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Bowness-On-Solway, England, October 2, 2011
The view is timeless. Sea gulls careen over sullen waves amidst a punishing breeze. A northern sun is but a pale reflection of its relative strength found in more southerly, Mediterranean climes. Scotland’s southwest shore looms through the mist.
This landscape, located at the most northwesterly corner of England, marks the furthest reach of the mightiest empire of ancient times: The Roman Empire. As I stood on these shores in the failing light of an October day, I couldn’t help but imagine the bleak sense of isolation that probably marked the lives of Roman soldiers posted at this site. At what was the edge of an empire, I felt overwhelmed not just by the beauty of the place, but, more to the point of my journey, the enormous impact of a once vigorous society, one now relegated to history.
Bowness-on-Solway was the last stop on a roughly ninety- mile journey on foot that had begun eight days earlier in an eastern suburb of Newcastle. It was my privilege to walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path as a means of marking a transition in my life. After thirty-eight years of full and part time work as a liturgical musician, a life that had been hitherto preoccupied with rehearsals, concerts, services and managing ministries, my reality was now distilled down to one of the most basic of humankind’s functions: walking. And walk we did! From the gray, industrial age veneer of Wallsend, Newcastle, through suburbs, along rivers, streams and fords, through quintessentially English pastoral scenes (how many kinds of sheep are there, anyway?), into quaint towns, replete with ancient churches and almost equally ancient pubs, or so it seemed, the path led my walking companion, Matthew Gray and me through the heart of times long-forgotten. Our walking brought us fearsome tales of Border Reivers (the word “blackmail” comes from the violence of their acts) and evocative views of long-decayed fortifications and abbeys as the land, itself, seem to still bear the scars of more turbulent times. On the other hand, our walking also brought us into contact with the friendliest of all souls, fellow walkers, as well as hospitable innkeepers, heartbreaking natural beauty and enough memories to fill a lifetime. An evening of traditional music on the last night at The King’s Arms in Bowness certainly crowned the whole experience.
But, in the end, it was all about The Wall. No, not Pink Floyd, but HADRIAN’S WALL! This guy Hadrian really knew how to get something done (note to contemporary American politicians, you could learn a thing or two from him!). Ruling the Roman Empire in its second century AD heyday, he personally visited all but two of the territories of the empire at its zenith. This “hands-on” approach and attention to detail was evident in everything that he did. Hadrian quickly realized that it was a losing proposition to expand his empire any further north into what is now known as Scotland. In Hadrian’s time, this area was populated by a group of people known to us as the Picts. On other travels, I have found myself quite fascinated by the Picts’ artwork on stones that one can still see in parts of Scotland. It is my belief we have missed an interesting story with the Picts as their culture didn’t include the written word. The Romans evidently didn’t have such a warm spot in their hearts for the Picts and thus Hadrian decided to build a wall from the east coast of England all the way to the Solway Firth, our modern day Bowness. The wall was not really just a means of keeping a segment of the populace out, but a way of controlling the evidently extensive traffic that occurred on both sides of the wall. Completed in just a few years, Hadrian’s Wall served its function for three centuries.
Returning to the twenty-first century, the contemporary historian can follow much of the story of Roman society in Britain in this walk. Through the remains of a series of forts, towers, bathhouses and bridges, the Romans quickly command one’s respect at their technological adroitness. They brought central heating, running water and sanitation facilities, wine and many other attributes of their culture. They respected local religions and provided a sense of stability in an unstable age (more, later, about how the Scots now view them). As we walked the path, we quickly gained a clear perspective of this fascinating culture amidst iconic views of the wall, particularly as it appears in central Northumberland County.
Matt and I visited the major sites: Segedunum, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Chesters Fort, Broccolitia Fort (which contained an intriguing Mithraeum), Housesteads, Birdoswald, the Roman Army Museum, Carlisle and, finally, Bowness. What’s left of the wall can be attributed to the efforts of nineteenth-century lawyer and, as they say in England, antiquarian, John Clayton. He bought much of the acreage of the various sites, preserving them from final destruction at the hands of local farmers who valued the quality of the stone work. Hadrian’ Wall Ltd., a company specializing in travel along the wall and located in a place called Twice Brewed (an appropriate name, somehow), arranged our trip with the same no-nonsense competence that graced the style of the Emperor Hadrian. Our expedition’s organizer, Gary of Hadrian’s Wall Ltd., set us up in the height of comfort after days that entailed up to eighteen miles of walking (that was the last day, we took a wrong turn….). Besides providing elegant accommodations at B and B’s, pubs, small hotels and farms, Gary was quick to point out great delis, pubs and other historic places to visit that had nothing to do with the Romans. Mapped out with the efficiency of a military operation, we slackpackers could concentrate on the task at hand, walking.
In the end, after all of this walking and shared experience, what is my most lasting impression? After all of the ruins, music, laughter, ales, great times with like-minded people from around the world, I am left with the elusive nature of history. For all of the superior attributes of their civilization previously extolled in this blog, the Roman Empire has not existed since the fifth century AD. Reminders of their greatness gradually erode into the eternal earth. As my face felt the unrelenting wind of Bowness, surveying the eternal creation of the earth, one that is God’s alone, I was naturally drawn to the thought that the “achievements” of our mortal lives are transitory if anything at all. Even the mighty empire of the Romans, like all empires, had its end. If you go to the National Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland (and I suggest that you do so as it is a bravura presentation of the culture of that country), you will see a section devoted to the Romans. Instead of praising them as I have just done, questions such as “Why were they here?”, “Why couldn’t they simply mind their own business?” and comments along the lines of “They were afraid, we took advantage of them in their increasing weakness” can be seen in the exhibition. It is an interesting take. Were the Romans “bringers of civilization” or uninvited legions that stole from and repressed the populace?
What do you think?
This is what I think: hike the Hadrian’s Wall Path and figure it out for yourself.