Towns / Cities Visited: 130
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 19,287
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,262,506
With the morning blessing us an overcast but drizzle-free sky, we decided to forgo shutting ourselves into the car, and instead walk to our first destination for the day. A few country-style directions from our gracious Airbnb host, and we were soon on our way out of the tiny town of Haltwhistle, and down a wooded track towards one of the country’s more noteworthy historic locations; Hadrian’s wall. The walk was peaceful as we meandered between the trees beside Haltwhistle Burn, a small trickling creek which cuts through the landscape. The air was fresh, the foliage a deep green, and we took the opportunity to slow down a little and simply enjoy the quiet of the countryside.
Now for a little history recap for those of you unversed in this addition to the English landscape by the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive structure which began construction in 122 AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor, Hadrian. It cut directly across the country, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, essentially cutting the north off from the Roman occupied south. North of the wall was the territory of the Ancient Britons, known as Picts. For the Game of Thrones fans amongst you, just think of it as the people of Westeros building the wall to keep the wildlings out. In its glory days, it was of varying heights and widths, between 3–6 metres wide and 3.5–6 metres high. It was originally further fortified by the addition of milecastles and turrets dotted along the wall to house Roman soldiers who would guard the border wall. It was almost 120km long, and was completed in six years; a pretty impressive feat, to be honest. By around 410 however, the Romans found themselves losing their grip on Britain and much of Western Europe, and retreated; although there is evidence that some of the milecastles were occupied well into the 5th century. After this time, the local Britons regained their country, and the wall began to fall into ruin over the centuries. Much of the stone was removed and used in the construction of other buildings, and long sections were used to build road in the 18th century; you know, back when historical conservation wasn’t really a thing. As a result the majority of the remains are little more than foundations, and there are long tracts which no longer exist at all.
Eventually, after passing through a field of grazing cattle, we made it to our destination; Cawfield Quarry. This former quarry was dug out just beside the wall at one of its highest points, and has left what remains of the wall running up a rather precarious crag. This cliff like formation is part of Whin Sill, a rather striking geological feature in these parts, created by a line of black dolerite, which is resistant to erosion and thus creates sheer cliffs as the surrounding rock deteriorates over time.
Heading towards the ominous peak, we soon found ourselves faced with what is left of this once momentous Roman structure. So what is left, you ask? To be honest, little more than a couple of feet of crumbling stone, often wider than it is tall, and appearing to be held together by both mortar, plantlife, and moss in equal measure. Hardly the towering construction it once was, which would have required ladders and some crafty manoeuvres to scale. At this point in time, the barbarians to the north could probably hurdle it with a bit of a run up. The film ’10 Things I Hate About You’, posed the question, ‘I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?’, to which they answer ‘I think you can in Europe’. Well, I am here to tell you that the statement holds true. For the first time on our trip, we were a little whelmed. That’s not to say that the sheer magnitude of the wall isn’t impressive, but the years and reuse of its stones have left it as a somewhat less than forboding structure in its old age.
Undeterred, we followed along the wall a little until we reached one of the milecastles which lays nearby. Again, it is little more than the foundations that remain, but it does help give some idea of why the wall followed this natural crest in the landscape; it gives a rather stunningly advantageous view over the land to the north. We stopped to admire the landscape, before making the return journey to pick up the car and head off to our next stop.
A short drive and we were arriving at a marginally more interesting site along Hadrian’s Wall; Housesteads Roman Fort. We parked the car and ventured into the visitor centre, hoping to buy lunch at the café promised by the internet. Alas, after staring despondently at their sad selection of ready-made sandwiches in the display fridge, and with nothing much else on offer, we simply bought our tickets and headed outside to the fort. Much like our last stop, reaching the wall and its adjoining fort meant trudging through a paddock, this time dotted with the occasional sheep.
Before heading to the historic site itself, we first visited the small museum set off to the side. Although lacking in size, its information panels and collection of artefacts from the excavations of the site, including pottery, arrowheads, leather, and carved stones, provides at the very least an iota of context. At the back of the museum a short video plays on repeat, explaining the site further and providing digital representations of how the fort may have appeared. For the first time, we were able to picture the wall as it once was.
Stepping back outside, and pulling out jackets tighter around us to keep the chill wind from robbing us of our warmth, we finally headed over to the fort. Now, unlike the milecastle we had just visited, this outpost was more of a small village contained within a stone outer wall. Although, like the rest of what remains, it is all simply foundations, there is clear structure here, and the signs dotted around explain the purpose of each of the buildings here. From living quarters to an infirmary, and from the bathhouse to the bakehouse, some structures are more obvious than others. For example, the stone stacks which would have held up the floor in the bathhouse to allow the hot air beneath to warm the rooms, as was a standard addition to ancient Roman baths, are still clearly visible. Outside of the fortified walls also sits the obvious remains of the well which would have provided water to the legions posted here. Even without the upper portions, the foundations remind you of just how organised and ingenious the Romans were when it can to construction, drainage, and what can only be looked at as town planning. Kudos must also be given for creating basework so strong that it has survived almost two thousand years of weather damage and pillaging.
With the little there is to see seen, we made our way back to the warmth of our car, and trundled off to our new home for the night in York. Starving at this point, we made the rather tragic decision to stop at Burger King at one of the roadhouses to down a disappointing meal before continuing on. Our evening was relaxed, and a much more satisfying home cooked dinner left us feeling better about our somewhat whelming day.
As I lay down to ponder our adventure, I couldn’t help but think of all of the times throughout history that groups of people have felt the need to build walls to keep others in or out. I thought about how inane it is to believe ourselves so special and entitled that we deem it reasonable to create towering physical barriers to bar our fellow humans from our self proclaimed territory. From the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, these kinds of mega-structures are not only damaging to the environment they cut across, but also to the fauna who live in the area. By fencing off areas we prevent the natural movements of creatures who have called this land home since long before we decided to bisect it. On a small scale a wall is fine, but when taken to such over-the-top degrees it can cause havoc to animals, especially nomadic, grazing, or migratory ones.
The fact that we have built, and continue to build, walls to segregate cultures and ideologies just proves how inherently racist and intolerant we are as a species. Look at the Berlin Wall for example; a wall which essentially doubled as a death trap, simply to keep two opposing governmental ideologies seperate, and prevent those who lived within the communist territory, from escaping to the freedoms of the democratic side of the barrier. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you have to cage your people in and threaten them with violence or death to stay, you’re not running a government, you’re running a prison. The problem of course being that in this circumstance the sole crime of your prisoners is disagreement with your dictatorship masquerading as equality.
These walls are not simply ancient history; the Berlin Wall came down within my lifetime, and I am not yet thirty. Furthermore, today, right now, there is a wall being constructed to physically seperate Mexico and the United States of America. Not because it will help prevent illegal immigration, as it has already been shown that the majority of illegal immigrants to the USA come on planes and simply overstay their tourist visa, but because one racist leader has incited so much fear amongst a portion of his population that they believe their neighbours to the south to be some barbaric enemy which must be cut off. Donald Trump has somehow convinced enough people that if they tourniquet the land which abuts Mexico, they can stop the spread of immigration, forgetting entirely that this ‘disease’ is airborne, not some gangrenous limb which can simply be amputated for the some mystical greater good. He, much like Hitler, has instilled a sense of us vs. them back into his citizens, in a time when we should be moving towards a more tolerant and accepting society. As the first world takes a step forward, he is dragging his country two steps back, and it is at the expense of those already in the most difficult positions. When will we learn that only by tearing down walls, rather than building them, can we move to the next stage of enlightenment as a society? Only as one race, the human race, can we come together and overcome the trials and tribulations of our existence.