The young people in our group have opened a massage parlour in one of the Youth Hostel dormitories! It costs 50p, and for that you get a ten-minute shoulder rub. It's a very professional concern, right down to the John Grant music they were playing in the parlour. I'm trying to encourage them to branch out into aromatherapy!
This morning we went to Vindolanda, a Roman fort very close to Hadrian's Wall and a site of enormous archeological importance probably best known for its "letters", a set of wooden tablets with all sorts of material handwritten in Latin on them. The letters were obviously thrown out and partially burned on a bonfire before a rainstorm put the fire out and no one bothered to light it again. They are particularly important because they're real letters which give us a genuine sense of what ordinary Roman people were saying and thinking. The most famous, and my personal favourite is a birthday invitation from a woman called Claudia Severa to a female friend: "I send you a warm invitation to come to us on September 11th." It's particularly important because it is the earliest example of a woman's handwriting in Roman history.
Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that a shoe belonging to the woman she was writing to has also been dug up, and it is almost perfectly preserved even down to the maker's stamp! More than that, it is incredibly pretty. The leather work is stunning, and would not have looked out of place on a modern woman's foot.
Going to Vindolanda gave me such a strong sense of how advanced the Roman civilisation actually was. These people weren't just surviving. They were aesthetes. They wore highly intricate items of jewellery. They painted glasses with extraordinarily colourful scenes. They were fastidiously clean. They even had birthday parties!
From Vindolanda we went to Sycamore Gap, that wonderful spot where Hadrian's Wall plummets down one hillside, and sharply ascends the next with the most perfectly shaped sycamore tree sitting in the ravine between the two. It's best known for having appeared in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and, as a result has taken on an almost mystical significance. We'd all been there before - together, in fact - but the walk along the crag from Steel Rigg is breathtaking and worth doing any number of times. You can see for miles from up there. Hadrian's Wall clings proudly to the landscape and, on the tops of the wall, thousands of wild flowers and grasses billow and rustle in the wind. It has to be one of the most magical places in the world.
I lined up the sound of random singing on my iPhone to encourage young Jeanie that the tree at Sycamore Gap had magical powers. If only I could rediscover that childhood sense of awe in the world. Watching her wide-eyed expression as she pressed her ear to the tree trunk and listened for the singing was infectious and highly moving. Everyone, in my view, should remain open to the possibility of magic in the world.
The crag also provides a rather special echo, which we spent some time exploring with whistles and shouts. We did the same the last time we visited. The experience never grows old!
This evening Tanya, Paul and their kids arrived at the Youth Hostel, and Sam cooked us all a wonderful stew for tea, followed by strawberries with cream and meringues.
And that was the end of the day, really. Meriel has made herself a little window seat from where she can look out over the valley opposite. The sun shone brightly this evening and the fields on the side of the hills started glowing golden yellow and lime green. We may well sleep well tonight!