Destinations

Wonder Wall

Walking in the footsteps of legionaries at the world-renowned Roman sites of Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall
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The leather sandal is extraordinarily well preserved and was once clearly soft, comfy, beautiful and very expensive. Even 2,000 years on, there’s no mistaking designer footwear, especially as there’s a still-readable stamp in the insole – a maker’s mark that is the Roman equivalent of Gucci showing that the shoe was imported from Europe. A lady to my right shakes her head. It’s unbelievable,” she says.It’s like it was only taken off a second ago.”

It is a sensation you need to get used to. We are in the museum at Vindolanda, the Roman fort and settlement close to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. This marks the starting point of a 7.4-mile looping walk designed to reveal the area’s phenomenal Roman remains, as well as the wide expanses of remote beauty. But the first challenge is how you drag yourself away from the display cases.

Inside are some of the staggeringly intimate objects unearthed here over the decades of archaeological excavations, from items like coins, baby shoes, exquisite Samian-ware pottery, drinking vessels, marble altars, even a wig, to the more military traces of what was a Wild West frontier of a place at the very edge of the Roman world: swords, spears, breastplates, the skull of a decapitated native once stuck on a spike as a warning to other troublesome tribesmen.

Among these many archaeological riches, the most famous are the hundreds of thin slivers of wood covered in ink handwriting, the Vindolanda Tablets. These incredible first-person documents, letters and accounts are an unparalleled window into the lives of the people who called this outpost home, and the oldest handwritten documents ever found in Britain. Party invites, children’s exercises, kit lists, petitions for leave from soldiers, requests for beer, letters moaning about the state of the roads – they feel remarkably familiar things. In fact, standing in front of their scrawled handwriting, the voices and personalities they contain leap into life: A friend sent me 50 oysters from Cordonovi,” says one. So I’m sending you half…” 

These tablets are still being unearthed along with many other important finds, thanks to the particular preservative quality of the peaty soil in this area and the fact that the Romans built nine complete forts and towns on the same spot over the centuries, each compressing and sealing the layers below, including whatever lost or discarded items they contained.

The uncovering of these layers has been more than a life’s work for one family. Eric Birley began excavating here in 1929 and as we leave the dark, quiet of the museum, we hear the chink of steel on stone from where archaeologists continue to work under the leadership of Eric’s grandson and the figurehead for the Vindolanda Trust, Dr Andrew Birley.

You’ve got to imagine the mix of people that would be right here,” he tells me, gesturing over the stone remains of a bathhouse, temple, tavern and workshops with a trowel. Soldiers, their families, veterans, freemen, slaves, merchants from Germany to Belgium, to North Africa. There were Dalmatian infantry, even Syrian archers stationed here. It was a bustling and hugely diverse military society.” But it’s fair to say that Vindolanda was never exactly a glamorous posting. This was a far-flung frontier originally founded with the purpose of controlling the important cross-Britain road running from its east coast to west coast – known by its medieval name Stanegate – and an attempt to exert dominance over the local and frequently hostile and rebellious tribes. 

Skirmishes and reprisals were frequent and bloody and eventually led to emperor Hadrian’s construction of his six-metre high wall in 122 AD to keep the barbarians at bay and his empire intact. Within six years it spanned 70 miles across Britain, from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne, slung with forts, watchtowers and garrisons of soldiers. In Roman minds at least, this was the very edge of the civilised world. Beyond lay chaos.

After more time wandering the fascinating footprints of Vindolanda’s buildings  with Dr Birley, we strike off to reach Hadrian’s Wall itself, still visible as a pale-grey line of stone hugging  the high line of hill a mile to the north. Pacing west
along the old, arrow-straight course of Stanegate, we turn right and up to cross the present road (B6318), stopping for an early lunch at the wonderfully named hamlet of Twice Brewed, ducking into its inn for hearty roast beef
and gravy sandwiches.

A sample or two of some twice-brewed local beers later, we feel duly fortified to tackle the short climb up to the wall. Flower meadows and sheep pasture give way to heathery tussocks, and then we are immediately upon it: a wide, solid, stone ribbon, its blocks still bearing the chisel marks of Roman masons, as it dips and rolls with the land from sea to sea.

As soon as you look along its winding course, you understand why this enormous structure was built at this point. As well as safeguarding the vital road now behind and below us, the hills clearly form a natural border. Whin Sill stretches across the moor like a tidal wave, running across the very shoulders of northern England.

Upon its completion in 128 AD, this giant boundary must have seemed an insurmountable barrier to anyone on the wrong side, almost alien in its dimensions, uniformity and precision.

Today, it might not feel quite so forbidding, but it is no less evocative. Walking beside the wall, brushing it with your fingers, you can’t help but feel the presence of the past and the many soldiers that must have walked exactly where you do. Over its tufted, grassy top, to the north, the landscape rolls away like it is a different world, even under a bright sun and a cobalt-blue afternoon sky. Then, after passing the square remains of a milecastle – one of the many little forts positioned every Roman mile along the wall – we chance upon a more modern slice of history. Dropping almost vertically down, Hadrian’s Wall hits a little gully or ‘gap’ before rising straight up again on the other side. At the bottom, an old tree rises from next to the stones almost filling the space with its dense canopy. This is Sycamore Gap, the dramatic and iconic setting for the violent encounter between Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood and Guy of Gisburn in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Under the shade offered by the tree’s branches we drink from water bottles before a group of school kids enter into the tranquil scene, excitedly scaling the wall, shrieking like marauding barbarians.

The rewards of walking this section of the Hadrian’s Wall are not only historical; the views are jaw-dropping as the path rises and runs along the high escarpment leading to Housesteads, another Roman fort and museum situated to the east of Vindolanda and under the ownership of English Heritage. As we climb onto the cliffs above Crag Lough, we look down over the pool’s surface and watch its resident brown trout break the stillness as they rise for flies. Then it’s headlong through a pinewood filled with the chatter of birdsong. By the time we reach Housesteads, shadows are starting to lengthen. We are victims of our own gawping and have no time to venture inside. So, after slapping the wall goodbye, we cut around the site to begin the leg back to Vindolanda, downhill, away from the great perimeter and back towards civilisation, and Rome.

Crossing over the modern road again we pass through fields that bubble with the calls of curlews. A female rises from her nest in the high grass and circles above us, passing close enough that we can make out its iconic long, down-curved beak. Butterflies cling to stems; the landscape buzzes with life. We rejoin Stanegate and head west along leafy lanes back towards the start when, opposite the front gate of a farm, a sign proclaims that we are beside a Roman milestone.

This column of sandstone has lost its writing over the years – which presumably gave the distances to the nearest major Roman settlements like Corbridge or Hexham – and it leans a little too, but this is now the only milestone left standing in its original position in Britain. Once these stones would have been along all this country’s Roman roads. Walking around it, tracing its surface with my fingers, I wonder how many children of Vindolanda would have done the same as me over the hundreds of years this site was occupied – perhaps too those Syrian archers and thousands of  infantrymen from every far-flung corner of the empire.

The market town of Hexham is only a fifteen-minute drive from Vindolanda and the nearest place to stay. After picking up the car, we are soon winding our way through its picturesque streets as evening light begins to honey its sandstone facades. Our hotel – the handsome, smart fronted Best Western Beaumont Hotel – is easily the best-positioned place to down bags. Our room faces pretty, tree-lined grounds and, if I poke my head out of the window, I can see the fine abbey they belong to, which dates back to 674 AD, sitting at the end of the road.

After checking the daily menu and promising myself the local sea trout, I take a quick stroll down to have a nose around before dinner. It seems wherever you are in this region – even the rarefied atmosphere of Hexham Abbey – you’re never far away from Hadrian’s iconic structure. The Saxon crypt inside this exquisite building was built using Roman stone lifted from the wall, but it’s a striking Roman tombstone for a 25-year-old standard-bearer named Flavinus by the abbey’s night stairs that draws my attention. Carved in sandstone and once brightly painted, it depicts the young soldier riding a horse over a cowering, defeated barbarian – a native Briton – with the Roman squarely kicking his backside as he passes. It smacks of pride; the soldier must have put money aside to afford a headstone that told a story of his own bravery as well as asserting the everlasting dominance of Rome. And just like when standing in front of Vindolanda’s designer sandals, handwritten tablets, nit combs and finest pottery, the two 2,000  years between then and now vanishes in a heartbeat.  The magic of places such as these is precisely that: they can make the distant past seem very close indeed.


Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall circular walk – 7.4 miles

Directions

1. From the Vindolanda car park, head west along the Stanegate road for exactly one mile and then, at the T-junction, turn right.

2. Stay on the track as it climbs and dips up towards the Military Road of the B6318. Just before they join, turn left and cut through the Twice Brewed car park and cut through to the Twice Brewed Inn.

3. After a quick drink detour, head back along the road and then turn left opposite the road that leads up from Vindolanda.

4. Follow the footpath that lead up behind an old bothy, now a National Trust cottage for hire and join Hadrian’s Wall and the Hadrian’s Way long-distance footpath, heading east, as it cuts up sharply onto Peel Crags.

5. Follow the wall and path all the way along as it dips and rises, past Sycamore Gap, which proved a seminal location in the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Price of Thieves, before rising above the calm water of Crag Lough.

6. Carry straight on at the junction, rising again onto the high crags.*

7. Keep following the Hadrian’s Way path until you reach the Roman fort of Housesteads, which is another fantastic visitor attraction belonging to English Heritage.

8. Either stop for a visit or cut through to join the footpath forking right and down to the B6318 again.

9. When the path meets the road, cross over and turn left, taking the next footpath on your right heading down past the farm of East Crinkledykes on your right.

10. Where the footpath meets the Stanegate road, turn right and head back along the road towards Vindolanda.

11. At Codley Gate Farm, look out for the Roman milestone, Britain’s last remaining milestone still sited in its upright position, where it was placed nearly 2,000 years ago. Then stay following the Stanegate road west, skirting the top edge of Vindolanda to reach the car park and the start of the walk.

* For a shorter route (4.8 miles) turn right at the junction (6) and follow the stony track down along a drystone wall to join the B6318. Cross over, turn right and walk along the verge until you reach a footpath sign on your left pointing diagonally through a farm field. Follow it past a farm, over a stile and down through fields to link up again with the Stanegate road opposite Codley Gate Farm, at the site of the old Roman milestone. Then skip straight to 11.

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