Saturday, April 26, 2014

April 25 - Walking Hadrian's Wall on my birthday

We woke up to thick fog and cold drizzle on our first morning in Hexham and the weather pretty much went downhill after that. But no matter. We had a leisurely breakfast visiting with John and Julie, the only other residents at Fairshaw besides our hardy band of adventurers. Richard established his routine by ordering the Northumberland breakfast (sausage, mushrooms, fried tomato and an egg); I ordered the scrambled egg on toast — and these deep yellow eggs were all from hens right outside the window in the yard.
Richard and Pauline at breakfast, chatting with. . . 

John and Julie
the Northumberland breakfast

alpaca hats for boiled eggs
After we bundled up and climbed into the car it was off to Hadrian’s Wall. As we neared the wall excitement began to build. Naturally we pulled off at the first significant wall ruins, the Roman cavalry fort at Chesters. But the rain persuaded us to push on to the Roman fort at Housetseads, which also serves as a visitor center for anyone seeking to explore the central portion of Hadrian’s Wall.

Entrance to the Housesteads visitors' center

After arriving at the visitor center’s car park, we found our way to entrance to the visitor center where we paid our fee and steeled ourselves for the trek ahead.

Straightaway a man approached our little group. He introduced himself as Ken from Wall’s end (where the wall ends in Newcastle) and he was an official guide for the National Trust. He asked if we would be interested in a free tour of the Roman fort and without hesitation we responded in the affirmative. So off we went on the path up to fort, which bordered the wall itself. (It should be noted that Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort remaining along the length of the wall.)

Not long after we began trotting up the path, several others caught up with us, joining our wet group as we made the trek across the windswept (I’ve been dying to use that word for the longest time and believe me it’s quite apt here) valley and up the slope of what is the southern side of the steep ridge on which the Housesteads fort is sited.

our tour guide, Ken from Wall's End in Newcastle -- and yes, that's where Hadrian's Wall ends in the east
Although the weather remained rather beastly, we had an enjoyable time nonetheless — Ken proved to be a fine guide, informative and entertaining; certainly better than the “namby-pamby” Jeremy of St. Albans Cathedral. The tour followed along through the ruins of the original southern entrance (stopping at the other two gates, east and west as well), then the commanding officers quarters, the barracks, and the granary.

the wall heading east

The tour ended interestingly enough at the latrines, which seated perhaps a dozen or so men at a time (with fashionable military efficiency) and had once boasted running water. There was no toilet paper of course, rather the Romans used sponges on a stick dipped in water. At least that what Ken claimed and the concept of "spongia" would come up again later in the little museum.
latrines with running water -- and if you must know they used sponges, not paper or moss
looking east with the Wall serving as the northern wall of the fort.
After the tour ended we popped into the small shop/museum next to the ruins. From there we walked up to the wall itself — which served as the northern wall of the fort itself— and at this point we were able to actually walk on top of the wall, something that typically is not permitted anywhere else, I believe.

our intrepid group braving the elements to walk on top of the wall (just west of Housesteads)
looking north form the top of the wall, across a 100-foot drop to the valley floor below

100-foot drop but they still built a wall anyway

the small ship/museum at Housesteads
looking south: the visitor center is just on the other side of the large group of trees
Already my birthday had been fabulous: I was with good friends and my gorgeous wife walking on Hadrian's Wall. That's precisely what I had wanted to do on this trip and yet there was still so much to come!

The weather prevented us from exploring much more than a few hundred yards so we turned around where we had to leave the top of the wall and made our way back down the hill and to the car park.

We pulled out of the car park onto the B6318 heading west and a few short miles pulled off at the Twice Brewed pub for lunch. The service was friendly — of course you had to order at the bar, which was convenient since you could also pick up your ales right there as well — and warmed ourselves up with some tasty food. Richard had the Pork pie and I had a scrumptious vegetable casserole with cheddar on top and a salad. Well worth the stop. 

Twice Brewed pub
Pork pie
an incredible vegetable dish

From Twice Brewed we retraced our route in the direction of Housesteads but quickly turned south following the sign to Vindolanda, another Roman fort.

While not located along Hadrian’s Wall Vindolanda (or Vindaloo as some in our group kept repeating) — in fact it predates the wall when the Romans constructed a chain of forts to mark the end their empire, Vindolanda is certainly worth a stop.

It was still drizzling with a cold wind as we parked the car and walked inside. We opted not to buy the combination ticket: Vindalanda and the Roman Military Museum located a few miles distant. As we made our way across the ongoing excavations, stopping to chat briefly with one of the volunteer diggers, the rain became a bit heavier so we quickly found our way down a path to a small glen and into the museum.

Vindolanda boasts one of the best collections of Roman artifacts in Britain — so we were told anyway and so it seemed to us. The fort has been the source of some pretty impressive cultural discoveries, represented by their collection of shoes, glass, metal, bones (animal bones). But their jewel, or ather jewels are dozens of wax tablets on which the Romans wrote their letters to one another, kept track of day-to-day developments in the fort, etc. Nothing short of fantastic.

volunteers excavating in the rain at Vindolanda

Museum at Vindolanda
Memorial to the Roman soldiers who served at Vindolanda

After browsing the collections we popped into the adding cafe and had coffee and tea. (Yes, we did indeed do a lot of "popping" in and out of places.) Leaving the museum and dodging the rain, we made our way to the car. For the record, the diggers had all gone as well. From Vindolanda we returned to Hexham and the Fairshaw Rigg to relax before dinner.

About 6:30 we left the B & B and drove back north in the direction of Hadrian’s Wall but stopped short, turning east to Barrasford. A few miles later we were inside the cozy Barrasford Arms where the four of us enjoyed a nice dinner. I recall Richard had the duck breast, somebody had the salmon and I had twice baked cheddar with chives for a starter followed by steak and chips. Everything was simply delicious.

 There was a light mist in the air as we plunged back outside into the dark for the drive back to Hexham and to bed. A simply perfect day to spend a birthday: good friends, walking Hadrian’s Wall and all ended with a tasty steak and fries.
Barrasford Arms in, where else, Barrasford

salmon on risotto
steak frites

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