Wall Mile 47 [HB 284–5]
We carry on, still with the line of the curtain wall to our right, with its field wall perched on top of it. Eventually, the ditch becomes less pronounced, and at Green Croft, the Trail leads us across a bridge over a stream that is, if you look carefully, running in the Wall ditch. We follow the path until a gate takes us to a track, where we turn right and then follow the road round to the left before crossing into another field. Once again we find the curtain wall is lurking beneath a field wall and the ditch has been mostly ploughed away to the north, although it soon returns. We carry on in this manner for some 400m before the path deflects to the north-west and takes us through a gate onto a road.
A quick right then left takes us into a small paddock and, before we know it, we are weaving our way through the front gardens of a couple of houses and then out the other side. The Trail occasionally provides surreal moments like that; you have been warned. Now the ditch is getting serious again. Here we get to walk along one of the finest – possibly even breathtaking (if you are inclined to having your breath taken) – sections of Wall ditch. As you survey it, remember that we are not standing at the original base, since sedimentation ensured that, however often it was cleared out, material would rapidly accumulate at the bottom. Once again, the ditch is cut into a foreslope, with the northern lip – enhanced by the ditch upcast – making it even more pronounced and a substantial obstacle to the would-be attacker. The line of the curtain wall is, naturally, indicated by a property boundary wall.
The Trail takes us through a gate and across a minor road (exercise all due caution, as there is a blind corner) and then through a kissing gate into another field where all trace of the Wall appears to have gone. Fear not, intrepid traveller, for it soon reappears. Through another kissing gate and we see the ditch ahead of us, running downhill to the Poltross Burn, and we realise the property boundary to our left is on the line of the curtain wall and that, sneakily, we have entered the rather attractive village of Gilsland without really noticing it, as the National Trail manages to weave its way round the back of it, but it is the Wall that must concern us, not villages.
Looking downhill, we can clearly see how the Roman army used the terrain to their advantage when laying out the ditch, for here it is once again set back to the south of a prominent natural north–south slope, thus forcing an attacker to run uphill before attempting to cross it. Yes, it is the old foreslope trick again.
The path turns right, through another kissing gate, then left and down towards the stream. Crossing the Poltross Burn next to the lofty, dank viaduct, we then climb up some steps to bring us to the wonder that is Milecastle 48.
Milecastle 48 (Poltross Burn) [HB 285–7; haiku]
Milecastle 48 is one of the best preserved along the line of the Wall. First excavated in 1886, and then subsequently in 1909 and 1911 (and again in 1965 and 1966), it is perched rather precariously behind and sloping down towards the curtain wall (the railway embankment masks the fact that the land continues to fall to the north). Its own perimeter wall joins the curtain perpendicularly (and is bonded to it), but its southern corners are rounded as Roman fortifications of the 2nd century AD usually were. On the eastern side (and on the western, but no longer visible) is a short wing wall, confirming that the milecastle had been built to the broad gauge before the (now narrow) curtain wall reached it.
There are two internal structures, aligned on either side of the roadway that passes between the gates, the northernmost of which, rather excitingly, led out into Barbaricum (these days represented by the side of the embankment of the Newcastle to Carlisle railway). The north gate is well preserved and is of a type (III, if you must know) that scholars have suggested mean it was constructed by legio VI Victrix. The gate was subsequently narrowed to only allow pedestrian access, as happened at Milecastle 37, if you recall.
Within the milecastle, a north–south road way ran between the north and south gates and on either side of it were structures thought to be barrack buildings. The slope is rather extreme and the floors were probably levelled up on joists inside. It is thought that the milecastle garrisons were outposted from neighbouring forts, in order to provide the manpower to patrol the Wall and man the turrets. ‘Thought’ because, in the absence of direct evidence from Hadrian’s Wall itself, we have to use comparisons with other provinces, where we know outposting was practised widely.
In the north-east corner are the remains of the oven used for cooking (the Roman army preferred to keep their celebrity chefs at arm’s length), so it is in the equivalent position to ovens in larger forts and fortresses. Roman ovens worked like a traditional pizza oven: the fabric is heated by inserting hot embers which are then raked out and the food to be cooked (mostly bread) placed inside. Carbonised Roman bread (as well as wall paintings of the uncarbonised original) is known from Pompeii, but as yet no pizza.
Milecastle 48 also provides another important fact that sheds some (but not quite enough) light upon our understanding of the Wall. This is the survival of a staircase in its north-east corner. Only the lowest three (and part of a fourth) steps actually survive, but by projecting their line upwards, it is possible to deduce that the wall-walk height here must have been in the region of 12 Rft (3.55m). The astute observer will note that the stairs were constructed after the north and east walls of the milecastle, since it butts against and is not bonded with them (the coursing of the facing stones is different).
This then leads on to the question of whether the curtain wall had a walkway along the whole length of its top, or just in select places, such as round the perimeter of the milecastle defences. Scholars can be found who favour either; the evidence is suitably and intriguingly ambivalent; but, in the end, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. Those brought up on a diet of Alan Sorrell illustrations, with a crenellated Wall striding across the crags, wind-blown Roman soldiers atop it warily eyeing distant squalls, find it hard to escape the image, even though we know other contemporary frontiers (notably those in Germany) had no such feature and modern military walls (like the Berlin Wall or the coyly named Security Fence around the West Bank in Palestine) get by quite happily without being patrolled from the top. No certainties there, then, but there are many who would argue that the Wall only makes sense with a walkway.