The second day of my hike across England dawns clear, a good omen considering the steady drizzle I endured yesterday. I feel glad to be out of Newcastle. There’s something deeply satisfying about walking out of a city and waking up the next morning breathing fresh air.
In the breakfast room of Houghton North Farm hikers headed either way along the Hadrian’s Wall Path swap information and anecdotes. I feel like I’m back in my early twenties, hopping from hostel to hostel in Europe and the Middle East. The owner doles out advice on the trail conditions and I listen to her every word. I have fifteen and a quarter miles to walk before my next bed.
“Do you know what you do with the shell of a soft-boiled egg after you’re finished?” she suddenly asks the room.
Blank stares all around.
“You smash it up, otherwise witches will sail out to sea in it and sink the ships,” she explains. Then she blushes a little. “Oh, I don’t believe that of course, but I do it just the same.”
That’s a new one on me. Perhaps I should ask her for a charm against rain.
But I don’t need one. As I leave Heddon-on-the-Wall the only clouds are puffy and white, broken by swaths of brilliant blue. The trail runs through farmers’ fields and up and down hills. I’m on the line of the Wall, but it takes some attention to notice. I occasionally see the remains of the ditch that lay to the north of the Wall and the Vallum, a ditch and double rampart, that stood to the south. They look like frozen waves in the harvested fields.
There are other traces too. Hadrian’s Wall had Milecastles, fortified gates really, every Roman mile along its length, and I notice that everywhere my map says there’s one there is now a gate into a farmer’s field. The stonework just below the surface meant no crops could grow on that spot, but it provided a solid base for driving carts. In some places I can see faint outlines of these rectangular structures. I begin to examine the drystone walls and farmhouses I pass, wondering if the more worn, weathered stones were taken from the Wall in some remote century and put to new use.
Up a hill and across a field and I come to the first strip of Hadrian’s Wall still standing above the surface (pictured here). I stop and touch it. I’ve been to hundreds of ancient sites, and dug up a fair number of them when I was still an archaeologist, but I’ve never gotten over the thrill of running my hand across old stone.
It’s easy to forget when looking at some low jumble of rock that it was once the center of some people’s lives. This Wall was a landmark for thousands of people not too different from us. The Roman Empire resembled our own in so many ways. We owe much of our architecture, language, and system of law to the Romans, but we owe them something else too–the idea of a multicultural society. Rome was a civilization whose citizens, generals, and even emperors weren’t just Italian, but Spanish, British, Arab, and African. The Empire was the first truly multicultural state, where race was no barrier and everyone could practice their faith freely. That is, of course, if you didn’t challenge the authority of the emperor like the Druids, Jews, and Christians did.
I pass the remains of Vindobala Roman fort, now just a rocky field good only for the grazing of cattle. A few forlorn stretches of wall poke out of the soil over the next few miles. I pass lush meadow and a reservoir rich with bird life before coming to the peaceful hamlet of Halton. Here stands Halton Castle, a single tower made of reused Roman stone with a later house attached. These sturdy little forts, called pele towers, dot the borderlands and protected locals during the many attacks by the Scots. In fact, this 14th century tower is actually a replacement for an earlier one the Scots destroyed.
It’s now owned by the Blackett family, specifically Sir Hugh Francis Blackett, 12th Baronet and an heir to a direct line of Blacketts who married into the Halton dynasty. In more than 700 years this place has been owned by two families. I’d love to knock on the door and see if the baronet is at home, but I doubt he’d want to speak to a backpacker with a colonial accent and cow shit on his boots. A Baronet may be one step lower than a Baron, but it’s still several steps above me.
So I content myself with the overgrown churchyard next door, where tombstones moulder under gnarled oaks and the great tomb of the Haltons still bears the weather-beaten family crest. It’s peaceful place and I have it to myself except for a young couple making out on a bench (is there nowhere else?) but I’m intrigued by what I’ll find along the Wall and head back out on the trail.
The bucolic mood is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of the A68 cutting across the Path. Running in a straight line across much of eastern England, it’s built atop a Roman road called Dere Street. Many European highways follow Roman roads. How the modern world moves is dictated by engineers who have been dead for millennia.
The highway is soon behind me and I notice that habitation is becoming scarcer. The farms and hamlets are fewer and farther between, and the fields are giving way to uncultivated wildlands, what the lords and kings used to call “wasteland” since it didn’t produce taxable crops. The fragments of Hadrian’s Wall are becoming longer and taller, there having been fewer people in this wild region to have taken away stones for their own use.
On an open, windswept high ground pattered by a light rain I come to the site of the Battle of Heavenfield. In 634 AD, when the land was a patchwork of little kingdoms and the Wall and all other Roman buildings were already crumbling, King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, Wales, invaded the divided kingdom of Northumbria. Facing him was Oswald, King of Bernicia, one half of the divided Northumbria. The Welsh marched up Dere Street and found Oswald’s army waiting for them. Oswald had picked his ground well. The right side of his army was protected by Hadrian’s Wall, now an overgrown ruin but still high enough to stop the Welsh advance, and his left was protected by a sheer crag. The Northumbrians slaughtered the Welsh and Cadwallon was killed. Oswald went on to unite the Northumbria and became one of the most powerful kings of his time. He spread Christianity to areas of Britain that were still pagan and he’s now venerated as a saint. This region is still called Northumbria.
A long, steady slope takes me down to the North Tyne river valley and the town of Chollerford. I’ve walked 15 miles but I’m not done yet. I couldn’t find an open room here and so I’ve booked one at the Barrasford Arms three miles up the road to the north. I’m tired, it’s getting dark, and I really don’t want to walk three miles on a narrow country lane with no shoulder, so I try something I haven’t tried for twenty years–I stick out my thumb.
I’m under no illusions here. I’m a ragged lone male on a lonely country road at twilight. Who’s going to stop? The first guy speeds past with a look of contempt. The next two cars are driven by lone women, no hope there, followed by a woman with a pack of kids. A young couple come next, speeding up as they pass and avoiding eye contact. I’m just beginning to resign myself to a dark and somewhat hazardous slog to my hotel when another car slows to a stop. A middle-aged couple tell me to hop in.
After only six cars I’m getting a ride! I’m going to have change my view of humanity completely. They’re a Welsh couple on holiday, and being a good guest I
don’t mention their ignominious defeat at the hands of Saint Oswald.
“So you’re a historian?” they say after we introduce ourselves. “The last person we picked up was a history teacher from Taiwan.” Not only do they pick up hitchhikers, but they make a habit of it! In a few minutes I’m in my hotel with a pint in my hand and dinner in the oven. Thank God Oswald didn’t kill all the Welsh.
Tomorrow: Day Three–The Underwater Temple
Read the entire series here.
All photos by Sean McLachlan unless otherwise noted.