The Hadrian's Wall Pilgrimage

4 mins read

The Hadrian’s Wall pilgrimage is going well.   The Pilgrimage is one of the great events of British archaeology.   It began in 1849 when a group of young men decided they would ‘walk the wall’ and it has continued every 10 years since then except for the war years: this is now the 13th pilgrimage. For me it is my fourth.   I did the first in 1969, I missed out the 1979,   but I did the 1989 and the 1999 – all recorded in Current Archaeology.   Indeed in looking up CA 15, which was devoted to the 1969 pilgrimage, I see there is a little note at the end apologising for the fact that the magazine was a little late, but this was due to the birth of our daughter Fiona. Well, this year we have just celebrated Fiona’s 40th birthday!

This year we are doing the pilgrimage in reverse.   Normally one walks the wall starting at Wallsend, that is in Newcastle, and ending up 80 miles later at Bowness on Solway. This year we are doing it the other way round.   We are starting at Carlisle and will end up hopefully on Friday at Wallsend.

We began last night with a dinner and the first lecture, and this morning we boarded our coaches and drove out to Bowness on Solway.   There is normally a tradition that when one reaches Bowness on Solway one strips off shoes and socks and goes for a paddle just to show that one has reached the end of the Pilgrimage.   This morning we did not do this for two reasons: firstly that it did not seem right to do the paddling on the very first day; and secondly the tide was out and there were miles and miles of sand.   Indeed in the coast of Scotland seemed only a short swim away and on the other side we could see the Iron Age hillfort of Burnswark, (see CA 15!) and also the chimneys of the atomic energy power station at Chapelcross, now decommissioned and the great cooling towers demolished: it has I suppose itself become an archaeological monument.

Then we went on down the coast to view the series of milefortlets and towers that continues along the Cumbrian coast beyond the end of the wall at Bowness.   These are numbered from 1 to 25B. Originally it was thought that they continued around the great inlet of Moricambe Bay and numbers six to eight were allocated for the missing forts.     However it is now being proved that the missing forts did not in fact exist but the original numbering has been retained.

One of these has recently been excavated at Swarthy Hill, which is milefortlet 21.   The results have been laid out by English Heritage, and it is in fact the only one of these milefortlets that can be visited. The pilgrimage visited the fort   and were rather impressed by the scanty remains overlooking some equally impressive salt pans of the Industrial Revolution.

We then went on to visit Maryport, which is nearly the last of the great Hadrian’s Wall forts. Here every year the garrison had a habit of holding a formal parade and burying altars, which often contained the name of the garrison and the commander. For the past 200 years they have been ploughed up, and the local Senhouse family has been collecting them and storing   them in an outhouse.   However in the past couple of decades a proper home has been found for them in a museum in the former rather grandiose Victorian battery – now a prime example of a private museum owned and operated by a trust.   However the fort itself and the very extensive civilian settlement to the north revealed by geofizz still remains part of the local farm and it is not possible yet to visit officially.

However a new company, Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd, which is one of those funny quangos which no one quite knows who controls it, has secured funds to purchase the farm and they have great plans to lay out the fort for parties of visitors   – health and safety considerations apparently preclude open visits (This is something to be watched — if they have their way, this could well be extended to Hadrian’s wall   too). But they also hope to carry out extensive excavations in the civilian settlement as well.

We then went on to visit yet a further fort, Moresby between Workington and Whitehaven. Half of this is occupied by a church and surrounding cemetery.   However our viewing was enlivened by the appearance of an aerial display by a Vulcan bomber, the triangular shaped bomber that was one of Britain’s V-bombers in my youth. I was told that this was the last surviving example but it appeared to do a display for our benefit flying backwards and forwards several time and looking very beautiful. Moresby is not in fact the final fort – the last one is at Ravenglass – but it reminds us of the extent of the Roman defences against the Scots and Irish raiders.

Then back to Carlisle and dinner after which we had a super lecture by Ernst Kunzl on Roman souvenirs and in particular the souvenirs of Hadrian’s Wall – readers of CA will already have read his article in CA222 about this.   We then went on to the Tullie House Museum where all three of the major cups have been assembled – the Rudge cup, the newly discovered Staffordshire pot, and the Amiens skillet from France, all of them with names of forts on the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. Surprisingly this was the first time that all three of them had been seen together. They are all surprisingly small – they are more cups then bowls – and it was difficult to photograph them. But seeing them together, it was possible to understand the extent of the tourist trade in the Roman Empire.

And now, back to the hotel where I am dictating this blog. Tomorrow is a walking day: will it rain?

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