Hiking Hadrian’s Wall: Day Three–The Underwater Temple

After yesterday’s first glimpses of Hadrian’s Wall, I’m anxious to see what’s ahead. I hitch a ride from Barrasford back to the Path from an old woman whose son and his boyfriend are hiking the route in the other direction. Just over the bridge spanning the North Tyne and past the little town of Chollerford is Chesters Roman Fort with its extensive museum. It doesn’t open for another hour and I decide to head out. I have 12 miles to hike and I don’t want to lose an hour of daylight. Funny how our goals limit us.

There’s a severe weather advisory for today and as I make my way over hilly farmland the skies to the north and south are ominously dark, yet overhead patches of pale blue show between the clouds. Every dry step is a bonus.

At the curiously named hamlet of Black Carts I see my first well-preserved section of the wall. Portions of it are waist high and Milecastle 29, so named because it’s on the 29th Roman mile from Segedunum, stands even taller. I’ve been seeing a steady trickle of hikers going both directions, and at the Milecastle I meet none other than famous English guitarist Geoff Easeman, who kindly takes a picture to prove that even though I’m 40 I can make it 29 Roman miles.

One downside to the Hadrian’s Wall Path is that a modern road follows it along its entire length. This started as a military road built in 1754 after the Jacobite rebellion. The English army found the going pretty rough in this part of the country and decided to add a road to their many defenses against the Scots. They didn’t need to worry about Clan McLachlan though. We all got slaughtered at Culloden.

There aren’t many cars, and at times the road strays from the path far enough that I can ignore it, but now I have to cross it and pass through a parking lot to get to my next goal–an ancient temple. The wind has picked up and I have to put extra energy into each step. I hope the rain keeps away until I get good shots of the temple. At the parking lot I come across one of the Path’s more pleasant surprises, a guy with a portable espresso machine in the back of his car. A double shot is overpriced but he knows I don’t give a damn. I take delicious hot sips behind the shelter of a low wall as the wind howls over an almost treeless countryside. The land has become more barren, remote, and besides the espresso guy and a couple of other hikers I’m alone with the horizons.

Now fully jazzed, I head over to the temple. It’s a Mithraeum, sacred to the god Mithras. This deity originated in Persia and became a favorite of Roman soldiers. His cult was hugely popular and a major rival to early Christianity. Mithras, you see, was born on December 25, had Sunday as his holy day and died to save humanity. His worshipers used to gather to share bread and wine and his priests wore a garment similar to that of Catholic bishops. As Christianity became more powerful, Mithraeums became prime targets.

Mithraeums were built underground to resemble a sacred cave. The recent rains have turned the temple into a pool, with just the tops of the walls poking out. The three altars remain above water and carry a strange allure. One has a few offerings of flowers and coins, left by travelers passing this desolate spot. I throw a tuppence on there in the hope that the old god will keep back the storm. Any righteous tirades in the comments section will be ignored due to the fact that it worked. More or less.

%Gallery-71867%As the land gets hillier and human habitation almost disappears, ancient remains stand out more clearly. An artificial hill ringed by a ditch marks a fort from Anglo-Saxon times, and not far off are faint traces of a Roman camp, while burial mounds from long-forgotten chieftains dot distant ridges.

The hills give way to crags now, steep promontories with sheer northern faces of stone. As I go up one crowned by a little cluster of trees the clouds open up in a sudden squall of cold, pelting rain that’s trying it’s best to turn into hail. The wind whips to an angry roar and I realize the clouds that are raining are actually a good half mile to the southwest. The wind is carrying the rain all that way to smack in my face.

Good old Mithras hasn’t let me down, because this happens just a few steps from the copse. I hurry under the cover of trees, pull out my raincoat from my pack, and put it on. By the time I make it the hundred yards to the other side of the trees it’s stopped raining.

I descend the far slope of the crag as the clouds break and their shadows glide over the landscape. A little further on I come to Housesteads, one of the best preserved Roman forts on the route. At a tiny little museum I sit down next to an altar of the Three Hooded Gods and munch on a chocolate bar as kids stare at me. This site is even better preserved than Segedunum. I walk on steps where centurions once trod, and run my hand over the floor of the stable, cleaner now than it was back in the day. The land is rough here, and to the south of the fort I can see terraces cut by prehistoric farmers. They were ancient by the time the legions came here and reused them. I wonder if the Romans thought much about the people who had made them or if they were simply grateful to have a lucky break in a harsh land, like the early farmers in Phoenix who cleaned out old Hohokam canals and reused them to water their fields.

The sky is gray and lowering as I continue on my way, but it’s only a couple more ups and downs over crags before I make it to my stopping point for tonight–a friendly country pub called the Twice Brewed Inn in a tiny village of the same name. Nobody really knows where the name comes from. There are lots of stories related to how the residents preferred stronger beer than the villagers of nearby Once Brewed. Old maps show that the place name existed before the hamlet did, when there was only a Drovers road passing between two hills. Since an old Scottish term for hill was “brew”, that might be the answer.

Whatever the origin, I get twice brewed myself from a couple of pints of local ale and a massive pile of Cumberland sausages. My appetite has been huge on this hike. The pub is a loud, friendly place full of locals and hikers, and the owner is an interesting guy who has made the inn as ecologically friendly as possible. He has his own treatment system for non-solid waste that uses no energy. The waste simply flows into an artificial wetland where the reeds and other plants act as a natural filter.

A gut-stuffing meal later, I head back into the night to get another look at the crags. The skies are vast here, bigger than anything I’ve seen since I moved away from Arizona, and they still glimmer a dim blue at nine o’clock on a late summer night. The fields are a darkening green with the crags a pale brown. There’s no sound except for the rush of a hidden stream and the distant bleating of sheep. Other than the pub I see only two distant lights, one at the base of the crags, and another to the south on a nearby ridge. The southern light winks out. It’s bedtime in farm country. I head to sleep too. Sixteen miles tomorrow.

Next: Day Four–over the crags

You can read the entire series here.