William Hutton Walks the Wall: Prologue

In 1801, the 78-year-old William Hutton set out from his home in Birmingham to fulfil an ambition and walk Hadrian’s Wall. He was, it should be said, not unaccustomed to walking. Fifty years earlier, when he worked as a bookseller in Southwell, he would walk five miles to work every morning from Nottingham and (of course) five miles back home again in the evening. All that on a vegetarian diet.

I determined to spend a month, and fifty guineas, in minutely examining the relicks of this first of wonders.

His anxious daughter accompanied him on his expedition to the North, riding on a horse behind her servant, but Hutton refused any such luxury and strode out. It took him fourteen days to get up to Carlisle (having covered 252 miles by that point), whereupon he headed west to Bowness-on-Solway, then eastwards along the Wall to Wallsend, then back west again to Bowness, before returning to Carlisle and heading south once more.

As a guide book, he took Warburton’s Vallum Romanum, a mischievous work of pseudo-scholarship which re-hashed the 1732 text relating to the Wall from Horsley’s Britannia Romana, and appropriated the 1749 survey of the proposed line of the Military Road undertaken by Dugal Cambell and Hugh Debbeig in a (barely modified) engraving by Nathaniel Hill.

I was dressed in black, a kind of religious travelling warrant, but divested of assuming airs; and had a budget of the fame colour and materials, much like a dragoon’s cartridge-box, or post-man’s letter pouch, in which were deposited the map of Cumberland, Northumberland, and the Wall, with its appendages; all three taken out of Gough’s edition of the Britannia; also Warburton’s map of the Wall, with my own remarks, &c.

Nathaniel Hill's engraved map for Warburton's Vallum Romanum

Nathaniel Hill’s engraved map for Warburton’s Vallum Romanum

To this little pocket I fastened with a strap, an umbrella in a green case, for I was not likely to have a six weeks tour without wet, and slung it over that shoulder which was the least tired.

By the time he had finished, Hutton’s journey to the Wall and back had seen him cover 601 miles. Once home, he wrote up his remarkable walk in a small volume which he entitled A History of The Roman Wall, most of which was an amateur’s take on the current attempts to understand Hadrian’s Wall. Hence Hutton, following the scholars of his time, thought the stone wall was built by Severus, part of the Vallum by Hadrian, whilst the remaining part of that earthwork was constructed by the Roman general Agricola in the 1st century AD! The first half of the book is concerned with the history but when his account of his walk begins, Hutton quite deliberately combined his two walks (west to east then east to west) into one from east to west, thereby setting the tradition for most subsequent walkers (despite the fact that, in practical terms, walking west to east is preferable, given the nature of the terrain and the prevailing weather conditions).

William Hutton

William Hutton

We shall follow Hutton, one day at a time, as he progresses from Wallsend to Bowness. This was a man who, at 78, slept under bushes and waded rivers in order to follow Hadrian’s Wall. If you think it is hard walking the Wall these days, William Hutton can help provide you with a clear and unassailable sense of proportion.*

I envied the people in the neighbourhood of the Wall, though I knew they valued it no more than the soil on which it stood. I wished to converse with an intelligent resident, but never saw one.

Tomorrow: Day One, From Wallsend to Newcastle

* It is worth pointing out that children nowadays first encounter William Hutton in history lessons as an exemplar of child labour, having been set to work in the silk mills of Derby at the ripe old age of seven.