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The Thirteenth Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall
  8th to 14th August 2009


Observations of a Pilgrim and advice for participants in 2019

by Denis Peel, Hon Librarian

10 years have elapsed since last I put  pen to paper to report on the 12th Pilgrimage. David Breeze’s 14th Handbook to Hadrian’s Wall and Nick Hodgson’s new Handbook for the Pilgrimage have published the latest finds. My role is to report on the day to day events of the trip and offer useful advice to future Pilgrims. Firstly, however, I must thank the organisers for all their hard work in making the week run so smoothly and so enjoyably.

Pilgrims met together for the first time at a well organised dinner in the Crown and Mitre with all 214 pilgrims being fed at the same time. Here  were introduced  the Head Pilgrim, David Breeze, followed by a search for the senior Pilgrim, which turned out to be Norman McCord, a mere slip of a lad, with seven pilgrimages from 1949 onwards under his belt, but unfortunately in a moment of generosity he had donated all his badges to the Society’s Coin  collection. The honour of most decorated pilgrim therefore went to Beryl Charlton who wore all the badges from 1959 onwards. The dinner was followed by a well delivered and very academic lecture on “Hadrian’s Wall in Literature” by Professor Sean O’Brien.

Sunday dawned fine and warm and the party was divided between four coaches , 1 & 2 from the Crown and Mitre and 3 & 4 from the Cumberland Arms. In theory one could travel on any coach but must stay on the same coach for the day. In practice most participants became attached not only to the same coach throughout but to the same seat and to change coaches in some quarters was regarded a most heinous crime. The clever arrangement meant that coaches 1 & 2 travelled from the south northwards while 3& 4 travelled southwards, with a cross-over at lunchtime. This pattern was repeated each day, so that the venues were never too crowded, and on the sites themselves the coach parties were separated to make manageable groups for tours. This worked very well, though it meant those guiding us round the sites had to repeat themselves 4 times in the course of the day!.

We first visited Moresby Fort after a minor map reading error involved both coaches doing a 3 point turn in a lane with grass growing up the middle. In side the fort stands the parish church, about to be the scene of a baptism. The appearance of an extra hundred for the service and Christening cake must have caused a momentary panic with the child’s parents, but they, ie the extra hundred, were using the Church facilities for another purpose concerning coffee and diuretics. The siting of the fort was interesting commanding a view over the Irish Sea, the M1 of prehistory,  and even more interesting to general historians was the nearby Jacobean Moresby Hall.

The next visit was Maryport Senhouse Museum and fort. In the confined space of the museum it was difficult to hear the speaker so we did our own thing, ascended the reconstructed watch tower from whence we saw a group of re-enactors of Roman cavalry and afterwards discussed details of Roman armour and also, with the “camp following” ladies and children , Roman Diet. At this point we embarked on bus 2 for a short trip to the Education Centre where buses 3 & 4 were already at lunch. During the considerable delay while we waited for them to finish we lined up for photo shots sitting on the wall outside as we had done ten years previously. The splendid buffet  provided by renowned Cumbria cook Annette Gibbons, who catered for the 1999 Pilgrimage but is now OBE, followed by strawberries and meringue was well worth the wait. The afternoon was rounded off by a visit to Swarthy Hill mile fortlet with the additional attraction of a well preserved later salt pan and a medieval field system fossilised in later field layouts unnoticed by most pilgrims firmly ensconced in the Roman Era. The trip back to Carlisle took in Bowness where we disembarked to hear a talk by Paul Austen, but did not repeat the plodge in the sea as last time.

After the hotel dinner we had a memorable lecture by Dr Ernst Kunzl on “enammelled vessels of the north-west provinces”. These three small bowls, essentially Roman tourist tatt,  inscribed with lists of Hadrian’s Wall forts have changed the understanding and naming of the forts on the frontier. It was indeed then a privilege to see them in the flesh at Tullie House Museum following an introduction by the Mayor of Carlisle. This was the highlight of the pilgrimage and all credit to the organisers for arranging the exhibition.

Monday promised to be wet and was, but this did not deter anyone from the walk Hare Hill, reconstructed wall standing about 15 courses, to Gartside. Here we saw stretches of later wall core built with specially hard mortar which had resisted all farming activities to remove it. We also met the lengthmen responsible for keeping the Hadrian Wall path in good order.

The next brief stop still in rain was at Banks East turret, 52a, where David Breeze pointed out the evidence for the turf wall abutting the turret being replaced by the later stone wall. Crucial evidence in the form of a single facing stone chamfered to the angle of the back face of the turf wall, the only remaining example was liable to be knocked off and pinched by a souvenir hunting tourist. That this was happening was evidenced by several holes in the wall face. Adjoining Pike Hill tower set at a diagonal to the wall with a butt joint is evidence of a pre wall signal station.

The morning was completed by a wet walk from Appletree to Birdoswald observing the interplay between turf wall, ditch and Vallum. The traditional section across the line of wall, turf wall and vallum was not redug in the interest of conservation this time. The rain stopped as lunch was taken in Birdoswald’s car park served from Annette’s van. This was followed by a tour of the fort where we observed the changes in the gate arrangement following the decision to replace the turf wall with a stone one. Then it was hot foot to Poltross burn, our party omitting to count centurial and other outrageously decorated stones. A splendid interpretation  of the Irthing bridge abutment was given by Val Maxfield while Jim Crow did likewise at Poltross burn milecastle. The day rounded off by dinner served courtesy of  Hadrian Wall Heritage Ltd at Walby Grange Farm, a definite venue for children on a wet Sunday. Vegetarians be aware that at venues such as this you must push in to the front of the queue or the carnivores will get your specials!

Tuesday was the easy day. Vindolanda in the morning where the main item was the discovery of yet more round huts. Now the Romans were locked into  squares so the only possible interpretation could be  that these structures had been built for locals, ie if we are allowed to call them, natives. (apparently non PC but OK for native Americans. Certainly George Jobey’s nomenclature can no longer be used). It turns out that their furniture all built on the curve would not sit in the Roman rectilinear structures, a case of round pegs in square holes. A sandwich lunch was provided by English Heritage at Corbridge followed by Val leading us around the fort and museum. The highlight here was a certain restored pot found by the senior pilgrim in his youth on one of the famous Corbridge digs. Finally the day was rounded off by a visit to the bridge abutment and reconstructed Ramp  interpreted by Margaret Snape. The evening session was a reception by the Cumberland and Westmoreland Society,  on our last night in Carlisle.

Wednesday was transfer day. The ditch west of Steel Rigg had been investigated by Humphrey Welfare and showed the usual berm and ditch arrangement with the upcast from the ditch spread as a glacis on the north lip of the ditch  gradually tapering to the north. As the slope steepened the upcast material was  reduced and placed  more as a mound on the ditch lip. Finally harder rock was encountered and the ditch became minimal with only an initial laying out made by removing top soil . It was noted that some large stones had been cast on the upcast and there was speculation as to why had these not been used in Wall construction? Were the stones dressed off site or had the wall been completed before the ditch was dug?

After a visit to MC42 at Cawfields and an inspection of the vallum crossings there, another of Annette’s lunches was taken. A cold and windy afternoon visit to Housesteads was conducted by Jim Crow; the highlight here was hot chocolate at the visitor centre. Oddly our relative hypothermia was soon replaced by the warm welcome we received at Claude Gibb Hall of Residence in Newcastle. And I mean warm, the rooms had radiators on at full belt and eventually several us had to be moved to slightly cooler rooms. Other than this I can say that our stay at CG was excellent, the food was excellent and the wake up service at 5 am as the bins were emptied was unsurpassed!  The evening reception was held by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries - not in the Keep, from whence we had been banned by Health and Safety as being too great a number of bodies (there being no problem in 1999 and certainly not even thought about in 1199!), but in a splendid modern vast building on the campus of Northumbria University.   

Thursday - Our party went to Limestone corner to examine the unfinished ditch and then continued down the hill to Tower Tye. Next was Chesters where Georgina Plowright showed us round the newly refurbished museum.. Annette’s appearance with food gave little appetite for the fort tour with Graeme Stobbs, but those who plumped for  food first missed a treat. After lunch we crossed to the east side of the Tyne to view the bridge abutment  and then to Brunton Turret. This turret is the first to show a broad wing wall leading onto the narrow wall. It was also reputed to show the berm reducing in width in front of the turret. This was not bourne out by measurements made with Peel and Crow feet.

The evening reception was courtesy of Newcastle University held in the rejuvenated Hancock Museum, now known as The Great North Museum. After the usual speeches the Vice Chancellor out lined the building of Hadrian’s Wall as illustrated in a Geordie song which he sang. The library was particularly popular with over 70 minds, and bodies, crammed in.

Friday, the last day, commenced with a wreath laying ceremony, now traditional following  the 1999 session, but beware Health and Safety in 2019, at the tomb of our founder Pilgrim, John Collingwood Bruce. After a brief inspection of the laid out Roman remains around the Keep conducted by Paul Bidwell in the pouring rain we boarded our respective coaches for Wallsend or South Shields. At Wallsend our party was guided by Alex Croom who for the first time could demonstrate the fort’s location and vista of the Tyne following the sad clearance of Swan Hunters.  The tour of the bath house was particularly relevant following the previous day’s visit to the ruins at Chesters which has an identical plan albeit mirror image. These replica baths were meant to be used by the local population and others, but health and safety decreed other wise. Of particular interest was the unconsolidated stretch of wall west of the fort, specially opened for our view and the reconstructed wall with the lines of pits or cipia on its berm. There is much speculation about these pits; do they occur all the way along the wall or only at specific locations? Only this week an archaeologist reported in the Hexham Courant they were the post holes for a pre wall wooden wall! I settle for the rose bed idea which would be effective if thickly planted and look pretty too. Then on to South Shields through the new tunnel works. I challenged our coach to find a Catherine Cookson sign, but none was seen on the way to the splendid 1907 Town Hall. Here the whole party was received by the mayor and a buffet lunch was enjoyed by all. The day ended by a trip to the Roman Fort, passing a Catherine Cookson sign, where again we were conducted by Alex Croom. By now the weather was closing in, and after a tour of the reconstructions my wife and I took the metro back to the college to have a rest and change for the final evening event. And splendid it was too. We were received by the Lord Mayor with a well served and relatively simple three course meal in the 1960s Civic Centre Baronial Hall. The evening was rounded off by a closing address from the Chief Pilgrim.

I hope these few words give an idea of what a wonderful week the pilgrimage is and they might be of some use to a future pilgrim in 2019. But then the world will be a vastly different place and remember it will be east to west. As a tail piece the following, roughly translated from some scratchings on the underside of a Houseteads latrine seat, does confirm Geof Waters 1999 theory.

Hadrian stood on a hill and caught a chill
and said “the north wind must go”
so they built him a wall twelve and a half feet tall
and painted it white as snow!

In the future, don’t forget your past