Travelogue: More on Roman artifacts and a day on the Trincomalee


Sept. 26

KC and I are just back from a fascinating day on Trincomalee, in Hartlepool. Ann stayed home so we could “geek out,” tracing various lines, figuring out how the anker was released, how the relieving tackle was rigged — all those fascinating topics so deeply interesting to ship lovers and anyone devoted to Patrick O’Brian, which means both of us. Ann made a wise move! And by staying in Corbridge, she found that fresh groceries — there is a butcher’s and a greengrocer’s — are cheaper here than at home.

But before I go all nautical — I’ve been dwelling in my mind on two things I hadn’t yet digested when I sent in my last report: Antinous and the Vindolanda tablets.

Antinous was the emperor Hadrian’s lover. Because the wall as it now remains was Hadrian’s project to define the limits of Roman expansion and to guard England from the Picts, there is a good deal of mention of Hadrian along the wall. In Vindolanda there is even a room — foundations only — where it is supposed Hadrian would probably have stayed when he visited Vindolanda sometime around 122 AD.

In the Roman Army Museum in Brampton there is a room devoted to Hadrian’s life, with a large picture of Antinous (see above) and a narration explaining that Antinous was the love of Hadrian’s life, and that when he died by drowning in the Nile in 130, Hadrian was never the same again. I found this remarkable and touching: the relationship of the two has been bowdlerized or omitted in so often — “Hadrian’s cupbearer” “Hadrian’s servant” — that to mention it openly and with such compassion at the museum highlights how far we — or at least England — have come in recent years in recognizing and affirming our different orientations.

The other thing I need to come back to was the collection of letters discovered at Vindolanda, which are still being found and interpreted. These are letters, written in ink, on thin, postcard-sized tablets made of birch or alder, which have been preserved in an anaerobic deposit of clay and ashes. The letters range from domestic matters to traders ordering more goods from another merchant, and include children’s scrawls to lists of possessions. One tablet from Octavius to Candidus covers a business transaction and ends with “the roads are awful.” (“An opinion many share today,” the guidebook adds.) Another tablet is a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina (below); the handwriting at the bottom right of the letter is believed to be the earliest surviving example of female writing in Britain.

A birthday party invitation.
A tablet with a birthday party invitation.

Sept. 27

Ann and KC are going walkabout today, and I am staying in to catch up on various things — I’m changing plans, and coming home two weeks early, having to miss Belgium, Germany and Iceland, owing to ankle problems, so a huge cyber-heap of cancellations, etc., has to be dealt with. Later I’ll walk around the corner to the town square to the butcher’s and the greengrocers for a few things to make into a pie or a stew with our leftovers from last night. Tomorrow I go to Robert Gage near Newcastle, where I’ll stay through the weekend, and Ann and KC go to their Air B&B flat in London. As Robert has no wi-fi connection, and my laptop only works via wi-fi, I’ll send this in tonight and be silent until I get to London.

Trincomalee was wonderful! She’s a Leda-class frigate, built in Bombay in 1817, at a time when England — having deforested much of the country by building an enormous fleet to fight Napoleon — needed still more ships. This was fortuitous, as Trincomalee was built largely of teak, which is far more rot-resistant than oak. As a result, the ship is still 60 percent original (an amazing percentage in any wood-built craft of any age). Added to this, she never saw any major action, so sustained very little damage over the years.

As an added interest — at least to Puget Sounders — Trincomalee spent many years in the Pacific, showing the colors in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. There is a photograph of her lying to anchor in Esquimalt Harbor, Victoria, circa 1860, as well as a picture of her drying sails in Hawaii at around the same date.

KC and I were delighted that there are no required guided tours of Trincomalee, as there are of Victory (Portsmouth), and we were free to roam everywhere like a pair of excited kids. KC tried out a hanging cot in one of the officers’ cabins (comfortable!), we crawled (literally) into the magazines, and were able to delve into the details of construction, stowage, anchor control, what was involved in getting barrels and supplies up out of the hold, and rigging.

The Trincomalee

So much of the ship is original that, for example, a deep, diagonal groove worn in an overhead beam showed the angle at which a cable (called a “whip”) came up through a hatch to a block under the beam, where it wore the groove, and then down to a block on the deck. This allowed several men to tail the whip and bring up supplies from deep in the hold. Everywhere you go there are hooks and blocks and rings — all still ready to be used for various purposes in the daily life of the ship. Trincomalee has been lovingly and carefully restored, and barring a few odd “tourist” exhibits, like the medicines on a shelf in the surgeon’s cabin with no fiddle to keep them from falling off as the ship rolled, and some odd blocks simply hanging loose from a hook or ring — where they would sway wildly and be a genuine danger — she feels almost ready to go to sea. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take her out.

Staff were delightful, friendly and helpful. We had a nice chat with the lady at the ticket desk who outlined all the various exhibits, and again with her colleague when I bought a bottle of Pusser’s traditional navy rum at the shop. Six years ago we toured Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in Portsmouth naval yard; when the duty officer learned it was my birthday, we were invited into the wardroom for a glass of Pusser’s, and it has been on my list ever since.

We each drank glass to Trincomalee last night, and to “The Queen, God save her,” having been guests on a former Royal Navy ship, (In the navy, Royal toasts are drunk seated. William IV, as a young naval officer, bumped his head too many times when standing to drink his father’s health, and when he came to the throne, he decreed that henceforth, officers could drink the “loyal toast” sitting. I have the bumps on my head to prove what a good idea this was: The gun deck on Trincomalee has about 5 feet of headroom.

A lovely day. Now I must get find out just what we have left in the fridge, and do my shopping. More after the 3rd, when I’m back in London at the flat I’m taking with Jeff Harris (Edmonds) and John Hughes (Vancouver).

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago

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