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Hiking Hadrian’s Wall with the Spirits of the Centurions

John Robinson
John Robinson

Eighteen-year-old Philip drives us to Cawfields, where we plan to begin our hike. We spent last night at his family’s 300-year-old stone farmhouse, and we listened to the rain and wind as we lay in our cozy beds. Linda, Philip’s mom, fortified us well with the traditional Full English breakfast. Strapping Philip grips the steering wheel, gazes skyward and implores, “Are you sure you’re wanting to do this? I can carry you to the rail station just as easy.”

A few minutes later we’re standing in the rain waving farewell to the smoky Austin as it rounds the bend and out of sight, leaving us to really soak in –yes of course pun intended- our surroundings.   We knew that the November rains in north England come with certainty, so we had planned accordingly. Our hooded rain coats will keep the wetness at bay for a while anyway. And actually, there are indications that the weather will change for the better. In the high wind thick clouds are scudding and we catch glimpses of patches of blue sky now and then.

Our plan is to hike this eight-mile section of Hadrian’s Wall, a section purported to be the most spectacularly situated and well-preserved of the 2000-year-old Roman wall. As usual, instructions are vague, especially the part about the cross-country walk which will be necessary to get from the wall at Houseteads to the tiny rail platform at Bardon’s Mill in time for the once-daily –at this of time of year- train to Carlisle. I hurry to catch up with my brother Kit and my niece Clare, as I drop my damp camera back into its plastic bag.

The ancient wall through here is majestically situated. It lies roughly east-west, curving back and forth to follow the highest points and natural rock cliffs and outcroppings. To the North lies the Scottish border across the rolling Northumberland Moors. To the south stretches plains laced with stone walls, populated with sheep and cattle. The stiff wind is blowing from the West, and we’re headed east, thankfully, so the rain pelts our backs most of the time.

The wild weather conditions heighten the sublime feel of the experience. There is not another soul for miles, and my mind starts to wander. . . .What was it like for those Roman soldiers, the Centurions, to be stationed here along this wall, quartered in small stone guardhouses, or “milecastles” which are positioned at every Roman mile along the wall? I think I can hear the voices of the Centurions in the wind as it wails around the hood of my jacket. And they’re in Latin.

The sun is straining to shine through the clouds from the south. The rain is still blowing diagonally, but the sky is noticeably brighter. With her ever-bright smile and an outstretched hand Clare directs our gazes to the North, where a rainbow stretches perfectly from east to west. Whoa…”magical, unreal”, we stammer.

Experts aren’t completely certain why the Romans built the wall. Begun in 122 AD, Emporer Hadrian’s creation was a huge engineering marvel. Was it to definitely mark the northern boundary of the empire? Was it to control the movement of people, or to keep the Scottish heathens at bay?

Whatever the case, it was manned for almost 300 years before the collapse of the Roman empire, quite an astounding amount of time when you think about it. And it was built in relatively wild country. Coal had been mined in the area since the Bronze Age, but otherwise it was barren sheep grazing land.  I’m sure the diet of those Roman soldiers was bland at best and entertainment was whatever they could muster.

Housesteads Fort and the settlement of Vindolanda were in the vicinity of the eastern half of the wall. Perhaps there were women at these places, and better food than their rations when on duty at the milecastles. However, real civilization, such as Londinium, with all of its delights, was a long way off – a fortnight’s march, maybe half that by horseback. And Rome?  The Centurions manning the wall might be lucky to get to that great city at all in their lifetime. To sit in the Coluseum or stroll the Forum was a very distant dream for most if not all.

It’s time now for us to veer away from the wall and find the train platform at Bardon’s Mill. We ask a sweet lady walking on a windswept lane for directions and she vaguely points, saying, “You’ll have to follow your noses a bit, I’m sure.” So that we do, wading through the mud of cow fields and squeezing through hedge rows and climbing over yet more stonework. We stumble onto the rail platform with 14 minutes to spare, just enough time to wipe off most of the mud on our pants. As we board the two-carriage train to Carlisle as the voices of the Centurions whispering in my ears fade.

But in the weeks that follow, the Latin which I learned in High School randomly surfaces in my thoughts, and I know it’s a connection across the millennia to those centurions standing on Hadrian’s wall, braced to the wind, gazing to the north.

We were blessed to walk in their steps.

By John Robinson
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