Two Paths Compared: Hadrian’s Wall and the Limesweg

Some people derive pleasure from walking long-distance paths. I am not one of them. For me, walking is slow, tedious, and often painful. A cyclist since the age of seven, I get frustrated that it takes me a whole day to walk what I can cycle in an hour. Cycling also takes little toll on my feet and knees (bane of many an archaeologist’s life), unlike walking – in my case at least. Nevertheless, I reluctantly have to admit that walking is the best way to see Hadrian’s Wall and appreciate its use of the landscape; cycle paths just don’t cut it.

I have been walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail (this year celebrating its tenth anniversary) regularly since 2005. It was therefore interesting to get the opportunity to explore part of the Limesweg along the Obergermanisch-Raetischer Limes (ORL) between the Rhine and the Danube (crossing the Roman provinces of Upper Germany and Raetia, hence the name). The whole frontier is around 340 miles (550km) long and I was undertaking the first 100 miles of it, from Rheinbrohl to Kastell Saalburg.

The first difference was that considerably more than half of the Limesweg was within woodland. German forests tend to be much more varied than the softwood monoculture of the UK’s Forestry Commission, so the range of flora and fauna encountered is much greater. However, what starts out as fascinating can eventually become tedious and disorientating.

Second there was signage. In terms of waymarking, Hadrian’s Wall wins hands down, with the little acorn logo predictably regular in both directions (the west-to-east route used to be less well provided; no more). The Limesweg, with its ingenious arrow in the form of a watchtower, ranged from over-provision (a sign nailed onto every other tree) to downright inadequacy (none for nearly a mile: eek!), sometimes leaving this walker retracing his steps to attempt to find the hidden marker he had missed. The woodland aspect has a role to play here, with logging activities (mostly draw felling, interestingly; I only saw clear felling twice in the whole 100 miles) often removing trees that bore the tell-tale arrows. Information boards were far more common than on Hadrian’s Wall, however, where only consolidated monuments get them; in Germany, even the mound where a tower used to be gets a full, bilingual explanation. Actually that’s only partly true, for the signage was not consistent. Crossing over the state boundary between Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen (just to the east of Kastell Holzhausen) produced a noticeable drop in the amount of useful information offered to the walker. Hadrian’s Wall manages to maintain a more consistent standard of presentation across Tyne & Wear, Northumberland, and Cumbria (perhaps aided by the fact that English Heritage, charged with the overall care of the Wall, is a national organisation).

The terrain is different too. Regardless of which end you start Hadrian’s Wall (west remains best in my opinion, but you knew that). There is a gradual ascent from 0m OD at either end to 345m OD on Winshield Crags. On the Limesweg you can match that in a single day. On my third day of walking, for example, between Sayn and Kleinkastell Hillscheid, my altitude ranged from 84m to 428m (SRTM) over just 10.8 miles! There was a familiar rhythm to climbing steeply out of a river valley, going along for a bit, then an equally steep descent into another valley. Sometimes the ascents and descents were gentle, but usually not. Almost invariably they were tree-clad.

Another difference was that nobody seemed to walk the whole thing. I met only a couple of walkers intent on long-distance travel. The Limesweg mostly serves Germans at weekends, when they go out to enjoy the countryside seriously for the day, often walking a section of the path. When I admitted to my aim to walk from Rheinbrohl to Saalburg, it caused a few raised eyebrows. That being said, many long-distance walkers plod along the Hadrian’s Wall path relentlessly ignoring the signage, intent on getting stamps in their passports (no, I don’t understand that obsession either).

There was little by the way of footpath maintenance on the Limesweg. On Hadrian’s Wall, an active programme of plastic mat (or paving slab) reinforcement, diversions, and reseeding are usually evident. Never enough (resources, dear boy, resources), but it’s there. Not on the Limesweg; in fact, in the logging areas you can easily find yourself negotiating deep waterlogged ruts as the trees that used to have the waymarkers on are dragged off, customers’ names being painted on them (Egger, I noted several times!) as they are stacked. Oh, and mountain bikers like the footpaths too. Although there is an official Radweg, that is for happy smiling families who want a gentle ride that approximates to the line of the frontier. These adrenalin-fuelled action junkies want lots of rough, tough, downhill stuff and the first you know of their arrival is a ding of a bell, whereupon you hurl yourself out of their way (not easy on some narrow hillside paths). The evidence of their passing is everywhere; just look for their wheel ruts. Don’t even ask if the monuments are immune to such damage, you don’t want to know.

Then there were the reconstructions. English Heritage are (perhaps understandably) squeamish about reconstructing installations on Hadrian’s Wall. There are no complete milecastles, only one turret (at Vindolanda, well away from the Wall), and a short length of curtain wall at Wallsend. The Germans have no such qualms. They have been at it since Wachtpost 2/1 was reconstructed at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1874 and there has been a sprinkling of them throughout the intervening period and along the route of the path.

Not all are now approved of, some now being considered ‘inaccurate’ (a fate which doubtless awaits the currently favoured form, but whisper that softly, in case the Germans hear you say it). In the light of such doubts, one wonders whether old stick-in-the-mud English Heritage have a point after all: today’s bold reconstruction is so easily tomorrow’s all-too-solid embarrassment. That being said, Limeskastell Pohl is a wonderful sight, even with its anachronistic wheelchair ramp (required by German law) winding up the rampart and the bridge across to the reconstructed tower.

There were eccentricities, too, like the bizarre piece of pixellated pavement in the middle of nowhere that simply said ‘Limes’ as if somebody thought it would be a good idea. It might conceivably have been intended as art (I have my doubts), but if so was far less successful than the many examples of chainsaw sculpture I encountered, such as a legionary shield near Holzhausen (yes, we know there were not supposed to be legionaries on the ORL: don’t be so fussy!).

If you are tempted to imitate me then your most vital piece of kit will be the two 1:25,000 maps that cover the two Länder (Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen). I would go so far as to say that you cannot (indeed, should not) attempt it without them, so unreliable can the signage be. The Limes-Straße Verein put out oodles of free literature, much of it in English, and have a superb website, as do the Deutsche Limeskommission, for the archaeological side of things. In these respects, they have the edge on the Hadrian’s Wall authorities, although not in all. I had an itinerary from the LSV which was almost always incorrect in its distances (another thing walkers obsess about, I’ve discovered). Did I mention the wild boar? Mainly evidenced by the anti-wild-boar electric fencing that I encountered, but once I saw that, I became convinced they were stalking me. Perhaps they were.At the end of it all, I am very glad I walked from Rheinbrohl to Saalburg, as it taught me a lot. Not necessarily the things I thought I was going to learn, but that’s part of the fun of adventures, isn’t it? It was a wonderful way to see Germany, although I did not meet many Germans doing it (in fact, I more than once wondered whether the zombie apocalypse had happened and nobody had bothered to tell me). I also confirmed for myself that some of the Apfelwein in Hessen can be every bit as good as real British cider (heresy!), and, in the final analysis, it was worth all the sore feet and aching knees just for that piece of scientific research. I shall be back. Prosit, Frau Rauscher!

NB We stayed in the stylish-yet-cosy Ferienhaus am Limeskastell in the delightful little village of Pohl (which has an Ernst-Fabricius-Straße; as I keep reminding people, Fabricius is the only archaeologist to have part of Hadrian’s Wall named after them). Our host, Jürgen Schmidt (a Cicerone guide at the Limeskastell), lived next door and proved the very model of helpfulness during our stay. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.

The PLV eboojs