“A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Imagine it. You are a Roman centurion standing guard on Hadrian’s Wall on a winter night in the second century AD. As the cold wind blows down from the north, the only light is that of a torch and the stars above. Beyond the wall is a no man’s land, full of the uncivilized – a people with brilliant blue eyes who appear out of the mist, only to disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Behind you is the known, but out there – in the dark is all that is unknown in the world.
Even now, standing in the light of day on what’s left of Hadrian’s Wall, looking out at the vastness beyond is a humbling experience. The wall is a shadow of its former self, but standing atop its crumbling heap you sense the power that was Rome. You also get the sense that this must have felt like the end of the world to every centurion relegated to the wall for service. From the heights of Housesteads Fort, the wall gives way to a staggering drop off into what was the land of the Celt. From there, nothing but a rugged,windswept, abyss stretches out in all directions.
Housesteads was originally built to house up to 800 infantry and cavalry. One of seventeen forts along the whole expanse of Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads is perhaps the best preserved. Some of the exterior and interior walls remain, along with remnants of the four gates. At one time within the walls were barracks, a bathhouse, a bakery, a hospital, and all other types of services needed by a permanent base. Outside the walls was another village of its own – full of Britons who either made their living serving the soldiers or clustered close by for protection.
To reach Housesteads, you must walk about half a mile on a rocky path through a sheep pasture, across deceptively steep dramatic hills to reach the top. Once there it is as if you are on top of the world and you instantly understand why the Romans chose this place for a fort. Across the landscape on either site is evidence of the fortifications the Romans put in place to support the wall and the fort. On the south side of the wall is a huge ditch that once camouflaged a Roman road. Off the north side is a cliff that drops away into the land of the barbarian.
Sitting alone atop a ruined corner of the south gate, the wind seems to constantly howl on this remote outcrop, an outpost at the edge of the world. I think it is one of the loneliest places I’ve ever been, as well as one of the most haunting. Even two millennia after the Romans have come and gone, the wildness of this place refuses to be tamed. Sitting there, I was reminded of the story of the Ninth Legion. Up to five thousand men who marched north from the wall….and were never heard from again.
What really happened to the legion has been lost in the mists of time…but the wall remembers.
The wall remembers and sits waiting…ready to welcome them home.
All photos by the author.