Day 5: Housesteads to Gilsland, 11 miles (Molly and I) 14 miles (George)
If only cliffs and crags and sycamores could talk. Even if they could, their voices were sure to be drowned out by the happy chatter and hysterical laughter of our fifth day on Hadrian's Wall Path. There weren't many people walking the high point of the trail across the crags but everyone stopped for everyone else to offer salutations, historical insights, political opinion, and bawdy jokes.
|Celebrating the high point!|
The Roman Second Legion was responsible for this section of wall and its associated turrets and mile castles along the most punishing terrain of the whole line. At times Hadrian's Wall seems to barely hang on to the edge of the cliff and the hiker's path threads a narrow line between sheer cliff face and a three hundred foot free fall. The trail literally follows the edge of the Whin Sill, a thick basalt shelf of intrusive igneous rock that supports a true alpine ecology. I could not imagine how punishing conditions must have been for the builders, whether soldier or slave, in this cold, wind-driven environment.
|Threading the trail between rough rock outcrop and sheer drop.|
What can not be appreciated through the photographs here are the sheer drop-aways, the sudden edge of a horizon line hides the drop. This is gap and ridge landscape, familiar to Appalachian Trail hikers who trek through Pennsylvania. The steep descents into the gaps required hiking poles or clinging to the wall for support. I did both.
|Battlement to the left, pasture walls built of Hadrian's Wall stone in the gaps.|
Who were these barbarians to the north that the Romans guarded against? Was there any chance those angry tribes were to climb the cliff in the first place? The first local historian we came across assured us that yes, the Scots did in fact scale the cliffs. "Anything they could do to shock and alarm the Romans, they did." The Whin Sill, the most obvious and scary geological feature in the whole region seemed to attract raiding parties like bees to nectar. "The Romans, of course, had to protect the weak spots - the gaps and low points that look like sagging parts to the Sill." In addition to the wall, the ruins of Mile Castle 42 sits precariously up here, built to to the contour of the twisting edge of the cliff. "Fair game," said our local historian," the tribes considered it all fair game."
|Standing briefly on an undercut slump of the Sill (yikes!) we can see the enormity of the basaltic column structure.|
George had met his own local historian while solo hiking a section of the crags. "The more he talked, though fascinating, the more foul-mouthed he got!" Seems this local university professor was clearly on the side of the Scottish tribes, pointing sacred spots and areas that were important to the Celts. The wall, earthworks, forts, and in the low places - the Vallum - were insults to sacred ground. Druids planted and cared for sycamores in the Gaps. Sacred groves were (and still are) like religious shrines. These trees held special meaning for tribal beliefs and as we passed trees in each gap, we noticed fellow hikers admiring them - almost reverently.
|Whin Sill tilts like a frozen wave lifting from a green seas towards the north.|
The Celtic raiders were legendary. Not only did they revel in the near-constant harassing attacks on the Roman occupiers, but they'd made cattle rustling a near thousand-year pursuit against their tribal neighbors to the south. Often these cattle raids were bloody and violent. The Disney version of druidism ignores the bloodthirsty raids, rituals, sacrifices, and revenge killings, however. Though the Celtic religions were based in nature, natural events, and cycles, they demanded blood tributes. The archdruids of each tribe saw that their own brand of blood-justice was served. Traditions of raiding continued long after the Romans had withdrawn from the British Isles. By the middle ages, the border country had become known for these highly predatory raids. Reivers ("robbers" in old English) defined the Borderlands history until the late 1600s. It's a history well worth a good read - which I did that night at the Gilsland Inn and Hotel to distract myself from that scary place.
|Crag path threads its way through a low point with a segment of Vallum visible across the moor.|
|Laughter for miles - Minerva and Bob.|
I was trying to imagine this landscape at night with raiders about and everyone on edge. I noticed that very old farmhouses that stand in the low places are built like small fortresses. Even the barns were built like bunkers. I saw this style of architecture from the Chesters Fort clear to the sea at Bownesss-on-Solway. They were built with thick stone walls, massive chimneys, and with small windows or no windows. The Borderlands thousand-year feuds created its own architecture of defense. The Reivers tradition of riding and fighting also produced some of England's finest and most feared mounted cavalry in the 1700s and 1800s.
|Uncontrollable laughter got Minerva and Bob through the Crag and Gap section.|
Picking our way across the Crags, I noticed a strange sound that seemed to ebb and flow on the constant wind. One minute it was clear - like a maniacal bird call and the next minute it was a muffled chorus of voices. As we approached a particularly steep descent into the next gap, we discovered the source of the sound and immediately started to laugh because that's what you do when someone else is laughing uncontrollably. Minerva introduced herself and her husband Bob. They had been negotiating this section of the HWP for hours. Her wobbly knees were well braced but her weight, she admitted, made hiking a "tad difficult - but what the hell? Know what? Its the BOOBS! I'm freakin' top heavy! What the (laughing uncontrollably) bloody hell?!" Bob laughed just as hard as we passed them on "the steeps" and we wished them well. I looked back to check on her. She sat and scooted. She bumped down on her butt. She toddled and wobbled. She threw back her poles, arms outstretched, howling with laughter. She tried to stand, wobbled back and forth, cried with delight, and shouted "Who's fuckin' idea was this? Who's bloody (laughing hysterically) fuckin' idea was this? MINE! BLOODY MINE!" By the time Molly and I had carefully picked our way down the rocky path to the bottom, my belly hurt from laughing along with Minerva. I looked back up to wave and Bob hollered down from the heights "Her bloody idea! (laughing) I'm just along for the fun!"
|Wild moors are a truly alpine habitat.|
Molly and I continued past the deep quarry lakes dug into the foot of the Sill during WWII. Here we met an old quarry man. On to the small village of Gilsland. We got lost in the tiny town and a local who looked to be over 80 years old came running up behind - actually running - and flagged us down. "Ladies! Ladies! You've missed the turn!" He was kind enough to point us in the right direction, down a country lane with a running pony at the fence and directly to the town pub, the Armstrong Inn. It was getting late so we decided to ask directions to the Gilsland Inn and Hotel. The locals looked at each other then at us. "'Bout another mile and a half. Uphill." We were so tired! But not so tired that I couldn't pass up a half pint Guiness. This made one of the guys at the bar put down his own beer and watch me gulp it down. "Impressive! A young lady bolting a Guiness at that!"
|Quarry lake and Mile Castle 42 on the the edge of the cliff.|
|A Gordie-Boy quarryman telling his tales from WWII mining.|
|Trig Point being explained by a local historian.|
|A bull had run through the wall the night before. Time for mending.|
We strapped our packs back on and made the trek up the hill above the river, fortified with hard cider and dark beer. The folks in the pub were like all the folks we'd met that day: friendly, happy to see you, and ready to tell some stories. I thought about all the stories we'd heard that day to pass the time up the steep walk to the hotel. The 90 year-old quarryman had told us about the operations on the Sill when England needed gravel to construct air bases. "Happiest job of my life!" We listened to a retired engineer explain the trig point that marks the highest peak of the Sill. "Twas long before GPS, you see. But I think they would have loved GPS if they'd had it!" We watched an old man mend a wall. He was later joined by some younger men whom George met as he came through about an hour behind us. "Bulls run right through the wall to get at the cows!" George got a ride up the hill at the Armstrong Inn and joined us at the spooky hotel on the hill. He had started farther back that we had that morning adding an extra 3-4 miles to the crag and gap hike for the day. He was exhausted!
Day 6: Gilsland to Bramptom. 14 miles.
Next morning we took a public bridle path back down into the town of Gilsland and wandered purposefully around the river and back streets looking for the HDP. This didnt fool the locals who pointed us in the right direction. We were surprised to be almost on top of the wall as it ran right through the town, across the river and up a steep back. What a great piece of wall this was! We came up on turret ruins then the Poltross Burn Mile Castle then another turret ruin. s.
|Artist's depiction of the Poltross Burn Milecastle near Gilsland.|
|The Poltross Burn Mile Castle today from the same angle.|
It was amazing to see an almost complete two miles section with all its ramparts and turrets in place. We'd crossed into Cumbria and basked in the drizzly fields full of baby lambs, some having been born the day before. Fortified farmhouses (still occupied) with their enclosed farm yards built in the middle ages were well kept and beautiful even as they waited for another attack from the Reivers. Some were B&Bs, one had a sleeping barn for weary hikers, and another had an artist's studio. Every compound we passed was built of Hardian's Wall. We found several wall stones incised with the builder's names and unit.
|Gilsland and the Pennines in the distance - the Borderlands.|
|"A whacking great piece of wall" ran for miles and miles.|
As we hiked along this most impressive stretch of wall, forts, and fortified farms, I reflected on our theme of "Walls" and asked a few folks we met hiking the opposite direction about how they thought about this wall. "Goes to show you haw meaningless they are," said one Scot who was hiking with his dog. "All that war and bloodshed and occupation under the pretense of 'keeping the South safe from the northern hoards' and the wall didn't make a damn bit of difference. They just took it apart and built their fortified farms with it." Funny thing about walls, said another hiker, is that they only make things worse. "But this section is a whacking good stretch, don't you think?"
|All day we followed it, up and down, across rivers, into towns.|
The wall snakes across farm fields, across rivers, up hills and down hills, and suddenly it was gone. We passed a well preserved fort at Birdswold - still under excavation - but it was closed to the hiking public for visitor center renovations. Beyond the great fort, there was only the Vallum and pasture walls. The sun came out and blazed down on us. The air became humid and thick. We passed over and through so many stiles that we couldn't count. Then - surprise! The Haytongate Hut, a trail angel's haven built in a private backyard with a hole in the hedge signed with "Welcome!" We were some happy hikers! A Coke and bag of chips for a pound made us a happy group again.
|Haytongate Hut makes for many happy hikers who happen to find the hole in the hedge!|
Inside the hut were notes from happy hikers to the owners written after they'd discovered a tea kettle, coffee, sodas, snacks, fruit, and crisp cold water on ice. We found all along the way several "Honesty Boxes" that locals leave out in the fields, full of iced drinks and snacks. At each one, people left notes. I thought about a rancher acquaintance of mine on the southern U.S. border who leaves coolers of water and food for those crossing the U.S./Mexico fence line. The crossing is dangerous for many reasons, but "it's the heat that kills" he told me at a conference on community conservation in Arizona. "They leave notes," he said, "Sometimes with just 'Gracias, amigo,' or a heart drawn by a child."
|Notes of appreciation.|
|Centuries old English Oak.|
Re-energized we began the last leg of our trip that day. The wall was visible only here, but a lot of it showed up in the massive Lanercost Priory ruins that we visited at the end of our section. Another English Heritage site, we flashed our tourist passes and wandered around inside the great structure built mostly of Hadrian's Wall stone. From border defense to place of worship. The irony was not lost on us. We found where monks had incised game boards into the ledges of windows. Fox and Geese was most popular. We were told that people from miles away could hear the beautiful monastic choirs, that the sound carried across the valley and brought peace to the land. We spied a Roman builder's initials high on an exterior wall. It seemed most of the missing wall since Haydongate was here! But King Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries in 1536 ended this beautiful priory's story of choir, chant, and game-playing monks.
|Recycled wall stone built this priory.|
At the Scotch Arms, our B&B for the night, we met up with the Scot and his dog. He and his wife were staying there for the week while he hiked sections of the Wall Path each day. It was nice to have the opportunity to introduce our family's connections to the Highlands. "Ah, Love! Under the Clan Mackinnon! I live in the land of Mackinnon on the west coast. You must come visit - and stay with us!" We exchanged emails. Who knows? The place, town, and company was some of the finest on our trip. I would have loved to stayed a little longer.
My night in the Gilsland Inn (scary) was spent reading Wikipedia's history of the Borderland Reivers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_Reivers
Lanercost Priory was a spectacular end-of-section visit. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lanercost-priory/
I wish we'd planned a day just to explore Brampton and its lovely countryside. We stayed at the Scotch Arms Mews http://www.thescotcharmsmews.co.uk/ right in town and we were awakened the next morning by horses trotting down the cobble streets to be let out to pasture for the day. https://www.visitcumbria.com/car/brampton/