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  • Julie Muller

HADRIAN 'S WALL (NE47 7AN) Ancient customs gate to Scotland

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

Well, once again we were on holiday, and our humans had chosen an Airbnb very close to the famous Hadrian’s Wall way up in Northumberland. Emperor Hadrian began building this wall in AD122 not as a defence against the Scots but more to mark the northernmost limits of the Roman Empire. Mind you, his successor Antonius Pius built another wall 100 miles even further North four years after Hadrian’s death.

Hadrian’s wall lies just inside the Northumberland National Park, and we were lucky enough to be staying close to a very special section of it which is protected as a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ because of its amazing geology.

The whole wall is 80 Roman miles long – that is 73 modern miles and at every mile, a mile castle was constructed. The nearest one to the cottage was the Poltross Burn mile castle- so called because of its proximity to the Poltross Burn, a tributary that tips into the River Irving at Gilsland. At this time of the year, the water was peat coloured and frothy as it tumbled over the stone slabs and cascaded to its junction with the river, itself fast-flowing and heavy with rainwater. The mile castle seemed such a tranquil place and it was great fun chasing Bruno around the thick stone foundations. However, this sense of peace was surprisingly deceptive - shattered regularly by the numerous Carlisle-bound locomotives that thundered past.

The section of the wall that is designated as a SSSI was only a short car journey away from where we were staying and could be reached from a car park called Steel Rigg. This car park was perched high on the hill above a road busy with traffic and offered breath-taking views of Whin Sill.

Our first attempt at viewing the wall was thwarted by threatening clouds, their bottom soggy with rain and with gusty cold winds that whipped at our fur coats and lashed our faces. The Whin Sill upon which the wall sits looked rather unfriendly and inhospitable.

However, the next day the weather, though still grey, was kinder to us and our humans led us from the car park towards the sheer vertical slab of hard rock that is Whin Sill. This incredible rock face was created 295 million years ago when molten rock pushed its way through softer sand and mudstones and solidified into hard dolerite - an excellent foundation upon which Hadrian could build his wall.

There were so many other humans about today and so it was important that we were kept on our leads, both for our own safety, and to be courteous to other wall-walkers especially as our trek took us up several sets of acute steep stone steps. Four paw drive was definitely an advantage over our two footed humans who were so much slower than us, and Bruno and I had to tug them up the steepest parts. We reached the top of Whin Sill and our humans stopped to admire far reaching views out over vast expanses of mire and peatbogs populated with sphagnum moss and grasses. To one side of us, there was a precipitous drop, the steep vertical surface of which had been carved by the movement of easterly flowing ice sheets, whilst the other side was much more gently sloping.

As we walked, Hadrian’s wall dipped down and climbed back up again as it followed the contours of the land. These contours have been produced as a result of erosion by huge volumes of water trapped beneath the vast ice sheets.

We seemed to climb up and down so many times and in some places the ascents and descents were so severe that it was hard for our humans to hold on to our leads especially Bruno’s. Surprisingly, our humans seemed to find walking down the slopes much harder than climbing them. In one of the gaps in the landscape we found a rather special sycamore tree made famous by its appearance in the movie ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.’ It was lunchtime when we reached it and many other family groups, and couples seemed to have arrived at the same time and proceeded to get out their various picnic lunches.

The sight of all of these other humans eating made us all very hungry and we decided to walk back to the car on the more gently sloping side of the sill, although we couldn’t avoid climbing down the last and steepest section. Several families waited patiently at the bottom for us to make our descent, their dayglo coated littlies, champing at the bit for their chance to scale the rock face.

This 6-mile section of Hadrian’s wall is owned by the National Trust, and it leads to Housesteads, which is the best-preserved Roman fort along the wall,

If our tummies had not been rumbling so much it would have been possible to reach it by paw, but our humans chose to drive there instead.

Having taken on refreshments, we climbed up another steep hill in search of the fort.

It was amazing to see so many thick walls and foundations rising out of the mist and marking the positions of so many buildings - granaries, hospitals, barracks, and communal toilets. Bruno and I dragged our humans to investigate channels that must have once contained the water used to flush the toilets. In those days moss on sticks served as toilet paper. Though privacy. was in short supply in these communal toilets, the men could at least enjoy a good chinwag whilst attending to their ablutions. Such a small price to pay for a loo with a view!!

In all, 800 soldiers were stationed here and these included men who had been pressed into service by the Romans when their own lands had been confiscated. They must have been a fearsome bunch – the Roman name for the Fort – Vercovicium means the place of the effective fighters!!

It is hard to imagine that such a lively and bustling community once occupied this wild and desolate place at the very limit of the Roman Empire.

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