I’m very fortunate to live in Britain’s oldest recorded town. About 60 miles east of London, it was the first Roman capital of England until the Iceni warrior queen, Boudica, slaughtered the inhabitants and raised it to the ground in AD 60. It is estimated 60 to 70,000 people were killed in that rebellion, before the Roman Governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, put it down and Boudica took her own life by poison.
We have the best preserved arched Roman Gate in Britain. The typical thin, red, bricks the Romans used are visible all over the town in the remnants of the mediaeval town wall and in its churches.
Near where I live is about 10 acres of land in a flat, high, plateau overlooking the town to the East. To the North, the land slopes steeply down to the river about ¼ mile away. The site has clearly been shaped by man to be highly defensible. It was the site of the royal mint for Cunobelin, King of the Catuvellauni tribe (5BC to 40AD). A bronze cauldron was found near here, in 1932, dating from 1500BC. It had been buried in a vault, on its side, facing East, in a clearly religious ceremony of some sort. If you know where to look, many walks round my local area reveal dykes and trenches that were part of the pre-Roman defence system. In the corner of the plateau squats an ugly concrete pillbox of WW2 vintage.
The edges of this plateau are heavily wooded, with many of the trees being different types of Hawthorn. In the spring it’s a riot of pink and white blossom. The plateau itself is a flat expanse of wild sedge grass, which takes on a strange reddish hue, again, in the spring. All the branches of the genus corvidae are common here, with small families of Magpies, Jackdaws and individual Crows dotted amongst the grass. If you’re lucky, the bright colours of a Jay can be seen occasionally. In the chill, lowering dark of a cloudy January afternoon, it’s a slightly wild place, despite the lights of the nearby town. The harsh caws of the crows make it easy to imagine a wild haired shaman, raised hands silhouetted against the grey clouds, chanting over his bronze cauldron.
In the English civil war (1642-1651), the town was besieged by Parliamentarian forces under Sir Thomas Fairfax. They placed their artillery on this plateau, with its panoramic view over the Royalist defences. Many of the churches in the town have either truncated spires, or spires with different brickwork in the top half, because the Roundhead artillery knocked them down to prevent their use as observation points. It is believed that a large Royalist cannon, sited on the town wall and blown off by the Parliamentarians, is the source of the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. At the bottom of the main street is a lovely 16[SUP]th[/SUP] century, half-timbered building, which still has musket balls visible in its timbers.
The town has a beautiful castle, built on the Roman foundations of the Temple of Claudius. The walls are stratified with layers of the Roman bricks, used by the medieval stone masons, to keep their level. In 1645, Mathew Hopkins the Witchfinder General, imprisoned and tortured suspects here. Construction started in 1076 and now, 1,000 years on, it is one of the best-preserved Norman Keeps in England, housing an interesting, and engaging museum. The whispered misery of those incarcerated within its thick walls, now drowned by the chattering of the school groups trying on the Norman chain mail.
What is the point of this history lesson? Well, as a I walk and run around these places, I’m often conscious of all the human beings who have trod on these very patches of ground before me. Their religious, political and cultural beliefs are almost unimaginable to my modern mind. Yet all the things that really mattered to them, whether bronze age shaman, or civil war gunner, are unchanged. They would have had peers, friends and colleagues they loved and others they hated. Their children would have been sources of pride or despair and often both. They’d have admired, or despised, their leaders and known the ecstasies and agonies of love, loss and betrayal. Like every other human being that has ever lived, they would have had a perception of how they were perceived by others … and expended inordinate effort worrying about it.
Ultimately, absolutely none of it mattered. The incessant chattering of all those egos, all their striving and their angst, has left no trace. There is just a wind-swept field, dotted with crows.
Standing on the path, as the light fades, the insignificance of my monkey brain’s obsessions is brought into clear focus. I take a deep breath of the chill air, and revel in the toastie warmth of my hands, deep in my coat pockets. At one with both the low rumble of traffic, and the cackling crows, I am, in the moment, just happy.