Interlude: Gilsland to Haltwhistle

Early spring—surviving Dark Age winters—food renders—population—Early Medieval environment—strangers in the landscape—Wall and Stanegate

IT WAS MARCH of a new year before I got out to the Wall again. We had seen barely a flake of snow all winter; already lambs were gambolling in the fields and a few tentative spring flowers were trying their luck in the hedgerows of western Northumberland. A woodpecker drummed in an unseen copse. The light was dead flat. It was as if the season’s forward march was held on pause, sensing the coming change but not daring to tell the land. At this time of year cloud cover keeps new growth down but insulates the land through the long, dark hours. Clear skies bring sunshine and warmth during the day, encouraging leaves and blossom; but at night they bring sharp frosts. These can be cruel months: promises withheld or betrayed, the rewards for survival just out of reach. There is tension in the air.

At Gilsland village spring tends to come late anyway, and the sense of time lag is sharpened by its halfway-house location between the oceans, its jumble of houses, yards, paddocks, garages and sheds, all slightly down-at-heel and endlessly interesting to the archaeologist. As if to reinforce the air of unconventionality a lugubrious horse, which had itself seen better days, stood four-square on top of Britain’s second, most famous monument—hoping, perhaps, to be rescued from boredom by a tourist passing with an apple or the butt-end of a carrot. In the background a stolid brick Victorian villa with part of its roof missing seemed to have spilled its contents onto the paddock through which the Wall ran: rubbish littered the matted grass and mud. Hens rooted around for scraps of grain among dilapidated coops. Upended plastic chairs, bits of fencing, tarpaulin, buckets, rolls of barbed wire, corrugated iron and an enamel bath completed an apocalyptic picture of neglect. The archaeologist in me tends to overread rubbish: one man’s abject laziness is not evidence for social catastrophe.

As I walked east beneath the railway arch of the Newcastle to Carlisle line and out of the village into airier countryside (past Milecastle 48, clinging to the edge of a steeply falling burn), I contemplated what life must have been like up here, at this season, in the Early Medieval period. March was the lunar month Hreðmonað, which Bede says was named after an otherwise obscure goddess, Hreð. For farmers it was, and is, the month for digging and sowing, for optimistic lambing and watching the skies for signs of late, dangerous snows. What did the peasants and lords of the Dark Ages eat during this lean time when autumn’s surplus was running low or, after a poor harvest or bad winter, had run out? There is little direct contemporary testimony. An obscure monastic tale tells of paupers huddling in the discarded hot ashes of the monks’ fires. Many of the monks we hear of seem themselves to have been half-starved; there were winters of desperate cold. And a story, famous in its day as an example of kingly munificence, tells how King Oswald of Northumbria gave his Easter feast to be shared among poor supplicants at the door of his hall; and then gave them the silver dish on which it had been served. The Old English word for a lord is hláford, a provider or guardian of bread.

Archaeology supplies the infrastructure for storage: the excavated remains of hundreds of sunken-floored huts whose plank superstructures allowed grain to dry and stay mould-free through winter; the late seventh-century Laws of King Ine of Wessex, in listing the render demanded of a farm of ten hides (that is, nominally ten family farms), includes among the bounty of the land honey, cheeses and hay, supplies that could be stored right through winter. To those we can add dried, smoked or salted meat (slaughtered in the viscerally named Blotmonað: November) and fish, the bread and ale that came from stored barley and wheat; perhaps fresh-slaughtered small livestock such as hens or geese. Peas and beans, turnips, leeks, onions and apples would be available until partway through the winter, but must have been in a poor state by this time of year. These domestic products were supplemented by wild food: birds and fresh fish, berries and nuts. We know that in the later Medieval period a form of agricultural insurance was practised. The division of open fields ensured that farmers shared the best and poorest land in a community. The corduroy ridge-and-furrow ploughlands that still grace the rural landscape more or less guaranteed some sort of harvest: in a wet year the corn grew better on the ridges; and in a drought it grew better in the furrows. And a wide variety of grains was grown: oats, barley, rye and more than one strain of wheat. How far back we can project these strategies is not yet clear.

One of the hoariest questions of Early Medieval studies is the extent to which the population of these islands fell during the centuries after the fall of the Western Empire. It would help if we knew how many people lived here during the Roman period; opinions differ widely, although there has been a general trend in recent decades, prompted partly by ever-increasing evidence for rural settlements of this period, to allow a figure of perhaps two or three million. Many experts agree that whatever the figure was in, say 350, it was not reached again until perhaps a thousand years later, just before the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century. So we suspect that the population in Bede’s day was lower, perhaps very much lower. How can we find out? If we could map all the settlements and cemeteries of the Romano-British period and those of the eighth century, for example, we might come to a reasonable estimate. We can’t, because most of those settlements are invisible beneath later farms, villages and towns. Valiant efforts have been made to estimate national populations from the archaeology that we can look at: especially those cemeteries which come up for excavation or detailed survey. The idea is to estimate, using what dating evidence we find, the number of people who died in a community over a period of, say, two hundred years and then project those numbers into calculations based on minimum and maximum ranges for numbers and densities of settlements. The method is fraught with difficulties, because small changes in estimates or starting points produce wildly different outcomes.

Place-name scholars have looked at the chronology of name formations and mapped the settlement or reoccupation of places whose names are a clue to their age, but the names which survive are not necessarily a good guide to when they were first settled. More smoke on the glass; but there has been some successful research conducted on names associated with the clearance of woodland, which shows a patchy record of areas where land cultivated during the Roman period reverted to forest; and there is room for more work here. We do, at least, have a pretty good idea of what woodland existed where in the eleventh century, thanks to the Domesday Survey. For those of us living in the north-east, one frustration is that Domesday did not cover Northumbria (William the Conqueror having wasted it in his ‘Harrying of the North’, there wasn’t much left to record).

A more scientific approach has been to use the evidence of pollen diagrams retrieved from sediments with long records of formation: lakes and bogs, primarily. Palynology is also not without its problems, but if we could map the relative decline or spread of those pollen grains associated with farming, woodland, wasteland or abandonment, we might be getting somewhere. Again, the resulting evidence for population decline or even growth is patchy; that, at least, means that the Gildas/Bede invasion-apocalypse scenario of fire, sword and famine on which all narratives of the British Dark Ages are hung must be challenged at the most basic environmental level. People survived; some thrived; some left in the hope of a better life in Brittany. Others, like Patrick, were captured and enslaved. Some (though not many) died in battle. Some must have starved (but probably fewer than we think). Archaeology will, in the end, narrow the parameters of the discussion. One thing we can say, backed by evidence from tree rings, ice cores and annals, is that from the middle of the sixth century the climate cooled markedly, before recovering about fifty years later. Coinciding with the arrival in Britain of a serious plague, these may be the decades when we should look for a dramatic population decline; and it may or may not be a coincidence that many of the surviving genealogies of Early Medieval kings have their origins at this time.

The two hundred years between the end of Roman rule in Britain and the revival of written history may be obscure, but they cannot have been centuries of unvarying chaos, starvation and anarchy. Society survived and evolved; kings ruled, warriors fought, monks prayed and peasants farmed.

For a while after Gilsland the Wall has been systematically robbed; only the massive ditch which fronted it follows the inexorable line eastwards, through a farmyard where I exchanged a wave with a sturdy borderer up a ladder, mending a roof next to an old, immaculately maintained barn. For a long stretch the ditch was full of water and bog grass; far off I could hear the winter wail of a curlew, and a flock of lapwings cavorted in its fruitless search for good grazing. I asked myself if I could live off the land at this time of year and thought that, on the whole, I would struggle. In all probability I would become a thief, stealing eggs and hens. The odd pheasant and rabbit caught in my field of vision were no consolation—neither of these was present during the Dark Ages.13 A story told by Bede in his life of St Cuthbert, when the saint happened upon a barn from whose thatched roof a loaf and a lump of meat fell providentially into his hands, comes to mind. At six feet four and in the exotic dress of the twenty-first-century rambler, I would, in any case, make a lousy thief for those times. Strangers would have stood out like sore thumbs in a countryside that was much more crowded than our own because everybody worked on the land: even if Britain’s Dark Age population was no more than a million or so, its fields and woods were full of endeavour and of the sounds of ploughman and woodcutter. I recalled one of the Laws of King Wihtred of Kent, dating to the early eighth century, which says that:

If a man from a distance or a foreigner goes off the track, and he neither shouts nor blows a horn, he is to be assumed to be a thief, to be either killed or redeemed.14

At Thirlwall the line of the Wall descends into the narrow valley of the Tipal Burn; on the other side the remains of a twelfth-century castle sit squatly and the path rises steeply past and around them. These borderlands were never more dangerous or unwelcoming for the traveller (horn or no horn) than during the Anglo-Scottish wars of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries—in these years a state of perpetual war existed among the so-called ‘surnames’, old-time ranching clans forever poaching on each others’ turf, stealing cattle, slitting throats on dark nights and wreaking blood-feud revenge on their enemies over the generations. Northumberland is still full of those names: Nixons and Grahams, Fenwicks, Campbells and Armstrongs.

From now on Wall and Stanegate went their separate ways, the road running parallel to the south. The wall climbed onto the crest of the Whin Sill, a north-facing cliff of intrusive igneous rock which hardly needs any artificial enhancement. For the walker it is an aerobic challenge, as Wall and Sill rise and fall, switch-back and swerve to conform with millions of years of origami strata and erosion. The rewards are heart-raising views from the scarp, a sense of awe at natural and human engineering and the indomitable character of this almost untameable landscape, the Wall and its hinterland etching a narrative of endurance and determination from sea to sea. Past the fort of Magnis at Carvoran and over Greenhead Crags; the great green fog-bank of Wark Forest away to the north and the Tyne valley folded into invisibility to the south. At Great Chesters, the Roman fort ofAesica, I came off the Wall and followed Haltwhistle Burn down to the small town that bears its name and which makes the proud boast that it lies at the exact axial centre of Britain.

Haltwhistle’s survival is as improbable as that of the Wall, its industry gone and the town bypassed by the modern A69. Survive it does, though, and after a day braced against the elements and two thousand years of hard tales it was a welcome sight.

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