Skip to content

Walking Hadrian’s Wall – Day Five: Saughy Rigg to Gilsland

September 16, 2011

Steps: 20,000

Distance: 11.7 km

Having done the crags the previous day, day five’s walking felt very much like a cop-out; too few steps and too little complaining to be altogether real. The morning began with a gentle stroll along the last large-scale remnants of the Wall.

The Sheep in a Field

Despite some scrabbling and climbing, the morning was mostly devoted to standing on the edges of fields whilst craning our necks.  The reason for this is that the previous day’s encounter with the crags had left us somewhat scarred.  We knew from the map that we were past the worst of it but the map had lied to us before and so we half expected each curve in the road to reveal a sheer drop or an impossible climb.  Scarred by the Wall, we ignored our map and compass and surrendered to the wisdom of crowds and a daylong search for the silvery paths left in the grass by the passage of boots on the grounds that most walkers would most likely choose the simplest path through any given field. Clearly, we were not the first walkers to adopt this tactic as many of the silvery paths we followed ended upon first sighting of a vertiginous drop or a harrowing ascent. Clearly, these paths were well marked because they had born the passage of the same pairs of boots: one passage up to a bend and another passage back.

Gratuitous Lens Flare

Strange Things in the Distance

We arrived at the Roman Army Museum shortly before lunch and a combination of rain and time in need of killing lured us in to its tourist-pandering depths. As should be obvious from the lack of space devoted to historical sites such as Segedunum and Vindolanda, our walk was more about countryside than it was about history.  While I have long nurtured an interest in sub-Roman Britain and love the idea of Roman buildings being used and re-used after they were abandoned, I have little interest in Roman history itself. The Sheep had studied Roman Britain as an undergraduate many years previously, but claimed to have forgotten most of it and was of little to no use. In fact, I find something faintly distasteful about the way in which Britain prides itself on its history as a Roman colony.  Surely we should be identifying with the native Britons rather than their Imperial conquerors? Clearly some sort of historical Stockholm syndrome is in effect. Don’t get me started on the past tradition of archaeologists digging through Mediaeval and Anglo-Saxon remains in order to get at Roman artefacts. Despite my lack of interest in most things Roman, the Roman Army Museum proved a pleasant enough distraction with its simple but well-designed exhibits and its somewhat silly but surprisingly well-written 3D film in which a Gaulish auxiliary and an immortal sentient eagle (?!) narrate the history of Hadrian’s Wall. I was particularly impressed by the way in which the film communicated how dull, bleak and cold life on Hadrian’s Wall might have been for the people stationed there.  As our photos hopefully make clear, the terrain on the far side of the Wall is spectacularly and beautifully barren… I imagine guarding the Wall and spending night after night staring out into barren darkness must have been extraordinarily depressing.

A Random Fort

Having nothing better to do, we decided to press on to the small town of Gilsland. Picking our way between backyards and farmsteads, it was obvious that civilisation was reasserting itself in a big way. While my experience with the crags may not have been an entirely positive one, I could not help but feel ambivalent about the move from sheer drops to satellite dishes.

Just 'cause it's pretty

Of course, I am not the first person to express ambivalence about returning to civilisation.  In fact, I think that this ambivalence to civilisation is, to some extent, embedded in the landscape itself.  One way of looking at the Wall is to see it as a military strong point that allowed the Roman military to focus its defences on a clear demarcation point.  Another way of looking at the Wall is to see it as primarily a bureaucratic demarcation point that allowed the authorities to distinguish between the ‘civilised’ (i.e. taxed and defended) Britons and the ‘barbarian’ Britons (i.e. those who lived free of Roman rule).  If you read James C. Scott’s anarchist history of upland South-East Asia The Art of Not Being Governed (2011), you may even go so far as to see the Wall as a cultural demarcation point that allowed ‘civilised’ people to demonise the ‘uncivilised’ in order to foster in-group solidarity and create a set of norms whereby the ‘uncivilised’ might come to yearn for civilisation’s oppressive yoke, a yearning that makes particular sense given the degree to which many Britons invited and facilitated Roman rule.

Topiary against Topology

Look beyond the Wall’s obvious iconography and you see endless signs of people living next to the wilderness and yet trying to keep it at bay.  Indeed, what is the B6318 but an attempt to impose geometrical order upon an otherwise indomitable landscape? Its long straight lines speak just as clearly of geometry’s hegemony as the stones and forts that make up the Wall. Even today’s Northumbrians are doing their part to keep out the wild.

As I found when I tried to climb a number of hills, my desire to escape civilisation is accompanied by an equally intense desire to experience the joys it has to offer.  I want fine food and soft beds, but not satellite dishes and country roads.  I want vast expanses of nothingness but not hills that are difficult to climb.  Civilisation is a prison and wherever humanity goes, they feel obliged to build and rebuild the bars of their cage because at least caged animals have a place to sleep that is out of the rain.

Note from The Sheep: Gilsland is not a metropolis – it’s pretty, has a lovely teashop called House of Meg (I recommend the rocky road slice) and no mobile phone signal. We resorted to using a payphone (now a minimum of 60p per call – when did that happen?) and waited for our lift back to Saughy Rigg next to a closed down hotel and a bunch of chickens.

For those of you who may have stumbled across this post, here are all of the posts in the series:

Day One: Tynemouth

Day Two: Tynemouth to Harlow Hill

Day Three: Harlow Hill to Chollerford

Day Four: Chollerford to Saughy Rigg

Day Five: Saughy Rigg to Gilsland

Day Six: Gilsland to Lanercost

Day Seven: Lanercost to Carlisle

Day Eight: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway

%d bloggers like this: