Saturday, July 21, 2007

Logbook: Hadrian's Wall III


Thursday 19th - Chollerford to Once Brewed

We started our fourth day of walking with our usual routine: Full English breakfast, pack up, leave the bags for the mysterious man with the van and start hoofing it. We tried to stop by the Fort ruins in Chollerford, but were too early for it to be open. We decided not to wait and took to the trail in earnest. For the first hour, the path was pretty much the same as it had been: Farm fields, fence stiles and gentle rolling hills. After that, it started changing dramatically. To our delight, we started seeing more remnants of the Wall, both longer and taller, and more ruins of Milecastles and Turrets. We really started to get a feel for how the Romans could watch the frontier uninterrupted from coast to coast, signal each other from post to post and deploy troops as needed in very efficient order. The Wall complex became much more "alive" and even more impressive. The path also veered sufficiently far away from the road that we did not have any "modern" noise and could appreciate the wild remoteness of the frontier. To our dismay, the weather was beastly hot and humid, and the terrain quickly changed from rolling hills and farmlands to steep crags and moors. It became obvious why more of the Wall remains in place in this center section of the path than it does on either end: The sheer remoteness of the Wall has made it difficult -- or at least less easy -- for locals to scavenge it. If you think about it, when the Romans left Britain after four hundred years of occupation, the Wall was like an abandoned building supply depot: Millions of nicely faced stones, tons of roofing timbers and untold amounts of other materials just waiting to be picked up by some local farmer wanting to build a house, a barn or a wall of his own. Such is the doom of great structures, built by imperial masters, left to the devices of the heathens... or something like that. No matter, there is still enough left in this section to get a terrific feeling for the Wall and we really enjoyed having it as our more or less constant companion during this difficult part of the walk. Now, when I say difficult, let me put it in perspective. It is by far not the hardest walk I have ever done nor, for that matter that my Mom has ever done. The Chilkoot Trail in Alaska that we hiked together ten years ago was much, much steeper and harder -- not to mention the fact that we were then carrying our own gear. The Wall is, however, a much longer walk and that makes a difference. So, too, does the fact that we are both ten years older. I would rate the Wall a "moderate" walk on an objective scale for experienced trekkers and would say that it was a good match for me: challenging but not overwhelming. For my Mom -- who will only admit to being "in her seventies" -- it was a "strenuous" walk, bordering on “extreme.” As always, I was immensely impressed by her stamina, fortitude, positive attitude and downright grit. The photo above gives you a pretty good idea of the terrain she conquered for twelve miles over the course of the day. By the time we reached the little town of Once Brewed -- where the Wall and road briefly approach each other -- she had more than earned her dram, a hot pub meal and a long night's sleep!

Hadrianiii1Friday 20th - Once-Brewed to Gilsland

Our fifth walking day started in the usual way, of course, and we were back on the rugged trail pretty early. After an hour of hard walking, we reached the high point of the Wall path, literally and figuratively. Atop a particularly steep section of the crag bluffs is a marker which signifies the highest altitude of the Wall at about 1500 feet. (See inset photo) It is also a point where you can see for miles in all directions and, on a clear day, both from coast to coast and far north into "savage" territory and far south into "occupied" territory. (Note: About the "savages." First of all, keep in mind that the average Roman soldier posted on the Wall was 5' 3" tall and about 120 pounds. They were "auxiliaries", usually conscripts from outlying areas of the Roman Empire and, while they were obviously hard workers, they were generally not experienced fighters. They wore fabric tunics and light, leather armor on duty. When you consider that they were generally from mild climates and moderate terrains you can get an idea of what a hellish posting the Wall was for them. Now, consider that the typical "Highlander" was from Scandinavian descent, was probably a head taller, much larger in stature, wore animal skin clothing and thrived in the harsh weather of the moors, and you might have an idea of why they scared the hell out of the Romans. Clearly, they were "savages" and I can imagine many a poor Roman conscript laying awake at night, fearing that the nine foot thick, eighteen foot high wall was insufficient to keep them out! Now, back to our story...) A little later in the day, we stopped in at the best preserved Fort on the Wall path. With many building foundations clearly evident, we got a very good feeling for how efficiently it was laid out. With an excellent museum on site, we got to see some relics from the time. With an outstanding little cafe on hand, we had a tasty bowl of soup and a fine chicken sandwich! Just beyond that, we passed the tallest remaining section of the wall. For the first time, the Wall was taller than I am and I got to walk next to it without being able to see over it. Frankly, I found it a bit creepy not to be able to see what was on the other side, and I could appreciate the usefulness of the Turrets as vantage points. Besides that, its sheer mass was imposing and intimidating. As the day's hike wound down, so did our connection with the Wall. Slowly but steadily we made our way down off the crags and back onto the rolling hills, back out of the wilderness and onto farmlands, out of the quiet and into the noise of the road. With this transition, we saw less and less of the Wall that had obviously been more heavily scavenged as it became more available to local folks over the centuries. Thus, I would say this day was the high point for us: Literally in terms of altitude and figuratively in terms of our Wall experience. It was also a hard day of walking and we were ready for our dram, dinner and dreams that night.

Img_1692Saturday 2st - Gilsland to Walton

Our sixth day of walking began with the usual full English breakfast and continued with an interesting but not spectacular walk. We had some contact with the Wall now and then, but it was no longer our constant companion. In fact, the detailed trail guide we were using had a special note to point out the last piece of Wall we would see -- a forlorn little overgrown pile of rocks -- and I found myself pouting. Like the first thirty miles from Newcastle, the last thirty miles would be barren from a Wall perspective. We'd had our two days on the spectacular middle twenty five miles of nearly constant Wall sights, now it would just be a walk for the distance. Nevertheless, there were a few highlights such as a "self-serve" refreshment stand where you can brew yourself a cup of coffee, grab a soft drink or bottle of water, and even have a tasty little cake, all on the honor system. Even in the hinterlands, entrepreneurship rocks! Not so much of a highlight was that the weather turned rainy and we started having to slog through mud on a regular basis. I won't say that we were getting depressed, but it wasn't so much fun. At one point my Mom summed it all up by saying, "I feel like a horse that is heading back to the barn." Indeed, to the barn we went, in the form of a working farm B&B where we slept to the sound of cows making whatever sound it is that cows make, and dreamed of still having twenty five more miles to go.

To be continued...

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