Walking Hadrian’s Wall
Nowadays, much of the wall is gone; sections of it are no more than dots and dashes of stonework. At the eastern edge of the route, slabs of wall turn up incongruously in Tyneside housing estates. Every now and again, you come upon a stretch that is sufficiently intact to give you a sense of what it must have been like during the centuries when it was Rome’s northern frontier. Ruts cut by hundreds of years of wagon wheels can be seen in the stone gateways of forts. Here and there are stones carved by the soldiers to commemorate the completion of their work: ‘the cohort of Primus Pilus built this’ scratched into a stone, or a phallus etched into a limestone block to propitiate a forgotten god.
Six miles east of Lanercost, I reach the tranquil bend of the River Irthing, where a new bridge carries the long-distance footpath to the hamlet of Willowford. The bridge, lowered into place in 2001, is the first to span the Irthing since Roman occupation.
The remains of the abutment that supported the Roman bridge stand a hundred yards from the present course of the river. It’s odd to think that, 1,600 years after the Romans left, the infrastructure they built has only just been equalled.
I begin my second day plodding up the path from Walltown quarry to embark on the most dramatic stretch of the wall. This section was shaped by forces even more ancient than the Romans. Between Walltown and Sewingshields Crags, the wall sits astride a natural geological feature – the Whin Sill, a big prow of dolerite that towers over the moorland in front of it.
This is the toughest, most exhilarating walking of all. You hug the ridge of a huge inland cliff, looking out over a sea of moorland and trees towards the Scottish uplands. It feels as though the wall itself has been energised by the extraordinary landscape; it seems to defy both gravity and common sense as it runs dizzyingly close to the edge of the cliff, switchbacking over the peaks and dips of the escarpment. Way off in the distance, the sheep look like clumps of tiny white mushrooms.
It’s impossible to walk Hadrian’s Wall and not become fascinated by the Romans and Britons who lived, worked and died here. They come to life with surprising vividness. In the 1970s, archaeologists excavated the remains of a Roman rubbish tip in the fort of Vindolanda. The airless condition of the site’s dense soil means that organic matter has been preserved: leather, wood and textiles have survived almost two millennia in the Northumbrian earth. There is something strangely moving about the familiar objects that have turned up here: beautifully worked shoes, a chair leg, a hairnet, a child’s wooden toy sword.
The excavators also discovered wooden fragments bearing Latin handwriting. What have come to be known as the Vindolanda Tablets include a letter of complaint, roll-calls of troops, a derogatory reference to the locals as ‘brittunculi’ (‘Little Brits’) and, perhaps most poignantly, a 1,900-year-old invitation to a birthday party. The invitation is written in part by a professional scribe but includes a brief message by the hostess of the party. ‘I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’ They are the among the earliest examples of a woman’s handwriting in Latin.
Vindolanda today occupies a surprisingly big site about a mile to the south of the wall. The grey stones of Roman foundations – homes, temples, bath-houses – stand out against the green Northumbrian grass, evidence of a complex and thriving community.
Last autumn, the dig at Vindolanda brought a more unsettling discovery. Under the floor of a barracks, where it had lain since about 250 AD, archaeologists found the skeleton of a child. They called in Dr Trudi Buck, an anthropological expert from Durham University, to try to determine the child’s identity and manner of death.