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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: Into the West

  • Written by Mike Vouri

After a day of hiking and sightseeing along Hadrian’s Wall, Jerry and I sat on the lawn in front of the Vindolanda visitor center and waited for our gear to dry.

We had just emerged from a fierce rain squall before reaching this gem among the ruins of Roman Britain. As a Roman fort, Vindolanda—which in ancient Celtic means “white shining lawn”—is actually nine forts in one and pre-dates the wall by nearly 40 years. Founded as a far-flung cavalry outpost on the edge of the empire, it would encompass every phase of the Roman occupation of Britain with as many as 5,000 people living within and without the fort’s walls at its peak.

An archaeological field school excavates a section of the Vindolanda fort site. The six-week field schools are composed of volunteers from around the globe.

But Vindolanda today is far more than raised garden walls. It remains an active archaeological site that continues to deliver insights into life there and throughout Britannia and the Roman world. While sifting through nine layers of occupation accumulated over 500 years, field schools have laid bare glimpses of daily life thanks to the preservation qualities of peat.

While the potshards and military accoutrements unearthed are notable, the stars are without question the more than 750 pieces of correspondence found in an ancient dump site on the periphery of the fort. First unearthed in 1973, these bureaucratic missives, inventories, letters and invitations in Latin cursive mark the first known use of ink in the Roman world. Most are written in that mix of carbon, gum Arabic and water on wafer-thin native wood including birch, alder and oak, and folded in the center with a message or data on the interior much like a modern greeting card. Through them we learn that operating a military post then was pretty much the same as it is today with procurement contracts, troop assignments, terms-of-service certificates and detailed supply inventories. The latter reveals that Roman legionaries wore underpants!

One of more than 750 pieces of Roman correspondence have been unearthed at Vindolanda. This piece is about the size of two note cards.

However, the most affecting document is a birthday party invitation written around AD 100 by Claudia Severa. Claudia was the wife of Aelius Brocchus, commander of a nearby fort. Her friend and invitee was Sulpicia Lepidina, whose husband, Flavius Cerialis, was in command at Vindolanda.

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings.

On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings.

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

Here was a simple expression of kindness to which we can all relate today. These people were not marble figures. They were us. The eminent British historian, Adrian Goldsworthy, was so moved that he detoured from ancient history to concoct a work of fiction with the invitee, Lepidina, as a central character. This noblewoman falls in love with a working-class centurion who had rescued her from a barbarian onslaught while on her way to the party. From then on, it is a story of swords and togas with a dash of Harlequin Romance. Lepidina’s adventures span three volumes, with more likely to come. Will Lepidina leave the marbled good life of Vindolanda and set out with her love child to find her rough-hewn warrior in his stone and wattle fort? Stay tuned.

Archaeologists continue to plumb Vindolanda for more such stories as they burrow down to the original “lawn” utilizing volunteer crews who come from around the world.

When we arrived at the site, a professor from Ontario was providing interpretation for visitors while his crew finished up six weeks of work. They were excavating a depression cross-hatched by stone walls and peat-filled ditches, and had uncovered a section of wall. Most of the workers were in their late teens and 20s and wearing a mixture of yellow rain slickers and the green t-shirts issued by the site. “Can anyone sign up?” a visitor asked. “Sure, we open it up to applications in January for several six-week sessions,” the professor said. “They fill in 15 minutes.”

For those requiring a jump-start to the imagination, the Vindolanda Trust went to great expense to build from scratch a replica section of crenellated wall and turret in stone, and a mile castle of turf and timber. These projects, begun in 1973, were also meant to give archaeologists some idea of ancient wear and tear. There was some expectation that the turf wall would settle over time, but site officials hadn’t counted on European rabbits tunneling through the ramparts. This story will surely ring a bell with San Juan Islanders.

After wandering around the replica and enjoying the exhibits in the museum, we were ready to call it a day. Stepping off the 122AD bus, Jerry headed for Twice Brewed pub to buy dinner to go, and I hiked up the B6318 highway to our lodging. Reaching it required side-stepping along the macadam and jumping into the weeds when cars and trucks whizzed by. I arrived to find the owner, Samantha (Sam), pressure washing moss from the patio in front of the lodge, a white-washed house with dormers forming the second floor.

Sam stopped working and took me inside. I signed the guest book and was led down the hall to the room where our bags awaited. She asked if I wanted a beer, and I did not turn her down. I found the fridge in the guest lounge, extracted a cold one and joined her little black cocker spaniel, Branston, on a wicker divan on the front porch. The pressure washer hummed and the sheep bleated in the field across the road. I dozed off.

Later I joined Sam and her two friends at the Twiced Brewed. This busy wayside inn for hikers and visitors to Vindolanda and The Sill museum has a campground in addition to a few rooms above the pub. Visitors were eating and drinking indoors and at picnic tables scattered over an expanse of lawn. We grabbed a table outside and got in line to order at the bar. Not wanting chicken or a hamburger, I returned to my old standby of bangers and mash with a glass of amber ale brewed at the establishment, just as I might order at our own pub in Friday Harbor.

My hosts asked me a bit about San Juan Island. Was it a tourist destination? Yes. Crowded? Yes. Anything like this? Well, we don’t have anything like Vindolanda or Hadrian’s Wall, but you could easily find a place like this pub. In fact, my guess was that Spring Street was filling up and the ferries were slammed, the passenger deck as frenetic as a bus station. If I were home, I would probably be hiding out on my deck up in the woods. They laughed. Sam needed to return to the B&B to greet new guests, and when we pulled up to her place, the German couple who were with us at Hall Barns emerged from the house, smiling. The hike was becoming one big festival.

July 13 To Cawfields Quarry

We were up early, then twiddled our thumbs waiting for Sam to serve breakfast and hand over our sack lunches for the day. We had hoped to be off by 7:30 because we had to double back on the 6318 highway, hike up the paved road past the Steel Rigg parking area and through a gate to the wall path along the ridge. An uphill slog right off the bat.

After passing through this gate we resumed our trek along the “Hard Best Part” of the Hadrian’s Wall path.

Steel Rigg is only one feature of The Great Whin Sill that forms the northern terminus of the Pennine range in England. English quarrymen use the word “sill” to describe the horizontal mass, while “whin” is the local name for the dense black dolomite rock. This massif was an ideal natural barrier for the Romans in establishing their fortification, as no ditch digging was required where Steel Rigg dropped 200 feet to the lake below. While preparing for the trip I repeatedly encountered images of the Sill, but did not catch the view that I’d seen in brochures and travelogues. We had hiked along the edge of towering bluffs, but we were focused north to Scotland. Over dinner at the pub, I revealed my ignorance by asking Sam when we were going to see the Whin Sill. She looked puzzled. “But you did see it,” she said. “It’s all the Whin Sill.”

The next morning I was bound and determined to drink in the view from the opposite direction. Because many hikers begin their trek from the West Coast, not wanting to lean into the prevailing winds sweeping in from the Irish Sea, the tour companies usually provide westbound information as an addenda. But according to some scholars, the Romans started east of Newcastle under the gaze of Hadrian himself and worked west. That is how I wanted to do the walk. The wind would not be as fierce in July, I’d reasoned, and was proven correct. Midway through the hike, we learned that the legions started simultaneously from both coasts, with the turf and stone walls meeting at the Birdoswald Fort across the River Irthing about 20 miles ahead of us.

Jerry moved on up the path while I backtracked east alone to catch the view and snap my photo. I wasn’t disappointed. The Sill was still green from the unseasonable rain and loomed like a giant doorstop shouldering the southern horizon with highways and rail lines bisecting the valleys, and villages tucked up in the draws. Looking north it stands sentinel over a plain rolling to the Scottish lowlands, where armies tramped in both directions and Reivers (cattle thieves) slipped across the border to commit mayhem well into the 17th century. The wall was all about control. It wasn’t so much a barrier as it was a gatepost, designed to monitor who got in and to serve notice that the builders had the means to make life miserable for whomever transgressed. It all fell apart after the Romans left, and order was not restored until the reign of King James I when the isle was united under a single sovereign.

And at that moment, no one was around to disrupt my view. I had Steel Rigg and Peel Gap and the morning to myself, save for the sheep.

The Steel Rigg massif is part of The Great Whin Sill, about halfway along the length of Hadrian’s Wall.

After awhile, I had to leave this spectacle. I had miles to go, and my friend was waiting. I turned and headed west, catching up with Jerry just past a gate with another hill looming in the near distance. The national trails people had embedded the standard flagstones to make the going easier, but erosion and people looking for shortcuts mangled the path with eroding social trails. I was glad that I brought a walking stick for balance.

I hadn’t yet surrendered to the two-stick trend, though I had read that it is an ergonomic marvel that relieves back stress by dividing the work between the legs and upper body. I purchased a compact set before leaving, and tried them out on the 16-mile stretch between Heddon and Corbridge. But I found them an awkward method of wayfaring. What do you do with them when you’re climbing a stile or slipping through a gate? Perhaps I wasn’t using them correctly, but in the end I decided that I simply did not need two sticks. Over the years, I grew accustomed to whittling off the nubs from a fallen tree limb and wielding it as a staff throughout the season. One of my new poles found a permanent home in my suitcase, and the other became a balance-keeper as well an excellent rhythm aid when laying down a pace in the flat dairy country. The only drawback was that the cork grip required a glove, as the friction blistered my hand between thumb and forefinger. It was the only blister of the entire trip!

As mentioned earlier, the Roman wall is buried under a “modern” drystone wall on some stretches of the path. This may go on for about a mile until suddenly the foundation of the ancient curtain wall emerges, and soon, the full Roman edifice. Clearly these were properties once owned by that passionate antiquarian, John Clayton, who unearthed Chesters Fort on his own land and acquired extensive tracts of real estate along the wall path.

From one height, you could make out the ditch fronting the wall where it re-materialized below in an extended gap known locally as Lodhams Slack. I had presumed it was so named because it was relatively level ground, but no. “Slack” is a Norse word meaning “stream in a valley.” Some of the stone steps here are especially steep and require extra care. A slip can end your trip, if not your life, and I was already exhausted by the time we stopped on a knoll not far from an old quarry.

We had left the thin and weedy soil of the Sill and re-entered crop and grazing farmland. The signs on the stiles and gates warned that sheep and cattle were bearing young and might be protective. We moved quickly through the fields, dodging gelatinous, olive-hued piles of dung and winding our way through cows, horses and several breeds of sheep. The cows and bulls don’t mind your presence as long as you keep moving. If you stop for too long, they become protective and draw closer together. The sheep are inured to humans by now, and some allow an approach to within arms length. But that’s far enough. When I addressed them in “dogspeak,” as I do with my setter at home, they ran.

We slogged uphill once more to the highest point of the wall path—1,132 feet at Green Slack on Windshields Crag—where a concrete cenotaph stands with compass points indicated in brass. The sill continuing on to the horizon confirmed a hard day’s march to Gilsland. We were now moving into the westbound watershed that would terminate in the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, dimly reflected in the cloud and haze on the far horizon.

“That’s a long way off,” Jerry said. “We’d better get going.”

At the next gap, the wall and path seemed to dip into the earth, curving and reemerging on the decline and continuing across a flat interrupted only by a farm road with a gate on either side. As we moved downhill, we encountered a boy in a red t-shirt and baseball cap heading uphill with a daypack and walking stick. He looked to be 10 or 11 and was trailed by his hatless father carrying a much bigger pack. On our exchange of “hellos,” it was clear they were Americans. This was confirmed at the base of the hill where we met the grandfather, who at 81 was hiking the wall path for the third time.

We encountered three generations of a hiking family along the wall path. Grandpa is in the rear.

“The first time was with some friends, then I brought my son and when he was old enough, my grandson,” he said. Wiping the sweat from his brow with a bandana, he laughed and added, “While I still can.” We made a little small talk, taking exceptional pleasure in the moment, and then exchanged “Happy trails” as he went on his way. Luckily I had the presence of mind to take a photo of these three generations on the hillside.

Eighty-one. And we thought we were exceptional.

Mile Castle 41 at Cawfield Crags where quarrymen chopped through bluff and wall to mine gravel. Fortunately, the government stepped in saved a portion of wall, which seems to hang in midair. All that is left of the quarry is the pond at right.

We finally descended the hills and approached Mile Castle 42 and the Cawfields Quarry. Here the wall rolls through the base of a nick called Hole Gap and climbs a bluff that unnaturally terminates at its peak, as if cleaved by a meat ax. Those same fieldstone steps lead to the top, then seem to hang literally in midair girdled by pipe stanchions laced with wire rope. This calamity occurred in 1929 when portions of the Clayton estate were sold off, and the new owners hacked through the bluff and wall while excavating a pit to mine gravel for road work. Fortunately the government stepped in before all was lost. The quarry pit closed in 1952 and now, long inundated, makes for a picturesque pond with picnic tables and a hiker-friendly restroom facility with a flush toilet, sink and water bottle refilling station.  

The stairway summit made for a perfect photo op of the mile castle. Built by the Legio II Augusta, the Second Legion founded by Augustus Caesar, it is oft-depicted in brochures. I was ready to make the climb, but a woman and a toddler seemed stuck about halfway up. Jerry had already set off through the gate and on to the restroom and picnic table. I waited for as long as I could, but the child sat down on a step and did not seem inclined to move. “We’re sorry,” the woman shouted. “No worries,” I said, and moved on.

Jerry checks our progress in the guide book at the highest point along Hadrian’s Wall.

I washed my face and hands in the restroom, changed into a fresh t-shirt, refilled my water bottle and joined Jerry at a picnic table. He had been studying his map and advised me that we were soon to cross the border from Northumberland into Cumbria.

We were now more than halfway to our goal.

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 onThursday, 13 May 2021 01:22

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