Wall Mile 39 [HB 258–61]
Up, again, but take the time for one glance back at another of the iconic views of the Wall: Milecastle 39 sitting in its gap, Castle Nick. We head along the crags, with the curtain wall in ruinous form to our right, and then begin to descend. There is no re-entrant and accompanying ditch here, despite a wiggle to the south by the curtain wall, since it is just following the edge of the crags. This is Cat Stairs. On the far side, paving stones appear to reinforce the Trail and the curtain wall is now present in its Claytonized form.
We make our way along the crags, the curtain wall following the edge of Peel Crag, and pass the site of Turret 39a (only visible as a green sward now). In a while, the wall starts to curve to the south (the Claytonized wall giving way to a field wall again) and then make a sharp turn to the west, the sign of another re-entrant, just after a leg-grabbing squeeze stile. The wall plunges down into Peel Gap, and we follow it using the precipitous steps, having noticed that there is an extra turret there: Peel Gap Tower.
Peel Gap Tower [HB 259–60]
Excavation in 1987 revealed this additional tower inserted into the Wall scheme, between Turret 39a (the site of which we just passed) and Turret 39b (ahead of us, near Steel Rigg plantation), inserted into a blind spot that may well have originally been a transhumance route. The tower was an afterthought and its builders did not take heed of their fellows who had built the rest of the curtain wall out of sandstone, since they dressed whin stone to make its walls (no easy task as it is very difficult to work). A platform on the west side may have been the base for an ascensus, or stairway to the wall walk (which may or may not have existed, but we’ll come to that later).
The wall turns north again, accompanied by the ditch (the path is now indeed on the line of the ditch), and then back onto a westerly course, thus completing the re-entrant, and the path then sidles onto the berm, for good measure. Steel Rigg plantation and its car park are ahead, to our right, and the north face of the curtain wall to our left, looking like it needs a good haircut.
Crossing the road carefully (the car park gives the clue to the level of vehicular activity here), we now have a nice, gentle uphill stretch to take us towards the next milecastle. The curtain wall is under the field wall and the ditch is still to our right, but the latter peters out once we get to the higher ground and the crags begin to render it unnecessary again. The course of the wall up to those crags ensures the land is falling away to the north; think ‘foreslope’.
Away to the south of us, the Vallum has been on the line of the 18th-century Military Road for a while, constructed on the south berm, but it then branches north-westwards and leaves the road. Further south still is the Stanegate, making its way up from Vindolanda, and then the terrain slopes serenely down into the valley of the South Tyne.
Back at the path, and just beyond the next stile, we find the earthwork remains of Milecastle 40, conveniently signalled for us by a break in the field wall to our right.
Milecastle 40 (Winshields) [HB 261–2; haiku]
Unusually, Milecastle 40 has been placed at an angle in the curtain wall. It was excavated in 1908 and found to be a long-axis type with both gateways reduced to pedestrian-only access at a late date. What we see today is the bumpy aftermath of those excavations.