Why I Planned to Hike Hadrian’s Wall, The Backstory:

I wanted to hike Hadrian’s Wall as far back as 7th grade.  Not as if I knew anything about hiking.  Or Hadrian’s Wall.  Or ancient Roman history for that matter.  But as a child, I had ancient intuitions and yearnings.  Like in 5th grade, when I wished I had been born Schliemann.  So that I could have excavated the ancient city of Troy and speak untold numbers of foreign languages.

And of course, there’s Emperor Diocletian and his military fortress/mansion in Split, Croatia.  I was in high school (I believe), when I heard those names, discovered that the mansion’s ruins still existed, and I yearned to go.  In 2018, I finally saw Split with my own eyes.  I wandered dazed through its streets.  The arches of an ancient loggia had become a café.  Families had built their homes into and around the fortress walls.  An ATM dispensed cash next to a granite column.  I walked up and down the stairs that led from the imperial mansion, through its oversized basement, to the seaside.  And I erased mental images of Daenerys Targaryen and her imprisoned dragons…

And the idea of a hike along Hadrian’s Wall?  Was my intuition telling me something?  Or was I lured by a good stout?

Guinness on Hadrian's Wall

And Now… Hadrian’s Wall!

Strangely, as sizable as it was and is, Emperor Hadrian’s Wall was a phantom that only skittered in and out of my Romacentric studies.  You know, England: a provincia, an outback, the reflux of history where occasionally an emperor quelled an uprising…  And yet the phantom of the Wall visited me obsessively.  Hamlet would understand. The Wall had something to share with me. It persistently asked, When would I see it?  When would I go?

“But enough autobiographic musing!” you say.  “We want some stats.  Some hard facts.”  Rightly so.  In 122 AD, Aulus Platorius Nepos, the newly appointed governor of Britannia, arrived at what is now called the Tyne River in England with his boss, Emperor Hadrian.  In tow were expert land surveyors and military engineers, who would outline the most sensible and strategic path for Hadrian’s Wall.  Several months later, Emperor Hadrian saluted Aulus Platorius Nepos, left him instructions and blueprints, and continued the tour of inspection of his vast empire.

Nepos rolled up his sleeves, relying on the manpower of three Roman legions: the II AVGVSTA, the VI VICTRIX, and the VALERIA VICTRIX.  Roman legionaries were both heavy infantrymen and expert builders.  They could march up to, if not over, 20 miles a day, while shouldering roughly 60 pounds of baggage.  (I traveled with a roughly 5-pound backpack.  And on the first day or two, I envied ancient Roman legionaries: I swear I never topped 2 miles an hour.)

After their marches, they could then work indefatigably and with assembly-line-like precision to turn out trenches, fortifications, and encampments cookie-cutter style.  But they also bent landscapes to their will, whether in Rhine country, North Africa, or the Middle East.  And that’s exactly what they were doing in England – but in a totally novel way.

More Stats for Hadrian’s Wall

hadrian's wall in english countryside

Over the course of roughly ten years, approximately 30,000 soldiers and workers laid an estimated twenty-four million stones to create a 73-mile-long land-wall that ran neatly east to west.  I would repeat that sentence for dramatic effect.  But instead, let’s do this: I won’t repeat it.  In exchange, read it again.

In other words, Aulus Platorius Nepos and his lieutenants organized several tens of thousands of men.  More or less the number of spectators that you could put in a small-to-medium size stadium!  And they were working on the same project.  And they did so for ten years.  Think about the logistics.  The food that 30,000 hard-working men would consume.  Sanitation.  Providing safety for them should the enemy attack…

And forget Home Depot!  Teams of legionaries opened quarries as close to the construction site as possible.  Others carried the handcrafted blocks from there to the site.  Yet others gathered the ingredients to make a shoddy concrete to bind those blocks together.  The Wall was also accompanied by a ditch roughly twenty feet wide and ten meters deep – on both sides!  The earthworks on the enemy side slowed down attacks.  The internal one did too — should “Romanized” tribespeople prove to be untrustworthy.  (Pictures can be deceiving.  Hopefully the one here captures the length and majesty of what’s left of the Wall.)

Around the fifth day of my hike of Hadrian’s Wall, I began to lose my mind.  Under an unusually blue sky, the Wall’s presence became strangely daunting.  It flanked me for hours and hours, like some weird obsession.  In fact, if you listen to my voice in the video I posted here, you may hear a hint of panic.  The idea of twenty-four million handcrafted stones had begun to sink in.

Hadrian’s Wall and Its Military Encampments

As if they had energy to burn, the legionaries built encampments, gates, watch towers, and minor forts at frequent intervals along the Wall.  And then!  For greater homeland security, the Wall turned south along the western coast of England and protected another 30-some miles of vulnerable shoreline.

The legionaries’ energy had been so intense that it still vibrates heavy in the air.  I could still feel it, and sometime hear it, across 1900 years.  Syrian soldiers cussed against the cold.  The wind carried jokes about army rations.  Standing in encampments, I could hear the moaning of the infantry and calvary, who woke to the sound of drizzle pattering on thatch rooves.  The love/hate relationship with their work was palpable: The job sucked, but they wouldn’t dream of being any place else.

When the soldiers finished their wall in roughly ten years – and it was their wall – there was nothing like it in the world.  (“And the Great Wall of China?” You ask.  Yeah.  Go read how long that took to build!)  The soldier’s pride in their work is tangible.  Each cohort, each team, signed the section of Wall that it built.  How do we know?  They crafted signature stones that they included in the Wall as their work progressed.  Those stones have been moved into museums, fortunately in some sense and unfortunately in others.

Here’s a photo of the Valeria Victrix Legion’s signature stone.  How do we know it’s theirs?  Leg stands for legio and the two Xs are 20.  The 20th legion was the Valeria Victrix.  But if you have doubts, look at the last two letter: V V, which is the legion’s name abbreviated.  Kick-butt engineers and soldiers, yes.  Artists no.  The well-nourished rat leaping across the stone is well… not a rat.  It is a wild boar, which was the legion’s mascot.

hike hadrian's wall

So, Excuse Me… Why a Wall?

Well, because the soldiers would have gotten into trouble at the nearest hamlet, if the senior officers didn’t keep them busy.  You know, dig a ditch.  Fill it in.  Dig a ditch…  Okay, not really.  Or maybe.  After all, jokes can reflect reality.

The truth is, historians’ opinions about the Wall have changed over the decades.  The first hypothesis is clearly the most obvious: Hadrian’s Wall stopped, slowed, or deterred invasions.  And the old-school hypothesis is based on a quote from the Historia Augusta: (Hadrianus) murumque per octoginta milia passuum primus duxit, qui barbaros Romanosque divideret. That is: “(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall, eighty [Roman] miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians.”  You can find that quote together with the rest of the Life of Hadrian here!

recreation of Hadrian's Wall

But here’s the hypothesis’s weak point: the sparse tribes to the north of England were disorganized.  No Roman commander worried about them sacking and pillaging all the way to Rome.  The real concern?  Local raiding parties.  In other words, how can you, the Roman overlord, reap the benefits of high-yield farmland and other production centers in southern England, if your delinquent neighbors to the north are always stealing your stuff?  Oh, you build a wall.

And this brings us to a more recent explanation of Hadrian’s Wall.  It was not supposed to separate.  It simply filtered people selectively.  Said differently, the check points in the Wall allowed Romans to control their territory both militarily and financially.  They could (and did) document who entered, with what, and why.  In other words, each gate was a customs office and a security check.  The illustration here may give you an idea of how the encampments filtered and controlled movement.  For more information, check out the website that I cribbed the illustration from!

Philosophy and Military Engineering on My Hike of Hadrian’s Wall

As I walked (and walked, and walked), I mused.  I noticed that the power and audacity of Hadrian’s Wall fascinated a young and superficial me.  Although I have never been able to quote it correctly, the Wall reminded me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias: “Look on my works, Ye Might, and despair!”  This Wall had once towered fifteen feet above ground level.  And, according to one scholar, ancient Romans whitewashed it for greater visual effect.  That is, they feared that it didn’t stick out enough!  Now, however, it was a battered and mangled anaconda retiring in the English countryside, where it sunbathed when it could.

An older me thought pragmatically: “History repeats itself.”  And I saw Hadrian’s Wall in a new light.  One which was not particularly flattering to Hadrian.  If you don’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out: I had problems comparing Emperor Hadrian to President Trump.  Yet the comparison has its merits and forces us to ask questions like, “What does a monumental wall represent?  Or rather, how many different things can a monumental wall represent?  How much is posturing?  How much is economics?  Who benefits?  Who loses?”  Yes, these are the history nerd questions I ask myself when I’ve had too much to drink or have walked up to ten/twelve miles with a 5-pound backpack.

Why Should You Hike Some or All of Hadrian’s Wall

If you like hiking and history, Hadrian’s Wall is a winner.  First, Rome – or Italy in general – has nothing like it.  After all, Rome proper didn’t need fortifications until the Aurelian Walls were built in 275 A.D.  The capital of the Empire and its surrounding territories were rarely epicenters of battles—with the exception of civil wars…  So, you won’t find 70-miles of military encampments anywhere on the peninsula.  And therefore, you won’t find the contents of those encampments in museums.

Let me say that differently.  Every museum along Hadrian’s Wall had finds that made my jaw drop.  And other archeological museums in Chester and Edinburgh (that I managed to squeeze in) were phenomenal too.  Their collections contained mountains of wood, leather, and other perishable items.  “Uh, if they’re perishable,” you ask, “how have they survived?”  England has something that Italy does not, i.e. anaerobic ground.  In laymen’s terms, wet dirt.  And that makes sense, given how much it rains there.

So, thanks to a combination of Roman domination of Britannia and normally gray weather, I saw a wooden toilet seat.  I don’t know what you think about that or if you’d pay a plane ticket for the privilege of seeing something similar.  But I got excited.

wooden toilet seat from military encampment Hadrian's Wall

Okay, You’re Unimpressed with the Toilet Seat.  But Read on!

Hadrian's Wall Vindolanda shoes
Armani slipper from Vindolanda Hadrian's Wall

So, let me tell the story differently.  I was at Vindolanda’s military encampment.  It’s not on Hadrian’s Wall proper, but it is nearby it.  And it is definitely worth the small detour.  Vindolanda is renown for fragments of letters, those of common soldiers to friends, from outraged locals to military authorities, from the governor’s wife to her best friend down the road, and more!  Requests for new socks.  Shopping lists.  An invitation to a birthday party.  Inventories of the commander’s possessions.  Payrolls.  That’s what I knew about Vindolanda before I got there.

That’s all nice, but admittedly it’s not for everyone.  Instead here’s the gem that Vindolanda’s Director has not publicized sufficiently: Vindolanda is leather shoes galore!  7000 shoes have been found to date.  And a small fraction of them are visible in my photo.  Now I’m not into fashion, but I do get excited about 1900-year-old shoes.  Women’s shoes, kids’ booties, soldiers’ footwear.  Some of them ratty, some very high class.  I invite you to admire the handiwork of the artisan that produced this sexy mule with a bit of a heel — for a soldier’s companion? A commander’s wife?  An innkeeper with good taste?  Who knows!  But whoever she was, fashion-conscious matrons in the Forum in Rome had nothing on her!

And Signs of Warfare and Military Occupation!

But besides daily objects in leather and wood, Roman soldiers’ junk and stuff and gear abounded!  Like these iron blackjacks, which I photographed in one museum’s display case.  No larger or longer than an inch or an inch-and-a-half, they stopped me in my tracks, which—in a certain sense—is what they were intended to do.  Ancient Romans called them tribuli (and it goes without saying that this is the etymology for tribulation).  They were also called murex ferreus, “the iron murex” [i.e. a type of seashell].  This fantastic Wikipedia article on caltrops (as they’re called in English) will tell you more about them and their history.  Scattered on the ground, they slowed an enemy cavalry attack, doing massive damage to the horses’ hooves.  Sort of like vandals today might use glass shards to ruin a cyclist’s day.  Varying in size and bearing different names across the centuries, they are still in use to damage tires.  If the dude who invented them had a copyright…

caltrops or tribuli found at Vindolanda
cranium from Vindolanda ditch near Hadrian's Wall

I also saw the dark underbelly of ancient Roman imperialism.   If you’ve ever picked up Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, you know that the walls of Roman encampments were often decorated with the decapitated heads of rebel leaders (or freedom fighters, if we want to see history from more than one prospective…).  But those stories don’t sink in until you see proof of them with your own eyes.  Proof like the cranium in the picture!  Archeologists found it, without its body, in Vindolanda’s vallum (i.e. the ditch around the encampment that improved security).  This suggests that it was used as… a decorative deterrent.  As I stared into into its empty orbs, I wondered if it had fallen from its perch as its flesh rotted.  Or if soldiers used it as a bullseye for their throwing games until some sharpshooter knocked it off its stick and into the fortress ditch.  Game over.

Some Conclusions

I don’t know why Julius Caesar or other ancient Roman commanders got so bent out of shape with the locals.  I personally found them very pleasant!  In fact, I want to thank many of them for the kindness and hospitality they showed me during my hike along Hadrian’s Walls.  After all, I made my plans to hike Hadrian’s Wall with a friend, who didn’t think we needed to reserve our lodgings ahead of time.  You, the reader, are welcomed to insert grandmotherly noises of disapproval here.  It certainly was one of the sillier travel ideas I’ve ever accepted.  Especially because all the guidebooks made it clear: people who hike Hadrian’s Wall should book accommodations beforehand.  There are simply not a lot available.  And they book up in advance.

In other words, if hiking Hadrian’s Wall from town to town wasn’t enough, we also looked for accommodations as we went.  And several locals went above the call of duty to help us.  (I wrote it that way because it’s not professional to say “they saved our f%@&ing as… butts!”)

So, I Send Huge Thank Yous to…

Going in chronological order:

It was the second night of this ill-planned adventure and yup!  We needed a place to stay.  I met Simon and Louise by miracle.  And then, second miracle!  Louise admitted that they ran a B&B.  “But,” she said, “Today is our day off.”  The sky was lead-colored in places, bruised in others, and black on the horizon.  I thought about bivouacking who knew where under a full-blown thunderstorm.  My eyes welled up.  Louise then prepared the room as Simon made us tea.  And I felt like a friggin’ idiot — LOL!  If you ever hike Hadrian’s Wall and are outside of Newcastle, this room with a double bed in Newburn is for you!

Several miles before Sycamore Gap (which is just Gap today), I had another lodging crisis.  It was late in the afternoon.  And we were still far from any villages or towns that might have had accommodations.  Down in the valley off in the distance, where the highway ran, I saw a small sign.  And I picked my way through the labyrinth of stone walls and barbed-wire to reach it.  It was Moss Kennels Cottage and it was connected to a barn, where two gentlemen were shoeing a horse.  One of those gentlemen, the owner of the Cottage, informed us that it was booked.  My eyes welled up.  (Again?  Yes again.)  He proceeded to make several phone calls.  And, with the insider info that only a local possesses, he found us a room.

And the List Continues…

I also send a huge hug and thank you to Annette, who owns and runs Chare Close Bed and Breakfast in Haltwhistle.  She could not offer us a room as she was fully booked.  But she did keep me from loosing my mind.  I had just spent a sleepless night in Dante’s camping Inferno and found the morning cold, drizzly, and inhospitable.  I hit the trail tired, hungry, dirty, and — surprise — not in a good mood.  As I slogged through the small town of Haltwhistle, I saw the Chare Close’s B&B sign and, thanks to a huge window, I saw Annette rummaging around a spacious and warm-looking kitchen.  I knocked.  She opened the door.  My eyes welled.  (Yes, I’m not as tough as I look! LOL!)

Annette made me coffee and called several hotels.   She then accompanied me to the Centre of Britain.  Here at this marvelously quirky family-run hotel, I recovered from the camping Inferno and went straight to Paradise!  They offered us breakfast. Our room had a sauna.  And the employees were all patient, generous, and kind.

With locals like these, I thought building a wall was totally unnecessary.  But perhaps things were different 1900 years ago…

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