I decided to take a day trip down to see Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. It was strange: as soon as we crossed over from the Borders, the land grew flatter (but still with periodic hills) and more farmy. I was going to say “less interesting” but considering I’d never seen England before, that seems a rather ballsy or condescending thing to say. Everything is interesting once—or it should be, the first time you see it. The emptiness of the land appealed to me. Aside from the sheep and the occasional stone wall, the north of England is wide and green, but there’s not much in the way of habitation.
A constant wind blew, the sun was a little over-warm, and hardly any clouds laced the sky. As I carefully picked my way through the grass and path (to avoid the preponderance of cow patties and pellets of sheep dung), I made my way to the wall and was once again amazed to think that anything from 1900 years ago could still last. (And yes, I know there are older ruins throughout the world, but I wasn’t focusing on them.)
In my class, we had been reading Kathleen Jamie’s book of essays, Findings, in which she writes, among her discussions of nature and human coexistence, about how what humans make durable now are throw-away items like plastic bottles (she also focuses on a discarded doll head). Plastic doesn’t go away; we invest our durability in garbage, basically. The wall, on the other hand, was made to outlast invasions and to protect the people, and yet it works with the land in its purpose.
The fact that parts of the wall still exist demonstrates how humans can adapt to the natural world without spoiling it. Of course, much of the wall is gone—the stones used for other walls or huts or claimed by the earth again—but when you see the wall, you feel connected to the past but also to the land. The wall moves with the landscape—at least, the remnants do, and its durability is something that at once seems both amazing and invisible. It’s easy to see the wall as just another stone wall in the fields, used to pen sheep into certain territories; it takes on significance when you know what it is, and know its history.
Afterwards, not far away, we visited Vindolanda, the remnants of a Roman fort. The tour guide told us he’s nuts about the fort and the museum where items such as pottery, jewelry, leather shoes, bones, coins, and weapons have been catalogued. Seeing it from a distance is quite remarkable because it looks almost like a giant stone maze—except the stones are maybe knee-to-waist high—so you could totally find your way out of the maze with no problem. 😊
I wandered a little bit through the stones, and they impressed me because each area had a specific purpose such as the butcher’s shop, the temple to Jupiter, the bath house, and barracks, but I confess I spent the majority of the time there eating lunch, looking at the museum (especially the jewelry—I’m nothing if not predictable), and visiting with other women on the tour as we all journeyed up from a hellacious hill and needed to rest and recoup. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the stones, it’s that they were kind of just…there.
What was more intriguing was that restorers had rebuilt a section of Hadrian’s wall and the fort in wood and turf as well as stone. The guidebook suggests that the Romans made parts of the wall in wood because they were hurriedly trying to keep out marauding tribes. And so this recreation is kind of an experiment—to see just how long it would survive. The guidebook also mentions that the turf wall has sunk a bit because of marauders too—this time, rabbits. Which kind of makes me laugh.
The other major site of interest we visited was Jedburgh Abbey (in Scotland), which—of course—was also under reconstruction so you couldn’t wander in it, but as with Melrose Abbey the day before, admission only cost half price. I liked the Abbey, but there was no wandering around the entire church so you could only see it from the one side. But I found a quiet garden bench and enjoyed a little snack there in the corner, feeling contemplative and peaceful, and wishing a little bit that a poem would come to me.
Enjoy the photos—although there’s not much to see but broad English vistas.