Many cite Bede as the supplier of our first account of the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, but he does not go into any great detail. A long succession of antiquarians visited Hadrian’s Wall from the 16th century onwards, one of the earliest and most prominent being William Camden in 1599, although he used the work of a number of others. He was followed at the beginning of the 18th century by Alexander Gordon and John Horsley, as well as William Stukeley and Roger Gale, the second following the first (and to some extent borrowing from him), and the third and fourth travelling together. Horsley’s text was subsequently plagiarised (it is difficult to think of a more polite way of putting it) by John Warburton, whose map – drawn up by one Nathaniel Hill – also bore a striking resemblance to the survey undertaken shortly beforehand for the Military Road. That same survey demonstrated an unusual fascination with the Roman Wall, fortuitously including an elevation drawing of a length of it (since it was subsequently destroyed by the road itself) and a plan of its main features.
The fort at Zugmantel, so important in Roman frontier studies in so many ways, is frankly a mess. Caged behind wire mesh, entering its compound is not exactly a path to enlightenment. The north and west ramparts can be made out, as can the location of the north gate, but the rest is so overgrown (it is, of course, in woodland) and riddled with unbackfilled excavation trenches that making sense of it is not on the cards.
It is easier to understand the amphitheatre, which is the only visible part of the substantial civil settlement, and which lies half way between the fort and the Limes, where the reconstructed tower and palisade may be seen.
After admiring Zugmantel, we set out along the line of the frontier (the bank survives up to 2m high along here), aiming for a lunchtime stop at Dasbach. We followed the frontier above the village of Eschenhahn, but whilst the Limes was free to plough straight on, we had to zigzag downhill, passing through Eschenhahn, before climbing up out of the valley of the Auroffer Bach, and then descending into the valley of the Worsbach, crossing under an Autobahn (the E35) and a railway and over another railway. We rejoined the line of the frontier just before yet another reconstructed tower (WT 3/26) just south of Dasbach.
Following lunch, we started climbing again, but this time we took advantage of a frontier BOGOF deal, because the Limes was split between an older (hinterer) and newer (vorderer) course, both of which are upstanding.
The two frontiers reunited before WT 3/29 and carried on in a straight line to near Kastell Alteburg, where an ancient open-market continues to be held. As the Limes strode directly over the Totenberg, we were forced to take a much less direct route until we at last rejoined it at the site of WT 3/36. Then we had a more-or-less straight run uphill to Kleinkastell Meisel.
‘Best’ needs to be qualified here: does this mean highest standing, or most carefully finished, or perhaps the most dramatically situated, or the most photographed, or even the bit that can be walked upon? The highest standing sections are at Thorny Doors (NY 722 668), some 500m east of Milecastle 42 (Cawfields), and at Hare Hill (NY 563 646), although the first (3m high) is on a steep incline and the second (2.7m high) had its facing stones reconstructed in the 19th century. A good example of a section that is both carefully finished and dramatically situated is the length of curtain wall at Walltown Crags (NY 672 662). The most photographed section is probably at Cuddy’s Crags looking towards Housesteads Plantation (NY 783 687). The only length where walkers are now permitted on the curtain wall is at Housesteads Plantation (NY 787 687), west of the fort at Housesteads.
Further reading: Burton 2003
Low cloud hid the giant wind turbines as we stepped out of Kemel, blades roaring softly through the water vapour. There is nothing to see of the fortlet, but a timber tower lurks behind the village fire station.
Striding across the fields, we weaved around the bases of the turbines, and skirted the edge of the recycling centre. We soon arrived at the Father Ted watchtower (‘…this watchtower is small…’) before descending past the Villa Lilly, a health resort and turning off towards Lindschied, and the first of the major changes to the Limesweg this year (I am only just beginning to appreciate how often this path changes course!). It now avoids going into the village almost completely, only briefly flirting with it before beginning the long descent into the valley of the Aar (which will see the start of Strecke 3 of the ORL). On the way down, we turned off to inspect the only inscribed quarry face in this part of the German Limes, commemorating a bored Ianuarius Justinus.
We retraced our steps, crossing under the railway and over the river and nodding a greeting to Kleinkastell Adolfseck, before climbing once more to get to our chosen lunch place near WT 3/8.
After lunch, we plodded on through more forest, now mindful of our looming meeting with Dirk Augustin for a spot of living history. Now the weather began to turn against us, showers becoming heavier until they explored the possibility of turning into downpours. By the time we made it to the watchtower at Zugmantel, we were moist to say the least. Dirk displayed and explained weaponry throughout the Roman period, before mixing (and inviting us to sample) some moretum.
Archaeology is a destructive process (sometimes rather euphemistically known as ‘preservation by record’) and Hadrian’s Wall is obviously a finite resource, so there has to be a very good reason for any component of it to be excavated. Such reasons fall into two categories: the first is for research purposes and the second prior to destruction by development.
Amongst recent research excavations was a series of small trenches used to verify the suspected locations of several milecastles. Why do this? Apart from the obvious increase in knowledge gained by the exercise, managing a large and complex monument like Hadrian’s Wall requires detailed information to enable informed decisions to be made about it and knowing where the milecastles are can be key to this.
Good examples of development-led archaeological excavation include the A1 Western Bypass, which crossed the line of the Wall at West Denton, or the new Northern Development Route west of Carlisle, which did the same near Beaumont.
Our half-day’s decursio begins outside the reconstructed Kleinkastell at Pohl and takes us up a country lane, across open fields, the frontier just a line on the map. On our way we see one of the more unusual Limesweg waymarkers: a sign painted on the road.
Passing through the village of Holzhausen (birthplace of Nicolaus August Otto, inventor of the Otto engine), we are unable to resist a coffee in the local bakery/coffee shop/general store. As we exit the village, I note that the Limesweg route has changed yet again here (third visit, third variant!), helped by the fact that there is now a pedestrian walkway/cycle track all the way to the nearby roundabout, cutting out the need for threading through the village and surrounding field.
Soon, however, we leave the road, follow the line of an old narrow-gauge railway for a short distance, then enter woodland again, guarded by a piece of chainsaw art in the shape of a legionary shield.
The Limes is in there waiting for us, bank and ditch in fine fettle amidst the trees and abundant leaf litter, and we follow it towards our destination, Kastell Holzhausen.
The fort is one of the most impressive sets of remains so far, with walls standing over a metre high, well preserved gateways, and an apsidal HQ building. Naturally, we are the only people there: we have yet to see another Limesweg walker who was not a local out for a stroll or somebody jogging or exercising their dog.
We take our leave of the site and go off in search of the coach and our packed lunch before making for Idstein. The showers were half-hearted, we were determined, and our morning was a rewarding one.