A recent coast-to-coast trudge (or should that be splodge) along the Wall gave pause for thought in the aftermath of a thoroughly unusual summer. As we squelched along, we passed the teams readying the Connecting Light installation that was part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad (treasured moment: man with dysfunctional balloon bellowing into a mobile phone ‘get me someone with a leaf blower!’). When visitor numbers are rumoured to be drastically down this year – in part borne out by how few walkers we passed coming the other way compared to previous years – this event promised to be an incentive to bring in the punters. Sure enough, it made the national news with a vengeance (even though nobody we spoke to seemed quite sure what exactly was happening) and hopefully the lonely guy up on Sewingshields Crags wrestling with the balloon support and his instruction leaflet eventually got some help.
Ironically, it may not necessarily be a bad thing that numbers are down. The Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail (to give it its slightly clumsy full title) is looking a little sorry for itself. One of the strongest arguments in favour of the Trail was that it promised a much higher level of monitoring and maintenance than had been the case before it sprang fully formed from the forehead of the (as it was then) Countryside Commission back in 2003. There is even a code (Every Footstep Counts) advising on the best way not to cause damage. Normally, when walking it, one invariably encounters somebody somewhere doing something to it. Plastic matting, bark chippings, and stone flags provide relief to the soggier areas, diversions allow eroded portions to recuperate, and a little love is generally strewn about the landscape. This is not just a matter of making life easier for walkers, or even protecting the flora and fauna from abuse by too many passing feet, but because there is a monument to consider. No, I am not going to call it a heritage asset; the over-militarisation of the ‘heritage’ vocabulary (how soon before erosion is labelled ‘collateral damage’?) helps nobody and serves only to obfuscate and distance when what is needed is clarification and explanation. The monument – you know, that Wall thingy – is vulnerable. One has only to cite The Tale of the Dutch Bankers to show that. Grass grows back, but monuments don’t.
Normally, there are well-known moist bits. Most of these are reinforced with matting and flags, but this year is exceptional. Areas previously a tad damp underfoot are now awash in mud. Huge lakes have appeared forcing impromptu diversions by walkers (one west of Newtown was big enough to float a small flotilla). Animal poaching (whereby the soil structure is broken down into a hoofprint-pocked squelchy gloop enhanced with ‘natural products’) only serves to make it worse. To this walker, frankly, things looked slightly out of control. Of course, a couple of weeks of burning sunshine could easily make the problem disappear fairly rapidly. However, the realist cannot help but wonder how likely such a turn of events is at the end of September.
The Picts didn’t know it, but Hadrian’s Wall has a soft underbelly. The easternmost 12 miles of it are fine, protected by the urban and suburban armour of a city plonked on top of it. It becomes increasingly vulnerable as we move westwards, however. Now, the Wall does not enjoy an even distribution of visitors: most people, quite naturally, go to the best bits, in the Central Sector (between, say, Steel Rigg and Housesteads). The analysis of visitor figures confirms this, and the powers-that-be break these down into the self-explanatory ‘amblers, ramblers, and scramblers’. Consequently, this is where most attention is paid to the upkeep of the Trail. Many of the ramblers, however, venture further, and it is here, roughly between Milecastles 12 to 36 and 40 to 80, that the monument is arguably most vulnerable. Unlike the Picts (well, the Caledones, really), the Trail does not pose a uniform threat to the Wall.
Footpath specialists (and, yes, there are such people) like to talk of ‘pinch-points’ and ‘lines of desire’ to describe the ways in which paths control our behaviour (and, conversely, how we sometimes rebel against them). Outwith the Central Sector, where walkers tend to trudge along to the south of the curtain wall (or whichever field boundary is squatting on top of it), a fair amount of the HWP is on the berm, between the curtain wall and the ditch and, by and large, this poses little or no threat to the monument. In one or two places, however, the path flirts dangerously with the rubble spread of the curtain wall: Limestone Corner is one example, but so too is the first half of Wall Mile 33. West of Milecastle 33, the modern field wall is set back to the south of the line of the wall and the HWP meanders across the berm and rubble spread of the wall, depending upon where the gungiest bits and least troublesome walking are to be found. This is where lines of desire kick in (quite literally). Often inspired by animal trails, they follow the easiest route for the walker (human or animal). At Milecastle 33 (excavated in 1935/6 by F. G. Simpson and others – you can still see the spoil heap, usually covered in bracken, to the south), the Trail is carried across the west wall of the fortlet by means of wooden steps. However, gloop at the base of the steps is causing walkers to invent their own diversions. Quicker than you can say ‘has Antinoös gone for another swim?’, unconsolidated walls could suffer damage.
This is the compromise that has to be made: if we want largely unfettered access to a unique monument like Hadrian’s Wall (that most heterodox of Roman frontiers), then we must be prepared to make sacrifices. At the very least, we need to think about where we are walking (and how many would-be Kevin Costners do you see prancing about on top of the curtain wall, despite requests not to do so in the literature, on notices, and so on?) and perhaps, at the other extreme, we must be prepared for the Trail to be closed to give it a little breathing space and some time to recover. The pressure from ramblers is down in the winter (walking the Trail is actually discouraged out of season), but the ground is soggy and grass will not grow back until the spring. Much will depend upon the coming winter’s weather.
So, next time you consider walking Hadrian’s Wall, whether it be for a stroll, a breath of fresh air, or even to raise money for charity dressed as Russell Crowe on his way to a toga party, bear in mind the many and varied factors influencing the way you interact with that 2,000-year-old piece of military hardware and remember that every footstep really does count.