The Emperor Hadrian’s ancient wall still proudly snakes its way across northern England, BILL WATT reports
So, here we are at the end of the world … and the view is spectacular.
Before us stretches Hadrian’s Wall, the meandering boundary of the Roman Empire 1800 years or so ago. On one side of the 2m-thick stone wall (our side) is a grassy, rolling pasture with rambling sheep, on the other, below the crags, is the wild north, shrouded in mist and rain.
All those years ago, the Roman Empire (if you were lucky enough to live in it) was the world – the entire world. And Hadrian’s Wall, stretching nearly 120km across northern England was the furthest outpost of that immense empire.
On a cold autumn day in October, with the 2m-thick Hadrian’s Wall alongside and peering north into an empty valley of mist, wind and rain, it’s not hard to fathom why in 122 AD (CE) the Emperor Hadrian decided to build this massive fortification.
Some places were just too much bother to conquer… too cold, too wet and too wild – and those tribes up there in the far north just didn’t like being told what to do. Civilization would have to stop here.
Nowadays the Wall’s remnants, like those overlooking the valley near Walltown Quarry Country Park in Northumberland, snake along windswept crags and isolated valleys, bumping into farmland, rural villages and suburbia along the way.
We started our Wall odyssey by finding the perfect B&B in a village outside Newcastle-Upon-Tyne called Heddon-on-the-Wall, where street names tend to have a Roman feel – Centurion Way, Trajan Walk etc. The name of the B&B kept to that theme … Hadrian’s Barn.
We could have launched our Wall assault immediately on arrival, with Heddon containing some of the best-preserved sections of the structure, but it was getting late, was cold and rainy and there was a great pub recommended to us in nearby Horsley (The Lion and Lamb) ... the Romans could wait until tomorrow. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Mad Goose pale ale and ate chicken breast and black pudding with a pink peppercorn sauce. Very English, very tasty.
But, the next day, it was all things Roman … starting at probably the most famous Roman site in Britain - Vindolanda.
Vindolanda is a fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall built by the Romans around the year 85, predating Hadrian’s famous Wall, but becoming a crucial link in its construction and security.
It was occupied by Roman soldiers from all over the empire for more than 300 years and has left an amazing legacy of archaeological finds, including the oldest surviving handwriting in Britain (the priceless Vindolanda tablets), thousands of boots and shoes, coins, jewellery, weaponry, armoury, clothes, boxing gloves, leather tents and (drum-roll) … a wooden toilet seat. All can be seen in the wonderful museum at the site.
But, it is the raw beauty of the fort’s landscape which etches itself in your memory. You stroll through the fascinating archaeological site intermittently taking in the surrounding emerald-coloured fields, stark barren hills and wooded valleys.
The site contains the crumbled remains of temples, tavern, bathhouse, workshops and barracks, now the site of the ultimate murder cold case after archaeologists found a child’s skeleton hidden under the floor. The prime suspects in this third-century murder mystery are soldiers of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls garrisoned in Vindolanda at the time. However, a guilty verdict is not considered likely!
A highlight of the fort is the life-size replicas of sections of Hadrian’s Wall, which give you an insight into what it looked like in its prime, as well as providing a great platform for scenic views and selfies.
As good as the replica wall was, I still hadn’t seen the real thing. Next stop, the Roman Army Museum, just up the road near Walltown Quarry Country Park.
Everything you could ever want to know about the Roman Army is there – it’s formations, weaponry, armour etc. There is also a short but sweet 3-D film to view which has great footage of the wall from an eagle’s perspective. But, I still hadn’t seen the Wall with my own eyes.
So, on leaving the museum I asked the obvious … directions to the wall. The answer: across the road, through a car park, around a lake, through a field and up the crags. Simple. It also came with a warning: It could be a bit muddy! Turns out the mud wasn’t the real worry … it was the sheep poop.
So off we set. The wind was howling and swirls of rain swept over us but the rough path by a little lake and up to the crags was exhilarating. Eventually we reached a farm gate with a sign requesting visitors avoid disturbing the sheep, some of whom were pregnant.
So up we went, dodging pregnant sheep, sheep poop and mud until we reached it … Hadrian’s Wall. And it was magnificent. The Wall, here just a metre or so high but still around 2m thick, carves its way through the rocky, unforgiving landscape into the mist ahead.
At that moment I recalled a poem I studied in high school (the only one I really liked): “Over the heather the wet wind blows, I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose. The rain comes pattering out of the sky, I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone, My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.”
Standing alongside the Wall and the words from Roman Wall Blues by WH Auden in my head, I was satisfied I had indeed made it to the end of the world … well, as the Romans knew it.
It was now time for the final chapter of our Wallstravaganza – Housesteads Fort, famous for its spectacular setting, it’s position on Hadrian’s Wall and … its toilets.
“Don’t miss our pride and joy,” we are told as we start our hike up to the fort from the visitor’s centre, “Take, a right after you go through the fort entrance. You can’t miss it. The best-preserved communal Roman latrine in the world.”
And, it didn’t disappoint. With just a little help from the accompanying artist’s impression, you could see exactly how it worked. I’m just glad I was looking at a non-functioning ruined version. History shouldn’t get too real.
Of course, the toilet wasn’t really the highlight. The beauty of Housesteads is seeing how Hadrian’s Wall linked to this substantial fort before disappearing again across another spectacular landscape.
Known way back then as Vercovicium, or place of the effective fighters, Housesteads was for several hundred years the home to between 800 and 1000 Roman soldiers.
And, inside the fort there is plenty of evidence of their lives –remnants of barracks, an army HQ (principia), a commanding officer’s quarters complete with baths (praetorium), a granary, hospital and, of course, the famous communal toilets.
So we strolled back down the hill quite content with our day of all things Roman. But, as we enjoyed the scenic drive back to Hadrian’s Barn, passing sections of wall as we went, the thought struck how little of this fabulous construction we had actually seen. A return to the end of the world one day was certainly going to be worth contemplating over a pint or two of English ale.
· The author’s trip was self-funded.
· He flew British Airways return from Sydney to London: www.britishairways.com
· He hired a car through Hertz, picking it up at Heathrow Airport. www.hertz.com.au
· Hadrian’s Barn B&B was booked through www.booking.com
· Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum: www.vindolanda.com
· Housesteads fort: see https://www.english-heritage.org.uk