Thursday, June 15, 2017

Trip Log: Hadrian's Wall Path - John Clayton's Triumph: Chesters Roman Fort to Housesteads - Day 4

John Clayton as centurion, by William Bell Scott, 1857. (Wikimedia)
After a restful night at Mingary Barn in Humshaugh north of Chollerford, we continued on our trek on the Hadrian's Wall Path in anticipation entering Northumberland National Park. This was a naturalist's and historian's feast day! 

Our time at the Chesters Fort on the North Tyne River drove home the fact that so much of the Roman Period is still buried. It was named Cirurnum by the Romans and was strategically placed to guard the bridge over the river and to house a large cavalry. Not happy with a Roman fort ruins on his estate, Nathaniel Clayton, in the early 1800s, covered over this massive ruin with tons of earth so that his pastures and lawn sloped gently to the river. Nathaniel's son John (1792 - 1890), upon inheriting the estate did the opposite. He oversaw the uncovering of the fort and collected thousands of artifacts from the ruins. He built a museum next to the estate house to hold them. We dropped our packs at the museum door and were thunderstruck by what was inside. 

John Clayton is the hero of this story. His excavations at Chesters Fort led to other big digs. The next few days took us to some of his most impressive excavations at Housesteads (incredible), the Mithraic Temple (stunning), Brocolita at Gilsland (yikes!), and Vindolanda (though we didn't stop here, we drove through on the AD 122 bus).  The whole of Clayton's work in this middle stretch of the HWP, including the preservation of numerous turrets, mile castles, and great stretches of the wall and Vallum, have been lumped together as a World Heritage Site and fall mostly inside the Northumberland National Park. So admired was John Clayton that he appears as a Roman centurion supervising the building of the crags section of the wall in The Romans Cause A Wall To Be Built for the Protection of the South (1857).

Roman altars. (These make great garden ornaments.)
John Clayton, inheritor of the buried fort.
"As numerous as lost pennies."
Hipposandals for some of the 1000 horses kept at Chesters Fort.

Day 4: Chollerford to Housesteads 11 miles (Molly and I) 14 miles (George)

It was easy to get carried away by the romance of the great archeological finds. They were grand, massive, and even nostalgic. But as a military landscape, we had to remember that these were landscapes of destruction and occupation. The environmental damage caused by collecting the timber, stone, lime (for mortar), clay, peat, and gravels  - not to mention the conscription of workers and slaves gathered from the surrounding countryside - transformed social and ecological systems in ways that we can still see today. .

Artist's depiction of the stables of Chesters Fort.
Molly reads an interpretive sign and tries to imagine what this place was like.
From the bank of the North Tyne River looking up at (just) the Roman baths.
Alcoves at the Baths.
Furnace room where slaves stoked fires for under-floor heating and hot water delivery.
George with that look of "Holy moly!"
Floor supports that held flagstone for heated floors. Heated air traveled under the flagstone.
Earthworks and ruins ran so close together that they merged across fields and windy heights. The great excavation at Chesters Fort impressed on us just how extensive this system of defense had been. The stable area was so vast (and not yet completely excavated!) that I had to stand a while and let it sink in. One thousand horses. Eight hundred cavalry soldiers. A thousand people living within the fort. Thousands more living in villages that were built at the south gate to provide soldiers (who spent money) with "comfort," entertainment, food, and drink.

As far as the eye can see...

The fort and the dozens of sites that we encountered later were embedded in the native landscape of Northumbria. The track of the wall ran across a sweeping lift of earth that curled at the summit crags like ocean waves frozen in mid-air. George remarked that even in the Middle Ages, a period we think of as "long ago", people must have looked upon these ruins and earthworks as ancient even to them. Two thousand years of rot, decay, burial, scavenging, and collapse of an empire haven't done anything to reduce the spectacle of it.

A White Wagtail perches on a tumbled river bridge stone.
Jackdaw the Centurion.
Northern Lapwings tumbling and screaming.
The scale and scope of Chesters Fort was a bit overwhelming. As I wandered in and out of the acres and acres of ruins, trying to imagine what this place must have sounded like, smelled like, and looked like during the occupation, I found myself needing to take mini-breaks with some bird watching just let my brain rest on feathers and beaks and flying things. We stamped our passports and continued on our way through tiny villages, across muddy pastures, and climbed hills up and up. With every step the views became more expansive and the scope and scale of Hadrian's Wall and its wealth of associated ruins and earthworks filled every vista. John Clayton had a hand in all of them.

Stamping our hiker's passports - a bit like the Camino.
George and Molly taking in the vistas.
Through farming villages (made of wall stone!).
Following wagon ways and tractor paths and acorns, up and up.

George on the north side of the Vallum and me and cows on the south side.

Ducking out of the winds and rain for lunch in the lee of Hadrian's Wall. Brrr!
Lumps and bumps of a turret foundation beneath the turf on a shoulder of battlement.
Up and up we walked until we found a parking area with a food truck! Yay! Food truck! We sat in the lee of another bit of wall and drank hot coffee, hot chocolate, ate some sandwiches, and talked to the local historian - the food truck guy. He insisted we see the Mithras Temple down the hill just out of sight. Molly and I both groaned as we stood up - oy. But when we hobbled into the small temple ruin, I forgot about my sore legs. The landscape suddenly shifted from battle-ready to underearth. Even as the battlement rise dominated the little vale, there was an absolute feeling of sanctuary here. The winds died down and the sun shone warm. I wondered what religions and faiths occupied this land before, during, and after Roman rule. We stayed here for some time and sat in silence inside the little temple.

Mithras Temple ruins.
Molly and I wanted to rest our sore muscles so decided to call it a day. We caught the AD 122 bus for Housesteads where we explored another huge fort ruins at the peak of the crags. The wind, however, was brutal up there! High wind warnings had been posted for the day and a few hikers and been blown off their feet! We laughed as the wind pushed us around the ruins. George continued up from the Mithras Temple along the trail another three miles and met us at Housesteads a few hours later where he found us writing in our journals and bird watching. The views and the immensity of the Roman presence was again overwhelming. We all rode the AD 122 bus to that night's stay at Blekinsopp Castle. Another great place to stay, right on the shuttle line about ten miles south of HWP.

Housesteads Fort atop the Crags.
Floor pillars for the ventilated granary at Housesteads.
East gate of the huge Housesteads Fort with Crags in the distance. The was some windy post!
An easy ride to our night's accommodation out of the park on the AD 122 bus. Great shuttle service!
This day was exhausting for all of us - mentally and physically. My brain couldn't keep up with the immensity of the ruins that came almost non-stop all the way to the top of the crags. Of all the things that left an impression on me this day was the small Mithras Temple, sheltered from the wind and symbolism of empire of the wall and its forts. These temples were once buried underground for worshipers to feel the hold and cool of the earth around them. I read about the Persian-Grecco myths that surrounded this (literally) underground cult and fell asleep that night in the castle's "family" room (it could have held a small Roman legion!), wrapped in the imagery of great bull being slaughtered by Mithras. The slaughter, tended to by a raven, the sun, a serpent, and a dog ensured that "the blood spills from the bull, sinks into the ground, and from it all life on Earth emerges...."

Altar to the Sun was illuminated with an oil lamp set in an alcove inside.

Without John Clayton, who knows what would have happened to Hadrian's Wall?

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