lindisfarne), Durham Castle and the buildings around the square which encloses these two buildings, known as Castle Green. Unfortunately the Castle now belongs to the University of Durham and part of it is used as Halls of Residence so opportunities to visit are very limited, although Castle Green and of course the Cathedral itself are accessible. The role of Durham’s Prince Bishops, unique in the medieval church hierarchy, is interesting but not central to the World Heritage listing – see my note below for more information.
I took a tour of the Cathedral, which talked not only about the founding and history of Durham Cathedral, but also the architectural features and its famous inhabitants. In addition to housing the shrine of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral is also the burial place of the Venerable Bede, known as the father of English History. Whilst there, I also visited the new ‘Open Treasures’ exhibition which shows off the Cathedral’s surviving monastic buildings. Sadly at the time of my visit it didn’t showcase the St Cuthbert relics, but it will do so at some point during 2017, which I’m sure will be fascinating.
Here’s a photo to prove that I did pay a visit:
The Cathedral itself was built to house the remains of St Cuthbert with legend telling that that particular spot was chosen because a delegation of monks carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin said that it became so heavy when it reached Durham that the monks assumed that was where the saint wished to rest. The coffin was allegedly set down and a Cathedral built around it. Certainly the cathedral was built ‘backwards’ as it were. The construction of the shrine predates the construction of the main part of the Cathedral.
For me, one of the most striking features was that the interior of Durham Cathedral is markedly darker than most Cathedrals I have visited. This is due to the Norman architectural style, which used small, rounded window arches rising in tiers. In construction terms, the windows are the weak points in the walls and the rounded Norman arches could not support great weight, meaning that windows had to be relatively small. As Cathedral building developed, it was realised that pointed arches could take greater weight, hence the move towards pointed Gothic arches and larger windows, to let more light into Cathedrals; light being associated with God and ‘goodness’.
Walking into most Cathedrals, your eye is drawn immediately upwards due to their perpendicular architectural style, but this is not the case with Durham. The most distinctive feature of Durham cathedral, for me, was the pillars decorated with geometric patterns. This is not something I recall seeing elsewhere and is apparently a feature of Norman Cathedral design.
As I was walking around Durham Cathedral I was reminded of the brilliant ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett, which I read as part of the BBC 100 Books Challenge, telling the story of Europe’s Cathedral builders and how they constantly tried to improve their building techniques because what they were building were temples to the glory of God so they were constantly striving to make them even more glorious. The contrast between the slightly squat Norman architecture and the Gothic style which followed it is well illustrated by comparing Durham with other Cathedrals.
This tour of the furthest north of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites wrapped up my trips to these sites. So that’s Challenge number 35 completed, and thirty six of my 40 before 40 ticked off. In my lifetime, I have now visited all seventeen of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites, seen some amazing things and learnt so much. My favourites were the places which meant learning from my school days suddenly made much more sense – the Derwent Valley Mills, Ironbridge Gorge and the Jurassic Coast. Maritime Greenwich was a fabulous day out and I fell in love with the grand architecture and fascinating history of Liverpool. Many of these places I wouldn’t have visited were it not for this challenge, and I’m really glad I included this one in The List. With all the foreign travel I do, it’s brilliant to appreciate what I’ve got at home too.
A Note about Durham’s Prince Bishops:
Durham’s Prince Bishops played a highly unusual role in medieval society. The role was created essentially because the Kings of England (from William the Conqueror onwards) needed to ensure that Northumbria remained loyal to the crown in order to protect the northernmost reaches of the English kingdom from invasion by the Scots. Consequently appointments to the see of Durham were initially given to those who favoured the King and the Bishops developed a close relationship with the local earls of Bamburgh to ensure the area was well defended. From the late 1080s, Northumbria was divided and the area south of the Tyne became the County Palatine of Durham, now known as County Durham. The role of Earl and Bishop was combined and from that point on the Bishop of Durham effectively ruled in this area, having many of the powers of the King including being able to mint coins, grant charters, levy taxes and even hold his own parliament. This is a role which was unique in the country and marked the strategic importance of Durham in maintaining English sovereignty.
At the time of my last progress update, around my 39th birthday, I had completed 30 of my 40 challenges, so there were 10 left to complete in the final year. I’m pleased to report further good progress over the first half of my 40th year.
Since April I have: hosted a Murder Mystery dinner party, ridden a motorbike, spent a Day at the Races and watched a Japanese tea ceremony. I’ve also technically completed my visits to the English UNESCO World Heritage sites by exploring both Hadrian’s Wall and Durham Cathedral, although whilst Hadrian’s Wall has made it to the blog, I haven’t had the time yet to write about Durham Cathedral. Coming soon, I promise…
My Murder Mystery dinner party was chaotic but fun, riding on a motorbike was both scary and exciting and the Races were an interesting experience but I’m not a natural gambler so I’m not sure it’s an environment I’ll be rushing back to. My holiday in Japan (including of course the traditional Japanese tea ceremony) blew me away. It’s such an interesting and fascinating country with so much to see, learn and taste.
So now, with just under six months to go, it’s 35 down, 5 still to do! The challenges I have left are:
- 48 Recipe Challenge – cook one new recipe every month between now and my 40th
- Eat at a top Michelin starred restaurant
- Help out a stranger with a random act of kindness
- Make and wear an item of clothing (not fancy dress)
- Take a professional make up lesson
I’m up to Recipe 43 of the 48 Recipes Challenge and still learning more and more about cooking and baking as I go along. I’m about to book myself in for a professional make up lesson and pretty soon I’m going to have to start pattern and fabric shopping for the item of clothing I need to make. I’d marked it down as a winter project, and as the nights are drawing in I can’t put it off much longer. Eating at a top Michelin starred restaurant will be part of my 40th celebrations; I’m treating myself to dinner at the Waterside Inn, one of only four 3-star restaurants in the UK.
The challenge I am struggling with the most however, is helping a stranger with a random act of kindness. A friend recently pointed out that I probably do little things fairly frequently which improve a stranger’s day. Thinking about it I do; but I think they’re insignificant things. Things like smiling and saying Good Morning to people I pass on the way to work (it’s amazing how many people look up and smile back), or asking people looking confusedly at a map if they need any help with directions, or picking up a toy that a child has thrown down for a harassed mother who has too much in her hands already. I see all of those things as just generally being polite and helpful and part of my community, although my friend reminded me that in a way it’s these little things which do improve someone else’s day. For this challenge though I had in mind something with a little more impact. I shall keep thinking.
Hadrian’s Wall; a 73 mile stretch of rubble and stone striding across the north of England from Carlisle in the west to Newcastle in the east. The Wall and its associated defences such as ditches, watchtowers and forts, in combination with the Antonine Wall in Scotland and the German Limes is UNESCO World Heritage listed as the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’. An impressive name.
Building work on the wall was started around AD 122 and took roughly six years to complete. The western section of the Wall was originally built in turf and timber, but was quickly rebuilt in stone. Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles long, with a Milecastle (large watchtower) marking every Roman mile and two smaller turrets (defensive towers) between each pair of Milecastles. That’s 80 milecastles and 158 turrets. Additionally, there were also 12 forts along the line of the wall. That’s a lot of building.
This must have been a massive undertaking at the time – cutting and transporting all that stone with just man, ox or horse power and hand tools, digging defensive ditches and building the forts, milecastles and turrets as well as the wall itself all presumably whilst having to defend the territory and maintain normal military training and fitness.
If I’m absolutely honest about it though, on first sight I was slightly underwhelmed by Hadrian’s Wall. Over the centuries, the wall has decayed, been taken over by vegetation or been torn down for the stone to be used in rebuilding, so it’s difficult to get an idea of its original height and how impressive that would have been. The Wall is no longer continuous. Some sections of it have fallen away completely, but what the remaining sections do show is the resilience of the original build. This Wall is now almost 2,000 years old. It is testament to the Roman engineers that it is even partially still standing.
In order to experience the Wall and try to get a handle on why it is considered so important, I spent a busy couple of days visiting various sites along the Wall and also walking some short sections of it. Over two days, I visited:
- Birdoswald Fort ruins and the longest continuous remaining length of the Wall
- The Roman Army Museum
- The Wall at Walltown Crags
- Vindolanda – archaeological site, fort ruins and museum
- The Wall from Steel Rigg to Sycamore Gap
- Housesteads Fort ruins
During these visits I firstly learnt a lot about Roman military life, and secondly as I walked sections of the Wall, I gained a greater appreciation for the work involved in its building.
This is not easy terrain to build on. It’s not flat, in fact it undulates quite dramatically. There are rivers to cross, escarpments to tame, corners to go round, and above all, it’s exposed – and therefore, most of the time, cold. Visiting Walltown Crags (a section of the Wall which goes up, across and down a huge escarpment in what is now the Northumberland National Park) late on in the day when I was practically the only person there, it was easy to get a sense of the isolation of the area in Roman times. Perched up high, surveying the badlands beyond, it felt like I could actually be on the edge of civilisation.
The phenomenal organisation and discipline of Roman military society became evident as I explored. Roman forts were all built on the same plan and to the same size, no matter where in the world there are. So, Vindolanda is not only exactly the same as Birdoswald and Housesteads, but also exactly the same as forts in mainland Europe. This was efficient for building – no need to draw up new plans to suit each site – but also ensured military units could be moved from one location to another without risking a lack of accommodation.
The thing that particularly struck me from seeing the ruined forts at Vindolanda and Housesteads was how the small size of the eight man bunkhouse barracks that the soldiers lived in compared to the space and opulence enjoyed by the ‘prefect’ or commander of the fort and his family. It was also clear that to support the life of the fort, local industries were needed and whole local communities grew up living in the ‘vicus’ – the area immediately outside the walls of the forts – to supply the goods and services needed by the soldiers when they were off duty. The building of the wall and the installation of garrisons at the forts must have had a tremendous impact on the Britons who already called the area home.
Essentially, as I now understand it, the purpose of the Wall was not only defensive but also economic and political. As well as providing a barrier to prevent invasions by the tribes the Romans called Barbarians from the north, the Wall also ensured that no trade or movement of goods could take place along the line of the frontier without them knowing about it; and therefore being able to collect taxes on it, or otherwise profit from the exchanges. So, the wall protected their economic interests, allowing them to maintain their government of England and its people.
Housesteads, as the most complete ruin, was worth seeing to appreciate the sheer scale of a Roman fort. Vindolanda, as it is still being excavated, had the most interesting museum and I learnt more here about the lives of those living on or near the Wall than at any other site. (Vindolanda actually predates the Wall by about 40 years, and is not on the direct line of the Wall, but was certainly used during the times the Wall was being built and defended.) In particular I was fascinated by the Vindolanda tablets – small wooden tablets covered in ink writing. These are basically the personal correspondence of generations of the Forts’ occupants and reveal details of not only the military operations of those living there but also intimate details of their personal lives. It’s like discovering 2,000 year old letters. What is particularly interesting about the tablets is that they tell the stories of ordinary people; they deal with the minutiae of everyday life, whereas historical records often focus on those with the power. It was a privilege to see a small number of these tablets, voted the British Museum’s Top Treasure, at the site where they were discovered.
Overall however, the Wall hasn’t fired my imagination to the same extent as some of the other World Heritage sites I’ve visited as part of this challenge. I guess I must have studied the Romans at school as I have some vague memories of mosaics, bathhouses, togas, coins and straight roads there’s not a lot else coming back to me. This contrasts with my visit to the Derwent Valley Mills and Ironbridge Gorge when I had a lightbulb moment about the impact of the Industrial Revolution and how it totally changed life in Britain forever. Similarly, at the Jurassic Coast, geography lessons about plate tectonics and rock strata suddenly made a lot more sense. But Hadrian’s Wall, so far from my own homeland in the south of England, still means little to me. I’m struggling to connect the Wall with anything I know or indeed to see what impact it had on the country I now live in. Yes, it’s amazing that these structures have survived nearly two millennia. Yes, some sections of the Wall are pleasant and interesting to walk along, with some stunning views. Yes, the ruined forts with their various museums demonstrate a lot about Roman military life and give a sense of what it was like to be living on the Wall. But what is not explained, and which I needed to understand, is why the Wall is of such global importance.
On Saturday 27th August I attended Ladies Day at Windsor Races to tick off the 34rd of my 40 before 40. A first for me – I’d never had a Day at the Races before so I felt this was something I should experience before reaching this milestone birthday. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, especially as I’m uneasy about gambling, so it’s not a world I’ve really ever wanted to venture into.
Nevertheless, on the day we checked into our B&B in Windsor, got dressed up in our finery and wandered into town to catch a water taxi down to the racecourse. Apart from the lengthy queue for the water taxi this was a very pleasant way to arrive. Luckily I had taken some flat shoes with me as standing around for 40 minutes in my stilettos would not have been fun!
We arrived at the racecourse shortly before the racing started, so only had time for a cursory inspection of the various bars and food outlets before making our way trackside for the first race. We started studying the programmes with their information on the recent form and parentage of the horses but found them largely incomprehensible! Luckily a fellow punter took pity on us and explained that the first race comprised young horses being raced in their first season so they were unknowns and really anything could happen because they were relatively untested and inexperienced. For this reason he suggested that a bet on a horse with long odds wouldn’t necessarily be misplaced because sometimes they did come in.
Although I’m uneasy about gambling (and a generally unlucky person when it comes to games of chance) I had decided that I should bet at the Races, since that’s part of the experience of the day. I had allocated in advance the money I was prepared to lose and put it in a separate purse. Luckily my Dad had briefly explained the betting to me so I was placing £5 or £10 each way bets; these are actually two bets – one on the horse to win, and one to be placed – so a £5 bet costs £10. The placing depends on how many horses are running. If there are only 5-7 horses, the bookies only pay out on 1st and 2nd, whereas if there are more than 8 runners then 1st, 2nd and 3rd are placed. The tote, which is apparently some form of pool betting, remains a total mystery to me! (Although I’ve subsequently found this useful webpage which explains it: http://www.tiptime.co.uk/guide-to-tote-betting)
Since I know absolutely nothing about horse racing I had decided to place my bets by choosing horses which had names I liked. Accordingly, my first bet was for Orange Gin. The race start was on an area of the track which wasn’t visible from the Grandstand, but there were big screens so we could watch the action. We saw the horses being loaded into the stalls and then with a minimum of fuss, the race suddenly started. The whole race lasted only about two minutes!
In no time we were seeing the horses chasing down the final straight and across the line. As the horses approached, the noise behind us swelled as everyone in the Grandstand stood to shout and cheer their horse on. Our new-found friend had warned us that we would have absolutely no idea which horse was in the lead as they approached and that was indeed the case. It was all over so fast and once the race finished and we had to check the big screen to see which horses had placed.
Orange Gin came second to last.
We were a little unsure as to what would happen next. The second race was in about half an hour so we had a little time to explore. There were various bars and food stands scattered about, along with the tote betting and the bookmakers. We managed to grab a drink and check out the horses in the parade ring, place a bet on the next race then head back to the finishing post to get a good spot to watch the race.
That really set the pattern for the day, although for races four and five we gave up and decided we needed a sit down, so we sat in the sunshine on the grass drinking our bubbly and watching the racing on the big screen.
For the last race of the day we decided to snag a spot in the Grandstand, and because of the job I do, I backed the horse Fairway to Heaven. As they raced down to the winning post, Fairway to Heaven was in the lead and there was I jumping up and down, shouting and screaming and waving my arms around with the best of them. It won! Unfortunately it was also the favourite so the odds were only 2-1 so although I finally had a win on the day I didn’t make back what I had gambled. But it was good to end the racing on a high.
Once the racing was over there was live music from the Human League. It was a good way to round off the evening.
It was a pleasant day out doing something different but I actually found it quite hard work. I was on my feet all the time, queueing for drinks, queueing to put bets on, fighting my way to a vantage point to watch the racing – because with just two of us it was virtually impossible to hold a seat anywhere. Friends have told me that actually what you usually do is find a spot to sit and stay there, watching the races on the screen. But that seemed a bit pointless to me – without seeing the actual horses you might as well be at home watching it on the TV! Given my unease about gambling, I didn’t find the betting exciting, I was just doing it because it is what you do at the Races. I enjoyed experiencing the wave of noise as the horses approached and everyone started cheering their horse on, but I’m not sure I’d bother going to the races again unless I was either with a large group (and therefore someone could hold some seats) or I was offered hospitality with someone else paying for me to enjoy the day in comfort!