Hadrian’s Wall, a travelogue

Between 7 and 12 July 2014 Sam Shepherd and Paul Taylor walked the length of the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail to raise the profile of the Salisbury Plain Benefice, and £850 in sponsorship. Paul, with contributions from Sam, has summarised their journey:

2014g12 Hadrians Wall 00 diary2014g12 Hadrians Wall 00 map

Monday 7 July

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Paul and Sam at the Starting Gate (the bicycles are not ours, honest!)

Starting at Bowness on Solway we headed east across the salt marshes of the Solway. The first five miles of the trail were not underwater as they can be at particularly high tides. It is not unknown for walkers to get stranded; happily we didn’t.

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St Michael’s Bowness interior + Sam

The path leads to Burgh-on-Sands (pronounced Bruff), made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Edward I who died on Burgh Marsh on his way once again to hammer the Scots. His body lay in state at St Michael’s church in Burgh on 7 July 1307. The church was our second, of many encounters with latter day recycling, being largely built of stone ‘recovered’ from Hadrian’s Wall, our first was at St Michael in Bowness, which also utilized wall. The church’s first rector in 1300 was Roald de Richmond who, presumably, was on hand seven years later to receive the royal body with due ceremony and humility.

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St Michael’s Burgh-on-Sands

Journey’s end on day one was Carlisle which boasts the most besieged castle in England. The castle also served as a prison for the Jacobites captured at Culloden. The citizenry had always been loyal to the Crown (the Crown itself may have varied as to loyalty!) throughout history but were disgusted by the traditional punishment for treason meted out to the Jacobite captives as they were hung, drawn and quartered in public. Who can blame them? This is the source of the words to Loch Lomond, in particular the reference to taking the low and high road to Scotland – the low road being the subterranean road taken by the dead, the executed, while the high road is the road for the living.

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Carlisle Cathedral Priory ruins + Paul

Tuesday 8 July

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St Mary’s Walton

Leaving Carlisle we headed to Walton. Nearby Lanercost Priory acted as host to Edward 1 and his court for a six month period for recuperation having ‘hammered the Scots.’ The Royal visit nearly bankrupted the monks. Clearly the mediaeval monarchs and their court of 200 did not live on bread and water alone.

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Paul stands alongside Edward I

It was at Hare Hill that we first encountered the Wall – well, we had encountered it half an hour earlier, crossing the river coming out of Walton, but it had been ‘earth-clamped’ by Dr Thurley, who had buried it for its protection, as the Wall in this section was built of earth – and what an encounter! The fragment of Wall stood above head height and even had the principal centurion’s initials, PP for Primus Pilus, carved in to the stone work. In fact only the lower courses of the Wall were original, the balance of the reconstruction at Hare Hill having been carried out in the 19th century. Never mind, there was no doubt about it, we were on the Wall and we were able to follow it all the way to Birdoswald, sited above the spa town of Gilsland.

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The Wall at Hare Hill + Sam

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Sam discovers stone engraved PP (for Primus Pilus see text)

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Paul Taylor, Chartered Surveyor, inspects Hadrian’s handiwork

Birdoswald is managed by English Heritage (one of many sites that they manage along the Wall) but sadly for us they close at 6 pm and we arrived at 6.10 pm; no matter.

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Birdoswald from afar + Sam

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Birdoswald at 6.10pm, i.e. closed to visitors

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Tornado heading for Birdoswald

Gilsland is a remote town astride the Northumbrian and Cumbrian border, once famous for its spa when, and this is hard to believe nowadays, it was said to rival Bath and Harrogate. Its decline as a visitor centre was sealed by the closure of the railway station. It does, nonetheless, have the honour of being the town where the iconic father of Scottish nationality (if not nationalism), Sir Walter Scott met and proposed to his wife. It was also the only place that we encountered rain, for all of five minutes.

Wednesday 9 July

The day dawned in glorious summer sun but our enjoyment of the sight of countryside bathed in sunlight was blunted by the prospect of hills, lots and lots of hills. I cannot account for how many hills we scrambled up, just to slither down the other side, only to be met by the neighbouring hillside, but what I can say is that we finally reached the highest point of the Wall, Winshields Crag at 4 pm.

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Paul and Sam at the high point of the Wall on Windshields Crag at 1,132 feet, or 345 metres

Reflecting on our walk and gathering our breath one can only imagine how intimidating the Wall must have seemed to the docile Britons on one side and Barbarian Scots (or were they Picts then? Picts, it turns out, the Scots came from Ulster much later) on the other. If at this point Taylor and Shepherd leave you slightly bemused the situation is best clarified by Sellars and Yeatman who, in 1066 and All That, tell us: ‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind and verse visa.’ So, that should now all be clear. They, Sellars and Yeatman, that is, are also helpful on the origins and history of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Wall at Mucklebank Crag + Sam

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The Wall clings to the highest point in the landscape, the sandstone escarpment of Whin Sill and seems to be endless. It is only at this high point that the impregnability of the Wall becomes clear to the modern eye. Not just the Wall but the earthworks and vallum (Roman for ditch) and the Milecastle sentry towers at 1,620 yard intervals (Roman miles were shorter than the English miles because their legs were shorter in those days). And, as if that wasn’t enough, there were ‘fortlets’ at half mile intervals in between.

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Milecastle 48

To the south of the Wall ran the arrow straight Military Road (which is now largely the B6318 for most of the route and, to the south, the A69 on the outskirts of Newcastle) built to service the legions manning the Wall. In subsequent centuries the road was used to get supplies and reinforcements to beleaguered troops, but more of that anon, I must make mention of Thirwall Castle before I hurry on.

Before our up and down really began we came upon Thirlwall Castle about which much is written. The most engaging being the story of the Gold Table. The castle was occupied by the de Thirwalls who lived in lawless times, with regular border raids made by the Reivers, brigands of both Scottish and English descent. The Gold Table, understandably attractive booty to a common thief, was apparently saved by a black dwarf (it is not clear whether the dwarf was a de Thirlwall or not) who effected his escape by jumping down a well with the table.

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Thirwall Castle

It is close to Thirlwall that the Hadrian’s Wall Path is joined by the Pennine Way which stretches 267 miles from Derbyshire to the Scottish border. Whilst the scenery is at its most spectacular along the central section of the Wall there is also no shortage of history and myth. Indeed it is said that it was at the spring that serves King Arthur’s Well (and when wasn’t something Arthurian good for a story?) that the monk, Paulinus, baptised King Edwin of Northumbria in 627 AD.

The Military Road, too, was the source of some of the more prosaic local history. It is said that the Milecastle Inn (which afforded us a very pleasant lunch break) was, once upon a time, known as North Jerry as it supplied jugs of ale to the labourers working on the road.

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Indeed navvies seem to have played a dominant role in the area as our journey’s end on day three was at Twice Brewed (but a short step away from Once Brewed). The story, so we are told, is that the Once Brewed beer was too weak for the navvies so it had to be brewed again (whether this brew proved to their taste is not recorded). What is recorded (and I did promise a return to the strategic relevance of the Military road) is that the road builders were called in to create the Military Road in 1751 as a result of the failure to catch the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. Given the circumstances of his flight, which was quite understandable given the fate of the Jacobite captives at Carlisle, it is doubtful whether the Young Pretender got the chance to taste the local beer, whether once brewed or twice.

Thursday 10 July

Our route led us, via several more crags, to Housesteads Fort built in 124 AD. The remains of the Fort are managed by English Heritage as a major tourist and schools attraction. In its day, the Fort was manned by 800 Tungarian Legionnaires from Belgium. The Romans had a policy of using non-Roman personnel at their forts. What we also learnt, but remain sceptical of, is that a century of Legionnaires numbered 80; like their mile somewhat shorter than its modern day equivalent. Apparently Centurions on duty ate wild chives as an anti-diuretic; perhaps they should have just drunk less before going on duty.

Housesteads was but one of many archaeological sites of interest. We passed on route: Walwick (which means wall settlement, unsurprisingly), Brocolitia (the home above the badger’s sett, which demands a little more imagination) and a Mithraic Temple built, we are lead to believe, on the site of a former Iron Age settlement.

From the Temple we reached the most northerly point on the Wall, Limestone Corner (something of a misnomer being entirely formed of sandstone), before descending to the well preserved Roman Fort, Chesters, also managed by English Heritage. Chesters was manned by Asturian cavalry which dictated, to some degree, the layout of the Fort. Across the River North Tyne lay the unimaginatively named village, Wall, where we rested overnight.

Friday 11 July

The route on the penultimate day took us past the truly charming St Oswald’s church, lit solely by candle and gas mantle and located in the bucolic setting of Heavenfield. It cannot always have been so lovely for it was there that St Oswald (then just Oswald) defeated and killed Cadwalla in battle in 634AD. The site of the battlefield is marked by St Oswald’s Cross.

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The Light shines on Paul in St Oswald’s Heavenfield

From there it was on to the site of the Portgate, which pre-dated the Wall but was incorporated in the Wall. Sadly for modern visitors the Portgate’s remains have been ‘incorporated’ in a roundabout on the A68 next to the Errington Arms. From thence we headed to Ironsign via the Vallum Artisan farm which boasts a restaurant owned by award winning chef David Kennedy. I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never enjoyed lunch so much in a derelict farm building.

Saturday 12 July

The final day dawned bright, sunny and warm and we were faced with an 18 mile walk to Wallsend and with only six hours to walk it, if we were to catch our train. Thankfully the route was flat or downhill most of the way, much of the route being alongside the mighty River Tyne. Happily we made the distance to Wallsend and our final Roman fort, Segendum, in five hours fifteen minutes.

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Wallsend. Wiltshire beckons!

In summary, a great adventure and a great way to raise awareness (and £850 to date) for the Salisbury Plain Benefice. Plans for next year’s walk are already in train and we will keep you posted via the website.


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