Wall Mile 38 [HB 255–7]
As we leave Castle Nick, we ascend the small hill now known as Mons Fabricius, a name it gained in honour of the German scholar Ernst Fabricius, who visited the frontier in 1928 whilst in Britain to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Durham. A leading light in the study of the Roman frontiers in Germany (the Upper German and Raetian frontier or Obergermanisch-Raetische Limes), his is the singular honour of being the only scholar with a piece of the Wall landscape named after him. Spare a moment to look back at the milecastle, for it is as striking from the east as it is from the west.
On top of the hill there are some medieval shielings, or shepherd’s shelters, tucked up against the south face of the curtain wall. Just opposite those, almost invisible amongst the grass on the peak, is a row of stones that are in fact the Broad Gauge foundation, set slightly back from the built line of the Wall. Yet again, we see evidence of pragmatic adaptation during construction of the frontier. The Wall now turns sharply and descends into the iconic Sycamore Gap, with its eponymous tree rooted amongst the fabric of the collapsed curtain wall. Its future has been ensured by planting a replacement slightly to the south within a circular drystone enclosure (called a stell; this is where it was originally situated when Jessie Mothersole walked past in 1921, so the new one is third generation). This is the ultimate insurance against the day the main tree gives up the arboreal ghost and relieves the curtain wall of its burden. It is sometimes known as ‘the Robin Hood tree’, not through any folkloric association with that legendary character, but rather because it featured in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves during a journey supposedly undertaken by the eponymous hero from Dover to Nottingham!
Sufferers of vertigo would now be well advised to detour slightly south onto the Military Way, also a right of way and clearly visible for the most part as a grassy strip. The rest of us will cross the Wall (noting as we do so the dark and now shiny dolerite blocks incorporated in the core of the structure) and ascend the winding stairs up to Highshield Crags, admiring the north face of the consolidated curtain wall as we go. This unusually incorporates some blocks of dolerite in the facing of the footings. Notice how some of the curtain is carefully levelled whilst other portions follow the slope. Once at the top, the wall is replaced by a modern drystone field boundary and a series of impressive clefts show how precipitous this part of Highshields Crags is. To our left we can see Crag Lough (pronounced ‘luff’) and, as we enter a plantation, the path and the wall immediately south of us begin to descend gently into Milking Gap. Take the time to study the stones used in the field boundary to your right, since these are of course Roman stones reused. By now you are familiar with the size and shape of the regular facing blocks, but you will also be able to recognise narrower string course blocks, incorporated by the more recent drystone wallers. Along the central sector, the National Park maintains an impressive programme of recording and restoring these original stone dykes.
Invisible to us (unless we are following the Military Way, south of the line of the curtain wall), the Military Road leaves the Vallum again, the earthwork plunging north-eastwards to take in the salient formed by Hotbanks Crags.
Ultimately we emerge from the wood, with its tantalising glimpses of the lough to the north of us. Just as the nicks to the west were formed by glacial meltwater breaching the dolerite ridge of the Whin Sill, so the three prominent lakes north of the Wall (Crag, Broomlee, and Greenlee Loughs) are basins formed by the remnants of that same trapped meltwater. To our left, we have now been joined by the ditch, inserted across Milking Gap between Turret 38a and Milecastle 38 to counter the absence of the defensive value of the crags along here. The gap was too broad to need a re-entrant. Crossing the access road to Hotbank Farm, we can clearly see the ditch ahead of us with the modern stone wall on top of the remains of the Roman wall before we pass through the kissing gate to take us to the south side of the curtain wall again. The Wall soon changes its course to a more northerly line to ascend Hotbank Crag and we arrive at the remains of our next milecastle.
To the south of us are the remains of the Milking Gap settlement, a nucleated cluster of hut circles and enclosures that may have housed an extended pre-Hadrianic family of farmers (pottery from the site dated to the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD). Although nothing is visible except from the air, it serves as a reminder that the Roman army were not the only inhabitants around here and how the Wall changed the use of the landscape once and for all and still has an effect today.
Milecastle 38 (Hotbank) [HB 255–6; haiku]
Milecastle 38 (Hotbank) is a short-axis site with type I gateways, the northern of which was narrowed to pedestrian access only. The site is significant in many ways, both from a historical and conservational standpoint. It is the origin of one (RIB 1638) and probably two (RIB 1637) of the building inscriptions that confirm that the builder was A. Platorius Nepos on behalf of Hadrian, thereby showing that Hadrian’s Wall really was… Hadrianic! We shall have the chance to inspect one of these when you visit the Great North Museum in Newcastle towards the end of our walk.
Although its robbed remains were excavated in 1935, it is now presented only as an earthwork and one that provided a nasty (if Pythonesque) moment for those charged with the upkeep of Hadrian’s Wall. In 2003, a group of 850 Dutch bankers on a team-building ‘jolly’ visited it in damp conditions and unintentionally caused considerable (and of course irreparable) damage to the earthwork. However, lessons on the management of the monument were learned from this and subsequent visits by massed murophiliac (and presumably high-fiving) bankers have been handled much more successfully. All of which means there is a very good reason the path goes round Milecastle 38, not over it.