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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: Romans Didn’t Need Smart Phones

Since Covid-19 struck last year we have become accustomed to virtual experiences such as museum tours, town council meetings, inaugural events and even the World Series. But imagine my surprise when I learned via Facebook that I could earn a Hadrian’s Wall path medal without ever leaving home!

Internet Add for a virtual Hadrian’s Wall Hike or Run includes a route map with achievement points and fancy pin on completion.

That’s right: A company called “My Virtual Mission & Conqueror Event Series” found its way uninvited onto my page, thanks to those creepy algorithms that track our posts and web searches. For only $29.95, all I have to do is tabulate my exercise, whether hiking, Stairmaster, cycling or rowing machine, which will advance me to checkpoints along the trail culminating in a red and gold “finishers medal.”

The Hadrian’s Wall partnership in northern England features a passport program, whereby you stamp your documents at wayside stamping stations along the 84-mile trail. Completion brings you a pin and certificate. The photo also includes the baggage pick-up tag.

The Hadrian’s Wall passport with trail map indicating all stamping stations. As you can see, I messed up with the process at the end of the trail.

History lessons and health benefits aside, a virtual hike along the Hadrian’s Wall path is no substitute for the tactile experience of a 1,900-year-old ruin and the English countryside. But neither does one endure the angst of disorientation or become downright lost on a virtual hike, which is always a risk when maps and guidebook directions become ensnarled in real time.

 

The 18th century bridge crossing the River North Tyne below the village of Corbridge.

That’s what happened on the real Hadrian’s Wall in 2019 when my friend Jerry and I diverted five miles south of the wall path. Our goal was a hotel in the village of Corbridge, once known as Corstopitum (Coria for short), a Roman fort and town that pre-dated the wall. We knew this diversion was going to be a challenge to our stamina and orienting abilities even before leaving Friday Harbor. As neither of us were experienced long-distance hikers, we had opted to do the route in 10 rather than the customary six days with our tour company. We were soon to learn that the detours are designed to consume time, which involved adding miles as well as overnight stops.

Three more miles of roadside trail intersected by gates or stiles had brought us from a hilltop overlook to an iron cattle guard capped by a grand stone gateway. This is the long-buried site of Halton-Chesters Fort (Onnum or “Water Fort”), which sowed some confusion in our trail-numbed minds. The writer and long-distance hiker Robert Macfarlane refers to this phenomena as “skull cinema,” when your legs are engaged by an automatic pilot, allowing the mind to wander. Wasn’t Chesters Fort some eight miles ahead, beyond the destination of our recent companions? Yes it was. But this was another Chesters. I had forgotten that “Chester” derives from the Latin castrum, or fortified camp. But the only evidence of this fort is from about 3,000 feet, where a rectangular enclosure with rounded corners is visible. 

The approach to Aydon Castle features about two miles of macadam farm road, never easy on the heels after a long day on the trail.

We crossed the cattle guard and followed a tree-lined lane south to Halton castle, the ever-constant sheep on either side pausing from grazing to check us out. The day’s first true puzzle was revealed at an intersection about a mile on. One track curved around the castle, the other was a driveway that passed through the grounds, more farmyard than tourist venue. The weedy roadside made my eyes swell and filled my sinuses, which did not help matters.

Which way?

No directional signs were apparent…yet. The border of my paper map ended a few inches south of the wall path. The trails on our digital maps were not named. The guidebook offered hand-drawn maps on successive pages, each of which illustrated trails vanishing into space and labels such as “Leazes Cottage” (never found) and text entries such as “…look for lapwings and buzzards” or, on another hike segment, “a bodkin on a doorframe.”

Shoot.

Just then we heard a tractor coming around the bend. It was a John Deere pulling a hay wagon, operated by a hatless, moon-faced farmer in his mid-30s. We waved him down and asked for directions. He cut his machine to idle and tried to explain, but his thick Geordi accent and the rumbling engine defied comprehension. Geordi is a Tyneside dialect distinctive to northeastern England. Think of the British television shows “Vera” or “All Creatures Great and Small.” After a series of “Pardons?” and “Whats?” he shut off the machine. First he looked at my map and exclaimed, “Hey, there’s na Corbridge on this paper!”

“Yes, that’s right, it’s only for the wall path,” I said.

“Well, it’ll do ye na here.” He then explained, as slowly and carefully as he could, how we needed to take the left fork, walk downhill to Aydon Castle, then slip around the right side of the castle and through a gate where a path traversed a “wood” and emerged directly above the town.

“You’ll see yer way, then. You’re all right.”

We knew by then that this did not necessarily indicate reassurance, as “all right” in Geordi-speak is another way of saying “hello” and “good-bye.”

We were still on our own.

Lost In Aydon Dene

The hard asphalt road to Aydon castle wound downhill through a hayfield into another junction and quandary. A trail sign inscribed “Corbridge” pointed toward the castle and the woodland beyond, confirming the farmer’s directions. But the smart phone map indicated a paved road to the left, though no trail per se. We pondered our options a bit before deciding to ask for directions once again inside the castle, a massive pile built in the late 13th century as an unfortified manor hall. The castle walls were thrown up when news arrived that those wild Caledonians (now Scots) were raiding again over the border, led first by William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and then Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine). It is now an English Heritage site with a parking area and gift shop.

Aydon Castle began as a manor house in the late 13th century until the Scots raided across the border. That’s when the battlements erected proved useless against warriors such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. 

I went inside to double-check the tractor driver’s directions. But it was not going to be a brief encounter with the attendant, a young man with a ponytail and Oxford-educated accent. Like all interpreters with a story to tell, and without drawing a breath, he proceeded to give me an overview of the castle in addition to marketing an English Heritage attractions pass, which would admit me to all fee sites throughout England. I at once felt sorry for all those visitors I had “lectured” on lonely, mid-winter days as a park ranger. Meanwhile Jerry was outside, eager to resume our journey.

I broke into the attendant’s overview and asked him to please confirm the trail. His face fell. Yes, it was just outside, he said. Follow the path from the gate. I made my escape to find my hiking partner by the subject gate, looking grim. Had we proceeded on the smart phone road, we might be halfway to a bed and a beer by now. We slipped through the gate and soon found ourselves on a woodland trail that cut across a draw, known locally as Aydon Dene. Derived from the Old English denu, a “dene” or “dean” in Northumberland usually refers to a steep, wooded valley through which runs a “burn” or creek, in this case Cor Burn, which refers to the ancient Roman town. Think of all the words or names you know ending with dene, dean, burn or bourne. They may be associated with a creek or a valley.

In this particular dene we were confronted not only with a by-now dry Cor Burn, but a web of leafy creek beds—the kind that channel flash floods—running uphill. Adding to the confusion, the trail split into multiple tracks that were hard to differentiate from the beds, with no signs to indicate which path we should follow to Corbridge. It reminded me of the Mitchell Hill trail network on San Juan Island before the National Park management team installed directional posts and wayside trail maps. A hiker could start out at the pipe gate on Horse Trail Road and end up at the intersection of West Valley and Roche Harbor roads, over the hill at Lakedale Resort or lost altogether. 

The Aydon Dene presents a challenge to hikers unfamiliar with local trail networks in the Corbridge/Hexham area. A compass comes in handy.

I looked down and checked the tiny REI compass I had attached to the left shoulder strap of my pack. This was a gift from my wife, Julia. Never mind GPS and smart phones, she’d said. You never know when a compass will come in handy. I knew it then. Corbridge was southeast. I checked true north, then took the path heading in the opposite direction. This led to the edge of a pasture and the junction of another trail that merged with ours, and led us to a gate giving on to yet another grassy knoll overlooking the Tyne River Valley. Here the trail forked. I learned later that this eminence is called Gallow Hill, but there was no signage to indicate this or which way we should go.

But then I could distinctly hear the hiss and roar of a highway beyond the tree line below. The trail crossed the field to the left and, sure enough, expanded into a fenced track that paralleled the A69 expressway linking Carlisle and Newcastle. Footsore and weary, we crossed an overpass that carried us over the freeway and into the Corbridge town limits. A mile slog on concrete took us to our hotel, the Angel Inn, a former coach house founded in 1726. Our bags had blessedly been hauled up the stairs to our room, which was a floor up from the hotel public house’s outdoor tables for smokers.

I learned, long after returning home, that we had stumbled that afternoon onto the outbound track of the popular Aydon Castle heritage trail, which is not a part of the national network. Local hikers usually start from the opposite side of the River Tyne below Corbridge. We had found our way quite by accident, following a well-trodden path that is promoted on a number of websites and hiker blogs. Fragments of the trail also were indicated in our guidebook, but in agate type that no one with “skull cinema” could hope to decipher.

We had two options to reach the wall path and Chester’s Fort the next day. The most direct was via Dere Street, alternately an expressway, two-lane county road and rural farm track terminating in England at the “Portgate,” once a gate in the wall and now a traffic circle on the B6318. It would mean a long walk on pavement and assuredly two cases of sore feet. However, if you were a Roman between 85 to 410 CE and you were heading north from York toward the wild Caledonian frontier, this was the primary road.

The English had hardly improved the quality of Dere Street between the Roman era and King James I’s journey to his native Scotland in 1617. It is said that the king was so overcome with emotion that he straddled the border north of the wall to underscore the unity of his kingdom. It is also reported that his legion of courtiers ate and drank Northumbria out of house and home “like a drove of Tamworth pigs.”

Our second option was to head south across the Tyne and then follow the river southwest to a tributary called the “Devil’s Water,” where battles had been fought in post-Roman Northumbria and during the War of the Roses. From there the trail led to Hexham, then recrossed the river and returned the hiker to the wall path at St. Oswald’s church. Though devoid of Roman attractions, Hexham was home to an abbey of historical significance and had a bus and train station with connections all along Hadrian’s Wall. Just in case we might want to throw in the towel and ride rather than march.

The trail follows the left bank of the River North Tyne to a tributary called the Devil’s Water on the way to Hexham.

We opted for Hexham.

The Devil’s Water and Wet Pants

After a breakfast of eggs Benedict the second day in a row (good thing we were walking 14-plus miles), we hauled our bags to the pick-up point in the lobby. The van driver contracted by our tour company would pick them up later that morning. A new tag had been added listing each date and destination for the coming marches. We were two days in with eight more to go.

Walking out of the hotel, the glistening streets indicated that it had rained earlier in the morning. The housekeeper already was engaged in soaking up the water that pooled on the pub’s patio tables and chairs. Last night’s hangers-on, voices amplified by one too many pints, had kept us awake until after 10 when we finally heard a cab roll up and haul them away.

We made our way down to the Tyne and the 17th-century bridge below, consulting our maps and attempting to work out in three dimensions where the map was telling us to go. We located the gate to another local foot/bridal path on the south side of the river with a sign and arrow pointing west to Hexham. We did not hesitate to ask directions from a woman walking her black Labrador along the rural river bank, who assured us that we were indeed heading the right way. The Tyne is shallow and scuds along here, brownish-green and crystalline above the rocks near shore. We passed the stacked masonry of an old Roman bridge abutment, but elected not to walk down the trail to explore it as the grass was high and wet with the rain. There is nothing worse than having to dry out your trousers in an evening, in addition to the underwear you’ve laundered in the bathroom sink. We stuck to the river bank and then winced as the path narrowed into a bushwhack of tall, sodden grass.

This was the reedy Devil’s Water tributary. Up ahead, a passenger train sped east toward Newcastle. The whistle was still ding-donging when we reached a gate leading to a modest crossing. Here an elderly hiker in knee-length shorts and lugging a half-gallon red water jug leaned on the rail. His beefsteak ears were withered at the lobes and he was missing several front teeth. He smiled broadly. “Ye missed the train to Newcastle, boys,” he said in thick Geordi. This was a joke. We explained we were going the other way, which he had already deduced. He blessed and wished us luck several times before adding, “You’re all right.”

We soon found ourselves on a cross-country trail to Hexham that was longer and muddier than anything we had experienced thus far. We worked our way through a gloomy woodland with protruding roots, bogs and blooming foliage, the composition of which made my eyes water. The forest opened to Macadam Road, along which was a drystone wall and beyond that a Victorian quarry stone mansion with 22 (we counted) chimneys springing from the roof. Hoping this might be an attraction with a gift shop and directions, we walked through the open gate into sculpted gardens that framed a circular drive. Here we were immediately engaged by the gardener who seemed eager to visit. He explained that the house and grounds were a private property that once belonged to the Duke of York, but this turned out to be an apocryphal story.

The Duke’s House on the trail to Hexham is now a grand duplex with 22 chimneys. It is so named because the Duke of Somerset was captured here after a skirmish during the War of the Roses. The house was built in the 19th century.

My curiosity piqued, I looked up the house online that evening, learned that it was built in 1873 and that the name refers to Henry Beaufort, the third Duke of Somerset. Beaufort was a Lancastrian, loyal to Henry VI, who was captured by Yorkist forces while hiding in a barn on the site in 1464 following the so-called Battle of Hexham during the War of the Roses. It was only a skirmish on horseback that criss-crossed the Devil’s Water, but it spelled the end for Beaufort and his friends. They were hauled to Hexham and beheaded by their captors. As a tribute to his rank, Beaufort was reputedly interred in the abbey.  

We left the road and crossed another savanna. The trail skirted a third-growth forest before entering a thicket garnished with foxgloves, some standing five feet tall, and tangles of hawthorn, wild cherry, hazel, rowan and other species associated with forests recovering from clearcutting. The track turned sandy and branched off in multiple directions as it descended toward another road, which we hoped would take us into Hexham. I was just about to check my phone when several schoolgirls in soccer attire appeared. “Is this the way to Hexham?” Yes, they answered in unison. The road bordered a neighborhood on one side and a forested hillside on the other. “Go that way,” a ginger-haired girl said, smiling and pointing downhill. We were back in civilization, accompanied by raindrops and a stream of traffic crawling toward a signal at a busy intersection.

This view of Hexham with its magnificent abbey was taken after we emerged from the woods. 

Hexham and St. Oswald

From here we followed a sidewalk into this market town on the Tyne. It is best known for its abbey, first erected by the Saxons in 674, then knocked down and rebuilt several times before assuming its Gothic form. The abbey’s outstanding Roman feature is a nine-foot-high headstone from the first century CE, positioned next to the night stairs that monks used to reach their sleeping quarters from the transept. The piece was found under the abbey floor in 1881, and like much of the stone used to the build the church, came up the Tyne from the ruins at Corbridge. It depicts in relief a Roman cavalry auxiliary in helmet with plume on horseback, carrying a standard depicting the sun god in a circle. He is trampling a naked barbarian who is carrying a round shield and leaf-shaped sword. This is consistent with most Roman memorial stones and triumphal arches. They were perennially bragging about their conquests in this life or the next.

The abbey’s outstanding Roman feature is a nine-foot-high headstone from the first century CE, positioned next to the night stairs that monks used to reach their sleeping quarters from the transept. The piece was found under the abbey floor in 1881, and like much of the stone used to the build the church, came up the Tyne from the ruins at Corbridge.

I well remember the triumphal arches in Provence, especially the triple-fornix monster in Orange that features slaves on leashes and, arrayed in base relief, the booty of military and naval clashes including wrecked ships, armaments…and more slaves in chains. As burials were only permitted outside the town walls, travelers could view the headstones before passing through the arches or gateways. The warning was clear, which made me think of a line from my favorite movie:

“Do you see what happens, Lebowski? Do you see what happens?”

According to the accompanying interpretive label, the inscription reads:

To the Venerated Departed: Here lies Flavinus, A Horse Rider of the Cavalry Regiment Petriana, Standard Bearer of the Troop of Candidus, Aged 25, of 7 Year’s Service.

St. Oswald’s Church is one of a number erected on the site if the Heavenfield fight after King Oswald was canonized.

It was at Hexham that our paths diverged. While Jerry pressed on to another Tyne bridge, I called a cab to take me the three remaining miles to the wall path and St. Oswald’s, a simple stone church on a rise engulfed by sycamores. It is named for King Oswald of Bernicia, a Saxon who won a great battle in 633 CE against the Welsh on the site known as Heavenfield. It is said that Oswald erected a cross on the field after the fight, which is likened to Constantine’s vision of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome in 312 CE. For this he was canonized and churches were built, this latest version in 1817 on the site of several others dating back to the original shrine. Unhurried, I took the path to the top of the hill. As with all English churches, especially the rural ones, the dead parishioners surround the building beneath gravestones that are teetering and worn save for a scatter of marble modern slabs. The doors were locked, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. It seemed I was the only hiker who cared about poor old Oswald and a Roman altar piece that the guidebook said was set on one wall. My cab driver, a Geordi also named Michael, said the battle was actually fought further down the valley on the other side of the highway, but that a hilltop was a far better spot for the church than a swale.

“Closer to heaven, you know,” he said with a grin.

A volunteer at the Abbey was more pedantic on the subject of the church’s location. “Ancient history and myth,” he pronounced. I mentioned that a friend had curated an exhibition at a museum in Oregon that featured a bible from this very abbey. “Oh, I heard about that one, he said. “There are a lot of Hexham bibles in circulation.”

But I got a kick out of St. Oswald’s and the replica wooden cross on the edge of the field, the same site as the original, Michael had told me, winking. I enjoyed the sheep grazing in the pasture, the piles of dung and the gusts of wind that forced me to remove my hat. I was less enthused about the rickety stile that led to a pasture where four fat bulls reclined, blocking the path to the next stile that rose from a plank walkway over a bog along the fence line.

The trail passes directly through farm fields below St. Oswald’s Church, but these fellows were too content to pay me any mind. 

Michael had said, “Don’t worry about those bulls, they’re too tired, you’re all right.” And then he told me about his 30-year-old pet parrot, who still calls out to his old Labrador retriever who died last fall. “That bird still cries, ‘Hey George, you’re all right.’ Breaks your heart.” For my benefit, he castigated the farmers who force wall hikers to diverge onto busy or blind corners on narrow roads because they don’t want them trespassing on their fields. “There’s no harm in it, crossing those fields,” he said. “Hikers are not the people to make that kind of mischief. They’re too tired, you know, and they just want to get where they’re goin’.” Michael is semi-retired, and his wife manages a nursing home. He is about 50, florid with pale blue eyes. And he knows a lot about the trail, its significance and why it is important to the region. “It’s a nice little job, this cab, because I can talk with you lot. You’re all right!”

Michael drives a taxi in the Hexham area and is also a good source of information about the wall path and other historical bits. The wooden cross at right commemorates King Oswald’s victory over the Welsh in 633 CE.

Thanks to Michael’s directions, I made my way down the hill toward Chesters Fort. I stopped to take a closer look at a 50-foot length of wall called “Planetrees” on another hillock overlooking the Tyne Valley. It was here the Romans asked, “Why are we making this thing so bloody thick?” and reduced it from 10 to eight feet wide.

The ruin includes a wayside exhibit depicting Roman soldiers busily at work and an inset portrait of the poet William Hutton, who in 1801 stopped the locals from harvesting the stones for their barns and fences. Hutton is primarily renowned for being the first person in the modern era to walk the entire wall course, including a round-trip hoof from Birmingham. A total of 600 miles—at age 78. He wrote a book about it afterwards entitled The History of the Roman Wall. One passage is oft quoted, but I offer it here, again:

“I have given a short sketch of my approach to this famous Bulwark; have described it as it appears in the present day, and stated my return. Perhaps, I am the first man that ever traveled the whole length of this Wall, and probably the last that will ever attempt it.”

Several million hikers later….

Next Time: Crossing Chesters Bridge


Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.

Last modified onSunday, 07 February 2021 01:55

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