Empire's End

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.

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That first encounter with Hadrian’s Wall was in 1965. Next I knew, quite suddenly, forty years had elapsed, and still I had come no closer to the thing itself than the words and images on a page. Last December, hoping to catch the wall in all its wintry bluster, and with the advantage of boots and textiles a legionnaire could only envy, I resolved to put matters aright.

There is always a worry that the buildup will overwhelm the reality. In the case of Hadrian’s Wall, the worry is not warranted in the least. To be sure, the wall has been dismantled in many places, as people nearby, over a period of fifteen centuries, used its expertly cut stones, each the size of a loaf of bread, to build homes and churches—making Hadrian’s Wall the first Home Depot. And even in the best-preserved stretches it is now about five feet high (and about six feet thick), rather than the ten feet high of Hadrian’s time. But no matter. My first view came on a ridge a little north of the old Roman camp at Vindolanda. A bend in the road, and there it was: a curvaceous bulwark running east, up and down and up and down, along the beetle-browed Highshield Crags and Sewingshield Crags, like some painted backdrop that seems to announce that it can’t be real.

A hiking path runs coast to coast along the course of the wall. All told, I walked twenty miles in the well- preserved center section, where visitors will most likely want to concentrate. It can be tough going: the wall is no respecter of terrain, and the open countryside of Northumbria is brutally exposed to the elements. The tall grass along the trail crunched satisfyingly under foot when I was there, because it was frozen. The shadows and swales held snow. This far north the sun sets early in wintertime—technically, around 3:00 p.m.—but in truth, sunset heralds two hours of dusky purple and orange in the western sky, above a serrated landscape visible to a range of thirty miles. And the low sun brings into sharp relief the system of defensive trenches and earthworks that parallel the wall on both sides. Ranking seasons by desirability, the official guides to Hadrian’s Wall all but scream, “Not winter!” But I was not the only one seduced by the austere boreal charms of the trail in mid-December; I counted seventeen others. (A minor demographic note: this is a place where someone with red hair and ruddy cheeks could really get lost in a crowd, if there was one.)

Northumbria was a military zone, and, leaving aside the wall itself, signs of the Roman presence are everywhere. A major Roman road, now called the Stanegate, runs east to west, straight as a rule. One glance at a 1:25,000 ordnance map shows rectangular Roman encampments, some excavated and some not, every few inches. One of the most extensive of these forts is Vercovicium (now known as Housesteads), where there is also a small museum.

Vercovicium’s northern edge is part of the wall, making the fort an excellent access point for a longer walk along the wall trail. A few miles due south is Vindolanda, which was a flourishing Roman base decades before Hadrian’s Wall was even contemplated. It’s also the site of major ongoing excavations by members of the archaeological Birley family, who have been working there since the 1930s. The underground muck at Vindolanda has created anaerobic conditions and kept artifacts, including hundreds of documents, in an astonishing state of preservation. The first piece of Latin writing in the Western world known to have come from a woman’s hand was pulled from the trenches there. (It’s an invitation to a birthday party.)

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.