Walls Between Us

Hadrian’s Wall: a defensive fortification built by the Romans in AD 122 in the reign of Emperor Hadrian.  Coast to coast, it runs for 73 miles from the banks of the River Tynenear the North Sea (a little east of Newcastle) to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea (a little west of Carlisle).  Back then, it marked the northern limit of the Roman Empire, above which lay the lands of the Ancient Britons, including the Picts.  I’ve read various theories as to why he built it. One is that he’d received divine instruction to keep the empire ‘intact’.  Another (which surely amounts to the same thing) was to separate the Romans from the Barbarians.  A third says it’s a manifestation of Hadrian’s policy of defence before expansion.  1,900 years on and still all of these reasons sound familiar.

‘Fancy walking some of Hadrian’s Wall?’  S. asked me a few months back.  ‘Absolutely,’  I told him, striking what I thought was an abstract agreement.  But S. doesn’t do abstract, he follows through, so last Saturday morning, there we were: boiled eggs and backpacks, sun-cream and sandwiches, ready to clock up the miles.  Large sections of the wall remain intact, albeit it altered, lower.  Some parts have tumbled, some have been torn down, quarried by the industrious Victorians, pulled apart by practical farmers building sheep pens.  In the main, though, nature has been the most effective breaker’s yard, slowly growing in, over, and through this ancient wall to gradually dismantle it.

At times we could see nobody ahead or behind, just cows and sheep, crows cawing, crickets stridulating in the long grass.  But when we did meet other wall-walkers, each bid the other good day, many stopping to chat. For, these days, the wall doesn’t hold people apart – it pulls them together from all over the world.  Three generations of one family sat on the wall like starlings on a telegraph line at night.  S. was given a phone, asked to take their wall picnic portrait.  We passed eight septuagenarian Geordies, taking it slowly with walking poles.  One of them saved my packed lunch, doing up all the zips on my rucksack from where my lunchbox was about to spill.  Father and son – Dubliners – were walking end to end.  More than halfway now, they’d come through some bad weather and were glad of the weekend sun.  I ran after a man from Scotland who’d propped his stick under a tree when he stopped for a rest, then forgot it.  Fell runners passed, raising an arm in greeting, not slowing their pace. Clutches of teenagers, backpacks almost as big as themselves, strapped with tents and camping stoves, passed by, accumulating some brand of outdoor pursuit award.  It was always clear, if unlikely, who the leader was; once it was a small blonde girl, swinging high ponytail, commanding three ungainly boys twice her height: ‘We could be there in twenty minutes, but if you keep up this straggling pace it’ll be two hours – come on now, we can do it.’ (And that’s why she’ll be the CEO!)

It was day two, the terrain undulating and challenging, when I met the lovely American with dancing eyes.  ‘At the top those steps,’he told me (I looked ahead to hundreds of them), ‘you reach soft, rolling fields, great walking terrain.’  When I got there I found further hills, steeper climbs, and hundreds more steps: a bald lie, but perhaps well meant.  There was the unperturbed shepherd, handsome as a modern day Lady Chatterley’s Lover but friendlier, who, when we wandered into his sheep-filled yard, set us back on the right path.  Sunday morning, three women and a dog sitting on a quiet, rocky outcrop, to which they had carried flowers.  Quietly we looped around them, mindful of some small, private memorial going on.  We even met a man dressed as a Roman soldier, complete with replica centurion helmet (looked uncomfortable) aiming to walk it all within 48 hours in aid of the brain injury charity, Headway.  The closest we got to consternation was group with a drone sitting by the cliffs over Crag Lough, while rock climbers below scaled a frighteningly sheer face.  The climbers shouted up that the buzz of the done was distracting, asked could they move the drone away.  They did.

This wall will never be mended.  Indeed, English Heritage have a job on their hands to keep what is left intact, for, as poet Robert Frost said, ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’.  In other words, nature will bring down every wall, eventually.  Frost sees walls as useful for livestock, but not much else.  Never have I agreed more as I passed a massive bull by Hadrian’s Wall; it’s size made me tremble and break from a fast stride to a trot.  But other than holding back the bull, this wall does not divide.  We lay, sat, and picnicked on it.  We walked upon it, jumped upon it, and hauled strangers up onto it.  We whispered new stories into it, told old stories alongside it, and brought stories home from it.  I will return to Hadrian’s (so-much-more-than-a) Wall.


Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Whydo they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

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