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Hadrian: King of the North?

“The Night’s Watch is the only thing standing between the realm and what lies beyond.”

Maester Aemon to Tyrion Lannister
Laurie examines first big section of the wall on day three

On our third day, we finally began to see segments of what remained of one of the great achievements of Roman engineering, Hadrian’s Wall. As we walked I noted how it stretched across vast landscapes. It reminded me of the ice wall in the HBO series, The Game of Thrones. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when one of the displays at the excavation of the Roman Fort at Housesteads talked about George R. R. Martin’s inspiration for “the Wall.” Martin, the author of the books upon which the series is based, imagined a wall that stretched across the land to separate it from the evil forces to the north.

Turns out the spark for his ice wall idea was a visit to Hadrian’s Wall.

In 122 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the island of Britannia and decided that the northern reach of the empire was far enough. Conquering the Pictish tribes beyond wasn’t worth the trouble. He gave orders for construction of a wall across the narrowest part of the island, about 84 miles. Roman soldiers finished the fortification in less than a decade. The wall was eight to ten feet wide and roughly 20 feet high. Each Roman Mile—about nine tenths of a modern mile, was punctuated by a “mile castle,” a small fort. In between each of these was two manned watchtowers. The thousands of soldiers on the wall were supported by a series of large forts, each about five miles apart.

Immediately north of the wall was a defensive ditch, except in cases where cliffs provided defenses. South of the wall was a “vallum” ditch which defined a military zone, although. Villages were often located within the zone. This system survived for over 300 years.

During our eight day hike we saw many remnants of forts, watchtowers, and the wall itself—but no barbarians. We found this trek surprisingly challenging. Much of the route crosses grassy pastures without a dirt path. It is also very rural. The center section has undulating hills which made us glad we had trekking poles. Many of the villages we passed through had no services. More than one pub where we planned on making a lunch stop was permanently closed. An Englishman we walked with for awhile joked that, “In the country there are many bathrooms, and you don’t have to flush.”

A local reading a plaque

Fortunately, locals place out “Honesty Boxes” or even small cabins stocked with self service food and drink, and a place to leave money. And in two cases where our hostel or B&B was in a small village without services, they provided excellent evening meals at a reasonable price.

Our eight day trek ended in Newcastle, where there are many places for dining and plenty of Airbnb options. It also provides a nice break to rest and recover before we set off for Italy, and a longer hike on The Way of St Francis.

It turns out that A Game of Thrones isn’t the only series with inspiration from this area. Near our route were many references to “Border Reivers” or raiders over the centuries. If you’re a Firefly fan you might say, “Shiny.”

If you can’t make your own visit to the wall read more here or read Hadrian’s Wall by Adrian Goldsworthy. An excellent history of the wall, including the context of Roman civilization related to Great Britain.

4 thoughts on “Hadrian: King of the North?”

  1. The little Bo Peep rhyme baffled me as a small child. Sheep didn’t really have tails to speak of. As was my way, I thought it over and concluded that the rhyme meant “tail ends.” It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that I learned the true tale of sheep. Love the pics and history. Stardust is another wall-inspired movie. Walk on, my friends!

  2. Excellent piece, and def loved the pics, esp of the 4-legged locals 😉
    Knew hardly anything re: Hadrian’s wall. Thanks for sharing your travels and discoveries with your friends!!

    1. It is cool all the things we learn just from being here. Laurie actually got to pet the nose of one sheep—but it didn’t hang around for a scratch behind the ears

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