Introducing Hadrian’s Wall: Where Rome Meets Westeros

MikeachimThe Everyday16 Comments

Watched or read George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones? Been captivated by that colossal wrought-ice defensive battlement known as The Wall?

Here’s some news that may interest you.

It exists in our world too.

Fevered Mutterings image: Hadrian's Wall, by Bill Hails - Flickr

The Wall, the Others… where did that element of the story come from? Did that grow up as a plot device or is it more?

Well, some of it will be revealed later so I won’t talk about that aspect of it, but certainly the Wall comes from Hadrian’s Wall, which I saw while visiting Scotland. I stood on Hadrian’s Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch. To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest. Of course fantasy is the stuff of bright colours and being larger than real life, so my Wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical. And, of course, what lies beyond it has to be more than just Scots.

 – George RR Martin, in conversation with Wayne MacLaurin, 2000

In Martin’s Westeros, The Wall is designed to keep Wildlings, grumpkins and snarks (plus darker, nastier things) at bay, providing a seemingly impenetrable fortification manned by the haggard, stalwart members of the Night’s Watch. It marks the northern edge of the Seven Kingdoms in the starkest sense (pun intended) – a physical deterrent to invaders from beyond the fringes of civilization.

Hadrian’s Wall is far more interesting – and not just because it’s real.

Fevered Mutterings Image: Hadrian's Wall - Mike Sowden

From Bowness-on-Solway in the west to the appropriate named Wallsend on the Tyne in the east, Hadrian’s wall runs the width of England’s northern boundary with Scotland (although not along it – the whole wall lies within England, and while it’s just 1km shy of the Scottish border at Bowness, it’s 110km south of it at Wallsend). It originally ran for 73 miles (117km) of stone and banked turf, 7-10ft (2-3m) thick and between 15 and 20ft high.

Think about this for a minute. Imagine a branch of the Roman Army ordered to defend the northern fringes of the Roman Empire from the marauding Scots. Hadrian’s Wall is a military structure, built by troops and initiated shortly after the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain. A 15ft high unmanned stretch of wall would hamper the progress of invaders, but would it stop them? Unlikely.

The true significance of the wall, and the reasons for its construction, must lie at least partly elsewhere – for example, in the symbolic defining of the end of territory under Roman influence (being an urban culture, the Romans stamping their authority on landscapes and peoples with urban building-work – towns, bridges, aqueducts, fortresses, villas and the like. Otherwise, they tended to adopt an “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude to local government – while Romanizing it sufficiently to make it clear who was in charge). The power of Rome wasn’t limitless – and Britain was at the Empire’s fringes. A line had to be drawn.

It’s not hard to imagine Hadrian, or one of his strategists, running a finger across northern England, from sea to sea, and saying “this is enough – for now”.

Fevered Mutterings image: Hadrian's Wall, by Stu & Sam - Flickr

Whatever the motivations for its construction, Hadrian’s Wall remains one of the wonders of world archaeology. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, comprising of walling, milecastles, forts and a wall ditch and track (or vallum) that often had to cut through rock. The foundations and lower layers of many of its associated structures endure, making it one of the richest accumulations of Roman archaeology outside of Italy. It’s also a bulwark that’s deeply in tune with the landscape it works its way through – taking advantage of inaccessible rocky outcrops to heighten its defensive power (literally), while employing the characteristic uncompromising lines that can be seen in Roman roads across Europe. (“Geology, get out of our way or prepare to be quarried”). It’s astonishingly self-assured. If you were a non-Roman inhabitant of Britain of the time and were in any doubt that the Romans intended to stay, this would have shut you up for good…

I’ve been infatuated with Hadrian’s Wall for years now. I’ve walked sections of it, I’ve cycled along it, I’ve huddled under it as the rain scythed down, and I’ve been told off by an English Heritage inspector for clambering over it in a moment of weakness. It’s a stunning display of human ingenuity – and it’s also not a little mad. Why would anyone build such a thing, on such a scale, in such a place? Another reason for my obsession is the land it winds through – some of the loveliest (and bleakest) in England.

For 2012, as one of a number of new themes for this blog, I’m getting up close and personal with Hadrian’s Wall country. You’re going to find me writing about…

  • glimpses of a civilization that popular culture is still fascinated with after 2,000 years (no gladiators, though – sorry);
  • what the Wall was (perhaps) for;  
  • how, when and why to walk Hadrian’s Wall, where to stay, and what there is to see;
  • how the Wall affects the lives of people in Cumbria and Northumberland today;
  • how the landscape shaped the Wall’s development, and how and where its builders overcame or defied the many obstacles in their way;
  • the cities, towns and villages of Hadrian’s Wall country, including one of my favourite cities in the whole of England, Carlisle;
  • …and finally, the Wall Walk, all 73 miles of it, which I’m undertaking sometime this coming year.

As I write this, I’m hoping to be up on the Wall next Wednesday, walking from Hexham to Once Brewed and hopefully further – but since I’m currently fighting off the remnants of a heavy cold, we shall see. (It’s certainly nice to know I have some kind of survival instinct. I’d wondered).

(Note: As I said here, I’d originally planned to be sleeping in a Goretex sack of misery, better known as a bivi-bag – but if I do make it up there, I’m still post-‘flu. Sleeping in a sack in the open air with temperatures hovering around the zero Celsius mark…might not be the greatest idea I’ve ever had. Another time, I think).

So – are you coming along for the ride?

Images: Stu & Sam, Bill Hails, Paul McGreevy and Mike Sowden.