Monday, July 25, 2011

Hadrian’s Wall – July 2011

Roman holiday

The largest monument in the Roman World, so a bit of a challenge for five middle aged men on bikes, with nothing but padded shorts, good humour and talc to see them through from coast to coast. First casualty on left!

Off to an auspicious start, as Ken and I met our old mate Tony at the Hotel in Carlisle. Needless to say, one thing led to another. To be precise, an excursion to a wine bar, followed by two bottles of wine with an Italian meal. Suitably refreshed, we walked back to the hotel, past our first ‘wall’ inspired sign, a billboard advertising the ‘Sale of the centurian’ and polished off the evening with a further pint back at the hotel. Bacchus would have been proud of us.

Ronnie and Jim arrived the next morning from Scotland, and so we were five. Bikes ranged from my cheap but solid Halfords (only two thirds of gears working), Ken’s 30 year-old classic racer (whose frame has snapped twice in that period) to Tony’s snappier Trek (hybrid mountain/road), Jim’s sleek silver machine (only man to get a puncture) and Ronnie’s top of the range £750 something or another. Luggage ranged from my tiny handlebar bag to the full double panniers (a decision some regretted).

There was little or nothing to see of the wall for the first half day but the Cumbrian countryside was reward enough. The entire route is on small, country roads and cycle tracks, so you encounter very few cars. One of the great pleasures of a cycling trip with your mates, is the time spent chatting on the wheel. These back roads often allowed us to cycle two abreast and have a chat. There’s something about the stimulation of the landscape and air on one’s face that freshens up the mind. You can talk to one person then fall back to talk to another, trek ahead to have time on your own or fall back to appreciate the sights on your own at a slower pace. It’s all good.

Brampton – hole in the wall

First stop, after 15 miles, at Brampton, and the ‘Hole in the Wall’ café, a fine establishment where tea, coffee and cakes were downed. I often wondered what these Northern country counties were like, and who lived here. The answer is obvious when you cycle through – conservative voting farmers who live off EU subsidies, while decrying all other forms of state intervention. There’s money here, judging by the cars and house prices. Their MP Rory Stewart caused a stir when he described parts of Cumbria as follows ‘… some areas around here are pretty primitive, people holding up their trousers with bits of twine and that sort of thing.

Lanercost Priory – walls from the wall

Then off to Lanercost Priory, a beautiful 12th century (1166 by Henry II), red sandstone abbey that was built from stones from the wall (you can see two with inscriptions built into the fabric of the building). It has participated in various Scotland v England matches across the centuries, with thieving Border rievers, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Edward I (hammer of the Scots) who fell ill here and died not far off in Burgh by Sands. But it met its final match in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.

The current church was built within the old church and makes good use of the existing building but the real interest is in the larger structure with its cloister, medieval tower with burnt gates and thick walls, where people and animals could take refuge from attackers. We had a chat with the newly appointed vicar, from Worthing, who had clearly found an idyllic location to end his career. PS Excellent café here for lunch, with top class, sweet potato soup and homemade bread sandwiches.

Hit the wall

After the first really steep climb of the day, we hit the wall and our first turret. These were two storey buildings, two between every milecastle. Signals could be sent from one to the other in the event of an attack. A further signal tower, offset at an angle to the wall shows how important signalling was on the wall. It’s only when you see the wall laid bare that the scale of the enterprise becomes apparent. At 15 foot high and 8 foot thick, (ten for the first stretch) you get a real sense of the ambition of Rome. Hadrian was fond of monument building and I’ve seen his buildings in Spain (where he was born), North Africa, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Italy and France. He spent ten years travelling his empire, consolidating its borders and lived out his final years in a Villa (just outside Rome) full of architectural follies.


This four mile stretch of road has some lengths of walls, visible signs of the front ditch and rear vallum, a few turrets and ends at Birdoswald. Sited, like almost all the forts, on or above a river, it’s on the wall and the site is on a steep plateau above the river. Internal structures show gates, granaries, barracks and the usual planned rectangular streets. Post Roman occupation has also been proven at this site, from 12AD to 500AD. A Time Team excavation uncovered a Roman cemetery to the west and a vicus to both the east and west. It seems as though the escarpment had been eroded so much that the locals had to move to the east side of the fort.

The vallum is a puzzle. Why build such an enormous earthwork, essentially a very wide continuous road with a ditch down the middle and mounds on either verge? It was built as long, straight stretches, following the flat topography rather than the wall itself. The accepted theory is that it is a no-mans land between the people on the south and the wall itself, giving southern protection. But why go to such lengths south of the wall? I have a completely different, and off-the-wall theory that I’ve never seen posited or published.

I think it was built to transport ships and supplies from East to West across Britain, possibly to support an invasion of Ireland. Ships could have been transported, hanging, suspended, with their keel in the ditch, from two horse/ox carts on either side.

2. The ditch follows flat contours, easier for heavy transport.

3. It lies south, not north of the wall.

4. Roman ships could not get past Land’s End due to westerly prevailing winds.

5. Needed ships to invade Ireland, as they did Britain.

6. Shortest coast to coast route near to Ireland.

7. Protected by Wall.

Objections welcome!

The milecastle down from Gilsland is well worth visiting, as it’s sited precariously on a high bank of a river cutting through the wall, which literally passes under the railway line. It was here that the height of the wall could be calculated by extrapolating the steps on stairs leading to the top of the wall.

It was also here we hit our steepest climb as the wall rises over Walltown to Great Chesters. The wall follows a north facing cliff which slopes off to the south. We cycled off route along a farm road and climbed to the highest point in the area, where there's magnificent views over the desolate moorland to the north, returning to the road and rapid descent into Haltwhistle, our overnight stop.


Slept in the Grey Bull but ate in the Black bull in Haltwhistle. The food was pretty good, two of us opting for the ‘stack’ starter (haggis, black pudding, stilton and apple with whisky sauce!), then fulsome steak and ale pies, apple crumble, cheese cake and so on. The most expensive wine on the wine list was £10.95!

Hadrian’s Wall - Day 2

Vindolanda – writing’s on the wall

Quick repair to our one and only puncture on the trip, then off, via some steep climbs, to Vindolanda. We were actually applauded by some students as we hit the top of one particularly vertiginous stretch.

The Romans picked some idyllic spots for their settlements, which makes visits that more interesting, and here the presence of the river, springs to the north of the site and the surrounding hills make it one of the prettiest of the wall's sights. The walled fort and its vicus are well-preserved, with cysterns, wells, temples and workshops to the north and the fort, with its network of water channels, baths, granaries, baths and houses, well preserved. It’s water that makes the site special as the site is famous for the letters found preserved in the waterlogged mud. Letters that throw a great deal of light on military and civilian matters. There’s the only recorded actual written words by a woman in the whole of the Empire, showing a civilised social life of parties and polite invitations, as well as troop numbers, food requirements and the need for beer and socks. The museum is down in the valley, well worth the walk.


Again some steep ascents but we were soon swooping downhill through wider moorland to Chesters. Chesters is another pretty site by the banks of the river, guarding the River Tyne crossing. The site museum is full of altars and inscriptions and the site, especially the baths, a pleasure to visit on a sunny day. (A reconstruction of these baths awaits us in Newcastle at Wallsend.) The baths were important in social terms but also for military health. In many armies illness, more than battle, saps the strength of a standing army. The Romans understood the need for good hygiene and medical care. We cycled down to Hexam then onto Corbridge.

The three main theories as to why the wall was built are a) defence from northern attacks, b) control of movement, taxation and smuggling, c) monument to megalomania. I’m in the camp that sees the wall as a Handrianic excess. This part of Britain was thinly populated and it did not need a wall to control the territory. Taxes were perfectly well collected throughout the Roman Empire, without the need for barriers of this kind. On the other hand Hadrian was known as an architectural meddler, who was ridiculed by the Roman architect who designed Trajan’s Forum in Rome.

I’ve been to many Hardianic sites including; Italica in southern Spain, where he was born, the Triumphal Arch, Library and Temple of Zeus in Athens, Pantheon in Rome, the statues of Memnon in Luxor with a poem inscribed by his retinue, Hadrian’s Gate in Antalya Turkey, Hadrian’s gate in Palmyra in Syria, Tivoli Villa near Rome and his tomb in Rome.

My own view is that this wall was based on the walls he had seen in Greece, in both Athens and at Messene in the Peloponnese, where the walls are 7-9 metres high with two-storied turrets and at 9 kilometers enclosed a huge amount of land, not just the town.

Corbridge – off the wall

This is an altogether different site, with higher quality stonework, fountains and a sense of wealth missing from the other military sites. It lies south of the wall on the intersection of the Stanegate and Deer street. We saw in Vindolanda tablets references to Corbridge as a popular R&R destination, a prosperous town. It has a strategic rather than defensive position. PS Lunch in the Larder, in the modern Corbridge town was, again, of high quality. It serves homemade pies and cakes.


The rest of the trip followed the Tyne through wheat fields, tree lined paths, across iron bridges and past Stephenson’s Cottage, he of 'rocket' fame. The ruins here witness a different era, the industrial revolution. Indeed, the final ten miles follow an old railway track that carried coal and other goods to and from the coast. As we approached Newcastle, all the signs of urban poverty began to appear, portly specimens, an ice-cream van (we stopped for celebratory cones), aggressive accessory dogs and rows of red-brick council houses. Then the industrial detritus of a lost age – deserted docks, scrap yards, new ‘riverside’ developments, some now frozen in financial time.

As we hit the Quayside in central Newcastle, the legendary crowds of N’castle drinkers started to appear, literally blocking the cycle route. Men in tight tee-shirts drinking lager and women with all-over, bottled and sprayed tans in low-cut dresses and heels as high as wine glasses.

Arrived at the Hotel du Vin at 7pm and had a glorious bath in one of those deep, stand-alone baths on curly legs with taps on the side, that sat in the room with the beds. Foam was produced and I felt like one of those cowboys in a saloon room. Dinner in the Hotel du Vin was superb, as was the wine.

Day 3 Wallsend


Full English breakfast, which in my opinion has to include black pudding, was eaten and two of us (Ken and I) finished our Roman Holiday with a final cycle to Wallsend and the Roman fort of Segendunum. The remains at the site are no more than a few foundations and a section of wall relocated further back from the Swan Hunter shipyard. There’s also a hideous viewing tower that is completely out of scale with the site. However, the Museum is an interesting affair, especially for children and the reconstructed baths (based on those at Chesters) are the highlight of the site. They were built to be used, but the caretaker told us that the cold bath leaks, the hot bath has a problem and the locals keep stealing the copper and lead from the roof and supply piping, "that's Wallsend for you" he sighed. Two things can be concluded from this a) that the problems with the locals north of the fort continue to this day, b) we are less capable of building a bath complex than the Romans 2000 years ago.

Our last visit was to the excellent Museum in the city centre, with its large model of the entire wall, Mithras Temple and collection of artefacts. Then the train to London, where I slept like a baby.

But all was not over, our final challenge was a cycle from Euston to Victoria, via the British Museum, Trafalgar Square and the Mall, which we competed in the evening sun. Carpe diem.