Festival Raises Glass to Romans

Wine and music played integral roles in ancient Rome; a sleepy Yorkshire village is celebrating its heady links to both.


Archaeologists found a tablet at Hadrian’s Wall which, was in effect, a shopping list with an instruction to ‘bring back wine from Aldborough.’


Dr Rose Ferraby, co-director of Aldborough Roman Town Project and a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, has spent the last decade on archaeological digs in the village.


Dr Rose Ferraby said: “It’s quite fitting that music, wine and archaeology come together at the festival.”


The prestigious music festival features Sir Tony Robinson, Oz Clarke, and world-class musicians in its 2024 line-up.


The quiet, rural village of Aldborough was once the bustling administrative capital of the largest Roman tribe, the Brigantes. As such, wine played an integral part of daily life.


Dr Rose Ferraby’s work, alongside that of Martin Millett, an Emeritus Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, has discovered new evidence in an excavation completed last September. It shows massive evidence of industry, including ironworks.


Dr Rose said: “It’s long been known Aldborough was the civilian capital of this area, but this new evidence proves that what is now a peaceful, rural idyll was once a significant administrative and industrial centre. The Romans were processing lead and supplying the military on Hadrian’s Wall.”


She adds: “As such, it was packed with buildings, people coming and going, farming, and trading, along the river Ure, which was a significant auxiliary route for trade. It was very well connected.”


The busy industry of Aldborough came with a rich social and cultural life, including wine and music.


Wine was preferred to untreated water as there was less chance of becoming ill. The Romans even had a God of wine, Bacchus, who was worshipped and celebrated in various festivals and rituals. Wine production and trade were vital to the Roman economy, with vineyards and wine production facilities found throughout the empire. Overall, wine was deeply intertwined with Roman life and culture.


Rose said: “The Roman town had many public buildings and large houses for the wealthy elite, with fine mosaics visible in the museum today. Because it was a centre of trade, Aldborough would have been home to quality crafts people, creating beautiful things, whose influence would have been felt across the Empire.”


The mosaics show evidence of how the culture of the late Roman world spread across the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.


The location of Yorkshire’s most prestigious classical music festival, which marks its 30th year this summer, is a huge pull. Audiences can experience world-class acts normally the preserve of Europe’s up-scale concert halls in the intimate and beautiful setting of the village’s ancient church, nestled in rolling countryside. 


The festival hosts free guided-walks by Dr Rose, as the village’s rich history offers a fascinating backdrop. Aldborough is famed for its large collection of Roman mosaics.


This history of the region’s ancient links to wine are celebrated by the local vineyard.


Dunesforde Vineyard commissioned a 27-foot mural in 2021 depicting how Roman Aldborough may have looked, featuring the vineyard, a tiger fighting a gladiator, and an amphitheatre.

It also bases its heritage and award-winning wine on its Roman provenance.


Ian Townsend, owner of Dunesforde, who supports the Northern Aldborough Festival, said: “We have a range of sparkling wines called ‘Queen of the North’ named after Queen Cartimandua, the leader of the Brigantes tribe in Northern England from about AD43.”


Ian explained: “She was strong-minded, influential, and formed an alliance with the Romans and steadfastly ruled our region for over twenty years until her downfall in AD69. Aldborough, just down the road from the vineyard, was a major Roman settlement and tablets at Vindolanda evidenced the buying of wine there. Wine was ever-present in daily Roman life.”


Dunesforde Vineyard lies only a few hundred yards from the main Roman road, which connects Aldborough to York and will be providing a wine marquee for the last night of the festival.


Wine expert Oz Clarke, who is narrating The Fairy Queen performed by the acclaimed choir Armonico Consort at the festival this year, said: “The Roman’s love for wine was more than a passion, it was a way of life. Today, we still savour the legacy of their appreciation, as wine continues to be a timeless elixir connecting us to history, music, and culture.”


Dr Rose Ferraby added: “As well as music, and wine, we hope people who come to the festival will also fall in love with archaeology. Time Team was an inspiration to me as a young archaeologist, so it’s a thrill Sir Tony Robinson is this year’s headline speaker. Archaeology helps us understand where we came from, who we are, and helps us work out what we want to protect in the future.”


More excavations are planned in last August and September this year.


Northern Aldborough Festival, 13-22 June: https://aldboroughfestival.co.uk/ 


The Fairy Queen narrated by Oz Clarke with the Armonico Consort is on Friday 21st June, 7.30pm St Andrew’s Church Aldborough https://aldboroughfestival.co.uk/line_up/armonico-consort-present-the-fairy-queen-purcell-directed-by-christopher-monks/