Hadrian's Wall Walk 7 - “Where Men became Gods!”October 2011
In the autumn of each year Comitatus walk part of the Wall to test our equipment and ensure it is not just costume but fit for purpose. Something that actually works, that you can walk in, sleep in and march in. This has become a tradition and this October saw the seventh walk.
We were all able to fit into one car, just about, and head north to the Wall chasing the setting sun. The sun won and as ever we arrived at Winshields in the dark. The sky was clear and crisp with hardly a cloud in the sky. The stars put on a great show and after a long season we knew how to put our tents up quickly and efficiently. The weather had been very wet and our normal camping spot was just too wet so we moved to another field where our feet didn’t sink in the mud. It was a little more public which meant I was reluctant to light a fire, even a raised one, especially with the weather forecasting rain soon after midnight.
A fire always provides a focus and cheers everybody up, but we made do with some lanterns. The wind was biting, and I wrapped my old tarred goat skin over my cloak to help keep warm. But the cheese, wine, sausage and bread were great and I took full advantage. We didn’t sit up too late over our wine which is always a good sign. We battened down the hatches and waited for the weather front to hit.
Today we have far higher levels of expectation than Roman soldiers. For us the cold and the wet are avoidable unpleasantness, but for them they would be just part of the job. This was a walk where we knew we would be wet and cold and had to get used to the idea. Well I needed to get used to the idea, the others were looking forward to the weather! When I started organising these walks a few years ago members were positively proud they could live rough for a couple of nights. Now our members, especially the younger members, are used to camping with the minimum of comfort throughout the year. The guys on this trip were “hard core”. I watch them, worry about and smile at them. They sleep in their clothes, eat with their fingers and laugh in the face of danger. It makes sense for just one of us to carry an axe for wood. But on this trip we were sharing a knife, cup and patera. Minimalist wasn’t the word!
In my tent every time I turned over my cloak went walk about, which was so typical it made me smile. My feet were cold and didn’t warm up, which is something I hate. It was just above freezing and any exposed flesh soon got cold. Lying awake in the morning I could not get used to the fact that dressed as a Roman I could still receive and answer emails from the modern world. Bizarre.
The rain came in during the night and stayed with us. In fact it rained for days. We were up and out pretty quick and more or less on time. There was little to prepare and just boots to put on. Breakfast was cold cured meat, barley bread and onions washed down with cider. Sam and I took what we needed, Amy armed herself to the teeth while James went all Spartan distaining food, drink and even a cloak. He did wear tunic and trousers for which we were very grateful.
A cloak for most us was very useful. I wore mine over everything including helmet, armour, sword, kit bag, water and cider bottles. The wool gets wet on the outside and no more than damp on the inside. My old cloak has done lots of marches and I suspect has shrunk over the years. My knees felt wet between the bottom of my cloak and above my leg wraps, which was a major lesson. I need a new cloak! My kit worked very well and I felt comfortable although my clothing was a bit worn and patched. My new horse-hair kit bag repelled the water really well, and my scale armour actually helped distribute the weight of the equipment straps across my shoulders.
James's fell boots worked fine, but Amy's were on the way out after several years and her feet were in pain. Sam's boots were not nailed so he fell over every few hundred metres much to our amusement. In fact on every slope we all rushed to the bottom, got cameras out and enjoyed watching him descend. Falling over so much really knocks it out of you but he soldiered on.
As ever the camaraderie helped keep us going. The weather was the hardest I have marched in, and the ground was literally a bog in many places. Sam and Amy seemed to regularly sink in the mud. Feet were wet, but the boots kept the mud from between the toes. We repelled cows, other walkers and killer sheep.
James even ran ahead to do a bit of scouting. We did around seven miles in over four hours which gives some idea of the going. We piled into the Roman Army Museum and the staff were friendly and welcoming. The museum has had a recent revamp and the film "The Eagles Eye" was very good. We made it back to the campsite via the road and were able to speedily pack down in the rain. We shot off to Vindolanda to see yet more artefacts before driving to York. We had a big Roman meal using our uneaten rations and finished the wine. It was a special evening.
If we had stayed the second night I would have been concerned for those with no dry clothes. I could have got a small fire going and rigged up something to sit under, but dry wood would have been at a premium. I wear a sleeveless wool shirt at night under my tunic, but carry it in my kit bag during the day. So I would have had dry wool next to my skin and suspect my cloak would have dried off to a degree in my tent.
I was braced to lie in my tent in a damp sort of way contemplating life for several hours with a wine skin. But Sam and especially James were very wet with no dry wool to look forward to. James thought he could sleep “absent clothing” in the rain, but we talked him out of it.
I enjoyed my time with Sam, James and Amy. Let's do it again soon.