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.

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Wall Mile 30

Wall Mile 30 [HB 214–15]

If we move a little further on from the site of the milecastle, we can stop by a large rock protruding from the base of the ditch. Finally, we reach the most famous part of Limestone Corner. Wedge holes can still be seen in the top of the pinnacle where the attempts to split the whinstone were given up (whin naturally contains vertical cracks or joints, along which it will split); it must have been a bad day for the dtich-diggers.

Rock-cut ditch with wedge marks at Limestone Corner

Rock-cut ditch with wedge marks at Limestone Corner

To the south of us, large chunks of whin have been discarded down the slope, the largest of which (subsequently split into two by frost action) has been estimated as weighing around twelve tonnes (naturally, there is no record of anybody having actually weighed it; this is a guesstimate). Such pieces probably had to be removed with sheer legs, a technology with which the Roman army were not unfamiliar.

The scatter of whin boulders at Limestone Corner

The scatter of whin boulders at Limestone Corner

We must now plod on, crossing the ditch and then over a stile, taking us to the north of it and onto the upcast mound. Now we can admire those roadside drystone walls (they are easier to see from either side than from the road, due to the changes in level since the road was built). As we saw earlier, the larger blocks, curiously familiar from our perambulations next to the curtain wall, are interrupted by regular lines of throughstones.

The need for an all-weather east–west road across the isthmus became apparent after the Newcastle-based Marshall George Wade failed to intercept the Jacobite rebels in 1745 (who, ironically, exploited his new roads in Scotland to effect a swift passage into England at Carlisle). Wade got bogged down at Hexham during a horrendous blizzard and gave up. He died in 1748 and had nothing to do with the construction of the road, but sadly you will still find it called ‘Wade’s Military Road’ in less-well-informed sources than this, dear reader.

Construction of the Military Road began in 1749 with a survey from west to east, undertaken by two military engineers, Dugal Campbell and Hugh Debbeig (the latter serving later at Wolfe’s side at Quebec), detached from William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland. Their drawing of the survey was subsequently published, unattributed, by John Warburton. The actual work of building the road and walls was contracted out to civilian companies (unlike the other military roads in the Highlands, which the Hanoverian army built) and did not always stick to Campbell and Debbeig’s recommended route. The road had a macadamised surface (compacted gravel on a stone foundation) and its original form can be seen in one of J.P. Gibson’s photographs, taken near Carrawburgh. The model lounges on the road in a way that would be suicidal nowadays and it will be apparent that successive metallings have now raised the road considerably.

J.P. Gibson's photo of the Military Road at Carrawburgh

J.P. Gibson’s photo of the Military Road at Carrawburgh

Continuing west along the field, we finally reach a stile and then another crossing of the Military Road. As usual, you will need to exercise care here. On the south side, we encounter the Vallum (the constructors of which merrily ploughed straight through the whin outcrop at Limestone Corner without batting an eyelid). The Military Way (the Roman road that ran along behind the curtain wall) is now perched on the north mound of the earthwork. We press on westwards, past some recent quarrying next to the Military Road. The car park at Carrawburgh is now in sight and just before we reach it, we arrive at the location of Milecastle 31.

Milecastle 31 (Carrawburgh) [HB 215; haiku]

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 31 and Carrawburgh fort

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 31 and Carrawburgh fort

Milecastle 31 lay just east of the car park, part of one of the robbed walls having been found during the construction of the modern facility. Needless to say, there is nothing to be seen now.

Wall Mile 16

Wall Mile 16 [HB 173]

The Trail leads us downhill towards a crossing of a side road (the usual caution is advised), and then past the lower northern reservoir. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the reservoirs have obliterated all trace of the Wall, even the Vallum, here.

Campbell and Debbeig's piece of curtain wall

Campbell and Debbeig’s piece of curtain wall

When Campbell and Debbeig were conducting their survey in 1749, prior to the construction of the Military Road, they found time to note a portion of curtain wall standing along here to a height of four courses. This of course was soon converted into the raw materials necessary for road construction, but the degree of their antiquarian interest is intriguing. One cannot but wonder at how broadly they interpreted their brief to survey a course for a new road so that it included mapping large parts of the Roman Wall as it then was. Indeed, their detailed survey seems to have been a major (and perhaps the only) source for the map drawn up by Nathaniel Hill for John Warburton’s rehash of the section of Horsley’s Britannia Romana that dealt with the Wall. And they tell us piracy is a modern problem in the publishing industry.

Wall Mile 16

Wall Mile 16

We start to climb steadily, now, towards Harlow Hill, the large stone ballast next to the reservoir making heavy going (it makes it easier if you walk on the grass to either side, where possible) and it soon saps the strength. We are on the line of the ditch and there is indeed a slight depression, but little by way of detail to be seen. It is worth briefly pausing to look back, for the reservoirs are spectacular, even though they are a modern addition to this historic landscape.

Once we reach the top, a short diversion through the edge of some woodland, usually boggy and beset with the plastic reinforcement mats you may already have seen in various places, and we are unceremoniously dumped on a narrow piece of worn verge that eventually turns into an equally narrow pavement. Passing the crest of the hill, we may note a junction opposite and immediately to the east of it is the measured position of Milecastle 16 (Harlow Hill).

Milecastle 16 (Harlow Hill) [HB 173; haiku]

Site of Milecastle 16

Site of Milecastle 16

No trace of this milecastle has ever been noted archaeologically, although antiquarian reports suggest it was once visible. Its prominent location on the hill meant that it would have enjoyed fine views towards Milecastles 17 and 18 to the west and 15 and the fort at Rudchester to the east.

Mapping Hadrian’s Wall

The earliest itineraries of Hadrian’s Wall are the enamelled pans (the Rudge Cup, the Amiens patera, and the Staffordshire Moorlands/Ilam pan) listing the forts at the western end, soon followed by the list of officials ‘per lineam Valli‘ in the Notitia Dignitatum. However, as William Shannon shows in his book Murus Ille Famosus, the earliest proper map is probably an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon one, showing the British Isles with a crude line and a corrupt caption that may once have read ‘murus pictis‘.

Horsley Wall map extract

Horsley Wall map extract

Generalised maps of varying quality proliferated in the 16th century but a significant development came with the publication of John Horsley’s Britannia Romana in 1732, which included a map of the Wall made for him by George Mark. This was the first serious attempt at a survey of the Wall. Soon after, the decision to build the Military Road from Newcastle to Carlisle led to a survey of the proposed line by Campbell and Debbeig in 1749. The two known surviving copies include a detailed record of the remains of the Wall, including what may be the first attempt at an elevation drawing of the curtain wall (from a section west of Harlow Hill which, ironically, would soon be destroyed by the construction of the road itself). Both Horsley’s text and the Military Road survey appear to have ‘informed’ the derivative publication by John Warburton of his Vallum Romanum in 1753.

MacLauchlan's survey of Birdoswald

MacLauchlan’s survey of Birdoswald

In the 19th century, the Duke of Northumberland commissioned Henry MacLauchlan (a former member of the Ordnance Survey who was an advocate of shading over contours to depict topography) to prepare a detailed survey of the Roman Wall, which included several site plans (like that of Birdoswald, seen here). MacLauchlan wrote his Memoir (published in 1865) to accompany the overall plan of the Wall and it was sufficiently highly thought of to be used in several editions of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to illustrate the course of the monument and can still be purchased from various outlets as an attractive historic print. Its publication more or less coincided with that of the Ordnance Survey’s First Edition series of one-inch and six-inch sheets.

OS Hadrian's Wall map

OS Hadrian’s Wall map: search Ebay to find used copies

Inexorably, the Survey’s involvement with archaeology led to the production in 1964 of its two-inch Hadrian’s Wall historical map (a copy of which is still on the wall of Housesteads museum). Distinguishing between visible and presumed (or known and not visible) elements superimposed on a clear map base, it also incorporated a simple but effective fold system which made (and still makes) it easy to use in the field. It was updated in 1972 but, in 1989, the Survey produced a completely new map of the Wall that was truly abysmal in a rich and bemusing variety of ways, not least the use of their 1:50,000 map base (photographically enlarged to 1:25,000 for the Central Sector) and a confusing series of conventions. Murophiliacs clung on to their precious copies of the older map. Screeds of irrelevant text and diagrams only served to obfuscate its purpose as a map, rather than an essay-cum-gazetteer.

51851The use of aerial photography for mapping became widespread in the latter part of the 20th century and this resource was exploited by English Heritage’s National Mapping Programme to revise the coverage of the Wall area. This information was ultimately fed into English Heritage’s brand-spanking-new 1:25,000 Archaeological Map of Hadrian’s Wall, first published in 2010. Not without its problems (its map base is greyed out in favour of graduated tones to indicate height – thereby, presumably unwittingly, supporting MacLauchlan’s view – and the awkward folds of the double-sided sheet render it much more cumbersome in the field than the old OS map), it has nevertheless provided up-to-date information and extended coverage down the Cumbrian Coast.

At the same time, the availability of rectified satellite and vertical aerial photography through virtual globes such as Google Earth meant that neogeographical techniques could now be applied to Hadrian’s Wall, and that was the origin of Per Lineam Valli which first went live online in 2007 and is about to see a major upgrade. The combination of separate layers for each of the major components with the ability to hyperlink each site to online resources such as the National Monument Record’s Pastscape database and the UK government’s MAGIC map base, together with plans and photographs of the monument. The rapid development of GPS-enabled smartphones has made it possible to use the Per Lineam Valli file in the field (as a layer in Google Maps Mobile) to tap into these resources.

What is next? The use of lidar is already making aerial survey topographically more accurate and airborne ground penetrating radar, currently being developed for landmine detection, may soon be added to the armoury of the archaeologist. On the ground, you can expect the nascent technology of augmented reality to enable you to see 3D reconstructions of the Wall in situ and in real time using a mobile phone or tablet, allowing a variety of interpretations of, say, a turret to be presented. ‘Paper’ maps (the English Heritage map is already made of waterproof polyethylene, not dead trees) may be supplemented (if not replaced) by flexible e-ink displays that will draw detailed mapping and data access ever closer.