There is no mystery about the origin of my romance with Hadrian’s Wall. I can trace it exactly to a September morning when, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy in Ireland, I cracked open my new Third Year Latin textbook and came across a color photograph of the massive fortification that crosses the landscape of northern England. The picture showed the wall in winter, dusted with snow, relentlessly marching up crags and down defiles, until it disappeared into a horizon beyond time. The wall, I read, had been built at the command of the Emperor Hadrian, beginning around 120 A.D., to delineate the boundary between Roman Britain and the barbarian hinterland to the north. It stretched seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Tyne, on the east, to the Solway Firth, on the west, with a fortified gateway at every mile and a pair of turrets between each pair of milecastles. Every manned point was visible to two others.
In one of those reinforcing coincidences that can fix a memory for all time, soon after seeing that textbook photograph I came across a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, which contains this evocation of what it might have been like for a Roman legionnaire arriving at the northern British frontier for the first time:
The hard road goes on and on—and the wind sings through your helmet-plume—past altars to Legions and Generals forgotten …
Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see the smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch … one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the wall!
Reading those words, I feel a rush of excitement even now, and involuntarily pull an imaginary cloak a little tighter around my shoulders.