I’m reading the 1984 edition of A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies, something I picked up at a bookfair and have had in my bedside pile for a while. Now I’ve broached it, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading about his end-to-end walk beside Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, all 117km of it, in 1974. The coast-to-coast Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail opened in 2003.
Mostly the book is history, archaeology and people – all very interesting topics in their own right – but this passage particularly caught my eye. The 16th century spelling that Davies quotes has been changed to make it easier to read, and note also that a “Surgeon” was someone we would consider to be a general practitioner doctor.
I did look hard for chives and other signs of herbs amongst the crevices of the Wall. In the 16th century [English historian William] Camden wrote that it was the practice for Scottish surgeons to come down once a year to replenish their supplies from the Wall crevices. “The Roman soldiers of the marches did plant here everywhere in old times for their use certain medicinal herbs to cure wounds; whence it is that some … practitioner of the Surgery in Scotland flock hither every year in the beginning of summer to gather such simples and wound herbs; the virtue whereof they highly commend as found by long experience, and to be of singular efficacy.” To which Mr Davies adds, “The Romans did introduce many herbs and spices to Britain but I could see no sign of them”.
Despite Mr Davies not being able to find any herbs, this 2017 article about re-creating a rare grassland in the area of the Wall indicates that “wild thyme” is a known plant from Hadrian’s Wall. The excellent Vindolanda website has a section on food and drink and notes that many Mediterranean herbs were brought to Britain, which had a native mint and wild chives, by the Romans, including dill, fennel, marjoram, sage, rosemary, rue, thyme and the spearmint type of mint, and quotes this recipe for a type of pesto from the Roman writer Columella.
Put into a mortar savoury, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, chives, rocket leaves, green thyme or catmint, pennyroyal and salted cheese. Pound together and mix a little peppered vinegar with them. When you have put the mixture into a small earthenware vessel pour a little oil on top of it.
With military forts an integral part of the Wall and its management, it’s likely that medicos attached to the larger forts would have had a garden for the herbs they used as medicine. The Arbeia Roman Fort website contains a list of herbs and how they were used (Activity 1), including sleeping on thyme to cure melancholy or home-sickness for soldiers, and rosemary as an antiseptic.
If you’ve read this far you may be interested in an earlier post about the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, a meticulous re-creation of a Roman home and garden.