Ah, New Year. The time of fireworks, Auld Lang Syne, and resolutions that tend to last a day and a half. Instead of vowing abstinence from all the unhealthiest (and best) things in life, why not start off 2019 by taking part in something that actually interests you, and that provides a benefit to your community, by checking out any of these opportunities.
For a world famous archaeological site, which has defined a landscape for 1,900 years, there’s a surprising amount still to discover about Hadrian’s Wall. After speaking with Dr Rob Collins – project manager at The Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project (WallCAP) – we found out about the dangers facing the Wall, as well as how it has actively contributed to the history of the region over the millennia as sections have been taken from the Wall to build everything from nearby farms and bridges to castles and churches. Rob’s project has just been given a National Lottery grant of £1.17 million to allow them to start encouraging volunteers to make a difference in preserving this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
‘The Wall exists in a living, working landscape,’ Rob tells us. ‘There’s lots of farms, there’s tourism. It lies under cities like Newcastle and goes through to Carlisle, so there’s a whole host of active landscapes that it runs through.’ This is one of the main reasons why it’s so important for Rob and the team to work with the public – ‘we hope to recruit hundreds of volunteers,’ Rob says, ‘to protect the Wall and the surrounding wealth of Roman remains.’
The site, Rob explains, will have been damaged by any number of factors ranging from climate change to rabbit burrows and tree roots, and one of the most important things volunteers will do is try to discover what threats the Wall might be facing and negate them. Human agriculture has also had a negative impact on the Wall. ‘It’s not to say that farmers have done anything wrong,’ Rob quickly points out, ‘but parts of Hadrian’s Wall have been ploughed.’
This is the first aim of the project, and the one that is most critical for the long term sustainability of the monument. ‘What we want is for volunteers to come and help look after the Wall,’ Rob says, ‘which will include all sorts of traditional archaeological field work investigations, surveys, and excavation.’ This protection project concerns itself not just with the actual Wall, but ‘the entire monumental complex’ as Rob puts it. This includes not only forts and milecastles – small fortifications built at intervals of one Roman mile along the frontier – but also Roman sites along the Wall corridor such as the town of Corbridge or the fort of Vindolanda, near Bardon Mill.
The other aspect of the project is to answer the question; Where is our Wall? Over the centuries, stones which were originally used in the Wall have been repurposed by enterprising locals, who were looking to build settlements of their own. ‘Many of the villages and communities along the Wall have quite literally been built from the Wall,’ explains Rob, ‘In some places we can see it very easily. Thirlwall Castle, outside Greenhead, is a really good example. You can see the whole castle has been built from stones from the Wall and you know it’s ‘stolen’ because there’s no Wall left around there.’
Rob and his team hope to use the National Lottery funding to track the lost stones along the whole of the Wall, which has never been attempted before. ‘We’d quite like to get a sense of where that stone ended up over its entire length. Why don’t we see more Wall stone in Newcastle or Carlisle for example?’ Rob hopes that the discovery of more Wall stones will tell the story of local history and track the deterioration of Hadrian’s Wall over time. ‘It would be interesting to understand how much, say, of a farm has been built of repurposed Wall stone and how much is fresh stone,’ Rob continues, ‘because that might tell us how much stone was left when they built the farm.’ They already know that stones have ended up as far as five miles away – an altar from Vindolanda found its way to Staward Gorge.
Volunteers, Rob explains, will be able to pursue any aspect of the project that interests them, from surveying the sites of Roman buildings, to looking through archives, to getting out a shovel and excavating more of the Wall, with all training provided. A great benefit of having such a wide variety of jobs to do is that people of all ages and abilities can contribute, from young children to retirees. Each person will also bring their own skills, which can all be used on the project and Rob is excited to see who volunteers. ‘That’s the great thing about archaeology – every skill, every aptitude can contribute in some way.’
To find out more about WallCAP, visit their website at www.wallcap.co.uk
If that wasn’t enough for you, here are some other ways to get involved in the community this new year:
Volunteer at Jesmond Library
Everybody knows the struggles that our local libraries face in the internet age. Some fear that soon libraries will become a thing of the past and, while the knowledge stored within them will live on, their status as centres for learning and discovery will diminish. Luckily, this is not a fate that is on the cards any time soon for Jesmond Library, which stopped receiving any council funding in 2013, and has since relied purely on volunteering and fundraising to keep itself going. You can help the library to continue the service it has provided to the local residents for 50 years by volunteering for any of the roles Jesmond Library provides, be that a librarian, archival work or even organising some of the myriad events and activities, which have helped to turn the library into a real hub for the community.
Task Force Volunteer at Durham Wildlife Trust
If you care strongly for the world around you and want to do your bit to help preserve local wildlife that has called the North East home for millennia, then consider becoming a Task Force Volunteer for the Durham Wildlife Trust. You would become the Trust’s eyes and ears around your local nature reserve; making sure that everything is in the best possible condition so that both animals and visitors are safe and happy. You would also be involved in supervising the preservation of the plants and animals in the care of the Trust and become a key part of the care and management of the wildlife reserve – what better way for nature lovers to give back to their local environment.
Reader at Tynedale Talking Newspaper
Many of us can’t imagine what it must be like to be visually impaired. Of course there are the big disadvantages like not driving or doing certain jobs, but many might forget the smaller difficulties, like not being able to read a newspaper. Luckily, the kind people at Tynedale Talking Newspaper have been recording local news for over 35 years and have distributed them (first on cassette tapes, more recently via memory sticks) to blind and partially sighted people across Hexham. You can be a part of the charity’s continued work to make life easier for the visually impaired by joining their 60-strong team and becoming a reader, producing not only audio copies of a newspaper, but also a triannual spoken magazine featuring all sorts of items of local interest for people who might otherwise have no way of discovering them.
Volunteer at Beamish Museum
One of the most interesting and popular museums in England, Beamish has celebrated the lives of everyday people in times past for over 40 years. Their re-creation of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries helps people connect to their heritage in a way that many never can by merely reading about history. Volunteering at Beamish would be a novel way of commemorating previous eras and indulging in your creative side by dressing up and acting like your ancestors. Help ensure that the traditions and history of the North East are visible to future generations by becoming an 1820’s wagoner, 1900’s miner or 1940’s farmer at Beamish this New Year.