On the Wall

12Aug10

Quiet places of antiquity speak louder when deserted so it was dawn when I left the car at Steel Rigg as early blue Northumberland light gathered.

Across the defensive Vellum ditch that was dug 2 millennia ago, the old drover’s track dips for a few metres, just along from where Hadrian’s Wall crosses the tarmac. Soon, I could see more clearly the line of perfect stone blocks stretch into the distance. In the folds of land towards Crag Logh, the northern-most frontier of Roman empire undulated with the natural topography of England.

National Trust signs tell walkers to stay off. In places it crumbles, the stones falling far down the slopes once on the dark side, the realm of Barbarian hordes.

I heard the early calls of kestrels and sheep and the Michelin drone of car tyres on the B6318 below. Fifty miles south was the rest of England while to the north was Kielder Forest and the modern Borders. A South-Westerly blew and I hauled up my rucksack. Here a Roman once stood shivering, his back to the cold and eyes fixed to the north while scanning the forests for a blood-thirsty enemy.

Hadrian’s 4.5m high Wall was 80 Roman miles (73.5 miles, 117km) long and so important was it to secure its length that up to 10% of the Roman army total force were stationed here. Like the concrete curtain that draws across Gaza from Israeli control, Hadrian’s stranglehold on the locals was total.

Milecastle 39 sits in a steep hollow 20-minutes march from Steel Rigg. The two-storey gated structures served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxation from peaceful traders and as war-party watchtowers. Stables, barracks and kitchens provided 32 soldiers with a warm outpost during their duty periods and the paths that follow the Wall itself, as well as connecting military supply routes are the current roads that link nearby towns.

We remember the images of a chilled, home-sick foot soldier huddled with cloak and spear, pacing about with a long time to think of home, prospects, fate, love or imminent death by a bluenose axe. But this morning, it was the most beautiful patch of Britannia to stand – not the misery depicted in Ladybird art. I can’t comment on the blistering heat of Mediterranean Assyria from where the armies of Rome recruited their archers but have you ever been to Tongeren in modern-day Belgium, the home of ancient Tungrian Auxillaries who also manned this territory? I wonder if these hills really were the end of their known world?

Walking the whole Wall coast-to-coast takes the ardent trekker about 7 days and following the trail is at times the toughest of yomps. Strings of mostly jovial walkers sweat and stride between B+Bs and pints of Twice Brewed bitter. As you toil, you may see nearby rocky outcrops with right-angled wedges missing, once the ancient quarries. Elsewhere, its raw materials have been stolen by past DIY builders and only low dry stone walls remain and rounded, right-angled blocks that must have fitted more snugly now lay around in the grass like abandoned Duplo bricks.

You so want to uncover a sliced jaw bone or buckle with your Italian-made hiking boot. As a wannabe Poirot sleuth you yearn to notice some minutiae that no-one else has seen in two thousand years.

Over at Housesteads Fort, one of the settings in Anthony Riches’ Wounds of Honour, re-enactment Brits charged at tourists then froze like a nursery dare game. The crowds who came uphill from their cars might be distant descendants of local civilian friendlies who once occupied the extramural vicus settlements.

Back at Steel Rigg, parking bays resembled the traces of barracks walls at Milecastle 39. I sat to listen to the quiet of history and time and thought once again about the guarding of one civilised world to another from fierce tribes. Delightfully relevant, Robbie Williams’ sang Millennium on Radio 2:

.. Come and have a go if you think you are hard enough.”

Nine hours later and we were entering the old city boundaries of Londinium, reminding us of being the downtrodden.

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