One of the many joys of the Hadrian’s Wall Path is its symmetry. You begin by the sea, walk through rich, green countryside up to the empty moors and cliffs of the spine of England, and then back through rich, green countryside to the sea again; and in both the West and the East you walk by rivers snaking to the sea and through cities, Carlisle in the West and Newcastle in the East. Americans, we were told, love the walk because of the ease of walking the 84 miles from sea to shining sea, an almost impossible walk in their own huge country.
But perhaps the greatest joy is to feel the presence of the Romans, who occupied Britain, or, perhaps I should write, who were the British from around 50 AD to 400 AD, equivalent to the time between us and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. The wall was built in 122 AD by Hadrian, an Emperor who found that “Everything enchanted me in that rainy land: the shreds of mist on the hillsides, the lakes consecrated to nymphs wilder than ours, the melancholy grey-eyed inhabitants.”
Hadrian was tired of the ceaseless wars and conquests of his predecessor Trajan and wanted peace and consolidation. Nobody seems to know the exact function of the wall. Was it purely to keep out the Barbarians, the Caledonians? Or was to control the border, manage immigration, and collect taxes? Could it have been simply a display of Roman power or even an occupation for soldiers in the absence of war? Perhaps it was all those things.
The wall is physically more absent than present, but from the word go you search for signs of it. We started in Bowness on Solway, and the first I saw of the wall were stones incorporated into the church. Most of the wall has disappeared into churches, farmhouses, castles, and roads. Why labour to quarry stones or pay for them when a great many of them were available close for free? Did those who used them to build farmhouses and castles know of their Roman origin? I doubt it, but if they did they didn’t care. Reverence for the ancient seems to be a recent phenomenon.
Bowness on Solway looks across the mostly cold and unwelcoming waters of the Solway. Why did the Romans need a walk here? The answer seems to be that the Solway is fordable in several places, and centuries after the Romans, the Border Reivers, of whom we heard much, forded the Solway and stole the bells from Bowness Church. The Reivers were gangs from both sides of the border who raided and stole. The Borders were lawless for centuries.
Our next view of stones from the wall was in the church in Burgh on Sands. You can see Roman writing in some of these stones, but the church’s greater claim to fame was that Edward I lay there dead. This tall king, Edward Longshanks, was, a book told us, England’s leading warrior king, ahead of Henry V. He died on the shores of the Solway, and we loyally trudged out to see the ghastly Victorian memorial to him on the spot where he died. He’s said to have died of dysentery, but we knew he’d been sick for six months so we doctors wondered about colon cancer.
Most of the wall in the West was made of turf, and so little is left. We next encountered the wall in the walls of Landercost Priory. Again the wall was upstaged by Edward I, who spent six months in the priory when sick. For six months England, Wales, and parts of France were governed from Landercost, a delightfully sleepy place, where the huge parish church, created from the old priory, and the ruins of the rest of the priory dominate a village of a few houses with a view of the Pennines rising in the distance.
It was the next day that we encountered the wall as wall, as we began to ascend the spine of England. Slowly green fields were replaced by moors, and soon we were following the wall as it runs over cliffs. This is the quintessence of the wall, as you look over the wall to moors that eventually contain no buildings and not even sheep. This is the closest to emptiness that England can offer, and inevitably you imagine a Roman soldier from Italy staring out into the emptiness, wondering if the Caledonians were about to attack, and wishing he was back in Italy with the sun and a glass of rich red wine. But for us it was glorious, reaching the highest point of the wall at 1135 feet.
The wall had deep ditches, confusingly called valliums, on each side, and they have persisted where the wall has disappeared. We were never quite sure what were valliums, what natural folds in the land, and what ditches dug by others. There are mileposts every Roman mile, and in some places, particularly at each end, large forts. Much of these remain. We also encountered a temple to Mithras, a god who killed the first animal, a bull, and through killing it gave rise to other creatures. Worshippers of Mithras, including Hadrian, would be inducted into the cult by being covered in the blood from a sacrificed bull.
At Housesteads, the best preserved fort, there is a short section where you can walk on not beside the wall. Now we began to walk down, and as it had appeared the wall largely disappeared. Many of the stones were crushed to create the Military Road, essential in the campaign to keep out the Jacobites. We saw the section of the wall where its builders had decided to narrow it to make the whole enterprise more manageable. We saw nothing of the wall as we walked through Newcastle, until the very end of the wall at Wallsend beside the Tyne.
The wall provides an excuse for the long distance path, but some of the wall is there–and what isn’t hums in your imagination.
And who were we? We were led by Captain Sue, an efficient organiser who has the great virtues of seeing the best in everything and never complaining. Peter is fascinated by everybody and engages all whom he meets in conversation. G has a witticism for every occasion, and John dispenses wisdom liberally. And Moll from Nempnett Thrubwell is our nature expert, spotting every bird, plant, and tree.
Next year we contemplate walking the Hebridean Way, an as yet unfinished path from the North of Lewis to Barra.