Sunday, 21 August 2011

Almost Heaven

I've had a great time the last couple of days: I've been walking a section of Hadrian's Wall. I've not been on my own - it was a sort of informal "bloggers convention". It all began when George (who writes the Transit Notes blog) decided to spend a week walking the wall from coast to coast. The on this occasion not-so-Solitary Walker then said he'd join him for a few days. Then I said I'd tag along for a day or two too.

My plan was to base myself in the village of Gilsland. From there I'd head East along the Wall, hopefully meeting up with George, who was traveling West. I'd then walk back to Gilsland with him. (I enjoy straight, "there and back" walks - to my mind they're often more enjoyable than circular routes). In Gilsland we'd meet up with the Solitary Walker and spend the night in a B&B (Tantallon House: it turned out to be really good). The following day, I'd set off West with the others until lunchtime, after which I'd leave  them to carry on and make my own way back to Gilsland, and the car.

Nothing ever goes to plan, quite - but then, unpredictability is one of the joys of walking. Robert had decided to come down early and hunt down George. I ran into them both, deep in conversation, just East of the Walltown turret. Deep conversation turned out to be the order of the day, and the next day. We stopped to eat in the turret ruins, then made our way down to the refreshment kiosk at Walltown Quarry, before heading off back to Gilsland.

The central section of the wall, East of Walltown is the most spectacular -  and the most photographed. Not only has a lot of the wall (and the buildings around it) survived, but it also runs along the top of a steep ridge. It's quite easy to imagine what it might have been like: or so I thought. Until I began researching this post, I'd not realised that in its day the wall may well have been rendered and painted white. It's hard to think of  it without thinking of its neatly cut but chunky stones. As we walked along I did find myself wondering how had the landscape around the wall changed? Of course, there are modern buildings here and there, pylons, masts, conifer plantations, but I found myself wondering: just how thickly wooded was the land there in AD122, when they began building it? Were there fields, as there are now, and if so, how big were they? The more I thought about it, the harder it was to imagine Roman Britain and I found myself wishing I knew more about it.

West of this section of the wall, the character of walk changes: you're surrounded by fields, trees and wildflowers. The wall is often only recognisable from the ditch the Romans dug along its length. In some places this is quite a landmark, in others it's been reduced to a bump in the ground.

Next morning, we set off West and soon found ourselves crossing the River Irthing. Although, as I said, the remains of the wall are not so spectacular here, it's still a quite magical walk. Stone ruins remain here and there: for example, the remains of a stone bridge where the wall crosses the Irthing and the fort at Birdoswald. Wherever you are on this section, the Irthing is never that far away. At one point, crossing a bridge, we spotted an uncanny line of cairns -straight as a Roman Road- built on the stony river bed and across the pebbles of the river bank (the river there was rarely more than ankle deep). It disappeared among the trees on a bend in the river. A work of landscape art, we decided - the sort of thing Andy Galsworthy might construct. We thought it might even be an Andy Galsworthy. The river -and the line of cairns- disappeared around a bend so, intrigued, we took a track through the woods on the riverbank to find the other end of the line.

What we discovered is hard to describe. When you come across things unexpectedly you feel disorientated. You feel ill at ease and look around, wondering what's going on. Is there anybody there? Are you under some sort of threat? However benign the discovery, its unexpectedness triggers a sense of foreboding. What we discovered was a sign: Welcome to (almost) heaven. Various bits and pieces of paraphernalia were stacked against or hung from trees. Ropes, tarpaulins, bits of junk. Was this real life or Ruth Rendell? There was a line of armchairs and a settee stood on the pebbles of the riverbank, along with a table - a kind of outdoor living-room, only where you'd expect to find the TV, there was the river. Behind, strung between the trees, was a white tarpaulin on which visitors had written messages. From the messages it seemed clear that whatever the origins of (almost) heaven, it had -al least- evolved into an impromptu Hadrian's Wall service station for the soul (I say "soul" as it lacked those must-haves of UK motorway services - either a Costa Coffee or a Burger King).

We lingered for a while, tried out the armchairs, and added a cairn to the line. We found nothing more sinister than a dead mouse.

I was enjoying myself so much -what with the walk and the company- that I had neglected to turn back half way through the day and, throwing caution to the wind, had decided to finish the day's walk with Robert and George. So what if I finished twelve miles from my car? I'd get back somehow. I left the others to their B&Bs in Newton and set off to see what I could do. Plan A was to walk down to Brampton and hitch down the A69 back to Gilsland. It was a good plan - only it turned out that the bridge which carried the road from Newton to Brampton was closed for repairs. A team of men in hard hats were busy covering it with wet concrete. I had to ford the river, beneath the bridge. I squelched my way into Brampton, sticking out my thumb whenever I heard a car behind me - which wasn't often. What use is a road when a bridge on it is closed?

I hadn't a lot of water left, so I bought myself a carton of orange, and trudged on to the A69. Once there, I got a lift quite quickly from a chap who lived in Newcastle and worked at a radio station in Carlisle, who very kindly made a detour off the the main road to drop me in Gilsland. Thank you again, whoever you are. In the end I made such good time that I decided to drive to Newton and join George and Robert again for the evening.

It's great meeting up with other bloggers. Of course there are parts of other people we can never know and even parts of ourselves are hidden from us, but meeting people whose written thoughts you've read regularly for the first time is uncanny: it's as if you know them, at least partly, "inside out". The usual pleasantries never did play a part in getting to know them. In the pre-internet age it must have been similar for "penpals" meeting for the first time. It was great to be able to talk among ourselves about all the things which one would gather from reading our blogs we had more-or-less in common. If you could draw our thoughts in the form of a Venn Diagram, there would be quite a lot of places where two of the circles overlapped and, quite often, all three.

Thanks, Robert and George, for a great walk! And then there was the wall. Two days spent wandering along it has left me with an urge to walk the whole thing. Possibly in one go, certainly in sections. I wonder if I'll get round to it? What I do know is that next time I go for a long walk, I'll take two stout carrier-bags with me. Squelch.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me. George and Robert did though. Hopefully they'll upload some of them on their blogs, Transit Notes and Solitary Walker.


George said...

Hi, Dominic. Just read your great post while on the train back to London. It was a great walk, indeed, and both the company and conversation were terrific! Thanks so much for joining Robert and me for a couple of days of this wonderful adventure. I will have more to say about the walk when I return home. During the meantime, keep walking, running, making music and anything else that connects you with the deeper meaning of life.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I don't think this account suffers at all from not having any photographs Dom - on the contrary I think it gets the imagination going. We have all seen the standard photos of the wall - I even bought a jigsaw at Housesteads(!) but imagining that surreal sight, thinking about the three of you on your walk, I felt as though I was walking alongside you. Glad you enjoyed it.

The Solitary Walker said...

Great post, Dominic - your enjoyment of and enthusiasm for this wonderful walk shine through the whole of your account.

I returned home to find a nasty virus had somehow jumped over my firewall. So it'll be a while before I get things sorted and am able to post.

Marion McCready said...

That sounds fantastic, I'd love to do something like this!

Rachel Fenton said...

Is Solitary Walker going to change his name now?

Good luck getting rid of thet virus, btw - cost me in the past.

Anyhowdy, what a fab idea and the walk sounds as grand as the location.

Rachel Fox said...

Growing up in the north-east of England we went to Hadrian's Wall on school trips. I keep meaning to go back and revisit! And walking the length of it sounds perfect.

I too enjoy meeting bloggers who I've made friends with online. On the whole it's been a very positive experience!


Arnab Majumdar said...

It's been a really long time since I've gone on a trip, and after reading your posts, I've really started missing it a lot. I could almost smell the damp moss and the weeds sprouting out from the cracks in the old walls.

A very interesting walk, inspiring enough to make me want to get off my butt one of these days and go walking through the lanes of history that surround me in the city. Hopefully, that day would come soon enough...

Arnab Majumdar on

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, ecverybody!

GOAT said...

Dominic, finally got time to read your great account of the walk, which I've now "observed" from three angles! I agree with Weaver: it's very evocative even without pictures. Hope you get around to walking it in full, and thanks for the image of a white-painted wall. I never knew that...

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for that. As for the white wall, I've been to a few ruins recently. Funny, but sometimes finding more out about such places, makes harder, not easier, to imagine what you think they looked like. When it comes to Hadrian's Wall, I can't get those pictures from children's history books of a grim, grey stone wall out of my head.