Wall Mile 37 [HB 250–5]
As soon as we have finished with Milecastle 38 we have an invigorating climb up to Hotbank Crags. There are almost permanent problems with erosion up here so try not to tread on eroded areas (remember that grass is very resilient until it is worn down to its roots and then it becomes vulnerable). It is one of those hills that just keeps on giving (or taking, depending upon your point of view) and whilst the hardy will stick to the curtain wall, the less resolute can branch off just past the hexagonal plantation and rejoin the less-demanding Military Way. The ditch is rendered unnecessary again along the crags, whilst further down the dip slope the Vallum is gradually converging with the course of the curtain wall.
Once we reach the top and have caught our breath, the going is easier again and we barely notice as the Claytonized wall gives way to a modern drystone wall, which then descends into Rapishaw Gap, this time being pierced by a gateway that marks the line of the Pennine Way. Crossing a stile, we are confronted with a prominent outcrop, on top of which is the neatly terminated end of another stretch of Claytonized curtain wall. The easiest way round this is to head south for a short way and then almost double back to get up to the line of the wall itself, so that we are only climbing easy inclines and not risking life and limb scrambling up rocks. The timid can take the opportunity to carry on along the line of the Military Way, but to do so will involve missing another of those iconic views. Back on the crags, the Trail takes us 180m along Cuddy’s Crags to another re-entrant (with ditch, naturally) that suddenly presents us with the most famous prospect of Hadrian’s Wall: the gap between Cuddy’s Crags and Housesteads Crags with Housesteads Plantation perched on the edge of the precipice. It is highly unlikely that you have never seen this view somewhere, whether it be on a poster, postcard, or book cover. One of the earliest versions was a postcard produced at the beginning of the 20th century by J. P. Gibson, Hexham pharmacist and photographer, and himself no mean excavator of the Wall. Having duly recorded the view for posterity in an appropriate fashion (camera, watercolours, charcoal, Etch A Sketch…), we press on down into the gap and up the other side where, before long, we encounter Milecastle 37 in all its Claytonized magnificence.
Milecastle 37 (Housesteads) [HB 250–4; haiku]
Milecastle 37 (Housesteads) is perhaps the most visited, by dint of the fact it is closest to Housesteads (which enjoys the highest visitor numbers for Hadrian’s Wall), and is within staggering distance for the more adventurous car-bound visitor. It is presented in the same Claytonized form as the curtain wall on either side, facing stones reconstructed up to a regular height and topped with turf. It has been excavated four times between the middle of the 19th and end of the 20th centuries and, quite apart from offering an excellent sheltered location for a walker’s lunch, provides more insights into the nature of the milecastle.
Beginning with the north gate, we can see that the reduction in width to pedestrian access is still in place. Comments are occasionally made that it is daft to provide gateways for some of the milecastle along the crags, but access would have been needed along the front of the curtain wall and ditch for the purposes of maintenance and many afforded some sort of rudimentary route to the north, the pedestrian blocking being a recognition of the fact that this was probably usually not by wheeled vehicle. In fact, the most recent excavation showed how partial collapse of the north gate led to its being blocked soon after construction and only opened up for pedestrian access at a later date. The lowest two voussoirs of the southern arch of the north gate are still in place on either side, but the others have been replaced in recent times for effect (a drawing of 1879 by James Irwin Coates shows those two springers, as they are known, in situ).
There is one internal building, east of the central north–south roadway, recalling the arrangement we have already seen at other milecastles (although the only excavated sign of a western structure here was a couple of hearths).
The south gate is less well-preserved than its northern companion but still stands to an impressive height and shows the use of responds on either side of the gate itself. ‘What’s a respond?’ you cry; it’s the sticky-out bit on either side of the jamb (upright) of the doorway. Why would you care about responds? Because they are one of the identifying factors that distinguishes the three (or four) types of milecastle gateway (which scholars think mark construction work by different legions). What do they do? They carry the archway over the gate; so now you know.