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Wander of the world.

Walking Hadrian’s Wall.

When the Emperor Hadrian, now the subject of a major exhibition at the British Museum, constructed his mighty wall from coast to coast across the rugged heights of northern Britain as a concluding statement of the Roman Empire, he created one of the great barriers in the world. Now a long-distance trail runs its entire length, making it accessible to the walker. It can also be easily reached by bus and train. The writer paid a brief visit one frosty November day. (Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is my choice of the book to draw together the life and achievements of this remarkable emperor.)

The frozen path booms dully under my boots. on my right, a burn runs the colour of Bisto. there is a rugged halo of ice around the stones in the burbling flow. Oak leaves corkscrew limply down.

I am in and an exceptional little valley just north of Haltwhistle in Northumberland, a pleasant self-contained stroll in itself, but for me, as for many a Roman legionary with freezing knees returning to duty, a prelude to much greater things just over the hill up there.

Barriers, and how to cross them, are an everyday matter for walking for. We take it in our stride stone buttresses, barbed wire cordons, electrified palisades, deep ditches and swollen rivers. But the one I am heading for resisted allcomers in its day, defending a dominance that extended from here to Turkey.

There is no way out but up, and one steep scramble later I’m in the middle of what Northumberland does best: views.

Broad shouldered hills line up into a milky infinity. Cleaving the middle distance, on an outcrop of crags like crusty loaves with their insides spilling out, is Hadrian’s Wall. I fill my notebook with hopeless artists’impressions. But even their amateurish exactitude cannot obscure the fact: the Romans couldn’t lose.

It is the only ruin in Britain visible from UNESCO headquarters in Paris, which has designated it a world Heritage site. but how to get there? My 1:25,000 map offers a choice of routes, each heading determinedly across fields where, under footpath law, I have every right to be. However, interpreting their filigreed nuances on the ground is like decoding a Beethoven sonata.

Farmers have made the minimal concession to walkers’safe passage by not putting a bull in every field: otherwise, not a vestige of help. At length, puzzling over the way into a particular field, I find size 10 boot prints, firm evidence that the human had passed here some time since the invention of sensible footwear.

one man and his dog are impassively busy in the corner of this field, mending a wall. Then I realise it’s the wall. When it stops being grand, upon on the crags, it runs across fields like any other boundary, keeping the sheep in.

This man is rearranging the inspired muddle of the vernacular dry stone wall, which is predecessors over the years have grafted onto the brutal genius of the Roman stonemason, three courses high, six stones deep, straight and exact.

Just inside the wall, I strike at right angles the Pennine Way: no problem now – size 10 boot prints everywhere. I head east for a mile or so. The loose leaves on a lonely oak tree chatter in the strengthening breeze.

Cawfields Milecastle comes with a national trust interpretation sign and, a wonder of forward planning this, its very own pub, drawn back at a respectful a distance, the better to admire the view.

Today, though, it is too cold to sit outside the Milecastle Inn. I enquire about the availability of one-person snug next to the bar. Yes, it is somebody special’s seat, but he is away on an oil rig, so in you go.

my beer selects itself. In honour of,. my companions this morning, I order a half pint of black sheep bitter from Masham. The menu challenges me to more daring experiment. I fix on wild boar and duckling pie. I can tell this is a good, because we have all forgotten what day it is. When a customer is signing a cheque, we all grope for. the date., before somebody cheats by looking in a newspaper.

I return to the chill, agreeably central heated centrally heated with a dram of edradour, said to be the smallest malt whisky distillery of all.
a minor road takes me through to the north side of the wall. By rights you should come here first and behold the frowning eyebrows of the Roman emperor empire. After all, you would not make your first acquaintance with the great cathedral from the inside. This is in this business side.

Up on the the sheer 15 m high weakling cranks, a thought occurs.. how hopeless to have been a pict, screaming down from the North to this dead end, with all those sophisticated ballistics showering down on you.

I am on one of those minor paths again. Even in the shadow of great things, life carries on much as normal. I pass a farm with a spanking new muck spreader painted the colour of buttercups.
At Shield on the wall, I rejoin the barrier, immense and solid. nearby, at Thorney doors, is a section 3 m high, but ,, as the man from the tourist board said, this is the bit they don’t come to.

After days of cobalt blue skies, a weak front is drifting down from Scotland . the sound is a a faint orb behind a veneer of liquid coal dust.

For an hour or so, I stroll alongside the wall, marvelling that on a workaday Tuesday in November, I have such a wonder of the world to myself, and I touch my cap to the shades of the second Legion Augusta who built this bit, before heading the 2 miles back to Haltwhistle Station, where a train whisks me back to Newcastle upon Tyne in no time.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138AD) is best known for his passion for Greek culture, interest in architecture, his love for Antinous, and the eponymous wall he built between England and Scotland, then Caledonia.

www.britishmuseum.org

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