Towards the end of a cycling holiday in Dorset and Somerset some years ago, our small group spent the last night at Castle Corfe, arriving in heavy rain. The morning after was perfect sunshine and the castle itself appeared like something from a fairy tale. Further visual derangement was to come. Piling the bikes in the guard’s van of the early morning steam train to the nearby seaside resort of Swanage, we discovered the carriages teeming with vintage train enthusiasts celebrating a local railway anniversary, as well as crowds of Morris Men, many blacked-up and covered in ribbons and bells, attending an international folk dance festival. The whole morning was like an extended scene from a 1950s film by Powell & Pressburger.
At the time none of us appreciated that Swanage and the Purbeck peninsula was the home ground of English surrealism. This was…
Concerns have been raised that the site of a Roman settlement dubbed the Pompeii of the North could be sold to developers.
Binchester, just outside Bishop Auckland,County Durham, has some of Britain’s best-preserved Roman remains, including a bath house with seven-foot walls and painted plaster.
Last year a statue head, possibly of a local Roman god, was found by an archaeology student helping with the major excavation works that are being carried out.
The land where the settlement has stood for around 1,800 years is owned by the Church Commissioners. They are selling ten plots around Bishop Auckland, including two adjoining ones which cover the Binchester site.
The Auckland Castle Trust, financed by city philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer and which is aiming to reinvigorate the local area with tourism by tapping into its heritage, has made a £2 million bid for the plots.
Although the Roman settlement itself could not be developed, an old hall on one of the plots could be, affecting access to the site. Selling the plots off separately could also hamper archaeologists’ work.
Mr Ruffer, chairman of the trust, said the £2 million bid was ten per cent higher than their own valuation of the site.
“We have done this because there is no one else in a position to do it and Binchester must be secured by someone who has a heart for Bishop Auckland and a deep understanding of the site’s importance in a national and international context,” he said.
The trust has called for the public to back its bid by writing to the Church Commissioners.
David Ronn, chief executive of the Auckland Castle Trust, said: “We need to save the best of Bishop Auckland’s, County Durham’s, the North-East’s and indeed the UK’s past to take into the future.”
Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University who has been project co-ordinator on the Binchester excavation, said: “Binchester is one of the best preserved Roman archaeological sites in Britain and deserves to be protected for future generations to visit.”
Only a small percentage of the settlement, which surrounded a fort on the road north to Hadrian’s Wall, has been revealed so far.
It may come as a shock to most people’s preconceptions – but it seems the very first trainspotter belonged to an age when the anorak hadn’t even been heard of.
In fact the modern stereotype of a true ‘spotter couldn’t be further from the origins of the oft-maligned hobby, according to research by experts at the National Railway Museum.
As the York museum prepares for a special Trainspotting season, its team has come across a reference to a trainspotter that dates back as far as 1861.
And the person who was recording locomotive numbers as they passed a station in London, was not a man clad in an anorak, but a teenage girl named Fanny Johnson.
The 14-year-old’s notebook about Great Western locos passing Westbourne Park station in 1861, is referenced in a 1935 article in the GWR magazine, and is the earliest evidence found to date of trainspotting, the collecting of locomotive numbers.
Associate curator Bob Gwynne said: “This is exciting because trainspotting is perceived largely to be a 20th century hobby for men, although railway enthusiasm has existed as long as the railways itself.
“This mention of a notebook titled ‘Names of Engines on the Great Western that I have Seen’ turns this stereotype on its head.”
He added: “The hobby of taking numbers is often thought to originate with the ‘ABC books’ first printed in 1942. However it is clear that ‘spotting certainly started much earlier than that. We would just love it if someone had Fanny Johnson’s journal and was prepared to show it to us.”
The researchers came across the reference in advance of the museum’s Trainspotting season, which will run from September 26 to the beginning of March.
It will explore what was once a very common hobby. Among those involved is Yorkshire-based poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan.
“Trains are my second home and my office space, my thinking room and my window on the world, so I’m really happy to be associated with this wonderful project,” he said.
With trainspotting being firmly lodged in the nation’s psyche as an activity for men clutching notebooks on station platforms, the museum plans to challenge people’s perceptions through a full programme of events and activities.
A new art commission by acclaimed artist Andrew Cross will use a blend of personal and archival material, revealing trainspotting histories which “connect time, place and memory” while a major new filmwork will feature footage from the UK, America and mainland Europe.
A rare find has allowed archaeologists to get to the bottom of everyday life at a Northumberland Roman fort.
What is believed to be the only wooden toilet seat to be found in the Roman Empire has been unearthed at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall.
“We are absolutely delighted with the find. The seat has survived because of the fantastic preservation conditions on site,” said Vindolanda director of excavations Dr Andrew Birley.
This site has also produced discoveries ranging from the famous Vindolanda wooden writing tablets and socks, to a gold coin and a gladiator drinking glass.
The seat was discovered by Dr Birley in the deep pre-Hadrianic trenches at Vindolanda. There are many examples of stone and marble toilet seat benches from across the Roman Empire but this is believed to be the only surviving wooden seat, almost perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen free, conditions which exist at Vindolanda.
Dr Birley said that in the chilly conditions of what was the northernmost limits of the Empire, a wooden seat would have been preferable to stone.
The Roman toilets would have been serviced by running water.
“The Romans brought this toilet technology to Britain 2,000 years ago. It was cleanliness to the max compared with what had gone on before,” said Dr Birley.
The seat has been well used and was decommissioned from its original location and discarded amongst the rubbish left behind in the fort before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early Second Century.
Dr Birley said: “There is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful.
“We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat.
“As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found.
“It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable.
“Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate as their drains often contain astonishing artefacts.
“Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy.”
Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.
Archaeologists now hope to find a spongia – the natural sponge on a stick which Romans used instead of toilet paper, and with over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds a discovery may be possible.
The wooden seat will take up to 18 months to conserve and once this process is complete the artefact will be put on display.
Harvest mice are extremely active climbers and feed in the stalk zone of long grasses and reeds, particularly around dusk and dawn.
Breeding nests are the most obvious sign indicating the presence of harvest mice.
The harvest mouse is the only British mammal to build nests of woven grass well above ground. Harvest mice have many predators, including weasels, stoats, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, crows, even pheasants and their average lifespan is 18 months.
Harvest mice usually have two or three litters a year in the wild. The young are abandoned after about 16 days.
An organic hut at Holy Island, Northumberland, has been damaged by fire in what is thought to have been a deliberate attack.
Arsonists are believed to be behind a blaze that almost destroyed a unique attraction at Holy Island.
Seal Hut is a wood and stone structure positioned on a remote sand dune, which was created by visitors with items they had collected on the beach.
It also housed a book in which people could write their thoughts.
But the unusual hut’s roof was completely destroyed by a fire that broke out, on Wednesday.
And the blaze is believed to have been started deliberately. Northumbria Police have arrested and questioned a 49-year old man in connection with the fire.
News of the suspected arson has saddened regular visitors to the hut, but is hoped it can be re-built.
Patrick Norris, from Belford, who runs walking tours in the area : “It is sad. My feeling is if the surrounding walls which are just built up from stone off the beach are still there, people will start to put the roof back on again.
“In a couple of years time, it will once again become a place where you can sit inside and have your sandwiches. The whole organic process will start again.”
At just after 3pm on Wednesday, Humber Coastguard was notified of black smoke on the dunes by tourists and dispatched its island team.
Local coastguards searched the area and discovered the hut on fire.
They returned to the village where they met a Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service crew which had been dispatched from Berwick.
The coastguards transported the crew in their 4×4 vehicle to the hut, where the fire was put out after around 20 minutes having damaged the structure and destroyed its roof.
Discovered inside the hut were tyres, suggesting the fire had been started deliberately.
Seal Hut is is on the sand dune close to Caves Haven and Sandham Bay, roughly three miles from Holy Island village.
It is believed it first appeared around ten years ago although the reasons for its creation and who instigated it are a mystery.
The structure is said to be popular with tourists and walking groups, who take shelter from the elements inside, or use it as a palce to eat lunch and watch seals and other wildlife through its small window.
A book was left inside in which visitors would record their thoughts while it also contained visitor information and items people had left on the beach.
The hut is said to have grown over the years as people have added to it using driftwood washed up on the beach.
At one point, Natural England – which is responsible for the dunes on which the structure sits – dismantled the Seal Hut amid apparent health and safety concerns.