Roman History on Langley’s Doorstep

Roman History on Langley’s Doorstep

“A Friend Sent Me 50 Oysters From Cordonovi …”: 
Roman History on Langley’s Doorstep

Holidaying at Britain’s Best Hotel for Romance 2018 can also lead you to what has officially been voted Britain’s Top Treasure, which one could alternatively describe as postcards from the edge, or letters home from those missing Rome.

The hotel in question is, of course, our very own boutique gem - Langley Castle.  Our luxury bolthole boasts many original medieval features and is over six centuries old, having stood since 1350 on the landscape of the county of Northumberland, in the far north of England, close to the border with Scotland.  

The top treasure to be found just a stone’s throw away from it, however, are actually treasures in the plural.  These are the incredible Vindolanda Writing Tablets – very early letters written by Roman centurions, soldiers, their wives and family members and even slaves who found themselves on what must have seemed like the edge of the world, on the most northerly frontier of Emperor Hadrian’s empire in the Roman fort of Vindolanda.

Langley Castle is located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hadrian’s Wall, which makes perfect sense given that some of the stones used in its construction were dragged from Hadrian’s Wall, many centuries after the Romans had departed.  Such vandalism led to the once high wall now being reduced to just a few feet in most parts, but luckily the soil all around is rich in archaeological finds like the Vindolanda Writing Tablets, the gift that keeps on giving as digs continue, with 1300 having been found so far, but more still emerging.

The letters home were written on wafer-thin slivers of wood – mainly smoothed spruce or larch imported into England.  Those found thus far convey many facets of everyday life, as those living on and around the wall expressed their emotions and desires, catalogued their shopping lists, vented fury on their relatives, prayed for their friends’ good health and even wrote down their recipes.

Spidery words and sentences were written in Latin using nibbed ink pens, 200 of which have also been found at Vindolanda, where the Writing Tablets were discovered  in amazingly great condition in many cases, thanks to the continually wet and muddy terrain that surrounded the Roman fort and the thick bracken flooring that was used to provide warmth, but into which things could very easily slip and be lost.

The Writing Tablets are now on permanent display at Vindolanda, having been loaned back by the British Museum in 2011 to give them a new lease of life in a hermetically-sealed showcase.

These amazing letters provide incredible insight into the world of those living at Vindolanda and other places on Hadrian’s Wall two millennia ago.  Infra-red light has had to be used to read them, before translations into English have taken place.  What hasn’t yet been deciphered is a form of shorthand that appears to have been employed.  Cracking that code may take more time.

But we do know that “a friend sent me 50 oysters from Cordonovi; I’m sending you half.”  We feel the resentment of the brother who writes to his sibling, “so you may know that I am in good health … you most unreligious fellow who hasn’t even sent me a single letter.”

We hold out hope that Lord Cerialis looked kindly on the chap you prayed that Cerialis “held me worthy of you to grant me leave”, because we’re sure those in the inclement north of the Empire deserved a few days off!  We also truly feel for the man who wrote to Hadrian to plead his innocence as an honest man, having already been “beaten with rods.”

And, we all wish we could have partied with Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, whose birthday celebrations invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the cohort of Batavians, has also been found on one of the Vindolanda Writing Tablets.  This is actually one of the earliest known examples of writing in Latin by a woman.

Whether the Tablets mention socks, sandals and underpants being sent (as they do!), talk of Celtic beer, pork-fat and fish sauce, give us an understanding of festivals like Saturnalia and the worship of gods and goddesses, or contain confessions such as “because I once treated him in a niggardly fashion,” the insight from them is incredible.

For those who cannot resist Roman history, whether they find it fascinating, romantic or a way of connecting past with present and admiring just how advanced Roman culture was, Langley Castle Hotel is the perfect place to which to bring your cohort, whether that consists of family or friends.  Vindolanda is not the only Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall within a short drivetime and you could visit several, whether they are simply places in the landscape these days, or locations with visitor facilities such as exhibitions and displays.

Langley has another Roman trick up its sleeve for its guests, however, as it works with Wild Dog Outdoors, which provides an amazing guided tour, of two-hours duration upwards, depending how much time you have available.  The Roam With the Romans Tour allows you to view Hadrian’s Wall through the eyes of Venutius the Celt – a member of the local population at the time of the Roman invasion and the manning of the Wall.  

Venutius allows you to feel the weight of a Roman helmet, handle Celtic and Roman-style weapons, spot features in today’s landscape that are tell-tale signs of what went on two millennia ago and learn incredible facts about how the Romans, their auxiliaries and the local population lived.  Tours can be tailored to your particular needs and interests and are one of the highlights of many a guest’s stay at Langley Castle.

If you wish to explore Hadrian’s Wall and walk in the footsteps of Romans, there is no better place to base yourself than Langley Castle Hotel.  We hope to be saying ‘Salve’ to you very soon.