Stand somewhere on the mid-section of Hadrian’s Wall and look out at views that stretch for miles - and thousands of years.
From Limestone Corner, maybe. Step out of the deep, hard dolerite ditch that gives this place its misleading name, hacked at unsuccessfully by Roman legionaries – the holes cut ready for wedges to split the rocks are still visible in its trench-like depths before they admitted defeat in the face of the volcanic rock. Step out, step up and just look.
To your right, Hadrian’s Wall marches far downhill over green grass, as it has for nineteen-hundred years now, some of the millions of stones brought and built into this famous barrier which scythes the north of England in two for eighty Roman miles.
A little behind you is the Roman site of Brocolitia, a buried fort for soldiers from what’s now Holland. By it, a drowned shrine to a local water goddess, and a famous little temple to Mithras, the bull-slaying god of Light and Truth originally from ancient Persia built to tend the spirit of its soldiers. Now look north, see the land fall and tumble away down the gnarled crags and watch the view open out below you to a vast space of rolling hills, woods and forests dotted with isolated farmhouses and in the middle distance, a castle. One of the many needed here in this rough, wild north country, this one, Chipchase, the home of the fierce Heron family who battled their way through the Middle Ages.
And further on, the even wilder desolate hills and wastes out of which, as late as Queen Elizabeth’s time, the brutal reivers – heavily-armed, horse-riding bandits and cattle-rustlers – would emerge from the darkness to rob the well-fortified houses and ‘bereave’ those who resisted. In this one view, you have the essence of why I love the Wall country, and why I love introducing people to it on tours.
First, there’s the landscape itself. Here, in the middle part of the Wall, it’s tough, unyielding and utterly sublime. In the centre, on the so-called Whin Sill, it rises up on a great shelf of volcanic rock, a geologist’s dream riven with fissures, its face as scarred and lived-in as Samuel Beckett’s. The Wall rides up and down over the land’s bones, making those endlessly-repeated views of this famous monument. Never was a landscape better-crafted for photography. There’s great variety, too; first in the changing colour of the terrain. Visit in one year and it’s a lush green, in another a mottle of olive and mustard. Second, in the wider scenery. Wall country always reminds me of a rumpled historical quilt – a couple of miles behind that wild Whin Sill, there’s a pretty, domesticated landscape of rolling farmland. Or go east, see how in Newcastle it pops up, hides and re-emerges in the midst of urban sprawl.
Then there are the historic remains themselves, all periods crammed cheek-by-jowl. So many stories to hear and tell. There’s a distinct version of English and British history here, different from that of the south. There are Roman remains and castles and churches, to be sure, but in greater profusion than most places, and done differently.
Take the Romans – no villas here, but a fortified frontier society. Medieval churches, yes, but sturdily built to resist attack. And castles, big and small. It’s been a rough place in its time. But that roughness is leavened by the humanising remains – the lovely medieval panel paintings in Hexham Abbey or the mass of Roman inscriptions all along the Wall, far more numerous than elsewhere in Britain, memorials to loved ones or offerings to innumerable gods, all crowned by the amazing everyday finds from world-famous Vindolanda.
Vindolanda is the oldest site we visit on our Exploring Hadrian’s Wall tour, but the one that changes the most every time I go. Excavations have been going on here for decades, now, and will continue for a long time yet. Whenever we come, there’s a flurry of activity in the current trenches inside the fort, by its walls or in the civilian settlement outside, the mud, wheelbarrows and jumbled walls an exciting contrast to the neatly consolidated and displayed sections already part of the site. Several times, I’ve witnessed the hullaballoo as a new find of a Roman shoe is carefully extracted and brought to the huddle of excited visitors, minutes after release from the nineteen-hundred-year grip of earth.
That’s the sheer magnificence of Vindolanda: the stones of the Roman buildings are great on their own, and the landscape, overlooked by the massy, russet Barcombe Hill, is wonderful, but go down into the museum to see the true wonders. Vindolanda has a high water table which preserves organic remains brilliantly. Come here, and you can see woven shopping baskets, decorated women’s shoes, a wig and a hairnet, a child’s wooden sword, all belonging to the families of the soldiers here. From the military side, there’s an intricately-decorated chamfron (a leather face mask for a horse) or the cattle skulls pocked with little angular holes from where they were used by soldiers for target practice. Better yet, there are the writing tablets, some of the most important finds from the entire Roman Empire, where we can read about the daily concerns of the Roman soldiers and civilians, and get close enough to read their birthday invitations and shopping lists. That doesn’t even come close to exhausting Vindolanda’s brilliance, and more emerges every year - perhaps something brilliant next time we’re there?
Housesteads, only a couple of miles away, doesn’t have Vindolanda’s organic remains, but what a site! Clinging to the crest of the Whin Sill with great views to a north that still feels like a barbarian frontier, spread with cold lakes (called ‘loughs’ locally) and dark woods. You can easily imagine yourself as a well-wrapped Roman auxiliary. My favourite Roman gods are here, the ‘hooded spirits’, a trio of dwarf-deities; there’s also everyone’s favourite Roman toilet to see. Here too, though, are some of the Wall’s darker stories.
Outside the fort there was another civilian village or ‘vicus’. Beneath the floorboards of one of the houses here, two bodies were found that had been hidden beneath floorboards. In case you might doubt the rightness of its nickname, the ‘murder house’, one had the tip of a blade still embedded in its ribs. Quite a place, Housesteads. It continued to be in later times. Part of the Roman fort was rebuilt as one of those protected houses with no ground-level door – a ‘bastle’, a sure sign of reiver activity. Housesteads was responsible for more misdeeds of reiver and ‘moss-trooper’ misdeeds than it suffered – it remained a notoriously dangerous place into the seventeenth century. The last of the local Armstrong horse-thieves skedaddled to America in the 1690s, to join other infamous reiver names like the Nixons in making a more famous name in the New World.
Finally, there’s the attraction of the people and the hospitality, far removed from reiving days. There are great pubs with warm fires and warmer conversations, from a region with a strong identity and a reputation for great, locally-brewed beer to go with its delicious cheeses. The dialect is England’s most musical, and the best for hearing a story in, usually with a laugh at the end. You’ll see it emerge even in the characteristic history-shrouded local place names as you get closer – Lanercost, Steel Rigg, Birdoswald, Otterburn (or Chevy Chase [!] if you prefer). Even typing them transports me there. It’ll be good to come back.
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This article was first published in 'The American magazine'.