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.

Hiking Hadrian’s Wall–Day Two, the first glimpses of the wall

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.

Hiking Hadrian’s Wall–Day One

The Hadrian’s Wall Path starts with a bang.

It doesn’t look promising. This 84 mile National Trail begins at the appropriately named Wallsend neighborhood of Newcastle Upon Tyne, an industrial city in northern England. Not my ideal way to start a six-day hike, but right at the Wall’s eastern end is Segedunum, one of the most completely excavated Roman forts in the world. Virtually all of it has been uncovered except for a strip buried by a nearby road. An observation tower offers a fantastic view of the foundations of every building.

Going up six floors in the tower’s elevator, I step out into a broad viewing room with floor-to-ceiling windows. To the south flows the River Tyne, an important trade route even in Roman times. Wharves and shipyards line each bank, massive cranes towering over them. To the north, homes and shops stand in orderly rows stretching as far as I can see. At my feet the fort spreads out like a diagram from one of my archaeology books. The headquarters dominates the center. Next to it is the commanding officer’s villa. Even though nothing is left but the foundations it still emanates an air of luxury. The common soldiers had to settle for the long, narrow barracks that run the width of the fort.

Just beyond Segedunum I can see the beginning of the Hadrian’s Wall Path (pictured here) cutting through a screen of trees and disappearing amidst the crowd of buildings. Further to the west all I see is city. My first goal is a village 15 miles away, just beyond Newcastle’s western edge. I have a lot of walking to do before I get to the countryside.

But first I want to explore the fort.

The museum is filled with artifacts found at the site and around Newcastle. There are reconstructions of Roman rooms, diagrams of Hadrian’s Wall, and statues of the man himself. But the most interesting part is next door where there’s a faithful reproduction of a Roman bath, minus the water, slaves, and occasionally randy bathers. Roman forts usually had baths, as it was considered essential for good health and a symbol of Roman civilization. Even poor people went to baths, with the wealthy sponsoring free days for those too destitute to fork over a few copper coins.

After browsing the displays I wander around the fort itself. There’s nothing left but the outlines of buildings, and my ears are filled with the rush of nearby traffic and the horn from a passing boat, yet I find this place strangely evocative of the past. Its completeness despite its position in the middle of a bustling city makes it seem almost defiant, a 2,000 year-old reminder of Newcastle’s origins. But this is just a taste of what’s out there beyond the office towers. It’s time to get walking.


I won’t lie to you, this first stretch of the Path is underwhelming. I’ve never been one for city hiking, and it’s a long, hard slog over pavement. The path mainly runs by the river, so at least I get to watch the boats and get a few glimpses of the past–a Norman keep, some ornate Victorian buildings, and a series of magnificent bridges–but I’m in a hurry to get into the country. There’s nothing more beautiful than the English countryside in good weather, so it’s probably just as well that there’s been a steady drizzle ever since I left Segedunum. I’ll save the good weather for later.

I leave the city center behind and continue along the Tyne through the outskirts. At times the path leaves the river and passes by office parks and abandoned factories. In the distance I can see hills that haven’t been completely absorbed by the city. Housing developments stick like scabs to their otherwise green slopes. People are fewer here–the occasional jogger, a couple of cyclists with packs who are probably doing Hadrian’s Wall too, and a guy in a business suit who parks near the river, gets out, looks down at the water for a couple of seconds with a grim expression, glances at me, then gets back in his car and drives off.

I have one last bit of purgatory before the wilderness–an industrial estate with rows of buildings like concrete boxes. Past these sprawls a vast junkyard of thousands of rusted cars surrounded by a chain-link fence and enough barbed wire to supply the Western Front. Giant signs tell me NO PARKING. NO DUMPING. NO PHOTOGRAPHS. WARNING: GUARD DOGS. I don’t know who these signs are for because I see nobody. Many of the cars are wrecked, and one near the fence, which looks like a giant hand has given it a karate chop, has a message scrawled in yellow paint. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DRINK AND DRIVE. I imagine a group of laughing teenagers coming back from some Newcastle club on a Saturday night. A sudden turn, a truck coming the other way, the kid at the wheel swerves but it’s too late and they go under. I need to get to those hills.

Finally I’m through to a nice stretch of greenery along the placid river. It’s still raining but my spirits lift. The steeple of a village church rising through the trees on the opposite bank provides a welcome change from decrepit docks. Past that I see an old earthwork from the Battle of Newburn Ford, when in 1640 invading Scots met an English army here. The earthworks were English forts, placed there to stop the Scots from crossing the river. They didn’t work. It didn’t help that the English were outnumbered nearly four to one. Newcastle fell to the Scots and the massive amount of spending to get rid of them was one of the contributing causes of the English Civil War.

This has always been a border region. The Romans built the Wall to keep out the Picts and other tribes. The Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and later English kings had trouble with the Scots too. I pass through the battlefield and on through some farmers’ fields. It’s getting dark but it has finally stopped raining and I’m almost to my goal.

I continue on through a golf course and up a steep hill. At the summit is Heddon-on-the-Wall and my first stop, the Houghton North Farm. It’s a farm-turned-hostel at the edge of the village that serves walkers doing the Hadrian’s Wall Path. After settling in I head on over to the local pub for a huge meal of roast beef and a couple of pints of ale. One of the best parts about hiking in England is there’s always a pub waiting for you at the end of the day.

I feel pretty good. I’ve done the first and worst stretch of the hike and am 15 miles closer to my goal of crossing England. Most importantly, the city is behind me. From now on it’s open countryside all the way to the other coast. The good stuff is all ahead of me.

Tomorrow: Day Two, from Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford.

Read the entire series here.

All photos by Sean McLachlan unless otherwise noted.

National Trails Day: Get moving

Yesterday was National Trails Day. Sorry not to give the heads up sooner, but I found this out while I was hiking on a trail and without WiFi access. If you can swing a hike today on a national trail, I’d take one. If not today, than soon.

Make a plan for next weekend if you must. It doesn’t have to be major hike, but give yourself enough time for your arms and legs to move in a rhythm with each other where you have time to find your stride. If there are trees around, a bit of nature, wildflowers, a bubbling brook–great.

On such a hike, keep an eye out for things you don’t normally notice. A spider web that’s stretched between two twigs, a large leaf clump high over head that marks a squirrel’s home, a bird’s nest, a butterfly that’s dipping down for a drink in a stream, the way water shimmers in the sun when it’s illuminated on a rock face. These are some of the reasons for taking a hike in Ohio where this picture was taken.

In New Mexico, it’s the smell of juniper berries and pinion trees and the steady progress as you make your way up the Sandia Mountains or the Jemez–or any other steep mountains in the state. There are switchback after switchback. Notice how the earth turns brilliant orange or deep red depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun.

However, even if you live in an urban area, make up your own trail in the spirit of National Trails Day. Head out on the streets on your own volition–much further than your parked car or the closest subway or bus stop or metro. See where you live from a more intimate angle. Say, “Hi,” to folks as you pass. See what’s going on and which people’s yards make you smile with their riot of flowers if you live in suburbs, or in a neighborhood like I do–not downtown, but not suburban either. If you live in true city terrain, see which people have planted flower boxes and have hung them on the windows of their brownstones. Notice the way your feet move along a sidewalk and the strength of your gait.

No matter where you live, a hike does good, which is one reason to celebrate National Trail Day one day late-plus it gives the exclamation “Why don’t you take a hike?” a positive spin.

When I was on my hike at Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills area of Ohio, thanks to the state park naturalist I was with, I saw treasures like spider webs that look like jewels clinging to the gorge’s walls and columbine, the tiny flowers that serve as a hummingbird’s drinking fountain. The flower he showed me had been used by a bee that had opened the petals further.

To help plan ahead, National Trails Day is always the first Saturday of June. Find a 2009 calendar and mark it.