Hadrian’s Wall Travel Diary

Hadrian’s Wall Travel Diary

September 24th, 2022 (day before departure)

To take or not to take, that is the question. 

Stretched out before me is more rain gear than I ever imagined owning. Add to that socks and thermal layers of all manner—and blister protection, in packages and tubes enough to defend the entire village of Once Brewed (a anticipated stop along the way).

Front and center is the brand new, bright blue nano-poncho I purchased online after two, head-spinning hours reading people’s comments for and against ponchos vs. rain suits. I tossed a coin and opted for the latter. Hope I won’t be sorry. 

Located at the tip of northern England, Hadrian’s Wall stretches across a chilly rain belt of epic proportions—and that’s in summer and fall. Come winter, the belt becomes the icy cummerbund that inspired the 700-foot zombie wall in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. A dusting of snow was reported this week further north, in the Scottish Highlands. Hoping that cold front doesn’t move south until after Lynn and I finish our “walk” on Oct. 1. 

In addition to rain, Lynn and I have wind to consider and also frost and maybe fog, too. As advised, I’ve packed us a whistle and flashlight in case we get lost or need rescuing. There’s some Advil buried beneath a guidebook and the Yellowstone flask (son) Jack gave me for liquid fortification.

Staring at the travel menagerie before me, I realize it’s actually happening: I’m finally going to experience Hadrian’s Wall Path.  Though Lynn and I won’t be covering its full 73-mile length, the tour operator who organized our self-guided walk—Carter & Co. — has promised that, feet willing, we’ll see 55-plus miles of the Wall’s most scenic-intact-historically important sections.

The first great boundary barrier of its kind, Hadrian’s Wall continues to stand out on the map of human history, which is why I want to see it. A second century construct willed into existence by a creative but controversial Roman emperor, Hadrian’s Wall gave the world a lasting blueprint for collective defense and ideological separation. 

I’ve got to think if wall builders had a holy grail, this would be it.

September 29th, 2022

“Tell me again why you wanted to do this?” This is Lynn, my faithful traveling companion, as we scramble up a rocky path scattershot with slippery sheep poop.

On our left, the wall I persuaded Lynn to travel thousands of miles to see, sits atop the edge of a windblown cliff like a deranged character in a gothic novel. To our right extend miles of shelter-less grazing land. Overhead, rain falls in sheets, that slap against our face like wet paper, adding to the treachery of the sheep droppings below.

Why indeed.

Lynn and I walking Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England.

I’ve wanted to visit Hadrian’s Wall in northern England ever since I discovered it in an Encyclopedia Brittanica as a grade schooler. The very idea of a wall built to block Barbarians was captivating—and curious. Who doesn’t want to learn about Barbarians? And what about this Roman emperor—the first ever to wear a beard—who pulled off a 73-mile (80-Roman mile) long wall on a swath of land thousands of miles north from where he lives. Just who did he think he was?

Decades later I am here to get answers and perspective.

Hadrian’s Wall is Europe’s largest surviving Roman monument. Yes, it blocked Barbarians (now fellow citizen Scots, etc.), but also smugglers and unwanted immigrants. 

One of the earliest and most significant defense structures ever built (122 AD), it is a mere shadow of its former self. Where Roman legions once stood thousands deep, sheep and cattle now dominate—hence the aforementioned poop.

To walk the path where a great wall once stood large and in charge—and to see it reduced to pastoral ruins—is humbling. Walls, like everything else, have their place in time until they don’t. 

October 2nd, 2022

Hadrian’s Wall, northern England

The 74-miles barrier system commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD is a tumbled down shadow of its former self. 

Spend enough time walking along its skeletal remains, you begin to grasp the monumental scale of the wall as it looked 2000 years ago. 

Hadrian’s Wall runs east to west along England’s north end. Built with two million tons of stone—cut and quarried by 15,000 Roman soldiers—the main curtain wall measured 15-feet high and 10-feet wide at its tallest-widest points. While mostly stone, the Romans also used mounded turf and timber for the barrier system, too.

More than a barrier, Hadrian’s Wall was a full blown military industrial complex. Ditches flanked the wall on both sides—the one to the north was narrow and deep while the one aft (called the Vallum) was wide and shallow and mounded with turf. Both ditches were trenched out by soldiers without the benefit of John Deere.

Throw in numerous forts, milecastles (small fortlets a mile apart), turrets, signal towers, and you have a fortified borderland to inspire generations of geopolitical wall building.

With armies come people. A village or Vicus (in Latin), would form outside this military “exclusionary” zone which might explain the Anglo-Saxon-Latin mutt hood some of us share (Oh those wandering Roman soldiers…).

Like the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall would not stand the test of time. A good portion of what I described above today lays buried beneath turf and roadway or was co-opted by nearby farm houses and field walls and curious wanderers like me.

October 10, 2022

No kidding borders are a human construct. 

National Museum of Scotland

Come to learn from a visit to the National Museum of Scotland that a continental collision 410 million years ago shoved modern day England and Scotland together. Never mind what the Romans, Picts, Saxonsm Vikings may have believed about their imperial-tribal boundaries, the two countries comprise one, violently formed land mass, no human however ambitious could ever tear asunder. 

The land don’t lie.

The two countries were separated once— Before plate tectonics did its work, the respective land areas known as England and Scotland were separated by a prehistoric sea, a body of water that would have drowned Hadrian’s border wall and Lynn and I with it! 

Apparently, the land mass on which these two countries rest is currently moving collectively northward toward the Arctic at a pace slightly slower than a fingernail grows. (For the record, Scotland’s northern most Shetland Islands are already closer to the Arctic circle than they are London). 

To quote Dr. James Hutton, the rockin’ Scottish naturalist from 18th century who invented the study of modern geology: “[It] is the little causes, long continued, which are considered as bringing about the greatest changes of the earth.”

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