Boudica's Last Battlefield

“Atherstone!” The railway official I had managed to pigeonhole in busy London Euston Station seemed affronted. “Why do you want to go to Atherstone? There’s nothing there.”

I was taken aback, as his was the first direct question anyone had asked me in London. I had begun to think that the English regarded curiosity as rude, and perhaps that is so. I was clearly being rebuked. But being a polite well-brought-up Anglo-American I explained that I was looking for Boudica’s last battlefield that scholars believed might be in a small village near Atherstone called Mancetter, which I spelled for him in case I was pronouncing it wrong.

“Mancetter!” he almost snorted. “Never heard of it.”

Which clearly made it an even more undesirable destination than Atherstone. Nevertheless, he led me to the Midlands Line information booth and snatched up a schedule from another official who did not even know where Atherstone was.

“You see this dotted line?” he said menacingly, pointing to Atherstone on the railway map. “That means that Hardly Any Trains Go There. But if you must go, there is a train leaving at 12:49. Watch the signboard for Crewe.”

Leaving me with the schedule and due warning, he stalked off. I retreated to an upstairs pub called The Britannia where I downed a Bloody Mary while watching Crewe move across the signboard with no platform announced till the very last minute.

 

The hour and a half train ride gave me a brief respite from active anxiety. I looked out the window and watched the countryside swell from barely rolling to round and curvaceous, as if the Midlands, still incredibly green and lush, were more mature and buxom than the eastern counties.

Soon after the train left the solid line for the sketchy dotted bit, I stepped onto the platform in Atherstone, the only passenger to disembark. My hopes that I would find an information booth at the train station were immediately dashed. The station was not only closed, it was boarded up. So I walked down the steps and turned in the direction that seemed like town, keeping a sharp eye out for a tourist information sign. Eventually I saw an office with an open door inviting people to sign up as volunteers and discover the joys of helping others. That would be me—an other.

No, the woman at the desk told me, there was no tourist information in Atherstone, but I could go to the library.

At the library they were very keen to help me—especially to do online research on a library computer for three pounds an hour. They also produced a leaflet about Roman discoveries at Mancetter and a list of local accommodations. But, they cautioned me, there were no museums, no ruins, and certainly no one knew anything about where Boudica’s battlefield might be. Moreover, The Blue Boar, the only hotel with a Mancetter address, was a fifteen or twenty minute walk to the very outskirts of Atherstone! Despite their cautions, I went on a mini-quest to find a pay phone and booked a room at the Blue Boar, address Watling Street, the name of the Roman road that stretched across Britain from the Southern coast where the Claudian invasion began, all the way to the druid stronghold on Mona (Anglesey). 

After checking my email and doing some desultory research that told me nothing new, I set out for Mancetter. Atherstone with its shops and numerous pubs dwindled to dreary housing developments. Finally The Blue Boar beckoned in the distance. Once an old inn, it had been rebuilt in the 1940s and now looked more like an overgrown diner with an expanded parking lot hopeful of tour buses. A barmaid with a very juicy cold greeted me and checked me in, while I explained my purpose (once more) to her and to a man who might have been on his third or fourth pint of stout. He was the first person who was certain he knew where the battlefield was, and he managed to write me directions to a place called Bosworth Field some five miles away.

“And if you want to know about Roman things,” he added, “just go up the road to St Mary’s and find the vicar.”

When I wondered aloud if the vicar would welcome a total stranger knocking at his door, the drunk replied with confidence, “Oh, vicars, they always want to natter on about things like that, don’t they?”

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon (slightly too early to start drinking myself, which I was sorely tempted to do) so I set out for St Mary’s, hoping the vicar might still be in his office. The large, old stone church (don’t ask me to date it) stood next to a pub called The Plough, and these two traditional buildings marked the end of the town and the beginning of the countryside, which in itself I found heartening. The church and adjoining buildings were locked up tight, but I was pleased to find a sign that invited those who wished to see the church to go to the vicarage on Quarry Lane. I got directions from a man clipping grass at the pub and set off to see Adrian, as the man referred to the vicar with obvious affection.

Adrian, an older man about to retire and in the midst of packing up his house, did not seem entirely pleased to see me on his doorstep asking about things Roman. But he invited me in and gave me an edition of the Mancetter News which reported historical events like Boudica’s battle as if they were current. But, he cautioned again, there were no museums, no reconstructed ruins, and of course, nobody knew where the battlefield was. I thanked him and told him that I had visited many museums and read many books, and what I really wanted was to walk in the countryside and get a feel for the place.

“Oh, well,” he said, seeming relieved. “If you want to walk, then go back down Quarry Lane, cross the main road and look for Mill Lane. Part way down you’ll find an historical plaque about the Roman fort that used to be there.”

I followed his directions, found the plaque and discovered that it was not only the site of a fort but that the 14th legion had been stationed there, the famous 14th, nicknamed The Tamers of Britain, one of the two legions that had defeated Boudica’s army. I kept walking down Mill Lane, which crossed a stream (where presumably the Mill had been) and then became a foot path leading across the edge of broad open fields towards the A5. I walked on, encouraged. The scholars in their wisdom and vagueness described the possible location of the battlefield as being near Mancetter somewhere between the A5 and the Hartshill Ridge, so I had found one of the parameters.

At a hedgerow about halfway to the A5, I stopped and had some conversation with a man walking an enormous dog bred to be not a herder but a cattle guardian.  The man was a truck driver by day but his real passion was raptors. He had made houses for owls’ nests along this hedgerow and had a pet owl, a buzzard, and a falcon that he hunted. He didn’t know anything about Boudica but he knew how to walk from village to village by footpaths. He knew all the birds and animals in the area, many as individuals.

“Oh, look,” he said, pointing towards the river, “that’s the young heron born just this year. He doesn’t like to go too far from the river yet.”

When I headed back to the Blue Boar (where the man assured me accurately I could get a good meal—wild boar is on the menu but I had Scottish salmon) I reflected again on how different times seem to coexist side by side in Britain, and if you are wary—or unwary—you can slip out of one time into another just by crossing a field or stepping from the road into a wood.

 

The next morning, an unabashedly beautiful one, I asked the breakfast host about the directions I’d been given to Bosworth Field.

“Oh, no,” he said before he went off to make me the best cooked breakfast I had in my whole time in England. “That’s a battlefield of the War of the Roses. Or Shakespeare said so anyway, but he was probably wrong.”

We agreed that five miles away was also too far to match the description I had. Glad at least not to have to hire a taxi, I resolved to wander more locally. The morning barmaid suggested I walk to Hartshill, the next village, and she drew me a map.

“Don’t turn on Quarry Lane,” she said. “Keep going on the main road and take the next right.”  There followed more detailed description involving a railroad bridge, an S curve, and a road called the Clock Tower leading up a hill from the village. Perhaps there I would find the narrow valley that Tacitus cited as the place of the fatal battle.

I set off blithely into fresh air that was the perfect mixture of warm and cool, under a blue sky dotted with the kind of puffy clouds that echo the shape of hills or make you think of fat contented sheep. When I got to the church, I clearly remembered being told not to turn on Quarry Lane, and yet the map, in contrast, seemed to insist that I turn right there by the church graveyard. I don’t know exactly what decided me, maybe only impatience to be off the main road, but I turned onto Quarry Lane, waving at the vicar who tooled by in his car, looking somewhat alarmed to see me walking in the direction of the vicarage again. Not long after I passed the vicarage, I left all houses behind and found myself on a road that seemed deeper in the countryside than it really was. Traffic noise fell away and sounds of birds, insects, breeze made the silence of the rich, loamy land more distinct. I crossed the railroad bridge and stared into the distance but could not see another crossing. I told myself that I had taken the right road after all, but soon I couldn’t help noticing the complete absence of the other landmarks and of any indication that I was nearing a village. Just as I was wondering if I should turn around, I came to a farm and saw a woman outside tending some piece of equipment.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I think I may be lost. I am looking for the village of Hartshill.”

“No,” she said, straightening up. “You’re not lost. You’ve done right.”

I was struck by her turn of phrase, as if I had inadvertently made a moral decision.

“There’s a footpath to Hartshill,” she hesitated, eyeing me dubiously. “If you’re game to walk.”

I assured her I was. Then I told her about my search for Boudica’s battlefield, repeating Tacitus’s description of a narrow valley backed by a ridge.

“Oh, well, that could be anywhere around here, couldn’t it?” she said warily, turning away and bending to her task again. “But you’re welcome to walk. The footpath begins at our farm. It’s over there.”

I thanked her, and she softened a bit.

“The view at the top is worth the climb, anyway.”

I opened and closed a farm gate and began to walk up a steep hill, one of those round voluptuous breasts of land. Though the day was sunny and becoming warm, the dew was still thick on the grass and the path was more than muddy, a little rivulet of water ran down it. I stepped gingerly wondering if I could manage to walk between the dewdrops and more or less preserve my shoes. For a few moments, negotiating the steep muddy incline took all my concentration. Then near the top I stopped and turned to look at the view.

And there it was:

A narrow valley backed by a ridge and opening onto a broad plain, the very plain I’d walked on today and yesterday when I crossed the fields to the A5. And the ridge must be the Hartshill Ridge. So I was standing exactly where scholars suggested the battlefield might be.

This called for further investigation. Though I was at the highpoint of the footpath, the fenced pasture rose higher. A stray sheep waited to see what I would do. In a foolish hope of keeping my shoes semi-salvageable, I took them off. Barefoot I climbed a six foot barred fence and dropped down to the other side walking to the top of the hill through the very cold dew on the grass. (The sheep sensibly decided to join the rest of the flock in a neighboring field of clover).

From the crest of the hill, I could see and hear a quarry on the ridge (hence the name of the road) but its presence did not change the fact that the Romans would have been well-protected by having the then thickly-wooded ridge at their back. The hills on the other side of the valley were just as steep. From the opening of the valley, the plain stretched out uninterrupted for miles. I could imagine Boudica’s army, foot soldiers and chariots sweeping across it. As for the hill where I stood, it was a perfect vantage point. Suetonius could easily have controlled and directed his troops with the coded trumpet blasts that told them when to turn, fall back, replace one line with another. According to Tacitus, Suetonius chose his position so that Boudica’s far more numerous troops would be funneled into the valley and thus could not overwhelm the Romans with their numbers or surround them. Unlike the Romans, Boudica’s troops had no shelter at their back, no place to retreat. They could easily be pursued across the plain, though they had obstructed that escape route with their own wagons and spectators.

Historians and scholars ancient and modern tend to depict the Romans as having superior military tactics and discipline. The corresponding implication is that the Celts, and Boudica as leader, were hot-headed, undisciplined, and well, perhaps not very bright to have walked into a trap like that. But two things occurred to me there on that ground that I don’t think I have heard anyone else mention. If Mancetter was indeed the site of the last battle, the 14th legion was on familiar turf; their fort was only a mile or two away from the ridge. They knew all the nooks and crannies of a landscape very different from the much flatter countryside that was home to the Iceni. Perhaps even more significant, when you approach from the plain, as I just had, you can see the ridge, but you cannot see the narrow valley until you climb the hill. Coming from the plain, you wouldn’t even know the valley was there until it was too late.

I wandered over the field, trying various vantage points, looking at the valley and the plain again and again, amazed to think that I might actually have found the place where that decisive battle was fought almost 2000 years ago. At last I just stood for a long time, my bare feet on the soft earth, doing my best to be in two times at once—the peaceful, sunny morning with the farm yard below and the sheep in the next pasture fattening themselves on clover, and the day of the battle with all the din and terror, desperation and carnage that I have never experienced in my own life.

I found myself praying for all the people who fought that battle, for the land itself that holds the memory. Finally I asked for a message about the story I hope to write. These are the only words that came.

“Just tell the truth.”

I tried to think what the truth might be and realized I couldn’t yet. I have to keep walking, I have to keep writing, and maybe the truth will tell itself to me.

I climbed back over the fence and continued on the footpath to Hartshill, carrying my damp shoes for a little while. But I had already stepped on some nettles and the odd rock here and there was slowing my progress, so I finally gave up, put them back on and squished on in them for miles along the Hartshill Ridge. Though I kept looking, I found no other valley that opened onto the plain.

Hours later I walked down the steep incline to the farm, the mud joining the dew and sealing up the pores of my shoes. The woman was still outside, and we both walked towards each other.

“It’s here,” I said, and before I could quote Tacitus, she answered quietly.

“I’ve always felt that.”

We talked for quite awhile. She had watched me standing in the field. I confessed to her that I had said a prayer. We talked about all the reasons why it was likely that the battle was here, and she told me that someone from the BBC had come poking around but had never spoken to her or her husband or asked permission to walk on the land—which I guessed explained her initial chilliness.

“I suppose we may never know for certain,” I said at one point. “But I will always think of it as here. Maybe in some sense we all choose our last battlefields.”

I am not sure even now exactly what I meant, but she seemed to understand.

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “We do.”

I asked for her name so that I could acknowledge her help when I write the book. Angela Evans of Quarry Farm, who is raising the fat happy sheep, wished me the best. I wished the same to her and walked back over the plain in my ruined shoes, turning again and again to look back at the valley I could no longer see.