Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday Voice: Walk of Hadrian's Wall—Part 1

[click to enlarge]
Thirteen years later

By James T. Carney

I first saw Hadrian's Wall in 1996 when I drove around England with some friends on an eleven-day trip. Driving north from York, we saw the old forts at Chesters and Housesteads before turning south to Penrith. I felt greatly disappointed as we left the Wall without further exploration and vowed to come back. The next summer my older boy, Jim, and I made an abortive effort to walk the length of the Wall but on the third day of the trip, just as we started to get to the most interesting part of the Wall (which really only exists in the middle portion of the 80-Roman-mile length), his feet gave out. He then told me that he had been having foot problems all summer—something which I would have preferred to know earlier. So our trip ended in disarray. Like McArthur, I vowed to return. Thirteen years later, in September 2010, I did. Along with my good friend Rich Gainar—from the old U.S. Steel Pension Fund days—we walked the length of the Wall from Browness on the Solway to Wallsend outside of Newcastle.

What is the fascination of the Wall and the idea of walking its whole length? Well, the Wall itself is an engineering masterpiece, and the biggest remnant of Roman building left in the world. It is in some ways almost a mystical symbol—like Machu Picchu or the Great Pyramids—of an almost magical world which is no longer with us. Another aspect of the Wall walk is the varied countryside through which one travels. The Solway firth is a beautiful area; the walk along the River Eden is wonderful, the crossing on Willford bridge has its delights. Then there are the almost indescribable crags in the middle section where one goes up and down like a roller coaster. Finally, there is the walk along the River Tyne (where the walk deviates from the Wall Course).
    Another aspect of the Wall and the walk is the centuries of history involved. Pittsburgh (and Western Pennsylvania) are from a historical standpoint significant from 1754 when George Washington made his first visit through the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s war, which ended effectively with the Battle of Bushy Run in 1763. Hadrian’s Wall and the area saw not only the Roman times, but the medieval period, the Scots English Wars of Edward I and William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the border fights with the Reivers, the Bishops’ Wars and the English Civil War and the 1645 last shot by the Stuarts (and the Highland clans) under Bonnie Prince Charlie to seize the English throne. The part of the walk along the Tyne shows the remnants of England’s industrialization in the last part of the nineteenth century.
    Why the walk of the entire distance of the Wall, given the fact that the Wall can only be seen in the middle third of the walk? Why not just make a couple of day trips covering the most striking sections of the walk where the Wall is still in place? There are two answers to this. One is just the sense of accomplishment in having done something complete. The other is that that there are interesting things to be seen at every point along the walk. In any event, to walk the entire length of the Wall was my intent in both 1997 and this year, and Rich and I accomplished our goal.

We flew from Pittsburgh to JFK and then on to Manchester. The flights were uneventful but we did not get much sleep because we left JFK early in the evening and the flight was only six hours. We got a train from Manchester to Carlisle and got there a little after noon. (Jim and I had flown into London and taken the train to Carlisle which took a lot longer.) While Jim and I did not start until the next day, Rich and I took the afternoon bus to Browness on the Solway which is the end of the Wall. We walked 7.5 miles that afternoon (level and on the road to a place call Burgh on the Sands where we found a bus to take us back to Carlisle)—several miles longer than I thought we might and we started to run ahead of schedule. This part of the path is along a very level road with interesting views of the Solway Firth (fiord) and birds but no remnants of the Wall except some stones that were incorporated into a couple of old buildings.
    On Friday, we started out again by taking the bus out to Burgh on the Sands and finishing the rest of the trip back to Carlisle, going on a path from Burgh on the Sands along the river Eden. Fortunately, things have been dry and we did not get our feet wet the way Jim and I did the year we went when it had been the rainiest summer in history. We stopped off and saw the Tullie Museum, which had a Roman display but was closed, except that it had a lot of material about the history or Carlisle including the notorious Reivers who were basically a bunch of outlaws who lived in the disputed lands (between England and Scotland) north of Carlisle. According to a poster in the Carliste Citadel Museum, “bereaved” is actually “bereivered,” which meant a woman whose husband was knocked off by the Reivers. If I told you one of the Reiver families was named Nixon, you would get the understanding of what they were like. There was a panel in the museum containing a full page of a Bishop’s curses on the Reivers. There was a short film about them.
    After leaving the museum we started hiking out of Carlisle, planning to take a bus back. Although we were going along the same path that Jim and I took the second day of our hiking trip, we managed to get lost and took a good hour to find our way back to a small town called Crosby on the Eden, where we found the bus line and also a nice little pub which fed us some good food (although I was not eating very much and drinking less). We probably walked about 11 miles that day. We took the bus back to Carlisle that evening which was Friday.

I had a lot of physical ailments starting on Saturday, when I had constant diarrhea (there on no toilets on the trail but I did have some toilet paper with me because I was concerned about my intestinal system.) I had three attacks on the trail and was suffering throughout our entire ten-mile hike, not just from jock itch developed the day before but something which was akin to diaper rash. In addition, the first place I took to dump a load had some mean bushes to which I was allergic and my leg and my hand spent the day tingling with allergic reaction. I still have a mark on one thumb. Along with all of this, I developed a blister about two inches in diameter on the side of my right foot. Saturday was not my best day on the hike.
    Saturday we did not trace Jim’s and my route in the early morning because we were following the Hadrian’s Wall path—which was much more convoluted than the route Jim and I took, which followed the exact course of the wall. However, we got to Walton where Jim and I stayed and ate at the Centurion Inn, which was on the site of one of the mile castles on the Wall. (The Wall had small outposts every mile manned by 25 soldiers; between the mile castles were two turrets manned by five soldiers.) Most towns along the Wall begin with Wal (the second “l” being dropped). Unhappily, I discovered that the Centurion Inn had ceased to be a pub since Jim and I were there and had become a luncheon place and wasn’t open on Saturday. So we went lunchless. We headed out of Walton (as Jim and I had done some 13 years earlier) and saw the first trace of the Wall where part of it had been uncovered 30 years ago but had been deliberately covered over not long thereafter because the weather was destroying the sandstone. This is an interesting part of the trip for those who were in better physical shape than I was. We then went on to Landercost Priory which Jim and I had visited also.
    The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, which meant that a beautiful building went to ruin. The ceilings and some of the wall have fallen in. I pity the poor monks and nuns (in the convents which were dissolved at the same time) who were forced out onto the street all so that the nobility could get richer and Henry VIII could get rid of Catherine of Aragon—a good woman—whom he should have beheaded—a trick he used on two of his subsequent wives. Beheading in my experience is considerably less expensive than divorce. However, the Bar Association has requested that I do not recommend this approach to my clients. Sheer union drivel.
    The priory church had been kept in use and was preserved including part of the Landercost cross, which had been erected at the direction of Innocent III in honor of his friends Philip of France, John of England, and William of Scotland. Of course, it had been sacked by the bold Scot raiders led by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce who sacked and destroyed everything they found. The English have a dim view of the Scottish heroes. Of course, the English probably tried to do the same in Scotland but found poor pickings. The best sight in Scotland, Jamie Boswell said, was the high road to England. Anyway, after all the magnificence of royalty and papacy, there is engraved a simple message on the top of the stone: “Here lies one who died at age 2 years in 1667.”

Next time: A string of minor disasters
Copyright © 2013 by James T. Carney

Please comment


  1. "Nixon"? As in Richard M. Nixon? But didn't another U.S. president or two descend from the Reivers?

    1. I checked the Wikipedia article linked to from the article (from the word "Reivers"); the one American president mentioned besides Nixon is Lyndon B. Johnson. And another descendant has set foot on the Moon...Here's the complete paragraph:

      Border surnames can also be found throughout the major areas of Scots-Irish settlement in the United States, and particularly in the Appalachian region. The historian David Hackett Fischer (1989) has shown in detail how English border culture became rooted in parts of the United States. Author George MacDonald Fraser wryly observed or imagined Border traits and names among controversial people in modern American history; Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, among others. It is also noted that, in 1969, a descendant of the Borderers, Neil Armstrong, was the first person to set foot on the moon. In the following year, Mr. Armstrong visited the town of Langholm, home of his ancestors.

  2. Sounds like you discovered stinging nettles. It is the reason kathy and i gave up shorts when walking the English country side.

  3. Jim, thank you for another excellent read, with a wonderful mix of humor and history. Of course, the more I learn about the English-Scottish aspects of my ancestry, I am even more happy to claim only the more distant Norman-Viking roots.

    A question about the photo of the wall that accompanies your article: Is that grassy path running along the left side of the wall the actual trail?

    1. Motomynd, I heard from Jim today and he asked me to convey to you that, yes, "The picture shows the path as the grassy area on the left of the Wall."