Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Hadrian's Wall Path - A Brief History of Time

It was in mid-2007, during one of our sadly infrequent periods of working together that my, now, hillwalking chum observed me poring over a map of the Hadrian’s Wall Long Distance Path. It had been years, in fact decades, since he had last trodden boggy, rocky ground to a summit to gaze wistfully at the earth a thousand metres below and the sight of the map ignited in him a lost passion. Life conspired against us and it was not until early 2009 that we set aside the October of last year to spend 5 days hiking from Carlisle to Newcastle. We took that route in order to arrive in Newcastle at the end to see friends.

Over many evenings, and many bottles of wine and pints of ale, we discussed, plotted and enthused. We purchased, for him, new kit and it was enthralling to observe him become increasingly bemused by the technical advances in fabrics and materials since he last pitched a canvas tent in a Gore-Tex jacket that cost as much as a Ford Capri and some fluffy dice, and rucksacks were dressed in fabrics robust enough to stop anti-tank rounds. When October finally rolled around, we drove up to Newcastle to leave the car with our friends before taking the rattler from Newcastle to Carlisle. As we sat in the train, rucksacks on the seat next to us, the sun began to dip below the horizon spreading its dusky, rosy hue across the landscape we were soon to experience. Pulling into Carlisle station, we shrugged on our packs and made our way to our pleasantly charming B&B to drop off kit and find something to eat - the next day would be the start of something special and the anticipation pawed at us like a playful puppy. We located a small Italian eaterie, surmising that pasta would be a good start, and sat with some beers to consider what was to come.

We’d decided to camp wild throughout the trip with one Inn overnighter in the middle. A plan to complete the path in 5 days was hatched and kit packed accordingly. I have come a long way in a year so the disparity between the kit I took for Hadrian's Wall in 2009 and for the TMB in 2010 is fascinating to me now. 

We did not want to start in Bowness - the terrain not sit well with what we sought from the path, there being little in the way of Wall to actually observe and examine. Hence our decision to start in Carlisle, a short distance from the start of the ruins of the Wall. The OS map of the area marks the path of the Wall and the great scars in the landscape carved out by the Romans in order to defend that Wall are often visible even before the ruins of the Wall itself.

Hadrian's Wall (Latin:
Vallum Aelium) was begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian (AD117-138) after he visited Britain, and almost complete within 6 years. Keen to impose order across the Roman Empire, the Wall would be a symbol of Hadrian's, and Rome’s, power. It was in fact the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall in what is now Scotland. Opinions conflict, but the consensus is that the Wall was built to defend the northern frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain. It also sought to improve economic stability and provide peaceful conditions in the frontier zone and, on any view, was the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its military role, it is thought that many of the gates through the wall would have served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxes. The wall was constructed primarily to prevent ingress by small bands of cattle-raiders as well as controlling immigration from the north, not as a fighting line for a major invasion. 

The Romans, regimented and exacting, intended to build a ditch for the wall with 80 milecastle forts, every Roman mile, which would hold perhaps 20 or 30 troops each with evenly spaced turrets for observation and early-warning or signaling. The undulating landscape meant that they are not in fact exactly in accordance with Roman miles but sometimes several hundred yards off. Milecastles themselves measured something in the order of 46 square feet (just over 4 square metres). In this harsh terrain, winter conditions must've been savage and uncompromising, soldiers huddled around a fire, grateful for its warmth as the wind and snow raged outside. Resupply could have been perilous in bad weather, the forts sometimes miles away over gruelling terrain.

There are a number of full-sized forts, the ruins of which can be seen today - particularly at Chesters, Housesteads and Birdoswald. These would have stationed between 500 and 1000 troops. The Wall had auxiliary troops only - no legions were posted to the Wall. 

The Wall’s defensive properties were a
glacis (an artificial slope designed to impede the advance of invaders so they could be kept under fire), a deep ditch filled with entanglements, the Wall itself and the Vallum. The Vallum comprised a ditch, 6m wide and 3m deep, with a flat bottom, flanked by two mounds about 6m wide and 2m high, set back 9m from the ditch edges. It can still be seen today.

The path, in Carlisle, was an uninspiring and somewhat anticlimactic dawn, but there is little prospect of completing an LDP like this without passing through passionless urban sprawl and, perhaps, it is part of the necessary preamble. A journey is not much of a journey if every part is inspirational. Highs cannot be appreciated without the inevitable yin and yang juxtaposition of the lows. Yet, it is not long before the rolling Cumbrian countryside begins and urban misery drifts into obscurity. That first day was compelling for many reasons - it was the inception of our first walk together, and a long one at that, the first LDP I had ever done, the first time my hiking partner would be wild camping outside of official pursuits, and the start of what promised to be a thought-provoking 5 days. It rained, of course, that much was inevitable, and the fields we walked through were frequently muddied and boggy, but when we finally pitched, the inclement stop-start precipitation ceased long enough for us to crawl into our shelters and get warm and dry. In fact, within moments of pitching, the sun had peaked through the clouds and, while we brewed some tea, we considered the day. Our packs had felt heavy, especially my companion's whose UL tendencies had yet to progress beyond fetal, and our legs tired. Yet, we were thrilled to be in our tents, day one behind us, anticipating a cosy evening. We had camped within spitting distance of a pub, as if that were a surprise, and after an indulgent little snooze (largely because the pub didn’t open until 5pm) we strolled down to the Centurion Inn in Walton for a hearty meal and a beer or two. I can commend the practice, on a long-distance path, of locating a hostelry of some description on at least some of the nights - there is little better than soothing aching limbs next to a warm fire and friendly welcome within the walls of a small, country inn after a day in the hills.

Day two, we found The Wall. Whilst the route of the Wall, followed slavishly by the path itself, is clear, re-distribution over the centuries of the rocks from which the wall was constructed means some farming walls and fencelines may actually be made from the Wall so it's not until much later that the true ruins are to be found. Those ruins demonstrate the architectural and military marvel that marked the Northern reaches of the Roman Empire. Day two consequently felt more like a history lesson than a hike, discovering and following the Wall all the way to Birdoswald, the ruined remains of a fort near to our next stop, Gilsland. 

On an LDP, it seems to me, it is impossible not to stumble across places that would feature towards the bottom of any list of attractive destinations. Indeed, you may wander unwittingly into places that would never make any list of ports of call except in time of severe car trouble or sat-nav malfunction. Gilsland falls, indelibly, into that latter category. Local ale decorated with a floating chunks of mashed potato, boarded-up taverns, few places to eat anything other than re-heated pies and a hotel which we thought might be suitably named the Overlook and could well have a winter caretaker called Jack Torrance all combined to bestow a 'memorable' overnight stay.

Day Three, conversely, will forever occupy a fond place in my memory. As we entered the Northumberland National Park, the landscape grew wilder and more undulating and the true extent of strength of the Roman psyche was exposed. To have built, been stationed in and fought in this environment, in all seasons, is staggering. As I’ve said, the Wall is punctuated periodically by turrets the ruins of which enable an understanding of the way the Wall marked the Limes of the Empire. Along great crags, deep scars in the Earth, we hiked, climbing once up to the summit of Windshields Crag and sitting, with our lunch, enjoying the respite from the howling, boisterous wind which at times threatened to lift us from the ground and send us hurtling over the edge. Whilst the ascent may ostensibly seem modest, this is a demanding walk as the path ascends and descends with merciless regularity. It was towards the end if the day that the rain came - not a shower this, but great drenching torrents of precipitation that made us grateful of our Montane Venture pants and respective waterproof shells. Grateful too, that we were on the final push towards our chosen spot to pitch which would allow us a short jaunt off the hill and the path, down to another Inn, the Twice Brewed on the Military Road. It was warm inside and pleasantly busy with locals and hikers alike. We ate and drank heartily that night, drying our kit on a radiator next to our table whilst listening to the inane rantings of one hiker who waxed lyrical on the relative merits of pasta from Pizza Hut, perhaps in the vain hope that the barmaids would find his musings attractive. Salvadore Dali would perhaps have found him a suitable subject for artwork. The rain had abated by the time we left and we slept well, despite our surreal companion sleeping only metres away, failing as he did to win the affections of the comely bar wenches. We awoke to more of his ramblings as he strolled over to offer us peanuts which, he assured us, would be good for cramp. We politely declined his very gracious offer and he disappeared into the ether of obscurity forever.

Day Four began with the sun high in the sky and a pleasing chill in the air. I far prefer walking in cool weather, even in a bit of wind, than warm weather and as we continued along the path the true majesty of the Wall opened up again before us. From the highest point on the path, it was possible to see the wall ahead of us for miles. It was an awesome spectacle to be able to pick out the line of the wall arcing round to the north atop the billowing rise and fall of the hills ahead of us. Each time we passed a turret, we would stop and peruse, poring over whatever display had been placed there to explain what we were seeing. Before long, we came to Housesteads and climbed the hill above it to try and get a look at the way the fort was laid out. We weren't going to pay to go in, but for a moment, we were able to appreciate the scale of the fort. The wind had abated and we simply stood and gazed, allowing our imaginations to wander as serfs scurried around with chickens under their arms for the evening's meals and bales of hay for the horses, centurions demanded taxes from farmers heading south into the Empire and merchants plied their wares to weary soldiers seeking the solace of the fort's barracks.

It was with tired feet and aching limbs that we reveled in our arrival at the Crown Inn in Humshaugh some 25km later. After depositing our kit in our rooms, and luxuriating in a scalding hot bath, we headed downstairs to the unfussy yet gratifyingly bustling bar and ate our fill whilst watching some football on the widescreen TV and chatting to the landlord. After a good night's sleep in a large bed each, we started off again, this time to Corbridge and our final stopover. It was, by now, a far more sedate walk - more a stroll in the countryside than a trek through Northumbrian wilderness and our legs had fast become used to the terrain and our backs used to the packs on them. It seems odd to me now, how much more difficult the first day had been in comparison to the last day walking to Corbridge - it was clear that my body would adapt to whatever terrain I was in, it was simply a matter of time. We passed yet more examples of Roman endeavour - this time a religious ruin of a temple at which we stopped for a few moments.

The sun was high in the sky again but from time to time the wind would pick up and ferociously struggle with us, but from a far different enemy to that which it was intended to protect from, the Vallum granted us solace and we stopped to brew and eat lunch within its protective confines. It was not long before we could see Corbridge as we crested yet another diminutive hill - a rather beautiful town astride the Tyne, blessed with yet more fine ruins. 

I can imagine we looked a little scruffy but the patrons of the Angel Inn, a rather fine looking establishment with spicy Fentiman's Ginger Beer aplenty, seemed not to mind as they brought us lashings of fine dining. Even the locals, dressed smartly in loafers and polo shirts, did not eye the two wild men of Borneo who sat, perhaps a little raucously, in the corner. They must be used to crazy hikers there. And so it was, our final night ended as it had begun, with a fine meal in a wonderful place before we made our way to Newcastle and our friends. It had been a great experience - perhaps not the most breathtaking walk, but certainly the nature of the 5 days and their historical attractions, as well as that unquantifiable wonder of the journey itself to be found in any long distance trek, made it rather special.


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