Companions—monomaniac Wall—long-distance walking—peregrinatio—Dark Age travellers—Housesteads fort—transhumance—Cold Comfort Farm—Warden Hill
WHEN I RESUMED my Wall journey, it had been snowing. I asked my old friend Malcolm Pallister to join me for a day’s walk. Malcolm is a fellow veteran of the West Highland Way and has travelled the whole eighty-four-mile length of the Wall on foot and solo. He is a clever, thoughtful systems engineer; a Buddhist, blacksmith and musician. He fixes things: he would do rather well in the Dark Ages.
The hills, farms, loughs and lanes of the Tyne–Solway gap wore their winter coats like old bears. There is nothing new in ice and snow, storm or flood; the small death of winter is just one more rotation of the unchanging, ever-turning wheel of renewal. Spring will come. Today the light, a monochrome palette of white, grey and black, erased all but the essentials of form and line, pattern and texture. There was hardly anyone else out: we had the Wall and the hills more or less to ourselves.
We parked next to the visitors’ centre at Once Brewed (there is an old inn close by called Twice Brewed, but there is no agreement on the origins of the names), clad ourselves in lurid winter gear, and struck out eastwards. I had already walked the first part of this section, the cliff above Crag Lough, with Sarah. Malcolm had, on his long march, come the other way, from the east. Neither of us had seen this landscape stripped bare to the white bone as it was now. Now I began to see Hadrian’s project for what it was. The line of the Wall was visible for miles in either direction, geological in scale, timeless in extent; but minuscule against sky, hill and moor, as intangible almost as a pure mathematical line. Up here on the crags it could have no defensive function: it was superfluous. What had it all been for? Fort after milecastle after turret: ditch in front, vallum behind, the theme repeated end over end like the cycle of the year, only stopping at the wet, salty sea. To the north and on our left, we are supposed to believe, the unwashed, uncivilised Britons who, having not bought into the idea of Empire, were outside it: legally and psychologically labelled barbarian. To our right, the south, like it or not, everyone was a citizen of the Empire.
The sheer stubbornness of the enterprise struck us: a monomaniacal idea pursued beyond reasonableness, a psychosis of a project. Where Offa’s Dyke spoke of real political might, of public power arrayed against a foe, of subjugation and tribute, of one people abutting another, the Wall—as opposed to the frontier, which already existed in the line of the Stanegate and its forts—now seemed like fantasy realised: a folly, a hamster wheel of engineering endurance and squaddie fatigues, designed not to keep anything out, but to show what the legions could do when they put their minds to it. It seemed to monumentalise, also, a Rome that outgrew the bold Republican ideals of its early centuries to become a bloated oligarchy. Thus the Wall was maintained, rebuilt, reenvisioned and reinvented over three hundred years for no better reason than that it already existed. It became the whitest of elephants; it was never, had never, been useful. At no time has it ever formed the border between races or nations. It just was.
These were walkers’ thoughts. An earlier wanderer, an Anglo-Saxon poet, full of melancholy, weary of spirit and looking back on his lonely life, had this to say:
The ancient works of the giants stood idle,
Hushed without the hubbub of inhabitants.
Then he who has brooded over these noble ruins
And who deeply ponders this dark life,
Wise in his mind, often remembers
The many slaughters of the past and speaks these words:
Where has the horse gone? Where the man? Where the giver of gold?
Where is the feasting place? And where the pleasures of the hall?37
Long-distance walking can induce melancholy, for sure; but it is also therapeutic. Rousseau, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rimbaud, Laurie Lee embarked on journeys of self-discovery: what Nietzsche called outdoor thinking. For pious Dark Age argonauts setting out across the wolf-prowled hills on the long straight road to Rome or dipping their oar into the icy waters of the northern seas, the models for walking heroes were to be found in the New Testament and in the lives of the Desert Fathers. The ideal was peregrinatio: the journey abroad in imitation of the Temptation of Christ in the desert, as a voluntary exile and perpetual stranger in a foreign land. Christ had wandered in the baking wastes of Jordan, starving and alone, for forty days. For some churchmen, those who believed in the communal endeavour of the cenobitic monastery, such wanderings were an indulgence, a distraction tending towards fanaticism. For others, the voyage into the dangerous, uncharted, un-Latinate unknown was a trial of faith beyond the edge of knowledge—and therefore of high virtue. Pilgrims, on the other hand, knew where they were going, even if they had a very imperfect idea of what the journey or the destination—Rome, Jerusalem, Tours—would be like. Some made the journey to Rome more than once: the seventh-century bishop St Wilfrid thrice; Benedict Biscop (founder of the priory of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow) no fewer than five times. Alfred of Wessex was taken to Rome twice as a mere child; many kings made pilgrimage their retirement; there were those who set out and never reached the promised land.
There were also those who journeyed for more earthbound reasons: to flee persecution or escape justice; to conduct their lord’s business; to visit friends or to carry messages and gifts; to trade and to fight. Pragmatism and superstition governed the time of departure, the route, the method of travel. Bishop Aidan, the first abbot of Lindisfarne from 635 to 651, astonished and offended King Oswine of Deira, his patron, when he gave away to a pauper the king’s gift of a horse. The king understood bishops most easily in the context of a warrior elite, to whose caste they belonged; the horse reflected their dignity, rank, honour. Aidan eschewed these and walked. The journey of Abbot Uttar of Gateshead to retrieve a princess and bride-to-be from Kent was so risky a venture (physically and probably politically) that he sought approbation and blessing from Aidan, and was comforted by the gift of a phial of holy oil which he used to quell a storm in the North Sea. Travellers, especially pagans, had superstitions about crossroads and, in particular, places where three roads met. Auguries and omens were physical manifestations of the pre-Christian imagination; rituals were performed before setting out and after arriving safely. Journeys, by their very nature extraordinary and ambitious enterprises, were attended by miracles and portents. Age was no barrier to travel. The monk Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Asia Minor, was sixty-six when he was chosen by Pope Vitalian to travel to England to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 668. His likely route was overland, via a string of monasteries across northern Italy and Francia. The journey did him no harm: he held the metropolitan see for more than twenty years until his death in 690.
The most-travelled men and women of the Early Medieval period were kings and queens. Kings must visit their royal estates in turn to receive tribute and be fed; to dispense justice, gifts and land; to consult their wise men. And every year it was their duty to gather a host and go to war against their enemies for glory, treasure and the pride of their folk. After the later seventh century it became fashionable, as an alternative to death in battle, to abdicate and set out for Rome to retire there, as did Cædwalla of Wessex in about 688, his successor, Ine, in 728 and Cyngen of Powys in 855.
Malcolm and I lunched at the edge of a copse of Scots pines that straddles the Wall south of Greenlee Lough. Malcolm’s Wall walk had been something of a personal struggle: walking alone can take you to places you didn’t know existed or perhaps did not want to visit. In company the trail is all about camaraderie, companionable silence, satisfaction at day’s end; anecdotes. A walk with each different sort of companion is an adventure in adaptability, in shared pace and perspective; two people notice more than one.
We passed through the fort at Housesteads, all neat, square buildings and ordered space; one of the best-preserved forts along the Wall and, like Vindolanda and Birdoswald, the site of a late-fourth-century structure identified from its apsidal ground plan as a church. We crossed the line of the Pennine Way. It occurred to me to wonder how many transhumant paths and droveways must have been severed or diverted, no doubt at the cost of a toll, during the Wall’s construction and lifetime. We cannot know whether, as with today’s motorway projects, accommodation was made for those aboriginal farmers whose traditional lands and routes were cut in half by the onward march of the Wall, or whether the natives had to like it or lump it. No doubt local deals were cut for backhanders; no doubt grudges were borne. Injustice has a long memory.
At Sewingshields the high line of the crags ends; looking back at the rollercoaster track of Wall and Whin Sill in low, creamy sunlight, it looked to us like some immense humpbacked prehistoric monster, a kelpie, diving and surfacing, broaching the unfathomable waters of the ages. The country east of here is increasingly benign, less confrontational: now Wall, military road and vallum join together in a strip several hundred yards wide, three plough furrows racing eastwards across the Northumbrian uplands. It struck both of us how useful a plume of smoke might have been for earlier travellers: in the stiller air of the Tyne Valley a monstrous exhalation of steam is constantly emitted by a locally notorious chipboard factory; it had been our unspoken marker all day.
A little after the fort of Broccolita, where the winter-flooded remains of a Mithraic temple looked like nothing so much as a Christian holy well and shrine, we left the Wall and stepped out across country, heading south-east on the ‘Roman’ side. The path became a lane. We passed a very odd little establishment, a Cold Comfort Farm, shabby and slightly sinister with lines of abandoned rusting vehicles, filthy net curtains in the windows hiding goodness knows what domestic history. These are the backwoods, the neglected corners of the landscape that you don’t come across in a car; they are the secret discoveries of the trail, sometimes to be investigated; sometimes to be passed swiftly by.
We rounded the fence of a defunct quarry that for centuries chewed at the hill overlooking the village of Fourstones but which now bristles with conifers. We turned east to join a back road that would take us south towards the Tyne Valley and that plume of steam. The weather had been kind to us all day: piercingly cold but bright and more or less dry; now fine snow drifted in veils across the hills and hurried us on. The light was failing and an indistinct twilight gave notice of the day’s end. We crossed, at right angles, the line of the Stanegate, no more than a mile west of the River North Tyne whose dramatic confluence with its parent valley was our destination. On a path running along the lower contours of Warden Hill I left Malcolm with his pack and flask and trotted up to the summit, at something like six hundred feet: Warden Hill, a domed expanse of pasture that gives views right along the Tyne Valley both ways, and which, as its name suggests, guards the confluence of the two rivers, commands the passage of people and animals heading east, west or north. The Iron Age hill fort whose grassy ramparts survive, truncated, for the sheep to graze on, has periodically been investigated by archaeologists. There is evidence that it was occupied during the Roman period; like the Wrekin, it must have been slighted38 by the legions, a much too dangerous strategic objective to be allowed to function as a tribal headquarters. But I could still see chunks of masonry poking out from sheep scrapes, and the distinct outlines of roundhouses visible even in this failing light. I rather like to think that it was reoccupied after the legions left; and a new airborne laser (known as LiDAR)39 survey shows some tantalising shapes lying just beneath the turf. As the last of the light drained away, I paused in the centre of the hill fort long enough to see lights from the villages and roads of the Tyne Valley pinprick my eyeline, evoking a strong sense of time’s inexorable passage and the unchanging realities of power, chiselled on our land in the straight line and the circle.