Hadrian's Wall Walk 3 - The UltimateIt rained hard, from a dark, hard sky. In the wet shadowed field, Victor and Fortunatus quickly and efficiently erected shelters. They'd done it many times. It was a natural set of movements now. Within 20 minutes the camp was ready, within the hour fires were lit, food cooking. The rain drove hard. Americans camped nearby, eyeing us suspiciously. In the darkness Izabella too, arrived, with her modern tent. We were not jealous. Our pegs were firm, our canvas tight, fires warm, no mistakes, no errors - this was the Roman army.
By morning, the hardened soldiers emerged cold, but dry from the tried and tested shelters. The cavalry had arrived, Mark, Sharon and young Laurence, and then the Anglian warrior, Steve Atkinson, dressed for a fight. Miccalus was another welcome addition to the patrol. Riding his horse hard, Domitius too arrived in time to kit up and join the grim task of patrolling this desolate frontier. We had waited on him, knowing he would be there, despite having recently returned from a bitter campaign on the Rhine frontier. One lime was as good as another to this grizzled pede.
Rain stopped, cloud lifted - our march began. Eleven miles across rugged country, the wreck of the Wall - Vallum Aeli - stretching coast to coast. We were overwatching its highest section, the wildness and remoteness at once beautful and dangerous. Forts here had been torched shortly after 400. As a Pict I knew the names of kinsmen who had slaughtered and burnt at Vercovicium.
I would tread those ashes shortly. Blue sky opened up, the march was refreshing, the path dry and easy to negotiate. Victor's marching across the Empire to Sirmium and back had worn his hobnails flat, the veteran took falls on the slippery grass - the 'old soldier's slide' they call that, when you've walked too many god-damned miles on hard roads. We sat at Robin Hood's Tree - and Domitius vented his frustrations on it. His memories of Germania welling up inside him no doubt. Izabella was not pleased ...
Blue skies opened, vistas to northern Gododdin, south into Anglian territories. We stopped to eat and talk. Mark and Sharon seemed at ease on this route march, and they had the kit for it! Steve Atkinson looked lordly, surveying his newly conquered territory, Izabella had faced much harder challenges in the Cairngorms. Victor and Domitius strutted over the old Roman masonry, once theirs. I skulked, knowing what my own people had done to this ravaged outpost. Miccalus, veteran of the Classis Britannicus had not marched for many a year, but kept up ably.
At Vercovicium the disparate party ate within the shattered shell of the old military basilica, stumps of columns that had supported the high-halled ceiling dotted here and there. Natives shuffled through the ruins, but were wary of our weaponry. Rightly so. Ghosts were here. Men chastized, berrated, whipped - in the hall in which we ate. A praefect gave orders to his troops, another passed on reports to his centenarii of torch-lights seen to the north - Pictish warbands massing. Centenarii marched to barrack blocks, roused sleepy men and families - arm up, move out, trouble approaching. We toured the sight, visited those barracks. The hospital, the latrines, the southern gate, saw houses outside the wall, soon to be torched. But we moved south to the hill top of Barcome Down, to the small military presence at the signal station there. A flame flickered. They could see us, and also troops mustering for action at Vindolanda.
Road walking, over walls and leaping barbed wire we climbed the hill, and found an old Britsh fortified stead, there stood an older signal station. To the west we found the platform of another. We could see Vircovicium in the distance, but now Vindolanda directly below us. What a sight! Victor was in his element. What had the sentries on duty here seen? Where had they gone? Picts had been here too. But later.
We cut down through thich brakes of fern into Vindolanda where we could be refreshed. Domitius was disgusted that we had to pay to enter. 'That is Rome - I said'.
Mark and Sharon had brought their little dog, Erik along, and he often took the point, but there were no ambushes. Road-walking led us to the merry inn, the Twice Brewed. We drank many beers and relaxed, before returning to camp. As the cold northern dark drew in, a few of us ate a meal at the pub in honour of our achievement. Tough going, good going, worth doing.
The march was good, and no-one seemed too troubled. The camping was not as good as 2007, for me. Rain prevented a really good get-together on Friday night, and Saturday we ate out. But that was an experience that we shall not forget!
Put this weekend on your calendar. It has got to be a must-do, relaxed, easy-going, breath-taking and informal.
I hope everyone enjoyed the march as much as the Pict!
Paul Elliott/Galanan son of Muircholaich - the Pict