Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Logbook: Hadrian's Wall II


Monday 16th - Newcastle to Heddon

Our first "official" day of walking the Hadrian's Wall Path actually began with a Metro ride back into the center of Newcastle, thanks to our "pre-walk" the day before. We retraced our steps to the exact point we had left the path, took a moment to ready ourselves for what we imagined lay ahead and stepped out. By the time we had covered five pretty easy miles continuing along the river, we were well out of the city and into the suburbs. We stopped for a quick coffee and a snack then continued on our way, veering away from the river but still in flat land across some parks and even a couple of major road bridges. So far, the walk had been a very easy and pretty uninteresting -- bordering on boring -- march through civilization, with no sign whatsoever of the Wall that was our main focus and theme. It did, however, give us the chance to begin to accumulate a sense of the total mileage that the Wall would have covered and we were already impressed. Early afternoon we reached a hard right turn in the path, went across a golf course and started to slog our way up a pretty steep hill. We had covered about ten of our twelve miles for the day -- thankfully fewer than the 16 we were originally scheduled for! -- when we reached the little village of Heddon and stopped for a cold drink and a chance to rest. All in all, we had been moving pretty well and it was only early afternoon. On our way out of Heddon we got our first proper glimpse of the Wall in the form of a 200 meter long ruin averaging about 1 meter high. It looked very similar to the segment I had seen twenty years ago and was a powerful reminder of why I was motivated to see it. It was my Mom's first view, and I think her reaction was something along the lines of "Wow!" We spent a few minutes looking it over, commenting on what an ordeal it would have been to build the Wall just to where we were standing -- let alone for another seventy-odd miles! -- then set out on the last two miles of our day's walk to a B&B just down the path. Upon arrival, we were delighted to see our bags waiting for us as promised and had a wee dram before taking showers and having dinner at a local pub. I wouldn't say that the 12 miles wrecked us, but even though it was an "easy" path we were still pretty worn out. It had been a very good idea to "pre-walk" the day before!

Img_1563Tuesday 17 - Heddon-Corbridge

Our second walking day started with a "full English breakfast" of eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, tomato, beans, toast and coffee, a meal that would be our standard throughout the trek. We packed up, left our bags and headed out into the countryside, and I do mean countryside! For the next few hours we tramped through farm field after farm field, up and down countless stiles over farm fences and walls, across grasslands, among fields of wheat, barley, hops and whatnot, all the while paralleling the modern road which runs along the route of the ancient Wall and frequently in the company of livestock. It was a beautiful country walk on a beautiful day, but we saw little sign of the Wall itself along the way. We did, however, see ample signs of Wall-related Roman construction. You see, in order to make the Wall a more formidable defensive boundary, the Romans dug a ditch in front of it, on the North side toward the "savages." Aptly known as the "Roman Ditch" this was a steep sided earthwork some ten feet deep and twenty feet wide that is still visible today, even where the Wall itself no longer exists. In addition, the Romans also did impressive earthwork behind the Wall, on the South side toward "civilization." Hadrianii2This included a wide, leveled area for a "military road" plus two defensive berms and another very large ditch called the Vallum. If you are keeping score, so far we have an immense wall, two huge ditches and two large berms. If you are wondering why there was so much earthwork "behind" the wall, just remember that the Romans were not entirely welcome and needed to keep their personnel, property and livestock safe from locals on their side of the wall. Think of it as a military zone with a wall and ditch toward the enemy and earthwork berms and a ditch toward the occupied population with a military road in between. (Then again, you can probably just look at pictures of US bases in present day Iraq and see that military occupations haven't changed much in two thousand years.) But I digress... After three hours of walking we were ready for a break and stopped at a famous pub along the nearby road. Sadly, the pub was closed so we pushed on until we had covered a total of about eight miles through the constant up and down of farm walking. At that point, we left the wall path and headed about three more miles due south to the town of Corbridge where we found our accommodations -- with bags once again waiting for us! -- and took a little break. With plenty of daylight left, we wandered to the edge of town and checked out the ruins of a large, Wall-era Roman Fort. We took an hour-long audio tour of the site, learning all about Roman Fort construction, layout, buildings, and the life of some three thousand troops who were stationed there. All by itself, the site would have been impressive, but when you realize that this is just one of a dozen large forts the Romans built -- in addition to the 84 mile Wall and earthwork! -- you get an even more astonishing sense of what they invested in defending their occupation of northern Britain! Pretty much worn out from the day, we had an early dinner and crashed.

Img_1666Wednesday 18th - Corbridge to Chollerford

After our full English breakfast on the morning of our third day, we took a local bus to the nearby town of Hexham for a little side-trip to check out a famous church Mom wanted to see, then caught a ride back up to the exact spot on the Wall path where we had deviated the day before. Like deja vu all over again, we spent the next few hours crossing farm fields, going up and down farm stiles, catching glimpses of Wall ruins and in the pretty constant company of Roman earthwork, livestock and traffic noise from the nearby road. We stopped at a delightful little cafe for lunch then continued on, starting to feel ourselves walking up and down some rolling hills. Later in the day, we came across our first examples of the Wall's built-in fortifications: Milecastles -- about twenty feet square -- were built every mile along the wall to house about a dozen soldiers, and Turrets -- about ten feet square -- of which two were built in between each Milecastle to house a few lookouts. Img_1601You can see that by themselves these are not impressive fortifications, but when you start adding them up -- 80 milecastles and 160 turrets -- in addition to the Wall and the dozen Forts, the scope of the construction becomes even more staggering. The Romans truly were masters of military engineering, constructions, infrastructure, communications, etc. I am convinced they were also completely crazy. To have invested what they did in the Wall complex, just to mark the extreme limit of the Empire and keep the "savages" out has to be one of the most immense squanderings of fortune in history. (I will resist making present day comparisons.) Anyway, after what seemed like a pretty short eight miles for the day, we found our night's lodging at a lovely little B&B (with a great dog!) went out for a pub dinner and an early bed time. Three days and thirty-odd miles into the walk, we felt like we had pretty well gotten into the groove and routine. We were wrong.

To be continued...

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