One more Royal story
The Prince, his Countess and a Roman centurion named Donald
So it’s over. We mourned the Queen’s passing and for 10 days endured all those stories from those who had met Her Majesty and found her to be the wonderful, devoted person she definitely was. For a spotty teenager too long ago to confess, touching distance when she visited my school is the best I can do, but she was listening to the headmaster and didn’t notice my buttoned up suit jacket, spit-and-polish shoes and immaculately shorn back-and-sides.
Other encounters with the Royal Family were private functions and my lips are sealed. But there’s one Royal occasion I’ll never forget.
Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, is the King’s youngest sibling and 13th in line to the throne. Earlier this year, he visited the Crown Dependency where I live, Alderney, with his delightful wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
His mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, graced this island with five Royal visits, her first in 1949 when she was Princess Elizabeth, aged 23. Pomp and ceremony, cheering crowds, royal salutes, that sort of thing.
But this one, at a time when we all expected The Queen to become a centenarian, was pleasantly relaxed and set the scene for this year’s warm and celebratory Platinum Jubilee.
First stop on the 2022 Royal tour was the cobbled Victoria Street in St Anne where they were welcomed by islanders before visiting the Alderney Wildlife Trust, proud protector of gannet and puffin colonies and the world-famous blonde hedgehog. Then on to the ubiquitous reception and gong presentations.
The couple finished their Alderney trip by visiting the Roman Fort heritage site at Longis (known as The Nunnery) where they were met at the Fort’s gates by our resident Roman centurion, Donald Hughes, whose choice of various salutes and greetings was a matter of great hilarity. Assisted by tourism officer Caroline Gauvain, he then proudly showed the Royal Couple the ancient Roman Tower foundations we unearthed last year.
Inside the fort, Prince Edward and the charming Sophie Wessex, who had revelled in meeting local residents and businesses, including their regally adorned pets, cut the first turf for this year’s dig. Evidently inspired by such excitement, the Countess borrowed Dr Isabel’s trowel and, with no thought for soil on her immaculate clothes, sank to her knees to dig furiously for several minutes. Every uncovered stone was examined and discussed as if it held the secrets of layer upon layer of rich history, which of course it did. But unfortunately, not Roman, not even Tudor, although States of Alderney President William Tate was heard to exclaim ‘it’s a find!’. She loved every second.
Stationed in the perfect place to capture the moment (I was wearing two hats, one as media consultant to the States, the other as a member of the dig team always on the lookout for historical fiction ideas), I snapped away over the shoulder of our local TV cameraman/reporter, the multi-talented David Earl (pilot, politician and Alderney’s senior newsman).
A couple of weeks later, Dr Isabel and fellow digger Nich Hogben carried on where the Countess had left off and dug so deep you’d have thought they would have found Tudor treasure, holy Christian relics or at least a Roman spearhead. But no. Please don’t tell her, but the Countess was digging in the wrong place.
She might want to consider a return to Alderney in May next year when we could find all of those things. You see, just after that Royal visit, a team from Reading University brought a ground-penetrating radar to search the area adjacent to the fort where we know there was an iron age settlement over which the Romans built what we hope will turn out to be a significant community.
We know we’ll find an early cemetery, 1st and 2nd Century, indicated by the skeletons uncovered complete with bronze torcs, ankle and arm bracelets now on display in local museums. And ancient history dating as far back as the fifth century BC. The ground survey has probably shown where Iron Age and Roman era people lived and worked – and buried their dead. Theories will turn into discoveries when an enlarged team of experts visits in 2023.
Finally, that Fort. It’s 4th Century Roman, one of the best-preserved in Europe save for the section that tumbled onto the beach below, who knows when? This is where I begin my daily walkies with the ‘polar bears’ Kiki and Lucca, brushing my fingers across the ancient Roman mortar still holding together carefully laid stones even after 1,700 years and constant pounding by winter storms. They’ve even survived the illicit but understandable mooring rings drilled into them by local fishermen.
Here, I often find my friend Nich, bucket in hand collecting Roman tiles uncovered by receding tides. The local museum is populated with his finds along with the most astonishing discoveries from Dig Alderney’s excavations at the fort and on the adjacent Longis Common.
Dr Jason Monaghan, Dr Phil de Jersey and Dr Isabel are the Dig Alderney chieftains who, in 2021, found the foundations of the 4thC Roman tower, probably similar to the ancient look-out towers on the UK’s east coast. I promise you that somehow I will weave this fort into a forthcoming novel!
I’m working on it. Following the publication of my seventh novel Sea of Flames this summer, I’ve been researching the ancient Veneti and Osismi tribes of ancient Gaul as these would have known Alderney well from their trades between Gaul and Britannia – the Romans knew it as Riduna.
I so want to bring a Cernunnos character into it, not as the ancient Celtic god (The Horned One, Lord of Wild Things), but as a wild man in the spirit of a Jack Reacher of ancient times who knows right from wrong, but that might be stretching it.
I’d appreciate your ideas. Answers on a post card – or rather in the comments section. Your reward will be great in the resulting acknowledgements!
More about my writing and my books here.
Al, this was gripping, and we're all fans of Sophie Wessex. Will you please ensure that the blonde hedgehog has his highlights regularly attended to, I'm having mine done tomorrow, can't wait.
Tell me, do you guys decamp to history imbued locations proactively or do you discover it all once you have moved there? Keep that quill going xx
Alistair, I have to say I'm mesmerised by your amazing Roman fort. I thought Caer Gybi on Anglesey was pretty bloody impressive, but Riduna runs rings round it.
Cerunnos...well, I love Jack Reacher, love Roman mystery, and clearly will love Alderney when I visit you. Some day.
Go for it, pleez! The Western/Roman mashup will be a new and exciting sub-genre, I have no doubt. Jacquie xxx