Hiking Hadrian’s Wall: Day Four–over the crags

I set out from Twice Brewed having hiked halfway across England without discovering any problems in what is now officially my middle-aged body. In fact, I feel pretty damn good.

The central portion of the Hadrian’s Wall Path is dominated by a series of crags. The Wall goes right up and over them. It would have been easier to build around, but the Romans wanted to take advantage of the natural defenses and commanding views the crags provided.

And the views are impressive. I can see for miles across an open land of rolling green. Herds of grazing sheep and cows appears as a dusting of white dots, and every now and then the sun will glint off loughs, the local spelling for “lochs”. When the weather is clear, as it is for a few hours today, I can see all the way to Scotland. On the rare instances when I meet people I can hear the difference in the local dialect. Border areas have always fascinated me because of their mixture of people and cultures. All along this hike I’ve been hearing a variety of dialects from northern English to Highland Scottish and a few regionalisms I can’t identify. Sadly, the cuisine hasn’t turned Scottish up here. I have yet to be offered haggis or a deep-fried Mars bar.

The hike today is a series of ascents and descents with the Wall as my constant companion. I see few hikers and fewer farms. The hamlets I spot from the summits of the crags look tiny in this vast, open landscape. It must have been a lonely existence for soldiers up here. Some compensated by bringing their families with them. The fort of Vindolanda near Twice Brewed had a large civilian community around it. The damp soil has preserved a whole series of wooden slats with writing on them, called the Vindolanda Tablets. These were letters by soldiers and civilians and offer a rare glimpse into a life not all that different from our own:

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.”

Other letters were about military affairs:

“… the Britons are unprotected by armor. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.”

If you’re in London, go to the Roman section of the British Museum and you can see the letters for yourself, along with translations. It’s one of the most evocative displays in one of the world’s great museums.

The Romans left their mark on the countryside in many ways–not just the Wall, but in the stones reused for later farms and churches, the milestones used as gateposts, and the altar stones and troughs that can still be found amidst the herds of grazing sheep. Later epochs are visible too, as I soon discover when I leave the last of the crags behind and descend into the lowlands.

%Gallery-71936%As I come to an open valley, I realize this would have been a prime place to invade. I bet the Wall was stronger here, but it’s hard to tell because many of its stones were hauled away in the 14th century to build Thirlwall Castle. Set atop an artificial hill with thick, sheer walls, it must have been impregnable to the many bands of Border Reivers who terrorized this region from the 13th to 17th century. These bands of cattle rustlers came from both sides of the border and knew no loyalty other than to their own kin. Local lords would build castles to protect their communities. Poorer people made simple pele towers, single towers that were proof enough against the reivers, who usually lacked siege equipment or artillery. Despite the many forts the reivers were the terror of the borderlands, sweeping down on isolated farms at night to take cattle and anything else they could get. This was rough country and it was a long time after the Romans left before any real order was reinstated.

Most of Thrilwall Castle’s walls stand to their full height, although a big part of the eastern side has disappeared, exposing a winding staircase leading nowhere. I walk inside, seeing where regular sockets in the stone held beams to support three floors, and windows where people once sat looking out over the same views I’ve been enjoying. It must have been the center of its community, a place where people came not only for protection, but to appeal to the lord for the rule of law and commerce. Now it’s just a shell and I walk through it alone.

Just beyond I come to Milecastle 48, another of the Roman fortified gateways along Hadrian’s Wall. This one still has the lower few steps of a staircase that once led to the top. Archaeologists calculated the angle of the stairs and figured out that they would have met the nearest side at 15 feet above the ground, a simple yet clever way of figuring out how tall the Milecastles once were.

I’m in richer land now, and I pass by prosperous farms and through lush stands of trees. It’s a remarkable transformation from just an hour ago. Part of the reason is the River Irthing, which flows from the northern peat bogs and deposits nutrient-rich soil along its banks. The foundations of a Roman bridge stand in the middle of a field, left high and dry when the river changed its course. I cross over a modern footbridge as the river flows the color of tea below me. The peat bogs have preserved some startling finds from prehistoric times including swords, wooden idols, and even human bodies. I don’t see any bog bodies floating down the river, though, so I continue on my way.

Another major attraction on this portion of the hike is Birdoswald Roman Fort with its Roman Army Museum and reconstructed barracks. Suddenly I’m back in civilization again. The spacious parking lot is full of cars and kids in Roman costumes run squealing through the museum. The fort and museum are well presented and worth a look, but I feel glad to get back to the quiet trail where I see only the occasional hiker or some farmer standing in a distant field.

I don’t have much more time to enjoy it, though, as the sun slants to the west and I climb a long, hard hill on my sixteenth mile of the day to stop at the Centurion Inn. As the country darkens into night I sit by an open fire and drain my well-earned daily ration of two pints of fine British ale. Good and good for you.

Read the entire series here.

Tomorrow: Day Five: through the lowlands.