We arrive in Bardon Mill in the afternoon. Bardon Mill is a little village with a shop, inn and a pottery. The Once Brewed Youth Hostel is essentially due North. We have to cross a big road and then follow little roads until we find the food path. The path follows the side of a valley through woods. After a short while we come across the remains of Barcombe Colliery.
The path leaves the woods and followed some field tracks until it reaches a road. Across the valley we can see the Roman Fort Vindolanda. We follow the road past the fort and take another track through the fields. It is quite funny how you get to cross the fields: the path is marked by a stile or gate at either end of the field, the path has to be imagined between both end points. We reach the Military Road which is so obviously Roman - it is very straight. We get our first glimpse of Hadrian's Wall snaking along the top of the Whin Sill and are treated to the iconic view of Sycamore Gap.
After a 6km walk we arrive at the Youth Hostel. Felix is starving and the kitchen is closed. Which turns out to be fortunate as we are forced to go to the Twice Brewed Inn which serves nice food (scampi for Felix and sausages for myself) and the very excellent Once Brewed Bitter.
We get up at 7:30, fried breakfast at 8 and leave the Youth Hostel at 8:30. The breakfast is excellent and exactly what is needed at the beginning of a long walk. We follow the road North to Peel Crags and started walking along the Wall towards the East. The sky is overcast and cold wind blows from the North East.
We see the remains of a turret and climb steeply onto the crags. The scenery is amazing. The Wall sits on top of the Whin Sill and follows the topography. The remains of the wall are about 1m high or so. At the next dip we see our first milecastle. A sight that soon becomes familiar, with foundations of the wall, gates into the castle and through the wall and the foundations for the barrack blocks.
More up and downs along spectacular scenery. We pass Sycamore Gap and climb up to Highshield Crags with views over Crag Lough. The crags are well impressive. Jackdaws soar in the wind next to us. Down, up and along again (partly on top of the wall) to Housesteads, Vercovicium Roman Fort. Our Historic Scotland pass gets us into the wee museum and the fort.
The fort itself is very impressive. It sits on top of the Sill with great views. Particularly impressive are the foundations of the granary which included post like in a hypocaust used for ventilating the wares. We spend a good hour checking out the museum and fort before moving on. We have our packed lunch (provided by the Youth Hostel) in a relatively sheltered wood, although it is still quite cold and wet. Onwards, we leave the sill and the landscape becomes less dramatic, although the earthworks of the vallum become very obvious. On the way we admire the various aspects of wild life.
We pass the Mithraeum at Brocolitia Roman Fort. Onwards to Chesters, Cilurnum Roman Fort The weather turns out to be very nice, which adds to the more gentle setting. The military bath outside the walls of the fort by the banks of the North Tyne is very impressive. The wall crossed the river as a bridge. On the far side some of the abutments can be seen. Unfortunately, we could not check them out in detail.
There is a small museum housing the Clayton Collection. Again the Historic Scotland pass gets us into the fort and museum.
Tired we wait for the AD122 bus to take us back to the Youth Hostel. Steak pies at the Twice Brewed Inn. According to the tracker on the phone we walked 23.7km.
Up at 7:30 again, fried breakfast at 8 and up to the wall at 8:30. The forecast didn't look too promising but it turns out to be dry but very windy. For most of the day we walk into strong westerly wind. Up and down again. We soon reach the highest point of Hadrian's Wall at 345m on Whinshields Crags. One would have thought it is only downhill from the high point - not so: the up and downs from the previous day are repeated.
Again, we hardly meet anyone on the walk until about 11 when it starts to become relatively busy. We get some impressive views over the crags.
On a field with horses we come to the next Roman Fort at Great Chesters (Aesica) sporting the familiar layout. Interestingly, one of the gates was clearly bricked up. The site also features an original altar which is in use again and walkers sacrifice the odd copper. A curious world.
Onwards, we find a very pleasant and sheltered spot for our lunch leaning against the Wall on Walltown Crags. During the more recent past the crags were quarried for aggregate with little thought for antiquities. Once, we pass the car park at Walltown Quarry the scenery changes again and becomes more rural. We come past Thirlwall Castle built in the 12th century using dressed stones from the wall. The castle ruin is very romantically set on a small hill next to a farm.
We have to cross the railway. The path now goes through fields and in one instance through somebody's very well kept garden. In Gilsland we have to cross the railway again and find a somewhat neglected house with huge holes in the roof. Later, when I looked at the photo I noticed that the wall just passes along the ruined house.
We go onwards to Willowford where the wall crossed the River Irthing. I instantly recognised the place. I must have started walking along the wall in Gilsland sometime during the second half of the nineties. This time we can inspect the abutment of the bridge which is as impressive as I had remembered. The last time I was at Willowford we had to wade through the river. Since then they have installed the first bridge since the Roman bridge which we use in comfort.
We planned to go to Birdoswald Roman Fort but only go up the hill to milecastle 49. There was no obvious way of catching a bus back to the Youth Hostel other than walking back to Greenhead along the way we just had come. We have some time to kill before the bus so we walk to the Roman Army Museum. Unfortunately, we are too late to visit it. It turns out it is right next to the Walltown Quarry where we have to catch our bus back.
Tired but very happy we wait for 10min for the last bus which takes us back to the Youth Hostel. According to the phone we walked 24km. Trout for me and another steak pie for Felix at the Twice Brewed Inn.
The usual routine: up at 7:30, fried breakfast at 8. We leave the Youth Hostel at 8:30. We want to go to visit Vindolanda on the way back to Bardon Mill. The site only opens at 10 and is not that far away from the Youth Hostel. So we decide to do a minor detour over the Highshield Crags. The weather is dry and we get some very dramatic views again. We pass Sycamore Gap again. Once we reached the Eastern end of Crag Lough we turn South and walk across the fields and the Military Road to Vindolanda. We get there shortly after 10.
This time the Historic Scotland pass does not suffice. The site is very impressive. It is interesting to see a reconstructed stretch of the wall with turret. Also a dig is going on. Some other buildings including a nymphaeum were reconstructed. However, really interesting is the museum. The thing that really struck me was the mundane: the fine leather shoes which Rowan would undoubtedly like to wear, the fine dining set, tools and glassware.
Truly amazing are the wooden tablets showing Roman hand writing. Minutiae of garrison life, the number of troops present and absent and where the absentees where posted. And a birthday invitation, the earliest known female handwriting in the West. The Romans were not all that different from us. We have lunch at Vindolanda and walk back to Bardon Mill.
On the way back we pass the ruined winch house of Barcombe Colliery again. The colliery was still operational in the 50ies. It is interesting to see what half a century of neglect does to a building. It puts the Roman effort from 1.5 millennia ago into context.
Felix asked a very astute question: What happened to the Romans? The short answer is I guess we don't know exactly. But among the reasons for the collapse were probably, the Roman empire got too big to maintain, they ran out of places to conquer for new income, maintenance become too difficult, environmental degradation played a role, external pressures became too large. I think we should try very hard to understand what happened to the Romans and learn the lessons that can be found. I suspect the answers might well be very relevant today.
I still find it incredible how people can unlearn things and that it took another 1500 years or so until Roman living standards were reached again. Apart from musing about the Roman Empire we talked a lot about computer games (mostly) and other bits and bobs. It was very nice to be away from most of daily life.
We arrive in Bardon Mill to find that we just missed the two-hourly train to Carlisle. The sky is blue with fantastically fluffy clouds. We decide to catch the bus instead when the heavens suddenly open. We shelter in the village shop and have a nice chat with the owners. The very wet shower only lasts about 10min or so and we wait outside again when the bus arrives. Luck has it that the Edinburgh train is delayed and we manage to jump into it on the sound of the whistle.
We arrive home in good time.