There is something about barricades, high ramparts overlooking long vistas, crenellated walkways patrolled by watchful soldiers, strong towers, formidable castles. Perhaps the attraction comes from years of television and film: American Indians charging across the plains, whooping and yelling, hurtling towards camera, loosing off arrows at the good guys safe behind the stockade; or baddies assaulting the walls of mighty castles while desperate defenders hurl everything and anything that comes to hand. Feeling safe inside from danger outside – probably a primitive instinct lurking in the shadows of many a subconscious.
Ramparts are attractive – and surely none more than Hadrian’s Wall. There is nothing else remotely like it west of China, nothing bigger, grander, more masterful and more impressive. Standing on the Whin Sill at Housesteads Fort, looking over the northern moorland, perhaps scanning the horizon for a flicker of movement, or up at Walltown Crags, where the Wall glowers over grey Thirlwall Common, there is a sense of borrowed authority, of let them come or, to paraphrase a little, let them gaze upon my works and despair.
Even though it nowhere rises to its original height, and long stretches of it have disappeared, power pulses from Hadrian’s Wall. Built by a culture galvanised by the will of one man, it is a miracle of self-aggrandisement and ancient disregard for practicalities. A mighty Wall which divides our island, devised by conquerors to limit their empire, it somehow still manages to play to the little boy and his toy soldiers in an imagined landscape.
Although it never marked a cultural frontier, or the line along which the border between England and Scotland would eventually run, Hadrian’s Wall nevertheless had an important early role in creating an idea of the north of Britain. For almost three centuries, savagery and danger lay beyond it. The north was threatening while the south was sunlit, civilised, sophisticated. It is impossible to say when or how these notions came into play, but they are there, as surely as the Wall. And its story is fascinating.
This book attempts to tell the story, beginning as early as seemed sensible. Along the way the text contains many boxed items of information which seemed interesting, even important, in themselves but did not necessarily fit into the narrative. They can be read as asides, skipped and read later, or ignored. The last chapter is also not part of the narrative. Having spent a lot of time on Hadrian’s Wall over the past two years and knowing it reasonably well, it occurred to me that an itinerary taking in the places I enjoyed most might be more helpful than an exhaustive list of internet addresses and opening times. Others will have different views, but I found the visits to the places set out in the last chapter very pleasurable.
As I was finishing this book, in December 2007, my father-in-law, Malcolm Thomas, died. He had been a regular soldier, a man with many old-fashioned virtues and few old-fashioned opinions. Cawfields milecastle would have made him smile with recognition of its daftness, and the whole enterprise of building and garrisoning the Wall would have prompted perceptive and informed comments. I am sorry not to have them, and out of the greatest respect and affection, this book is dedicated to his memory.