Book review: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

It’s not easy to write a great adventure story. It’s not like writing a good adventure story. That’s not so difficult – I’ve written a couple myself. But a great adventure story, that’s a different matter. It’s different because that which separates a great story from a good story has nothing to do with the formal elements of storytelling: character, plot, three-act structures, all the things they teach you in writing classes. Do these, and you’ll write a good adventure story – or any other type of story.

No, what separates the great from the good is something that stands outside the formal norms of storywriting. It’s lightning in the words. It’s the letter shock and the story explosion. It’s the way that, sometimes, everything clicks, rising to a level above the good. There’s no way of climbing to that level from simple effort because, in essence, it’s a gift: a gift from the words themselves and, yes, the muse.

Sometimes the muse chooses to place her mark upon writers who deserve it, men and women who have honed their words until they can wield them like a surgeon, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (she flung her .iightning at him at least thrice). But sometimes she strikes the literary jobber, writers who churn out words for a living and somehow find themselves typing lightning. Bram Stoker was one, with Dracula, and Anthony Hope was another with The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s a typical lightning book: bold, bright, vivid as the thunder storm. Read it, and ride the lightning.

All Around the Island: Mersea

A walk can be a dangerous thing. As Bilbo Baggins observed, paths flow into roads that can lead anywhere, to Rivendell and to Mordor. But they can also lead to anywhen.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the geography of Britain has changed, with generations of farmers nibbling at the sea, while the sea gnaws the coast. Mersea, a tidal island in the Colne Estuary, demonstrates this vividly. And who wouldn’t want to walk around an island?

To avoid the July heat, I crossed The Strood, the causeway linking Mersea to the mainland, at dawn. Now tarmac, and regularly inundated at high spring tides, The Strood is itself a link to the past, for the causeway was first laid around 700 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon magnate ordered three to five thousand oak pilings to be sunk into the underlying clay. Oak pilings don’t talk, and later Viking invaders destroyed pretty well all written records in East Anglia and Essex, but one candidate as builder was the monk-king, Sæbbi of Essex, who abdicated to devote himself to prayer.

The rising sun drew a morning mist from the ground and sea. The tide was coming in, and in the dawn silence I heard it slow swirl through the channels of the mud flats. Continuing across the island to West Mersea, I set off clockwise around the island. Walking away from the harbour, seaweed shaggy pilings rulered out into the slowly filling channel. When, many hours later, I reached the causeway again the lunarscape of mud flats had been replaced by flat sheets of grey water.

From here, a short detour inland made for a long walk into the past. At the top of the rise overlooking the causeway is a barrow dating to the start of the second century AD. Now topped with an oak tree, it would once have been the most visible feature of the landscape for people crossing the causeway. When the mound was excavated early in the twentieth century, archaeologists found, at the heart of the barrow, a lead box containing cremated bones, creating a conundrum under the hill. For the Romans did not raise barrows, and the Britons did not cremate the dead. But here were both.

Returning to island circumnavigation, I followed the Pyefleet Channel that runs between the island and the mainland. The sun had burned off the morning mist and the water sparkled in the early light. Saxon invaders, in their shallow-drafted boats, used these channels as highways into the country’s heart. Not far up the coast, at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon king was buried in one of these boats, accompanied into the next life by some of the most magnificent jewellery and armour ever made. It was not hard to imagine the creak of oarlocks and the hiss of oars as the dragon-prowed boats moved stealthily upstream. Indeed, the settlers and invaders of 1,500 years ago were accompanied by much the same soundtrack as I was: the harsh croak of seagulls, the piping whistles of curlews, and the hiss of water and wind. For a few miles I walked in a soundscape unaltered for a thousand years.

The north shore of Mersea Island is quiet. I saw a handful of people, mostly on boats, but many swifts, the birds of eternal summer, jinking over the salt marshes, and, along a thistle-lined stretch of path, a cortege of butterflies accompanied me on my way.

Reaching the tip of the island, the North Sea opened out, unusually blue and tranquil. To the south, the edge of the island was marked by shallow orange cliffs. The sea is hard gnawing the land here. Tree roots jut out into empty space, clawing against the inevitable, before they finally tumble down upon the beach. The cliffs were laid down 300,000 years ago, when elephants, rhinos and bear roamed the area, and fossil hunters still turn up remains.

The sun was up and I was thirsty and hungry. An advantage of this walk was ending it at one of the excellent seafood shacks in West Mersea, eating the wildlife – oysters, cockles, shellfish – that had, unseen, underwater, accompanied me around the island. As walks go, making my way around Mersea had proved somewhat less difficult than Bilbo had warned but it had revealed unsuspected depths of time as well as providing views over great expanses of sea space.

Book review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Some science fiction ages, overtaken by advances in science and changes in society. Some doesn’t, and among the writers who stand up best to the grind of time is Alfred Bester. He only wrote three novels in the 1950s, the golden age of SF, but all three are classics of the genre. I read them first thirty or forty years ago, only a few decades after they were first written, and they then represented a dazzling vision of possible futures. Reading The Demolished Man again forty years after I first read, it’s still a dazzling vision of a possible future: a baroque, extravagant, Nietzchean future where the police can probe minds psychically to solve all crimes.

So in a world where the police can read your mind by trained psychics, how can anyone, even the world’s richest and most powerful man, commit murder and get away with it? That’s the crux of the novel, and Bester riffs through the ways of doing it with the skill of a master, but what is particularly striking is how he conveys direct mind to mind contact on the printed page, playing with text layout and syntax. It’s a brilliantly imaginative way of suggesting something none of us have ever experienced (or at least I haven’t!).

This is what science fiction was once capable of: a pyrotechnical mash up of ideas and writing styles. Read it and wonder why writers don’t do this any longer.

The Battle of Heavenfield AD 634

The combatants

Oswald (603/4 – 642), exiled prince of Northumbria

Forced into exile as a 12-year-old boy when his uncle, Edwin, killed his father, Æthelfrith, and took the kingdom of Northumbria, Oswald grew to manhood in the kingdom of Dál Riata. While there, Oswald and his exiled family, previously pagan, embraced Christianity with varying degrees of fervour, and Oswald himself gained a reputation for martial valour and Christian piety. When Uncle Edwin was killed by Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, Oswald remained in Dál Riata, only launching his own effort to retake the throne after Cadwallon had killed two other pretenders, both relatives of Oswald. Victorious at the Battle of Heavenfield, Oswald brought monks from Iona to preach the new religion to the Northumbrians, in the process creating institutions that were able to survive Oswald’s own death in battle in 642. A cult rapidly developed around Oswald following his death, with the martyred king – he died in battle against the pagan king of the Mercians – becoming a popular saint in Britain and Germany.

Cadwallon ap Cadfan (d.634), King of Gwynedd

Cadwallon was the subject of vituperation in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the villain around whom the first half of the book is structured. In Bede’s account, he was a violent marauder, bent on exterminating the Northumbrian people. But for the Britons, Cadwallon was their last great champion, ‘the fierce affliction of his foes, a lion prosperous over the Saxons’. On the Isle of Anglesey, the breadbasket of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, the kings had their palace at Aberffraw. There, Cadwallon raised a memorial stone, visible today inset into the wall of the Church of St Cadwaladr. CATAMANUS REX SAPIENTISIMUS OPINATISIMUS OMNIUM REGUM. ‘King Catamanus, wisest, most renowned of kings.’ Catamanus is the Latin form of Cadfan, Cadwallon’s father. The brutal warleader of Bede’s account raised a Latin inscription praising the wisdom of his father. History, as written by different sides.

The Battle

It was a bleak place to die. The moors rose steeply from the east bank of the Devil’s Water, their flanks bare of cover. The river itself, that had provided the remnants of the retreating army with some cover at the start of the long rout, now boxed them in. Coming to another stream, Denis Brook, that fed the Devil’s Water the leader of the retreating men signalled those still left with him to turn and make a stand. The moors rose up to the south. There was no escape that way, not with their pursuers following so close behind. The only chance was to buy a little time, to bloody the hunters so that they had to stop and regroup, and then attempt to escape.

Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, the most successful warlord in Britain, the killer of kings and the hope of his people, ranged his retainers beside him, anchoring the flank against the river. There were so few of them now that he could do nothing to protect the right wing of his shield wall. They waited. They did not have to wait long.

The man leading the pursuers had been given a nickname, Lamnguin, by the people with whom his mother had sought safety when he was still a boy. Lamnguin meant ‘white blade’. But it was not white now. The man’s name was Oswald.

With the Denis Brook at his back, Cadwallon prepared to make his stand. The moors, bare of trees in the 7th century as they are bare today, looked down with the detachment of geology. Humans many generations earlier, during the Neolithic, had stripped the hills of their tree cover, their stone axes proving as adept at deforestation as later tools of iron and steel.

The final battle was brief but brutal. At its end, Cadwallon and the men of his household lay dead, their bodies stripped of ornaments and armaments.

The Battle of Heavenfield was over. Oswald, Northumbrian ætheling in exile, had returned to reclaim his crown. Ætheling is an Old English word meaning a man who is throne worthy. Among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that had been established in the east and central regions of Britain there was no settled system for the transmission of power – how could there be, when power was something that was taken, and kept, with the sword.

The Background to the Battle

The cross at Heavenfield

To be a king of one of these kingdoms did normally require some connection to the ruling family but just as important for the succession was the ability of a claimant to the throne to gain the support of the leading men of the kingdom. If all else failed, power could simply be grabbed, taken in battle and then cemented by further warfare. If this makes early-medieval Britain sound like a chaotic place of incessant warfare, that is pretty much what it was like. This was a time when a warband of 50 men might win a kingdom. A later law code, promulgated by King Ine of Wessex in 694, defines an army (here) as a group of 35 or more men.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield

So it is likely that, as Bede says in his account of the Battle of Heavenfield, Oswald was leading a small band of men when he confronted Cadwallon. The name of the battle is misleading, for it commemorates the place where Oswald camped on the eve of the battle. There is a church at Heavenfield today, a largely Victorian rebuilding of an earlier Norman church that was itself built over an early Medieval building. The church is named, naturally, St Oswald, for the warrior king was acclaimed a saint following his death in 642. Of course, the church postdates Oswald’s camp. Bede informs us that Oswald camped on the northern side of Hadrian’s Wall and that monks from Hexham had later raised a church on the site.

The maximum extent of the kingdom of Dál Riata

Oswald’s small warband was relying on the tactics of surprise and assault that Oswald had learned during his years spent with the kings of Dál Riata. In that kingdom, which stretched from Northern Island to Argyll, the obligations of the three clans of the kingdom were assessed in the numbers of boats and warriors each clan had to provide to the king when called to the kingdom’s defence. The Dál Riatans pursued the tactics of surprise and sea-borne assault that would serve the Vikings so well three centuries later – and Oswald had learned these tactics during his formative years, when he had earned his nickname fighting with the king’s warband.

Stanegate in Corbridge

While Oswald could not arrive by sea, his aim was to attack Cadwallon before news of his presence could reach the King of Gwynedd. Oswald and his men had outridden rumour, most likely galloping along the Stanegate, the west-east Roman military road that ran just south of the Wall and predated it. Near St Oswald’s Church, that commemorates Hefenfelth, the ‘heavenly field’ where Oswald and his men camped, archaeologists discovered the remains of what is prosaically called Turret 25B, one of the milecastles of Hadrian’s Wall. Nothing remains above ground, but it would have made a good night camp for Oswald and his men, providing shelter and, since it lay on the declining slope of a ridge, cover from eyes looking from the direction of Cadwallon’s camp.

St Columba preaching to the Picts

It must have been a tense night. During the course of it, according to the account written by Adomnán, abbot of Iona from 679 to 704, Oswald had a dream vision of St Columba, the founder of the monastery on Iona and the man whose spiritual legacy lay over the Irish Sea and its surrounding lands. In the vision, the saint promised Oswald victory on the morrow. For Oswald, who had gone into exile as the pagan son of pagan Anglians, had become enchanted by the new faith of the Holy Isle during his growing up, and embraced it wholeheartedly. In Bede’s account Oswald also raised a cross before his warband, holding it in place while his men made it firm, then kneeling with his men to ask God’s blessing for their cause.

Iona Abbey in the 19th century

This was an age when men judged heaven’s favour by the most fundamental of metrics: those who won and those who died in battle. The monks of Iona, from whom Oswald had received the new faith, had seen in their young protégé a man who could do something no one else had been able to do: bring the faith to his pagan brethren. Yes, Augustine, the Italian emissary of Pope Gregory the Great, had landed in Kent in 597, but after its initial success the Augustinian mission had stalled. The sponsorship it had enjoyed through the patronage of Æthelberht, King of Kent, the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, had died with Æthelberht.

There had been northern success when Edwin, King of Northumbria, Oswald’s uncle and the man who had killed Oswald’s father, converted to Christianity. But then Edwin fell in battle to Cadwallon the nascent Christian kingdom Edwin was trying to set up collapsed too. This was very much the pattern of early-medieval Britain. A warlord would rise, winning power and prestige through success in battle, and thereby attracting glory hungry young men to his warband. The warlord would expand his power, forcing other kings to pay him tribute, with regular skirmish wars to exact further treasure, until a battle too far ended in his utter defeat and death, with the consequent dissolution of whatever rudimentary kingdom the king had built up. Edwin’s kingdom dissolved on his death.

But after defeating Edwin, Cadwallon, unusually, did not return to Gwynedd. Instead he remained far from home in Northumbria, killing two further claimants to the Northumbrian throne, Edwin’s cousin Osric and Oswald’s half brother, Eanfrith.

Bede’s portrays Cadwallon as a rapacious predator, bent on destroying the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria and its people. His portrait is one-sided: for the Britons, the native people of Britain, Cadwallon was a champion, their ‘furious stag’ who broke from the mountain strongholds to which they had withdrawn to reclaim their inheritance. As such, Cadwallon’s long stay in Northumbria, which had become the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxon kingdom under the rule of King Edwin, makes some sense. Cadwallon, like most of the Britons, was a Christian, a man who was still sufficiently versed in Romanitas to have a Latin epitaph carved on his father’s gravestone. But the monks of Iona, the most important spiritual centre in the Irish Sea, decided to favour their own man, Oswald, in the struggle for the throne of Northumbria. The descendants of Cadwallon, the Welsh, included in the Mabinogion their lament for their fallen champion and a veiled reference to the treachery of Iona.

From the plotting of strangers and iniquitous
Monks, as the water flows from the fountain,
Sad and heavy will be the day for Cadwallon.

Cadwallon’s army had been on campaign for a more than a year. The initial warband, the warband that had defeated and killed kings and made Cadwallon the most successful warlord in Britain, had bloated and swelled with hangers on and the loot of many victories. Camping somewhere near Corbridge, at the junction of Dere Street and Stanegate, Cadwallon could guard the bridge over the River Tyne. But Oswald had advanced faster than the news of his landing in Britain could reach Cadwallon. Using the tactics of surprise and aggression learned from his time in Dál Riata, Oswald attacked at dawn. With his camp thrown into confusion and panic, Cadwallon attempted a fighting withdrawal with what men he could summon to his call.

The battle turned into a series of strung out skirmishes. Rather than retreating south down Dere Street, Cadwallon fell back along the Devil’s Water. The river has its source in the moors south of Corbridge, today part of the North Pennines AONB. Its not an obvious line of retreat. Most likely Cadwallon was forced that way. His end came, as Bede reports, by the Denisesburn, the Brook of Denis. While Denis Brook might have been well known in Bede’s time, its name was forgotten in later years, and with it the location of the battle’s denouement. It was only the discovery, in the 19th century, of a 13th century charter that made over land to Thomas of Whittington between Denisesburn and Divelis that the location became known again, for the Divelis is another name for the Devil’s Water. There Cadwallon died and Oswald claimed the throne of Northumbria.

King now, by the grace of battle, Oswald gave to the monks of Iona another island, Lindisfarne, within sight of his ancestral stronghold on Bamburgh and with Aidan, abbot and bishop of Iona, he set about doing something that no other king of early-medieval Britain had succeeded in doing: making a kingdom that could survive his death. Together, king and abbot embarked on that most delicate and difficult of tasks: the making of a civilisation.

Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Along with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula suffers, as a story, from having become proverbial. Everyone has heard of Dracula. Everyone knows that he’s a vampire, just as everyone reading Stevenson’s book knows Dr Jekyll’s secret all along. It’s impossible for us to unknow these aspects of the story but, when rereading both books over the last year, I tried to at least imagine what it would have been like for the first readers who didn’t know what was going to happen. Doing that helped me to realise what incredible feats of storytelling both books were. Admittedly, Robert Louis Stevenson is a better writer than Bram Stoker, but Stoker’s use of letters, diaries, even early audio recordings, is quite brilliant, pulling the reader into the various points of view and locking us there for the duration of each chapter.

While the book suffers a little from the usual Victorian tendency to verbosity (a failing Stevenson does not share), the narrative drive is unrelenting and the story drills down into all sorts of nightmares and archetypes: sometimes, a writer can be a vehicle for a story. Sometimes, it can assume a life and purpose of its own, pushing the writer beyond anything he would normally be capable of. That was the case with Dracula.

Although the entry of Dracula into popular culture means that we can never be surprised by the book in the same its first readers were, nevertheless his embrace by the wider culture is an unmistakeable sign of the power of the story that Stoker found himself writing.

Book review: Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

The subtitle states that this is a history of the First World War month by month and that’s exactly what Mallinson does. The book derives from a monthly series of features Mallinson wrote for The Spectator magazine, starting on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that followed the war through each month of the following four years.

This strictly calendrical approach is mainly a strength, almost allowing one to follow how the war would have unfolded to people at the time but with better access to what was going on, but on the odd occasion it forces him to squeeze a huge amount of events into a single chapter. Overall, though, it’s a structure that works very well. In particular, it allows Mallinson to show how this was truly a World War, and not one limited to the trench warfare of the Western front. Using this focus, he expands the view to take in the Eastern Front, the carnage of the mountain war between Italy and Austria/Hungary, the war in the Middle East and the Dardanelles – everywhere.

It’s also useful as a partial corrective to the old saw of lions led by donkeys. The generals of the First World War were not as clueless as portrayed in Blackadder although, in a telling insight, Mallinson gets to the crux of their key failure in understanding the war on the Western Front: it was siege warfare, with the walls of the castle stretching from the mountains to the sea. Some of the commanders realised this but it took a long time for their understanding to penetrate through to the higher ranks. But, once said, it becomes so obvious!

Highly recommended.

Book review: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Dear Reader, I was about to begin my own review of The Dying Earth when I thought I would just have a quick look at its Good Reads page to refresh my memory of the story. Normally, I don’t look at other reviews until I have written my own, but I glanced at the top one, started reading, and continued, enthralled and amazed. Having read Bill Kerwin’s take on the book, I’ve decided I’ve got nothing to add to it and, indeed, it’s far better than anything I would have written. So my review will be a link to his review, with the note that what makes that review so exceptional is that he made me see the book in a completely different light and, as a result, want to reread it illuminated by that light.

So, without further ado, an extract of Bill Kerwin’s magnificent review of The Dying Earth:

So I read The Dying Earth again, as if it were a Punch and Judy show mounted with magnificent sets. Puppet wizards and puppet women now moved through a muted landscape, in a world of distilled evil dominated by a decadent sun. Sometimes they seem like mischievous children, sometimes like degenerate dwarfs, but at other times they seem like creatures of some new myth, a promise of stories to come beyond this dying world.

You can read the rest of the review here and I highly recommend that you do.

Book review: The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

Hm. Let this be a lesson in book reviewing to you, E. Write your review before you forget what happened in the book.

Dear Reader, I must confess that this will not rank as one of my best reviews as, for the life of me, I cannot remember anything much about this story. About all I do remember is that I enjoyed it when reading it and had it down as a four-star book (I have very much enjoyed other books by Michael Scott Rohan). Does this mean that, in order to remember a book, I have to review it within the time span in which its memory lives on? Or does it mean that the book simply was insufficiently memorable to impress itself upon my memory? Might it be a function of aging, where once stories made indelible impressions upon a youtful and malleable mind, now they have to chisel their way in among half a lifetime of memories?

I don’t know. However, given my previous regard for Rohan’s work, I suspect the fault lies more with me than with him. It’s the first of three and, if I can, I will try the second in the trilogy to see if it sparks some memories – and update my review accordingly.

Book review: Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Brrrrrrr… I’m still shivering, two days after finishing the story.

For those of us lucky enough to live in a country where the coldest it normally gets is a day or two of snow before everything turns wet again, there is, I think, a fascination for places where it gets really cold, where winter is king. This story more than feeds that fascination: it positively avalanches it.

The basic storyline is straightforward: a father and daughter, on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway (why would anyone go on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway?) witness a double murder and are pursued by the killers. The father, Erik, succeeds in killing some of the pursuers but one of the hunters proves impossible to kill, relentlessly chasing them into the Arctic night.

It’s the cold that fills the story: the unbelievable, finger-numbing, heart clutching cold, leeching life and feeling and movement out of everything until all that remains are the tiny figures of Erik and Sofia skiing across, and through, a world of white.

The relentless killer, pursuing them through the white world, is something of a thriller trope but within this context he becomes something else: a metaphor and an embodiment of the killing cold, of winter as implacable death. Amid our concerns for global warming it’s worth remembering that the cold kills many many many more people than warmth: we came out of Africa and survive in the realms of frost only by employing all the ingenuity and toughness of which we are capable.

At one level a simple chase thriller, at another it’s an examination of human endurance in the face of implacable danger (I particularly enjoyed the unexpected appearance of a figure from Norse mythology because such endurance demands support from somewhere beyond the human).

A book that will leave you trembling, from tension and cold.

Walking with an Archaeologist

Archaeologist Paul Gething looking out to the Farne Islands from Bamburgh

“Medieval tile. Medieval pottery. Another piece of pottery. More tile. Animal bone.” Paul Gething, archaeologist, picked through his finds.

I had, literally, been walking on history, oblivious to its presence beneath my boots.

We were standing on a path down from the great crag of rock upon which Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland squats. Paul had just told me that most people are oblivious to what lies beneath their feet and I had challenged him to prove it. Within ten yards he’d found these remains.

Looking up at Bamburgh Castle

Paul Gething is co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), a multi-disciplinary archaeological dig investigating the history in and around Bamburgh. We’re brothers-in-law (married to sisters) and have known each other for years, but this was the first time I’d asked him to explain how he sees the world through the eyes of his discipline. I looked at his finds. To my eyes, they still looked like old stones.

“People have been here since Neolithic times, so it’s not hard to find things,” said Paul. “People drop litter now, and they threw away their rubbish then; we’ve not fundamentally changed over the centuries.”

In Northumberland, this continuity is visceral, tangible. The ramparts of Bamburgh Castle loomed above us. The fortress, capital of the lost kingdom of Northumbria, sits on top of a great outcrop of basalt, a part of the Great Whin Sill rock formation that stretches from the North Pennines to Northumberland. Out to sea, the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert withdrew from the world and befriended the local eider ducks, are made of the same hard rock. The islands glittered darkly against an unexpectedly blue sky, while a few miles to the north, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had, until the tide turned, rejoined the mainland.

Looking out from Bamburgh Castle towards Lindisfarne

Paul looked out to sea. “Ten thousand years ago, that was land. I think hunters camped here, watching the herds trailing past on their way to their feeding grounds.”       

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the Bamburgh Research Project

We’d started the day by inspecting the trenches the BRP has dug in the grounds of the castle. Teams of archaeologists on hands and knees were carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, noting and tagging every find. For the really delicate work, they employed toothbrushes. The archaeologists here come in all ages, from pensioners to schoolchildren, for one of the key objectives of the Bamburgh Research Project is to make archaeology accessible: anyone, from members of the public to Indiana Jones, can dig after being taught the necessary skills. The site is open in the summer and people can sign up for anywhere between one day and two weeks.

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the BRP, in a pointing contest in a trench in the castle

Leaving the archaeologists in the trenches, we set off along a section of the St Oswald’s Way long distance path. It seemed to me that Bamburgh Castle, once the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, was an obvious place to do archaeology, but Paul bet me that archaeology could illuminate any walk.

“Before setting out, look at the map. The names are clues to the past. For instance, -burgh is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘fort’, and -by is Old Norse for a village, so that tells you who settled there and named the features of the landscape. Then look at aerial photographs, or satellite images – Google makes this easy – since things often show up more clearly from above.”

This was once a burial ground

Heading down into the marram grass covered dunes, Paul told me how an old Ordnance Survey map had given them a vital clue when the BRP first started digging here. There were written references to a burial ground in the vicinity of Bamburgh Castle, but they had no idea where to search for it. But then they looked at the very first Ordnance Survey map of the area and there, to the south, were the neatly printed words ‘Danish burial ground’. We made our way through a small wood (“Just regrowth, only a couple of hundred years old”), the air thick with the buzzing of heat-drugged insects, until we came to the burial ground. Paul said they’d found over 100 skeletons here, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. The remains indicated the people buried here were from the nobility – “They were all well fed” – and some had come from as far away as Western Scotland and Norway, only to meet their end in the service of the kings of Northumbria.

Heading inland, Paul stopped at a pasture. The cows looked up placidly before returning to cropping the grass.

Ridge and furrow patterns in a field. Photo Matt Neale

“Ridge and furrow,” Paul said, indicating the undulations that ran across the field. “Or rig and frig in archaeological slang. Medieval, judging by the distance between the ridges. Roman fields have narrower gaps.”

Parallel lines, like the ripples that form on beaches as the tide goes out, marked the field in straight lines. In medieval times common land was ploughed or dug in long parallel strips. The soil from the furrow was piled on to the ridge, creating two different microclimates for crops. In a dry season, the seeds down in the water-collecting furrow would be assured enough moisture for growth, but if the year was wet, the crops in the freely-draining ridge would flourish. Thus medieval peasants hedged their bets and their labour to ensure a crop. Where the field has been turned over to pasture rather than cross ploughed, the centuries-old pattern of cultivation can still be clearly visible.

“The rule of thumb is the wider the gap, the nearer it is to our own time. Roman fields have a three-metre gap between the ridges, medieval ones from five to eight metres.”

Paul was winning the argument before we’d gone a mile. I asked him if there were any other archaeological landscape features that an amateur could spot and he pointed to a roughly circular patch of nettles sitting alone in the corner of a nearby field. Nettles love phosphorus, and the excrement of cattle and sheep is rich in the element. These solitary patches usually marked the site of a medieval sheep or cow pen. Although the enclosure had disappeared, the plants lived on on the bounty left by the long-dead animals.

“My family are always moaning that whenever we go anywhere, I’m always saying that that’s rig and frig, or there must have been Roman villa in the vicinity, but I can’t help it. It’s just part of the way I automatically process a landscape. For instance, near where I live in York, a Second World War airfield is reverting to scrub. It’s an archaeological test bed. There’s rig and frig fields, crab apples that aren’t native to Britain – my guess is that pilots flew over from America, ate the apple they’d bought there and then threw away the core – and miles of underground tunnels that I’ll bet future archaeologists will take to be sewers, but are actually communication ducts.”

The Bradford Kaims dig

A couple of miles inland, with the Cheviots looming in the distance, we arrived at another BRP dig. This one cut through the grass, topsoil and subsoil to reveal the limits of a prehistoric lake. One of the archaeologists there told me that in Mesolithic times, that is between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, where we were standing was a large figure-eight-shaped lake, and we were standing at the pinch point of the lake. It was the obvious place for a settlement, but our distant ancestors were proving elusive. The archaeologists had only uncovered the remains of a millennia-old ditch so far.

Walking back to the castle, Paul showed me an arrowhead he’d found at the edge of a field. It was an exquisitely worked, barbed and tanged late Neolithic flint. But what could this solitary find tell us?

Digging at Bradford Kaims

“I’m firmly convinced that the key skill archaeologists have to learn is how not to focus on what is in front of them. Five thousand years ago, skilled artisan could produce half a dozen arrowheads like this every hour. They were as disposable as Bic razors. The shafts, on the other hand, were a different matter. Finding and preparing a truly straight length of wood was difficult. Once that was done, the shaft had to be fletched too. For Neolithic man, the valuable part of an arrow was not the arrowhead but the shaft. What would happen, though, if an animal wasn’t killed outright but fled, taking your valuable arrow with it? So they made their arrows in such a way that the arrowhead would break off easily, leaving the shaft to be retrieved.”

Looking at the killing instrument, I was transported back in time to a world of woods and marshes, and a hunter drawing his bow on a deer and loosing his arrow. The beast, startled, leapt away, the arrow protruding from its haunch. The shaft broke off as the deer careered through the trees and the pursuing hunter spotted the bright feathers of its fletch lying in the moss. The deer escaped, only to die a few days later when the wound became infected. Scavengers cleared the remains, but the indigestible flint of the arrowhead fell to the earth, and was covered over, only to be uncovered centuries later when a sweating medieval peasant piled the spoil from the furrow on to the adjacent ridge. There it remained, alternately exposed and hidden, until a passing archaeologist saw it glittering on the ground and grasped its significance.

Paul had won the bet.