From coast-to-coast beside Hadrian’s Wall
“Is that it? You’ll catch your death, pal.”
I could tell from his tone, farmer Blue Cheeks was no more impressed with my bivvy bag than I was with his clapped out tractor enveloping me in blue smoke.
“But I’ve a full kitchen,” I protested, pointing to a pannier stocked to the draw-string and a brew bubbling up on the stove.
Worried he had stopped to tear me off for bedding down on his land, I was ready with a spirited defence. Lying under a clump of poplars in a strip of scrub the width of a goal mouth, I was slotted between a white road and his fence. Common land surely, or at worst the highway department’s? No, he was just curious. He didn’t think people still bivouacked in England, least ways not in civvy street.
My little adventure appealed to the old colonel in him. I was riding the length of Hadrian’s Wall, from Solways Tyne to Firth, cycling along at the pace of a centurion on horseback. I had my bedroll with me and a clear idea of where I had to visit. I was governor Platorius Napos’s new recorder on a surprise visit to the North Britannia front, sketching facilities ancient and modern.
“Last night I slept beside the Wall,” I told Blue Cheeks, “on the Caledonian side. I was snug as a bug until a squad of Iranian auxiliaries charged over me and I awoke in a cold sweat.”
When I started out, it wasn’t so easy to imagine myself in the early one hundreds A.D., though I felt as unwelcomed in Newcastle as the Romans probably did. There were no signposts to an excellent cycleway heading my way and, in the heart of the city, there were No Entry signs that had maliciously been turned against me. This is an age old tactic against foreign insurgents, and one I should have been prepared for.
My objective was the Arbeia at South Shields, the most easterly point of the Wall. I saw it long before I arrived, sticking out like a hardboard Disney set plonked in an estate of terrace houses, each row a different generation of design, each street a Latin name. As replicas go, the west gate was pretty impressive, but the site was closed.
Kids on BMXs formed a peloton behind me as I cruised round the perimeter fence trying to make sense of the ground level ruins. “Watcha doin’, mista?” Tourism is evidently a rare thing in South Shields on a Sunday. I told them I was following Hadrian’s Wall. “Yeh? Adrian who?” They offered to take me on the Catherine Cookson Trail.
The broken foundations of the first fort north of the river at Wallsend were uninspiring by comparison with the slow Thai ballet performed overhead by the derricks of Swan Hunter’s shipyard. It was heartening that they still build ships on Tyneside, but the tinted glass boxes of the new service industries are quietly colonising the river’s edge. Already they look tawdry.
At Benwell, the remains of the Vallum crossing were a glimpse of the AD 120s huddled in a home owners enclave of council semis from the AD 1950s. Here the natives were better informed and a bloke with time to kill filled me in whether I needed filling in or not. He knew his history, but didn’t know where Mrs Thingy was from No. What’s-it. Apparently she held the key, so we could get into the compound and actually touch the stones.
I was having trouble getting into character. I had been pedalling on top of the Wall for 30 kilometres, its foundations the hardcore of the A186 climbing out of Newcastle. Aside from an abundance of Centurion Chip Shops and Hadrian’s Car Hires, there was nothing to suggest I was following the line of a great strategic defence system. Gradually the conurbation of Geordieland peeled away to reveal the broad reaches of lower Tyne Dale below me. It was surprising how high I had come.
Then, suddenly, cresting the hill before Haddon-on-the-Wall, there was a length of Hadrian’s masterpiece that actually looked like it might be a relic of the Great Wall of Britain. I touched the stones, walked up and down it, chatted to the dog-walkers and settled down to fix myself supper and rattle off a sketch. This was more like it.
Though modest by Emperor Shih Huang’s standard, Hadrian’s Wall was still a remarkable undertaking. 117 kilometres from coast to coast, 20 ft high, and 10 ft wide, the idea was to secure a firm line across the north western limits of the Roman Empire. On the barbarian’s side a deep ditch shadowed the Wall. On the home team’s side another, shepherded by high banks (the Vallum). Along the control zone between Wall and Vallum a military supply road ran the full length.
Previously the Stanegate had been Rome’s fallback position from forays into Caledonia. As governor Platorius Napos was keen to impress upon his Emperor, this east-west military road with its one stronghold was a poor defence against guerrilla attacks and cross-border raids. Striking out across the cracked rib of the B6318 that struggles up to the broad backbone of Britain, I began to sense that poor old Napos was fighting more than one enemy.
Not only were there the fearsome tribes of half naked Picts who came charging out of the mist, there was the terrain and the weather. Above me storm clouds brought daylight to an abrupt end, no twilight encore. From the north east, an unstinting wind froze the sweat my T-shirt dammed after a full afternoon of up hill slog. I was in an exposed trough sandwiched between the unbroken whalebacks of the Pennines to the south and the Chilterns to the north, both distinctly uninviting.
The North Britannia front must have been the posting from Hell. Contrary to popular belief, Hadrian’s Wall was built by Hadrian’s army, not by slaves, I suspect to keep minds and bodies busy. Creaking my lonely way along the dead straight line to Harrow Hill, I was beginning to get an idea of just how out on a limb they must have felt. It was time to drop down to the quartermasters stores at Corstopitum, to stock up on Mars bars and experience a little human contact.
After a wet night beside farmer Blue Cheeks’ track, I rode to the fort. It wasn’t due to open until mid-morning, so once again I found myself peering through a sturdy fence at sturdy stones wondering if I would ever get to see a wall higher than a kneecap. Nearby, in the charming medieval village of Corbridge, a milkman sold me a pinta then pointed to the peel tower housing Tourist Information. “That’s where y’stones went.” I rode up Dere Street to rejoin the military zone delighted that I had finally craned my neck to look up at a wall of Roman stones, albeit erected by 13th Century stonemasons.
Most people who travel the span of the Wall do so on foot. I can’t imagine why, since over 82 kilometres of a total 131 lie under tarmac that must be a loathsome plod. But from the roundabout on the A68 westwards, the saddle of a bicycle provides an ideal perch from which to appreciate this awesome feat of engineering. Riding high on the Wall, the Vallum clearly etched on my left, the ditch to my right, it didn’t require a great leap of the imagination to picture myself on patrol.
A hundred years into the first millennium, the landscape would have been more wooded , but both sides of the fortification the Romans cleared a swathe four kilometres wide for good sight lines. The moors slipped away into deep vales either side of me. More than a road, I was clearly riding a strategic line, uneffected by contours running north-south, totally dictated by those running east-west. Hadrian’s Wall must be one of the longest ridgeways in the country.
I wanted to give thanks to the gods. For a full five minutes I had the temple to Mithras at Carrawburgh to myself. Then the camcording hordes of Saga Tours descended and packed into the tight rectangle. Evidently the Romans were very small people. Checking out my Souvenir Guide to Hadrian’s Wall, it was also evident English Heritage have a way with the wide angle lens when photographing monuments.
The mithraeum is the start of the most dramatic section of the Wall, a 14 kilometre constant stream of motor tourists leapfrogging from car park to car park. Here the landscape becomes aggressively fractured, as if Jupiter dug the heel of his DMs in the earth and hacked up the rumpled carpet of Northumberland. At Housteads I caught up with the Saga crew again and joined them for a tour of the camp. More piles of stones forming cold rectangles that added nothing to the drama of my adventure.
Cyclists are unable to follow the Wall across the crags, so I dropped south to the Stanegate to visit Vindolanda. The lady at the ticket desk indulged my fantasy by letting me enter with my bike at the east gate and leave by the west, recommending that first I seek out the Roman milestone hidden in the dip before their entrance. This simple obelisk meant more to a saddle tramp like myself than all the ruined reliefs English Heritage keeps cementing back together. Besides, it was free.
Visitors to the Wall always approach it from the Roman’s side, so I sneaked through to the Pict’s side, to see the ramparts from the local’s point of view. I broke bread with a local farmer who plied me with home-made soup while rattling off a catalogue of complaints against invading tourists who swarm down from the crags, ignoring his ‘Private Land’ signs. He wasn’t impressed by my desire to promote a cyclist’s route that would spread the load on the honeypots.
In fact, he wished the Wall would go away. It seemed a tad tactless to mention it was here before him or that he should have bought a farm further to the west, where it all but disappears. Here he might have lived in a house built from stone cut by Roman masons. West of the River Irthing I began to notice churches, farms and pig sties that owed more than a little of their solidity to material scavenged from the Wall.
Brief sections of the defence were happily still visible in the occasional milecastle and a length beside the lane from Birdoswald. The continuum of the ridge I joined way back at Rudchester had petered out at Gilsland. Now I was diving off and climbing over high bluffs that channelled tributaries down to the river’s northern edge, fracturing field patterns and protecting broadleaved woods from rampaging ploughs. It was tough going, but the centurion in me felt a darn sight less exposed.
Entering Carlisle the fantasy imploded and the vulnerability we feel as cyclists in city traffic flooded back. Exploiting a shared-use pavement, I cut through fairly painlessly, stopping off at Tullie House museum to bone up on any bits of Roman trivia I might have missed along the way. By now I was immune to dressed stone, sculpted or otherwise, but the exhibit of a Firth fowler’s boat, armed with a bow canon, absorbed me. I was headed that way.
Aside from a short cut of the Vallum outside Warmby, there was nothing left to see of the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. If the Iranians thought it was grim patrolling the roof of Northumberland, North African auxiliaries must have viewed the quicksand marshes of the Solway Firth with equal despair. Winter swells undoubtably crashed against their position, and coastal fogs must have driven them crazy. The flock of barnacled geese I thought I saw through the pea soup might well have been a dawn raid launched from Galaway.
I ended my mission near Cardurnock, slumped against a WWII bunker where once there was a solitary Roman milecastle. A motorist stopped to ask directions to Hadrian’s Wall. I said she had been driving on top of it since leaving Carlisle and wasn’t it fabulous, but we both knew she meant the pile of stones featured in every kid’s history book thirty miles to the east.