Hadrian's Wall WalkWalking the most rugged and most spectacular stretch of Hadrian's Wall in full marching kit; October 14 - 16, 2005
The Hadrian's Wall Walk was proposed in summer 2005 by several members of the Late Roman group Comitatus. It was to be a weekend spent walking the highest and most rugged part of the Wall, effectively the middle stretch.
The plan was initially to camp at Whinshields Camp Site (a farm), walk to the high point of the Wall less than a mile to the north and then 10 miles eastwards past Housesteads to Carrawburgh (Roman Brocolita). Here we would camp if possible and walk back on Sunday. It would be a two-day 'patrol' in friendly territory. As planning progressed it became obvious that camping near Carrawburgh and the Mithraeum there was untenable. It was illegal to do so, and even if it had been possible the land was marshy and always wet. An alternative plan emerged. We would walk the Wall as far as Carrawburgh in full armour, as if marching 'to contact' with the enemy. Maurice in the Strategikon discusses the needs of soldiers who were tasked with this mission. We were to test it out. Upon reaching Carrawburgh we were to get a lift back by car to the camp site in a vehicle left there that morning. That plan stuck, and three of us, Paul (Fortunatus), Jamie (Demetrius) and John (Victor) met up at the farm late on Friday night.
My (Fortunatus) kit comprised of:
Ringmail Shirt (10kg)
Oval Shield on a strap
Wide Belt with pouch and knife
Calcei (hobnail boots)
Waterskin (1.5 litre)
Blanket-Roll containing frying pan, fire kit, trail food (cloak wrapped around this)
Shoulder pouch with camera and nibbles (figs, beef jerky, hazelnuts)
This marching kit was supplemented by several 'camp' items, namely canvas, two javelins, wooden tent pegs, a hammer, a net bag of food to cook or nibble, wine in a 3 litre wineskin, leather satchel with extras such as bowl and spoon and drinking cup, a hooded cloak, a deerskin. I also took a 'modern' pouch with spectacles, headache tablets, mobile phone, and antiseptic wipes, that went in the blanket roll on the march too. The blanket roll was an alternative to carrying a leather or canvas bag on the march. I'd seen this method of carrying items on the march in the Vienna Genesis manuscript, a civilian is setting off from home with his belongings rolled in a blanket or cloak. This is tied at each end and presumably string tied between the two ends to form a strap. The blanket roll is then slung over the shoulder. This proved a great way to carry small items of gear, it was soft and forgiving, and it cushioned the shield that was slung on my back. However, the string would have cut into me had I not been wearing ring mail armour, and the string was so narrow, or my knots so amateur that I spent along time trying to undo the ties to get into my roll. A quick release knot, combined with rope, would make the blanket roll a very viable option. I had seen no other representations of bags or satchels that Roman legionaries of the 4th century might use on the march. The Wall Walk was my chance to test this option as a 4th century marching bag.
The experience was really divided into the camping and the marching. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the two nights we spent in authentic conditions. I couldn't camp like that for long, but it was great to try. The tent canvas went up on spears and javelins (in the dark) and stayed up admirably. I managed to light the fire we needed with flint and steel - Jamie kindly brought some dry wood for us to use. John filled the tiny tent to bursting with cloaks and furs and leaves. Jamie slept around the fire, but I'm not sure he got much sleep. I was fine on the deerskin; the land was sodden, the grass wet, the ground soft and muddy. By the time we had established camp our boots and feet were wet. We did, however, find the only dry spot under some trees near a stone wall. We ate John's delicious onion bread, Jamie had tinned stew and John and I ate pork chops cooked with apple. The moon and stars were bright, the ridge to the north upon which the Wall sat looked dark and forbidding. A lovely evening.
The walk was different. For John and Jamie things went well, minor kit problems were fixed, and they kept up a regular pace. Neither seemed too done in by the terrain. For me things began badly, the sole of one of my soaking boots fell off as we tramped through the muddy farmyard on the way out. I 'soldiered' on up the steep slope to the high point of the Wall (345m) up into the mist to the Wall, but at the top I had to admit defeat and change into my sandals, simple thin leather skins tightened with a thong. Ten miles to go - I was now dreading every step! The thin unsoled sandals weren't bad, however. They were very comfortable (except on the occasional gravel path) and I had no aching feet and no blisters even when I'd completed the ten mile march. However, on wet grass (and there was a lot of wet grass) I slipped over if I wasn't careful. I got muddy very quickly!
I had to take smaller steps and use the butt-spike on the spear for help coming down slopes. And the slopes up killed me! John and Jamie didn't seem too troubled, but I struggled every step of every incline. I was way behind many times. I probably used every swear word I've ever heard. I might have made some new ones up, too. I ran out of words after six miles of crags, climbs, steps, slopes, inclines and escarpments.
Sadly I didn't jump all over the Roman architecture we passed because I was too busy fighting for breath. We passed mile castle 40, and then after Steel Rigg, mile castle 39. We passed the lake called Crag Lough, but it sat invisible on the other side of the Wall and the crags in thick mist. The scenery was good. It began with fog, but although it brightened a little the weather was still misty and evocative. Over the Wall in places, where it sat on crags, the rocks dropped away into thick mist - very scary indeed. It was also nice to potter around the turrets and mile castles, imagining yourself, dressed to kill, back there in the 4th century.
We tried hard to dodge other walkers and tourists, they all wanted pictures, and to know 'what we were doing', but we were too tired and too busy walking to talk. It was fun ducking into Houseteads fort without paying, and picnicking, Roman-style in the shrine of the standards of the HQ building while a university lecturer gave a talk to his students. His bit about the 'philosophy of latrine use' was most enlightening. I ate little, a few figs, some smoked cheese. Instead I enjoyed the rest. I was almost out of posca, the wine-vinegar-water drink I had brought with me instead of water. I had a litre of the stuff, and it proved very refreshing, thirst quenching with a zesty tang. After lunch we jumped the wall amidst a growing crowd of onlookers and made our escape, passing Nag Burn Gate, a civilian gateway through the Wall. On the display board there was a great illustration of 4th century soldiers checking local travellers coming through for contraband.
Up to Sewingshields Crags and the lovely woods there. King Arthur was reputed to be sleeping with his knights below our feet within a secret cave. We marched on, Jamie spearing dead bark from a tree. More hills, more turrets, more falling over. Over-heating. Shoulders getting more and more painful. The sheer weight pulling you down and down. And at times the constriction on your chest of straps and armour, making it hard to lift an arm. I was getting thoroughly exhausted slowing down all the time. There were more turrets and mile castles, in a blur of lightening skies and staring at the grassy path ahead. As we paralleled the road, Jamie's car at the Mithraeum was only a mile or so away. I was so slow at this point that John kindly offered (under the proviso that beer be traded for the privilege) to carry my blanket-roll (which was my bag). That lifted my shoulders and spirits and we marched at speed back to the car.
Fantastic. Lifting off the helmet, armour, shield, spatha, belt and bags was like flying. I'd carried around 5 stone (30kg) of gear 10 miles - and I only weigh 10 and a half (70kg) to begin with! After chatting to some friendly tourists in the car park (one of which wanted us to get kitted up again for a picture!!) we spent a while at the Mithraeum and made a libation of white wine.
Then it was off to the Twice Brewed Inn for a couple of pints before heading back to the camping field. We erected our tents/improvised shelters in daylight individually this time. I was again very satisfied with mine, and the shield kept out the wind. John's tent looked even snugger (and was closer to the fire). Jamie had his against the stone wall, but this seemed to channel the wind, and he couldn't sit up when he needed to (stomach troubles he has). He retired to the car. The wind was ferocious, but the woods blocked it all and the tents barely fluttered. Excellent. Cooking was more difficult this time, the wood was local, wet and did not create much bright flame. It is hard to cook in the dark. John and I collaborated to light the fire authentically. I burnt my flat bread (I just couldn't see the colour of it!), John spilt half his pot of delicious sausage and garlic lentil mix. But we still ate well. I tucked myself in at 9:00 and chatted with the others for a while. At 10:00 the farmer came around to find out what all the sparks were that were rising up over the trees, I think the fire was getting bigger! That night I found that shields make great windbreaks, and excellent seats - dry and flat enough to stand drinks on or prepare food.
The hell of the march (for me personally!) was easily eclipsed by the wonderful authentic camping we did. I'm very pleased that nothing I took was out of place, no plastic, no nylon, no modern foods, no bottles ... everything was authentic. That's my experiment over I guess. It'd be hard to do that at a re-enactment event every weekend, so it was great to 'get it out of my system'!
On the last day we took it easy, we strolled around Vindolanda (Chesterholm) in armoured kit (we were let in free and early by the manager - Jamie is sure he thought we were there for some show or other). Looked around the museum, the site, and gorged on cake and drinks in the cafe. Jamie left for home at that point and John and myself nipped into Chesters for a quick look around.
That was my Wall experience.
I learnt some valuable information:
- Good posca is refreshing and is worth carrying
- Hobnails are absolutely essential for cross-country marching
- Shields make great camp seats/tables
- Carry only a little cold food on the march, you eat less than you think
- Sling your shield on your back
- Ensure your spear/spiculum has a butt-spike
- Straps should be wide or padded with cloth
- Carry a cloak rolled, do not wear it over armour
- Always carry string
- Always, always, carry spare shoes or sandals - or risk being stranded
- Simple shelters using canvas and spears/javelins work well, are comfortable and dry
- The blanket roll works, but use thin rope to tie it off, not string