Wall Mile 39 [HB 258–61]
There is now a nice, gentle downhill stretch to take us to near Steel Rigg plantation and its neighbouring car park, where we need to cross the road (bearing in mind the traffic, looking for somewhere to park, frequenting this road). From the moment we leave Milecastle 40, at the eastern end of Winshields Crags, the ditch reappears to the north of the curtain wall (the line of which is still marked by its attendant field wall) and as we head for the plantation it makes a fine sight to our left.
To the south of us, the Vallum has now joined the line of the 18th-century Military Road, which was constructed on its south berm for a distance of about 1.9km. Further south still is the Stanegate, making its way towards Vindolanda, and then the terrain slopes down into the valley of the South Tyne.
Once we have crossed the road, the National Trail moves to the northern side of the curtain wall, which is now Claytonized once more. The path carefully, almost inconspicuously, sidles into the ditch itself, so that as we turn to the south-east after 140m, we can look up to our right at the curtain wall behind its berm. The keen-of-eye will note that we are entering another re-entrant covering a gap in the crags, and this is Peel Gap.
Peel Gap Tower
Excavation in 1987 revealed an additional tower inserted into the Wall scheme, between Turret 39b (the site of which we passed immediately west of the road) and Turret 39a (ahead of us, up on Peel Crag), 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. 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… and so on). The best view of the tower is to be obtained by carrying on up the steps onto Peel Crag and looking back: no pain, no gain.
The curtain wall romps up the side of the crags, partly covered by a field wall, and turns a sharp left to the north, thus closing the re-entrant. We can see the turn to the right, once at the top, next to the stile. The Trail then takes us along the south side of the Claytonized curtain wall. There is little to mark the site of Turret 39a, other than a slightly smoother sward. We begin to descend and paving stones appear to reinforce the Trail but there is no re-entrant and accompanying ditch here, despite a wiggle to the north by the curtain wall, since it is just following the edge of the crags, as it heads down into another nick. This is Cat Stairs. Up, again, and then we encounter another one of the iconic views of the Wall: Milecastle 39 sitting in another meltwater spillway, Castle Nick.
Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) [HB 257–8; haiku]
The surrounding walls of the long-axis Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) are Claytonized and it has been the object of the attentions of excavators in 1854, between 1908 and 1911, and most recently in the 1980s. The structures visible inside it are for the most part post-medieval (it is said to have been used as a milking parlour) and demonstrate once again the re-use of milecastles for agricultural purposes in later years. It was not located in its measured position but further east, perhaps deliberately to place it in the gap.