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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: The Hard (Best) Part

July 12 Once Brewed (Vindolanda)

As I write this in our room at the Vallum Lodge, the sheep are bleating plaintively several pitches above the steady hiss of the B6318 highway, which passes directly in front of the lodge. I was tempted to go out to see what was going on, but I was already in for the night and running behind in my journal. Jerry and I had completed the “bus day,” planned so we could visit the Vindolanda archaeological site and still hike the most exciting portion of the wall between Housesteads and our lodging.

Housesteads draws its name from the farms that operated on the site for hundreds of years by the Armstrongs and Nixons. A reconstructed Hadrian’s Wall rolls East toward Sewing Shields. (Jerry McElyea)

We arrived at the Housesteads fort ruin on the 122AD bus from Chollerford, and stepped off into a bitter wind blowing in from the Northwest. All I had on was an anorak and quick-dry t-shirt and trousers because it had been so hot the day before and I wanted to travel lightly. I began to shiver as soon as we disembarked.

A ranger emerged from indoors with a sea sponge on a stick and affixed it to a chain attached to what I had at first thought was a bench set against a brick wall next to the restrooms. On closer inspection I saw that the bench was actually a replica of a two-hole Roman public toilet, and the sponge duplicated the Roman way of wiping yourself. (I later learned that a gladiator committed suicide with one of these sponges.) The exhibit emphasizes that Housesteads has the most intact Roman public toilets in all of Britain.

“Do you suppose the ancients chained their sponges?” I asked, knowing from experience that she probably heard this same joke several times a day. As a national park interpretive ranger who talked about the Pig War on San Juan Island, I must have fielded “Who ate the pig?” thousands of times. But it was early and she was fresh from breakfast, so she cheerfully answered: “Oh, I dunno, but if we dinna’ chain it up, twould be a goner by noon.” We all sniggered as the bolt turned in the door.

We paid our admission and climbed a steep gravel path through grazing sheep to the fort site. Called Vercovicium (The Fort of the Good Fighters) in ancient days, the fort is set on the crest of a hill and linked by fully restored stretches of wall. The current name, Housesteads, refers to a farm on the site first occupied in 1604 by Hugh Nixon, a tenant who was “...a stealer of cattle and receiver of stolen goods.” From 1663 the farm was taken over by a branch of the Armstrong clan, who used the ruins as pens for stolen horses and cattle from both sides of the border until the law caught up with them in 1704. The leader, Nicolas Armstrong, was hanged while his brothers fled to America. I found this connection between two outlaw families in the wilds of Northumbria intriguing, as a Nixon and an Armstrong participated in the first interstellar telephone call between earth and the moon in July 1969.

We would learn more about the Nixons, Armstrongs and their fellow “Border Reivers” as we moved along the path.

Wildflowers and several varieties of mosses and grasses thrive in the wall’s rubble core.

Housesteads is not appreciably more exciting than Chesters. These are also garden ruins with knee-high walls that require wayside exhibits with artists’ depictions and a little imagination to envision a Roman community going about its business. The price of the ticket here is the fort’s connection to Hadrian’s Wall, which rolls over the hills running in both directions. We were now getting a sense of the size and scope of the system, which surpasses anything built by the Roman Army over the millennia.

Housesteads’ design conforms to a frontier template found throughout the Roman world, which varied in size from five to nine acres and housed from 500 to 1,000 auxiliary legionaries. Each fort had two principal streets, the via principalis and the via praetorius, that converged on the headquarters building, the principia, located dead center and facing the main gate. This echoed the order of Roman city design, where the main arterials (the cardo and decamus maximuses) crossed north-south/east-west with the forum laid out at the fulcrum. It was the same no matter where you were. I pulled out my compass to double-check. Right on the mark.

Today you can follow the stone foundations, check the signs and envision the ceremonial courtyard at the building’s front, then step into the two-story main hall with a raised speaking platform (tribunal), where the commanding officer (praefectus) addressed his troops. Beyond that were rooms for the unit’s sacred standards (battle flags), administrative offices and the strong room, where the pay chest was stashed in a hole in the ground. The praetorium next door was the largest building at Housesteads, which befitted the men who occupied a middling high station in Rome’s eyes. These were nobles of the equestrian class (equites) whose families earned their wealth and status through business rather than aristocratic antecedents. They could afford to live high, in marked contrast to the auxiliary soldiers who were penned eight to a room, if not in open-bay barracks. The house featured a Mediterranean-style peristyle (a courtyard with fountains), its own private bathhouse and enough rooms for extended family and guests of honor such as the rare visiting senator or even the emperor. These two mammoth structures were surrounded by barracks, stables, granaries (the soldiers ate wheat, the horses oats), smithy, temples and wells.

Beyond the walls are the ruins of the vicus, which was a self-governing village of camp followers that included soldiers’ families, merchants, artisans, taverns, bordellos, stables and cartage for freighting companies. From the dawn of civilization, every military or naval base in the world has given onto a vicus. San Juan Village sprang up with most of the same businesses as soon as the first boatload of soldiers stepped ashore.

I was still cold, so I returned to the gift shop located below the fort and bought a watch cap and an official Hadrian’s Wall sweatshirt with “Founded 122 AD” inscribed across the breast. When the sun broke through about 30 minutes later, I peeled off the sweatshirt and stuffed it into my pack where it remained for the balance of the trip.

We poked around the ruins for another hour and then got antsy to walk the wall, which is roughly six feet high for about six miles with about 400 yards of narrow drystone field walls built atop the wall as filler. It is not hard to divine the difference between eras, as the Roman wall is 10 feet thick with dressed stones on the outside and rubble and clay soil in the middle.

As this was the result of reconstruction carried out by Chesters’ John Clayton and his acolytes in the 19th century, scholars call this section Clayton’s, rather than Hadrian’s, Wall. Clayton’s crews collected scatter from both sides of the curtain wall and refitted them in close approximation of the original edifice. Then they in-filled with remaining rubble and capped it with turf, creating a mammoth planter box bristling with wildflowers, grasses and shrubs for most of the way. The work is not precisely authentic and does not meet today’s archaeological standards. But had it not been for Clayton, who purchased vast amounts of real estate along the wall corridor, the ruin might have been lost for all time. Even so, some lengths, particularly those setting atop mineral resources, would last only during his lifetime.

Back on the trail you can hug the wall as it follows the contours of the hills, or opt for the easier Military Road trail, which was added by the Romans under Emperor Marcus Aurelius about 50 years after initial construction. The road, which runs parallel below the south face, was added for many of the same reasons as the Old Military Road that once ran between American and English camps on San Juan Island. Primary among these was communication and free movement of troops and commerce.

At this point, the wall path becomes a workout. You climb via flagstone steps to the crest of a hill, catch your breath on the plateaus, and then carefully pick your way down those same stones through a gap to the next hill. In one gap (called “nicks” locally), we encountered Mile Castle 37, the first fully enclosed mile castle on the path if you’re hiking east to west. This is largely because it had been partially reconstructed beginning with the first excavation in 1853. The ruin’s most significant feature is the remnant arch at the north gate, which is the only such feature along the 84-mile path. It is more of a suggestion, with only three voussoirs (curved sections) rising on each side.

Mile Castle 37 features the only vestige of an arched gate along the 84 mikes of Hadrian’s Wall. (Jerry McElyea)

Continuing on to another climb and descent, my hips and legs ached and I began to regret not taking the Military Road. But then I imagined the Roman soldiers, divided into squads by task, excavating the base to bedrock, fitting the dressed stones into the curtain faces and then filling the middle with the mixture of lime, rubble and clay. They then erected scaffolding to continue the work as it rose to 15 feet with a walkway and a parapet with crenellations.

I indulged in this time travel and other “skull cinema” until Jerry stopped ahead of me. On the horizon, the Whin Sill and limestone teeth of Steel Rigg plunged into the still glacial pond of Crag Lough (pronounced “luff”). At an average 55 degrees latitude, Hadrian’s Wall country, like the San Juan Islands at 48.5, was buried under a mile of blue ice when the continental glaciers ground over the northern hemisphere. The sill is where the Pennine Hills that form England’s spine come to a screeching halt and plunge into the Tyne Gap that rolls up to Scotland. In some places it appears as though the hills ahead were lopped off with a giant cheese cutter, while the more sloping prospects reminded me of Mt. Finlayson, a glacial moraine on the San Juan’s southern extremity also shaped by deep time.

It was a perfect photo opportunity with the bluff, the lake and the sloped-back ridge corrugated by the glacial spillways that challenged the Romans. We extracted our smart phones for the classic shot, but the opportunity was disrupted by a couple standing at the wall between us and the panorama. They did not seem inclined to move any time soon, and who could blame them? They had found their spot. We waited. Minutes passed. They at last turned and regarded us, but still did not move. Finally I gave up, decided again that bodies lend perspective to the view and continued on, exchanging hellos as we passed. Given his “sagged” trousers belted below his buttocks and tattoos, and her aquamarine hair, the Romans may have taken them for barbarians.

We descended the hill, following the wall as it turned south across the pastures and bastion manor house of Hotbank Farm, and then climbed Steel Rigg. We huffed along Highfield Crags above the lake, where the bluff-edge is riddled by fissures and the waters below are reflected alternately blue and gray by passing clouds. We then picked our way down the extraordinarily steep flagstone path to Sycamore gap on the west side of the lough. This is one of the more iconic spots on the path, as sprouting from the gap’s base at dead center is a full-crowned sycamore, one of the most photographed trees in England. Why? Because it was here that Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman, as Robin Hood and his Moorish sidekick Azeez, rescued a boy from Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the 1991 film, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Never mind that the filmmakers were portraying this encounter as if it were just up from a Dover beach—nearly 400 miles south. 

Sycamore Gap and the “Robin Hood” tree have more to do with Hollywood these days than the ancient Romans.

I could well imagine all the Hollywood palaver around there during filming, with the trucks, trailers and mess tents. We had our own experience when Warner Brothers came to San Juan to film “Practical Magic.” Disruptions included the erection of the full-sized shell of a 19th-century Gothic mansion in the County Park and Nicole Kidman taking her daily run at American Camp. We had anticipated getting a photo of the tree standing proudly in the gap. But again, a horde of tattooed “barbarians” from the car park were gathered about the tree and draped over the wall in various aspects, quaffing from bottles in paper bags, smoking cigarettes and texting.

We moved on, and I was rewarded the next gap over with a clean shot of Milecastle 39, also known as “Castle Nick.” Hollywood aside, it is the most genuinely iconic view in the area, appearing in brochures, books and catalogs about the wall. The fortlet, which was exposed in 1854 and excavated in 1908, is difficult to reach from the car parks, requiring an off-trail scramble through brush. Jerry and I parted for this stretch, and I thrashed through the thistles until I reached the ruin’s southern entrance, which was affixed with the same wood step-and-pole stile as in the farmers’ fields. I looked uphill to the wall, which descends into the saddle and climbs precipitously again, accompanied by steep stone steps. I took a deep breath and ascended practically hand over hand until I decided I had gone high enough. I turned, sat down and took my photos, though I was not quite high enough to gain a full perspective of the stone foundations within the restored curved walls of the mile castle. I had originally taken these ruins to be Roman barracks or some such ancient thing, but a later scan of the literature about the site revealed that they were post-medieval stalls for farm animals, known as shiels (shields) in Northumbrian. A frontier barn. The Romans would have approved.

Steel Rigg, Crag Lough and the Whin Sill are highlights of the Hadrian’s Wall path and underscore why the Roman’s chose this route for their barrier.

I descended the steps, ass over hands, and spotted Jerry waiting for me where the gap gives onto the Military Way trail. Soon, thanks to Marcus Aurelius, we were striding purposefully on the smooth southern slope of the Sill toward the road that runs from the Steel Rigg car park to the valley floor and crosses the B6318 on its way to Vindolanda, about a mile away.

The crossroads is home to the village of Once Brewed, the Twice Brewed Inn and public house/brewery and The Sill visitor center, an ultra-modern concrete and steel geologic and natural history museum. Somewhere down there was our night’s quarters, The Vallum Lodge. The skies were turning black ahead, just as they had two days before in Corbridge, but now we were feeling raindrops. BIG, wet raindrops. We picked up the pace. I hoped we could make it to cover without stopping to pull on rain-gear. But it was not to be.

By the time we reached the road we were immersed in a squall, the rain coming in sheets. Jerry was about 50 yards behind now. He had stopped and was dipping into his bag. I did the same, although I did not see how it would matter by then. I was already soaked and the wind was lashing me with my own rain pants. I gave up on those, but encased my pack, slipped into the Anorak and made a mental note to have my gear a little more accessible next time.

When it is raining hard and you don’t know exactly where you are, it is often hard to choose the right direction. The decision was made for us when our old pal, the 122 AD bus, pulled up on its way to Vindolanda. We followed it into The Sill parking area and stepped on, dripping water as our coins tinkled into the pay box.

A couple, maybe 20 years younger and already on board, were watching and listening as we paid our fares. “Hey, you’re Americans!” he shouted. “Where are you from?” He was eager to share that they were from Sacramento, where he teaches engineering at the state college. They were staying in Newcastle. “We took a day trip here on the train and then this bus,” he said. Jerry and I exchanged looks. This was the same train we had observed rushing past on our slog through the bogs to Hexham the day before. The same one we’d heard above the River North Tyne trail. There’s only one line between Newcastle and Carlisle. We had been afoot nearly four full days, and they had traveled here by bus and train in a matter of 90 minutes with brief layovers. It is, after all, only 39 miles.

I laughed, and Jerry shook his head. We stepped down into a sun-washed Vindolanda parking area and spread our gear to dry on a stone wall. The rain had lasted all of about 15 minutes.

About as long as it would take for the train to go from Hexham to Haltwhistle….

Another ruin awaited—and hopefully, a beer.


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, 25 April 2021 00:02

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