IN this land of eternal gloom, where fog hangs in grey air and moisture drips from autumn berries and bedraggled sheep, Romans once marched to distant outposts on a cold northern frontier. They crossed many rivers on their journey from York, and few were swifter and more majestic than the river the native Celts called Tees – a name which is thought to mean the boiling, surging water . . .
Today I embark on another short walk, frustrated by weather and back pain while my wife ventures into Darlington and the aftermath of Black Friday. This might be called Satanic Saturday because the nation remains in shock and exhibits few signs of recovery.
Black Friday. It’s very tempting to launch into an unbridled rant about the despots of British commerce imposing this sick and cynical imported pseudo-tradition on the public while their allies in Westminster insist our national identity is being undermined by poor people from Europe. But I’m not.
I park the van at Piercebridge, a pleasant village on the border of North Yorkshire and County Durham which was, incidentally, built by the labours of poor people from Europe during the early decades of the first millennium. The village occupies what was once the Roman fort that defended the river crossing against attacks from Brigantes. The houses stand, more or less, along the lines of the defensive walls, the rectangular village green occupying the fort’s interior.
On the North Yorkshire side of the present road bridge stands The George, an old coaching inn. Apparently, I embarrassed myself here one night doing a John Travolta impersonation on the dance floor during a works Christmas do – but I don’t remember. Its other claim to fame is that the Henry Clay song My Grandfather’s Clock was inspired by an old timepiece in the hotel which stopped ticking upon the death of its owner. Is that enough trivia for one article? I hope so.
I shoulder my bag and leave The George, which in the still and heavy afternoon air is enshrouded in a delicious fog of chip fumes, and head east along the river on slippery paths. Soon I arrive at one of England’s most celebrated archaeological jewels – the ancient foundations and stone piers of a Roman bridge that once spanned the Tees.
Piercebridge straddles the Roman road known as Dere Street – the direct link from the Roman city of York to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. It was an important and strategic place because of the bridge, which had to be defended continuously.
The ruined bridge does not lie directly on the line of the road. Archaeologists reckon the ruins are most probably those of a replacement bridge which was erected after the original was destroyed by floods. Neither are they situated on the banks of the Tees, which flows – rather inconveniently – a short distance to the north. The accepted theory is that the river has shifted its course during the past 2,000 years.
In 2009, Channel 4’s Time Team visited Piercebridge to investigate its Roman remains. Among the discoveries were huge timber baulks submerged in the bed of the river close the the modern bridge – modern being 1789 – which predate the Roman occupation and are thought to be evidence of a bridge constructed by the Brigantes. Fascinating, that. There’s some serious history here.
I wander downstream in the peace and quiet of a sullen afternoon. A few short miles further down the river, and well beyond my field of vision, hordes of baying natives are sacking Teesside Retail Park in scenes that mirror the Iceni sacking Colchester. Still, it’s probably a positive economic indicator. Have I time for a mini rant? Yes, of course. Here we go . . .
Is it just me or is the English language turning into a shopkeeper’s lexicon? Where has this phrase “in store” suddenly sprung from? As in: “Order now and pick up your goods in store,” and “See our fabulous selection in store,” and the perverse “Our in-store staff are here to help”. What happened to “in the store” or “inside our store” or simply “our staff”? While we’re at it, what the hell is footfall? Is it something that keeps you out of the army? And then there’s the dreaded “retail outlets”. Do they mean shops? If so, why don’t they say shops? And how big is a “regular” coffee, for Christ’s sake, because I might prefer the “irregular” option? And to be perfectly honest, the last thing I’d want to do in an “eatery” is sodding eat, because dining out is more than merely filling your face with food as if you were fuelling up to hibernate, it’s a social activity that’s meant to be enjoyed on numerous levels.
I don’t want to live among this sort of stuff. If the language is changing it should change organically from the bottom up with natural acquisitions such as pyjamas, curry, Blighty, veranda and bungalow, not be forced upon us from the top down by oily marketing types who have never ventured beyond the M25.
Language is as much a part of our heritage as Stonehenge and Blackpool Tower – but you wouldn’t illuminate the former with neon or watch the sunrise beneath the latter. It should be guarded as it evolves. The last thing we need is a pack of ill-educated, career-orientated, middle-management hash-tag tappers corrupting it solely to generate cash in the most cynical of fashions. Quick change of subject. Let me tell you about Holme House.
Many years ago I walked down the Tees from Barnard Castle to just below Piercebridge then cut across fields to my home in Barton. I left the Tees at a place called Holme House. There’s nothing there except a farm and a row of houses – but it must be the most idyllically-situated row of houses in the world.
This place is in the middle of nowhere. It’s surrounded by fields, has the river on one side, and is a brisk and pleasant walk from the nearest road – the B6275 Dere Street. Black Friday doesn’t touch places like this. Holme House is an island of peace in a turbulent, truculent sea. I’d love to live there.
But I don’t. And I need to head home to resuscitate the wife with vodka and white wine after her sortie into the mad and chaotic world of commercial mayhem that accompanies the most hallowed festival of the Christian calendar. Peace and goodwill to all men.
AND FINALLY – Old Railway Goods Wagon No 18
DECOMPOSING sadly behind a barn at Manfield Lane End Farm, at the side of the Roman road between York and Hadrian’s Wall, is a British Rail goods wagon. I’ve passed it many times on my journeys north but never made the effort to stop to take a picture. Now it is recorded for posterity.
And so is another small and barely significant part of our wonderful heritage saved for the enlightenment of future generations.