Footslog to freedom along Hadrian’s Wall
I know this is a blog about walls—
But here’s a post about walking, instead. There’s a connection between the two. I promise.
For five days in early October my pal Lynn and I footslogged along the Hadrian’s Wall path in northern England, following the archeological remains of the Roman Empire’s greatest ever structure. Across some 56 miles we wandered from point to point, over hill and dale, through sleet and sunshine, sheep and cows, following what remains of this ancient wonder.
While Lynn and I didn’t complete the whole of the path, we tackled a sizable chunk of its 73-mile length, logging more steps than either of us had ever traveled in a single journey.
Situated in the pastoral borderlands dividing modern day Scotland and England, Hadrian’s Wall once marked the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire. A tumbled down version of its once awe-inspiring self, the physical structure no longer dominates the landscape. The wall instead melds with it, helping to define pasture lands and the natural boundaries between geological features.
It was into this liminal space, between past and present, that Lynn and I walked together, adapting our pace to the terrain and the weather, both of which changed constantly.
There’s something about walking where others have gone before which avails one to both imagination and deep contemplation.
A history fangirl, I was in my element there on Hadrian’s Wall path, walking alongside the ghosts of so many Romans, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and Jacobites, picturing the ways their lives might intersect with my own.
Every so often, fantasy would take hold delivering me on dragon-back to King Arthur’s mythical court and the icy outpost depicted in George R.R. Martin’s Hadrian’s Wall inspired Game of Thrones.
Awed and humbled by my surroundings, my walking also brought attention to the ground beneath my feet and the skies overhead and how they give and take, making human life possible.
Before making that trek, I’d never really given much thought to the act of walking. I’m not talking about walking from the parking lot to the grocery store or around the block with the dog. I mean walking a great distance to reach a faraway destination.
There’s a certain agency that comes from putting one foot in front of the other for hours at a time. In reasonable health, a person could walk anywhere. And people do—across borders and deserts and wind-swept plains wearing shoes a hell of a lot less comfy than my cushy Hoka boots.
Living in modern America where property boundaries are clearly marked and legally maintained, wandering for miles on foot is hard to do, if not actively discouraged. Not so in Scotland and parts of England where the “Right to Roam” exists as formalized law, and stiles and gates offering public passage through private lands abound.
It took Lynn and I a solid day before we were able to accept the idea—backed up by our map—that it really was okay to climb over the stiles and/or pass through the gates that dotted Hadrian’s Wall path
I’m not sure what it says about my bipedal conditioning that of all the freedoms, I, as an American hold dear, the right to roam freely didn’t come more naturally along Hadrian’s Wall Path.
Clearly, I have some more walking to do.
In the interim, I leave you with this 19th century quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, excerpted from his little known but wonderful travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in Cevennes, available for free online here.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for.”
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