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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: Bridge Over Ancient Waters

I swayed like a drunk engaged on a balance beam as I skirted thorny foliage encroaching on a narrow sidewalk that runs along England’s A6079 highway. I should have been facing the cars and monster trucks that seemed about to flatten me, but there was no path or even a verge (shoulder) on the opposite side of the road.

It was mid-afternoon just above the River North Tyne, across from Chollerford, where my hiking partner Jerry and I were due to meet after parting at Hexham that morning. I had just negotiated a two-mile detour on pavement around an extensive farmyard and was approaching the Hadrian’s Wall course once again. Across the road and through the stream of traffic was the gate to the Brunton Turret, a stretch of restored wall that includes the foundation of a watchtower at its east end.

The towers (turrets) were interspersed with mile castles (small forts) along the entire 84-mile length of the wall, each about 30-feet high and 20-feet square with sleeping quarters on the ground floor. The ruins of most of them on the path remind me a bit of the chimney footings you see on the parade ground at English Camp—rectangles of dressed stone poking up a foot or less above the turf. This one was extraordinary, however, as the remnants stand from three to six feet high and eight feet thick.

Not so special was a man in voluminous shorts and black socks with a fat red pack, who was munching his lunch atop the ruin. Could he possibly have missed every information kiosk and sign posted along the route that forbids visitors from walking or sitting on the wall? I suppressed the old ranger in me and waited a few minutes for him to leave so I could snap a photo. He was oblivious, as expected, so I went on my way.

Ashlar Blocks and Bragging Rights

Just before crossing the bridge into Chollerford, a sign directs the hiker to the “Roman Chesters Bridge Abutment.” This was on my list of attractions for the day, so I passed through a gate before reaching the 18th-century bridge that crosses the North Tyne. Before me was more than a mile of compact gravel path heading back in the very direction that I had tramped on pavement only minutes before.

Good grief!

The Roman bridge over the River North Tyne was rebuilt in 160 CE to accommodate traffic arriving in two directions. All that is left is this massive abutment, complete with a phallic symbol carved for either good luck or bragging rights. Mike Vouri photos

But this what I came for, so I hiked the entire length with the hills above and the water below, passing through two more gates before winding down the hill to the river bank. It was well worth the extra effort as it is here that the true sophistication of Roman engineering is first revealed along the path. Ancient traffic approached the Chesters bridge from two directions and funneled it across the river via a Y-shaped viaduct anchored by massive ashlar blocks called opus quadratum. The blocks were dressed and fitted with iron bars that were long ago stripped from the ruin, along with the stone, to serve medieval and later projects, possibly the “newer” bridge up river.

All that remains today are the stone blocks and the Y-shaped base pointing across the river, which by now is more a noisy creek the color of weak tea. I turned and looked uphill from the abutment and checked my map, noting that the ruin was in perfect alignment with the watchtower and the “Planetrees” section of wall I’d seen hours before. The abutment on the opposite bank is long gone, the river having shifted its course westward by more than 60 feet over the centuries. However, off to the left were the ruins of what I would later discover was an elaborate riverside Roman bathhouse, now full of visitors in summer livery.

I winced at the realization because I knew this had to be Chesters Fort, the place we would be picked up for our night’s lodging. This meant walking the mile back to the 18th-century bridge and retracing my steps another mile or more on the opposite side—on more pavement. Exhausted by the thought, I sat on the grass, not far from an impressive ancient phallic symbol sculpted on an ashlar block, and had an energy bar and a drink of water.

It was sunny and quiet, and I was alone with the Roman ghosts and their handiwork. I knew all about phallic symbols from my ancient history courses in college. Sometimes they were painted or sculpted to invoke the protective power of the god Fascinus, the deity of the phallus and the root of the word “fascinate.”

But they were also symbols of dominance, whether it be over a political or romantic rival or even a potential enemy, such as the Caledonian barbarians to the north. Imagine walking out of your hut one day to find a Roman work gang excavating a ditch and erecting a 15-foot wall and watchtowers for as far you could see in either direction. Some scholars believe that this was Hadrian’s intent—sort of a “shock and awe” second-century style.

“This is who we are and what we can do.

Chesters Fort

Feeling rested, I returned to the path. In another hour I was at Chester’s Fort, called Cilurnum (Riverpool Fort) by the Romans, with its visitor center and gift shop, 19th century museum and tea room. The ruin itself was a typical Roman fort with barracks, commander’s house, headquarters building, granary, cisterns, gatehouses and the baths, which are exceptional features among wall ruins and the biggest attraction on the site.

The fort was unearthed in 1836 by John Clayton (1792-1890), a wealthy landowner, antiquarian and former town clerk of Newcastle who had newly inherited the property and was curious about the signs of ancient habitation in the field below the great house. His father had buried the troublesome network of ruins, preferring to gaze on greensward rolling undisturbed to the riverbank. Thus began Clayton’s life-long passion.

Most of what is exposed are what I call “garden ruins,” as the building remnants are framed by turf as expertly coiffed as those you would see in a major league baseball stadium, mowed and edged perfectly to the base of each stone formation. These include foundations of the buildings, floor slabs, and an intact pit enclosure, where the garrison pay chest was housed.

Jerry arrived about an hour behind me after following a meandering path north of Hexham. He made good time, and I figured with my side trips and taxi ride to St. Oswald’s Church, we had probably covered the same distance. As we were too early to call for our ride, we spent the next hour on the site, Jerry among the ruins and I in the air-conditioned museum where artifacts are housed. These are not only from Chesters, but also from properties Clayton had purchased along the wall’s central corridor to save those ruins from quarrymen. The smaller pieces were arranged in wood-framed glass cases that were standard in the 19th century, accompanied by labels indicating origin and place of excavation. Aligning the walls were the stars of the museum: two- to three-foot high sandstone century blocks, which served as signature stones for the legions credited with building the wall.

Who Were These Guys?

Roman Legions not only functioned as a deadly armed force, but were also the greatest construction gang in antiquity. They built the roads and bridges on which they marched and the fortified camps where they slept at night. It is no accident that the dolabra, a pick-ax carried on the march by every legionary, saw more use than the gladius, or short sword, that he wore at his side. Hadrian had no less than three of Rome’s 28 legions already on board in Britannia—the XX Valeria Victrix from Chester, the II Augusta from Caerleon in Wales and the VI Victrix pia fidelis from York—plus naval forces and auxiliary troops who already were manning the frontier garrisons. Moreover, the ranks were full of men with practical skills such as masonry, metalworking and carpentry in addition to day labor.

By the second century CE, legions were composed of 5,000 soldiers, subdivided into six cohorts of roughly 800 each. The cohorts were further parsed into 10 units called centuries of 80 to 100 men. Legions were under the command of legati (legate), usually aristocrats and members of the Roman Senate. The cohorts were led by tribunes, who were aspiring or recently engaged senators, while the centuries were commanded by lower grade officers known as centurions. The soldiers were all Roman citizens, though by Hadrian’s time most came from Gaul, Spain and North Africa, with only a few from Italy.

This force was supplemented and often surpassed in number by auxiliary forces (auxilia), recruited (or conscripted) from the provinces. Some, including Britannia, had been recently conquered. Auxilia were an ethnically diverse group, organized into smaller chunks than the legions and named according to place of origin from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to North Africa to Spain and most prominently the Rhine River delta. All were free born, as no escaped slaves were allowed. They could become Roman citizens upon completion of enlistment, which, as with the legions, was 20 years or more.

As always, the legions’ centuries were the muscle who did the quarrying, marching and building, five miles at a crack, while the auxiliaries stood guard. We know this because on completion of sections that varied from 100 yards to a mile, a centurion signed the work on behalf of his unit, therefore the “century block.” For example, we know that Julius Florentinus and Flavius Noricus, both of the 10th Cohort of XX Valeria Victrix, worked on a fortification not far from modern Gilsland. And that Caecilius Proculus of the fifth cohort of the VI Victrix pia fidelis worked on Chesters Fort itself.

“We were here, and we built this.”

Other than a few labels, the objects in the Chesters museum are presented with limited interpretation. Few panels exist to provide context, and after awhile the lay (or overtired) visitor is overwhelmed by stone, very much like visitors to “lapidary” museums in France, where Roman excavations are deposited in yard-sale fashion in deconsecrated churches.

The museum is compact and dark despite its blood-red Pompeiian-theme walls, and I began to feel claustrophobic after living on the open road the last few days. I returned to the sunny fort grounds where I reclined on the coiffed lawn, then wandered down to the river where an overlook offered a splendid view of the bridge abutment that I had visited a couple of hours before. I had the platform to myself, as most of the visitors, including Jerry, were filing through the rooms of the bathhouse. Children were playing on a sandbar below, skipping stones. Across the way, a couple held hands while they explored the ruin.

Hall Barns

Eventually we met up again in front of the visitor center. We called Tracey, our host at the Hall Barns bed and breakfast, to come pick us up as arranged by our tour company. We threw our packs into the trunk (or “boot”) of her late-model Mazda, and drove about a mile and half to her farmhouse establishment. A slender woman in her late thirties, she has been doing this for six years. She maintains a firm routine to keep things running smoothly, as the two-story stone farmhouse can accommodate up to a dozen guests.

Hall Barns was our first family-owned bead and breakfast on our fourth night out on the path, and we soon learned that, with some variation, a drill of sorts is involved on every arrival. Tracey immediately asked us to remove our boots on entry, and we were shown into a dimly lit, overstuffed parlor with a divan, four easy chairs and a coffee table. A fireplace flanked by bookcases anchored one wall. Most of the volumes were paperback novels that I presumed had been left behind by other walkers. Our bags were aligned against the wall with a few other cases left by the van driver. You pick up your bags and set your boots in the same spot so that by evening the wall is flanked by footwear instead of cases, and the guests pad about in stocking feet, flip-flops or slippers.

The house is about 200 years old with walls so thick they blunt Wifi reception, and cellphone service is only achievable in the front parlor. We hauled our bags up a narrow staircase, which, like the hotel at Corbridge, opened to a modern realm with sunny rooms and well-appointed bathrooms. We had a nice dinner with four other hikers, two women from Belgium and a couple from Germany. Once she had completed the tough portion of her evening serving and clearing dinner, our host shared over tea and coffee that her mother was at that moment vacationing in Vancouver, B.C.!

The next morning, Tracey had everything ready: breakfast, sack lunch and a ride to the bus stop outside Chesters Fort. She tried to talk us out of the bus, pointing out that the ascent into the wall’s high country was as spectacular as the ruins we were about to see. The guidebook describes open plains of golden grass, a mile castle (fort) ruin and an especially evocative ditch at a spot called Limestone Corner. Here the legionaries hit granite with their dolabras and gave up, but not before leaving the rock face pocked with chisel holes and a scatter of semi-split boulders. There is also a spectacular vista from Sewing Shields, where the trail ascends the ridge known as the Whin Sill and offers panoramas of the Northumbrian plains rolling to Scotland.

However, we were both foot weary from two days of pavement, and I wanted to spend more time at the Vindolanda archaeological site. I will confess to feeling a little guilty waiting for the bus while fellow hikers trooped past on the five-mile trek to Housesteads Fort. But only for a little while. Once we dropped our coins into the slot and settled into our seats, it felt good to see the miles whizzing by and know where we were going.

A true wonder of the ancient world awaited.

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.

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