18 May 2010
After a light breakfast I got back on the trail at 8:45, next destination Birdoswald Roman fort. It was a beautiful day and that lifted my spirits a good bit. The weather so far had not been truly bad (other than the deluge north of Corbridge) but clear skies had not been abundant and heavy grey clouds were more common than I would have preferred. There IS a reason that England is green. Between the next pair of turrets, Willowford East and West, and still within Gilsland there was a good example of narrow wall built on wide foundations. This was due to a change in the plans, either as a budgetary matter or because the building materials were of better quality, where the foundations for the wall had been already been built but the wall had not. Somewhere in this area was also where one passes from modern Northumberland into Cumbria counties, the border zig-zagging through Gilsland seemingly at random. Birdoswald was literally less than a mile from the B&B but it is necessary to walk back down the road and across the tracks and nearly into Gilsland to get on the wall path which extends the distance to 2.2 miles but this was not a great burden on a bright beautiful morning.
Birdoswald (Banna to the Romans) is a small site immediately adjacent to a pleasant Victorian farm house. The house is one of those that was built onto an existing pele tower and expanded over the years. The fort itself is still being studied by archaeologists and is said to be one of the best-preserved on the wall. Study suggests that the fort was occupied by a local warlord after the Romans departed and might have been so for a long time -- certainly to after 500AD. There is a visitor center with displays and artifacts on this English Heritage site. Actually, I made a great discovery at the visitor center although not a historic one: Fentimans Botanically Brewed Traditional Ginger Beer. This is some awesome stuff and it makes every ginger ale I've had in the US seem like... Well, let's just say that the flavor is superior to any other I've experienced. And actually I guess Fentimans is at least a bit historic having been established in 1905. I have found that it can be purchased in the US but no near where I live and buying it and shipping it in would put it in the price range of good wine. One other historic thing -- in the beautiful sunshine I was able to zip the legs off of my hiker's pants and enjoy shorts for the first time on the trip. Another stamp in the "passport". Only two more to go.
I got away from Birdoswald by 11:30 and 12:20 found me in a place called Comb Crag Wood. This is a tiny stretch of woods but the timing was perfect for a lunch break. Looking at maps and aerial images on Google Earth I think that I can identify this patch but I wouldn't bet on it. But it is just about the only location where the wall path goes through any sort of woods before getting to the village of Banks. For certain it is before the remains of turret 51A and I was there by 12:45 so I can't be too far off. This is on the path of the turf wall and the only real landmarks to go by are the Roman ditch and that is often difficult to spot. In any case the woods were shady and cool and full of bluebells and there was a convenient fallen log to sit on so it became my lunch spot.
A bit further down the path is the village of Banks. This is where I made a bit of a detour south to take a look at Lanercost Priory. I guess that overall this cost me perhaps 4 miles of walking but it was definitely worth it; I'm finding it nearly as interesting to look at old churches and village buildings as it is to view Roman remains and when it comes to churches in this area Lanercost Priory is not to be missed. The weather was getting warm enough that after noon I actually began to sweat a bit by the time I got down near the River Irthing. The Priory was established before 1170AD by the de Veaux family (note this was all of 100 years after the Norman conquest and most powerful family in this area was now French) and was built to house Augustinian Canons. The Priory took a good 50 years to complete but, being on the rough-and-tumble Scottish border, it was sacked in 1296 by William Wallace. Worse was to come when in 1536 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and the buildings were demolished for their valuables. The nave of the Priory, much of which remained, was made into the parish church. Control over the Priory properties fell to the Dacre family who were in favor with Henry VIII and it stayed with them until complex inheritance and marriages shifted the balance to the Howard family. The buildings did not fare well during the following centuries and were essentially ruins by the mid-18th century. Eventually the crown and the Howards and the local parish succeeded in having needed repairs and restorations done. The Priory was eventually left under the control of the a partnership between the local parish and English Heritage. Needless to say, all of this history has left the buildings in a very mixed state- everything from bare foundations to magnificent structures is left. There are too many things to write about this site for me to do any more, and perhaps I've already gone too far, so I suggest you do a bit of searching on the web to find out more. The priory has, of course, a gift shop and, though I do my best to avoid souvenirs, I sometimes buy a guide book if the location is especially interesting. Otherwise souvenirs are out but this time I gave in to the temptation and bought a T-shirt but really only because of the design which features the slogan "WALK ON TH EDGE OF THE EMPIRE". It seemed the least I could do since I knew that the title of this section of my website would be almost identical.
I got back on the path and headed off toward the village of Walton. There is not a lot there but there was the promise of the Centurion Pub and a pint to slake my thirst. Sadly, when I got there I found that the pub had been closed for some time. There were new owners and they were there doing repairs but no amount of pleading on my part would gain me a pint of ale so I pressed on toward tonight's lodgings in Newtown but it would be some hours yet since I managed to get most annoyingly lost again. I wrote annoyingly and annoying it was, both for me and the livestock. Following the path quite carefully I started to traverse a long field with some cows and their calves in it headed for the far end figuring that somewhere along the way there would be a sign or at least a worn path to show me the way. At the far end I had not found anything so I doubled back to find what I obviously had missed. The cows were becoming a bit nervous having a stranger near the calves and grouped together watching me. Back at the beginning of the field there was still no sign of a sign besides the one directing me into the field. So, back down the field I trudged once again past the cows who were becoming hostile by now. This time I gave up entirely and when I got to the far end of the field I unwired the gate and slipped out onto a dirt road which seemed like it must eventually go somewhere. Well, it did but only to another gate and another road. And this lead to another gate and a slightly larger dirt road. Eventually I got to an actual paved road and trusting in luck (and my clearly failing navigational instincts) I made a right turn and headed off to find my fortune. Things got a bit worrisome when I got to an intersection of country roads and found a sign pointing the way to the Carlisle Airport which was apparently 4 miles away. Not good. Not good at all. I was going to Carlisle alright but not to the airport and I shouldn't have been that close, or so I thought. By now the location of the wall path was totally lost to me and dead reckoning was getting me nowhere and my maps, being of the official path, were of no real use. Eventually I resorted to the mobile, there actually being a signal, and phoned the next B&B for directions. It was a bit more than mile down the road (and up yet another hill -- why always a hill leading to the B&B?) until I found Newtown which lies right on the wall path. Clearly I had walked down a series of dirt roads perpendicular to the correct route. This is especially irksome since I did have a compass with me despite a dearth of usable maps and by now it was getting late enough in the day to know where the sun was going to set. Sigh. Got into the B&B some time after 5:30. The dinner at the B&B was good although my appetite wasn't. There was a nice rhubarb crumble with ice cream for afters. I really could have used a pint about then but the only pub in Newtown had closed. The next village with a pub was Irthington but, since the two miles down and two miles back were demotivating, my thirst was not strong enough to move me so I went pint-less that night.