Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part Three

Aug 08 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

Day 6: The WALL!


(Yes. I am standing on a 2000 year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. What did YOU do today?)

After a fortifying breakfast (it was make your own, which I really liked, and I have MASTERED the full English breakfast! With beans! Good for hiking fuel, beans) we set off. 15 miles for our first day, and by the end, yeah, my feet were really tired. But so far, it's definitely worth it (though poor Mr got a blister).

Side Note: One of the things I really liked about the UK: Half pints! It's a great system. Costs less. You drink less. It's good especially for when there are like three things on tap you want to try and you don't want to commit to a full pint. Can the US get these? Please??

The first leg of Hadrian's Wall actually had...very little WALL. The one you see above is a good sized chunk of "broad" wall in Heddon-on-the-Wall, and the last bit of wall we saw...all day ("Broad" wall is wall built to three meters wide, on the original plan. After they got a few miles in the the Romans realized it would be too much of a pain, and the rest of the wall was 2 meters wide "narrow" wall on 3 meter foundations). What we mostly saw was the Vallum, a very wide ditch on the south side of the wall, which is still there in a lot of places, and the deep, steep ditch on the north side of the wall (originally there would have been sharpened stakes in there, something you couldn't ride a horse through), which we ended up walking along for a good portion of the day. the ditches on both sides of the wall enabled the Romans to have good defense on both sides, and also to restrict traffic to a few access points for easy customs and taxes (priorities!).

The hills and woods were a brilliant green, the weather was perfect (ok, the locals were all complaining about how it was SO HOT. It was about 80 degrees F at the hottest. We thought it was lovely), and there were lots and lots of sheep. And cows. And horses.


(Bucolic is the word I'm going for here)


(Hadrian's barn packed us a lunch with appropriately themed chips)


(Our constant, skittish companions)


(The path itself)

Every once in a while we'd run into a convenience pub and stop for a beer. Hadrian's Wall Path, the longest pub crawl in the world.

It should also be noted that the trail ran mostly through fields, though a little bit through towns. The result of this is that you're hiking with cows and sheep and stuff. This also means they own the fields, and the fields can become...well we started calling them "mines". Poop mines. At some point, you WILL get mined. If you can choose, choose a sheep mine over a cow mine. Trust me on that.

At the very end, we hit the Roman fort and bridge remains at Chesters. The remains are really striking, gates, barracks, and a full bathhouse down by the river (Romans took bathing VERY seriously). There were also a bunch of people there who were Roman reenactors. We chatted with one guy for a while (an Irish Roman reenactor, who flew over with all his armor to feed his reenactment habit) about reenactment culture and what they do.

The Museum at Chesters had a bunch of artifacts and stones. The majority of these are small alters or stones stating that "so and so fulfilled his vow to Mars/Venus/Jupiter", which were made as offerings to a temple when someone...fulfilled their vow. Whatever that happened to be (it could be a dove sacrifice or something a lot more difficult). There were also various symbols of things like good fortune:


(A Roman sign of prosperity and good fortune. Not kidding. Yes, that is exactly what you think it is)


(The ruins at Chesters)


(I am sitting in the bath house at Chesters. The niches were probably for statuary, but that whole row of niches has survived over 2000 years)

Then we headed to the George Hotel for some good beers, a friendly bartender, and pretty views after a long hike. The bartender was nice enough to say that we looked in way better shape than most of the people who come limping in after the 15 mile leg.


(Intrepid Neuron contemplates paradise)

We then hiked another mile or so to our stop for a day, a rooming house that will remain nameless, as it loses strongly for the GIGANTIC spider in the bathtub at 2am.

Day 7: The Wall Continues

We had gotten lucky. The beautiful sunny mild weather. The warmth. Light breezes. And then. Then there was day 2 on the wall, when Northumbria reminds you what she is made of. It rained. Hard. Sideways. For the first 8 of our 12 miles. 8 miles of driving wind and rain and COLD. The invention of thermal underlayers and waterproof jackets was the most amazing thing in history. Makes you really pity the poor Romans, all in their wool tunics, shivering as they stared north searching for the Scots.


(Hadrian's Wall in the rain)

During today's sodden hike, we saw the very well preserved remains of the Mithraeum, a temple to Mithras, a Persian god adopted by many Roman soliders, involving dark, light, and the sacrifice of a bull.


(Remains of the temple)

Today was the windiest, and also the HIGHEST point of Hadrian's Wall, and today we finally saw a LOT of wall. A lot of it is "narrow" wall, only 2 meters across. But it's well preserved, and there's a good reason why. The wall in this area runs on the top of steep cliffs called the "Whin Sill". It's testament to sheer Roman bloody mindedness. It's on the top of a hundred foot cliff. There is NO WAY that invaders are getting at it. You don't NEED a wall there! But there it stands. Because they were going to build a wall across the whole country, and so help them, they built it.

After a lot of hiking in rain, wind, mud, and misery, we arrived at the Roman Fort at Housesteads, which happily had a nice hot drinks machine and nice museum curators, who let us sit inside while we dried out and warmed up. Housesteads has been beautifully preserved and is well worth a visit. We also saw a bunch of turrets every quarter mile or so (which would have a fire in the bottom and a ladder to the top of the wall), and a bunch of milecastles (built, obviously, every mile), which housed a detachment of about 30 men.


(A milecastle with a very well preserved arch.

We also went through the Sycamore gap.


(It is apparently most famous for it's role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

The Sycamore Gap is another testament to Roman bloodymindedness. Those hills are NUTS. Cavalry would break a leg. You'd think you could build the wall as a terrace set, or maybe curve it a little and build somewhere flatter. But no. The wall will go in a straight line because the Romans SAY SO. Even if that means building up a nearly 90 degree angle.

Our feet are tired, but we haven't given in! On the A6318, the highway that runs the entire length of Hadrian's Wall (based on a military road from the 1700s),  you can see the Hadrian's Wall bus go by (the AD122, named that because Hadrian's Wall was built in AD...122. Yes. They really named the buss that). We have dubbed it the "fail bus", and are determined only to get on it if we fail to hike the distance (a name, by the way, which we quickly spread to our fellow hikers on the trail). But not to day, failbus, not today.

After Housesteads the rain let up, and we ended up comfortably ensconced in the town of Once Brewed, at the Twice Brewed Inn (yes, this exists).


(Told you it exists)

We lingered over tasty beers and tasty sausage, letting our feet dry (sort of, we were wearing wet boots for the next TWO DAYS), before we headed to our accomodation that night, Hunter Crook Lodge, a lovely renovated barn. It was really classy, and best of all, they had baby lambs we got to play with!


(Your heart just melted a little, didn't it)

They even have a hot tub! After the rather lame place last night with a huge spider, it was a lovely improvement.

Day 8: More Wall

This day was "only" 8 miles, but it was a pretty up and down 8 miles with lots of hills. We also saw our first injury, as we witnessed someone's ankle break on the trail. Yeah. I hope he's ok, poor kid. Thankfully they had phones and could call for assistance, but I can only imagine how they got him out of there, it was the middle of nowhere Northumbria. The wall is not easy on the unwary.

We also passed another instance of Roman insanity. This milecastle:


It's a little hard to see from the photo, but the milecastle is build on a horrid angle, constantly sloping. Terrible to walk on and probably worse to build on. Just behind it, there is a small valley. 50 feet to the left, with places for travelers to go through and nice flat ground. But see, this is a milecastle, and it WILL be built every MILE, not every mile and 50 feet to the left, no matter how convenient it might be. Romans.

But it's got lovely scenery


Just off the wall path, we stopped at the lovely and romantically ruined Thirwell Castle (also of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame)


And we backtracked a little to get to the Roman Army Museum, which has some really nice exhibits and videos. And helmets.


(Intrepid Neuron goes Roman)

We headed on to our next stop, Gisland, where we stayed at another incredibly charming place, Bush Nook, and had a super tasty dinner at the Samson Inn (seriously, the chicken is GREAT there. I wanted to try a fish pie, but another hiker took the last one! I still blame him for my never having had one). After seeing a kid break bones on the trail, you need a pint.




4 responses so far

  • Jonathan says:

    Love these posts! I'm going to have to be the pedant who points out that the wall probably wasn't really a defensive one to keep people out so much as it was a boundary, marking the end of the empire, though. There's a good In Our Time from last year on the wall:

    • scicurious says:

      Well, I both agree and disagree. It was a marker of the end of empire, but it WAS also in major military service. It fended off several incursions in the 3rd century in particular. And I personally think (based on my reading, though I'll admit I've only read like three books on it) it was built as far more than a symbol, partially because of the materials it was built WITH. They quarried and carried a PILE of stone for it. A lot of work. It would have been a lot less work to build out of turf (as happened with the Antonine wall in the north, and with the wall in the Germanic territories near the Danube), and it still would have looked impressive. In addition, there were three legions (the twentieth, sixth, and second) on permanent assignment to the wall, and probably a fourth at one time (though no one knows what happened to them), along with numerous auxiliaries, including a mobile cavalry unit and intelligence groups. That's a LOT of people to merely mark the end of a territory, especially when that end is only 73 miles long. Finally, the defensive works weren't just the wall, they extended pretty far down the coast on the western side, providing extra protection to that area. You don't really build sea forts like that just to make a point.

      Yes, it was a symbol, but it wasn't just there for show. They knew they'd be having to fight off some people, not just herd them through carefully for taxes.

  • chezjake says:

    If you haven't heard it before, here's a recording of the late Matt McGinn's humorous song of the Scot's interpretation of why Hadrian's Wall was built, accompanied by some gorgeous video of the wall and its construction.

  • Steve Pharr says:

    Scary Scots

    My people

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