Chasing The Sun
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland, a week ago – I was prepared for it to be blowing a hoolie. Which is fortunate, because it didn’t disappoint. Not just on the weather-front, but on all levels. As I was still recovering from flu; the picnic part of the plan was abandoned, and, deciding to make things up from scratch.. started out by chasing the sun east.
Living within easy reach of the A75 allows quick access to just about anywhere ..and by heading for Gretna Green you are soon over the border into England.
Following the dead straight modern day road built literally along the same line as the Stanegate – the road built to serve the wall…it was easy to deviate somewhat more than a roman mile – via a cafe with an exceptional cake or ten, and some antique window-shopping.
Taking a decade to build, and manned for nearly 300 years; the wall was the north-west frontier of an empire that stretched east for 2,500 miles to present day Iraq, and south 1,500 miles to the Sahara Desert.
The wall protected Roman Britain from invasion by barbarians from the north, along some 73 miles of bleak landscape. Built without deviation, along ridges of seemingly impregnable (by spade or shovel) rock; cresting sweeping hills, valleys and ridges as if surfing – on a wave of Roman superiority in – well, just about everything.
Superior it seems even in their windy weather garb for here they are surely wearing the precursor of “the duffel coat”.. millenia before students adopted it. Thank heaven we didnt tell ’em it’s based on a sleeveless cloak worn by roman gods (alledgedly – coz no-ones ever met one so we can’t verify it).. or, then, there’d be no end to the braggadocio.
It wasn’t possible to take great landscape photo’s.. I didn’t have my duffel after all.. but I did manage to stand on one of the wilder sections of the wall pretending I was a (somewhat vertically-challenged) roman soldier..and silently promise myself a return visit. Which is more than the lass below managed even though she stood on a cow to get a better look. Losing her head in the process. Probably over some burly legionnaire with only one thing on his mind. Getting out of the freezing wind.
Religious belief in Roman times and on the wall is represented at both official and individual level. It was a personal affair and not an occasion for a public gathering. It often took the form of a bargain with the gods. E.g: If you save my life – I’ll sacrifice an animal or build a shrine. Whilst I wouldn’t advocate animal sacrifice – I wish today’s political and religious leaders would just go do a bit of d.i.y shrine-building. Make shrine, not war. It would save lives.. and keep mischevious despots busy.
I’ve been wondering what had me want to ‘picnic on Hadrians Wall”. For all my talk of these high, inhospitable places..it’s the memory of an extraordinary set of bridge remains, hidden in a small river valley plain that drew me back. It sits below the Roman milecastle at Harrow’s Scar near the village of Gilsland, very close to Birdoswald Fort, an English Heritage site, between Brampton and Haltwhistle on the A69.
One summer 20 years ago, I’d happened on them – the remains of one of the four bridges built along the length of the wall. This one over the River Irthing, seen above, from the air. In Roman times it would have been an ordered, defensive position. The river would have been much wider. The bridge maintained, and protected robustly by the most highly trained troops any army ever encountered anywhere in the world.
In the present day, you will meet hardly anyone. You can marvel at the size, and architectural complexity of the remains and dream of life back then.
But, what had carried through into my dreams was the contrast between the relative shelter of this secret valley and the exposed escarpments on all sides high above.
It was good enough to be there, throwing leaves into the water to watch them carried downstream. Just as a roman soldier may have chased the sun, his thoughts turning toward the homeland to which he might never return.
Chasing The Sun
With thanks for images of the wall, the bridge remains, and artefacts reproduced here from the English Heritage Guidebook on Hadrian’s Wall. All others my own.