Walking Hadrian’s Wall is not an exotic task. It has none of the glamour or exhilaration of thrashing through rainforests or trailblazing across white-hot deserts. Indeed, when the most sensational episodes one will get to recount by a fireside involve mild fogs, soggy bogs and a few tepid gales – and the admission is made that the most exotic thing the average traveler is likely to encounter is a mallard – suddenly, nobody is your friend when it’s time to strap your boots on.
Not that the wall helps itself. Once manned by Belgians and other southern dandies who loved olive oil, gambling and hot baths, no contemporary literary source seems to have cared enough to have bothered naming it. What’s more, to add insult to injury, after the Romans muttered their cheerios in the early 5th century the whole area deteriorated into little more than a historical no man’s land filled with cheeky cattle-rustlers, skirmishing border barons and bewildered sheep. So much so, in fact, that after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 General Wade felt it uncontroversial enough to dismantle parts so as to pave what is now the B6318 highway on your road map.
Talking of maps, don’t trust your rambling guide. Most tell trusting travelers to romp from coast to coast, or at least from Carlisle to Newcastle, with the inference that that’s where the wall stands. Yet of 70 mile wall only a seventh remains in any meaningful manner. And even that portion wasn’t taken hugely seriously until a Geordie town clerk by the name of John Clayton managed to persuade folk that it was monumental stuff around 200 years ago.
Despite noting all this, however, I still wanted to go. Having returned from Bali, my mind bored sick of the tropical island’s immature palette of felt-tip greens, blues and yellows, I wanted the smudgy browns, greens and grays of the laughably dour 18th century British landscape painters. I told myself it was natural; a sure sign of maturity. After all, anybody can drink coconuts on a beach but who can differentiate their cols from their dingles on the other end of a bottle of Old Peculier? That took a paragon of virtue…
Perhaps the sort of afflatus-burdened chap who carried Cassius Dio with him? Yes, the man who could declaim the verbal take-down a Scottish lass delivered to Julia Domna (Septimus Severus’, wife) after the latter mocked the sexual antics of the northerners:
‘We consort openly with the best, while you are demeaned in private by the worst’.
To an imaginary audience by Heddon-on-the-Wall – that’s who.
My madness aside… Despite clearly gaining the upper-hand in wit, it was under Severus that Scotland felt the Latin fist at its hardest, with Roman power temporarily restored to the Antonine wall – a fortification that now towers at almost sandcastle height between Clyde and Forth – comically failing to prompt thoughts of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
When attempting to stir the pathos pot yourself, treading in the footsteps of legionnaires etc., a top-tip is to walk from West to East so as to have the wind and rain at your back. That way you’ll avoid catching a chill as you chew on the big questions, from why the Roman world collapsed so quickly in this patch (it was essentially a military economy) to why Britons didn’t become Romanized like the Franks (Saxons were never sucked into the vortex of Rome’s contraction and cultural postscript quite like their Germanic brothers).
The North Pennine backdrop is a suitably grand prospect, with its green-backed escarpments, gloomy ridges, snow-swollen clouds and fragile shivelight, for such a line of questioning. Only blisters, a slight limp and the self-pitying expression you’ll be trying not to pull are likely to puncture the airs and graces afforded to you as the errant knight, the hermit-scholar of yore, you’re destined to be.
Despite the fustian literature and romantic landscape, however, the Roman element will probably not overly excite. Sure, there are some great reconstructions of forts but, in truth, it all leaves one feeling a little cold. Even the wall, while impressive in length and melancholic in desuetude, is in parts indistinguishable from the drystone sheep pens that outline farm lands up and down the country. In fact, the one scene that does play on the heartstrings is Anglo-Saxon in nature and relates to a hilltop church only 20 miles west of Newcastle, which marks the spot where King Oswald raised a large cross before the battle of Heavenfield (AD 663) before proceeding to crush his Welsh enemies and herald the golden age of Northumbria.
Which is all a far cry from me scoffing piping-hot sausage rolls, mountains of cream cakes and several rounds of ale in the heart of Newcastle. In fact, the redoubtable Oswald would have no doubt been disgusted. But I’d walked 70 miles and deserved the sleep of a thousand sheep, so I didn’t care a jot.