After the odd meeting with the woman at the pub, we now felt we had to visit Hadrian’s Wall. It had been on my mind for a while, for some reason, and had cropped up a lot in strange places as I read and researched various things. I admit that I felt that Stuart should one day see at least part of it… I have fond memories of time spent in the area and especially at the isolated Mithraeum on the moors. The trouble was, well… the Romans.
Now, it has to be said that, along with plumbing, central heating and a host of technological and educational innovations, the Romans brought a ‘civilising’ influence to the country that came to be known as Britain. But you have to take the word in a literal sense… they built cities. And with cities, you get administration, record-keeping, statutes and organisation… and control. In the case of the Romans, it was the control of the invader, imposing the will of its leadership on a foreign nation… and that seldom works out well, at least, not for the conquered nation.
Julius Caesar first invaded in 55BC, but he didn’t get far. The following year, he tried again and took a sneaky political control of a third of the country below what is now the Scottish border by installing client kings. Julius’ invasion was more a fact-finding mission than a full-scale invasion and, in AD43, when Aulus Plautius invaded with forty thousand men at his back, they were far better prepared and the Britons became part of Claudius’ empire. Those who lived beyond the border, a little way to the north of the wall in what is now Scotland, were a different matter.
In AD 60, Anglesey, the Holy Island of the Druids, was decimated and its shrines destroyed by the Roman general, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Britain was firmly under Roman rule. Sixty-two years later, the Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall to be built to mark the northernmost reach of his domain. Stretching across the land, east to west, from the Tyne to the Solway Firth, it ran unbroken for seventy-three miles. The wall was a stone structure, with an additional ditch, Roman road and vallum, a huge earthwork that runs almost coast to coast. It was punctuated by milecastles, forts and turrets, allowing the wall to be continually manned and ready for action along its entire length.
Much of the wall still remains and a great deal has been learned about the Roman way of life, public, military and personal, from what has been found along its length. The walls were up to twenty feet high and, on average, ten feet thick… and that is without the forts. Completed in around six years, it was, and is, a magnificent achievement… the largest Roman remains in the world. When new, it would not only have marked the extent of the empire, but with its white stone reflecting the light, it would have made an unmistakable statement about just who was in charge.
Given that our interest lies primarily with the earlier, indigenous culture of these isles… if, indeed, it was wholly indigenous… we don’t have a lot of time for the Romans. They are part of the story of this country, as they are of so many others across the globe, but their culture was not only superimposed upon our own, but marked the beginning of a misunderstanding of our native history that is only just beginning to be laid to rest.
There is a common misconception that ‘BC’… before Caesar… these islands were populated by uncouth, unsophisticated tribes, when in fact, the artefacts that have come to light over the years show that the people who lived here had a rich culture, full of poets, artists and colour… as well as the warriors and farmers. And five thousand years ago, millennia before the foundation of Rome, our ancestors were building complex astronomical alignments into vast stone temples that included and shaped entire landscapes.
The Romans held sway in Britain for four hundred years… and then they left, leaving Britain to face a new wave of invaders, which is the point in history where the legends of King Arthur begin to emerge. Some of their legacy was now so firmly entrenched in daily life that it remained. Other aspects of what was left behind we simply discarded, or recycled… like the stone from the wall, which was used as a ‘quarry’ and supplied the stone for many buildings, including the Norman Lanercost Priory, to which we nodded as we passed.
We did not see a great deal of the wall itself…at least, not compared to its length and history, but we touched base, visiting one of the ruined turrets, driving along a stretch of the wall to cast a glance at the crowded Birdoswald fort, where we decided against joining the throng. It was enough. Our hearts and minds were still processing what we had seen and experienced in the north… and there was still a long drive ahead. We turned the car, expecting to take our usual route home… but, even now, in the final hours of our journey, the road had some surprises in store.