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.

Wall Mile 26

Wall Mile 26 [HB 188–91]

We now cross the Military Road (what again?! Exercise all due caution) and trot down the field towards the length of curtain wall we now spy, seemingly floating in the middle of a sea of grass.

Planetrees curtain wall [HB 188–9]

This short stretch of Hadrian’s Wall has achieved fame of sorts by virtue of the fact that it owes its continued existence to intervention by William Hutton whilst he was walking the Roman Wall in 1801. Arriving here, he found the local tenant in the process of demolishing it. Ironically, the Military Road had preserved it by veering off its course some way to the east, as we have just seen. Hutton protested and managed to halt its destruction.

This is the eastern end of a stretch of Narrow Wall we shall soon see again at the bottom of the hill, at Brunton Turret. When construction of the Wall began, the curtain wall was initially built to a broad gauge of 10 Roman feet (about 2.96m) but this was soon reduced to a narrow gauge of 8Rft (about 2.37m), thereby saving lots of stone from being quarried and presumably annoying the troops who had already built some 20 miles of it to the thicker standard.

The reduction from broad to narrow gauge at Planetrees

The reduction from broad to narrow gauge at Planetrees

The junction between the broad and narrow gauges here at Planetrees is abrupt, Broad Wall on a broad foundation suddenly changing to Narrow Wall on that same broad foundation. The gang building the foundation had included a drain running the full width which protrudes incongruously, a memorial to changed plans. This is, in fact, the first time we can clearly see that the foundations were built separately from the curtain wall above.

We now carry on down the field, after crossing a drystone wall via a ladder stile, find ourselves walking down a slope, with the ditch becoming apparent to our right and, to the left, first a natural gulley and then the earthworks of the Vallum. We enter a plantation, the path winding between the berm and ditch, the course of the curtain wall lying on the southern edge of the woodland.

The ditch just west of Planetrees

The ditch just west of Planetrees

Now we must confront the fact that we cannot follow the wall through the grounds of Brunton Hall but must make a huge detour to get back onto its course. We have to turn left down the lane, which we share with the occasional vehicle (traffic uses it as a rat-run between the Military Road and the road we are heading for), until we reach a T-junction with the A6079, where we need to cross over towards the lay-by (this is another road where traffic races along with scant caution, so we must be wary). If by now you are thinking all this crossing of roads is dangerous, then you are right, and it is one of the main criticisms one can level at the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail Path.

We turn right and head northwards, noting that the pavement is very narrow, and the vegetation usually aggressively overhanging it, placing us worryingly close to the speeding traffic. After a while we see another lay-by to the right and a stile leading into a field. Yes, we must cross the road again, but the rewards are ample, as we are about to see Brunton Turret. We make our way up the field towards the trees (we are now on the other side of Brunton Hall) to find a length of curtain wall and a turret.

Turret 26b (Brunton) [HB 189–90]

Turret 29b at Brunton

Turret 29b at Brunton

In some respects, this is just another turret. However, it lies at an important junction, between the Narrow Wall (on its east side, marked by what is known as a ‘wing wall’) and by the Broad Wall to the west, marked by the turret being bonded seamlessly with it. It is clear, then, that the decision to change from the broad to narrow gauge occurred at around the time the curtain wall gang reached this turret from the west (or did they start from here and work westwards, the next gang starting further east and heading towards Brunton?). Hadrian’s Wall is all about change, modification, and adaptation, and here this flexibility is plain to see. The threshold to the doorway reveals slots for monolithic stone jambs and a pivot hole (with a respectable channel) on the eastern side. We shall soon see what such stone jambs looked like, once we get to Chesters. Pivot holes will also become familiar during the course of our journey.

Along Hadrian’s Wall, Roman doors and gates were not hinged, but rather pivoted, which made them much stronger: whilst a hinge would have had to be nailed to a wooden gate leaf, pivots were integral to its fabric. These pivots were then inserted into socket stones, one at the top and one at the bottom, the lower of the two usually having a channel to enable the pivot to be slid into place. The pivot was fixed by means of an iron ring placed around it which was then cemented to the pivot stone by means of molten lead. Remember that pivot stone retaining its iron ring we saw by the Vallum crossing at Benwell?

Our return to the main road requires us to cross the road once more and then head north towards the crossroads where we rejoin the Military Road. We turn left down the hill, making for Chollerford Bridge. The Wall, meanwhile, is inaccessible, heading across the fields towards the Roman North Tyne crossing but, before it reaches it, it encounters Milecastle 27.

Milecastle 27 (Low Brunton) [HB 191; haiku]

The sites of Brunton Turret, Milecastle 27, and Chesters from the air

The sites of Brunton Turret, Milecastle 27, and Chesters from the air

Isolated in the middle of agricultural land, but occasionally peeping out on aerial photographs, Milecastle 27 was excavated in 1930 and 1952 and found to be of the long axis type. The finds were paltry: just one piece of undatable pottery.