This post is just playing around with some ideas; you’ll probably want to skip it if you’re interested in the martial arts etc that I normally write about.
My hometown developed around a river bridge. Originally, the bridge was part of the main Roman military highway stretching westwards to the Irish Sea. It lay between some important forts, and we know from the archaeological evidence that some elements of Legio II Augusta were present in the first and second centuries AD. The town’s location would have led it to prosper, and we know that there were several major villa estates in the area. The archaeological remains also suggest that the town became a centre for industrial-scale metalworking. Over the centuries of the Roman presence, life became settled, and the legionaries were withdrawn, back to the major camps. Changes in Imperial technology and military requirements eventually led to the classic legions becoming redundant; the focus shifted to mobile, cavalry-based forces.
The river runs through the town, and makes its way in a large curve to the sea a couple of miles away. The river valley is deep and steep, so from the town the sea seems a long way away. It’s not, though, and it actually doesn’t take all that long to reach the estuary by foot. There’s always been a reasonable little harbor at that estuary – at least, until the whole area was reconfigured for major industrial developments in the 20th century.
I very often walk up the remnants of that old Roman highway. It’s been bypassed now by a modern road, and is an overgrown country lane, with an uneven rock surface that’s the remains of the old road core. It rises up to the top of one of the highest local hills, and then continues, arrow-straight. The odd thing is that another little lane leaves it at the hilltop, going at a right angle in the direction of the sea. It arrives at a small village, leading directly to the old manor house, and then straight onwards to the old vicarage – a house sited on the edge of the escarpment, and from where there is a view down along the length of the river valley. From there, you can’t see either the sea or the town, but you can see most of what’s in-between. It’s interesting to note that on old maps this area is named ‘The Cross’. The local church, right next to the manor, is dedicated to Hilarion – rather an uncommon saint.
That side road is very definitely ancient, and has the same kind of surface as the main Roman road. Its straightness is unusual in a country lane. Taken together, that makes me think that it must also be Roman. Why would it be there? Well, we know that by the third century, the Western coast of Britain was suffering from increasingly aggressive raiding from Ireland. Indeed, the Irish began to colonize south-west and north-west Wales. A tower built where the manor house later was would have an excellent view of the sea and that little harbor. It’s the perfect place to have a lookout; if anything was sited, riders could have been sent to warn the town long before raiders made their way up the valley. Would the town have been a target? Of course! It was wealthy and, to the Irish, a source of worked iron and steel would surely have been irresistible. The site of the old vicarage would have been the perfect place to have observe the progress of any raiders, and to launch a mounted attack at the moment of choice. But why the uncommon saint’s name? Why was the site named ‘The Cross’ before it became a vicarage?
A story takes shape in my mind, of my town in the dying days of Roman Britain. We know that there’s no evidence of occupation after the fourth century; the site wasn’t settled again until the Normans arrived. We know that the Irish took the whole area by storm during ‘The Great Conspiracy’: in the latter part of the fourth century, Roman Britain was assaulted from three directions simultaneously as the Irish, the Picts, and the Saxons united to attack this island prize. The Romans were driven back to what is now the south-east of England. With reinforcements from the continent, they eventually reasserted their control over the whole of the province – but what would they have found as they fought their way back into the occupied areas?
I can imagine a dawn when the citizens of my town woke to an ordinary morning. Their town was still prosperous. Life had been undisturbed under Roman rule for centuries. Grandfathers complained that things weren’t as good as during the days of their youth – the currency was increasingly debased, there were more and more new taxes, free men were being forced into serfdom, the Irish raiders seem bolder each year further down the coast while the soldiers were fewer and fewer (especially as more and more generals declared themselves to be the Emperor and marched their armies away to inglorious defeat). But old men always grumble.
Perhaps the first warning they had were the war cries of the raiders who had slipped up the valley from the estuary during the night. Perhaps a rider came galloping down from the lookout tower, who knows? There may have been a small cavalry unit there, who fought until they were overwhelmed or, more likely, most of them had already been called away to deal with trouble elsewhere. Whatever happened, the town couldn’t be saved.
By the end of the day, the town was in flames. Many of the men were dead. Women and children had been carted away to the boats to become slaves, along with valuables, stocks of metal, and livestock.
Some of the survivors banded together in an old Iron Age hillfort, which remained occupied and fortified through the Dark Ages. Others would have fled to the lookout tower and cavalry post in search of safety, and settled within and around its walls. Devastated, ruined, they may have chosen to build a church dedicated to Hilarion, the ascetic saint who was attacked by thieves – thieves who left him alone and even repented of their evil ways for attacking a man so much poorer than themselves, a man who had nothing left for them to take. Surely a fitting patron for the remnants of a prosperous community, who have lost everything, while raiders from the sea remain a constant threat. Such a traumatized group may have raised a stone cross in the old observation post above the valley, praying that this holy symbol might deter the Irish where horses, swords and spears had failed….
Those who have been reading for a while will see where I’m going with this. All around us, the signs increase to show that our society and economy are under increasing stress – stress that is becoming unsustainable. Peak resources, environmental degradation, climate change, sovereign debt, corruption, and the elevation of special interests… Like the ancient burghers of my hometown, so many of their modern equivalents become gradually inured to the changes, forgetting that, once, it really was better. One day, though, it might all fall apart. That day could be soon. Based on the information available I would put 2014-15 as the key period, as that is when oil production will really start to drop off – which means that the price of EVERYTHING will rocket. That’s when things will get really ugly.
Plan. Be prepared. Be ready.