Wall Mile 42

Wall Mile 42 [HB 264–8]

Leaving Milecastle 42, we can climb the steps next to the truncated length of curtain wall. This is a dead-end, but worth going up for the view.

At the top of the steps, we can turn back and admire Milecastle 42, laid out before us in a way it is difficult to better once you are down next to it. You may also glance to the south and see the confident earthwork of the Vallum striding across the countryside, dead straight, enjoying its freedom from the crags. Between them can be made out the grassy strip of the Military Way, dogging the footsteps of the curtain wall like a faithful servant.

The curtain wall east of Cawfields Quarry

The curtain wall east of Cawfields Quarry

Why is that piece of wall a dead end? Because it was chopped off by Cawfields Quarry and thereby hangs a tale. Here, at this high point, let us consider a low point.

When the central sector of the Wall was sold off in 1929, at the breakup of the Clayton estate, the National Trust bought part but did not own the mineral rights. Those were leased off to one John Wake of Darlington, who planned to expand his quarry at Cawfields all the way along the southern part of the dip slope between the Vallum to within ten feet of the curtain wall. There had already been controversy when Turret 45b collapsed into Walltown Quarry in the late 19th century. It was realised that the new proposal would probably have been structurally disastrous, as well as totally ruining the setting of the Wall. At the time, the Ancient Monuments legislation was not sufficiently beefy to protect the monument from this indirect, but nevertheless very real, threat. Celebrities of the day rallied around, including Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan, letters were written to The Times, and the government was forced to act, compensating Wake and limiting the spread of his quarry, so that it grew no more than what we saw as we walked past, finishing working in 1952. Ugly truths had had to be confronted, particularly those touching upon employment (at a time of depression) set against ‘heritage’ (as we now insipidly term it), as well as the duty of the state in preserving monuments for current and future generations to enjoy. Every time a mountebank pops up and says planning legislation is too complex and too biased towards ancient monuments, whip yourself with the stingiest of nettles to remind yourself of this salutary tale.

We can now head back down the steps, through the kissing gate, then left through another and trudge westwards past the water-filled quarry, noting that the car park has one of the few public conveniences we shall encounter on our journey.

Turning left out of the car park we walk a short distance by the road before going right and over a stile, which leads us past Burnhead house B & B. We are now heading uphill and north-westwards. When we reach a rather unusual wiggle in the modern wall, we are at the site of Turret 42b. Here the Wall turns onto a slightly more westerly course.

Wall Mile 42 east of Great Chesters

Wall Mile 42 east of Great Chesters

Once again, a modern field wall is running on top of the curtain wall to our right. Beyond it, the ditch keeps company with us. Immediately to the north-east, there is a large temporary camp, known as Burnhead camp (3.5ha or 8.6 acres if you prefer), probably dating to the construction of the Wall. We cross a stile and enter the next field; shortly after, the wall turns almost due west. The Trail arrives at the eastern site of Great Chesters fort across a field with prominent remnants of post-medieval ridge-and-furrow ploughing. We shall deal with the fort in the next segment, but first let us turn our attention to Milecastle 43.

Milecastle 43 (Great Chesters) [HB 270; haiku]

Excavation at Great Chesters in 1939 showed that the fort had been constructed on top of the short-axis Milecastle 43, which was razed to the ground, and there is now nothing to see.