The Romans didn’t mess about with by-passes or planning permission. They wanted to get to a place; they just built a road right there. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone before, or since for that matter, in the UK at least.
That’s why these roads have lasted, forming the basis of our modern road network. Ermine Street was the York to London via Lincoln road, taking in the great muddy span of the Humber via a ferry.
The Scunthorpe to Lincoln section of Ermine Street has been replaced by the A15, a long, flat stretch of yawn-inducing single-carriageway that encourages suicidally-inclined drivers to overtake the ponderous lorries and frequent tractors that plough its length.
It was built just a hundred feet or so next to the original Ermine Street, and that road still remains. It is gated off at the top and serves as an access road for farmers, a great place to teach your children how to ride a bike and a good place to give the dog a run on a sunny Autumn morning.
It is also an excellent, if utterly bizarre, place to pick apples.
Big ruddy apples, shining red and pink, so heavy they bow down the branches. Not just one apple tree either, at least half a dozen, edging the road for a few hundreds yards.
Who would plant apples beside a major road? A major Roman road?
Alright, I’m not daft enough to say these are Roman trees. Apparently neglected apple trees can last about fifty years, one hundred at a push. So chances are these trees are the result of a few discarded cores after a jolly 1930’s picnic. Maybe there was a layby here and folk used to pull in and unstrap the hamper from the back of the Austin 7. If you dig deep enough you will probably find a couple of old tartan blankets and a lot of fossilised tea leaves.
But there are a lot of them. And all in a row. So what if they are the descendants of Roman trees? The Oracle at Delphi (Google) tells me Romans introduced cultivated apple trees throughout their empire. Back in Italy, they feasted on olives, pomegranates and figs – none of which grow in the British climate. So it makes sense to plant big red apples alongside a drear stretch of road where your marching legions can pull in, grab a fresh snack, pass round the wineskin and compare sword lengths. Kinda like a Roman-style cheeky Nandos.
The original trees will have faded and died two millennia ago, but there is nothing stopping new ones growing in their place, over and over. So the apple I picked this morning could chart its lineage right back to Roman Britain, when there was no traffic noise, petrol fumes or tarmac and no neatly cultivated fields; just the same big sky and the same apples.
Don’t tell me its not possible, that the variety I saw has only been around for thirty years, that the government had some sort of apple-planting scheme for farmers after the war.
I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
I want to believe that the roots of ancient Rome are still bearing fruits in a our over-processed, noisy modern world.