On a frozen Cumbrian morning in December it’s entirely possible to be lost in the mists of time while also being lost in the mist. Here, skirting the modern-day border between England and Scotland, lies what remains of Hadrian’s Wall. This was the northern-most frontier of the Roman Empire, an isolated outpost on the fringe of the ‘civilised’ world. Running for 73 miles between the Irish Sea and the North Sea, the wall passes through spectacular and rugged north country landscapes. At least when you can see them.
The Emperor Hadrian came to power as Rome reached its greatest geographical size. In AD 117, Rome’s authority extended around the Mediterranean, from Portugal in the west of Europe to Germany in the east, and from the Red Sea through the Middle East to the Black Sea. The frontiers of the greatest empire the world had known snaked for thousands of kilometres, and were regularly besieged by barbarian hordes, or non-Romans as they were also known. Nowhere more so than in the north of Britannia.
Emperor Hadrian decided to build a wall to better control this troublesome region. It took six years to build and was in use for nearly 300 years. Despite much of the stone having been reused to build farms, houses and churches, there are sections of the wall that are in a remarkably good state of preservation. Defensive ditches and foundations of fortified towns can clearly be seen as well. It’s a monumental achievement, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t actually see most of it.
As I walked along the line of the wall just east of the Northern English town of Carlisle, the mist hung heavy in the valleys and obscured the hilltops. It wasn’t hard to imagine the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ that the Roman troops who built and garrisoned this region must have felt. I’d planned to spend the day visiting various sections of the wall and walking some of the best preserved segments, but the notoriously bad Cumbrian weather ensured that my plans wouldn’t exactly go to plan.
Arriving at the wall and milecastle in a place called Banks, the mist seemed to be lifting and the sun to be making an effort, albeit a fairly weak one, to make an appearance. I stopped to admire what little I could see of the valley below before heading to the extensive remains of Birdoswald Fort. I’d planned to visit but the mist obscured the entire site. Instead I decided I’d head further east, into Northumberland, and visit the Roman Army Museum. This was at least indoors, and I figured that the weather might have improved by the time I finished in the museum.
Although I grew up about fifty miles south of Hadrian’s Wall I’ve only visited parts of it a handful of times in my life. This then, was something of a voyage of discovery. The museum promised an award winning film detailing the history of the wall. The 3D Edge of Empire film was worth the entry fee alone, in twenty minutes the extraordinary lives of the Roman soldiers who were garrisoned along the wall were brought dramatically to life. The rest of the small museum was interesting, interactive and entertaining.
Outside in the real world, things had gone from bad to worse and the mist was now so thick that I could barely see more than a hundred metres in any direction. I’d intended to visit the former Roman town of Vindolanda, a few miles east of the museum, but it seemed pointless to even try in this weather. Instead, I visited a few smaller sections of the wall on my way back towards Carlisle, and made myself a promise to come back in better weather to walk the wall properly.