Interlude: Walking on the Wall on the spot

Prince Oswald’s vision—fluxgate gradiometer—Heavenfield—Ionan mission to Northumbria—Whin Sill—crossroads—leaving the Wall behind

PRINCE OSWALD IDING’S brief sojourn at Heavenfield, some time in the early summer of 634, matches for impact the arrival of St Augustine in Kent thirty-seven years before. His victory against Cadwallon of Gwynedd ensured his immediate recognition as king of Bernicia and overlord of nearly all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He restored Northumbria’s lapsed Christian kingship, founded the Irish missionary church at Lindisfarne and instituted the beginnings of an English Christian monarchy that survives today.50 Two accounts exist of that fateful night before battle. Adomnán, Colmcille’s hagiographer, recorded that Oswald saw a vision of the great Irish saint and that it inspired him and his small army to victory. Bede told a story, remembered by his own generation, of how Oswald raised a wooden cross that same night and how, in years afterwards, sick people were healed by virtue of its miraculous properties. Oswald’s rich tradition as a saint and martyr, whose relics possessed great potency, begins at this spot where Roman Wall, Dark Age myth and the origins of the English state come together.

Our peculiar means of getting at this enigmatic landscape is to walk up and down in narrow, marked rows carrying a device which measures the magnetic response of the soil beneath our feet. Where soil has been disturbed by digging, by construction or by fire, its magnetic response varies, subtly.51 For every twenty-metre square that we walk with our gradiometer, its data-logger records 3200 points, which we plot in the form of a map of grey scales—a ghostly, grainy but telling sub-surface landscape, a human and natural palimpsest—doing so without disturbing the archaeology. For the surveyor, with two assistants moving guide ropes between fixed points, every grid square is a walk of eight hundred metres. Walking on the spot can be tiring.

During the last months of 2014, as the days were becoming uncomfortably cold and short, hardier members of the Bernician Studies Group52 convened in the fields between the Roman Wall and St Oswald’s church. Jack Pennie was our principal geophysicist: a retired Royal Engineer and bus driver, he has mastered the technicalities and logistics of the machine with admirable persistence—it is not very user-friendly kit. The other members of the team were Geoff Taylor, a retired solicitor, Ray Shepherd, a former engineer, John McNulty, a GP, and Deb Haycock, property manager and sailor—an interesting and rewarding group of fellow Dark Age enthusiasts. The prize for this unglamorous, chilly and repetitive work was the chance to see if Oswald’s brief bivouac here left any archaeological trace that we could detect.

The Ordnance Survey map still records Heavenfield as the site of the battle in which Oswald slew his British rival Cadwallon; but since the nineteenth century it has been known that the battle took place elsewhere. Bede tells us that Cadwallon was destroyed at a place called Denisesburn. A medieval document uncovered by Canon William Greenwell, an indefatigable if sometimes unsubtle Victorian antiquarian, identified it as the Rowley Burn. That stream flows into the Devil’s Water (that Divelis /Dhubglas name again) near Whitley Chapel, three miles or so south of the River Tyne. If the denouement of the battle was a rout that ended in this hilly, remote part of Hexhamshire, the main battle is likely to have taken place at or near Corbridge, where I believe Cadwallon based his army. In the surprise of a dawn attack his forces fled, fatally, south across the bridge and into the high country with no hope of escape.

There is also a curious tale told by Bede which suggests that Oswald’s cross may not have been the only mark left here before the construction of the church. Bede admits in his otherwise smoothly persuasive account of Oswald’s triumphant return to Bernicia and the founding of Lindisfarne by Bishop Aidan a year later, that in the intervening months an Ionan priest ‘of harsher disposition’ tried to preach to the Anglians of these parts. ‘Seeing that the people were unwilling to listen to him, he returned to his own land.’53Aidan, it seems, was his more wisely chosen successor. If Bede’s tale is true, it begs the question where the first priest set up his church. Intriguingly, when Heavenfield is viewed from the air, a suspiciously shaped enclosure can be discerned: it has the size and shape broadly similar to the monastic enclosures at Iona and Lindisfarne, even if its walls appear to be no earlier than the eighteenth century.

Over a half dozen days we plodded up and down, then huddled around the computer screen beneath the shelter of an immense, ancient and venerable oak tree to see the results appear, pixel by pixel, grid by grid. The Wall appeared as a ghostly, thin, dead straight line thirty yards or so north of, and parallel to General Wade’s Military Road. The faint outline of the Roman turret 25b could be seen. Excavated in the 1950s, it yielded no significant artefacts, but a hole dug into its centre in antiquity offered the tantalising possibility that this was where Oswald raised his cross. In a corner of the field in which the Wall lies submerged, a pronounced, straight-edged black strip, which looked like some enormous military ditch, had us going for a while until, one evening, we traced it on a geological map—and found it to be nothing more or less than an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill: extremely magnetic but entirely natural. This intrusive dyke proved to be a small nightmare: like the glare of a floodlight, its presence masked everything else near by. Even so, some careful filtering of the data and a switch to a less sensitive setting on the machine for another pass showed that there is indeed some archaeology here, across the Roman ditch beyond the Wall. We saw what looked like parts of circular ditches—buildings perhaps; but maybe just agricultural disturbance; that pesky Whin Sill hides all in its glare. It’s hard to say exactly what these features are and the only way to positively identify their nature and origins would be to excavate. Nevertheless, they were enough to have us applying to renew our detection licence; and so we would be back again in the New Year. We had not given up on Heavenfield. The jury is out on the idea of some sort of early Irish establishment here; but there is a large subterranean landscape for us to explore and map; all it takes is a little walking on the spot.

Some weeks later, in February 2015, we gave a presentation on the results to the rest of the group. We also invited members of the local history society at Acomb, and with them Nick Hodgson, a Roman specialist who has been helping them to trace the line of the Stanegate. He drew our attention to a LiDAR survey of Warden Hill and to the curious spread of Roman coins at Great Whittington which Brian Roberts interpreted as a sort of caravanserai. Hogdson and his colleagues have, it seems, nailed one part of the Stanegate question by identifying two construction camps close to the confluence of Tyne and North Tyne, which strongly suggests that the Stanegate crossed at this point. So now we know two ends of the section of the road west of Corbridge. Geophysics will, soon perhaps, complete the line.

Hodgson was particularly interested in our geological anomaly, the intrusive dyke, because he believes that the Devil’s Causeway, which runs from Dere Street about a mile north of the Wall, to Berwick and the Northumbrian coast, might once have extended to join the Wall line further to the south-west. If one projects its line (he showed us a convincing slide), it would come out at Heavenfield; and it would come out in pretty much the same place and on the same angle as our geological fault. Ray Shepherd soon spotted the significance: if Oswald, travelling east from the Solway Firth, hoped to rendezvous with sympathetic forces from his heartlands around Bamburgh, the junction of Wall and Devil’s Causeway would be a perfect location, and invisible from Cadwallon’s forces at Corbridge. If nothing else, it would be well worth our while to see if the gradiometer can confirm, or otherwise, that extension.

Mulling on these matters in a later meeting, we began to see that a rectangle formed by the Tyne and its northern branch, the Wall and Dere Street (about twelve square miles) was a landscape of considerable dynamic importance to the Romans and those who came after. Domination of that rectangle held the strategic key to the middle Tyne valley; to the crossing of the river at Corbridge; to military penetration north, north-west, west and south. Bede’s suggestion that a small church and the remnants of Oswald’s cross drew Christians here in the seventh century may be an understatement. Just across the river the great abbey of Hexham, founded by Wilfrid in about 674 to exploit his significant landholdings here and to tap into the powerful cult of Oswald’s relics, shows the continuing value of the militarised Wall zone. This may appear, at first sight, to be a border, a frontier, but, on closer inspection, it looks very like a core of Bernician territory.

My time with the Wall was up; on my way to Jarrow I had to cross the river and visit Hexham Abbey with its famous crypt, then follow the wild River Tyne until it is tamed, somewhere between here and Newcastle.

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