Walking Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall snakes across the Whin Sill, a ridge of high volcanic rock, in Northumberland. (Justin Foulkes)
There’s something about long-distance walking that puts you in a slightly altered mental state, but I’m still surprised when I see a Roman legionary coming towards me above Walltown Crags.
The man’s breastplate catches the light as he makes his way up the steep slope. Behind him, Hadrian’s Wall stretches away into the mist. On the northern side of the frontier – barbarian country – there are a few animals grazing, but the farmland looks wilder and more untamed than the pasture to the south.
Even for someone fit, the climb uphill is testing. At the summit, the legionary gasps that he’s marched from Segedunum (present-day Wallsend in Newcastle), before pausing to catch his breath. I fumble for my schoolboy Latin and can’t remember any: the word I’m looking for is ‘cur’ – why?
‘I like difficult things,’ he says. ‘I’m not being unkind, but anyone can walk Hadrian’s Wall in that.’ He gestures at my anorak and sensible shoes.
Richard Parker is the legionary’s name and he poses gamely for pictures with his plastic sword. There are lots of good reasons to walk Hadrian’s Wall: it crosses the entire width of England; the landscape is spectacular; it’s an archaeological site of supreme importance; it’s a physical challenge – though the truth is there’s no reason to do it bare-legged and wearing a heavy helmet on your head, even if, like Richard, you’re doing it to raise money for a neonatal unit in Plymouth.
He says goodbye and sets off towards Barrow-in-Furness, past the wall’s western end. He plans to be there in four days.
As I watch him go, with his red nylon cape flapping out behind him, he looks more John Cleese than Julius Caesar, and it strikes me that many of our associations with ancient Rome are comic. But walk the path for any distance, and as the wall unfolds in front of you, it reveals a past that was also epic, poignant and strange.
I’d begun my walk the day before, heading east from Lanercost in Cumbria. It’s my plan to walk the 40-mile stretch to Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland over four days. I set off early in the morning as a man called Maurice brings out the honesty box from his shed to set beside his bag of home-grown apples. Munching on one of Maurice’s apples as I walk past the first standing remnant of the wall at Hare Hill, I find it hard to reconcile the peaceful atmosphere around me with what I know of the region’s history. Ripe sloes and crab apples line the path that runs along green pasture where sheep and cattle graze happily in the soft rain.
Hadrian ordered the construction of his wall in 122 AD; ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’, his biographer wrote. It stretched in its heyday from coast to coast, with a pair of turrets and a ‘castle’ or small fort every mile, and deep earthworks on either side. Larger forts, some of which predated the wall, garrisoned the troops and housed their dependants.
Until antiquarians began to realise the significance of Hadrian’s Wall and fought to preserve it in the 19th century, it was pillaged by locals for building material. Along its length, farmhouses that have been built out of Roman masonry still sit next to denuded sections of the wall. All the same, according to Richard Hingley, a Durham archaeologist who’s writing a biography of the wall, locals never entirely forgot its importance. It helped define the border between England and Scotland. And as early as the 16th century, local landowners were collecting stones from the wall to display in their gardens.