Wonderwall

With the first real snow of winter comes that age old need to be out in it; making the best of the atmospheric high pressure that has brought us this gift of dry cold air and clear blue skies. The stretch of Hadrian’s Wall nearest our home is a short drive away at a junction off the B6318 (Military Road) where we pick up the official long distance path.

There is something particularly poignant about a winter visit to the wall. Snowfall adds emphasis to the remains and its setting in the rolling highland landscape. The Roman army built their definitive frontier structure in the course of just three years two millennia back, and though breeched and bereft it remained pretty much intact for centuries until 1746. It was then that another professional army deconstructed large swathes of it, in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in order to build a military road linking the garrison towns of Carlisle and Newcastle.

The path at this point skirts a wood and square legs it around some rectangular mounds in a field, the remains of one of the wall’s many milecastles. The narrow pathway is stiff and frozen, yet there are eruptions of soft black soil cast up by moles. How do they manage it in such conditions? After crossing a farm access lane the views open up as we gradually ascend. Here ‘thin’ wall (8 Roman feet wide) meets ‘fat’ (10 feet) conjoined at a turret, indicating a change of plan by the engineers of AD 122, perhaps driven by cost saving or construction deadlines. A couple we pass on the other side joke that the wall is proving ideal these days for enforcing social distancing.

The low line of masonry vanishes again before attaining the summit. We pass a graceful hawthorn, unusually symmetrical, branches stark black against snow. The high bank along which the military road runs at this point is a reminder of just how much of the wall lies buried as foundation beneath its metalled skin. Local Georgian landowners too took advantage of the structure’s small blocks of dressed stone to build simple but elegant farmhouses that still grace the land hereabouts.

A trig point defines the heights and snow lies deep over uneven tricky ground. Continuing the line of the vallum (defensive ditch) here proved impossible even for the mighty Roman army, the hard dolerite rock being too hard to break down, so they gave up after 60 yards or so. This distinctive abutment, with its stone spoil, is the most northerly point on their 73 miles of coast-to-coast frontier.

Stop to take in the wide prospect before us. The broad valley’s fertile farmland features ploughed fields and permanent pasture, hedges, woods and blocks of conifer. These estate landscapes gradually give way to rough grazing and upland fells ending with the far blue prospect of the Cheviot range and Scottish border. Meanwhile, just below, a kestrel hovers then swoops, putting me in mind of the legion’s imperial eagles that once oversaw all activity on these ridged and rugged highlands. We leave content; returning downhill as the afternoon’s lengthening shadows add enriched tones to a mottled canvas of sharp and shaded whites.

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