Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Walking The Wall

Last week I walked a 40 mile section of Hadrian's Wall path, starting in the east, on the outskirts of Newcastle, and climbing up to the escarpment of the whin sill where the Wall clings to its tippy edges through the Northumberland National Park. We finally left a rain-sluiced wall at Birdoswald Fort not far from Brampton in Cumbria.

I had glimpsed a tiny section of the wall only once before, and knew little of the World Heritage Site or what to expect. It's not the first time I've written about following a wall on foot, and many of the same fascinations surfaced for me - its fluidity as it snakes across crag-filled landscape; the antique patina of wear and lichen on the stone; the personal legacies of graffiti or other markers left by the builders. However the great age and endurance of the Roman one inevitably raised an even greater sense of marvel at the builders' skills, audacity, and an intrigue with what the Wall has witnessed.
I remember when I was at art college in the 80s and writing a dissertation linked to Land Art that I came across the startling image above - Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 'Running Fence' in California. They described their aim for their art, as to present a different way of looking at landscapes that have become familiar to the general populace, as well as to make the world look more beautiful. It seemed to me as I walked, and as the line of the Wall drew the eye - clinging, curling, cornering, bucking along its scarp like a line of piping on clothing, that at one level Hadrian's Wall provided a stunning visual and aesthetic experience. I hadn't realised that it had originally been plastered and painted white. At fifteen feet in height with regular 'milecastles' and interspaced turrets, journeying at least in its mid sections through high land visible from a great distance on each side, the visual impact must have been enormous. Might people have actually travelled to see it? Of course it was also a massive statement of power, a geopolitical icon with a military function.

As a contemporary walk, the opportunity for absorption in the Roman theme is considerable as the days' march between each major fort gives you the chance to visit Chesters and Housesteads Forts, as well as other less 'museumified' remnants of Roman civilisation. Here I found my imagination rebuilding entire impressive facades from remnants of gates and buildings. I was fascinated by the sophisticated ways of moving water for need and pleasure - for the bath houses, and particularly the technology associated with toilets. Stones moulded to butt up against wooden doors; the circular depression in a flagstone where a door pin would rotate; the contrariness of blundering yet exact placement of stones for function, and its regularity against nature. This engineering reminded me greatly of my explorations of the Mozarabic trails in south-eastern Spain, and made me think I had perhaps under-appreciated the legacy of the Roman precedent to the Arab engineering wonders there.

As you walk, there is a steady drip drip of information which starts one dreaming, questioning, speculating about the life along the Wall from then until now. Walking from the east provided an easy, flattish, start for the first day, but the Wall was a phantom. The lumps and bumps of the defensive earthworks either side had to suffice. The 'Military Road' (B6318) sizzling with Bank Holiday traffic on the first day felt too close a companion. A lazy path follows a road I thought. But had to adjust my thinking. General Wade's 18th century road was built on the Wall and is still in use. Its retaining wall often bears the hallmark of regular cut whinstone, clearly one and the same with Hadrian's masterpiece (see above). The path therefore had to follow the road, at least until the rise up to Sewingsheilds Crag. From there, road and Wall separate, and there is a considerable stretch of well-preserved masonry right up until Walltown quarry, perhaps for the very reason that access for locals to remove and 'recycle' stone for houses, churches etc was less easy.

Some other links of interest to the Wall: A community creative writing project called 'Writing on the Wall' ran between 2001-6 and was inspired by the 2000 year old Vindolanda Tablets, discovered at a Roman fort just south of the Wall. (They're the earliest written texts in Britain, now held in the British Museum. Fascinating reflections of everyday life including a request for more beer, and for underpants!) I've also just discovered that Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie are currently walking it for a series of their shows on BBC Radio 2. Thursday's will include poet Simon Armitage so worth a listen I would think. And finally Durham University have been involved in an interesting research project, 'Tales of the Frontier', exploring the significance of the Wall and its landscape as both monument and icon from the time of Bede (C8) until today.

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