Travels April 2006

Empire's End

Hadrian's Wall, which demarked Roman Britain's northern boundary, still marches across the rugged landscape—and through the mists of time

Seeking a break one morning from the otherwise companionable drizzle and wind, I sat down for an hour with Robin Birley (the son of the late archaeologist Eric and the father and father-in-law, respectively, of the archaeologists Andrew and Barbara), a large man of sixty-five with hands like oaken burls. He had shown me around the compact but highly professional and rewarding museum at Vindolanda; now he explained how the delicate documents and other objects are conserved, throwing up his hands at the sheer volume of material coming out of the ground. “The Romans were here for more than three hundred years,” he said, “and all that time, they were throwing things into the ditches. Up in the attic, we have five thousand boots and shoes.”

Birley noted that the Romans were not particularly concerned with winning the hearts and minds of the locals. One document refers to the Brittunculi“In linguistic terms,” he said, “that’s known as a ‘patronizing diminutive.’ Or insult.” Only about 12 percent of Vindolanda has been excavated so far, and given that most of the work has to be done during the drier summer months, there’s perhaps another 100 or 150 years to go. You never know what you’re going to find when you open the ground, Birley said philosophically, and then amended himself: “Except boots and shoes.”

The region that styles itself “Hadrian’s Wall Country” lies about two and a half hours by car south of Edinburgh (which, because of its own inherent attractions, makes a good staging point). The route is entirely rural, crosses the Scottish-English border about midway, and skirts the edge of the stunning Northumberland National Park. Near Edinburgh it runs directly by Rosslyn Chapel, where The Da Vinci Code concludes, and farther south it passes Sir Walter Scott’s grandly preposterous faux-medieval domain, Abbotsford, which is open to the public.

Head for Hexham, the town nearest to the eastern end of the best- maintained length of the wall, a stretch that extends west to Haltwhistle and beyond. As you might imagine, it’s hard to lose your way—the hiking path is clearly marked, even where the wall itself is not much in evidence—but you will want Ordnance Survey Map No. 43 for its depth of information about terrain and other features. Also highly recommended is Anthony Burton’s Hadrian’s Wall Path, a volume in the indispensable National Trail Guide series. Resources like these are available not only at bookstores but also at any of the modern outfitter’s stores with which the north country and borders areas abound, and, of course, at the well-stocked information outposts along the wall, such as those at Once Brewed and Housesteads.

It can be lonely country, Northumbria, and it’s not as thick with accommodations and events as some other parts of England. One place I’d recommend to anyone is Langley Castle, which calls to mind the stately pile where a kilted Simon Callow suffers his fatal heart attack in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the twice-weekly choral Evensong at Hexham Abbey is not to be missed: the soaring glory of Anglican hymns amid the spluttering light of dripping candelabra. Those ancient stones do retain the chill, though. The abbey preserves the gravestone of a Roman centurion, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many times he must have looked south, toward the warmth of his youth. The nearest olive tree would have been 300 miles away.

Cullen Murphy is a senior editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book called Are We Rome?: America's Obsession With an Ancient Empire.
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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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