Hadrian's Wall Walk 6September 2010
Every September Comitatus members end our season of public events by staging a special weekend on the greatest Roman monument in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall. In part this is a celebration of the events we have organised and held over the year. Thousands of people come and see what we do and go away a little wiser about Roman military equipment and the end of Roman Britain. But in part it is also an antidote to the public side of what we do. Professional displays are laid aside, and instead we can camp, eat and enjoy ourselves without the duties and pressures that come with public performance. Large tents, heavy armour, children, families, display equipment etc. are all forgotten and instead our equipment is pared to the bone.
People do these walks for many different reasons. I was much taken by the idea of American War “hard-core” re-enactment back in the 1980’s. I believe that if you have any claims to authenticity then you need to test your kit to show it is not just fancy dress.
You have to demonstrate it is fit for purpose, coping with long marches and all types of weather conditions. It must keep you warm and dry; you must be able to move comfortably in it. Some people like to test themselves as well as their equipment, showing that they still have a level of fitness and that they can still sleep in a muddy puddle. This sometimes sounds like they are playing at soldiers, but that is a claim often levelled at re-enactors. Many do these walks because of the fantastic scenery, and the truly awe-inspiring skies that glower over the Wall and its hinterland. And that is perhaps the best reason of all.
I have done every single Comitatus walk, and have seen many changes over the years. Looking back at our first attempts it is hard not to smile. We were like boy scouts wanting to really live a Roman experience. And it was a new positive experience, touched by the surroundings we were in. Ever year a robin would hop around the campsite in to my tent. The robin was called my spirit guide, and seen as a good omen. We carried too much and made too many compromises. We believed our expensive footwear would be trashed by walking. I generally wore old re-enactment boots which I could justify wearing out. Others used walking or work boots, which often fell apart anyway. We cooked high status posh meats with too many fresh ingredients. Some believed we were all going to need rescuing from mountain sides. Others thought we would just damage our “costumes”. And we perhaps committed the cardinal sin of thinking we were special.
Now we take a more measured approach, perhaps because so many of us have families and have other responsibilities. Sleeping under a scrap of canvas is not special. Many members do it at every event. Walking a few miles isn’t hard, people do it every day, in some cases just to collect fresh water. It is as if re-enactors find the idea of walking and camping unacceptable because they feel it will be uncomfortable, when in fact it is enjoyable fun and rewarding.
We mess together using dried ingredients and not many of them. Cheese is a special treat. Our kit is the best we can get because it that way it measures up to the challenges we give it. Good equipment does not get badly worn or fall apart. One of the fundament ideas about doing such walks is that it forces you to improve your kit, so if you feel your boots cannot cope, then get some better boots! Hardcore re-enactment also demanded that participants must be the correct age and body type. Such an approach is potentially divisive, exclusive and even elitist. But if you want to walk long distances and sleep semi-rough, you need to be reasonable ready for the challenge.
Those who are unfit, grossly over-weight or lacking in muscle are going to find this much harder than those who exercise regularly and are younger.
This is not an elitist statement, just an obvious one. You can still be overweight like me and cope easily, but some old members have found the walks just too challenging.
But those who even do one walk begin to see their kit in a different way, and use it more naturally. It looks more worn and better for it. Walks are a positive thing for all those involved, and it is good to see other late Roman groups beginning to also adopt them to one degree or another.
For this Wall Walk I wanted to do the same route as 2008, which was our toughest walk to date. I suspect I wanted to test myself more than my equipment. But the weather conspired to make this a much harder weekend than I had planned.
As ever we met on the Friday night at Winshields campsite. It was dark, cold and windy but fires as ever cheer people up. I have always carried a patera to cook in as well as eat and drink out of. But it can be annoyingly heavy, so I wanted to try out cooking meat on a spit.
We warmed up with bacon and sausages, and went on to a rabbit, already skinned and gutted, but otherwise as nature intended. Romans did bring domesticated rabbits to Britain, smaller than the modern version and unable to live wild in the British climate. But these would be a high status food. This rabbit just represented something wild which had been caught and cooked on the march. I worried that without basting the meat would dry out. But by cooking it slowly it stayed moist and tasty. My secret was that while I am happy to get a rabbit from the wild, I do not like the taste, so I enjoyed cooking it but was happier to let others eat it. Paul had a coptic frying pan which he used to feed us. A simple thing to carry and smaller than a patera. We stayed up too late, drank too much, and got to bed after 2 am.
I was up to see the sun rise around 6.30, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast once again thanks to Paul and his pan. We were finally ready to leave at 8.40 am. This was Ian’s first walk, but not his first march. His body is a tribute to the British health system and he sensibly chose a sling to carry. Paul is a tall man and he carried what looked like a lot. Amy chose to be an archer. My weapons always seem to stay the same. On a light infantry patrol you would be unlikely to face a large well equipped enemy. So a small shield seems fine for facing javelins. I am not the world’s best javelin thrower so I like taking a spiculum, a heavy throwing weapon which can double as a spear. Against an un-armoured infantry a sword would be useful and most of us carry them. I carry a kit bag for spare socks and tunic, a wooden bowl, eating tool, food and tent canvas. I use two water bottles, one for water and one for cider which is my little treat. I wear my cloak, as soldiers would have. In Comitatus soldiers wear a cloak and or armour.
We climbed up to the Wall and headed west to Greatchesters or Aesica... This small 3 acre infantry fort is a special place, with interior buildings visible just underneath the grass. The site is very much a working farm and unless you are walking the Wall you are unlikely to visit the fort, sited to guard the Caw Gap. The fort was a late addition to the Wall, for under the north-west corner of the fort lie the footings of Mile-Castle 43, levelled when the fort was built.
It is possible to see the 'broad wall' foundations of the Wall which were laid-down before it was decided to build the Wall in a narrower gauge. But unlike elsewhere, the 'narrow wall' at Greatchesters was constructed on new footings immediately behind the broad foundations. The narrow wall was later to form the northern defences of the Aesica fort. Four external ditches are visible on the western side of the fort, whereas the southern and eastern sides were served by only a single ditch; this suggests that the builders of the fort were concerned by the flat approach from the west, inhabited on our visit by a very large bull. The fort was excavated in 1897 and a number of the interior buildings were uncovered; most of the principia (headquarters building), the praetorium (commanding officer's house), a horraeum (grain-store), and some of the centuriae (barrack-blocks).
The arch of the strong room in the principia is still visible, and the centuriae mirror those of Houseteads in showing a chalet arrangement. The west gate is of particular note, as it shows evidence of successive narrowings of the gateway during the entire period of occupation, until it was eventually blocked off completely. I loved the stonework. The eastern gate-house yielded an inscription which proves that the fort was built during the latter reign of Hadrian (vide supra), while another inscription tells us that the building work was possibly undertaken by the men of Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Inside the south gate stands a mighty altar, topped with the copper offerings of modern hikers. While admiring the altar we noticed the presence of yet another bull. Amy doesn’t like bovines, and unlike Mithras we beat a speedy retreat.
Heading south we were passing pass the bath house, served by a six mile long aqueduct, tombs and mausoleums. We crossed the Stangate and headed back east. The area around the Milecastle Inn is covered in marching camps, a great little supply base and a Roman watermill. We stopped for an early lunch and some beer. We were interested to see Graham Sumner postcards on display for sale on the bar. Graham is slowly colonising every public space in northern England!
We then walked alongside the Stangate on modern roads to Vindolanda. We were able to meet Sharon and little Alan here, and top up with water. We once again posed for silly pictures alongside the milestone, still in situ beside the road, before heading north to the Wall once again. We passed Milking Gap and its civilian settlement as the rain started, and it played with us for the rest of the day.
We walked west along a beautiful length of the Wall, past Crag Lough and up to the highest point at Winshields, before descending to the campsite for 6 pm. We walked 18 miles with lots of stops and no serious ill effects, and unlike back in 2008, we were not exhausted and in need of a sit down.
Watching the dark clouds build up in the west Paul beat a hasty retreat back down the A1 to arrive home at 1 am the next morning. It is amusing to consider how 18 miles took over nine hours, while around 320 miles took just six. The remaining five of us cooked and prepared for the storm to come. Amy and I cooked a simple pilaf using Bulgar wheat and contemplated if the Taifali ever used it. It can be traced back to almost 6000 B.C. Hot food always cheers you up, and a fire makes any place home.
The rain became heavy around 10 pm and we were tired enough to retire to bed. I’m getting old and I had constructed a bit of canvas to act as a back door to my tent. With my shield, tarred goat skin ground sheet and a stray sack my tent was weather proof. The wind and rain even lulled me to sleep.
With no reason to get up early I was planning a lie in, for me anything after 6 am. But around 7 am I was woken by water repeatedly dropping on my face. My hat and cloak were wet as well. The canvas I use as a shelter is very old, very thin, covered in mould and well ventilated with holes. There was only so much water it could take and it had reached that point. Annoyingly the “doors” were still weather proof, but the “roof” was “caput”. The storm was in full swing with no sign of letting up so I decided to crawl into my boots and start breaking down my tent. This really does not take very long and from the shelter of a tree I watched the clouds lift from the hillsides, the rain ease, and then return again. A robin even shared my tree for a while.
We drove to Vindolanda and enjoyed the fort in the rain, and the cafe even more. As ever the museum was inspiring. A few days before our visit a skeleton of an 8 to 10 year old, possibly a girl, had been found concealed in a pit in a mid third century barrack block. Visitors were interested in the discovery, even on a wet Sunday morning. After this we headed our separate ways back to “the real world”. A great weekend with very special people.
I don’t believe we can do or see things as our Roman forebears did. We are too far removed from them and have a very different view of the cosmos. But by walking their landscape and using reconstructions of their equipment we can engage with them and better understand their world.