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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: Gods, Cows and Walltown

  • Written by Mike Vouri

As we sat on a picnic table at the Cawfield Crags park, a little more than halfway along the Hadrian’s Wall path, I thought about what I would be doing back home on San Juan Island after hiking more than six miles.

A stone inset ladder stile gives on to the Hadrian’s Wall path just beyond Cawfield Crags park. Advertisements occasionally pop up at trail junctures. Note the inverted acorn on the post, indicating that the path is a national trail. Mike Vouri photos

In mid-July a cold beer might be in store, followed by a shower and an afternoon nap. Unbeknownst to us at that moment, a beer was readily available in a nearby pub appropriately named the “Milecastle.” But we still had another six miles to go before we found our beds, and nothing is more enervating on a long-distance hike than a pint of cask ale in the middle of the afternoon.

So we shouldered our packs, crossed a road and entered another extended pasture via a ladder stile. Here a gradual climb returned us to the wall path along the ridge. The vallum and ditch were evident looking down from the backside of the Sill, but the wall in the more western portions was covered by centuries of topsoil and its stonework reduced to scatter.

We followed the rubble to a narrow drystone wall, negotiated another ladder stile and encountered a stone-lined pit. At first I presumed it was a collapsed well, but on closer inspection realized it was a fragment of a fort gate house, much like the tended ruins we saw at Housesteads, Chester and Vindolanda. But this fort, called “Great Chesters,” had not been restored for tourists. Last excavated in the 1930s, what the Romans called Aesica (Fort of the Gods) remains part of a working farm, its structures long buried or strewn over its five-acre boundary except where the perimeter walls are still in evidence. You can barely make out the arch of the safe room doorway in the principia (headquarters building), and you would miss this altogether were it not for a weathered crib fence. Some wall sections are little more than earthen mounds with large stones protruding from the ramparts with scatter at the base. I find these ruins more compelling than the restorations. They haven’t been consolidated and stabilized among manicured grounds, but remain as they’ve been for thousands of years save for the sections that have provided quarries for churches and fortified farmhouses.

The ancient gatehouse of Great Chesters Fort is simply part of the landscape in this farm field along the Hadrian’s Wall path. The fort was last excavated in the 1930s and has remained untouched ever since.

Aesica, by the way, was named for a Gaulish-Celtic god called Esus or Aisus, who combined the military prowess of Mars with the facility of a woodsman. This is most famously depicted on the “Pillar of the Boatman” monument exhibited in the Roman baths of the Cluny Museum in Paris. It was not unusual in the ancient world for local gods to be inculcated into the Roman pantheon as a matter of political expediency as well as to appease the ranks. The legions had become a multi-cultural as well as a professional force from the first century, and this was especially evident among the auxiliaries who composed the garrisons.

There may also have been a bit of bet hedging. The legionary’s relationship with his gods was more a mutually beneficial contract than a supplication or worship. “If you help me survive the coming battle and provide spoils aplenty I will slaughter a dozen rabbits in your honor.” And it never paid to castigate a foreign god. A number of splendid examples of this are depicted in the well-researched 2005-2007 Home Box Office series, “Rome.” Two of the main protagonists, legionaries Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, entreat the gods throughout the series, but the most telling scene comes in Egypt. The two are found sweating in the meager shade of a decapitated head that once topped a mammoth pharaonic statue, symbolizing the decline of the once-dominant Nile empire.

“The Gypo gods must be right wasters to make a place like this,” Pullo complains.

“Don’t speak ill of the gods in their own country,” Vorenus chides. “…These gods are old and powerful. Egypt was a great nation long before Rome.”

“Was it?” Pullo quips. “Mumped it up now, haven’t they?”

This section of wall between Cawfields and Walltown crags, lies unrestored save for a more contemporary drystone erected atop.

We left the old fort and its gods through the west gate ruin and crossed two field walls via ladder stiles as we aimed for Cockmount Hill, a stone farmhouse and a clump of woods (called “plantations” in England). The trail meanders through the thick woodland via two forks, both leading back to an unrestored stretch of wall. It is mostly fern-covered rocky scatter beneath a field fence, a ghost of the past marching across a windy ridge to the Walltown nick.

About three miles on, we were confronted with a final perilous descent to a stepping-stone causeway that crossed the gap, presumably installed to cope with the boggy ground in the rainy season. There is so much to see from this height, from Roman ruins to Cumbrian landscape, and Scotland beckoning only a short distance away.

The British artist, Alan Sorrell, produced a number of paintings recreating how Hadrian’s Wall looked in its heyday. Here is a view of Walltown Crags with a mile castle at left center.

One more ladder stile presented itself before the trail again climbed steeply uphill to one of the most exciting sections of curtain wall. Lovingly restored among wind-bent conifers, it seems to hang on the the edge of the crags that loom over another glacial pond. A single strand of barbed wire affixed to two-foot stakes protects hikers from themselves. The masonry seemed more precise than any we’d seen so far, and the way the wall snakes along the crags recalls the paintings of Alan Sorrell, which depicts the wall as it might have been at its peak, including a view of this very stretch. This portion was restored a bit later than the Clayton-owned sections through a technique called “consolidation,” where the scatter is gathered and pieced together utilizing mortar rather than the drystone works we saw from Housesteads to Cawfield Crags.

Walltown Crags is one of the most dramatic and intact stretches of Hadrian’s Wall, restored via the consolidation method (using mortar), underscores the challenges faced by the original builders.

We next discovered that cows can be territorial. On our stop for lunch at Walltown Crags, Jerry found a nice spot to sit comfortably on a knob above the wall. But as we started to eat our sandwiches, one cow took notice and ambled over to stand right in front of him. Attempts to shoo her off failed, and soon she was joined by another cow. And then another. We took the hint and moved on. They did not follow us with our food, but instead settled in to reclaim their place among the rocks.

Jerry McElyea tries to discourage this cow from sharing his sandwich during a lunch break at Walltown Crags. We finally gave up and left and the cows settled down in our place, which led us to believe that we had violated their space.

Jerry’s view of the cow! 

Walltown is another haven for day hikers who climb the hill from the parking area of the Walltown Quarry park about a half mile away. No packs, no water bottles, no hiking sticks required. We felt like crusty old salts. The quarry is another dolomite (hard rock) mining project with an inundated pit that provides a pleasant setting for a picnic and a stroll. The volcanic rock, incidentally, was not used by the Romans as it was too hard to chip and shape. It has mainly been applied to the macadam county roads of the 20th century.

We followed the curtain wall until it vanished above the old quarry, then picked our way along the path until we reached a gate at the foot of the hill. A bench on the other side offered a viewpoint for disabled persons, and was occupied by a group who’d parked their walkers across the trail. But there were no directional signs! Hoping to find the parking area described in our guidebook, we tentatively started off straight ahead, but changed our minds, doubled back and elected for another track that skirted the base of the crags before bending around the quarry and disappearing into a draw. As it turned out, we would have made it to the car park in half the time had we taken a cue from the group with walkers and continued straight.

We’ve already discussed the phenomenon of “skull cinema.” How about numbskulls?

Our lame meander afforded us another chance to deploy our rain gear when a squall hit the quarry. When you’re weary from hours of hiking, it is a challenge to unzip the legs of rain pants and slip them over your boots. You fumble with the draw strings while tucking the hem of your jacket under your chin so you can see what you’re doing. Then you resume walking and feel like you’re wading through water, the pant legs swishing and hissing like a crocodile with every step as you maintain a slightly bowlegged gait. And then...it stops raining almost as soon as it starts. The sun appears and it heats up. You begin to sweat. I stopped and doffed the rain pants after only 10 minutes. It was the first and only time I wore them.

We pressed on through the quarry parking area, which was nearly full, and saw that the visitor center and shop were closed for renovation and hung with scaffolding. A visit to the Northumberland National Park website today explains that the Walltown “centre” offers “warm and inviting” seating, 24-hour and “fully accessible” toilet facilities and a refreshment kiosk with hot and cold drinks and “a small range” of merchandise at “key times.” Which was presumably not when we were passing through in mid July.

Where was the westbound trailhead, we wondered? There was no signage at this point.

We first approached a promising opening in the foliage affixed with a “Hadrian’s” placard, but discovered that it was the portal to the “Hadrian’s Peace Labyrinth.” This garden maze was planted in 2011 and features 20 varieties of more than 1,000 willow plants that when fully grown at 150 feet will form the maze. Fortunately you can’t get lost as there is only one way in and out. But we were in no mood to ring around the willow bushes, and found the parking lot exit. A right turn and a quick hike up the pavement brought us to a stile and another hillside.

What escaped our attention at the time was that a left turn would have taken us to the Roman Army Museum, a part of the Vindolanda Trust located on the site of the Magnae (“Stone” in Celtic) fort, now named for the nearby village of sCarovan. This was one of the pre-Hadrian frontier bastions that stood sentinel at the crossroads of the Stanegate road and Maiden Way, the latter running north-south from Scotland to the town of Kirkby, northwest of Liverpool. For at least 200 years, Magnae was home to the Hamian archers (Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittaria) from the the city of Hama in the Orantes River Valley of northern Syria, one of only two cohorts (regiments) of archers in Roman Britain. Today it is also home to a bus stop for the 122AD line. We were tempted, but having to transfer to another line at some point to reach Gilsland might have taken us all the way to Carlisle. Then we would have had to double back on another bus just to reach our lodgings.

Good thing we turned right. At the base of the far side of a distant hill is a woodland and the 12th-century ruin of Thirlwall Castle. A few homes are clustered about the ruin, which was built with stones from the Roman wall by the Thirlwall family in 1330 to repel brigands (those Border Reivers again) from both sides of the line. But having money enough to own a castle was no guarantee of a happy future. Percival Thirlwall, King Richard III’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), met a grim though glorious end when his legs were severed while clutching the standard. The last of the family sold the place in 1748, and the structure deteriorated until the county government stepped in to preserve it in 1999. According to local historians, “Thirlwall” means gap in the wall, although a mid-19th century walker, John Buchanan, reported that the nine nicks, or gaps, we traversed from Housesteads to Walltown were named “The Nine Nicks of Thirlwall.”

We continued on past the castle without venturing off the path to explore the grounds and search its walls for legionary signatures. By then we were too weary and unsure of directions to spend time sightseeing. We emerged from the neighborhood into a clearing of swampy ground spanned by a railroad viaduct. This is the same line we crossed on the way to Hexham. Right then a train passed by, its ding-dong horn alerting hikers who might be passing through gates on either side of the track. A couple with a small child, accompanied by an older man I took to be a grandfather, was moving slowly down the path ahead of us. They must have heard our heavy breathing, as they turned to give way. We asked if we were on the right track, and the grandfather growled in the affirmative and then corrected our pronunciation. We crossed the track, which was still humming, and moved onto a hardened trail across the bog to a highway that turned out to be our old friend, the B6318 highway.

We followed the “Hadrian’s Wall Path” sign pointing west, then crossed the road to take the easier grass trail and greeted a pair of eastbound hikers. It is a busy road leading to Gilsland, but we were pleased to see that the trail soon appeared again, cutting up the embankment above us and following the ancient ditch toward the village. Just before this junction is a nine-yard fragment of curtain wall poking out of the embankment, protected from erosion and errant cars and trucks by a stone and mortar plinth. The internet tells me that this chunk was discovered and preserved in the 1950s during road excavation.

Preceded by the ever-present cows, Jerry makes his way along the ancient ditch, which is all that is left of Hadrian’s Wall between Walltown Crags and Gilsland.

The landscape had clearly transitioned from the craggy midlands into farm country. We dodged first cows and then sheep grazing in the Roman ditch, at one point having to navigate the slopes to avoid the animals. The ditch gave on to open fields divided by drystone walls and stiles and across a rural road into yet another stretch of ditch, which eventually led us to Crook’s Farm and then the village. We wondered about Crook’s Farm, as William Crook, a Yorkshire man, homesteaded with his Scots wife Mary Forest at English Camp on San Juan Island after the Royal Marines left in 1972.

Gilsland is a farm village subdivided by the Newcastle-Carlisle train tracks, though the station here was closed about six years ago and local passengers must drive to the Brampton or Haltwhistle stations. Nonetheless villagers can hear the whistles at the crossings at least 30 times a day from both directions. The village is fortunate to have a pub still in business called “The Samson” in honor of the first locomotive that served the town in the mid-19th century. Later at dinner, we asked our young waitress about the locomotive, as she had the logo on her polo shirt. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve lived here all me life and worked in the pub since I was 13, but I only found out about the name of the locomotive a few weeks ago.”

A railroad crossing along the Hadrian’s Wall path, just past Thirlwall Castle. The train speeds by 30 times daily.

We got lost, of course, entering Gilsland while trying to find our BNB, “The Hollies on the Wall.” We had followed a run of ditch trail that crossed behind the backyards of some apartments, where the tenants were firing up barbecues and quaffing beers. They ignored us, and we did not stop to ask for directions. Instead, we wandered past more backyards and through a footpath underpass when we finally stopped to consider two options. I was all for calling our hosts. Jerry wanted to keep searching. Our solution was to head in opposite directions. I found a park bench, doffed my pack and called our BNB. Jackie, the owner, answered. After about five minutes of attempting to divine precisely where I was, she gave up and said she would jump in her car and find me.

I then decided to walk back to The Samson, which we had spotted on the way from the Crook Farm, sat down on some steps across from the front door and called the BNB again. This time I reached her husband, George. “Where are ye?” I told him I was facing the pub. “Right out front are ye?” I replied in the affirmative. “Well, you’re all right. Just walk to your right under the train trestle and take your second right after. That’s us.” I did as instructed and was there in two minutes, arriving as Jackie rolled up in her late-model BMW. “I see you found us. But where is your friend?” “Probably on his way out of town by now,” I said. She smiled, made a U-turn and took off down the road. George laughed. “You’re all right,” he said. Not a minute went by before Jackie returned with Jerry in the left seat.

“The village isn’t very big,” George deadpanned.

Our meal at The Samson wasn’t bad. I had a meat pie with a mushy peas side and a pint of John Smith’s. Mushy peas are dried marrowfat peas soaked overnight in water and baking soda, and then simmered until they’re—well—mushy. When we entered the pub, the locals turned on their stools in unison. We were the first of the day’s hikers who fill every BNB in the village on a good day. We must be a mixed and entertaining lot as well as a necessary evil, much as the tourists who swarm Friday Harbor in August.

I looked around, and could not resist. “God bless all here,” I proclaimed like Victor McLaglen in “The Quiet Man.” No response, except for the bartender who grinned. “What’ll you have, Yank?”

The brew was pulled up from a cask in the basement, cool and creamy. I enjoyed that first sip and then thought about the next day. As more farm country was ahead, there were bound to be at least a couple a dozen stiles and gates in our near future.

But no more hills. I took another sip and counted my blessings.  

Last modified onMonday, 31 May 2021 16:39

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