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Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall 2023: Hobbling from the Heavenfield

  • Written by Mike Vouri

The following is the third installment chronicling my second journey along the Hadrian’s Wall path this past summer. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. 

The Chesters bridge abutment. 

July 8

Woke up at 3:30 am that Saturday, possibly because it was only 7 p.m. at home. I was still on Pacific Daylight time. Never fear, by the time I adjusted to London time I’d be home and lying awake there.

By the third day on the Hadrian’s Wall Path, my 2023 experience was not what I had anticipated over years of planning.

Instead of muscling up for a long day of slogging, my preparations involved poring over bus and train timetables that would allow me to hike portions of the trail without doing further damage to the ankle I’d rolled (resulting in a third-degree sprain) on the streets of Newcastle more than a week before. I had been looking for a pub on my phone and missed a dip in the sidewalk. 

“Do you see what happens, Lebowski? Do you see what happens?”

The question now was:

Was it possible to savor the best parts of Hadrian’s Wall by employing public transportation (not tour buses) and the occasional taxi (£15 to £20 a ride) over the wind-swept moors and verdant farmlands of northern England? So far, so good. Well..not so good. I spent quite a bit of time on the trail looking down, monitoring each footfall, as even the slightest divot or errant pebble would cause my ankle to buckle, sending a jet of pain up my leg. This is where even a single trekking pole makes a huge difference by taking the weight off your leg and onto your shoulder.

Moreover, I revisited my own advice, once freely given as a park ranger and tour guide: “If you want to look, STOP.” Wish I’d embraced it a few days before.


The garden wall remains of the principia (headquarters) of Chesters Fort, just before a squall swept over the site. The photo below is the entrance to the strong room, which is where the pay chest was stored. I missed this shot four years ago, though my friend and hiking partner on that trip, Jerry, did not.

Waiting is a necessary evil. You wait for buses, trains and taxis. And owing to the dispatch with which they speed you down the trail (once engaged) you wait until the prescribed hour to check in at your next BNB. A 4 p.m. check-in is standard, as owners require a full day to clean the rooms, kitchens and common areas and drive to the nearest market to refill the larders. Consequently, I spent more than three hours ranging and hanging about Chesters Fort in betwixt rainstorms that marched in from the Irish Sea, waiting for Mossie, the husband of the owner, to pick me up in his greengrocer van. I wandered the grounds, took photographs of the ruins from sundry angles (most deleted), and dozed fitfully in a straight-backed chair in the Clayton Museum until an English Heritage volunteer touched my shoulder.

The Clayton Museum at Chesters Fort holds an abundance of religious shrines, legionary signature blocks and statue fragments that align the walls like, well, Roman soldiers. I was particularly taken with the good old Boy Scout square knot sculpted into the gown of the “Juno Regina” Statue.

“You’re all right.”

I nodded and made another attempt at meditative dozing while a bust of Marcus Aurelius regarded me in stony silence from atop an exhibit case. But then a huge blowfly invaded the premises, sounding like a gasoline-powered model airplane in the high-ceilinged lapidary, buzzing hither and thither, looking for food and finding nothing, in a panic to escape.

“A Roman fly?” someone said. I looked up and it was a young woman in a dripping raincoat. She had ducked into the museum to escape another squall that was pushing across the archaeological site, filling the tearoom to capacity. I had already spent an hour there pecking away at a cheese scone so dense I could barely swallow it. I finally gave up and had it microwaved with a stack of butter pats. 

I also spent time in the English Heritage reception area, which has a gift outlet and stamping station for the Hadrian’s Wall passport. I attempted a conversation with one of the attendants, who has a second job working as a curator of collections in the Museum of the North in Newcastle. Take my word for it: If you engage in dialogue with anyone working a visitor center front desk, be prepared to be interrupted or dismissed entirely as others pass through the door to buy tickets or ask questions. After 21 years in the National Park Service, I know this as well as anyone. But I was bored. During a momentary lull I attempted to share with her my own visitor center perspectives. As expected, she remarked, “Oh how lovely” (probably for the 1,000th time that month) as she turned to ring up a guy who was buying toy gladiuses (Roman swords) for his kids. 

Whatever I was about to say faded as I watched the kids, already hacking and thrusting, being hustled out the door by their mother. Who wants to be another old guy blathering on about subjects barely related to the time and place?  I shouldered my pack once more, returned to the museum and the Roman fly, and took account of my experience thus far that day.

St. Oswald’s church, located about 200 yards from the Hadrian’s Wall path, commemorates the seventh-century battle that made King Oswald of Saxon Bernicia a saint, as well as create the ideal wedding venue.

On the positive side, I had enjoyed a fuller day on the trail, starting out at St. Oswald’s Church at the Heavenfield battle site, which is located on the wall path, just off the B6318, a few miles above Corbridge, where I had spent the night. I snapped a few photos of the waving grass and towering oaks that shield the building, which is only the latest (1817) of many churches built on site after the battle, which is estimated to have happened between 633 and 635 CE. It was here King Oswald of Saxon Bernicia anchored his line on the Roman wall, and though outnumbered, managed to defeat a Celtic army led by a guy named Cadwallan ap Cadfan of Gwynedd. So soon you forget, right? Well, you needn’t worry now. St. Oswald’s Day falls on August 5…should you want to make plans to attend services next year at Heavenfield. However, you might also want to consider an alternative pilgrimage to the Devil’s Water, a stream that feeds the North Tyne near Hexham. The English historian Max Adams claims the battle happened there. But as my old friend, the cab driver Michael, has said, the church is more appropriate where it stands.

“Closer to heaven, you know.”

One of the reasons I wanted to see the church again was that I’d spotted it on an episode of “Vera,” the British detective series starring Brenda Blethyn. I can’t remember another thing about the episode…other than someone was murdered. What struck me after wandering in the fields the second time was what a mess it must have been having a movie set barge-in with trucks full of lighting and sound equipment, make-up trailers and commissary tents. Rather like a Roman army on the march. We saw this on San Juan Island in 1998 when a Warner Brothers film crew descended on us with similar equipage, including fake trees and foliage to make the county park pass for New England.

My cab driver, Richard, is a sunny and burly native of the area in his late 40s, who said he hauled a carload of folks to The Heavenfield for a wedding a few weeks back. They opened the gate next to Oswald’s roadside wooden cross and the cars streamed in with the overflow lining the right of way for a good half a mile. It must have been quite a scene for the hikers passing by. My guess is the American walkers were struck by the absence of giant pickup trucks. You don’t see many in England where it might cost, at minimum, £150 per visit at the town pump and there’s nowhere to park the things. 

Richard has been driving the cab for eight years in the Hexham region and loves his work. He swept his hand over the dash and exclaimed, “Look at this country!” We were hustling down the B6318, the verges aligned by bramble thickets, wild grasses and drystone walls, and shaded at the farmsteads and crossroads by towering oaks and beeches. Hills speckled with sheep and cattle rolled to the horizon as far as the eye could see. “What else could I do that would bring me this every day,” he said.

To preserve my ankle, I had decided to begin from the church rather than hump the pavement up the hill from Corbridge and had called several companies before I found Budget cabs and Richard. Even while we were motoring along, his dispatcher was lining up more fares. I was lucky to be squeezed in. The cabs are intensely busy in the summer and cover a lot of ground in Hadrian’s Wall country. As with Michael (who had the day off), Richard had never hiked the wall himself, although like Michael, he can tell you almost anything you’d want to know about it, particularly how to transport barely ambulatory travelers such as myself to spectacular vistas.


The Plaintrees ruin site marks the spot where the Romans decided a 10-foot wide wall over 84 miles was too ambitious. It also celebrates the wall path’s first long-distance hiker, William Hutton, who in 1801 at age 78 hiked it in both directions and then wrote a snappy account of his journey.

My next stop on the trail after alternating between farm fields and sheep dung, was a 50-foot length of wall about three feet high called “Planetrees.” The site is on a knoll overlooking the lush North Tyne Valley, and as I did before, I doffed my pack and took a break to read the exhibit wayside that from the same perspective depicts Roman soldiers going about their work. It is here you learn that the engineers decided building a 10-foot-wide wall was taking too long and reduced the width to eight feet, leaving a lip of the original foundation on the south side. There is also an inset portrait of the author William Hutton, who in 1801 lodged a protest with the local farmer who was harvesting the stones for barns and fences. This was on the initial leg of Hutton’s round trip on foot from Birmingham, a grand total of 600 miles, unaccompanied, at 78 years of age— IF you do not count his daughter who was following on horseback and had been given firm orders to keep her distance. As far as we know, he was the first in the modern era to accomplish this feat (if that is what it is anymore). 

His book, The History of the Roman Wall, can be found in PDF format online with a little persistence, and is a great read, as the narrative is fairly declarative for the period and laced with self-deprecating humor. Finding lodging was a challenge, as inns were then far and few between, so he often sought a bed at a farm or cottage in one of the villages. At one such stop, near dusk, he asked a middle-aged woman, whom he adjudged “…of fine figure, well dressed, had been a beauty and yet shewed as much of that valuable commodity as could be expected from forty-five.” 

She rejected him despite his entreaties because she was living alone. Had she been forewarned she might have done what my friend Susan did before my arrival at her home in England in 2019. Recently widowed, she called upon each of her neighbors to explain that the “tall, handsome, silver-haired man” (just kidding) who would be staying with her for a couple of days was nothing more than a friend and would be sleeping in the guest bedroom.

Here is how it went for Hutton:

“Madam, can you favour me with a bed?"

She surveyed me with a small degree of surprize—"No!"

I took a seat.

"I will pay whatever you desire."

"I could spare one; but it will not suit me."

"I have tried to procure one, but am unable. Pray, Madam, indulge me, it is drawing towards nine.—Do not suffer me to lie in the street."

"You are a stranger to me!"

"So I am to every one else. If I must not sleep till I am known, I must walk one hundred and fifty miles for a bed."

"What! are you on foot?"

"Yes; but, if I am, I have not the appearance of a common tramper; neither would a horse be of use, except he could mount precipices, and climb over stone walls. Pray, Madam, favour me."

"I am a single woman; and, to take in a stranger, may give rise to reflection."

"Did you ever hear of a woman losing her character by a man of seventy-eight!" (I thought I perceived, pass through her mind, a small ray of pity.)” *

He still didn’t get a bed.

Any hike along Hadrian’s Wall is a walk among the sheep. They are so inured to the presence of hikers that some will not move until you’re almost on top of them.

But neither did he have to negotiate a hair-pin detour around a “non-participating” farm, pounding leather on a country lane flanked by pastures full of sheep and cattle, at times jumping into the foliage to avoid the cars and trucks whizzing around the blind corners. While more than 900 private property owners along the wall path signed on to permit hikers to cross what the British government considers traditional common land, this particular owner between Planetrees and the Brunton turret wanted no part of hikers from around the world.


The Chesters bridge abutment essentially carried the wall across the River North Tyne, melding two lanes of traffic from opposite directions in its second iteration (160 CE or thereabout). A phallic symbol was added for good luck, which I missed in 2019 when the photo above was shot. Fortunately, someone scrapped away the storm debris this time around.

The wayside exhibit for the Chesters bridge abutment. Unlike the site brochure, the map does not point out the location of the phallic symbol.

The detour channels hikers onto the busy north/south A6079, and from this route you can cross the road, climb over a ladder stile and stroll up a sheep pasture to the turret, a brief stretch of wall rolling downhill, aiming toward the River North Tyne. It was one of the essential stops on my punch list, as in 2019 I had been foiled in an attempt to snap a clean photograph of the turret—the most substantial on the entire wall course—thanks to a guy who was perched atop one of its six-foot walls eating his lunch. 

 The Brunton turret (watch tower) spills downhill toward Chesters Fort and bridge abutment in the North Tyne valley. One of my goals was to capture a photograph of it without someone in big old shorts lounging atop while eating his lunch.

This day I watched in alarm as a couple about my age were climbing out of their rental car in the parking strip carved out of the verge just ahead of the fence that encloses the site and another pasture full of sheep. What if THEY decided to sit on the turret, or linger in the view of the camera lens?  I hurried (as much as I could manage) to beat them to an inordinately high ladder stile. Then, in the practice I’d developed over the course of the day, climbed a step at a time up one side, tossed my hiking pole onto the ground beyond, and swinging over, inched my way down the reverse on my rear end. The method was not missed by the couple, who, in the time consumed, had advanced to the stile where they waited patiently for me to finish. This impressed upon me as never before my age and disposition. I no longer felt youthful in mind and heart. In their eyes, I was an elderly man struggling to overcome an obstacle.

“Are you all right?” asked the woman, who later introduced herself as Lyla. Obviously, they were prepared to helpe a lame dogge ower a stile,” a 16th century idiom which in modern parlance has come to mean helping anyone in distress.

“Oh yes, I’m OK, just careful and slow.” 

I explained my injury, which was met by polite commiseration once they too had negotiated the stile, with little effort I might add. As we ascended the hill together, stepping around grazing sheep and their piles, we shared, as all wall visitors do, where we’d been and what we hoped to see that day. They were enjoying a long weekend from the south of England, driving point-to-point along the wall, stopping at attractions accessible by automobile. 

This was one of the easier ones, according to the husband, Ian, who was wearing a polo shirt, designer shorts and cross trainers with hidden socks. He was freshly shaved, and his salt and pepper hair was coiffed in a little wave above a broad forehead that crinkled in perpetual amusement. Lyla was dark and petite, similarly dressed and carried a purse on her forearm in the manner of the late Queen. They had spent the night at the Twice Brewed Inn about twenty miles west, where they had visited the Roman fort, Vindolanda, and hiked the Military Road from the Steel Rigg car park to Sycamore Gap and the Robin Hood tree. The day before they had hiked up the hill amid swarms of sheep to Housesteads Fort. However, they were giving Chesters a pass.

“From what we’ve seen and read, they’re all built to the same pattern and all you really see are low stone walls,” Ian said. “So, we’re off to Newcastle on the B6318, and perhaps we’ll divert to Corbridge for lunch.”

When we arrived at the turret, which is preceded on the downhill side by a length of preserved wall as substantial as Planetrees, I explained that the piece aligned with the ruin and the bridge abutment in the valley below, pointing out how the Romans overcame obstacles in completing the work. This is where a drone-mounted camera would be a lot of fun, if it wasn’t so damned irritating to others. My next stop was the abutment, I said, which was about a mile and half there and back from the current North Tyne bridge.

“You seem to know a lot about it,” Lyla said. “Are you a scholar?”

It was then I explained my quest to fill in the blanks from the 2019 trip, which included a photo of the Brunton turret and not a Roman picnic table. With that they vented about “…how some people don’t think the rules apply to them…” or some such thing and stepped back to allow me my shots, which was generous and sweet and made the highlight reel of my journal that evening. My mission accomplished, we wished each other well and while they remained to explore the ruin, I headed back down the hill… until I realized that I had left my hiking pole behind—the one I’d purchased in Hexham to replace the one I’d left hanging on a hook two BNBs back.

Sheep scattered once again as I serpentined uphill, eyes glued to the tall grass, by now aware that I was walking without support. In all the excitement I had forgotten my injury, and mindfulness was essential now to completing my journey without ending up in an emergency room and a caste. 

“If you go to an emergency room, do it in the wee hours,” a friend wrote a few days before. “That way you’ll avoid the crowds. Their health system [that is free to all, including visitors] is incredibly stressed.”

I was almost upon the turret by the time I found the pole, which I had tossed aside to take a photograph. As it turned out, the wrist strap on this budget model was as cumbersome as its extension system that had required a Youtube video to solve in my Corbridge hotel room. I brandished the pole over my head triumphantly as Ian and Lyla looked on. 

“Can’t leave this behind now…heh, heh.”

I turned once more for the stile, tracing my steps through the sheep and dung and the trail on the opposite side of the busy road. Two-hundred yards on, skirting the right-of-way, was the crossroads that returned me to the east/west B6318 and Chollerford, where Chesters fort lies about a mile west on the outskirts. Before crossing the bridge, which dates to 1785 (a medieval version collapsed in 1771), I passed through an ivy-fringed gate and engaged a gravel path channeled by wire fencing that enclosed still more sheep grazing or sleeping on either side. The lowering sky off to the west had yet to block the sun, which by late morning compelled some from the flocks to seek shaded portions of the wooded trail canopy. Others were using the fence as a headboard, lolling against it until I closed with them, then moving off. 

I found this to be the case with sheep and bovines alike all along the wall path on both visits. They’re inured to humans crossing their enclosures and will step aside only at the last moment, depending on whether or not they’re nursing young. An obstreperous bull on the loose is another matter, though. In each case a warning is posted on a stile or kissing gate on the presumption that hikers will behave with caution and respect. These are the protocols that have been observed by farmers and hikers alike since the official trail opening in 2003 and have permitted the path to run from sea to sea with few deviations. 

After two more gates, I reached the ruin that once served as an entryway to the fort, the town and the high frontier to the west. Two bridges crossed the North Tyne here over the 300-year life of the wall. The first was an extension of the wall in the form of a foot bridge, replete with parapet and battlements, and carried by eight piers with cutwaters. Historians and archaeologists speculate that this first effort was probably wiped out by storm-swollen waters. But even then, it was considered obsolete.

This may explain why the second iteration, built in the 160s CE, is the most sophisticated engineering feat along the entire wall course, as it joins the eastern approaches in stone from two directions: the old Stanegate frontier road to the south and the Military Way of Marcus Aurelius, the supply and quick-march route that ran between the wall and the vallum. Moreover, notches and grooves cut into stone indicate that iron clamps were employed to lift and secure the stone by crane, while molten lead was applied as a binder across the entire assembly. This was essentially the same technique used by the Greeks hundreds of years before on the Acropolis. 

Ancient engineering aside, my purpose for returning was to find the phallic symbol sculpted on an ashlar block that I’d somehow missed in 2019. As indicated earlier, the Romans used the symbol to invoke the protective power of the deity Facinus in the event of floods, earthquakes or the destructive acts of humankind. The high-quality site booklet I later purchased at the fort contains a map indicating the precise location of the sculpture. It would have come in handy, as I circled the abutment twice, wading through an accumulation of rotten autumn leaves and high-water mud. 

Evidently, Facinus was watching over me, because I escaped without further injury and found the phallus, which would have been totally obscured if a previous visitor had not brushed away the leaf pile and bared it in all its glory. 

I snapped my photo and beat it the hell out of there before Facinus changed his mind.

*Excerpt From

The History of the Roman Wall

by William Hutton


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Last modified onMonday, 11 September 2023 00:48

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