The Wall

At the Newcastle station, we found a seasoned Virgin Trains agent on the sidewalk who gave us directions to the Europcar office a few blocks away. The compact car we’d requested had been upgraded to a Nissan Qashqai, a “compact crossover” not offered in the US. I felt a little trepidation about such a relatively huge car in Europe, and indeed some traffic lanes were somewhat narrow for it, but it worked out OK. It had an incredible amount of technology I’d never seen before. It beeped at me when I slightly strayed from traffic lanes; it showed me the current speed limit; it beeped at me when a speed camera was nearby; when parking it showed me a rear view with my steering-dependent trajectory overlaid, and a constructed “top view” showing me clearly where I was located relative to the lines of a parking space. So despite its size it wasn’t that hard to get into parking spaces with. I did have to look up “default speeds” in the UK, which turn out to be 30mph in town, 50mph on a single carriageway, 60mph on a double, and 70mph on a motorway. The signs which show “Speed Camera” and a circle with a slash don’t mean “end of speed camera zone”, they mean “beginning of speed camera zone at the default speed limit”.

We spent the afternoon seeing some attractions in the area. First, we went to the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, a former flour mill which had some very large exhibits. In particular, there was a very long semi-trailer named “The Great Whale Jonah” with some cute sea creatures made out of glass inside. The interesting question was how they got it inside. There is apparently a lift so enormous at one end of the building that it can lift a truck containing a large or valuable piece of art to the intended level, which comes in handy if there is raining or looting going on outside. My favorite work of art in the museum was the pair of mirrors at the top and bottom of the stairs, called “Heaven and Hell” — the stairs extended up and down forever. Then we walked across the Gateshead Millenium Bridge, a cute modern curved bridge which tilts in order to let boats underneath. It is lit up in various colors at night. Then we drove just south of town to the Angel of the North, a massive steel statue of an angel with very straight wings, kind of like an airplane.

By then Jonathan, who we’d met on the 2006 Niger eclipse expedition, had gotten home from work, and we went to his house where he’d very kindly offered us his guest room. From there we walked to a pub, where I expected to have an English bitter, but it seemed the thing to have was an IPA. Such a small world. From there we walked to The Broad Chare, another pub with a very good restaurant upstairs. We had a selection of “bar snacks”, Ray had the “pork and pease pudding” special, and I had crab on toast. Everything was delightful and shall I return to Newcastle it’s likely I’ll head directly there.

Thursday morning Jonathan fixed us breakfast and headed to work, and we headed to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman ruin of a wall which extended across one of the narrowest sections of Great Britain. We went on a three-mile walk along the wall (or The Wall as I referred to it in a Facebook post: Game of Thrones has been interpreted by some as an allegory of modern Britain). There were increasingly good views of a lake and the surrounding countryside as the fog cleared as the morning went on. We drove to Vindolanda, a ruin of a Roman fort and village, not that different than other ruins of Roman forts we’d seen all over the empire. The anaerobic soil had preserved hundreds of wooden tablets which recorded many details of everyday life, many of which were displayed in the nearby museum, among them a birthday invitation which is the oldest for sure women’s handwriting sample in the Western World.