Wall Mile 37 [HB 250–5]
We now leave Housesteads Crags and descend into a gap (complete with a short length of ditch) before ascending another height, known as Cuddy’s (after St Cuthbert) Crags. Wherever we see the Clayton Wall, keep one eye open for those slight changes in width on the south face. As we saw in Wall Mile 35, these expansions are a genuine Roman phenomenon, possibly marking the meeting points of curtain wall construction gangs. Those shy of scrambling can take the Military Way, which keeps to the south of the crags and is clearly visible as a broad grassy strip.
These gaps, which will become a familiar feature for the next few miles, are glacial spillways, where meltwater from the last ice age poured through the Whin Sill, and they have the local name of ‘nick’ as we shall soon see. When the Wall builders encountered them, they used a standard defensive trick: the re-entrant. Instead of going straight across the gap, the wall was recessed to the south slightly. This had the advantage of making it both easier to build (the slopes were less precipitous) and defensively stronger (any attacker was vulnerable on the front and both flanks, rather than just the front). For good measure, the ditch (normally absent along the crags) was reinstated. Who said Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t defensive?
Once we reach the top of Cuddy’s Crags, we can pause to catch our breath and seize the opportunity to look back the way we have come. This is 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 internationally renowned 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.
The going is easier for a while, with the Claytonized curtain wall to our right. Soon, however, it is abruptly terminated and we descend into Rapishaw Gap. Now there is a modern drystone wall on top of the curtain wall, pierced by a gateway that marks the arrival of the Pennine Way, which will accompany us for a while. The easiest way down the bluff with its terminated wall is to head south for a short way and then almost double back to get up to the line of the wall again, so that we are only descending easy slopes and not risking life and limb scrambling down rocks. We cross a stile and assail Hotbank Crags.
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. The dip slope reflects the angle at which the whin stone lies, sloping towards the south. The Whin Sill was in fact the first ‘sill’ defined in geology and is overlain by other rocks, including sandstone (which provides the building stone for the Wall) and limestone (which handily provided the mortar). These, because they lay above the whin, were present just a little way south, mostly near the Military Road. There was also some sandstone under the whin, hence there were also Roman quarries north of the Wall.
Soon we spy a hexagonal plantation to our left and begin to descend into Milking Gap, a broad meltwater spillway. As we descend Hotbank Crags, it is abundantly clear that 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).
At the base of the slope, next to Hotbank Farm, we see Milecastle 38, with the path looping round it.
Milecastle 38 (Hotbank) [HB 255–6; haiku]
This milecastle 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 saw one of these when we visited the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
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.