Late Romans on the roof of EnglandClimbing Scafell Pike, Highest English Mountain, in Roman Kit
It began as an off-the-cuff proposal thrown out at a pub meeting. 'Who's up for a march up Scafell Pike in full kit?'. The group leader, John C, had wanted a decent road-test of Roman military kit circa 400 AD, and, wanting something a little more adventurous than a stroll through the country decided to attempt a 'climb.' And if you're going to climb, you might as well climb the highest peak you can, surely? The fact that it was January could only add to the 'experience!'
So it was that five of the toughest members of Comitatus met up on Saturday morning 29th January at Hardknott Roman fort in the Lake District: John Conyard, Doc and Ingrid, Jamie MacLean and myself. Getting to the fort the evening before had been a challenge in itself for some of us, although the weather was good, negotiating Wrynose and Hardknott Passes in the dark proved quite a white-knuckle ride! The plan on the day was to follow the Esk valley up to the Great Moss, cross the river at some point, and then climb up to Mickledore, from there we would climb across the ridge up to the peak of Scafell.
Worries about what to take (and what not to take) plagued us even at the moment of departure. The weather was cold and we needed to be wary of rain, maybe even snow and sleet. It would certainly be extremely cold at the summit with wind chill factored in. The walk would warm us up, however, and of course, no-one wanted to be overburdened. We all wore Late Roman long-sleeved tunics of wool, woollen trews and socks. We all wore a woollen sagum (rectangular army cloak) and each of us had a period hat to wear. Additionally we carried ration bags, wool mittens and lots of water. Most of us used leather waterbags. This was an armed patrol, of course! I carried a spatha (long sword), a recurve bow and quiver full of arrows, while my companions took small shields, and a mix of spears, spicula (iron-shanked javelins) and axes. Jamie MacLean was typically adventurous and insisted on wearing a corselet of scale armour up the mountain despite advice to the contrary .. he told us that it was a condition of his sponsorship - he was raising money for the Tsunami Appeal. Our fifth (and most sensible) member, Ingrid, dressed in modern walking gear to accompany us, take photos and keep us going!
Before I reflect on the kit and how it held up under this extreme march, I do want to explain why we attempted this climb. We did attempt to rationalize our route, and came to two conclusions. At Hardknott Fort, a desolate posting if ever there was one, we could see the rugged nature of the terrain and imagine the plight of the auxiliary soldiers stationed there. The thought occurred to Doc that a march up here in full kit might well have been a regular feature of life at the fort. A dip in the warm baths just outside the fort walls afterwards may just have made up for the exertion. Alternatively we did compare Scafell Pike to other mountain ranges. Roman legions routinely crossed the Alps and campaigned in Armenia and the mountains of Turkey, Alexander's troops reached the Hindu Kush in comparison to which Scafell is but a molehill. So we thought we were justified in recreating a light infantry patrol in mountain country. Perhaps there were Scotti raiders snapping at our heels, or encamped at Wastwater, the other side of Mickledore ...
We marched. The sun shone out from a deep blue sky. We sweated and sweated. Off came the hats, the cloaks, the mittens. Yes, we were fighting for breath as the inclines steepened. Doc lost a knife, I snapped the sole of my modern boot and had to borrow a pair of modern spares. It goes without saying that the landscape was extraordinary, it was absolutely stunning, and to walk through this savage, untouched wilderness in Roman clothing, armed to the teeth, was an experience that I will not forget. We passed waterfalls, crossed the bridge and soon entered the Great Moss, a marshy bog in the cusp of the valley through which the Esk flowed. Here we stepped with care since no-one relished the idea of a soaking followed by subzero wind-chill at the peak. The party split up to find a way across the Esk and we met up ready for the climb along a stream that came down from the high ridge. It was a punishing climb, with regular ten minute stops. The shields really seemed to weigh the others down, and Jamie was both overheating and suffocating in the scale armour.
John kept us going, and was the only climber to wear authentic boots throughout the walk. These calcei (enclosed leather boots) did a decent job, but they did not grip the smooth rocks and did not staying particularly dry. John lost many hobnails from the boots on the way down, and split a seam.
At the top, after a frantic scramble on the scree slope, we crunched through snow to meet more traditional climbers who were surprised to see Romans clambering up to the peak. Several had their photos taken with us, and we even received some donations for the Tsunami Appeal. That was very heart-warming indeed. Of course the view from the top of Scafell Pike was stunning, the clouds below us, sunlight shining off of the Irish Sea and the fells receding away from us like the wave tops of a vast earthen ocean.
Our time was limited, and after a quick lunch we hastened down the mountain, chased by both nightfall and by a long tongue of thick mist which threatened to engulf the peak. At a breakneck pace we reached our cars as night fell. The march had taken eight hours in total and tested our legs and our backs to the limit. Our clothing worked superbly, the wool kept us warm and dry.
The shields, well ... we could have done without them. But my long sword did not prove a burden, neither did my bow. The others found spears and spiculum to be quite helpful in climbing, and coming down the mountain I actually quite envied them. Two pieces of kit need mention: my scabbard chape did excellent service, without it the end of my scabbard would have been knocked to pieces banging on rocks, and my leg wraps (puttees) were fantastic. My left leg came unwrapped right at the summit, but was easily re-tied.On the way back my right leg went up to the knee in a bog and Doc had to pull me out, but when I later took my trews off to wash I noticed that they were absolutely spotless. The leg-wraps themselves are absolutely black with dirt from rocks, ice, mud and bog, but they kept the trews very clean. I guess this is why agricultural workers (and then soldiers) used them.
In all, we raised £200 for the Tsunami Appeal, John repaired his boots and we have all vowed to climb a much lesser peak in future (if at all!). I'll not forget this climb up from Hardknott Fort to the top of snow-capped Scafell Pike in a hurry, and I feel we were shadowed every-step of the way by Roman auxiliaries who had gone before us.