The border fence where civilisation ended in England

2018-08-23 16:30
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(Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

"Looks like we brought the weather with us from California," the elderly tourist says, pulling on a hat and strolling past me. He disappears up a grass slope, beneath a brilliant, blue sky, his wife beside him.

It's the first of several American accents I hear that morning. Perhaps they've come to see what a real border fence looks like.

Because that's precisely what's drawn them, and me, to this remote and spectacular part of northern England: an imposing, defensive barrier meant to keep the bad guys out and the good guys safe.

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At least, that's how the ancient Romans would have seen it.

Hadrian's Wall — named after the emperor who commissioned it — was begun in the second century, in the year 122. Soldiers toiled for a decade or so, piling stone upon stone until it stretched from coast to coast, across the very top of what's now northern England: a distance of 118 kilometres.

It stood up to 4.6 metres high with walls 3 metres wide. It bristled with towers, forts and watch posts, called milecastles, and gave commanding views of the surrounding countryside.

Trendy designers today like to talk of statement walls. This was, indeed, a statement wall. It was where civilisation ended.

 In this photo, a section of Hadrian's Wall stretches away towards Birdoswald Fort, in Cumbria, northern England. The wall was built by Roman soldiers, beginning in 122 AD, and ran for 118 kilometres, coast to coast. Almost two thousand years later, it remains a powerful reminder of the majesty of the Roman Empire. (Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

The wall let the Romans control who and what came into the empire. And it kept the peace. Beyond it were war-mongering communities in what is, today, Scotland, itching to ravage the settlements of refined Roman Britain and bring down fire on the hated invaders.

Hadrian's Wall kept them out.

 In this photo, ancient stones on Hadrian's Wall warm in the sun in Cumbria, northern England. The wall was built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, beginning in 122 AD, and ran coast to coast: a distance of 118 kilometres. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. (Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

Almost 2000 years on, long sections on Hadrian's Wall still stand, remarkably well-preserved. The thick stone line snakes for miles across rugged uplands, and down into wooded valleys.

UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1987 for its "extraordinarily high cultural value."

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My family and I start at the ruins of Birdoswald Fort, said by English Heritage, a charity that looks after historic sites, to have the most impressive remaining defences of all the original 16 forts. We then follow the wall, in blazing sunshine, as it undulates eastward.

 This photo shows the remains of stone abutments at Willowford, Cumbria, in northern England, that once supported an ancient bridge. The bridge was part of Hadrian's Wall, a defensive barrier that ran coast to coast to control movement of people and goods across the frontier and to seal off Roman Britain from attack by unconquered, warlike tribes to the north. (Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

But they soon tire of this huge slab of history, preferring the lure of a shady river bank and a packed lunch.

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I go on alone, past the impressive remains of abutments that once supported a triple bridge across the River Irthing. The wall's thick spine ascends a hill ahead of me.

 In this photo, a stretch of Hadrian's Wall cuts through the northern English countryside, near Birdoswald Fort, Cumbria. (Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

You are not meant to climb up on it, but I have an urge to connect. I run my hand against the sun-warmed stones; some a whitish-grey, others blackened by an eternity of wild, northern winters. I marvel that the last person to touch them, before me, was quite possibly the man who laid them, back when Hadrian's Wall marked the extreme northern edge of the Roman empire's vast reach.

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Sitting on the edge of an escarpment, among the ruins of Harrow's Scar milecastle, a ruddy-faced walker is taking a breather. Bill Vincent is halfway through a six-day trek along the wall's entire length, coast to coast, "to mark the start of my 60th year."

 In this photo, sheep rest in the lee of a section of Hadrian's Wall, in Cumbria, northern England. (Photo: Jerry Harmer, AP)

I ask him whether he thinks about the history as he walks: the garrisons, shivering behind the ramparts; the tattooed tribal warriors, staring resentfully at this massive stone affront.

"Yes, you can't help but do that," he says, "but, to be honest, I think more about my feet."

If You Go: 

Hadrian's Wall: By car, Birdoswald Fort is 6.4 kilometres west of Greenhead, off the B6318.

There are signposts as you get nearer. Sat nav: CA8 7DD.

There is a pay car park a short distance away. Visitors can combine Birdoswald Fort with Housesteads Fort, a short drive away. By train, the nearest train stations are at Brampton and Haltwhistle, about 11 kilometres away. By bus, the local Go Northeast company runs seasonal routes to points along Hadrian's Wall with its AD 122 service.

Plan Your Trip to Cumbria, England

  • Do SA residents need a visa: Yes a Standard Visitors Visa is required - Read more about that here. It costs roughly R1721,32 (£93) and takes about 3 weeks to process.
  • Currency & exchange rate: Pound sterling - £1 = R18,48
  • Main Airport: Carlisle Lake District
  • Airlines that travel there: South African Airways, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, and more. Search for flights here.

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