North, South and Along the Wall
Mon 18th March 2013
Saturday 16th March 2013
It was drizzling as I drove along the A69 passing Hexham, sleeting at Bardon Mill and snowing on arrival at the National Park Visitor Centre at Once Brewed. The cloud-base was well below Windshields Crag just over a kilometre away, intended to be the “high point” of the day! However, there was an improving weather forecast, and, according to the Met Office, it was officially spring. As soon as I’d parked Ian pulled-up alongside me but before I could speak to him his boot went up and he tucked into a second breakfast, situation normal.
The day did gradually improve as you can from the accompanying photographs taken as the day progressed. When we set-off for our summit bid on Windshields Crag (345 m) the dip-slope of the Whin Sill was lightly covered in wet snow, the path to the top was covered with wet snow and distinctly “user unfriendly” to rubber soled boots as some of our number discovered. On the summit the rest of the world came and went as the mist turned to cloud and back again. It is funny how these variations in visibility alter perception. At one point, in 20 metre visibility, Conrad drew our attention to a tiny metal memorial to a British serviceman killed in Afghanistan last year. It was secured to the summit fence, smaller than a watch wristband but provided food for thought. At the very same place, the trig point on top of Windshields Crag, one of our number had proposed to his wife, what a contrast
The walk down from the trig point was ideal for explaining the topography of the Wall and the layout of the whole structure from northern ditch to southern vallum and we speculated on its changing role and function over the period of the Roman occupation.
The morning’s route took us north of the Wall with the aim of appreciating some of the classic views such as Crag Lough and Sycamore Gap (“Robin Hood’s Tree” for the youngsters who saw the Kevin Costner film of 1991 – is it really 22 years since it was made?). The variations in visibility, frost hollows, and snow cover made for some atmospheric views. Underfoot things varied quite a bit but it was the “high squelch factor” that we were most aware of. This wasn’t really a problem as we often had to wade through streams emerging with cleaner boots, but wetter, colder feet, until the next bit of saturated ground. I think that my explanation about gleyed soils and peat accumulation fell on deaf ears, similarly the subtle distinctions between the heather, Molina, mire and bent-fescue grasslands that we were walking over – I can’t think why? Passing Hotbank Farm provided a really good example of the vernacular architecture of a Northumbrian farmstead but I daren’t say it like that. It was almost lunchtime and the stop for elevenses had been delayed due to the late start so customer care was now a priority. Lunch was taken on top of a derelict lime kiln because that is where I’d planned to stop, and because it was drier than the mud-bath, sorry, rough grazing land, which surrounded it.
After a quick lunch, you get cold quickly once you stop, we made a break for the Wall climbing up the scarp face to Rapishaw Gap and following the dip slope down to the Military Road. The significance of this had been explained earlier on Windshields Crag when we couldn’t see anything at all. We had now left barbarian territory north of the Wall and were in civilisation south of it. Grandy’s Knowe farmstead, with its associated bastle and up-market holiday let, made an impact as we passed it on approach to the conserved Crindledykes Lime Kiln. This illustrated just how important lime kilns were to agricultural improvement in the area from the 18th Century onwards. One of approximately 300 such kilns in the county Crindledykes is unusual in having four draw arches and was operated as a communal resource. The local Carboniferous rocks contain beds of coal and limestone which were used in the kilns. Just as with the importance of local sandstones to the Romans for the facing stones for the construction of the Wall, so was the local availability of coal and limestone was equally important to liming the fields to reduce acidity and improve soil fertility.
Beyond the kiln we crossed the Roman Stangate (Old English meaning literally stone road) which predated the building of the Wall. It linked Corbridge to Carlisle and is atypical in meandering and following easy gradients – Roman roads were usually relatively straight. Up onto the trig point on Barcombe Hill to see the Iron Age settlement, lots of rigg (or ridge) and furrow plus evidence of coal mining and quarrying helped to create a picture of a long and continuous period of human occupation in a landscape that began to be deforested as far back as the Neolithic with the development of early agriculture. The visibility had improved, we could now see for miles. From here we got our first proper view of the Tyne valley, its meandering river and settlement of Bardon Mill below us. Pontop Pike TV mast, between Consett and Annfield Plain, was visible nearly 25 miles (almost 40 km) away to the south east in intermittent sunshine. To the east a plume of steam from the factory in Hexham was plainly visible against a blue sky – I actually had to put on my sunglasses driving back to the sunny Cullercoats. From the western end of Barcombe we got good views of Vindolanda before descending and following the meandering Stangate down towards this important Roman excavation site. En-route we passed the unique Roman milestone at Chesterholm. It is reputedly the only one in Britain still standing to its full height and in its original position. Appropriately it was surrounded by mud, but we all saw it, and the associated original Ministry of Public Buildings and Works sign that refers to it. The latter must be a historic item in its own right now. We had good view of the former Roman sandstone quarry at the west end of Barcombe from alongside Vindolanda. Further along the road we stopped to look at Causeway House, dating from 1770, with its unique heather thatched and step pitched roof now operated as a holiday home by the Landmark Trust. A little further along this very straight section of (Roman) road we passed the stump of another Roman milestone. It didn’t quite feel like a mile even though we were walking gently uphill. This is because a Roman mile is shorter (1620 yards) compared to a statute mile (1760 yards). If you convert our nominal 10 statute mile route to Roman miles you can claim to have walked further than you thought (add another 8% to your distance). As they say there are “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”
We were almost back to the vehicles now. I could see a heavy shower approaching so didn’t mention the Roman camps in the field to our left just before Brackies Burn, the dip in the road just before the car park. Consequently we got back early, 4.28 pm instead of 4.30 pm, sorry. However, judging by the way everyone shot off to use the facilities it wasn’t a bad decision. When everyone re-emerged it was raining quite heavily so it worked. I had a good day; I hope that you all did too. It was good to see old friends again – they are the ones with their backs to me in the photos – and to meet some new ones, I hope to see you all again soon. This includes the person from North America on a very brief visit to the UK; I hope it isn’t something we said? Thank you to my carer for the day, Ian, and to Margaret for giving the American couple a lift to Hexham station at the end of the walk. If you ever do read this I hope you enjoyed your stay in Alnmouth that night, one of my favourite places in Northumberland. Do please everyone have a look at our route on Google Earth, it is surprising what you will be able to see. A really good day with a great group of people, thank you all.
Sunday, 17 March 2013