What Lies Beyond: Visiting Hadrian’s Wall

The drive is hypnotic. The long road meanders through the forest, curving gently beyond the line of sight into the trees. High cliffs covered in clinging trees slope down to meet the road, and I peer up through them, wondering what the view would be like from up there, high above. The trees are mostly eucalypts, and the burnished red and ghostly silver of their trunks throw streaks of colour through the shifting hues of green. The leaves of Australian trees are always deep, dull greens, not bottle-bright like English forests – and its fields of dull brown are nothing like the vibrant viridian of the rain-spattered British Isles’.

I love the Australian countryside, and I love the drives my boyfriend takes me on through the Royal National Park. I want to go hiking up in the Blue Mountains someday soon. But it’s also been over four years since I travelled and I’m missing my other heart’s-home. I grew up with stories from my grandmother of the English countryside, and was taught English folklore, and was read the likes of Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter by my mother. To this day my idiolect is smattered with English pronunciation and turns-of-phrase. Half-nodding off, I drift into a memory of my travels.

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Beyond the Wall

There is hypnotism in sharing the same experience as someone did thousands of years ago, and I felt this standing moonstruck atop a Roman wall and staring out over the gently undulating hills of Northumbria. There’s a magnetism, a connection to people you never had a hope of knowing, in a land unchanged for millennia. This I felt as I stood atop Hadrian’s Wall, imagining myself a Roman legionnaire stationed on this empty stretch of land, in what must have seemed a cold and hostile country so far removed from the warm Mediterranean.

George R.R. Martin, author of the book series that spawned Game of Thrones, took his inspiration for Westeros’ great ice Wall from a trip to Hadrian’s in 1981. In an interview for Rolling Stone, he echoes my sentiments as he explains: “I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling … It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me.”

It must have seemed like the end of the world. Up to the horizon there is nothing but meadowland – there are no signs of civilisation as far as the eye can see. The vastness makes one feel so small; even with my modern knowledge of the existence of the entirety of Scotland, I can’t help but feel uneasy. For a Roman, that land was unknown and unknowable. The wall kept the unfamiliar out and the known world in. To me, it felt like coming home.

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Looking back toward England

I visited in autumn. In the depths of winter, it must have seemed even more desolate. Would I too have felt so alienated, having never lived in a land that snows? I can’t be sure. Soli and Sanguinis pull different ways, and I’ll probably never be sure which one is the most magnetic. I probably would have felt just as at home. I hope.

The wall itself runs from Bowness-on-Solway in the west of England to Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east. Building began in 122CE and took six years to complete. 117 kilometres long, it marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, beyond which were the wildlands home to tribes the Romans considered ‘barbarians’. At each mile was a guarded gate, called a ‘milecastle’, and every 7⅓ mile was a fort set astride the wall.

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How the fort would have looked around 128CE

The stretch of Hadrian’s Wall I visited possessed a Roman fort, named Housesteads in the modern day but Vercovicium by the Romans. One of 15 forts along the wall, it is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain, and once housed 800 soldiers. One can still go and see the barracks, hospital, granaries and communal latrines, and there are signs at each building detailing how each was used. It is lovely wandering through the fort, imagining the day-to-day movements of the people posted here. Most were men, but the wives of higher-ranking officers often accompanied their husbands, and presumably many had servants, or slaves.

You can learn all about this in the museum, a little ways back towards the road and about halfway up to the fort. It’s a little trek, but worth it for the plethora of archaeological items it contains. Uncovered at the fort itself, the collection of artefacts is separated into sections – my favourite sections are, as in any museum, the jewellery and bits and bobs from the vanities of ancient women, and little everyday items like glass bottles and jars.

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I’d like to walk the length of the wall one day. Enamoured of stories of historic fantasy, I now often imagine myself a traveller from mediaeval times, walking or riding across the country and making camp in the moorland each dusk by the light of a dancing campfire. One can walk the whole Hadrian’s Wall Path, or choose smaller, family-friendly sub-sections such as the Sycamore Gap walk starting at Housesteads, or the Port Carlisle walk beginning Bowness-on-Solway.

But that’s a story for another day. For now, I leave you with my most cherished photograph of my trip. Stand atop the wall and maybe you’ll get the same feeling I did – of the utter vastness of the world and of all the unknowable things beyond.

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