Published on July 20th, 2015 | by Jane Tilley0
In the footsteps of the Romans
Anyone up for a trek through history? If so, then a week’s romp across England, following Hadrian’s Wall, is just the destination for you…
Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire stretched to the far regions of the known world which is present day Britain. Julius Caesar conquered the area in 54 BC, establishing the Roman occupation of Britain. For 150 years, a succession of Roman emperors struggled to maintain law and order in this nether region of their empire. Their problem was the fiercely resistant warlike Caledonians (Scots) from the northern highlands. Finally, in 117 AD, the Emperor Hadrian decided to build a vast wall across the region in order to contain the Scots. His occupying army numbered 25,000 legionnaires and it was they (not slaves) who actually did the construction.
“Hadrian’s Wall” is 117 kms long, stretching across Britain from Wallsend to Solway Firth (sea to sea). It was a masterpiece of engineering and design, taking six years to complete. Built primarily of stone atop a wide deep ditch, it averaged 10 feet (3 metres) wide and often 18 feet (5 1/2 metres) tall. It created a military border across craggy hills, open moorland, and dense forests and today defines the border between Scotland and England. It consisted of mini castles, major fortresses, mini forts, turrets, bridges, and mileposts (watchtowers at each mile).
But it wasn’t just a border. It became an entire community unto itself with civilian populations springing up around the military installations to farm and creates small industries. The soldiers’ term of duty was 25 years so many married, fathered children and never returned to Rome.
We chose to walk from west (Bowness -on-Solway) to east (Wallsend) because of the prevailing winds, averaging about 19 kms per day. We also liked the idea of starting on a deserted beach and finishing at the vast remains of the Roman fort at the other end. It felt like we had “arrived”!
There is absolutely no need to join a tour to do this hike. There are delightful guest houses, pubs, and rest spots along the way. We walked for seven days, with a rest day on the fourth day. We thought that it was appropriate to take a day off in the charming town of Haltwhistle which is famous for being the exact geographical centre of Britain. Aside from the charming pubs along the way, it is imperative to stop at the remains of the Roman forts and garrisons.
Originally there were 16 forts each of which housed as many as 1000 soldiers. The ruins of three forts are not to be missed. These are Wallsend, near Newcastle, Birdoswald Fort, and Vindolanda Fort.
We arrived at Birdoswald on the third day of our trek and stayed there overnight. While it is a site of a major fort, a daunting stone hostel has been built to offer the traveller an overnight stay. The “rules” of the house are that men and women must sleep in separate bunk rooms and attend an evening’s lecture and drama about the fort during its heyday. The accommodation was deliberately sparse to reflect the veritas of the place. However, to our delight, a fun Roman style banquet was held and hikers from around the world joined together at long tables pretending to be Romans. What a delight!! There is a Roman army museum that children love, complete with the opportunity to dress up in Roman armour. Another fort that is a “must” along the route is Vindolanda. This is 15 acres of ruins consisting of temples, bathhouses, artifacts, and even toilets designed to be used by several people at once. It features a splendid shoe museum that features marvellously preserved footwear.
Aside from the history of the wall, there is the reward of enjoying simple moments along the way. The scenery is varied and splendid offering vistas of crags and valleys, pastoral farmhouses, fields of wild flowers, and distant hills (note the scenery on the Destination Sectional Page). Oddly enough, the actual wall is often not visible because, over the centuries, the stones have been pilfered to be used in building nearby towns and houses. However, the observer can easily deduce where the missing wall has now evolved into the quaint farmhouses standing in a glorious fields of buttercups.
The locals offer another kind of quaintness. A popular pastime, particularly with the men, is to go for a brisk run along sections of the wall dressed in Roman armour, complete with exact replicas of footwear, helmets, shields, and tunics. We eventually understood that these men are indeed not actors but well meaning locals determined to add colour to the wall “experience”. As they pass you by, they cheerfully yell “Pax Romana”. We assumed that they must be the very people who today live in the houses built with stones from the wall!! Oftentimes, the small houses along the way, boast beautiful English gardens that bid you stop and look. However, a curious custom of the region seems to be that many people enjoy gardening in the nude!!
(I kid you not!). We became quite non pulsed at chatting with nude gardeners who were anxious to share their gardening experiences with us. Very curious, indeed. Just more “sights” along the path!
Certainly, it needs to be said that the weather is an integral aspect of the “wall experience “and it establishes the rhythm of each day. It is a rare day that the hiker does not change gear hour by hour. The sun is a blessing and it does indeed shine from time to time. But one needs to be prepared for damp cold, high winds, heavy rain, light mists, heat, and regular rainbows. Personally, the most compelling memory that I have is the haunting beauty and power of the clouds and mists that constantly roll across the wall. They carry with them the presence of the who have gone before and you begin to feel that they are walking with you, step by step. Hail Cesar!
Like anything worth doing, the Hadrian’s Wall hike requires effort and perseverance. But at the end of each day, the reward for arriving at your destination is the jubilant assurance that you have indeed had an unforgettable “milestone” day. The day’s trials and obstacles matter not because you have ARRIVED!