Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Frontier Road — Dies quintus: Vindolanda to Banna

Via the Stanegate and the forts at Aesica and Magnis, being the fourteenth day before the Calends of June, 2763

I wake in a state of nervous excitement. In some respects today’s walk will be the high-point of Hadrian’s Wall; from the pivotal frontier township of Vindolanda, whose corpus of mundane documents revolutionized our view of everyday life in the Roman Empire, to the dizzy heights of Winshields and the best preserved stretch of the Wall at Walltown Crags, this unlikely no-man’s-land has yielded inestimable knowledge of the Roman world. Another unexpected development was the sudden announcement, received by radio telegram yesterday, that I would be joined today by the elusive Miss T. We have arranged to meet this afternoon at the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran.

After a leisurely breakfast, I leave the hostel and head south until I reach the ‘Stanegate’, the Roman road from Corbridge to Carlisle. I turn east along it and shortly arrive at the stump of a Roman milestone, one of only two in Britain surviving in situ. The arrow-straight road, though unfortunately tarred, is a pleasure to walk on in the cool morning sunshine. The ridge surges up to the north like an enormous wave that never breaks, the Wall snaking along its crest. After about a mile I arrive at one of the forts that defended the original, pre-Hadrianic frontier — Vindolanda, or probably ‘Gwyn Llan’ (‘The White Fortress’) in Old Welsh. At the entrance I notice the timetable for the ‘AD 122’ bus by which Miss T. will come later. Walkers’ intuition tells me our paths will cross sooner than I originally anticipated, and so I send her a radio telegram with instructions to get off at the ‘Milecastle Inn’ at Cawfields instead.

Already in the modern reception building this site transports you to the past: a Roman-style courtyard with fountains and statues tempts you to linger, but the knowledge of how much there is to see and contemplate forces me to resist. A small temple to an unknown god lies on the left as you approach the fort. A little further are the remains of the vicus, the best preserved in Britain and more in evidence than the internal buildings of the fort themselves. There are two bath houses: the later and more substantial lies in the midst of the civilian settlement; the earlier lies to the south, but was already demolished in Roman times. One of Vindolanda’s many delights is the road leading through the vicus up to the West Gate, which still has its original flagstones. Beautiful statuary is often replicated so perfectly, as at Brocolitia, that you can’t always tell whether you’re looking at the original or a copy; a dilapidated old road, on the other hand, gives you the irrefutable sensation of following ancient footsteps. Stand on those broken flagstones and the houses of Vindolanda’s civilian settlement and its perimeter wall grow almost palpably around you. An archaeological dig on the internal buildings of the fort is underway as I pass.

Much of the perimeter wall on the eastern side stands tall and thick, well over head height, and features the remains of semicircular civilian houses built against the wall. Further on the path descends to a garden in a dell ornamented with statues and a beautiful reconstruction of a temple. The museum is also here, brimming with artifacts from this important site. Apart from samples of the Vindolanda tablets and an excellent display about their restoration and interpretation, there is also a collection of sandals and other leatherware, miraculously preserved in the anaerobic peat.

Time is pressing by midday and on my way out I see the great man himself who deciphered the tablets, Robin Birley, taking his lunch in the garden, but I’m too much in awe to approach him with the usual ‘I’ve got all your records…’ speech and must be content with paying my respects at a distance.

Leaving the site on the eastern end and crossing the Stanegate I stumble across the second of the milestones, exactly one Roman mile on and much taller than the one I encountered earlier. From here the path climbs through pasture until I meet the modern Military Road again where it intersects the Vallum. The path climbs further to meet the course of the Wall along a pretty wooded escarpment high above Crag Lough. And the end of the lake the Wall reappears and falls steeply to ‘Sycamore Gap’, where the eponymous tree stands picturesquely at the foot of a gap in the structure. The path climbs again and at the top the well preserved Milecastle 39, ‘Castle Nick’ nestles comfortably in a dip, or ‘nick’ in the ridge. The roller coaster continues above Peel Crags, followed by another impossibly steep drop to which the Wall still tenaciously clings after nearly two millennia. At the bottom the Wall peters out again, but the Ditch is strongly in evidence as the long climb towards Windshields crags begins. The sun burns unimpeded on the wilds of Caledonia to the north as I climb past Milecastle 40. When I reach the trig point at over eleven hundred feet, the highest point of the Wall, I am as always awed by the thought of a twenty-foot-high, nine-foot-thick stone wall labouring up and over this wind-blasted peak — another fine spot for contemplation of this furthest reach of an ancient civilization. Or was it? For a short time there was another wall with paved roads and bath houses a hundred miles further north, and though Antoninus’s memorial isn’t as dramatic as Hadrian’s, I set a mental course for another fine walk along it in the future.

From here to the Irish Sea the road is ever downwards, though never easy. The roller-coaster continues and the Wall is in increasingly good condition. Several turrets are visible for the next two miles as it continues to snake over the gradually descending crests and troughs of the ridge, often at impossible gradients. Milecastle 42 is well preserved, with the massive masonry of its gates still visible. Sitting awkwardly on a steep slope, it is often cited as an example of inflexibly bureaucratic Roman thinking: milecastles were to be exactly one Roman mile apart, regardless of how inconvenient the situation or how close a better site.

From here I turn south, passing the outlines of a few temporary Roman camps that possibly accommodated soldiers while building the Wall, on my way to meet Miss T. at the Milecastle Inn. Perfectly synchronized, I see her getting off the bus a few hundred yards short. We meet at the crossroads and celebrate our reunion over cold cervisia at the inn, refreshing ourselves for the long hot march ahead.

We retrace my steps back to Milecastle 42, and after climbing a steep slope the Wall suddenly disappears over a cliff, the result of quarrying. The road continues around the quarry lake and through pastures uphill to Great Chesters. Here a farm straddles the north wall of the fort of Aesica. This site has been little excavated, but in the south-east corner stand the walls of a small shrine featuring an original altar stone, the only one still in situ along the frontier, though the only supplicants these days, apart from ourselves, are a couple of chickens. We stop for a snack in one of the offices by the Western wall of the fort before continuing through a wood and up Cockmount Hill. The Wall is mostly grass-covered rubble here, though Turret 44A stands tall and overgrown perched dramatically on the corner of a cliff. The Wall appears sporadically along these rugged heights, once again disappearing over an eroded cliff, but is nowhere grander than at Walltown Crags where the road winds between it and rocky outcrops, forming a natural walkway. Hutton notes that two Roman altar stones were used for washing dishes outside nearby Walltown Farm and that back in the sixteenth century Camden was afraid to approach this area for fear of bandits. We stop here for a late birthday supper Miss T. has prepared: a tantalizing Roman picnic of nuts and dates, anchovy paste (to approximate garum, the Roman fermented fish condiment), quails’ eggs with a spice dip.

Soon after we get going the Wall disappears again over another cliff and into another lake created by quarrying. At one point the whole of this stretch was in danger of destruction, but was saved just in the nick of time as awareness of the value of ancient monuments was growing. On the other side of the lake is the fort of Magnis (Carvoran in good Welsh), though now only a barely discernable raised platform in the fields behind the Roman Army Museum. Here on display are military artifacts and a fine film of the reconstructed Wall, but it is after seven and already closed when we pass. We continue downhill for half a mile beside the clearly defined Ditch towards the village of Greenhead and the melancholy Poe-esque ruins of Thirlwall Castle, built with instantly recognizable cubic masonry stolen from the Wall.

From here to Gilsland are two miles of pasture, paddocks and people’s back gardens, occasionally flirting with the Vallum and Ditch, but sadly the Wall, nowhere else more magnificent and dramatic on this stretch, has disappeared anticlimactically for today. Likewise, our inn in Gilsland, a mile short of Banna, is pleasant enough, but the fish the landlady is good enough to supply us with so late in the day is disappointingly bland after Miss T.’s lovingly reconstructed portable birthday cena.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Th Frontier Road — Dies quartus: Cilurnum to Vindolanda

Via the temples and forts at Brocolitia and Vercovicium, being the fifteenth day before the Calends of June, 2763

Exhausted from yesterday’s long walk, I sleep well, and at breakfast manage to procure some hot sauce for my eggs — a rare treat. A party of four Midlanders are walking the National Trail like me. They talk about every conceivable thing connected with their walk except the very thing that defines it: the Wall itself. History as a conversation topic is almost as taboo in England as religion and politics.

Landowners determine the fate of ancient monuments more than the solidity of their foundations. Hutton complained in 1801 that his walk along this stretch was ‘miserably soured’ by the recent destruction wrought on the monument by the local landowner, Henry Tulip Esquire, in order ‘to build a farmhouse’. Still, it must be admitted that at least some of the Wall survives here, while nothing remains where it fell victim to General Wade and his road. The State and its army, I suppose, is the biggest landowner of all.

Just north of the village, at Brunton, another stretch of the Wall is to be found, longer and taller than where I left it last night, about half a mile away at Planetrees. Here too is one of the best-preserved turrets, standing up to eleven courses high and with the deep grooves left by the door mechanism still visible at the entrance.

From here the fort of Cilurnum is only a quarter of a mile away on the other side of the river, but the official route takes a big detour to the north. Unaware of the path by the river when I came here in March, I stole across the fields to visit the ruins of the Roman bridge and found two decomposing crows hanging on a particularly vicious barbed wire fence I tore myself to shreds trying to get over. A macabre scarecrow, perhaps, or the landowner’s attempt to put the fear of God into antiquarian trespassers? Whatever the intention of this disturbing message, this time I decide on the extra mile to avoid confrontations with potentially sociopathic gentlemen farmers.

Anyway, half a mile to the modern bridge, and then another half back down the river path brings me to a short stretch of the Wall and the massive V-shaped abutment of the first of the three major river crossings. Also surviving are the deep foundations of the bridge’s easternmost tower. There is supposed to be a carving of a phallus here, a symbolic defense against the ‘evil eye’, but I’m unable to find it. Back in March, the abutment was almost submerged, but though the level has since fallen, there are still waterlogged parts. Poor old Hutton, being ‘obliged to wade’, didn’t get to see it either. Cilurnum’s bath house, one of the best preserved in Britain, rises up immediately on the other side of the river, an impressive sight. Visiting this particular relic feels like a ‘discovery’, being somewhat out of the way and less-than-obviously signposted, and this is just as well, as the frustration of the long detour (with Cilurnum looming tormentingly only a stone’s throw from here) would have been a bad start to the day. It is very spoilt of me, I know, but my Christmas list includes a fully reconstructed and functional Roman bridge across the Tyne, but if pressed I would accept a cheaper suspension bridge like the one at Willowford.

Retracing my steps and passing through the small village of Chollerford, I eventually reach Cilurnum (in English, the oddly generic ‘Chesters’, meaning ‘Roman fort’, as though the progenitor of all chesters) and all is well again. Though low-lying and subtle as usual, the ruins here whisper stories about their ancient inhabitants. Barrack blocks, complete with colonnaded verandas, Commanding Officer’s residence with private bath house and hypocaust (under-floor heating system), regimental strong room and perimeter wall (also showing where Hadrian’s Wall joined the fort) are all crystal clear and irrefutable. But the jewel of Cilurnum is the common bath house by the river. In parts the walls stand over my head, and in the whole province of Britannia the functions of the various treatment rooms are nowhere more obvious than here. You can still put your birrus britannicus (a native hooded cloak) in one of the arched alcoves in the changing room and sit on the bench to sweat in the calidarium (hot room). Freezing, naked in the frigidarium (cold room) requires almost no imagination at all, and neither does relieving yourself into the deep latrine channels. There is no one about, so I yield to the temptation to sit and rest in the calidarium, fully clothed of course, and the sun manages a little of what the hypocaust did a couple of thousand years ago.

Yet again the small museum is stuffed with the treasures from this and the surrounding forts. Found here, life-size but headless Juno Dolichena, queen of the gods of both East and West, stands on a cow, and from Coventina’s shrine at Brocolitia, three water nymphs drink from their horns. This museum was dedicated to the great John Clayton, born in 1792 and former owner of this estate. Though a lawyer by trade, he took it upon himself to save Hadrian’s Wall from destruction by local landowners by buying up as much of it as he could manage, relocating the farmers and instigating an extensive programme of excavation and restoration. Without Clayton, Hadrian’s Wall might only exist today in history books, and so my respect and admiration for the man is boundless.

Leaving a site like this is always difficult, so I dawdle a little with coffee and cake before steeling myself for the stiff march up the other side of the Tyne Valley and through the village of Walwick. The path takes another wide detour north, so I risk a shortcut, first along the road and then through meadows, and soon arrive back at what seems to be the Ditch. A little behind and running straight and parallel with the Ditch is a flat grassy ramp. Is this a remnant of the Wall, or a length of Wade’s road that escaped asphalt? The Ordnance Survey map gives no indication.

The path continues beside the Ditch, rising steadily before passing through a small wood. A fine view greets me on the other side: at Black Carts the Wall climbs the hill ahead, dead straight and heading west, the tallest and longest manifestation yet. I must first head downhill, past the clear outline of Milecastle 29, then up again in the shadow of the Wall and another well-preserved turret, eyed by suspicious cows chewing the cud in the Ditch. After half a mile the monument peters out to become a grass-covered mound of rubble at the top of the hill. The view over the rugged moors and towards the Cheviot Hills is beautiful, so I take my lunch here: the last of my sandwiches and a bottle of good ale from the gift shop at Chesters. This is a fine spot to contemplate, being the most northerly point of the Wall, and by extension of the Roman Empire, for most of its life. Forwards, the black massif of the Cheviots, the wild land of the Selgovae and Votadini tribes, must have seemed bleak and uninviting to the soldiers stationed on the Wall. A backward glance is already friendlier, and must have grown only more so as their thoughts fled the barbarians, continuing eastwards for thousands of miles and not stopping until the perfumed gardens of the Levant.

A little further on, the line of the Wall turns fractionally southwards (and will continue so until Carlisle) and the Ditch breaks up into a confusion of massive boulders. This is ‘Limestone Corner’, one of the stretches where supplementary fortifications were abandoned and suggesting that the Wall was more a showpiece than a truly defensive structure. The path continues gently downhill for the next half a mile until Carraw. Here the ramparts and general outline of Brocolitia, the Wall’s fifth fort, are more clearly discernable than Vindobala or Onnum, but no actual buildings are visible. The interest in this site lies in the tiny religious complex a little to the west. No less than three temples have been discovered here: of the Nymphaeum, only a few scattered blocks of masonry remain, but the walls of the Mithraeum survive waist-high. Wooden posts, altar stones and statuary were discovered here in 1936, submerged in the bog, and subsequently replaced with replicas (I saw the originals in the Hancock Museum on my first day). Remains of wood and wicker-work from the seating had been preserved in the anaerobic peat, and walking down the central aisle towards the altar, even today one has the feeling of being in a small, intimate chapel. Mithraea were dark places, apparently, symbolizing the central allegory of the cave in which Mithras slaughtered the ‘primordial bull’ in order to give life to the world. The sniffy early Christians objected to such sacrificial rites and perhaps resented the competition it offered their own ‘supreme sacrifice’ myth. It is known that Christians destroyed Mithraea in the fourth century, and perhaps this one fell victim to the zealots too.

I still have enough wine in a plastic bottle to make a few more small libations, and I hope Mithras won’t be offended by this rather meager offering, but these days, like Antenociticus, he should probably be glad of what he can get. I think of the altar carving I saw in Newcastle while I pour, with Mithras looking fine in his Phrygian cap — bravely killing the bull while being attacked by a scorpion and a wild dog. A replica of one of the god’s helpers found here, either Cautes or Cautopates, I forget which, stands in the aisle beside me, watching over the ceremony. Strange indeed to imagine this dark, trippy Eastern mystery cult being nurtured here in wildest Northumbria seventeen centuries ago! No doubt the nearby springs had been sacred to the native Britons long before the Romans arrived and influenced the choice for the site. One is always tempted to ascribe a nebulous other-worldliness to such places and to throw words like ‘ley lines’ around to explain it. The scientist in me scoffs at such nonsense, but the fact remains that when I first came here three years ago, I sat down to rest, stretched myself out on the grass in front of the temple and immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep from which I woke remarkably refreshed half an hour later. Was it the healing life-force of the bull’s blood that replenished me? Or the half-bottle of strong Spanish wine I’d had with my lunch?

The Temple of Coventina, the probably native goddess of springs and wells, is now just a bog, but a drop of my ‘holy wine’ remains, so I pour a last libation into the peaty water. John Clayton excavated this site in 1876 and the carvings of the goddesses recovered are in the museum at Chesters I visited this morning.

I continue westwards, feeling invigorated and holy, and this is just as well, because the terrain feels more rugged with every step and I know that the rest of the day’s walk is an ever more exhilarating roller-coaster of escarpments that even today make you tremble with awe and muscle failure at the might of the Roman juggernaut.

The path continues for the next two miles beside the Ditch, past the best preserved remains of a milecastle yet seen (number 33, more later) and a similarly well-preserved Turret 33b before climbing the hill towards Sewingshields. I pass through a wood, with crags falling away to my right, and on the other side the Wall appears again, still climbing the hill and following the escarpment’s every exhausting contour. The views over Broomlee Lough and the Northumbrian moors are magnificent. A trig point at the top of the hill marks just over a thousand feet above sea level — not quite the highest point of the Wall, but perhaps the most beautiful. All but the strongest of frames will be flagging at this point, mine being no exception, and so I gather resources and exhort myself to forget the frailty of the body and enjoy these moments, for Hadrian’s Wall, indeed life itself, is rarely better than this.

The Wall peters out at the top, to be replaced by a rather disappointing dry-stone dyke, even if it is ‘recycled’ from the monument’s masonry. However, as long as the body isn’t suffering too terribly, the ups and downs of the path, each one presenting a new and surprising vista, are still a delight, especially knowing as I do what is at the end of this stretch. After a punishing mile, the Wall appears again on the other side of a wood, neatly and evenly restored to give a hint of what it looked like when new. Towering before me is the fort of Vercovicium (‘Housesteads’ in English), the eighth and finest on Hadrian’s Wall. There is a Roman well in the vicinity, apparently, but I lack the time to divine it today. At the bottom of the hill, at Knag Burn, a gap in the Wall witnesses an unusual ‘civilian gateway’, added, it seems, to ease the pressure of traffic through the fort. This was the immigration and customs control of the ancient world, and though no separate ‘nothing to declare’ gate was needed when entering the Roman Empire with a herd of cows, the principle is the same.

It’s a quarter to six by the time I’ve circumambulated the fort and arrived at the museum, and I’m worried that it’s already closed. Fortunately it isn’t, and the friendly attendant tells me I can stay on the site as long as I like, as long as I close the gate after me. This warms my heart after the frosty reception I received at Segedunum. Though tiny again, the museum has a lot on display, such as the carving of three men in birri britannici. When William Stukeley, antiquarian and friend of Isaac Newton, came here in 1725, the landscape was literally littered with altar stones and statuary. Who knows how much of Hadrian’s Wall’s stonework is still buried, lost to private collections or hidden in the walls of farmhouses?

Surviving in the fort are the waist-high remains of the praetorium (headquarters), hospital, barracks, granaries (the best, alongside Coria’s) and latrines (the best along the Wall). Perched on the hillside, there is also a fine view to the East of the soaring and plunging escarpment I have just travelled. The perimeter wall, though not as high as it once was, is unbroken, and so the impression of actually being in a Roman fortress or castle in nowhere stronger along the frontier. Adjoining the fort to the south are the partially excavated remains of the vicus, or civilian settlement. It’s not hard to imagine what the thousand or more Tungrians (a Germanic or Gaulish tribe) stationed here would have needed to help them forget they were perched on the edge of the world, and it’s not surprising how quickly the Britons gathered around the fort to meet those needs. Hadrian disapproved of the vices rife in the civilian settlements, but he was wise enough not to prohibit them. Soldiers weren’t allowed to marry officially until the third century, but a blind eye was turned to unofficial marriages in the vici. When Septimius Severus lifted the ban, families of soldiers began to move into the forts themselves. The Roman Army was going native, but the vicus and its vices continued to boom. In the foundations of one building, since nicknamed ‘the murder house’, two skeletons were found apparently concealed under a newly laid floor.

Hadrian’s Wall, here doubling as the fort’s northern wall, now continues through another wood, and when it emerges, a curious sight greets me: a tiny fort, like Vercovicium’s baby brother, annexes the Wall. This is one of the ‘milecastles’ (number 37) that I’ve been mentioning intermittently. Playing card shaped, they typically contained two small barracks with a road running between them, a staircase up to the wall walk and two entrances. Here the north entrance still has part of its arch, but intriguingly falls away over the cliff into empty space — a gateway to nowhere. Scholars still argue about the purpose of the milecastles, but most agree that they were the walls original ‘forts’ and ‘checkpoints’, and that their importance probably diminished after the building of the larger forts.

The Wall is bigger and bolder now, winding along the ridge and dipping fearlessly into every gulley. There is another long, gradual ascent, again reaching about a thousand feet above sea level. The Wall peters out at the top, then drops steeply, but the views over Crag Lough and the wooded cliffs behind it are breathtaking. At the bottom the path continues up again and along the wooded cliffs I saw from the top of Hotbank Crags, but I’m saving this part of the walk until tomorrow. Instead I continue along the military road that runs just behind the Wall, built some decades after it. The flagstones and kerb have all been worn away or stolen of course, but what the Romans built, they built to last. Nearly two thousand years later, the solidity of the foundations makes this road a delight to walk on as it winds over the difficult, rocky moorland just below the ridge. After a mile or so, at Peel Crags, the green road drops to a black one. I continue downhill in the peculiar pre-dusk light until I meet the Vallum, which has wisely refused to climb the ridge since I last saw it at Sewingshields.

My lodgings are at the youth hostel, where, for a small bribe, I managed to procure a private room, and take supper at the adjacent ‘Twice Brewed Inn’. Neither wishing to sully my newly purified body after the visit to the temple complex at Brocilitia, nor to offend Mithras by consuming the sacred bull merely for carnal pleasure, I disdain the beef, and indeed the flesh of any hornèd beast, and order instead the humble cod, encrusted with bitter herbs.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Frontier Road — Dies tertius: Vindobala to Cilurnum

Via the City of Coria and the fort at Onnum, being the sixteenth day before the Calends of June, 2763

Breakfast in the bunkhouse is rustic: a mountain of bread and a giant tray of eggs, from which I choose a huge, double-yolked one, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Afterwards we are invited to feed the lambs, which I immediately succeed in letting escape. Our host, the farmer’s wife, is quite the comedienne, telling me not to feel bad about this ‘desperate bid for freedom’. When the lambs are recovered, I feed one its milk formula. It gulps down nearly a pint inside a minute, as greedy as I was with my double egg. Our host tells us that the Wool Marketing Board sets the price of a fleece at fourteen pence, but that the seasonal labour to shear it costs a pound fifty. You don’t need a degree from the London School of Economics to perceive the absurdity of an agricultural economy dependent on subsidies and tourism. The Romans weren’t averse to planning and controlling the economy, but I wonder what they would have made of this.

Afterwards, a sprint north along a green lane and then a short cut down another, overgrown and blocked with a mountain of tires (according to the country habit), gives me my first glimpse of the unexcavated Vallum, visible as a deep depression in the field to my left. A dash across the ferocious A69 and I’m back on the official route for a short while before arriving at Rudchester Farm, where Hutton rummaged in the barns for Roman walls in 1801. Here the fort of Vindobala is visible only as a grassy platform, but the real treat for me lies in the adjacent woods. A little foraging and fence-hopping reveals a large stone basin hidden in the undergrowth — a Roman cistern that once supplied the fort with water. For me, such banal little domestic relics of life eighteen centuries ago are just as interesting as the big monumental ones, especially when you have to hunt for them in the woods.

The next couple of miles are a long, slow ascent beside the ‘Military Road’ to Harlow Hill. The walk through undulating farmland is pleasant enough, but somewhat soured by the knowledge of the destruction of the Wall done by General Wade. In the wake of the Jacobite uprisings in the eighteenth century, he commissioned the building of roads throughout Northern Britain to facilitate the movement of troops. The road from Carlisle to Newcastle made infamous use of the convenient foundations and building materials offered by Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve always suspected there was something more to Wade’s demolition than military expediency alone. There were roads enough in the area affording quicker and easier improvement. Consider, though, the part that Hadrian’s Wall must have played in the development of Scotland’s nationhood: well into Anglo-Saxon times, there was a cultural and linguistic continuum, with no abrupt geographical boundaries, from the English Channel to the Highland Line. The Romans’ arbitrary placement of the empire’s boundary between the Tyne and the Solway changed that forever: thenceforward a person was born either north or south of it, and conflict between Northerner and Southerner was continuous for seven centuries. The Irishman Wade was one of the midwives at the United Kingdom’s painful birth between 1707 and 1746. Was his destruction of Hadrian’s Wall a symbolic destruction of the divide between the two kingdoms? The removal of a mental as well as a physical barrier? A case of ‘Mr. Hadrian, tear down this wall!’?

There’s a fine panorama at the top of Harlow Hill, but the sky is darkening. I descend to a group of reservoirs and it starts to rain. For the next few miles the path climbs slowly again towards Carr Hill and the rain gets heavier. The Vallum is more in evidence now, but only as more frequent dips in the fields. At the top of Down Hill the sun peeps out, though it’s still chilly. A snack wagon miraculously appears, and my gratitude knows no bounds at receipt of a mug of tea and a bacon roll. The proprietress tells me a sorry tale, all too familiar, of local council bullying. She has provided this inestimable service to walkers for years, but for almost as long, the authorities have demanded that she apply for ‘planning permission’, as, absurdly, they judge the wagon to be a ‘permanent structure’. The application is, as usual, costly and almost certain to fail. The good lady is seventeen centuries late with her small business venture: the frozen soldiers stationed on the wall, though surely taking a cut of her takings for ‘protection’, would have been as glad as me for a cup of hot wine and water and some cured pork on a day like this.

I cross the road into the field and suddenly the Vallum plunges almost to its original depth. Sheep intermittently disappear without trace into the deep ditch, and the mounds on either side are clearly defined. Considering the food, wine, horses, cattle, carts, tools and wages of thousands of soldiers that must have accumulated along the frontier, it’s hardly surprising the Romans saw the need for an extra fortification as deep as the wall was tall. The Vallum must have been a bitch for making off with stolen goods, but generations of Brigantes, the local tribe, no doubt died trying.

Here I make a detour back down to the Tyne Valley and the pre-Hadrianic frontier. After a mile and a half I arrive at Aydon Castle, a mediaeval fortified manor house perched romantically above a ravine. It’s past two o’ clock and time is pressing, but I can’t resist a look around. The castle is solid, grey and gaunt — typical for this ‘Border Reiver’ country. With the gradual establishment of the national border beginning in the tenth century, these parts were rife with bandits and feuding clans fleeing the law on both sides. Walls had to be thick and windows small.

I drop down into the ravine that the castle overlooks, then emerge to go over a hill for the descent into Corbridge (Coria or Corstopitum). This was a frontier town before the Wall, and the road which ran from here to Carlisle, the Stanegate, was the original border, considerably less fortified. Coria also lay on the course of Dere Street, the road from York, which in time would pass through the Wall on its way to Edinburgh and further to the smaller and shorter-lived northern frontier, the Antonine Wall. Dere Street crossed the River Tyne to get to Coria and the massive stones of the bridge’s ramp can still be seen on the south bank, but unfortunately I haven’t time to make that excursion today.

A dash across the murderous A69 (again) and a trot through Corbridge’s northern suburbs brings me to the ancient site — small and quaint now, but what a swinging city it must have seemed, back in 200, to the soldiers on leave from the Wall and in need of a little action! As usual in Britannia, the ruins are at most chest-high, but seem well preserved and integrated here. The Stanegate runs very obviously through the centre of the town, and beside it are the intriguing remains of a colonnade, which today sit well below street level, due to repeated resurfacing of the road. Also in clear view are the massive foundations and complex ventilation system of the granaries, a municipal fountain and a network of dubious alleys between the buildings. The museum, though small, is crammed with statuary, tombstones, plaques and domestic objects.

As I leave Coria, I notice an overgrown green lane heading north, back towards the Wall, and which in a few hundred yards merges with a busy dual carriageway. This is a fragment of Dere Street, and it would have been fine to walk on this needless-to-say straight road back up the hill, but the automobile has robbed me of this pleasure. Instead I have to wind along Anglo-Saxon lanes, past some enormous, conical eighteenth century pottery kilns, over a ford and up the hill to the small castle at Halton. The fort of Onnum (or Hunnum), the Wall’s fourth, lies in the grounds of the castle, but is only visible as a raised platform, though even this is confused by centuries of ploughing. Here and there are suspiciously square blocks of cut stone, and it would be surprising if they were not Roman, given the systematic robbing that has gone on for the last thousand years.

A little further along there is a grassy platform in the field that bears witness to one of the Wall’s seventy-nine ‘milecastles’, but I’ll leave the account of these until the ruins become more substantial further on. The Vallum, though subtle, is also visible here, but the local cows object to my inspecting it. Shortly afterwards I arrive at the crossing of Hadrian’s Wall and Dere Street, the ‘Portgate’, the point at which I would gave emerged had I continued along the green lane and risked my life on the dual carriageway, and where probably a monumental arch in the wall stood. Now there’s just a roundabout and a pub, and the black tarred road shooting southwards as straight as an arrow is all that remains of Rome’s glory.

The Vallum becomes more obvious as the path continues uphill, through a forestry plantation and past the likewise more pronounced outline of Milecastle 24. After this the path crosses the road, and another feature of the frontier system appears unmistakably. As if the Vallum and the Wall weren’t already enough, a ten-foot-deep, V-shaped ditch was dug immediately to the north of the Wall along most of its length, only disappearing where an escarpment renders it superfluous or solid rock makes it too difficult.

The path continues alongside the Ditch for the next few miles and gradually the terrain becomes more rugged. I pass the site of another battle, ‘Heavenfield’, this time between rival Anglian and Welsh kings in the seventh century. The Wall at that time must have loomed large over the armies and probably constrained their strategies too.

The path now drops again towards the Tyne Valley. Over the road is the first visible stretch of the Wall since Heddon. Here, the massive foundation stones are the full ten feet wide, but the wall itself is a couple of feet narrower. The Romans planned big, but were quick to scale back their enterprises when they realized they had overstretched themselves. Here at Planetrees, for the first time, the Vallum, Wall and Ditch are all visible together, and the magnitude of the monument in total suggests there was no shame in this ‘scaling back’.

The path continues through woodland and then turns left down a lane towards the concretely named village of ‘Wall’ and my lodgings for the night: ‘The Hadrian Hotel’, naturally enough. Back in March, when I came to see the Wall illuminated by torches at dusk, I sat by a roaring fire at this old inn to eat my rabbit stew and drink my ‘Centurion Ale’, but God only knows what I’ll get tonight; dusty wayfarers must ever roll the dice. I only hope it’s not lamb.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Frontier Road — Dies secundus: Pons Aelius to Vindobala

Via the temple and Vallum crossing at Condercum, being the Ides of May, 2763

Today is my birthday and I’m in need of a little extra treat before the walk, so I head back to the Hancock Museum after breakfast, pace up and down the model wall again and attend a ritual at the little virtual Mithraeum. After this I’m just in time for a show at the museum’s planetarium: ‘Dawn of the Space Age’, a film about the early history of space exploration. This is paradoxically apt: Hadrian’s Wall marked the northern limit of European civilization for three centuries, and in its shadow grew some of the world’s earliest railways and long-range ballistic missiles, whose name fittingly derives from the Latin ballista (‘catapult’). The Romans ruled the world with the help of their roads and their engines of war, and doubtless they would have followed these developments with interest.

After tea and cake, I finally get going, and a short metro ride takes me back to Central Station. I pass a surprisingly intact stretch of the mediaeval city wall — almost certainly built with stone ‘borrowed’ from the Romans. A tramp eyes me warily while I survey the masonry: I’ve often noticed how territorial they are around ancient monuments which, having long since passed into public ownership, they regard as their own.

Just around the corner is Westgate, an unremarkable city street until you realize Hadrian built its foundations and that you’ve been walking on it all day and haven’t changed course so much as a fraction of a degree. Immediately it begins to climb out of the town and soon reaches a ridge with occasional panoramas of the Tyne Valley below. Though the wall has disappeared altogether here, its ghost is almost palpable in the street itself, and no better vantage point to watch over the river to the South and the barbarian lands to the North can be imagined. With heavy walking boots on my feet and a large rucksack on my back, I get a few curious stares in this dilapidated commercial district. Some eastern gentlemen call out a friendly, ‘Hey, habibi!’ from their van as they drive by, perhaps descendents of the Tigris boatmen of Arbeia who never made it back to Mesopotamia.

At the highest point of this stretch lies Benwell, from Old English Bynnewalle, or ‘within the wall’. It is the site of the third of the wall’s forts, ‘Condercum’, of which nothing remains but a few curiosities hidden in the housing estate to the South. Tucked away almost in someone’s back garden are the foundations and replica altar stones of the Temple of Antenociticus. The head and limbs of this probably native British deity (due to the torc around his neck) were found here in 1862 and are now on display in the Hancock Museum. I offer a libation of wine (a tiny one, so as not to stink up the temple) in honour of this now rather lonely god, and to give thanks for my fortieth birthday. A local man and his young son arrive after me. They are quiet and respectful; the man recounts to his son how his own father brought him here when he was a boy. I am moved.

A short walk takes me to another suburban garden and the only surviving ‘Vallum crossing’ on the wall. A six-meter-wide and three-meter-deep ditch with two large banks on either side, the Vallum at its best is almost as impressive as the wall itself, and was probably built to protect the militarized zone in front of it and to deter the thieving Britons from stealing horses. There were many crossing points over this formidable barrier, one every mile originally, but these seem to have been reduced at some point to one for each of the sixteen major forts, such as here at Condercum.

The site is fenced off and a sign quaintly directs the visitor to an adjacent house for the key. The man and his son arrive soon after me, generously volunteering to do the honours and knock on the door indicated. The portly, bearded guardian presently answers the summons and hands over the key. He remains standing in his doorway, watching over us and answering a great many unasked questions while we look around. A cat is sunning himself on one of the massive stone blocks that remain of the gateway, but slinks down to ingratiate himself as we enter the enclosure.

“The road was resurfaced several times,” the Guardian of the Keys announces, repeating what it says on the information plaque next to us. “You can clearly see the different levels,” he adds, as though offering his own learned opinion. The man nods politely, interjecting the occasional ‘really?’, though he obviously already knows. I, however, ignore the guardian and play with the affable cat.

“Oh yes,” the gatekeeper goes on from his pedestal some ten feet above us. “It’s quite unique, you know. This is the only Vallum crossing left and the entrance to the fort ran right through my garden…”

The man and his well-behaved son continue to listen and nod, and so the gatekeeper continues to lecture. I hate being a captive audience and continue trying not to listen to the regurgitated factoids, statements of the obvious and uninvited bragging. The cat takes full advantage of my captivity and flirts shamelessly while I squat down to take pictures.

“I’ve been meaning to excavate my garden for years, but I can’t seem to find the time…”

I’m about to yell at him to shut up, but something in my body language may have already conveyed this and he abruptly breaks off his monologue and slinks back inside. It’s a great relief to chat with the man afterwards, with someone who appreciates this monument with humility and for the right reasons, for the sense of the enormity of history under our feet. He wishes me well with my journey as we part and the cat returns to his sun bed on the gatehouse until the next visitors arrive.

Back on the line of the Wall, the busy road begins a long slow descent into a valley. At the bottom of Benwell Hill, the Wall suddenly appears: first a few stones poking through the pavement, then a short stretch of little more than foundations, and finally a good hundred feet of it in all its glory, only a few courses high, but at the full width of ten feet. Here too is the first of the surviving ‘turrets’ — square watchtowers positioned at equal distances, two per Roman mile, along the full length of the wall. This one has its ladder platform intact, a stepped base on which to place a ladder for access to the upper floor of the turret, and presumably also, though this is yet to be proved, to the wall’s walkway. Hutton mentions Denton as the first substantial stretch of the Wall to be seen, so evidently little has changed since 1801.

The wall, of course, continues on the high ground, but these are the last of the visible remains I’ll see until the end of today’s walk, so I turn south into the wooded dell of Denton Burn with the intention of rejoining the official route along the river Tyne. At some point the path beside the burn ends and I have some difficulty finding my way through the maze of typically identical English residential roads. Eventually though I emerge onto the official Hadrian’s Wall Path, which has kept low since Newcastle and continues along a non-descript disused railway with little in the way of views over the countryside opening out for the next few miles. I find this a rather cowardly decision of the route planners: while there’s so much to see up on the ridge, those sites are in a fairly run-down area of Newcastle and along a busy road. For my part I would rather risk being mugged and run over than traipse through a faux-rural, post-industrial cityscape, if the reward is to experience the topography and relics of one of the world’s ancient frontier systems.

However, the dreary part is over soon enough and the path emerges on the north bank of the Tyne. River rambles are always restful, and today’s is sorely needed, for although I haven’t walked far, there was much dawdling, and dawdling is tiring. The view opens out on the pleasant wooded banks and, as with yesterday’s walk, it’s hard to believe one of Britain’s largest conurbations is so close. I pass Newburn Ford, site of a battle between Scottish Covenanters and English Royalists in 1640 that some say precipitated the civil wars. The Covenanters, vexed at being forced to accept a new prayer book, marched here, beat the Cavaliers and occupied Newcastle. No doubt Cromwell got ideas into his head when he heard how this band of zealous commoners challenged the might of the crown and won.

The path continues by the riverside a few more miles and then enters a wood. I am now on the ‘Wylam Waggonway’, a railway line built in 1748 for engineless trains. The route eventually turns up the hillside towards Heddon, but I walk a little further to see the birthplace of George Stephenson, ‘the Father of Railways’. It fascinates me to think of him, born in this little cottage in 1781, watching the horses pull the wagons along the track right beside his front door. Thanks to his work, in his lifetime he would see that little track begin to stretch across continents. Another hundred and forty years and it would run under the English Channel, and lately there has been talk of a railway line across the Bering Straits. How glorious if one day you could get on a train in Wylam and travel around the world without ever leaving the track, arriving back at this cottage where the idea was first born.

Though there are twenty minutes until the small museum’s closing time, the National Trust employees have already fled. This dereliction of duty is becoming tediously predictable.

I have an early supper by the river, the last of M.’s steak and mushrooms and the Spanish wine, before turning north across a golf course and up the steep hillside towards Heddon-on-the-Wall. My ‘official’ destination, the fort of Vindobala, is a mile further on, but offered no accommodation, so my lodgings for the night are the bunkhouse in Houghton North Farm. The light is fading by the time I’ve thrown my bag down and washed, so I head out to see the stretch of the monument that survives within the village. Here the wall is three hundred feet long and the full ten feet thick. It also seems to have grown since Newcastle — tapering downhill impressively in the dusk light. The first time I walked this way in 2760, I took the bus back to my lodgings one evening and overheard two Southern professional men complaining bitterly how little of the wall was actually visible and how they felt they’d been cheated by the brochures. ‘What fools these consumers of history are,’ I thought, ‘suckered by the marketing they probably helped to create.’ The chief delight of this remarkable monument is watching as, little by little, it rises out of the ground in Newcastle’s suburbs, grows to magnificence on the wild Northumbrian moors and then slowly fizzles out again in Cumbria. The Theodosian Wall in Istanbul is immeasurably grander and more imposing, but city walls tend to blend in with their surroundings; they don’t clash intriguingly with them, haunting wildernesses and back gardens alike, as Hadrian’s does.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Frontier Road — Dies primus: Arbeia to Pons Aelius

Via the fort at Segedunum, still being the day before the Ides of May, 2763

Arbeia guarded the mouth of the River Tyne and seems to have acted as a supply base for Hadrian’s Wall and for military campaigns in the North in general. For an urban site it has survived remarkably well: still visible are the foundations of some of the perimeter wall, two gates, granaries and the commanding officer’s house, two of whose columns have been re-erected where they fell, offering a tantalizing gateway to the past. The small site museum has yet another wealth of Roman tools, trinkets and tombstones, but the most fascinating thing about Arbeia for picknicker and antiquarian alike are the reconstructions. The child in me is thrilled by these palpable manifestations of ancient history, where otherwise the imagination has such spinal-cord-breaking work. The fort’s West Gate and adjoining walls have been entirely rebuilt in situ, according to the model given by surviving gates elsewhere, the depictions on Trajan’s Column, etc. On the south side are the reconstructed barracks and commanding officer’s house, wonderfully contrasting the universal, timeless simplicity of the common soldiers’ quarters with the particular and fixed-in-time Mediterranean opulence of the praetor’s. Here is a sunny colonnaded courtyard, dining room, study and bedrooms, all beautifully painted according to known period styles. Fragments of painted plaster survive and are on display.

An idea which has been incubating in me for some time suddenly hatches. I imagine the commanding officer in his private bath house in conversation with his slave, a britunculus (‘miserable little Briton’), sometime in the late fourth century, in the fetid atmosphere of the End of Empire. It goes something like this:

Praetor: Scrape my back.

The slave obeys, but as he sets to work with the strigil, his master cannot see the resentment written on his face.

Praetor: You’re a Christian, aren’t you, slave?

Slave: Yes, master.

Praetor: Why?

The slave hesitates, afraid that he is being tested and risks punishment if he answers wrongly.

Praetor: You can speak freely. I won’t beat you.

Slave: (relieved) Because my god is good to slaves, master.

Praetor: So I hear. But why should he be good to slaves?

Slave: (pausing, never having thought about it) He loves us all, master.

Praetor: Even me? Does he love those who beat his worshippers?

Slave: (diplomatically) Even, them, master.

Praetor: I don’t believe you. Come now, tell the truth! I said I wouldn’t punish you.

Slave: (after a long pause) Only if they repent, master.

Praetor: Repent of what? Beating you?

Slave: Yes, master.

Praetor: So if I beat you to death, then repent of it, your slave-god will love me?

Slave: (compelled to agree to this uncomfortable truth) Er… yes, master.

Praetor: Then your god is a fool, and you are a fool for worshipping him.

Slave: Yes, master.

Praetor: Do you know, slave, which god I worship above all others?

He waits for an answer, but doesn’t see that the slave is holding the strigil over him as though it were a knife.

Praetor: No, of course you don’t. How could you? I worship the undefeated Mithras, who shed the blood of the bull in the cave to give life to the world. Unlike your fool-god that loves those who kill his servants, Mithras protects those who reciprocate his sacrifice. Do you think Mithras would love you for killing me?

The slave stares blankly at the strigil without responsing.

Praetor: (angry) Well? Answer me!

Slave: (absently) No, master.

Praetor: Quite right he wouldn’t. He would destroy you and torment your soul in the underworld.

The praetor’s anger turns suddenly to fear and he is perplexed by these rapidly changing emotions.

Praetor: Why have you stopped scraping my back? Damn your insolence! I think I’ll beat you after all, as soon as you’ve finished.

The slave continues scraping, free to express his hatred on his face, though his voice, through long experience and training, remains subservient, or inscrutable at least.

Slave: Yes, master.


Or something to that effect. Musing thus, I take my lunch, a delicious steak with mushrooms and a pepper sauce that M. made on the occasion of my birthday. A rich Spanish wine completes the picture (drunk in honour of Hadrian, who was from Italica, near Seville), and I’m so caught up in the meal and the reverie of my Praetor of Arbeia and his slave that I forget both the time and the bellowing, screeching party of schoolchildren visiting the fort. Municipal archaeologists are also at work nearby. I take my reluctant leave of this miraculous site, but can’t resist a detour to a green at the top of the hill to see the sea, the river mouth, its castle and ruined abbey and a huge warship sailing into the harbour. Something of the kind must have also happened eighteen centuries ago when Arbeia was built.

Back at South Shields metro station, I have a grim presentiment of doom at the sight of a large group of people waiting impatiently on the platform and staring anxiously at the departures board promising the next train in five minutes. A quarter of an hour passes before a voice announces that trains back to Newcastle have been suspended, due to ‘power failure’. Disaster! I haven’t enough time to walk to Jarrow and taxis seem scarce here. I run down to the street and up to a stationary taxi and ask the driver if he’s free. He shakes his round head in reply, too lazy to open his mouth, but in the same moment I catch sight of a bus labelled ‘Jarrow’. I decide to jump on, guessing it will only take fifteen or twenty minutes. It takes nearly an hour, turning maddeningly down every residential street, by the most circuitous route imaginable, during which I get overheated, dehydrated and car-sick trying to read my maps and work out where we are. When I finally get off at Jarrow metro station, I realize I’ll have no time to pay my respects to Bede. It would have fit the theme of the walk so well to see a little of the world of a man born in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall and who was perhaps precisely therefore to become England’s first great historian, but it’s not to be today, thanks to the sudden collapse of Tyneside’s infrastructure.

A taxi miraculously appears and I jump in, asking him to take me to the ‘Roman fort’ at Wallsend. After a pause he sheepishly asks me if I know the postcode. I’m fuming: how am I, obviously a tourist, to know what the postcode is? What I do know is how often I’ve been let down by British taxi drivers paid to operate gearsticks, read roadsigns and know their own back yards. I tell him it’s right beside Wallsend metro station and he babbles for a while in reply, probably expecting me to excuse his ignorance, but I will not oblige. I’m paying dearly enough already to worry about hurting his feelings as well.

The Friday rush hour is in full swing and the queue to get into the Tyne Tunnel frustratingly slow. The driver informs me that the council is currently building a second tunnel, which slows us even more. In true English style he apologizes for the traffic, which he has no power to change, but fails to apologize for his ignorance of his local geography, which he has every power to change. He even asks me to spell the name of the fort, which he proceeds to punch into his navigation system, although I’ve already given him an alternative destination that he knows. This land is ripe for conquest, I speculate.

I had intended to cross the river via the pedestrian tunnel and then take the metro a few stops to the magically named ‘Wallsend’, where the signs are bilingual in English and Latin, but fate had other plans for me today. There are another few miles in the taxi before we encounter an archway over a tarred path on which is written, absurdly, ‘Hadrian’s Cycleway’.

“Is this it?” the driver asks. “Shall I stop here?”

I acknowledge that he’s trying to be helpful and to extrapolate my goal based on something he recognizes as ‘Roman’, but it’s not helpful and I’m desperate to get out of the hated automobile, so I say, “This will do.”

I pay nearly sixteen pounds, including the toll for the tunnel, but withhold the tip and get out at last. I alighted here because I recognized the large cranes from my last visit, but the perspective has tricked me and it turns out I have another half a mile to walk. I curse myself for not listening to my better judgement and arrive at Segedunum, the fort guarding the beginning (or the end) of Hadrian’s Wall at twenty past four.

More disappointment waits when I get to the site. The attendant is reluctant to let me in, even though there are forty minutes left until it closes, and recommends that I go up the observation tower. I ignore her, hand over the money and make for the reconstructed bath house. I get confused by the signs and the hand of fate sends me up the space-age viewing platform after all. Here I dawdle for a few minutes, transfixed by the classic ‘playing card’ outline of the fort, the obvious bend in the Tyne that it guarded, the huge cranes by the river and the five-minute time-lapse video reconstruction of the history of Segedunum. During the display, from the corner of my eye, I see people leaving the bath house watched by a vulturous attendant who closes the door behind each one. I realize that I’ve missed my chance. The attendant who took my money cheated me out of the delight of walking through a lovingly archaeologically correct reconstruction of a Roman military balneum because all she cares about is clearing out the punters and closing up at five on the dot. I storm downstairs and tell her how little it would have cost her to let me quickly see the bath house.

“It used to be open later, but it’s run by a big corporation now,” she whines. “I’m just a wage slave…”

“Aren’t we all,” I reply, as the scene I had imagined at Arbeia echoes across my mind.

I console myself with pacing the site itself, of which precious little remains, having been buried under a slum for decades. As usual, the foundations of the granaries and the strong room beneath the regimental shrine are visible, but barely. I had also been looking forward to seeing the stretch of wall foundations, the very first on my journey, and a little reconstruction of the wall itself, but in their infinite miserliness, the managers of Segedunum have locked that up too and I’m forced to view it through chicken wire.

Hutton was still able to trace the line of the Wall the four miles from here into Newcastle. When the rubble of the wall disappeared, he could at least follow the Vallum (the deep, ramparted trench to the south of the wall) which, he observes, the local householders were given incentives to fill in and plant with vegetables. Nothing survives today. The destruction of historic monuments has often been excused in the past on economic grounds, but I’m not convinced: the area around the eastern third of the Wall was hardly short of cultivable land in 1801, and the acreage gained from filling in the Vallum must have been negligible, especially given the enormous effort it must have cost to effect this.

After today’s disappointments, I don’t feel like trudging beside an invisible wall through housing estates, so I take the National Trail instead on a disused railway line that meanders alongside the Tyne into Newcastle. The river comes into view after a mile or so of the quiet wooded lane and soon drops down to it. So close to Newcastle, this former epicentre of the Industrial Revolution, the river is now a rural Arcadia with gentlemen anglers fishing in silence with their sons. The sight of this takes me back to the mid seventies, standing with my father on a pitch-dark, freezing cold pebble beach on the Suffolk coast, swaddled in oilskins, holding a rod too big for me and with no idea what I was doing. Given the choice, I would have been inside the mysterious old Martello tower nearby, but I was glad to be there all the same, participating in a bonding ritual probably a hundred thousand years old. I remember asking him anxiously if fish could feel pain. “No,” he replied, probably deluding himself as much as me, “they don’t have nerves.” I think such moments, however much nonsense they represent in the analysis, are vital threads of communication between father and son — the continuity of an ancient culture.

The route winds pleasantly along with the river, then cuts briefly through the town before returning to the Tyne, just as Gateshead’s futuristic opera house comes into view. A gleaming palace of mirrors towering over the Tyne bridges, the monument to culture contrasts oddly with the street life below. I pass a score of women, over-dressed or under-dressed, according to your point of view, as though for a wedding, but the bride never appears. Of course there is no wedding; this is just Newcastle on a Friday night. Gel-headed dandies saunter towards them, clearly impressed by the ‘talent’, but at the moment they pass, they look away disdainfully, suddenly unimpressed. Such is the Anglo-Saxon, such the britunculus. The Roman soldiers garrisoned at Pons Aelius (Hadrian’s Bridge) would doubtlessly have expressed their approval of the local ladies unequivocally and without hypocrisy.

Winding back up the hillside to the ridge (which of course the Wall never left), I approach the castle keep, where a little hunting reveals the scant remains of the Roman fort under the railway bridge. The great metropolis of the Tyne was probably just a tiny garrison town nineteen centuries ago, no bigger than Vindobala ten miles away, where now only a farmstead stands; such are the unpredictable twists and turns of fate. The Normans built the mediaeval castle squarely on top of the fort, reusing its masonry, as they invariably did, in the knowledge that Roman foundations were the strongest and their building materials the cheapest.

From here I take the metro train back to the hostel in Jesmond, in the vicinity of which the helpful warden tells me there’s a ‘cheap and cheerful’ Italian restaurant. This I can’t resist. It’s the perfect way to end my first day along the Roman frontier road, so I quickly wash and change into my gym shoes and ‘evening shirt’ before heading out.

I am welcomed into the impossibly loud, gaudy and full restaurant by a friendly Italian reluctant to speak English. There’s already a queue of people waiting and not a free table in sight, but the waiter, in typically chaotic, yet oddly efficient Latin style, runs around reassuring everyone they will soon be seated. Within fifteen minutes, by what sorcery I know not, we all are.

Ideally, I would have liked some ancient Mediterranean dish, but I have a hankering for pizza and red wine, which turn out to be excellent and cheap as promised. In asking if I want dessert and coffee, and in bringing the bill, the waiter gives up speaking English altogether, even though I’ve given no indication of being able to speak Italian. As I’ve seen so often before, the merest hint that you understand what they’re saying is enough. A few foundation stones and some rubble are all that’s left of the Empire’s northern frontier between Arbeia and Pons Aelius, but the Romans themselves, it transpires, never really left.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Frontier Road ― Dies nullus: To Arbeia

Being the day before the Ides of May, in the 2,763rd year after the founding of Rome, during the consulship of Silvio Berlusconi (Friday, 14th May, 2010)

My dread of oversleeping the five o’ clock train to London, and thereby the six fifteen to Newcastle, and thereby the whole expedition, proves unfounded, and I arrive at the grand Central Station at half past nine, bleary-eyed, but happy. Unlike Hutton, who for his six-week journey carried only Camden’s ‘Britannia’, maps, paper, ink and an umbrella, I am overburdened with clothes, medicine, toiletries, food, wine and the old boy’s book, which, being out of print, was only available as a heavy, bound facsimile.

I take the metro train to the hostel in Jesmond, drop off my rucksack, put map and lunch into a shoulder bag and set out for the nearby Hancock Museum. I find it quickly enough, a fact which I read as an ill omen. In my experience, long journeys never begin this easily, but for the time being at least all is well. The museum, having recently consolidated Newcastle’s major collections, is a delight. A special treat for me is the fifty-foot-long model of Hadrian’s Wall, with every fort, milecastle, turret, bridge, hill and river represented in miniature. I pace along it fascinated, imagining a tiny model of myself struggling up hill and down dale at six inches an hour.

The permanent exhibition contains many of the most important finds from the Wall and the northern forts. The tombstones and altars, the treasured memorials of provincial soldiers and officials, are touching in their simplicity, but also dramatic and striking. No pretensions of urban sophistication here: their devotions to wives, daughters and gods come from the heart. The large altar of Mithras from Housesteads bursts with action and energy, the head of the god Antenociticus glares mysteriously and an official’s wife still stands proudly on her gravestone in her humble provincial dress after eighteen centuries. The loss of their brightly coloured paint, in my opinion, only increases their dignity.

A short walk takes me to the metro station in Haymarket and the train to South Shields. Over the River Tyne and along its south bank, the modern urban transport glides, a synthesized voice announcing ‘doors closing’ at each station. We pass through Jarrow and a station called ‘Bede’, named to honour the venerable old monk who was born ‘ad murum’ (in no village in particular, but ‘by the wall’) in around 673 and who kept the embers of civilization glowing in the Dark Ages, while the rest of the island thought about nothing but its next meal. He gave us in his histories our second native (the first being from another monk, Gildas), but first reasonably objective account of Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve planned a brief stop later at the nearby monastery, St. Paul’s, where he lived and worked and where the church’s dedication slab from the year 685 still bears its inscription in Latin. Interesting how quick the English immigrants to these parts were to adopt those aspects of the language and culture of their predecessors which suited their purposes.

I sit at the back of the train, looking straight down the tracks as we trundle into South Shields on the coast. There’s another half a mile or so on foot through the little Geordie holiday paradise and over a hill looking out across the harbour and what Hutton called the ‘German Ocean’. All journeys begin and end with the sea, so let mine begin here at Arbeia, the ‘fort of the Arabs’, probably named after the ‘Tigris boatmen’ stationed here on the edge of the vast Roman world, two thousand miles from home, seventeen centuries ago.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Frontier Road — Introduction: On Romans and Frontiers

A 200-mile journey along Ancient Rome’s North-West frontier, in no sense parodying William Hutton’s endearing ‘History of the Roman Wall Which Crosses the Island of Britain from the German Ocean to the Irish Sea’.

The Romans were a hard-headed, brutal, pragmatic but oddly humble people. They conquered the Greeks, but stood in awe of their achievements and their wisdom. They persecuted the Christians, perceiving the threat they posed to their authority, then adopted their beliefs. In Britain, they destroyed the druidic cult, fearing the same threat as from the Christians, yet left their monuments standing and the people free to worship the same old gods, even raising golden statues to them. There were only two conditions to this humility: pay them tax and acknowledge them as masters.

With their superior technology and iron discipline, they were also fearless soldiers who found attack the best form of defence. For this reason they saw no reason to fortify their boundaries: if threatened, they would march out to meet the enemy, rather than crouch behind walls. The Latin for ‘frontier’ was limes, from which the English word ‘limit’ comes, and it meant something like ‘frontier road’, because that was what their frontiers were for the most part: just roads. The original border of Roman territory in Britain was the Stanegate, the road running east from Corbridge to Carlisle. These roads, plus a few forts and rivers, were adequate deterrants in most provinces, but in Britannia, the Romans found in the natives a determined reluctance to be civilized that in my view characterizes more than anything else the island folk.

Already during Agricola’s campaign in 79, it seems that a turf wall went up in Scotland, the Gask Ridge, but it was the emperor Hadrian who saw the need for something more permanent. Under Trajan he had seen the Empire stretched to breaking point in modern Romania and Iraq and he probably thought the time had come to start consolidating what had been won. With his flamboyance and passion for architecture, a great wall was begun, sixteen feet high, ten feet thick and seventy-three miles long ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’. The massive structure snaked over every hill it could find, heedless of cliffs and rivers, punctuated by four major bridges, sixteen large forts, seventy-nine small ones and over 150 turrets. And if this weren’t enough, deep ditches were dug enclosing the wall to the north and south and a road built to facilitate communication along its entire length. When the wall ended on the Solway Firth, Hadrian was still dissatisfied: another string of forts and fortlets, one Roman mile apart, was built along the Cumbrian coast to watch for attacks from the Irish and Scots. A network of roads criss-crossed the mountains in the interior, with yet more forts to guard them, supplying the whole militarized zone with goods shipped in to the safer ports further south. The scale of the enterprise beggars belief, but perhaps more surprising is that, with interruptions, the structure was occupied until the Western Empire began to crumble nearly three hundred years later. Remembering that the Berlin Wall was in use for about thirty years puts this into perspective.

In 1801, at the age of seventy-eight, an amiable old gentleman called William Hutton walked from Birmingham to Carlisle, along the length of the wall and back again, a journey of six hundred miles. His hugely entertaining account accompanied me on my own by comparison brief stroll, often refreshing, goading and humbling me. Striding along the ridge at Walltown Crags in the footsteps of the tough old antiquarian and looking northwards to the ‘barbarian lands’, it is awe-inspiring to imagine yourself at one extremity of a unified state that once stretched to the Persian Gulf, Morocco, Egypt and the Ukraine. How the Romans held those thousand peoples, languages, cultures and religions together will always be something of a mystery, and therein lies the appeal of this extraordinary frontier: from South Shields to Ravenglass, this is a road worth walking and contemplating again and again.