Post­card from...Hadrian's Wall

His­to­rian Paul Be­ston vis­its Hadrian's Wall and sends us a post­card, ex­plain­ing why the his­toric Ro­man wall is well worth a visit

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Stand some­where on the mid-sec­tion of Hadrian’s Wall and look out at views that stretch for miles - and thou­sands of years.

From Lime­stone Corner, maybe. Step out of the deep, hard do­lerite ditch that gives this place its mis­lead­ing name, hacked at un­suc­cess­fully by Ro­man le­gionar­ies – the holes cut ready for wedges to split the rocks are still vis­i­ble in its trench-like depths be­fore they ad­mit­ted de­feat in the face of the vol­canic rock. Step out, step up and just look.

To your right, Hadrian’s Wall marches far down­hill over green grass, as it has for nine­teen-hun­dred years now, some of the mil­lions of stones brought and built into this fa­mous bar­rier which scythes the north of Eng­land in two for 80 Ro­man miles.

A lit­tle be­hind you is the Ro­man site of Bro­col­i­tia, a buried fort for sol­diers from what’s now the Nether­lands. By it, a drowned shrine to a lo­cal wa­ter god­dess, and a fa­mous lit­tle tem­ple to Mithras, the bull-slay­ing god of Light and Truth orig­i­nally from an­cient Per­sia built to tend the spirit of its sol­diers. Now look north, see the land fall and tum­ble away down the gnarled crags and watch the view open out below you to a vast space of rolling hills, woods and forests dot­ted with iso­lated farm­houses and in the mid­dle dis­tance, a cas­tle. One of the many needed here in this rough, wild north coun­try, this one, Chipchase, the home of the fierce Heron fam­ily who bat­tled their way through the Mid­dle Ages.

And fur­ther on, the even wilder deso­late hills and wastes out of which, as late as Queen El­iz­a­beth’s time, the bru­tal reivers – heav­il­yarmed, horse-rid­ing ban­dits and cat­tle-rustlers – would emerge from the dark­ness to rob the well-for­ti­fied houses and ‘be­reave’ those who re­sisted. In this one view, you have the essence of why I love the Wall coun­try, and why I love in­tro­duc­ing peo­ple to it on tours.

First, there’s the land­scape it­self. Here, in the mid­dle part of the Wall, it’s tough, un­yield­ing and ut­terly sub­lime. In the cen­tre, on the so-called Whin Sill, it rises up on a great shelf of vol­canic rock, a ge­ol­o­gist’s dream riven with fis­sures, its face as scarred and lived-in as Sa­muel Beck­ett’s. The Wall rides up and down over the land’s bones, mak­ing those end­lessly-re­peated views of this fa­mous mon­u­ment. Never was a land­scape bet­ter-crafted for pho­tog­ra­phy. There’s great va­ri­ety, too; first in the chang­ing colour of the ter­rain. Visit in one year and it’s a lush green, in an­other a mot­tle of olive and mus­tard. Sec­ond, is the wider scenery. Wall coun­try al­ways re­minds me of a rum­pled his­tor­i­cal quilt – a cou­ple of miles be­hind that wild Whin Sill, there’s a pretty, do­mes­ti­cated land­scape of rolling farm­land. Or go east, see how in New­cas­tle it pops up, hides and re-emerges in the midst of ur­ban sprawl.

Then there are the his­toric re­mains them­selves, all pe­ri­ods crammed cheek-by-jowl. So many sto­ries to hear and tell. There’s a dis­tinct ver­sion of English and Bri­tish his­tory here, dif­fer­ent from that of the south. There are Ro­man re­mains and cas­tles and churches, to be sure, but in greater pro­fu­sion than most places, and done dif­fer­ently.

Take the Ro­mans – no vil­las here, but a for­ti­fied fron­tier so­ci­ety. Me­di­ae­val churches, yes, but stur­dily built to re­sist at­tack. And cas­tles, big and small. It’s been a rough place in its time. But that rough­ness is leav­ened by the hu­man­is­ing re­mains – the lovely me­di­ae­val panel paint­ings in Hex­ham Abbey or the mass of Ro­man in­scrip­tions all along the Wall, far more nu­mer­ous than else­where in Bri­tain, memo­ri­als to loved ones or of­fer­ings to in­nu­mer­able gods, all crowned by the amaz­ing ev­ery­day finds from world-fa­mous Vin­dolanda.

Vin­dolanda is the old­est site we visit on our Ex­plor­ing Hadrian’s Wall tour, but the one that changes the most every time I go. Ex­ca­va­tions have been go­ing on here for decades, now, and will con­tinue for a long time yet. When­ever we come, there’s a flurry of ac­tiv­ity in the cur­rent trenches in­side the fort, by its walls or in the civil­ian set­tle­ment out­side, the mud, wheel­bar­rows and jum­bled walls an ex­cit­ing con­trast to the

Now look north, see the land fall and tum­ble away down the gnarled crags and watch the view open out below you to a vast space of rolling hills, woods and forests dot­ted with iso­lated farm­houses and in the mid­dle dis­tance, a cas­tle

neatly con­sol­i­dated and dis­played sec­tions al­ready part of the site. Sev­eral times, I’ve wit­nessed the hul­la­baloo as a new find of a Ro­man shoe is care­fully ex­tracted and brought to the hud­dle of ex­cited vis­i­tors, min­utes af­ter re­lease from the nine­teen-hun­dred-year grip of earth.

That’s the sheer mag­nif­i­cence of Vin­dolanda: the stones of the Ro­man build­ings are great on their own, and the land­scape, over­looked by the mossy, russet Bar­combe Hill, is won­der­ful, but go down into the mu­seum to see the true won­ders. Vin­dolanda has a high wa­ter ta­ble which pre­serves or­ganic re­mains bril­liantly. Come and see wo­ven shop­ping bas­kets, dec­o­rated women’s shoes, a wig and a hair­net, a child’s wooden sword, all be­long­ing to the fam­i­lies of the sol­diers here. From the mil­i­tary side, there’s an in­tri­cately-dec­o­rated

cham­fron (a leather face mask for a horse) or the cat­tle skulls pocked with lit­tle angular holes

Hous­es­teads, only a cou­ple of miles away, doesn’t have Vin­dolanda’s or­ganic re­mains, but what a site! Cling­ing to the crest of the Whin Sill with great views to a north that still feels like a bar­bar­ian fron­tier...You can eas­ily imag­ine your­self as a well­wrapped Ro­man aux­il­iary

from where they were used by sol­diers for tar­get prac­tice. Bet­ter yet, there are the writ­ing tablets, some of the most im­por­tant finds from the en­tire Ro­man Em­pire, where we can read about the daily con­cerns of the Ro­man sol­diers and civil­ians, and get close enough to read their birth­day in­vi­ta­tions and shop­ping lists. That doesn’t even come close to ex­haust­ing Vin­dolanda’s bril­liance, and more emerges every year - per­haps some­thing bril­liant next time we’re there?

Hous­es­teads, only a cou­ple of miles away, doesn’t have Vin­dolanda’s or­ganic re­mains, but what a site! Cling­ing to the crest of the Whin Sill with great views to a north that still feels like a bar­bar­ian fron­tier, spread with cold lakes (called ‘loughs’ lo­cally) and dark woods. You can eas­ily imag­ine your­self as a well-wrapped Ro­man aux­il­iary. My favourite Ro­man gods are here, the ‘hooded spir­its’, a trio of dwarf-deities; there’s also ev­ery­one’s favourite Ro­man toi­let to see. Here too, though, are some of the Wall’s darker sto­ries.

Out­side the fort there was an­other civil­ian vil­lage or ‘vi­cus’. Be­neath one of the houses here, two bod­ies were found that had been hid­den be­neath the floor­boards. In case you might doubt

the right­ness of its nick­name, the ‘mur­der house’, one skele­ton had the tip of a blade still em­bed­ded in its ribs. Quite a place, Hous­es­teads. It con­tin­ued to be in later times too. Part of the Ro­man fort was re­built as one of those pro­tected houses with no ground-level door – a ‘bas­tle’, a sure sign of reiver ac­tiv­ity. Hous­es­teads was re­spon­si­ble for more mis­deeds of reiver and ‘moss-trooper’ mis­deeds than it suf­fered – it re­mained a no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous place into the 17th cen­tury. The last of the lo­cal Arm­strong horse-thieves skedad­dled to Amer­ica in the 1690s, to join other in­fa­mous reiver names like the Nixons in mak­ing a more fa­mous name in the New World.

Fi­nally, there’s the at­trac­tion of the peo­ple and the hos­pi­tal­ity, far re­moved from reiv­ing days. There are great pubs with warm fires and warmer con­ver­sa­tions, from a re­gion with a strong iden­tity and a rep­u­ta­tion for great, lo­cally­brewed beer to go with its de­li­cious cheeses. The di­alect is Eng­land’s most mu­si­cal, and the best for re­count­ing a story, usu­ally with a laugh at the end. You’ll see it emerge even in the char­ac­ter­is­tic his­tory-shrouded lo­cal place names as you get closer – Lan­er­cost, Steel Rigg, Bir­doswald, Ot­ter­burn (or Chevy Chase [!] if you pre­fer). Even typ­ing them trans­ports me there. It’ll be good to come back.

If you've been in­spired to visit Hadrian's Wall, or to ex­plore Bri­tain, Peter Som­mer Trav­els of­fer a range of ex­pert guided tours in the UK, of­fer­ing in­sights into the na­tion's his­tory. They also of­fer a se­lec­tion of Euro­pean trips, ex­plor­ing his­tory on the Con­ti­nent. Visit: www.pe­ter­som­mer.com

All pho­tos: © Peter Som­mer Trav­els

Above: The fort at Vin­dolanda

Left, top: The Clay­ton Mu­seum at Ch­esters fort, one of the finest Ro­man col­lec­tions in Bri­tain, main­tained as it looked over a cen­tury ago. Left, mid­dle: Rust-red Lan­er­cost Pri­ory, which clung to life by its fin­ger­nails in the bor­der wars of the 14th cen­tury and was res­cued from de­cline by arts and crafts ro­man­tics. Left: La­trines at Hous­es­teads Right: Walk­ing the wall

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