Done the Great Wall of China? Try the Great Wall of England. It’s arguably the finest Roman monument north of the Alps.
|Walking Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England|
Constructed between 120 and 128 by the Emperor Hadrian, the wall originally extended 117 km from the west coast to the east coast, completely bisecting Britain. To the south lay the Roman Empire. Over the wall, north, were the unconquered painted people — the druidic tattooed Picts and Scots.
Why Hadrian wanted a wall on such a scale remains unclear. Hadrian’s legions were quite capable of containing Celtic exuberance without it. Perhaps it was to keep his army busy. Or a pharaonic yearning for a memorial on a grand scale.
Whatever Hadrian’s motives, build the wall he did; across crags, three major rivers, and an inimical, haunting desolation of marshes and windswept moors; some of England’s wildest and most beautiful country.
The end result of Hadrian’s labors were 300 years of wall patrols, vast advances in living standards along the wall, and now, a millennium or so later, a UNESCO-certified World Heritage Site. It’s a place where history sits potently close to the present. The scenery in places remains virtually unchanged.
Much of the wall, mind you, is no more. Farm buildings, castles and a military road constructed just after Scottish Bonnie Prince Charlie’s vain,glorious 1745 rebellion have all benefited considerably from Hadrian’s masonry.
Here and there, however, the wall erupts in all its ancient ambition. It snakes across ridges, traverses a river valley or does an ignominious modern service by demarcating someone’s back garden.
At regular intervals archaeologists have unearthed cavalry forts, granaries, trading towns, temples and hospital blocks, as well as an extraordinary array of artifacts ranging from midge-repellent wigs to third-century birthday party invitations.
The best bits of the wall lie in the center between Lanercost on the Irthing (that’s a village incidentally) in the west and Corbridge on the Tyne (a town) to the east. Most lie in the county of Northumberland.
A good background briefing is offered by the Roman Army Museum which overlooks Tipalt Burn (a stream) and the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall (you’ll work out what they are when you get there).
|Houstead’s Fort preserves a look at legionary life.|
Houstead’s Fort a few kilometers further east was unearthed by archaeologists before the quarry men found it. As a result it is the most complete example of a Roman fort anywhere in the world. It also boasts the finest Roman latrines in Britain.
It is the nearby fort and trading center of Vindolanda, though, that is the pick of the Hadrian’s Wall crop.
Vindolanda is close to Once Brewed. This is technically a village, but there’s not much here beyond a pub which shows its separatist inclinations by calling itself the Twice Brewed.
Due to the damp, oxygen-excluding mud that characterizes Northumberland ditches, relics unearthed at Vindolanda have survived with audacious verve. Some of the pots on display look so new you’d ignore them in a supermarket. Nice shapes, you’d think, but no . . . too shiny.
|A bust of Emperor Hadrian is among remains unearthed along the wall.|
“My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent,” wrote Decurion Mascalus to Prefect Flavius Cerialus on a thin piece of wood excavated at Vindolanda.
“A hundred apples, if you can find nice ones,” instructs another letter to the slave of Verecunalus.
A begging letter for cash by a centurion stuck and in need of cow hides, lists of accounts and other unique Roman correspondence are all displayed in an excellent museum tucked into a valley garden beneath Vindolanda.
You read these letters and these people aren’t abstract Romans anymore. These are letters you might have written, if you had lived at that time.
Vast quantities of leather work have been unearthed at Vindolanda including geta-like sandals to prevent bathers scorching their feet in the steam rooms of the excellent Roman baths.
This section of the wall is particularly popular with Italian tourists. They preen and pose as if they’d built the thing themselves.
There are many more wall stops, some rather dull when compared with others, but all of interest to the casual visitor if the sun is shining. If you have archaeological blood in you, you’ll want to see them all.
You can rent a car and work your way along the wall. The rolling English drunkard built the rolling English road, or so the saying goes. But up here the English road builders weren’t invited. Roman roads are straight. More recent roads follow them religiously, here, and elsewhere in Britain.
The B6318 road that flanks the central stretch is very straight, which makes life slightly easier when blindingly thick mist descends (which happens a lot).
Buses collect visitors from major northern cities such as Carlisle and Newcastle and make regular drop-offs at the principle sites.
|Hadrian’s Wall snakes through some of Britain’s bleakest landscapes.|
Walking the wall is an option that might appeal for those with time on their hands and muscles in their legs. Serious wall-walkers could spend weeks at it. Locally available wall-walking guide books recommend additional walks from almost every major walking destination.
And when you walk along the wall, you’ll encounter people who will recommend other walks that lead off into all directions. This could be how the Ninth Legion got lost when it went north. No traces of the Ninth Legion expedition were ever discovered, though their ghosts have been reported — still walking — in York.
When lost among the mists keep close grip on “Hadrian’s Birds,” by John Bird. Excavations into Roman middens have revealed a taste of what it was to be an ornithologist in times past. Mostly well-gnawed goose bones, pampered raptor remains and Asian pheasant relics. The Romans kept pheasants caged but did not release them. Pheasants were only seriously released in England in the 11th century.
Bird has scrupulously recorded avian visitors in times past and present. He urges further excavations to gather more information on wildlife in times past.
He’s right. This part of England is thick with treasures still waiting to be unearthed.