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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: A Hike Across England

  • Written by Mike Vouri

There was a moment when hiking in northern England that I ascended a bare hillside fringed by conifers and flashed instantly to Mt. Finlayson on San Juan Island. Except for the sheep scattering ahead and piles of dung, it was much like a local trail following a holiday weekend.

The first considerable remnant of Hadrian’s Wall is located along the highway in the aptly named village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. From here the path closely follows the wall course as it cuts across the northern England. The author offers perspective in the foreground, standing in the ruin of a medieval kiln, one of the many adaptations of the wall over the centuries.

This was on the Hadrian’s Wall path, which I hiked with my friend Jerry in 2019 from Wallsend, east of Newcastle, to Bowness-on-Solway, west of Carlisle. Ninety-one miles, counting diversions, in 10 days. It was on this attenuated neck of Roman Britannia that the Emperor Hadrian in 122 CE ordered a massive masonry and turf wall built from the North to Irish seas. His purpose was to blunt the incursion of ancient Scots, known then as Caledonians, who were seeking a better life in the south. This primarily involved taking things that didn’t belong to them and lopping off the occasional head.

I was reminded of the wall path again a few days ago as I tramped the Zylstra Lake trail. The topography there is similar to northern England with greensward, lake and waterfowl interspersed with wooded uplands. But at two miles long, it is a modest substitute. And while the two trails share the legacy of a Military Road, there’s not much left of the one that passed through San Juan Valley during the island’s joint military occupation.

 

Fellow hiker, Jerry McElyea of Friday Harbor, pauses in the Roman ditch on the north side of Hadrian’s Wall between Heddon-on-the-Wall and Harlow Hill. The ruins of the wall were demolished and a military road constructed over which the modern highway passes today.

The compulsion to return to the Hadrian’s Wall trail after my first hike was so strong that I booked another for last July. I do not have to expound on what became of those plans, but I do take consolation in enjoying island trails along with the thousands of vacationers seeking an “overseas” experience during the pandemic without a 12-hour flight.

I spent the initial shelter-in-place period expanding my Hadrian’s Wall journal into a manuscript. The process revealed gaps in the experience, as you can’t stop to explore and understand every feature when you’re logging miles and trying to make it to the next overnight stop. Consequently, the project will have to remain unfinished until I can return to northern England. Until that time, I offer the following excerpts.

Who Was Hadrian?

Born to an Italo-Spanish family in ancient Italia, a Roman town located outside of modern Seville, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76-138) was an intellectual with a passion for the arts. Hadrian especially loved all things Greek, and didn’t mind infusing his enthusiasms into the everyday lives of Roman citizens. This prompted the nickname Graeculus (little Greek). He is considered by the historian Edward Gibbon to be one of the “five good emperors,” or those that ruled competently (meaning they were not homicidal maniacs) between periods of chaos. Another of these was his immediate predecessor and second cousin, Trajan, whom he accompanied as a lieutenant on military campaigns beyond the fringe of the empire. Trajan’s military adventurism, costly in blood and treasure, convinced Hadrian that the empire would be healthier and safer by consolidating its gains. This was to be the legacy of his reign.

The Hadrian’s Wall path follows the River Tyne from Wallsend through Newcastle. In this view, looking downriver, the presumed wreck of a “keel” coal hauler recalls lost industry along the river that once disgorged coal to the world.

The Tyne bridges greet hikers as they enter Newcastle. The draw footbridge in the foreground is known one of several Millennial bridges along the wall path from Newcastle to Carlisle.

By the time he reached the mouth of the River Tyne in 122, Hadrian already had prescribed fortifications along the border elsewhere in the empire, and on hearing news of the most recent incursions from Caledonia, he ordered the Britannia barrier. But why a masonry structure of such gargantuan proportions? Don’t bother consulting the ancient scribes. Unlike the Colosseum and Pantheon—the latter also built under Hadrian’s direction and still standing—nothing was written about the wall that survives, save for a late-empire document modeled after Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, that states:

And so, having reformed the army quite in the manner of a monarch, (Hadrian) set out for Britain, and there he corrected many abuses and was the first to construct a wall eighty miles in length, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans.

Unless you’re a Greek and Roman scholar with a penchant for argument, this will have to suffice.

What is the path all about?

The Roman occupation of Britain ended roughly in 410 CE, but the wall left a permanent mark on the physical and social landscape of Britain. In 1987 UNESCO recognized its importance by awarding it World Heritage status, and today it is a well-known tourist destination.

As a “scheduled monument,” Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most legally protected landscapes in the world. However, because the 1,900-year-old ruin was vulnerable to overuse and damage without appropriate management, it was suggested in 1984 that the best way to protect it was to apportion visitors over a controlled area. The 84-mile walking route was researched, subjected to considerable archaeological scrutiny and approved by the government 1994. The path officially opened in May 2003 as one of England’s 15 National Trails.

Of the more than 700 property owners along the route, 90 percent are private. Public entities include English Heritage, the National Trust, the Vindolanda Trust and various municipal, district and county councils. They work together to ensure the wall and path are maintained and that public and private lands are protected, goals that are shared by our own Old Military Road Committee in its quest to establish a trans-island trail.

River Walk: Starting from Wallsend

We started the first morning at Wallsend, where the Newcastle area council excavated the footprint of Segedunum, the first of 15 ancient forts along the wall. Tourists will find a visitor center, museum and a re-creation of a Roman bath. The path along the River Tyne is primarily asphalt, and much of it is fringed with heavy foliage including stinging nettles and profusions of deep pink Rosebay Willowherb. As on San Juan, you need to dodge the dog poop bags that walkers fill mid-trail, tie neatly and leave behind.

The Roman fort at Segedunum (Wallsend), viewed from an observation tower, is little more than an echo after centuries of industry along the River Tyne. A reconstruction of the fort’s bathhouse can be seen in the background. 

 

The River Tyne, which runs 73 miles from its source in central northern England, rises as two rivers, the North and South Tyne, from Kielder Forest on the Scottish border and Alston Moor in Cumbria. The northern source actually passes through the town of Bellingham (pronounced BELLUM-SHUM). The river is best known for accommodating the export of coal that was mined in the hills above its banks. One 18th-century writer described the river as moving “...with solemn majesty as if conscious of the wealth which loads its bosom.” Or, as the poet John Cleveland wrote of the coal resource during the reign of James I: “Correct your maps. Newcastle is Peru.”

A minus tide exposed a layer kelp clinging to the sloping concrete and riprap revetments along the bank, and to the ribs and stem of a vessel. Perhaps this was one of the shallow-draft keels I read about when researching “coals to Newcastle.” For more than 500 years, keel-men moved coal from quays upriver to ocean-going colliers anchored in deeper water at Tynemouth. It required generational skills to pilot a keel loaded with 13 tons of coal with only a single oar, or sweep. And yet, because it was more efficient to run with the current, keel-men were paid “by the tide,” or twice daily, barely a living wage. By the 19th century mechanization took away their livelihoods altogether, victimizing yet another community. With the advent of the horse- and then steam-drawn “waggonways,”, the coal could be shipped by rail from mines further inland to “staiths,” wood-frame coal chutes on long piers that were accessible to deep-draft colliers. A living was lost on the river, and not for the last time.

Heddon-on-the-wall: First look

A fine mist soon turned to raindrops as we made our way to the first visible stretch of wall, about 12 miles from Wallsend. It is simple to track distance along the path because the Romans erected mile castles, or fortlets, with two watch towers in between the entire length of the wall. The numbering system has been retained by National Trails and is included on all digital and paper maps. The Heddon stretch of wall runs parallel to the highway, and is nearly 200 yards long and up to four feet high in places. It is flanked by the remains of a defensive ditch on the north side (once for barbarians, now for highway traffic) and the reduced mounds of the vallum (a wider ditch) crossing a horse pasture. We walked along the wall on the wet grass, lost for the moment by the volume and scope of this undertaking more than 1,900 years ago.

Field walls subdivide much of the English countryside, the stones unearthed and dry-fitted over the centuries by farmers to create the patchwork quilt one sees from a distance or in the air. But there can be no doubt about Roman construction. The wall here is classified as “broad” at nearly 10 feet thick and 15 feet high. The Roman crews would first excavate a section to bedrock, upon which they set the wall’s flagstone foundation. Another nearby crew quarried and dressed either limestone or sandstone for the curtain wall. This “squared rubble” was brought to the site and either dry-mounted or bonded with a lime sealant into two facing walls, which were infilled with a mixture of rubble and clay. Scaffolding was erected and dismantled alternatively to raise the wall to its prescribed height all along the way. The enormity of the structure unfolding before us reminded me of a scene in the film, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” when the young Che Guevara and his friend see a modest drystone wall in Peru and ask an Inca boy if it is a remnant of their ancient works. “No way, that’s Spanish,” he says, laughing, and points to some massive blocks stacked 10 feet high across the road. “That is the Inca wall.”

Heddon to Corbridge: A Walk Among Farms

We hiked a little over 16 miles this day. We started out at the Three Tuns pub in Heddon and followed the B6318, a razor-straight highway that traces the wall to Gilsland, three overnight stops in the future. The highway actually runs atop the wall here by design, as this was also the right of way for General George Wade’s Military Road. This road was built in 1751 to move the British Army quickly from Newcastle to Carlisle to check incursions into England by Jacobite forces from Scotland.

We skirted fields of wheat and barley that were subdivided by walls or hedgerows and garnished with wildflowers on the peripheries. Occasionally the path would diverge around a farm whose owner claimed an exception to the National Trail program (more on that below). We were vectored more than a half mile off the path just past the Vindobala fort site, where we descended to the base of a hill and walked over a footbridge crossing a lively creek. The occasional horse approached the fence hoping for an apple, and the bulls were aloof. The sheep went about their business.

Harlow Hill: A Victoria Connection

Though rain had been forecast, the sun broke through around 11 a.m. My t-shirt was soaked as we descended into a stretch of trail pushing through the Roman defensive ditch north of the wall course. Great stones poke out of the earth on and along the trail. If you pay attention, you realize the roadbed is still supported in some places by dressed Roman stone. All of that rock made the ditch as hot as a wood-fired pizza oven, and we found relief only when we broke out onto a plain that gave onto the two Whittle Dean reservoirs flanking the highway. This after passing through the hilltop village of Harlow Hill, a cluster of quarry stone buildings and an ancient Saxon church converted into a barn. Not a soul was in sight unless you count the scarecrow dressed as a policeman, replete with cap and international lime vest, staked by the roadside to slow traffic. Mile Castle 16 once commanded the hills that roll to the south in the same checkerboard patterns of sycamores, rogue oaks and vegetation that flank the creek beds.

Villagers in Harlow Hill erected this scarecrow in traffic cop livery to slow motorists passing through the village. The Anglican church built with funds donated by Henry Lascelles, the 4th Earl of Harewood. The earl was the older brother of Lieutenant Horace D. Lascelles, commander of HMS Forward, an Albacore-class gunboat that protected the crown colony of Vancouver Island from desperadoes and vengeful Indians in the 1860s. 

I later discovered a slight connection between Harlow Hill and and Vancouver Island. The Anglican Church of All Saints in the village, shut down and deconsecrated because of dry rot in 2014, was built in 1871 on land donated by Henry Lascelles, the 4th Earl of Harewood. The earl was the older brother of Lieutenant Horace D. Lascelles, commander of HMS Forward, an Albacore-class gunboat that protected the crown colony of Vancouver Island from desperadoes and vengeful Indians in the 1860s. The younger Lascelles, a frequent caller at English Camp, died at the tender age of 34 in 1869 and is buried in Victoria, a long way from home.

Stiles and Gates

Following lunch at the aptly named Vallum Tearoom, we continued through farming country, which required negotiating a series of “stiles” or gates between fields and crossing the busy, two-lane highway as the trail switched sides when access was denied. England’s “Right to Roam” laws permit hikers to cross private land as long as they remain on a designated path, often running along a fence but also cutting across a field. Exceptions are made during calving or lambing, or when the trail passes within 20 yards of a house or other private building.

This “kissing gate” is one of several posted between properties along the highway to ensure hikers do not inadvertently allow livestock to escape. You step in, move to a paving stone pad in the corner of a ‘V’-shaped enclosure, open the gate, step through and close it for the next hiker.

The gates protect property owners by accepting only one adult at a time and making it virtually impossible for livestock to escape. You step in, move to a paving stone pad in the corner of a ‘V’-shaped enclosure, open the gate, step through and close it for the next hiker. On my flight home, a farmer from Berkshire called them “kissing gates,” as they swing to touch, or kiss, the gateposts. Stiles are mini-stairways that span fences and drystone walls. The wall versions feature built-in stone steps, while wood or barbed-wire fences are crossed with wood slats with a handle in the middle for balance. Ladder stiles are simply that. You climb a ladder on one side, swing around and descend the other. You really have to stay in the moment, watch what you’re doing and take your time, especially as you tire.

The trail left the roadside and meandered across an open farm field that ascended to a grassy knoll, where sheep grazed among boulders and piles of excrement. We were disoriented at first, even from this vantage point, as the flock had turned the path into a bog. We sat down on a large flat rock and consulted our maps before departing the wall path to head south for Corbridge, the location of our night’s accommodation. The wind had freshened, and a squall of sooty clouds rolled over the hills across the valley ahead of us. A lone skirmisher from the front pushed forward and scattered a few drops on my waterproof map, and I considered digging into my pack for my rain gear.

Companions

We were shortly joined by three hikers from Carlisle, a man and two women about our age who had been among the diners at the tearoom. We were puzzled to see them at first because we all left at the same time, and they had headed in the opposite direction. They were lifelong Carlisle residents who had decided at long last to try the walk and “...see what all the fuss was about,” the man told me. They were not outfitted in R.E.I.-style gear like most of the long-distance hikers we’d encountered. Instead they wore shorts and low-quarter cross trainers, the women in sleeveless blouses with sweaters tied around their waists, the man in a sport shirt with a button-down collar. All three were a bit overweight, pale and soft around the edges. I thought they were day trippers when I first saw them in the restaurant. But here they were doing the whole slog from Wallsend home with fanny packs and no walking sticks. And they were setting a much faster pace, easily overhauling us. The English are clearly walkers! We, on the other hand, felt over-outfitted.

We gathered in a semi circle and watched as the storm crossed the valley about five miles distant, a black front consuming farms and crossroad villages tucked into the green hills. I was reminded again of home when from the redoubt I had watched squalls build over Victoria and scud across the Haro Strait. Stray, fat drops spattered our shoe tops offering a preview of a soaking to come, so we decided not to tarry and wished one another luck as we headed for a kissing gate that we had at last spotted at the foot of the hill. Their overnight stop was Chollerford, seven miles ahead into the teeth of the squall. But we needn’t have worried. The storm abruptly turned north, and sunbeams swept over the trail ahead.

We still had five miles to go before we slept.

Next: Lost in the woods and meeting Saint Oswald.


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 01:28

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