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Veni- Vidi – Bicycle?

January 4, 2017

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28th December 2016.

Yes it was that cold. And foggy. Without socks.

Minus 4 degrees on arrival at Venta Icenorum, the market place of the Iceni tribe just south of modern day Norwich, in the village of Caister St Edmund, and home to a thriving Roman township from the 1st to the 5th Century AD.

So what makes a guy like me do this?

Well, let me start – with an email in July ’16 from Mr David Yates of Norfolk County Council. He asks if I am interested in being part of their Winter ‘Walking & Cycling Festival’.   Intrigued,  and looking for work in the ‘quieter season’ of historical events, I am keen to say yes, without really giving the weather conditions/time of year much consideration.

https://www.norfolk.gov.uk/out-and-about-in-norfolk/norfolk-trails/activities-and-events-on-the-norfolk-trails/winter-walking-and-cycling-festival

So, what would the job entail, I ask?  David says we have 2 days for you – could you meet a group of walkers at Venta as if on a morning patrol as a Roman soldier?  And then ride a bicycle around mid-Norfolk, in the guise of an RAF airman from the Second World War, looking at the features of an old RAF Aerodrome at Attlebridge?  Of course, I’d be delighted to…

Both sets of equipment checked in readiness, all I needed was a period bicycle, and my good friend Stuart has one and happily obliged with a loan. Stuart had restored his bike into a WW1 guise; it has only one gear, painted khaki green for Historical Interpretation as 6th [Cyclists] Batallion, Royal Norfolk Regt. [below]

stuart-wilby

Stuart with his bicycle.

On the 14th December 2016 I arrange to meet David and some of his cycling colleagues out at Attlebridge station on the disused railway line now known as Marriotts Way for a recce of the proposed route, checking the surviving features on the map etc. [see below pdf]

worldwar2airfieldscyclelooprafattlebridgeandhockering

I must, at this point, make a confession. I hadn’t ridden a pushbike for 30+ years. It was, as they say, interesting!  We stopped regularly to look at locations and archaeological remains en route, and the whole journey including stops for narration and explanation of features was scheduled for just under 4 hours- a comfortable trip for all ages and abilities. Surprisingly my backside was ok afterwards due to the quality leather Brookes saddle, my knees however were a different matter and much Ibruprofen gel was applied.

On the 20th December- a sunny winters day, I met David at Caistor Roman Town for a similar, warmer recce of the planned 3 mile route around the perimeter of the site, picking up useful additions to the talk/tour, such as the Defixio lead curse tablet found in the River Tas which flows adjacent to the site.

http://www.norfarchtrust.org.uk/caistor

So, onto the events proper.

The scheduled walk around Caistor on 28 December coincided with a deep ground frost, the first serious subzero temperature of winter. De-icing the van, throwing my soft woolen clothes [ tunica, focale & panenula] into the cab for some thawing out as having been stored overnight in the van, I set off for the 40 minute drive to Caistor, ready to change into XX Legionnary Marcus Aurelius Dorsuo in the car park [glamorous, huh?]

Once there, I realised that I didn’t have my pedulia so barefoot in caligae it was! Now this IS cold- no socks! frosty-feet

Meeting the 30 walkers in the car park, they soon discovered that I take this historical interpretation m’larky seriously- they tried to get me to go back and change into my modern boots with socks! What would Nero have said to that? I just couldn’t do it- so 3 miles with frosty feet it was.

For those interested in the equipment, I was wearing a woollen tunica, scarf [focale], leather sandals [caligae], a mail shirt [lorica hamata], legionary helmet [galea],  military belt [cingulum militare], sword with baldric [gladius with balteus], dagger [pugio], with the cloak [panenula ] over it, and finally the shield [scutum] and javelin [pilum] .

All walkers including me made it back safely in about 2 hours. Feet now thawed and all well- no frostbite!

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I was lucky enough on the 2nd January to be assisted by my dear colleague Mark Taylor in the guise of PFC Hank ‘the Yank’ Gently, from the 8th Air Force. Mark is an expert on the ‘8th in the East’ and as our story involved both RAF and USAAF, we made a dynamic team, full of insights and innuendo!

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The weather was slightly different from the Roman walk – the previous day had seen heavy rain all day, and then a frost overnight, so the roads were icy but the sun was out, and fears of rerouting were soon avoided once we set off from Attlebridge station car park and the roads thawed in front of us.

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Leading the cyclists past Attlebridge station 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We freewheeled south, crossing the A1067 and then headed up the long slope into Weston Longville,  past the Parson Woodforde pub [sadly closed for refurbishment this time].

We stopped at scheduled points around the aerodrome, now dominated by 2 huge wind turbines, and home to numerous Bernard Matthews turkey sheds, but the main runways are mostly intact. Originally home to 88 (Hong Kong) Squadron of the RAF flying Blenheims and Bostons, it became Station 120 with the arrival of our American cousins.

Picture:  below dated 1946  shows the extra long east-west runway, extended to 2000 yards long in 1943 to take Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers.

attlebridgeairfield_16apr1946

Our journey took us around the full perimeter of the site- hidden in the woodland to the east are remains of the ammunition stores and bomb dump.

There were 4 squadrons of B-24’s here in the late war, 784, 785, 786 and 787 squadrons forming 466 Heavy Bombardment Group of the USAAF.

b-24-liberator-2

A pair of Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.

Wikipedia page below for anyone interested in more detailed history.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Attlebridge

After surveying the south of the airfield we headed off west to Hockering woods, home of a major, yet secret WW2 bomb store- estimates of 10,000 tons of high explosive and  Incendiary bombs were stored here, with local roads closed and tight security.

https://aviationtrails.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/hockering-wood-bomb-store-norfolk/

Footnote- the route has a couple of gentle hills – slopes really, leading down on both sides to the Wensum Valley where it crosses the main Norwich- Fakenham road. They may not appear much when in a car, but on a single speed bicycle, they make you sit up and take note, especially the last stage of the journey back up hill to Attlebridge station carpark.

Upon our return David and the NCC team had hot refreshments waiting- thanks to them for the experience and opportunity.

 

 

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