Chollerford to Once Brewed – June 19

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.

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