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.