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Mike Vouri: Lost Rain Gear, Reivers and the Bishop’s Curse

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Another bright morning in Cumbria, this one enhanced by mixed aromas emanating from the kitchen and the stables below our window at the Lanercost Equestrian & Country Inn.

Here is a good example of the stile/gates between Birdoswald and Lanercost that snagged my anorak and rain pants. Photos by Mike Vouri

Our host Deborah had breakfast ready at 7:30 a.m., but I had trouble eating because while gathering my things I realized my anorak and rain pants were missing. At first I thought that maybe they had slipped off my pack at the Priory. But Jerry produced a photo of me sitting on a bench somewhere near the intersection of Banks, a bit up the trail. The gear was not in evidence. The pain was compounded when a German couple, who had been with us at three places by then, overheard my tale of woe and interposed gravely.

“We saw your clothes draped over a gate,” the woman said.

Darn. I thought I had solved the dilemma of quick access to rain gear by employing the pack’s single exterior pocket fastener, supplemented by a bungee cord. We commiserated over how tough some of the stiles were to negotiate with the stone steps, no hand-holds and fiddly little gates on either side. You have to bend to one side to make a turn and swing over your legs one after the other. That’s probably when my gear slipped off the fastener.

An 84-mile hike requires a packing mobility and weight consciousness that I had not practiced since my backcountry hiking days 30 years before, and I was learning (painfully) these lessons as I packed the daily inventory: Water. Energy bars. Sun screen. Lip balm. Change of shirt. Lightweight hat. Rain gear! Dry shirt. Monocular. Gerber tool. Bandages. Advil. Compass. Maps. Guidebook. Pack cover. The weight adds up, especially when you have to carry it all day.

Once the sting of loss passed, I focused on the trail. Deborah’s daughter gave us a ride to the wall path. She partners with her mom to run the place, which they had acquired three years before to satisfy a love of horses and Deborah’s life-long dream to run her own BNB. As we had been diverted from the path the day before, we were happy to knock off about a mile of uphill-walking on macadam.

From Lanercost the wall course spans open countryside that gives onto the River Eden.

Had we rejoined the trail where we’d left it the day before, we would have encountered one of the last fragments of wall evident to westbound walkers only a quarter mile beyond the intersection. At nearly nine feet high, the 50-foot-long Hare Hill section is billed as the tallest remnant of original wall along the entire 84-mile course. I learned this thanks to a generous internet presentation entitled “Per Lineam Valli” (Along the Line of Wall) by Mike Bishop, a freelance writer and archaeologist who has spent thousands of hours hiking along, studying and writing about Hadrian’s Wall.

As he notes, the wall is not all it’s cracked up to be, something we had learned from the reconstructions of the mid-19th century antiquarian John Clayton. The Hare Hill ruin was reassembled during Victorian times under the direction of the Duke of Carlisle, but while the south face is ragged, the north face offers a finished appearance. This is largely because some of the stone was quarried and dressed by his workers, save for a century (signature) stone found in the ruin of a nearby watchtower that was slipped into the work to affirm its pedigree.

Sadly, I did not discover Bishop’s website along with several other remarkable free Hadrian’s Wall web offerings until long after I arrived home. That’s why I booked a second trip, which was derailed by Covid. But in the summer of 2019, as the temperature rose and our feet burned, we were not taking any chances with directions. The intersection was there, and by heaven, we took it.

One cottage owner along the path employs a touch of humor (hopefully) to warn hikers away from his gardens.

From the point where we reengaged, the trail is devoid of stone traces save for stretches of the vallum and some ditch. Most of the stones, known to archaeologists as “squared rubble,” went into building churches, castles and farmhouses. An occasional sign explains that a particular inscribed stone is from the wall. Monty Python is also alive and well, as evidenced by a sign on one cottage that declares, “Beware, Mine Field.”

We had literally walked through a tidy backyard replete with flower and vegetable beds and a greenhouse that gave onto a classic wall path gate next to a patio table with an ice chest labeled, “Stall on the Wall.” Inside were bottles of cold water, crackers, potato chips (called “crisps” in England), cookies and candy bars for purchase on the honor system. A few miles on, we found what may have been wall scatter in a roadside ditch, and that was it. We were again locked into a steeplechase of farm fields bisected by wood or stone fences and climbing stiles or squeezing through gates (sometimes double gates), time after time. It was hot work on a sunny morning, and a diversion took us onto a mile-long stretch of blacktop before we hit grass again.

The only traces of Roman fortification west of Lanercost was this stretch of of ditch, which would have fronted the north face of Hadrian’s Wall.

The fields were expansive now, rolling green to the horizons, and forest plantations and canebrakes lined the river and creeks. The fields were usually occupied by sheep and cows and filled with their gelatinous, olive-drab dung. One animal had become separated from the rest of the flock and bleated mournfully from a grassy knoll. His brethren called in return from the opposite bank of a shady creek. We expected to see the farmer on his ATV any second, but he never showed.

On we went, passing through a working farmyard where field hands ignored us and went about their work. Save for these farm workers, we mostly saw hikers who had set off east from Bowness. One young couple wearing matching kilts stopped to chat, and expressed disappointment in the miles of farm fields. “We are wondering when the wall will appear,” the young man moaned. I urged them not to miss the Hare Hill remnant, and assured them that the Banks East and Pike Hill ruins and a stretch of wall were a mile or two ahead. And then it was only 10 miles to Birdoswald fort. They had a long way to go.

The River Eden flows west, meeting the River Esk in Solway Firth.

We stopped for lunch in the riverside village of Crosby-on-Eden, and I immediately thought of Der Bingle, the Spokane native who made it big in Hollywood as “Bing.” Was his family from there? Nope. A “crosby” in Norse and Old English means “settlement by the cross.” In this case, the settlement hugged the River Eden, which, joined by the Irthing, snakes through the countryside past Carlisle to Solway Firth.

St. John’s Anglican Church in Crosby-on-Eden. It was a great spot to sit on a park bench, have a bite of lunch, study the headstones and almost become trapped in a schoolyard at recess.

We sat on a bench in front of St. Johns, a red brick church dating to the 18th century. As usual, the late parishioners are gathered under an agglomeration of time-worn and fresh marble stones about the building. Passing through a gate we thought would return us to the road, we found ourselves in a large, white-washed concrete enclosure, very much like a prison yard with a locked gate on the far end. It looked so forbidding that we returned the way we came. And then, just as we passed back through the gate, a bell rang and the yard was suddenly flooded with children ready for recess!

I thought I had happened upon a medieval watch tower on the outskirts of Carlisle, but it is a 19th-century “folly,” erected by George Head Head on his “Tower Farm.”

We were only four miles from our lodging in Carlisle, but they were tough miles on pavement that included crossings over two major expressways. I began to feel more like a hitchhiker than a cross-country walker. We eventually came to the village of Rickerby and an octagonal stone watchtower standing in a cornfield. I presumed it was a medieval restoration and enthusiastically took about 20 photos. Close, closer, closer. More photos. However, I later learned (from the internet) that the tower had been erected in the mid-19th century by George Head Head (not a typo), who was the owner of the estate that now forms a park on the outskirts of Carlisle. The structure is billed locally as a “folly,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as an ornamental building “with no practical purpose”—such as a tower! Head also built a gatehouse that replicates a Roman temple. No ruins? Build your own!

We crossed the cantilever “Memorial Bridge” (foot traffic only, bikers dismount) and shuffled into an air-conditioned golf course clubhouse to wait until it was time to check into our BNB just up the street. We enjoyed ginger beers, cold water and comfortable seats while watching a golf match on a big-screen television mounted on the wall. For me, watching golf on television is one of the greatest sleep aids known to humankind.

“Wake up,” Jerry said, giving me a nudge.

We decided to take a chance on our room, and walked past a line of row houses to our lodging for the night. Once a Victorian townhouse, the Fern Lee Guest House anchored a corner surrounded by gardens behind a wrought-iron fence. The place has earned plenty of silver stars on web sites. The rooms are well appointed, and a classic English dining room has cherry wood paneling, an elegant sideboard for a breakfast buffet and several highly polished cherry tables. Prints of 19th century rural scenes adorned the walls. Unlike other two-story BNBs along the path, our bags were not in our room and we lugged them up a flight of narrow stairs. (We found out later that the foot of that staircase was the only place to get Wifi.) This was the final draw on our strength. We collapsed on our beds, leaving the door open for a breeze to pass through.

Just as I was about to drift off again, a couple arrived downstairs. They were Americans from somewhere in the midwest on a genealogical quest. At high volume over the next 45 minutes, we learned that the wife—let’s call her “Armstrong”—was descended from notorious Border Reivers of that name. We first learned about them and their depredations at Housesteads Fort, where one Armstrong was hanged for stealing cattle. I peeked over the balustrade to catch a look at them. They were not hikers; if so, she could not have found the energy.

Carlisle was called Luguvalium, or City of Lugus, by the Romans. You worshipped this Gallo-Roman version of the god, Mercury, if you wanted to succeed in business, travel safely or excel in the arts. There is also an interpretation that has something to do with “oath making and taking,” which conforms neatly with the city’s later history. For the Romans, the city was the hub of their border defense network than ran along the northern frontier and south to Eboracum, modern York. But you would never know it. Except for stones that were used to build the cathedral and castle, objects in the museum and an annual festival, there is scant visible evidence of an occupation that lasted more than 300 years.

This artist’s conception captures the violence that characterized the 300-year Border Reivers period along Hadrian’s Wall between the 14th and 17th centuries. 

Carlisle is more painfully conscious of its medieval heritage, when William the Conqueror killed every living thing in sight in his “Harrying of the North.” It remained a frequent battleground between the English and Scots (Scotland is only 10 miles north) as armies moved through the revolving door of the border, laying further waste to the land. In the wake of all this wretchedness, raiders representing families and clans from both sides of the border preyed upon each other in a kind of proxy war of uncommon toxicity over the next 300 years. These were the Border Reivers, and Armstrong’s ancestors were among the worst of the lot. To reive means “to steal,” and from all the sorrow it brought, we have another word, “bereaved,” according the writer George MacDonald Fraser. In a vain attempt at law and order, borderlands of England and Scotland were subdivided into six expansive districts known as “marches,” three on either side of the border. Each was under command of a warden who answered to his respective king. Theoretically, wardens existed to maintain order, but often the best way to ensure you were not robbed and made destitute was to pay what was called “black rent” or “black mail” to either the Border Reiver, the warden or both. You could not win.

This sculpture containing 383 words of a bishop’s curse of the Border Reivers was installed in the Carlisle city center to commemorate the Millennium. One local vicar warned that the stone was a “lethal weapon” and that its “spiritual violence” would spread like a “cancer.” While there has been no indication of spiritual violence, the city was beset by flood, an economic downturn and the local soccer club was relegated to a lower league.

At the height of the Border Reiver depredations, a 1,069-word curse was leveled at them in 1525 by a fed-up Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow. I have taken the liberty of translating a bit of it here from old English. He didn’t leave anything to chance:

I curse their head and all the hairs of their head, I curse their face, their eyes, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their neck, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without…

It goes on and on, covering every detail of human anatomy and daily life. And, as a reminder that history is alive and well here, a granite sculpture that included 383 of the grimmest words of the curse was installed in the Carlisle city center to commemorate the Millennium. One local vicar warned that the stone was a “lethal weapon” and that its “spiritual violence” would spread like a “cancer.”

And wouldn’t you know it?

Since then the city has been beset by a 100-year flood that caused the Eden to burst its banks and bring motor launches into the city streets; by a fire that destroyed a popular bakery; by massive layoffs of employees by a coleslaw manufacturer; by foot-and-mouth disease that devastated most of northern England; and, worst of all, by an endless goal drought that resulted in the Carlisle United Football Club being relegated to a lesser league. According to the Manchester Guardian, this moved the sculptor to lament that if he’d known the football club would be relegated, he never would have created the sculpture.

As disasters mounted, the area council considered removing the monument or even coaxing the current Glasgow bishop to lift the curse. He demurred. Another northern writer likened the whole drama to the Da Vinci Code. Finally, it required a practicing “white witch” to explain that “acknowledgement” would only give the curse “more power.” The council backed off, and the stone remains in the car park below the Tullie House Museum.

It turns out that I could have bounded down the stairs and matched “Armstrong’s” claims, ancestor for ancestor. I learned later that, on my maternal grandmother’s side, I may be a descendent of “Willie Kange” Irvine, also known as “Kinmont Willie,” who was contemporaneous with “Noseless Clemmie,” “Buggerback” and “Ill-drowned Geordie.” Willie reived in the late 16th century as an Armstrong associate, a sort of minor leaguer striving to make the majors. In addition to stealing sheep, horses, mares and a goat, he and his gang killed six people and maimed 11 more on one raid in the Carlisle area. He was finally caught and imprisoned in the castle, only to be rescued by ancestors of Sir Walter Scott!

I close this, throwing a pinch of salt over my shoulder.

Last modified onThursday, 16 February 2023 21:07

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