Archive for July, 2011

The wall: Walton to Carlisle – June 23

July 26, 2011

Today’s walk: 11.5 miles / 18.5 km in 5 hours

We had significantly better weather today than in the past couple of days. The sky was cloudy as we set out and we had a few drops of rain here and there, but for much of the day we enjoyed patchy sunshine and dry air. The past two days of rain lingered on, though, in lots of mud and soft ground on the trail.

A cow pasture we walked through. You can see some of the puddled rainwater on the lower grass.

Our previous night’s host gave us a ride to Walton where we picked up the trail once more and continued our walk. We have come into quite flat ground now and are seeing many more villages and houses. For much of the day we had a pleasant walk through countryside and farm fields, but towards the end of the day we arrived at the banks of the River Eden and started to approach the city of Carlisle.

The trail here runs right through someone's back yard. I'm glad this is Britain, because you'd have a hell of a time creating something like this trail in the States!

In that distinctly British way, the farms and fields and little villages continued almost up to the edge of the city itself, but we were clearly coming into more urban territory. We saw a good deal more traffic on the roads and started passing by industrial sites and through recently-built suburbs. Still, we saw a small herd of cattle quietly pasturing in a city park just before we crossed into the city proper.

Some curious chickens whose home we also passed

We diverged from the route of the wall for the latter half of the day’s walk, but there are few visible wall remains in this part of the country.  At its western end, the wall was mostly built in local sandstone which has not stood up well to the elements over the past 2,000 years.

The path here is right on top of the wall line, but there's hardly any remains to be seen.

Partway through the day’s walk we stopped at at little serve-yourself-and-leave-money-in-the-honesty-box snack stand set up on someone’s farm.  We got a couple of ice creams out of the freezer and enjoyed them along with some gorp from our bags.  There were a couple of Shetland ponies in the nearby field who entertained us as we ate.

The River Eden, approaching Carlisle

Our accommodations for the night are a more typical bed & breakfast with more than just a couple of rooms and inoffensively bland decor. It was comfortable enough for the night (although the room was rather damp), but there was nothing to encourage us to come back again. After the wonderful accommodations we have had for the past couple of days, it was a bit of a step down.

We walked out into Carlisle city to find a place for dinner. We haven’t really had a choice of dinner place since Whitley Bay, so it was a little odd to be walking around checking out menus. We were hungry and tired, though, so we didn’t dither over the choice for very long: we spotted a little Italian restaurant with evening specials and went for it. The food was very good and the atmosphere was pleasant.

We walked around town a little bit after dinner. We’ve been to Carlisle before several years ago as part of my dissertation research, but we weren’t here for long and neither of us remembers the city terribly well.

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The wall: Gilsland to Walton – June 22

July 22, 2011

Today’s walk: 8 miles / 13 km in 5 hours

This morning showed us that British weather has a nasty sense of humor. As we were setting out from our B&B for the day’s walking, the sky was mixed sun and clouds. We were only a few steps away from the door when a sudden downpour came it and drenched us. We had just pulled our rain gear out of our packs when the rain stopped and the sun came out again.

The beginning of our day's walk

There was a long stretch of wall in good condition at the start of today’s walk. Very soon we came to the remains of the Roman bridge over the River Irthing. The river has shifted it’s course, however, since Roman times, so the channels and abutments are now on dry land about thirty yards east of the river.

These were originally channels and abutments for the bridge. Now they stand in an open field

On the far bank there is a very well preserved section of wall which has some interesting inscriptions on it. One is what’s known as a centurial stone, inscribed with information about the gang of soldiers who worked on and completed this section.

A centurial stone stone in situ on the wall, near Birdoswald fort

"COH(ORS)VIII / C(ENTURIO) IVL(IVS) PRIM(VS) F(ECIT)" "Julius Primus, centurion of the seventh cohort, made this" (The backwards, angular C is an abbreviation for centurion or century)

There are also a couple of wall stones which have each been carved with a phallus to serve as a good luck charm and ward away evil. The use of the phallus shape as a kind of magical protection against evil was widespread in the ancient world; no doubt Dr. Freud would have had a good deal to say about that.

Phallus carving for warding away evil, near Birdoswald fort

Since the picture isn't very clear, a little help

We continued on walking through countryside that got flatter and flatter as we went. After the morning’s deluge we had sunny skies and warm air, but as the afternoon wore on the sky got gray and cloudy. When we were about halfway through the day’s scheduled walk, it began to drizzle on us, and then to rain in earnest. We sheltered under a tree for a while, hoping that it was a passing shower, but the rain just kept going, and so, eventually, did we.

We're well out of the crags now, and coming out of the rolling hills into flatter country

Our evening’s lodging is actually situated a little off the track. About two-thirds of the way along we had the option of turning aside from the wall trail and walking down there. We considered making the turn and ending our walk early that day, given how miserable the weather had turned, but we decided to keep on walking despite the rain, not wanting to miss a substantial section of the wall trail.

The rain continued, but we made our way to Walton, a little village which I’m sure would have been charming if the weather had not put us in an unpleasant mood. We had hoped to shelter in the local pub while we called for a ride to our B&B, but it turned out that the pub had recently closed down (we later heard from our evening’s host that a lot of rural pubs are shutting their doors because stricter drunk driving laws are cutting into their business so badly as people just stay home to drink) so we found a bus shelter to huddle under. While we were waiting for our ride to appear, a couple of other hikers came to take shelter in the bus shelter as well. When our host arrived with the car, he offered to give them a lift to their lodgings. When it turned out that their lodging would not be open to them for a few hours, he offered to take them back with us where they could have a shower and a change of clothes and wait out of the rain.

Our B&B for the evening is in an old converted 17th-century mill, a lovely stone building which has been well taken care of and inventively updated. It has the charm of old buildings where there are nooks and bits and odd spaces that used to have one purpose and have been remade into something else. Our hosts are a delightful older couple who have only been running the B&B for less than a year, but seem like old hands at it. They are welcoming, generous, and gracious. We could not have asked for better after a long slog of a day.

Once again, we are too far away from town for us to go out and get dinner on our own, so our hosts prepared a dinner for us. It was wonderful, simple home-cooked food: fish pie for dinner, with fruit crumble for dessert.

We were the only guests in the B&B tonight, and in fact the place doesn’t seem to be set up for very many. We really liked the place. We have had very good lodgings for the past couple of days, places we would gladly go back to if we ever had cause to be in the area again.

The wall: Once Brewed to Gilsland – June 21

July 12, 2011

Today’s walk 8 miles / 13 km in 6 hours

The good weather we had yesterday didn’t last. We set out this morning into a steady drizzle and mist so heavy that we couldn’t see the tops of the crags. Once we got up onto the crags, we couldn’t see anything to either side, nor much before or behind us and the rain just got worse. We kept going, though and did our best to stay cheerful.

Looking back over the crags in a bit of a break in the weather

Early in today’s walk, we came to the highest point on the wall, marked by a triangulation monument from the ordnance mapping of Britain. We took a picture there, but sadly, the mist and clouds obscured whatever view there might have been.

The highest point on the wall, marked by a triangulation monument. Gee, look at those views...

At the highest point, smiling despite the rain

The walk continued up and down over the crags. The rain made slopes slick and muddy, which made all the upping and downing not so much fun. Over the course of the day the weather did get gradually better, but we had some dreadful downpours of rain before things really broke up. We sheltered from the worst of one under a stand of trees in a field, with the local cows doing pretty much the same thing not too far away. Even as the weather improved, it still left us mostly walking through wind and went and mist over wet, muddy ground.

The well-preserved remains of a milecastle

At one point I slipped on a bit of wet rock and fell down. Fortunately I wasn’t badly hurt, just a few scrapes on my hand and some minor bruises. Also very fortunately, I didn’t land in any sheep or cattle droppings when I fell. E. took very good care of me, washing off the mud, disinfecting the scrapes on my hand and wrapping them up in a bandage, and we got on with our walk.

The signage along the trail is mostly pretty good, but there are places where it could be better. We hit one of these today and got off track without realizing it. Fortunately we were going in pretty much the right direction and were able to pick up the path again with little difficulty.

A particularly well-preserved stretch of wall, despite the modern gate through it

Today’s walk took us down out of the crags and into more settled countryside. We started seeing more houses, even walking right through a garden or two. The livestock became less skittish as well, showing they were clearly more accustomed to having people around than the flocks and herds up in the wild crags.

Most sheep either ignored us or got out of our way. This one was quite curoius and interested in us.

What with the weather, my fall, and getting off trail at one point, it was not the best of our walking days. Fortunately, we ended up at the best B&B so far. It was in an old farm which had been recently converted into a B&B. Our room was in the old cowshed, although you would never have known. Everything was clean and well renovated, with under-floor heating which was very nice on our feet after a day of walking in the cold rain. Since there’s nothing else around, the B&B also serves dinner, which was one of the best meals we’d had all trip. Dinner was a pea and mint soup followed by roast lamb with mint gravy, new potatoes, and vegetables. For dessert I got a meringue with berries and whipped cream. We had called ahead to reserve our dinner and let them know about E.’s dietary issues, so they had a special dessert for her of berry and kiwi sorbet. Everything was local, fresh, and excellent.  As we ate, we watched a Mr. and Mrs. pheasant pecking away underneath the bird feeder in the back yard– no idea whether they were tame, wild, frequent guests, or what, but they put on a good show for us.

The wall: Vindolanda – June 20

July 8, 2011

Today we did not walk on the wall. At Once Brewed, we are halfway through our trip, so we designated this day as a rest day. That does not mean that we didn’t walk, though: near Once Brewed is the site of Vindolanda, a fort that was not on the line of the wall itself but nevertheless made up a part of the the network of Roman military installations on the frontier.

We had a change in the weather today. After a couple days of generally gray skies and scattered sprinkles, the weather today was sunny and dry with the sky full of white cotton-ball clouds. We had a pleasant hour’s walk from our B&B to the site. On an ordinary trip, I might have thought that was much too far, but after walking multi-hour days for several days in a row, we thought nothing of it.

Looking back at the crags where we walked yesterday. They don't look so high from here

The Vindolanda site is still being actively excavated, but the portions that have already been studied are open as part of a site museum. Finds are displayed in small galleries nearby. The fort was built on the western slope of a river valley in the fold between two lines of crags.

Along the road to the site, looking down into the valley where the fort was built

Looking over the site

The slope of the land allowed running water to be channeled both through the fort and through the vicus, the civilian village that grew up outside the fort walls.

A model with the fort on the right and the vicus on the left

Civilian houses in the vicus

A buthcer's shop with drain channels running through the floor

Among the most important finds from Vindolanda have been the wooden writing tablets. Thin slats of wood were used in the Roman world as writing surfaces for everyday documents, but these very rarely survive. The chemistry of the Vindolanda site, however, preserved a large cache of these documents, which has given us a valuable insight into daily life on the frontier. The documents include personnel reports from the fort, a letter from a merchant complaining about bad treatment by soldiers, a letter from a soldier to his brother about an investment in land, the record of food to be prepared for a feast, an invitation to the commander’s wife’s birthday party, and so on. Most of these letters are in the keeping of the British Museum, but the Vindolanda Museum has a handful on display.

The fort's granary. The floor was elevated to stop damp from coming up out of the ground and spoiling the grain. The Vindolanda tablets suggest that Celtic-style beer was the most popular drink in the fort, quite possibly made on site or in the vicus with the fort's grain

We spent much of the morning walking around the site, then wandered over to the museum. Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed in the museum; otherwise we could have gotten pictures of a lot of interesting finds.

The road through the vicus, leading back uphill away from the fort

After enjoying the site and museum, we started back again. By the exit to the site there was a little cafe selling locally-made ice cream. On such a warm, sunny day we thought ice cream sounded good. I got heather honey flavor and E. got double ginger. Both were delicious.

We had dinner in the local pub again and spent the evening relaxing. Tomorrow we get walking again.

Chollerford to Once Brewed – June 19

July 4, 2011

Today’s walk: 12 miles / 19 km in 7 hours

Today was a long day of walking and not always pleasant. Even though the distance was about the same as we had walked on previous days, we got into the crag county and started having to climb up and down a lot. The skies were gray and moody, but despite a few serious showers it was mostly dry. This was also, however, some of the most beautiful scenery of the whole walk, so be warned that there are a lot of pictures below.

Looking out from the height of one of the crags onto the scenery several hundred feet below

Our host showed us where to pick up the wall trail pretty much just out her back door and we made an early start of it. Very early on we passed the so-called “Limestone Corner.” It was used as a quarry by the Romans for building the wall, but the stone isn’t actually limestone. This is the northernmost point on the wall frontier, where the line of the wall turns a slight corner. For many centuries, though interrupted by occasional campaigns into Scotland, this was the northernmost point in the Roman empire.

Limestone Corner. You can still see the remains of quarrying here

A little farther along we came to the site of Brocolitia / Carrawburgh, one of the fort on the wall line. The site was excavated in the nineteenth century, but most of it has been recovered with earth and there’s not much to see on the surface. The one interesting visible feature is the Mithraeum.

Guarding the entrance to the fenced-off Mithraeum... "Ewe shall not pass!"

Mithraea were gathering places for worshipers in the cult of Mithras, a Persian-inspired mystery religion which was popular among soldiers in the late Roman empire. The Mithraeum here is a small stone building just outside the walls of the fort. The original altars that stood here have been removed to museums, but replicas stand in their place giving some sense of what the space would have looked like for worshipers.

The Brocolitia Mithraeum. The space is not large and, as a mystery cult, Mithraic activities had to be carried on behind closed doors, so we have to imagine either that the local cult wasn't too big or that ceremonies involved a lot of body odor and elbows in ribs

Many people had left coins or flowers picked from the field on top of the central altar. It is interesting to see the interaction that people still have with something so distant from us in time and culture.

A seam where two sections of wall about but do not meet up perfectly. Things like these help us understand the construction process: this is probably a join between sections of wall worked on by two separate crews of legionaries (who didn't communicate terribly well with each other)

We continued on through fields for a while yet, but we could see the crags ahead of us in the distance. The road at last diverged from the line of the wall and we began to see much more visible traces of the archaeology.

You can see the remains of Hadrian's wall in the background, consolidated with turf on top. Modern field wall in the foreground follows the line of the Roman wall, reusing a lot of Roman wall stone

The country here is quite wild. A lot of the ground is cleared for pasturage, but the farms are scattered few and far between.

Broomlee Lough, seen from the crags

We began to find well-preserved traces of milecastles and turrets. The wall was laid out with small forts every mile, known somewhat over-grandly as milecastles, with turrets interspersed between them. A milecastle provided lodging for maybe a couple of dozen soldiers as well as a gateway through the wall. The regular provision of crossing points on the wall is one feature which leads us to believe that the wall was not intended to block movement but rather to manage and supervise it.

A well-preserved milescatle foundation on the wall. You can see the north and south gates and some of the internal rooms: sleeping quarters for the soldiers stationed here, storerooms, kitchen, possibly stables

Turrets housed a handful of soldiers for surveillance and signaling along the wall, but did not offer a crossing point.

Foundations of a turret, little more than a watchtower and probably none too comfortable for the soldiers stationed there

The next major piece of archaeology we came to along the wall is Vercovicium / Housesteads, another wall fort. The forts were spread out along the wall and housed substantial numbers of troops, enough to march out and confront serious attacks on the border if needed. The fort is well preserved here and would have been an interesting place to stop and explore, but we were already tired from walking, the weather was windy and wet, and we didn’t feel like paying the admission price. All we wanted was to use the bathrooms, which were, happily, free. We did walk around the fort and get a good look at it, though, before continuing on.

A close-up view in which you can see how regular the facing stones of the wall were (the interior was mixed rubble) and how neatly they were laid in courses. Say what you will about the Romans, they knew their masonry

We passed a lot of other walkers today, much more than in previous days, including some large groups of at least fifty or sixty. It’s not that surprising, I suppose, given that it was a weekend and this is one of the most scenic stretches of the trail, but it still always came as a surprise to crest the top of a lonely crag and run into a group of two dozen people hiking in the opposite direction. One group of kids stopped and borrowed our map to discover they had missed the side-trail they meant to take.

Me at Milecastle 37

And E., too.

Late in the day we rolled into the little hamlet of Once Brewed. The village consists of, as far as I can tell: a pub, a youth hostel, a bed and breakfast (where we stayed) and two or three scattered farms. Wall walkers and other tourists would seem to be the main component of the local economy.

The bustling metropolis of Once Brewed

Our lodging was quite comfortable and we were happy to arrive and shrug off our packs. We had dinner at the local pub, then came back to flop down on the bed and put our feet up.

The one complaint I could make about our lodging is the bed. The mattress was distinctly peaked in the middle, sloping away to either side, so it was hard to get comfortable. At around 4 in the morning I woke up when I slid right off and landed on the floor. Somehow I had the presence of mind to grumble: “Well, good morning to you, too!” before climbing up and getting back to sleep.

The wall: East Wallhouses to Chollerford – June 18

July 2, 2011

Today’s walk 9 miles / 14 km in 4 hours

After a couple of days of sun and clouds with occasional sprinkles, the weather turned seriously rainy on us. Not a downpour, but a steady enough drizzle that we didn’t stop to take many pictures today.

After a bit of delay, our host drove us back to East Wallhouses in the morning to resume our walk. Although it was rainy, we were walking through nice countryside and all day along the wall line. We stopped into a pub at Portgate to use the restrooms and get out of the rain for a few minutes before continuing on.

Poppies and buttercups in a field

For much of our walk today, although there were no visible wall remains (the wall is still under the main road), the earthworks associated with the wall were clear to see on the ground. A ditch was excavated just north of the wall along most of its length, known reasonably enough as the north ditch. South of the wall, a bit farther away, a ditch and mound known collectively as the vallum marked out the southern edge of the frontier construction of which the wall itself was the northern edge.

The remains of the vallum

We walked through lots of sheep and cattle pastures today. For the most part the livestock were grazing in the distance and left us alone, but at one point we had to get over a stile that was surrounded by grazing calves. The calves gathered curiously around us as we passed, watching and sniffing at us. After we had gone over the stile, several of them came and stuck their head over, looking like they wanted to climb over and come with us.

Unfortunately, this also meant we were walking through lots of places where sheep and cattle had been and had left their marks. Now, many of the sites along the wall have names that refer to the wall or its structures: Wallhouses, Housesteads (“house” meaning the forts and other structures on the wall line), Chesters, Great Chesters, Halton Chesters, Rudchester (“chester” from Latin castrum “fortress”). After walking through some of today’s fields, we began referring to “Poophouses” and “Shitchesters.”

Our day’s walk ended at Chesters fort, one of the Roman forts along the line of the wall. We had a pick-up arranged with our evening accommodation for 4 o’clock and we arrived at the site at about half past two, so we had some time to visit the site and its small museum.

Looking back from Chesters. The wall comes down to the river where there would have originally been a bridge

Though small, the museum was crammed full of interesting artifacts including a wide variety of inscribed stones.

An altar dedicated to Coventina, apparently a local water goddess whose worship was adopted by the soldiers stationed here

The rain was finally starting to break up by that point, so we spent a while in the museum first to get out of the last sprinkles. Then we wandered over the site where building foundations and lower walls have been excavated. The bathhouse is particularly well preserved here.

The remains of the Chesters bathhouse

The bathhouse is reached by one gate and a line of steps set into the hillside. As we were ready to leave the bathhouse site, a large group of high school students started streaming in through the gate and down the steps. We patiently waited at the bottom of the steps for them to come through. When most of the group had passed, one of the guys noticed us waiting and waved those around him to make room for us, saying: “Make some room, real people coming.” It was an unexpected honor to have been dubbed “real people” by a teenager.

A hypocausted room-- the floor tiles are raised to allow heated air to circulate underneath, warming the room. Probably a private bath suite for the fort commander

Our host for the night picked us up and delivered us to the accommodations, a working farm which also caters to walkers as a bed and breakfast and tenting site. We had a comfortable room where we both enjoyed a bath to refresh us from the rigors of the day. There is no place to get dinner within walking distance, but it seems the owner of our B&B has an arrangement with another establishment nearby. We were picked up and driven to another B&B which also offers dinner, where we both ate very well. I had lamb and E. had salmon. Afterwards we were driven back to our accommodation– by, it turned out, the chef who had just cooked our dinner! We took the occasion to give well-earned compliments.