Monday, 25 August 2014

A walk through 5000 years of history

A picturesque corner of Boroughbridge
"Make sure you stop at Boroughbridge on your way to Ripon" a local boater told us. So we did. We got there at about seven o'clock in the evening after a long, 20 mile haul up-river from York. There's not a lot to be seen on the way; the high banks are lined with willows and the ever-present Himalayan Balsam. The only break comes at Linton Lock, whose massively heavy gates were a portent of what was to come. But the few moorings were full so we pressed on and finally – and somewhat relieved – found plenty of space for us at Boroughbridge.
One of the Devil's Arrows monoliths
It's a tiny town by modern standards; the centre only has a handful of streets but they're all attractive, characterful and speak of its hey-day as an important stopping point on the Great North Road – as the A1 was called when it was filled with carts and carriages not trucks and cars. The Crown Hotel alone had stabling for 100 horses. Today the modern A1M thankfully by-passes the town which has become a smart little spot to live and visit.
As we were to discover over the next couple of days Boroughbridge also encapsulates virtually the whole story of English history. Starting way back in 2500BC when a cluster of giant stone monoliths (taller than anything at Stonehenge) were erected there. Three survive close to the A1M, nicknamed The Devil's Arrows, but no-one knows why or who put them there.
Magnificent Roman mosaic on display at Aldborough museum
Roll forward to the Roman rule of Britain and at what is now Aldborough, just outside the town, the Romans built a fortress, which became a town from which they and the largest tribe of native British, the Brigantes who had accepted Roman rule, ran the whole area. Isurium Brigantum was built on a hill overlooking the river and served by Roman ships. There was an important ford crossing the river near here too.
After the Romans, Boroughbridge was further developed by the Normans. Later in 1322 it was the scene of a significant battle in English history when the unpopular King Edward II's army defeated rebel barons who wanted to bring him down.

Battle of Boroughbridge monument, now in Aldborough
Aldborough is a handsome village these days, with largely Georgian houses clustering round the village green – on which is another English icon, a Maypole. And massively tall it is too. The remains of Isurium lie largely in the grounds of Aldborough Manor but the English Heritage site is open to the public at weekends. We walked around the remains of Roman walls and gazed in admiration at the areas of mosaic flooring that have been uncovered. (Apparently though, latest archaeological techniques require no excavation - the site is being scanned by magnetometer and tiny changes in the earth's magnetic field accurately map out features like walls, buildings, roads and ditches as they lie buried. Amazing.)
Picturesque village green with its huge Maypole
Aldborough Manor is the family home of the Lawson-Tancreds and the 10th Baronet, Sir Henry, turns out to have been a pioneer of wind energy. A Cambridge educated engineer, he saw the possibility of a world oil crisis after the Arab-Israel war of 1973 and designed and built three 17m diameter wind turbines on his estates. He would doubtless have been impressed by the Archemedian screw type hydro-electric plant we saw on the weir at Linton Lock.
Hydro-electric generator at Linton Lock weir
Which pretty much brings us up to the present day. Except that Boroughbridge isn't quite in the present day – it's the first town I've been to where I can stand in the middle of the High Street (or any street) and get no mobile phone signal.

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