08 September 2020

Eboracum: All roads lead to Roman York

York’s a Viking City: indeed, it’s twinned, uniquely, with itself. With its past incarnation, Jorvik, the place thus rebranded by those non-horned-helmet-wearing Danes in 866.

But York is also a Roman City, and today I was cycling in search of its Latin past. The Romans set it up as a garrison town in 71, utilising the location of a defendable ridgetop (the river was a few metres lower then), the proximity of rich and fertile level farmland, and the handy river access via the Ouse to the Humber, North Sea, and rest of the world – not that you think there’s much need for that, if you’re from Yorkshire.

Over the next three centuries, Eboracum (as they called it, and as I call it for the purposes of indexing this post) grew into a thriving imperial town and admininstrative centre, before the empire – and the city – collapsed. But there are many reminders of the era, celebrated in many a walking tour of the centre.

The centre of Roman York was right here, at the junction of Stonegate and Petergate (pic); the site of their equivalent of the city hall is now occupied by a religious building.

There are several relics of the period – often, in a way characteristic of York, in an almost throwaway manner: history, yeah, we’ve got loads of that. The remains of the old bath-house are in the cellar of the Bath House pub in the centre; the Multangular Tower, a chunky part of the original fortress, is a backdrop for picnickers in the riverside museum gardens; and part of the old city wall is in a council staff car park (pic), opposite the Theatre Royal.

That ‘religious building’ is the Minster, of course. Minster Yard now sports a statue of Constantine (pic), who happened to be here in 306 when he succeeded his father to become emperor. The current Tory government may be known for their U-turns, but Constantine effected a spectacular one of his own: Christianity went from being illegal to being made, under his watch, the state religion.

That column in the background was found in pieces under the Minster during works, and reassembled as a monument to York’s founders. Unfortunately it was installed upside down.

My last look at bits of third-century masonry was off Aldwark (pic). The square visible at ground level is the ancient foundations of a Roman Wall watchtower.

From here I biked out along the old Roman Road to Bridlington. The seaside town was a big deal to them, not for bracing swims or ice-cream, but for its harbour and significance as a shipping hazard (they put a lighthouse there, but nobody knows exactly where).

Hence the need for a transport artery to the town, which then left York’s walls on what is now Monkgate, over the Foss to Heworth Green.

That road to Bridlington is known to historians as Roman Road 810. According to local researcher Mike Haken, while there’s no evidence of the exact course of the road, everyone agrees there must have been one.

After Heworth we don’t know quite which direction it headed, but at some point it must have slanted across today’s bridleway called Bad Bargain Lane (pic), which I cycled along for the nearest-feeling thing we’ll get to the old road out of town.

The ‘Roman Road’ markings on Ordnance Survey maps, Haken reckons, aren’t entirely to be trusted. They suggest that RR810 exactly followed today’s definitely non-rectilinear A166 to Stamford Bridge and beyond, but he thinks the actual course of the road was more probably nearer Full Sutton and Youlthorpe to the south.

Could it have been this bridleway, just north of Youlthorpe (pic)? Maybe. It looks straight enough, doesn’t it? But then again...

...there are lots of straight-enough, Roman-ish lanes splintered around the map. Like this one, heading for Bishop Wilton (pic). The problem is, none of them join up sensibly. The more immediate problem for me, albeit a pleasant one, was cycling up that hill beyond and out of the village: Worsendale Road, it’s called, but I’ve ridden plenty of worse dales than this.

That climb took me to the top of the Wolds, with splendid views back down to the ironing-board flatness of the Vale of York from where I’d come.

The gentle descent down the A166 down the other side (pic) was delightful, with little traffic and a wide road whose straightness does suggest Roman use.

From somewhere round about Fridaythorpe, the course of RR810 becomes clear, arrowing pretty directly to Brid over the hills. Now it’s mostly bridleways for several miles as far as Kilham, and this was the best and the worst bit of the ride.

Best, because it was rugged and authentic and away from traffic. Worst, because it’s often muddy and rutted, churned up by tractors and motorcyclists. On the long ascent up to the monument-cum-folly commemorating decent old toff Sir Tatton Sykes (pic) I did a lot of pushing.

And eating. Because today, in accord with my Roman theme, I ate only food that the Romans would have recognised. It proved less restrictive than I expected: no New-World or Age-of-Exploration stuff like tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, chilli, potato or avocado, of course; but plenty else.

Indeed, the Romans introduced a huge amount of foodstuff to Britain that we take for granted today. Cabbages, onions, leeks, shallots, cucumbers, marrows, asparagus, parsnips, turnips, radishes, celery, lettuce; plums, cherries; also, apparently, rabbits and nettles.

So, for breakfast I’d had the reasonably authentic porridge (they’d have had wheat rather than oats, though) with figs, dates, eggs and cheese.

I did have white bread too, though I didn’t dip it in wine like they’d have done; I had 50 miles to cycle.

And for lunch, as I plodded up to Sir Tat’s rocket-like memorial and then clattered down the chalk track on the other side (pic), I enjoyed decent cyclist’s picnic fare that was authentically Latin: bread, fish, slices of pork, interesting salad, grapes and pears.

I washed it down with water, rather than wine – even if I’d had it watered-down, as they would have had it, that might not have been the cleverest drink in the middle of a bike ride involving some tricky offroad descents.

The final few miles to Bridlington was joy: the straight, and clearly Roman, road, now tarmacked and called Woldgate, smooth and virtually car-free (pic) and, thanks to a tailwind, fast and easy.

I waited for my train home in a Wetherspoon and grappled with my final authenticity challenge. Wine or beer?

Both existed in the Roman world, but beer – apparently cerevisia, which explained the origin of one of my favourite Spanish words – was the drink of barbarians, of the grubby unsophisticated, of tattooed native Brits.

So, the decision made itself. I had two pints of IPA.

Back home, dinner was sadly not very Roman. I had a look in Aldi, even Waitrose, but I couldn’t find giraffe steaks, flamingo breast, chaffinch or dormice. Next time I’ll try Booth’s.

Rudston: Village of standing

One day I’ll write a book about how you don’t need to visit the rest of the world to see the sights. We’ve got our own, better, more convenient versions here.

Iguazu? Forget it – we’ve got Aysgarth Falls!

Uluru? Waste of money – visit Cronkley Scar and tramp freely to the top.

Eiffel Tower? Overrated tourist trap – for genuinely impressive towers you want Emley Moor’s epic mast.

‘Rest of the world’ means ‘outside Yorkshire’, of course. So why bother heading out to southern England to see Stonehenge when you can hop to Boroughbridge to see the Devil’s Arrows?

Anyway, today I added yet another world-beating sight to Yorkshire’s impressive list of cyclable wonders, that rivals those Arrows as a Stonehenge alternative. The Rudston Monolith is a mighty standing stone, Britain’s biggest such in fact, in a churchyard in the village of that name just outside Bridlington. I swung by the monument while cycling from York to Brid along the old Roman Road (and eating only Roman-era food), which I detail in a separate post.

The 7.6m (26 foot) slab was set up around 4000 years ago by neolithic locals. At first glance, you might think the stone – towering over the graves – marks the resting place of a particularly competitive architect of London tower blocks.

What is it? Why is it there? The nearest source for this sort of stone is ten miles away. Maybe those neolithics carted it here, or perhaps it had already been delivered by a glacier.

Some astronomical significance? Maybe. Fertility symbol? Dunno. Stone-age folly? Search me. In short, nobody knows.

The stone is a riddle, wrapped in a conundrum, parcelled up inside an enigma. The mysterious mystery of the monolithic monolith.

Whatever the monolith was, it was clearly a major project: there’s as much of the stone underground as there is above, one 18th-century digger reckoned.

The markings on one side used to be thought to be dinosaur footprints, but sadly recent research suggests not.

Apart from the stone there’s not a lot to Rudston, though in Roman times there was a villa nearby. Its floor mosaics were unearthed during farming work in 1933; they’re now in Hull museum, but they're a bit rubbish. There’s no trace left of the villa now.

The local boozer, the Bosville Arms, almost disappeared without trace too. It recently closed and was about to ‘be redeveloped’, ie lost forever.

However, happy to report, the village saved it, bought it, and are setting it up as a community pub – and they’re looking for someone to run it. Though you’ll have to make a better effort than the ham-fisted bodger who did the mosaics.

Which local brewer will be quickest off the mark to make a Rudston Monolith beer...?

01 September 2020

Kiplingcotes: World’s oldest horse race, of course

Yorkshire is proud of its ancient traditions. Someone has blown a horn every night for 800 years in Ripon, for instance. The neighbours must be fed up of it by now.

And we can boast England’s – maybe, pace Siena, even the world’s? – oldest horse race (pic). Every third Thursday in March since 1519, local riders have galloped it out at the Kiplingcotes derby, over a makeshift course in the Wolds just outside Market Weighton.

Riding the ‘course’ on any other day of the year makes for a fine half-day ride: scenic, tranquil, gently sloping, tranquil.

Making it easier now are the brand-new East Yorkshire buses on the X46 service, shuttling hourly between York and Hull via Market Weighton (pic).

Because – very unusually for British buses – it welcomes bikes. The modern fleet on this route boasts all the things 21st-century travellers expect: wifi; USB and wireless recharging points; coffee holders; tables (pic)...

...and free space for two bikes (pic). (No toilets, alas, which is an issue if you have a bladder like mine the size of a teaspoon. So I’d advise skipping the morning Americano.)

Taking your bike to Beverley (or even Bridlington, on the similarly well-endowed 45 service) is now possible, though the length of those journeys makes the train a viable alternative, especially to coffee lovers.

But for me, and probably for you too, the great new opportunity afforded by the X46s is routes involving Pocklington and Market Weighton. They’re both gateway towns to the lovely Wolds (pic) – but riding between York and either of them involves some rather so-so flat cycling. The bus avoids all that.

So, today, I enjoyed a fabulous 20-ish mile ride on a sunny day from Market Weighton to Pocklington via the Kiplingcotes ‘racecourse’, as well as the village of Warter, and the breathtakingly beautiful dry-valley road to Millington.

On a dry, gorgeous early-autumn day like today, it was a delightful, quiet little adventure.

I decanted myself from the bus in Market Weighton and paused to admire the life-size statue of William Bradley (pic), Britain’s tallest man ever at 7'9", or 2.36m.

By my calculations he’d have required a 36-inch frame, if bikes had been around in 1810.

Just outside Market Weighton is St Helen’s Well (pic). The immediate area was one of the first footholds of Christianity in England in the early 300s, and this is one of many sites connected with that. Helen (c248–329) was the mother of Constantine, who was proclaimed Roman Emperor in York in 306; she was Greek and never visited Britain, let alone Wolds market towns. I didn't make a wish because I had no coins to throw into the well, and there was no way of paying contactless, so no new bike for me yet awhile.

So to the races. The single quotes around Kiplingcotes’ ‘course’ tell you not to expect Aintree. Aintree it ain’t. It ain’t even Ree.

The grand start, for instance, is on a country lane in the middle of nowhere. There’s no village or hamlet called Kiplingcotes – only this station (pic), once a landowner’s personal halt on a long-defunct rural railway line needlessly axed by the crazed arch-villain, the evil Doktor Beeching.

This is the start. Horses and riders gather at this modest stone (pic), marked on Ordnance Survey maps since 1873 as ‘Post’...

...and hurtle north-west on the grass verge alongside a road so straight it looks Roman, but isn’t (pic).

As they near the finish, those hardy jockeys and steeds have to contend with a muddy country farmtrack (pic).

This was how it looked on a sunny late-summer day; they do it in late March after a winter’s worth of drizzle.

The finish line is as modest as the start (pic). By one of those British quirks, the second-placed rider often takes away more prize money than the winner.

Legend states that if the race is not run, it can never be again. So it always is run, though in difficult years (1947, snowdrifts; 2001, Foot and Mouth; 2018, waterlogged course; 2020, global pandemic) it isn’t contested – a local rider will complete the course, walking the horse if necessary, to prevent the race, and therefore the world, ending.

I carried on, too, to Pocklington, and my bus back to York. Along delightful hill-hopping lanes to the village of Warter (pic), which had some temporary ponds, one of them presumably called Warter Water.

And then, along a (genuine) Roman Road to the fabulous little road down past Millington Wood (pic), one of the Wolds’ most delightful lanes. This – along with Water Lane down to Thixendale, a few miles north – is one of the area’s showcase rides, freewheeling gently down that characteristic Wolds phenomenon, the Dry Valley.

It’s all chalk round here, so rivers never get going: rainwater percolates down into the rocks before it can form streams. The valleys were carved out not by water, but by ice, thanks to ancient glaciers. So you have these double-take gorges that, given the absence of any water, intuition wrongly tells you must be old railway cuttings (pic).

So the trip was dry in every sense. No pubs were open this afternoon, so I had to wait till I got back to York for refreshment.

Though, given what might have happened on the way home on a toilet-free bus between Pocklington and York after a pint of IPA, perhaps that was just as well...