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Mike Vouri: Lanercost Priory and the End of Masonry

  • Written by Mike Vouri

When it was time to move on along the Hadrian’s Wall path from Gilsland, our host Jackie leashed her young black lab and escorted us to the wall trail. It was the exact spot where Jerry and I had gone separate ways the day before, not five minutes away from her BNB, the “Hollies.”

Poltross Burn is the largest mile castle along Hadrian’s Wall, spilling over a hillside and bordered on one end by the Newcastle-Carlisle rail line. Photo by Jerry McElyea

We made our way down the snicket (an alleyway) that runs between a concrete wall and earthen embankment until we came upon the rectangular foundations of Mile Castle 48. Better known as Poltross Burn (burn or bourn in Old English is often a watercourse, in this instance a creek flowing west to the River Irthing), the fort is the largest and best-preserved mile castle along all 84 miles of wall. It has homey details such as the remains of an oven in the northwest corner and a set of stairs that once led to the wall parapet. At 80 by 60 feet, the structure sprawls on the slope of the hill much as Mile Castle 42 at Cawfield Crags on the ridge about 12 miles back.

Just past Poltross Burn,west of Gilsland, are three miles of the most spectacular and intact stretch of wall we’d seen thus far along the path. Some portions are as much as eight feet high. 

Just outside the fort is another railroad crossing and three miles of the most spectacular and intact stretch of wall we’d seen thus far along the path. Some portions are as much as eight feet high. This is especially apparent in the turrets built before the curtain wall was raised and formed wings on either side of the wall.

Here we actually found ourselves brushing past hikers from the west, as the trail narrowed to a “pinch point” between farmstead boundaries. Hikers must pass in single file on mesh that has been laid over the ground to guard against erosion from boot tracks. It is similar to the material used to preserve the embankments along the newly excavated roadway between American Camp and the Cattle Point lighthouse. Normally hikers in England are encouraged to walk abreast rather than single file to avoid carving trails into “holloways,” gullied tracks much like the ones that have been grooved into the sandy soil of the bluffs at American Camp. Jerry and I seldom followed this protocol because we hiked anywhere from 10 to 100 yards apart for most of the day. The pinch point ended in a protracted stile that carried us over the wall and channeled us through another narrow path to the River Irthing, our third Roman bridge abutment of the hike.

The Willowford Roman bridge abutment is about 50 yards from the River Irthing, which is more like a creek near these headwaters. The Irthing flows west into the Eden and then The Solway Firth.

The Willowford abutment is about 50 yards from the river, which is more like a creek near these headwaters. It is similar to the one at Chesters in that it began life as a footbridge and was rebuilt after 160 CE to accommodate wheeled traffic on the Military Way. Immense opus quadratum blocks, cut and dressed to fit, served as the undercarriage for the work and were arranged with gaps to provide sluice ports when the river flooded. I have seen similar sluice ports in the form of barrel arches on intact Roman bridges in Provence, and drainage ports also were notable at Walltown Crags and other points.

These particular stones were actually recycled! One archaeologist writes that the first projects that reemployed stone from Hadrian’s Wall were not the field walls and churches, but on the wall itself over its 300-year employment as a barrier.

We crossed the river on our second “millennium footbridge” of the hike, which is accompanied by an exhibit wayside that offers a history of the crossing. We learned that the Irthing, which flows west into the River Eden and then to Solway Firth, was shifting its banks to the west even before the Romans left. This might explain the ruins of a medieval smithy built into one of the high-and-dry pylons on the east bank. The modern footbridge downstream was the first to cross the Irthing here since the Roman bridge collapsed. The entire span was set in place by helicopter in acknowledgment of the archaeological sensitivity of the site.

The trail departs from the wall briefly to follow a steep gravel farm road to Harrow’s Scar, another mile castle. We stopped to catch our breaths and snap a few photos of the ruin that occupies freshly mowed lawn. After that, we hurried on to stay ahead of other hikers and struck out for Birdoswald (pronounced BIRD-OSWALD), another excavated and landscaped fort operated by English Heritage and featuring a gift shop, museum, garden court snack bar and passport stamping station.

That the Birdoswald Roman fort was occupied by a Dacian cohort for more 200 year is evidenced by chunks of masonry, such as this corner stone, which is illustrated with the Davian curved sword, known as a falx. The Dacians occupied today’s Romania until were conquered and displaced by Hadrian’s predecessor, the Emperor Trajan.

This is a significant point in the hike, as it was here at Banna (“Promontory Fort”) that the turf wall from the west met the stone wall from the east during the initial building phase. And here was another site celebrating the multi-cultural flavor of the Roman Empire. After reading The Marches, Rory Stewart’s account of his own hike along Hadrian’s Wall and the borderlands, I was particularly interested in the Dacians who garrisoned the fort from 126 to 276 CE. We know this thanks to Roman recordkeeping and the image of a sickle-shaped weapon called a falx chiseled in stone above the door of the horreum, the stabilized granary ruin. The Dacians, who once lived in modern Romania, had been conquered, deported and dragooned into the auxiliary legions by Hadrian’s predecessor and cousin, the Emperor Trajan. You can read all about this invasion in base relief on Trajan’s Column in Rome. However, historians now speculate that Banna’s Cohors Prima Aelia Dacorum (“First Aelian Cohort of Dacians") may have been raised and shipped to Britain by Hadrian himself, as his family name, Aelius, is in the title.

The Dacian cohort continued to maintain and embrace its ethnic identity for more than 150 years, even as the unit was refreshed by troops from Britain and other provinces. The proof here is not only in the granary (205 CE), which was built a hundred years after the Dacian War, but also on the tombstone of an infant buried just outside the fort. Auxiliaries were forbidden to marry until late in the Roman occupation, and this child was named for Decibalus, the last king of Dacia who led his armies against Rome beneath the Draco snake banner.

Celebration of ethnic antecedents isn’t hard for us to understand in an era of DNA samples collected in tubes of saliva and mailed to laboratories that can affirm our origins. I always knew that the Scots/English side of my family has been in North America since the early 17th and 18th centuries. But my son, Alex, went one better by linking us to “Niall of the Nine Hostages,” a high king of Ireland. Since this lineage is shared with millions of other folks worldwide, I’m not quite ready to dance a jig. But it is pretty cool.

I break from the historical travelogue here to state that I have managed to leave behind an item at almost every stop. A t-shirt in York, a quality comb in Heddon on the Wall and iPhone chargers in London, Newcastle and most recently at Hall Barns. While resting at Harrow’s Scar, I removed a lightweight glove to snap an artsy photo while lying on the lawn. It wasn’t until we were just shy of Birdoswald that I realized I left it behind. I had no desire to walk back two miles to recover it, so I held out hope that maybe someone from the group coming up behind us would pick it up to turn it into lost and found at the fort. Nothing doing. I asked one of the Germans we saw in the pub the night before if they had seen it.

“Oh yes,” he said. “It was at the ruin, but we didn’t pick it up because we didn’t know which direction the owner may have been traveling.”

And that was the end of my hiking glove period.

We had already extensively explored Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda, so we decided not to remain long at Birdoswald and pressed on to Lanercost to ensure we made it to our BNB before dinner. As it turned out, we would have had plenty of time to explore the fort, have a cup of tea, take a nap and hike back to retrieve my glove.

We walked out the gate and took the uphill path to follow the turf wall course. There is nothing left to see of the wall in these wide-open fields other than the occasional hump of the vallum and the Irthing meandering through the valley below, but there was no lack of exercise.

Farm fields mean animals, and that means rock walls and stiles. We negotiated so many stiles and gates between fields and roadways to reach Lanercost that it seemed like we were running a steeplechase. It reminded me of climbing over downed trees with a full pack in the rainforests back home. A number of stiles fashioned of stones mortared into the fieldstone walls were topped by mini gates hinged with rusty springs, while others had wooden steps with broom- handle supports.

While diverting around a sheep farm, we found ourselves on the opposite bank of the vallum where we watched a farmer herd his flock into another field using an ATV. We thought it a novel exception when we first encountered an ATV rather than a dog near Harlow Hill a few days before, but now it was clear that a quad is much more efficient if you have the means.

We emerged from the woodland onto a straight-edge macadam farm road and stopped to look at the Piper Syke turret, built when the Romans were constructing the initial turf wall from Bowness to Birdoswald. This was sort of a drive-up ruin, as if the stones were stacked on the curb by design. You can explore the ruin by parking your car on the verge across the road, with no huffing and puffing necessary. An accompanying wayside invites you to imagine the 15-foot mound’s vertical face on the north side, with a 45 -degree slope orienting south. The stone watch tower slipped right into the dirt. A fun fact states that a slab found about 150 yards east of the tower was inscribed: “The century of Candidius Crescens, indicating that the centurion and his 80 men built this stretch of wall.”

We moved on from Piper Syke and followed a directional sign into another succession of fields and stiles until confronted with a blacktop parking area full of automobiles. It was a wayside park with picnic benches, trash cans, mutt mitt stations and a beautifully restored 50-yard length of wall culminating in the V-shaped ruin of a pre-Hadrian watch platform called the Pike Hill Signal Tower. These towers were similar to the beacons in Lord of the Rings, as they could relay information over vast distances. Once the balefire was lit, this tower could be seen from the turret at Walltown Crags, more than 10 miles away. It was among several posted along the Stanegate road as early as 85 CE.

At the end of this nice run of consolidated wall is the Banks East turret with a plinth jutting out from the ruin. This was a clear indication that it had been joined to the original turf wall, as the narrower stone curtain wall added later did not quite match its bulk. This make-do imperfect alignment hardly measures up to the Pantheon in Rome or other marvels of Roman engineering, which suggests the Romans may have been in a hurry to finish. It wasn’t until 1934 that those with a conscience for things historical took notice and moved the roadway north so that it no longer ran over the top of the ruin. It was the first ruin of its kind to be protected in Cumbria.

A couple who looked to be in their 60s had arrived by automobile and stood reading the wayside between the signal tower and the turret. Their conversation gave them away as Americans, so I asked where they were from. “Fort Collins, Colorado.” This is about 30 miles north of where my son lives. They seemed impressed that we were on a cross-country hike at our ages, which suggested that we may have looked as cadaverous as we felt after all those stiles.

“How are you holding up?” the man asked. “You know, we could never do that, nor would we want to. We wanted to see the wall, so we rented this car in Newcastle and drove out for the day.”

Drive-up Hadrian’s Wall viewing is a popular attraction on the last stretch of masonry ruins heading west. Photo by Jerry McElyea

I checked my heavy breathing long enough to answer, “That’s nice.”

Jerry had heard enough and moved on. When I mentioned that my son lived in Longmont, she said, “We know it well. We got our shoes at a Dick’s there, and they have a nice Walmart.” He added, “And they have an Oscar Blue’s brew pub. We go there all the time.” I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation in the middle of Cumbria. I turned to follow Jerry, who was about the size of an ant by now.

“Don’t hurt yourself, now,” the husband chortled. I don’t like the word and rarely use it, but he did, in fact, “chortle.”

As the miles piled up on pavement and turf, my autonomic system set the pace and my mind once more engaged in “skull cinema.” This day my boots slapped in time with “Waterloo Sunset” by Ray Davies of the Kinks. Then it was a goofy breathing mantra: “Be here now. Be here now. Be here now.” And listening: Footfalls. Breaths. Birdsongs. Sheep.

We made it to our scheduled diversion from the wall path at Banks and started south once again down a shimmering paved road with blind corners, some of which had mirrors mounted on the verge midway through. We literally had to jump into the brush on the curbside when a vehicle approached. By the way, some actually braked and moved to the other side of the road, often waving and smiling as we motioned thanks. Others hurtled by at high speed, not giving an inch. Caledonians, no doubt, once again raiding over the Stanegate.

Finally, at high noon, we found our way to a travelers’ wayside bench with a wagon wheel back rest festooned with carvings of local wildlife, including rabbits, birds, snails and frogs. A wooded area lies directly behind the bench, where hikers are encouraged to relieve themselves in a designated area that has since become a bog. Nonetheless, we pulled out our lunches and water bottles. The setting would have been bucolic were it not for the cars roaring past every two minutes and the smell emanating from the piddle patch. Time to move on.

Another couple of miles went by and, true to form, we misread the directions and marched past the turnoff to our BNB. But what an excellent mistake! It was only 1:30, and we got the opportunity to spend time at a remarkable remnant of medieval England.

Lanercost is home to this Augustinian priory founded in 1169 by Robert de Vaux, an English magnate. The priory was built with stones from Hadrian’s wall, and there are a few that bear Roman inscriptions, such as one from the Legio VI Victrix (Sixth Legion). The site is mostly a ruin, with the exception  of the nave, which serves as a parish church.

Lanercost is home to an Augustinian priory founded in 1169 by Robert de Vaux, an English magnate. The priory was built with stones from Hadrian’s wall, and there are a few that bear Roman inscriptions, such as one from the Legio VI Victrix (Sixth Legion). The only portion of the complex that still functions is the nave, which serves as a parish church. The transept, presbytery and apse are open to the elements, the plaster long eroded, leaving skeletal pinkish stone. The burial vaults of a noble couple and a prelate in the chapels are weathered and broken. It reminded me of a ruined abbey in southern France that had been sacked and burned by the Huguenots in the 17th century. Unlike that church, Lanercost disintegrated over time, accelerated by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries during the reformation.

Before that it was a convenient rest stop for King Edward I the Longshanks (at 6’ 2” he was tall for the age) to and from warring with the Scots. Great lords and church leaders usually cringed at the approach of a monarch because it meant providing room and board not only for the king, but also for the entire court. Edward’s particularly opulent lifestyle reduced the priory to poverty and decimated the deer population in the local forests. According to the chronicles, the king and his huntsmen bagged more 200 stags and hinds during one visit in 1280. After he left, Robert the Bruce and his avenging Scots descended on the priory and stole everything they could lay their hands on, including the gilt on the altars and the dinner plates. The raids by the Scots were accepted as a misfortune of war. But when the monks pleaded with Edward to make restitution for his high living, his solution was to make up for it by depleting the coffers of two neighboring churches.

These guys set a fine example for the thugs, thieves and vandals, better known as Border Reivers, in the coming centuries.

What struck me was the contrast between Lanercost and Hexham Abbey, 27 miles east and not as convenient to the border. Hexham is lovingly restored with that rebuilt priory, and is opulent with gilt, polished oak and tapestries. And it has a roof. Lanercost is time-worn without frills, a place to reflect on mortality as Edward may have done when he was hauled here on a litter and remained in his sick bed from October through April 1306-07. This meant six more months of food and drink for the entire court and the army.

Today the church yard is so overgrown with weeds and thorny ground cover that you can only approach the headstones on the periphery. But it really doesn’t matter. The epitaphs are as worn as the church by centuries of rain. And no one is left to remember or care for the graves of these dead.

Hark! how the sacred calm, that breathes around,

Bids every fierce tumultuous passion cease;

In still small accents whisp'ring from the ground,

A grateful earnest of eternal peace.

Thomas Gray aside, the priory is not altogether forgotten. The ruin has become a tourist attraction with a tea and souvenir shop featuring indoor and outdoor dining and a novel gift and crafts center. The parking area was full that Sunday with visitors from Newcastle and Carlisle, and the tea shop was hopping. I bought a pot of tea and a cake for us to share and carried the tray to a delicate wrought iron table and uncomfortable, straight-backed chairs with seats more suitable for five-year-olds.

Envisioning a pre-dinner nap, I called our host, who confirmed that we had passed the junction to her road about a mile back. She didn’t seem surprised, and asked for an hour to finish our room. No problem. I found a more comfortable chair after tea and enjoyed the sunshine, the ruins and the birds.

We killed about two hours there, poking through the churchyard and exploring the priory. We then hiked back to our BNB. The owner, Deborah, a cheerful woman in her 70s, runs a tidy, two-story farmhouse built in 1773 by Nathan and Mary Little, whom Deborah described as yeoman farmers, “a step down from gentry.” But, again, the house was well appointed with modern bathrooms, a pleasant sitting room and garden, and Deborah is a heck of a cook. If you’re keen for horseback riding, there is an adjoining stable and 10 acres of grounds girded by the River Irthing.

Following the by-now familiar drill, we left our boots at the door and found our bags already in the room. A bed never looked so good. I had only intended to close my eyes for a minute, but 89 more slipped by and the dinner bell was only an hour away. I dashed off a quick entry in my journal:

“We will be off tomorrow at 8:30 for Carlisle before heading for the coast. There is more behind us than in front. No rain today and none forecast for tomorrow. That comes at the end of the walk. A great, big boot in the arse!”

Let’s hope they’re wrong.



Last modified onSunday, 20 June 2021 03:56

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