Max Adams | In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages | Pegasus | October 2016 | 15 minutes (4,012 words)
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I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall.
Just after dawn on a late November day the North Pennines air is rigid with cold. A thick hoar of frost blankets pasture and hedge, reflecting white-blue light back at an empty sky. The last russet leaves clinging to a copse of beech trees set snug in the fold of a river valley filter lazy, hanging drifts of smoke from a wood fire. The sunlight is a dreamy veil of cream silk.
I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall. I have not followed the neat, fenced, waymarked route from the little village of Gilsland which straddles the high border between Northumberland and Cumbria, but struck directly across country and, with the sun in my eyes, I do not see Hadrian’s big idea until I am almost in its shadow. Sure, it stops you in your tracks. It is too big to climb over (that being the point), so I walk beside it for a couple of hundred yards. The imperfect regularity of the sandstone blocks is mesmerizing, passing before one’s eyes like the holes on a reel of celluloid. This film is an epic: eighty Roman miles, a strip cartoon story that tells of military might, squaddy boredom, quirky native gods, barbarian onslaught, farmers, archaeologists, ardent modern walkers and oblivious livestock. I am somewhere between Mile 49 and Mile 50, counting west from Wallsend near the mouth of the River Tyne. The gap in the Wall, when I find it, is made by the entrance to Birdoswald fort. Birdoswald: where the Dark ages begin.
There is no one here but me on this shining day. The farm that has stood here in various guises for around fifteen hundred years is now a heritage center. On a winter weekday I have Birdoswald to myself. Just me and the shimmering light and the odd chough cawing away in a skeletal tree. In places the stone walls of this once indomitable military outpost still stand five or six feet high. Visible, in its heyday, from all horizons, the Roman fort layout was built on a well-tested model: from above, it is the shape of a playing card, with the short sides facing north and south. Originally designed so that three of the six gates (two in each long side, one at either end in the center) protruded beyond the line of the Wall, the fort was not so much part of a defensive frontier, more a launching pad for expeditions, patrols and forays in the lands to the north. Rome did not hide behind its walls; the legions did not cower. Any soldier from any part of the Empire would have known which way to turn on entering the gate; where the barrack rooms would be; where to find the latrines and bread ovens; how to avoid the scrutiny of the garrison commander after a late-night binge or an overnight stay in the house of the one of the locals. Uniformity was part of the Roman project. Read more…