Visit: 3rd October 2015
I went up to Cumbria for a family reunion earlier this month to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of my aunt and uncle, Heather and Ernest. It had been a memorable one because we all got snowed in to a local pub and nobody could get to the church, leaving the groom to drive around rescuing various guests in his tractor! I was only two at the time so don’t remember it, but I had a good time at the reunion barn dance talking to my fellow guests who did remember. Invites were extended to those who came to the original event, those who would have come but couldn’t due to weather and those who would have been invited had they been around but weren’t! That meant I brought Natalie and various younger cousins who hadn’t been born were able to come too. We stayed the weekend in a holiday cottage with my family near the village of Ravenstonedale, about a five hour drive north from Bristol. Naturally, checked the UNESCO map for nearby World Heritage Sites and saw that Hadrian’s Wall was only an hour or so further north.
My Dad was interested in seeing the wall too, as – despite being a Northerner – he had never been. I planned out a circular route of about 10km, starting in the Northumbrian hamlet of ‘Once Brewed’, walking along the wall and taking in two ruined Roman forts.
You will have noticed the name of this WHS is not ‘Hadrian’s Wall’, but ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’. Although it was originally inscribed on the list in 1987 as Hadrian’s Wall, the inscription was later revised to include the Antonine Wall in central Scotland and the Upper German-Raetian Limes (spanning the Rhineland, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria). Hadrian’s Wall is of course the most prominent and most significant of the three, but I’d be interested to visit the other two walls if I’m ever in the areas. Together they are testament to the Roman Empire at the height of its power and its subsequent entry into decline.
Hadrian’s Wall is 75 miles long and stretches (roughly) from Carlisle in the west to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the east. It was built under orders of the Emperor Hadrian in the mid first century as the Romans consolidated their hold on what they called Britannia. The wall was 6.5 metres high and 3 meters thick, with a ditch on its northern side. This made it a formidable barrier to the rebellious Picts, whom it was designed to keep at bay.
Every mile there was a milecastle – a small stockade in which a unit of men would be based. We walked past the remnants of several milecastles. It is notable how hilly the terrain is on which the wall was built – it must have kept the soldiers fit as they patrolled between milecastles.
Here you can just about make out a lake in the background, with some tomfoolery going on in the foreground. The wall at this point was atop a ridge line with a 50 metre drop, making it doubly impenetrable to outsiders.
Back in April Natalie and I visited Hadrian’s villa with Ross and his family. The difference between the refined luxury of Hadrian’s enormous estate outside of Rome and the bleak, rainy conditions his soldiers endured guarding his empire’s northern reaches make for quite a contrast.
As you can see from the photos, we didn’t get the best views of the wall thanks to the dense fog that sat over the whole region all day. In a way this made it more atmospheric, giving us an idea of what it might have been like to be a Roman soldier peering out into the murky unknown. There were ten thousand of them here, stationed all the way along the wall. According to UNESCO, the relevance of the site to the decline of the Roman Empire relates to these soldiers’ morale. Archaeological evidence from the area shows that many soldiers – contrary to the rules of the Roman Army – maintained families in Britannia. They were stationed there for years at a time, and so acquired wives and children. As the empire grew its forces were stretched more thinly, meaning troop movements became more frequent. The inability to take their families with them each time they were called to a new outpost harmed morale in the army, and deserting began to develop as a major problem, in turn making the empire’s borders less secure. From then on it was inevitable that the empire would start to lose control of territory.
Hopefully soon we can return to see a different part of the wall, such as the end nearer Newcastle – and hopefully in better weather. Hadrian’s Wall is not as grand as the Great Wall of China, but still impressive, and a lot closer to home – even if it did feel like an eternity on the M6!