Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Wall

In 2007, my friend Mike and I spent two weeks in Great Britain. Our trip started in London for a few days and then took us all the way to Inverness in the north of Scotland before heading home out of Glasgow. On our way up north we passed Newcastle upon Tyne. Just before we reached that city we passed a marker or sign or something mentioning Hadrian's Wall, the barrier built by the Romans to keep the tribes that occupied Scotland at that time out of the territory conquered by Rome. Or at least I remember us passing something commemorating the Wall. I could be wrong. But for sure we drove by where it used to be.

On that day in '07 I didn't give a whole lot of thought to what remained of Hadrian's Wall today or even if there was anything at all left to see. In fact, I didn't give much thought to anything about the Wall at all. I figured it was fairly straightforward, just a stone fence to keep the hated Picts or whatever other tribes there were at that time away from Rome. So that day we kept going and left the Wall behind, intent on discovering other things like trying to spot the Loch Ness monster (I'm serious).

But over the past couple of years I've given the Wall a whole lot more thought and yes, a lot of it likely has to do with sitting in front of the television on ten nights a year watching HBO's Game of Thrones. So considering I found myself in the north of England earlier this month, I decided I'd take a trip to the former edge of the Roman Empire to see what remained and what I could learn. Turns out there's a lot. More by far, in fact, that I could plausibly visit in an extended day trip. So I ended up with just a taste but that little bite was more than satisfying.

But before we get to that, a little history.

In AD 43, the Romans landed in Britain with the intent to conquer and make it part of their Empire. It was not the first time Romans had set foot in Britain. Julius Caesar had explored the island about 100 years prior and his successor as emperor, Augustus, had planned three separate but aborted invasions between 34 and 25 BC. But in AD 43, they meant business and like most of the military campaigns planned by the Romans to that point in history, they were pretty successful. About four decades later (yep, you read that right and yes, it does seem like a long time) they had won battles and taken control in about every corner of the land.

But conquering territory in present day Scotland proved to be a lot easier for the Romans than holding it. The tribes living there didn't seem to want to live under Roman rule and continued to make trouble for the invaders. So eventually the emperor Domitian (who ruled AD 81 to AD 96) tired of all the effort required to keep the Scots (they weren't called the Scots at that time) in line and decided to build a wall across the country near the present England-Scotland border to keep them out of Roman territory.

If that wall had worked, I would probably have spent a day earlier this month at Domitian's Wall. But it didn't. Nor did the second wall he built a little bit further south. Nor, for that matter, did the one built even further south by the emperor Trajan, who succeeded Domitian's successor Nerva and ruled from AD 98 to AD 117. Then in AD 122, Trajan's successor Hadrian visited present day northern England to take a look at all these walls the Romans had spent time building and decided, ultimately, that a fourth wall would do the trick. And he was right. This one would be there until the Romans got out of town some 300 or so years later, pulled out of Britain to defend the edges of their Empire in other locations. Other locations without walls as it turned out.

Standing on Hadrian's Wall at Housesteads Roman Fort looking east.
When completed, Hadrian's wall stretched all the way across Britain from just south of Newcastle in the east to just north of Carlisle in the west. In all, it ran about 84 miles and was built by the Roman legions sent to the remotest corner of the Empire in about six years. It was not just an unmanned wall because obviously that wouldn't keep too many people north of it; eventually they'd find a way over. To prevent that sort of thing, the Wall was constructed with a milecastle every (yep, you guessed it...) mile which held 32 men. Between the milecastles were two equally spaced turrets or observation posts each of which could accommodate ten men.

The soldiers who staffed the Wall were garrisoned in a series of forts, 15 or 16 depending on the source you are looking at, which housed anywhere from 500 to 1,000 men. Our destination earlier this month was two of these forts close to the village of Hexham in the county of Northumberland: Chesters Roman Fort and Housesteads Roman Fort. We thought visiting these two sites might get us a feel for what it was like being at the Wall some 1800 plus years ago. I think we got that and we actually got something different out of each site despite the forts being essentially the same in design. 

The standard Roman fort design at Hadrian's Wall consisted of a walled enclosure with an approximately 2:3 proportion in plan. Each fort was designed around a headquarters building which occupied the center spot in the fort layout or about 1/9 of the total area in plan. To one side of the headquarters building was the commanding officer's house, consuming about the same amount of space as the headquarters building (if not more). The remaining ground within the perimeter wall was allocated to the barracks, stables and storage buildings for food. So doing the math here, there is about six times more space dedicated to housing the 499 to 999 men than there was to the commanding officer of each fort. So being in charge back then was good; not being in charge was not so good. Ain't that always the case?

The remains of the headquarters building at Chesters Roman Fort.
Despite originating with the same sort of footprint and being virtually exactly the same size, the experience in visiting Chesters is very different than visiting Housesteads. Chesters is situated by the banks of the North Tyne River in a sheltered plain. The fort was discovered on the estate of John Clayton and excavated by Mr. Clayton between 1843 and 1890. The Fort is only partially exposed and mostly consists of just a series of foundations. The exception to this is the bathhouse a little bit outside the Fort, which has walls remaining to about a five or six foot height. You can see the remains of an underfloor heating system in the commander's house and the waste drain in the one area of the barracks that is excavated.

The majority of the buildings at Chesters remain underground for some reason which puzzled us. I mean, you know they are down there, why not invest a little cash and start uncovering them? The Wall is also not very prominent at this site; there's a little piece of it to the east and west but you don't get a good picture of the thing stretching for miles and miles and miles. Overall you get the idea of a pleasant-ish life at this Fort. You can imagine livestock grazing on the rolling moors nearby, the site is protected from wind and there's a good water source right outside the walls. I'm sure my 21st century view of this pretty countryside site has this all wrong but today that's the image it presented to me. I'm pretty sure life here was harsh and tough, and the holes in the Wall to allow the North Tyne to flow freely can't have helped with the defense of the barrier.

We spent an hour at Chesters, which might have been a little rushed but there was a pint or three of beer (Hadrian Border Brewery Secret Kingdom as it turned out) calling my name at the Newcastle train station. You can definitely get a sense of the size and scope of the Fort in that amount of time especially if you pair it with some education at one of the other forts along the wall which we did that day. Two hours will likely give you time for a relaxed and more thorough exploration of the site.

Hadrian's Wall at Chesters Roman Fort looking down to the North Tyne.
Before we visited Chesters, we stopped for a couple of hours (probably the right amount of time but you could easily stretch it to three) at Housesteads Roman Fort just a couple of miles to the west. If I could imagine (again, probably incorrectly) life at Chesters being a tad idyllic, there's no way I could get that impression from a trip to Housesteads.

Housesteads is perched on the top of a ridge of a hill with pretty much about nothing on either side. It is dramatically sited; you can see for miles to the north, south, east and west. When you first arrive at Housesteads, the view of the Fort is screened from the Visitor's Center. But as soon as you clear the trees to the north of the admission point, the vista is incredible. The perimeter of the Fort is completely excavated and you can see the true size of the place and it's honestly huge. The value of the site as a stronghold location is obvious but it is also completely exposed to Mother Nature. 

If I needed any help imagining what life was like waiting to defend the Wall against a series of marauding and lawless tribes, a cloudy 52 degree June day with a wind whipping over the peak of the ridge did me just right. I can't remember being so cold and battered by the wind on any day in my life as I was this past June 1 at Hadrian's Wall. It was June, for crying out loud. It's supposed to be hot or at least warm. I was only outside for about 90 minutes or so; I shudder to think how cold I would have been stationed on the Wall as a lookout for the Romans wearing flimsy leather armor and some sandals.

But the view alone was worth it. There is absolutely nothing there to see except what the Romans made and the English Countryside. It's spectacular but it also makes you wonder if it was all worth it. I mean, there's nobody around now; how many people were there living around there 1900 years or so ago? I can imagine centurions stationed at the Fort looking into the distance shivering week after week struggling to find any reason for being there. It's a wonder they didn't all revolt. But then again, what else was there for them to do?

Our initial view of Housesteads. This picture can't do the scene justice. The Fort is in the center of photo.
One of the best parts of travel for me is the sensation of actually being there rather than just reading something in a book. Housesteads and to a lesser extent, Chesters, like being in Africa watching wild elephants or in Iceland walking on a glacier or any number of other things I've done in the last couple of years, proved this to me again. There is nothing I could have read that would have shown me anything like the few hours we spent at these forts. For sure, this was worth making the trip. In some sense, I think I'd rather have had good weather but the cold and the wind helped reinforce the wildness of these sites. I'll take that experience over the gorgeous photographs I could have captured on a warm sunny spring day.

Our day at Hadrian's Wall was a long one. One of the things I love about traveling in Europe is that pretty much everywhere is accessible using public transportation (or public transport if you are in England). We were determined to do the Wall that way, and not just because we didn't have a car, but it is probably worth throwing out a caution here. If you are in Newcastle already, I think that you will probably love using the train and bus to discover Hadrian's Wall. But from other spots in the country you are in for a long day for two reasons: (1) there are a lot of transfers involved and transfers mean waiting and (2) the bus that takes you to some of the Wall sites, the AD122 bus, runs once an hour except at lunchtime when it doesn't even run that regularly.

We started and ended our trip that day from Yorkshire just a couple of hours south of Newcastle. Our journey involved catching a train out of Wakefield just after 8 am; transferring in Leeds; missing a connection in Newcastle; catching a train 30 minutes or so later to Hexham; hopping on the AD122 bus to the two forts; then doing the whole thing again backwards at the end of the day. All told, we traveled, including car rides to and from the train station at Wakefield and waits at every stop, for about 15 hours. Not saying it wasn't worth it because it absolutely was. Just it's a long day.

The granary at Housesteads with the uninhabited English countryside beyond.
If there's something we missed that day, it was a trip to Milecastle 37 just to the west of Housesteads. We didn't know about it before we got there but I wish I had. It would have been worth the walk up the remains of the Wall to see how big one of these manned posts would have been. We probably would have rushed to fit it in but I think we could have made it. I would encourage anyone making this trip to take some extra time to make it to this spot.

I love historical travel; I try to make it a part of any trip whenever I can and I got a ton out of the few hours we spent at these two forts. I will never think of Hadrian's Wall the same way again. I'm sure if I made some additional stops along the length of the Wall my appreciation would grow even more. I realize I just scratched the surface here but there's only so much time to travel unfortunately.

History and experiencing things in person are all well and good but the best part of this trip for me was that I was able to bring my dad with me. When I went away to college I stopped going on family vacations. Whether it was a matter of scheduling or availability or money or just preferring to hang out with friends, I haven't really traveled with my mom or dad much in the last 30 years. But the point of this trip to England was for the whole family to reconnect with those that are still in our homeland so it provided me with this opportunity.

I was a little surprised a couple of months ago to learn that Hadrian's Wall was a place my dad had always wanted to go but I was even more surprised I was able to talk him into coming with. But I'm so glad I did. I think we both got the history and a new appreciation for a little corner of the world so close to where our family is from. But more than that it was just great to spend an amazing day with one of the two people most responsible for showing me the value of travel. Thanks, dad, for going with. Where are we off to next? :)

Me and my dad at Housesteads; the first photo of this post is of us at Chesters. He looks cold. I look happy. He's faking. I'm not.
The beer that was calling to me in Newcastle. Good stuff!

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