16 MAY 2010
Next morning I was offered and accepted a ride back down the country road and the big hill to Chesters. I had been "playing by the rules" since starting on the path but decided that this wasn't really cheating -- I had already walked up the hill and would do so again when I left so the distance was the same. Or so I reasoned. And so I rode.
Chesters fort shows some interesting details of Roman construction, especially in the old baths. There is also a remaining abutment from the Roman bridge which is downstream from the modern span. I took the requisite pictures and walked the whole site and remembered to get my "passport" stamped. There was a party of two men and two women who, from snatches of conversation, I took to be either Danish (why Danish I don't know) or Dutch or German; I didn't speak to them then but we would meet up again sooner than I expected.
I had noted, but without much enthusiasm due to the lateness of the hour, a huge and ornate stone building across from Chesters. By ornate I mean stone walls, a dozen gable roofs, a tower and a tower clock. Not something one expects out in the country. This morning I had asked what sort of building it might be and was told that it was a stable. Stable?! Who would build something like that for horses. It turns out that the building was for sale too. With renovations it would have made a great condo building had it not been located miles and miles from anything. Enough staring at stables though, it was 11:00 and well past time to trudge back up the big hill and get on with the walk down the wall.
There were some good bits of standing wall and earthworks along this stretch but nothing jumping-up-and-down exciting. Well, there was the point which is unmarked and which I totally missed where one reaches the northernmost portion of the wall, Limestone Corner, and thus the northernmost point in the Roman Empire. Kind of a mindless walk ensued other than it a few really muddy spots where it paid to be alert to avoid sinking into the muck and remaining for future archaeologists to find. It didn't get better when the weather developed into a misty rain but at least it wasn't the apocalyptic downpour that hit outside of Corbridge -- mist can be dealt with and my non-waterproof poncho wasn't nearly so bad as before. I wandered into the carpark which serves the Broccolitia Fort. Since it is right on the busiest road in the area it seemed to have a much larger carpark than most. But best of all it had an odd little three-wheeled coffee truck parked at the western end. Some hot chocolate was just what was needed to fight off the mist. Broccolitia is probably most famous today for the little ruin which sits just to the south of the site. This is the Mithras Temple which apparently was built as a place of worship by the soldiers assigned to the fort. It is little more than an excavated stone wall now but there are three stone alters at the far end (copies I've since found out, the real items having been placed in museums) but it does seem to have something about it. That might be because the rain ceased while I was there. Or it might be because people are still making offerings at the center altar. No, really. There was a pile of coins in the altar bowl along with a bunch of wildflowers. I didn't leave anything myself, figuring that the contributions I've been dropping in the collection box of every church I've been in along the way probably had me covered.
A bit further on , just past the Grindon Milecastle there was a sudden change of terrain looking as if somebody had snapped the land in two and hastily put it back together without paying much attention to the alignment. This was the beginning of the Crags. The wall continued at the top of the cliff, the earthworks suddenly changing as there was no need for a northern ditch when there was already a formidable obstacle in place. To the north of the wall was a rather substantial precipice above pasture land which stretched off to the horizon. Rather muddy pasture land as the cows were squelching through it burying a good part of their legs in the process. Around here I met up with the male half of the party I had seen at Chesters. Turns out that the party was 3/4 Dutch and 1/4 English, two married couples. But right now there were just the guys (call them D. and E.), their wives having staged a sort of revolt which put them on the AD122 bus for a bit of a break. I walked along with D. and E. for a while along the line of crags for a while but their natural walking pace meant that my slower trudge was holding me back so at around 10:30 we parted ways and they disappeared into the distance. We would meet again.
The crags continued for a long way but they were not, sadly, continuous. Continuous would have been too easy. Rather the crags started and stopped which meant making one's way down a very steep slope covered in large irregular stones and then right back up again over equally steep and treacherous terrain. There were several of these along the way and I dreaded every one of them. As a child I seemed to have ankles that are prone to sprains and, although the problem really was one of childhood, I've developed a dread of such uneven terrain. I could just imagine turning an ankle and launching myself headfirst down the rocky slope. Virtually all of the cragtop was pasture. The only place that I can recall that was different was a small woods and farm around Sewingshields Crag. The series of crags continued their discontinuous way for few miles with the usual procession of turrets and milecastles until it came to Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium to the Romans). This has been called the best of the wall forts and I certainly couldn't argue with that. Here the walls are far higher and in better condition than at the others and it gives a really good idea of what life might have been like here. Another stamp in the "passport".
I met up with the D. E. party again at Housesteads, now back up to full strength with the return of the bus-borne wives. We went off together for the next stop since they were booked into the Saughy Rigg Farm B&B. Aside: rigg was a new word to me so I did a bit of digging: it has several different meanings but in this case it is an Old English word meaning a bumpy fell or ridge. Fell, in turn comes from the Old Norse. Interesting thing, the English language.It was further than I had ever imagined from the point where we were to turn off the path and go north to Saughy Rigg. We finally made it in at about 7:30. A quick wash up and change to less worn clothes and it was time for our late dinner. This was a treat given my sad luck at evening meals so far on the trip -- we had a real traditional English Sunday dinner with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and all the accompaniments. As an experiment I tried some hard cider which the B&B had on tap. I wish now that I had a way to get Olde English cider here in the States. It was very well-balanced with a good apple taste and had a reasonable alcohol content. If I get the chance I'd also like to try traditional farmhouse cider or scrumpy which is potent enough to take a man right down. This is a regional beverage made in small quantities that is not often seen in pubs since it has a reputation for leading to a brawl before the evening is done. Two pints of scrumpy would probably have knocked me out but the two pints of Olde English were just about right to wash down the excellent meal. I tried to phone home after dinner but there was no signal to be found. That appears to be fairly common since the wall path goes through some isolated territory. There's always tomorrow.