Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/An artist's ramble along the line of the Picts' wall - Part 2

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The day succeeding our visit to Borcovilles was that on which the September fair was held at Haltwhistle, and as a heavy rain fell during the greater part of the day, we were much about the inn, although every room was occupied by men attending the fair, the bed-rooms being appropriated by their wives and daughters who accompanied them. At first we found this rather awkward, but in the long run we settled down into fellowship, and heard some Tynedale ditties and “auld warld” stories, which were not sung and said without an enormous consumption of whiskey.

An elderly but hale-looking laird, who was familiarly named Tom-o’-the-Loanin, related an instance of the discomfiture of a London counsel, by the shrewdness of a drunken witness, in an assault-case, at the Newcastle assizes, which greatly tickled the company. It appeared the man of law had, previous to the trial, been dining near Haltwhistle, and whether he had taken his wine too freely, or his horse was in fault, he got a fall, and had been ministered to by the Samaritanship of the witness in question. On the trial it was his object to make it evident that the said witness was too intoxicated at the time of the assault to be in a condition to testify to what took place. With this view he plied him with a series of questions in reference to his proceedings during the day, in the evening of which the outrage took place, which, as the laird related it, ran somewhat as follows:

Counsel. “Do you remember the morning of the day in question?”

Witness. “Ay, weel.”

Counsel. “Had you any particular business in hand that morning?”

Witness. “Why, I just went up the hill to Foggeridge, to see if I could make a bargain for two or three yowes.”

Counsel. “Did you buy the ewes?”

Witness. “Ay, I bought the yowes.”

Counsel. “When a bargain is struck, does not the seller allow something for drink-money?”

Witness. “Ay, the luck-penny.”

Counsel. “Did you drink the luck-penny?”

Witness. “In coorse, we drank the luck-penny.”

Counsel. “A glass,—or more?”

Witness. “I see ye ha’ the keelvine in your hand, you may put down three.”

Counsel. “After this, did you go home?”

Witness. “Na; I had to go to Hardriding about a pig.”

Counsel. “Did you buy again?”

Witness. “Na; we couldna come to an agreement.”

Counsel. “Then you had no more to drink?”

Witness. “Hoot, ay! Bargaining’s drouthy wark. Ye may put down three or four glasses at Hardriding.”

Counsel. “And then did you return home?”

Witness. “Why, na. Aw just went round by Melkridge, to take my bit dinner wi’ Johnny Ha’.”

Counsel. “But surely you did not drink more that day?”

Witness. “Just allow me to tell you, that if ye war takin’ yer dinner wi’ Johnny Ha’, if ye wadna drink, he wad gar ye!”

Counsel. “And how much may you have taken after dinner?”

Witness. “Hout! mair than aw can mind o’; ye winna get far wrang if ye only set dawn eneugh.”

Counsel. “What did you do after you left Johnny Hall’s?”

Witness. “Aw went heam to Haltwhistle.”

Counsel. “Did you find the way unusually long?”

Witness. “Why, then, it wasn’t just the length, but the breadth o’ the way, that aw minded meast.”

Counsel. “I trust, after such a quantity of drink, that you were not tempted to stop by the way for more?”

Witness. “Na, for there’s ne’er a public atween Melkridge and Haltwhistle toon end. Aw dinna ken hoo it is. A man aye kens when he’s had ower little, an’ he kens when he’s had ower much, but he never kens when he’s had just eneugh; so I e’en pulled bridle at Tibby Elliot’s at the toon end, and had a stirrup-cup.”

Counsel. (Drawing himself up, and addressing witness slowly and with emphasis.) “Why, man!—do—you—mean to say that after swallowing such an enormous—quantity of intoxicating drink, as you own—you could be in a condition to understand the particulars of the assault you now presume to testify to?”

Witness. “Why, as to that, I might na be quite sober; but aw wasn’t half sae drunk as ye war yersel’, only last Saturday, when ye coupit aff yer bit nag at the crook of Bellister loan, amang a’ the clarts, an’ mead a holy bison o’ yersel’, an’ aw had to scrape ye clean, an’ get ye sotten on again. Eh! man, aw ken ye agean weel, though ye hae na the manners to mind o’ me that did ye sic a neerborly turn.”

“I’se warrant!” said the laird, “little Dick Rutherford was upsides wi’ the man i’ the wig, an’ he had it a’ his own way after that, for ne’er another word had t’other to thraw til a’ dog.”

While Tom-o’-the-Loanin and his companions beguiled the time in this manner, we could observe that a good deal of sweethearting went on upon the stairs, the more staid dames being assembled at a solemn tea-drinking in an upper-room. At length came the time for calling a reckoning and departing, each on his way. The iron hoofs of their nags cluttered at the door; the stirrup-cup was drunk, and the Tynedale men took the road, some of them bearing behind them, on pillions, buxom dames and bonny lasses, with jovial halloos that we could hear even after they had crossed the Tyne, ringing back from the heathy sides of old Plenmeller.

The next morning we devoted to a survey of the old-fashioned town of Haltwhistle, which consists of little more than a long straggling street, at either end of which there is a peel-tower, both inhabited. The church, which is dedicated to Holy Cross, is situated on the south side of the town. It is a stately and ancient edifice, chiefly in the early English style. In the chancel are the trophies of the family of Blenkinsop, whose ancient castle stands in ruins on the south bank of the Tyne, a few miles to the west of Haltwhistle. Here is likewise an altar-tomb to the memory of John Ridley, Esq., brother to Dr. Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, bearing a rhyming inscription, which runs thus:—






A 1562

The church consists of a nave, two side aisles, and a chancel of a lofty pitch, and possesses a curious font. Towards the east end of the town, on the south side, there is an extensive and strong earthwork, of an oval form, called Castle Bank. On the east end it is scarped in four terraces; the crown of the hill is protected by a breastwork of earth facing the town, the other slope towards the river being naturally steep and inaccessible. Near the river are the traces of a Roman military station, called Whitchester. We now sauntered over the bridge, which here crosses the Tyne, to Bellister Castle, a short distance from Haltwhistle. This picturesque ruin belonged to a younger branch of the Blenkinsop family. It stands upon an artificial mount, and is overshadowed by a sycamore of extraordinary growth. Surrounding the mount is a broad fosse. From Bellister we bent our steps by a walk chiefly through the fine grounds of Unthank to Willimoteswick, a capital example of a border stronghold, and formerly a residence of the family of Ridley, from which sprang the Oxford martyr, and which family is now represented by Sir Matthew White Ridley of Blagdon. This family had also a residence at the Walltown, as appears in the afore-mentioned epitaph in Haltwhistle church, and another at Hardriding, on the opposite bank of the river:—

Hardriding Dick,
And Willimoteswick,
And Jack o’ the Wa’,
And I cannot tell a’.

Are they not set forth in the ballad which Surtees wickedly palmed upon Scott as a thing of veritable antiquity, in the faith of which he printed it? Leaving Willimoteswick, we crossed the Tyne, by stepping-stones, to Bardon Mill, and returned to Haltwhistle, passing through Melkridge, where there is a peel-tower, which formerly belonged to the Blackett family.

Next morning H—— and I, together with W——, with whom we had smoked the pipe of confabulation the night previous, bent our way up the long steep hill to Haltwhistle Moor, and passing two ancient monumental stones, called by the moorsmen the “Mare and Foal,” we rested awhile for the refreshment of a glass of ale and some barley cake at the roadside public-house, of the sign of “Twice-Brewed Ale,” well known to pilgrims of the Wall, and thence proceeded to the Little Cheaters, the Roman Vindolana, a camp nearly two miles to the south of the wall, which was garrisoned by the Cohors Quarta Gallorum. In approaching this camp we observed a Roman milestone, upwards of six feet in height and about two feet in circumference, standing in its original position. On its western face there has been an inscription, now illegible. Another milestone stood to the west of this, ubt it was split by an ignorant proprietor for gate-posts. Horsley gives the inscription—BONO REIPVBLICÆ NATO; To one born for the good of the Republic. The space between these two stones was measured, and found to be 1698 yards, which is assumed to be the exact length of the Roman mile.

In the house and grounds at the Little Chesters, sometimes called the Bowers, or Chester in the Wood, a choice collection of Roman antiquities, found in the neighbourhood, are preserved. A very fine altar to Jupiter bears testimony that the camp here was the Roman Vindolana, having, according to the inscription it bears, been erected by Pituanius Secundus, præfect of the fourth cohort of the Gauls, which appears to have been stationed at Vindolana. The name Vindolana is surmised to have been derived from vin, in Celtic, a height, and lann, in the Gaelic, weapons, giving the Ossianic name of Hill of Arms. The camp, or station, is greatly dilapidated. A portion of the wall near the north-east corner of the station was found at a height of twelve courses of masonry. The vestiges of two buildings, both having hypocausts, have been discerned. Near the milestone afore-mentioned is a large tumulus, the burial-place, it may be, where the once mighty and renowned have long slept the sleep of dust and oblivion—

Their deeds, their prowess, all forgot.

A road, still in use, leads from the station of Borcovicus to Little Chesters. This is laid down in Horsley’s plan as a military way between the stations. In the valley below Housesteads is a small eminence called Chapel Hill, so called from a temple having stood on its side. Two fine altars found here are in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle. Some fragments of large columns remain on the ground, and appear to have been parts of a building of considerable magnitude. A cave, dedicated to the Mithraic worship, was discovered at Chapel Hill. It is now entirely destroyed, but is thus described by the Rev. John Hodgson: “It faced the four cardinal points, and its area, which had been dug out of the side of the hill, opposite the west end of the Chapel Hill, measured 12 feet 8 inches from north to south, by 10 feet from east to west, besides having a recess in the middle of the west wall, 30 inches deep and 7 feet long. The east wall had a doorway through it, and, to the level of the floor, inside and out, was faced with hewn stone; but the other three sides, especially the west, were faced on the inside only, their outsides having been built up against an excavation of from four to five feet deep. The floor was paved with thick sandstone slates, of irregular sizes and shapes. A spring was an essential requisite to a Mithraic cave, and the waters that rose in this were drained off from its doorway by an adjoining lake in 1809, when extensive foundations of apartments, that had communicated internally with the cave, were ransacked for stones for a field wall on the western side of this estate. Some fragments of vessels of red earthenware were found among the rubbish near the altar, probably parts of the fictilla that had belonged to the altar of Mithras. Two altars and a zodiac stood with their backs toward the west wall in the front of the recess, and with the headless figure of Mithras behind the zodiac, and the fragments of the great taurine tablet before it.” Mr. Hodgson likewise mentions a small altar, with a radiated bust of the sun on its capital, and an inscribed dedication to the same. The zodiacal group consists of a bust of Mithras, seated between the two hemispheres, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac, and holding in his right hand, opposite Taurus, a sword; and in his left, opposite Virgo, a torch. These interesting fragments are now in the Museum at Newcastle. Returning to Borcovicus, we rested on the hill-side, and having previously well thumbed the different authorities who have treated of the great barrier, for the correction of our own observations, we whiled away a long afternoon in the discussion of the wall and its history, the following being a summary of the conclusions at which we arrived.

Roman Milestone at Vindolanda - H G Hine.png
Roman Milestone at Vindolana.

The northern barrier consists of two continuous lines of defence, that to the northward being the murus, or wall of stone, with its fosse, ascribed to Severus; and the inner, or southern barrier, consisting of the earthwork commonly called Hadrian’s vallum; and, lying between the wall and the vallum, a chain of camps or stations, castles, and watch-towers, were connected by roads, so as to form in effect a third and intermediate barrier, covered on the one hand from the north by the wall, and on the other from the south by the vallum, which may have been intended as a provision against any outbreak of disaffection on the southern side of the barrier. The evidence for the assertion that these two barriers—the wall and the vallum—were two separate works, constructed under independent circumstances, is not so strong but that the opinion which has lately arisen, that they were only parts of one great military plan, may be held justifiable. This appears to be the opinion at which Dr. Bruce has arrived, after having made himself thoroughly master of his subject by the most scrupulous examination. In the few instances in which we find any notice of this barrier in the writings of the Roman authors who treat of the affairs of their countrymen in Britain, the reference is neither direct nor conclusive. Upon the whole, it would appear safest to take the barrier as it appears before us to have been the consolidated plan by which an entire frontier defence was effected. The stone wall extends from Wallsend, on the Tyne, to the sea at Bowness, in Cumberland, a space which is computed by Horsley to be equal to sixty-eight miles and three furlongs. The vallum falls short of this measurement by about three miles at either end, terminating at Newcastle on the east side, and at Drumburgh on the west. A marked feature in this colossal work is the determined way in which it holds its course, and the bold manner in which the wall, instead of being made to evade any natural impediment, towers over, as if by choice, the loftiest and most abrupt elevations. We have no existing fragment of the wall whereby to obtain a positive estimate of its original height, which, however, is conceived to have been probably eighteen or nineteen feet, inclusive of the battlements. It has been remarked that checks, or outsets, appear at intervals on the southern face of the wall, although the northern side presents an uniform face throughout. It is conceived by Dr. Bruce that the inequality on the inner face of the wall has occurred through numerous gangs of labourers having been simultaneously employed upon the work, and that each superintending centurion was allowed to use his discretion as to its width. On the northern side of the wall a broad fosse may be traced throughout its whole course, with some exceptions, such as where the wall travelled along the edge of a precipitous crag, in which case the fosse was not requisite. This fosse may still be traced nearly from sea to sea. In parts where the fosse travels over a level or exposed surface its northern border has been elevated, so as to offer a rampart, or glacis, on that side for the sake of additional strength. On the descent of the hill from Caervoran to Thirlwall, the fosse measures forty feet across at the upper surface and fourteen feet on its floor, being nearly nine feet in depth. Westward of Tepper Moor a portion of the fosse rises from a depth of twenty feet. “A little to the west of Portgate, near Stagshaw Bank,” says Hodgson, who examined the vestiges of antiquity with a clear and loving regard, “the appearance of the fosse is still, to the eye that loves and understands antiquity, very imposing and grand. The earth taken out of it lies spread abroad to the north, in lines, just as the workmen wheeled it out and left it. The tracks of their barrows, with a slight mound on each side, remain unaltered in form.”

The vallum consists of three ramparts and a fosse; one rampart crests the southern edge of the fosse, two others of greater bulk are situated, one to the north, and the other to the south of the fosse. One of these ramparts, or aggers—the north rampart of the vallum—Horsley conceives may have served the purpose of a military way; but the inequality of the surface, together with its conical shape, render that supposition quite improbable. But the fosse itself may have done good service as a covered way for the passage of troops and stores between one station and another. I am not aware if the appropriateness of the vallum for that purpose has been taken into consideration; but, supposing such to have been the case, it would equally well have served its other purpose of a barrier to the south, while it may have been employed with advantage for the protection of the soldiers in going to and fro while engaged upon the erection of the wall. The stations along the line of the wall have been planted at an average distance of about four miles. These were military cities, the permanent seats of tribunes, or prefects, and of the guard stationed under their command. The stations are invariably found in a situation which commands an abundant supply of water, and their site has been chosen with a southern aspect, and on the slope of a hill, for the sake of shelter against the cold north wind.

Horsley allots eighteen to the line of the wall; but Hodgson assumes one of the number that came under Horsley’s notice to have been no more than a temporary or summer camp, and he limits the number to seventeen. In addition to these stations, as we find in taking our way along the line of the wall, are a succession of mile-castles; so designated in the modern nomenclature of wall pilgrims, from their being found at about the distance of a Roman mile from each other. They were quadrangular buildings, usually measuring from sixty to seventy feet.

Crag Lough - Henry George Hine.png
Crag Loch.

Wherever the wall has been carried across a defile or river, a mile-castle has been planted on one side or the other to guard the pass. The mile-castles are found generally to have but one entrance, of strong masonry, but an exception occurs of which mention will be made as we proceed. Between the mile-castles, four subsidiary erections, denominated turrets, or watch-towers, were placed, being little more than stone sentry-boxes. Their vestiges can now scarcely be traced. They are described as containing an interior space, of from eight to ten feet square. Horsley states the distance between them to have been three hundred and eight yards, the whole number is therefore computed at three hundred and twenty. To say that the barrier was provided with suitable roads for the transition of troops, and the ready conveyance of stores, is, in a manner, to put the assertion in an inverse order, for one great object in raising the former must have been for the protection of the line of military operations, and the road must have been the first consideration. Gordon (“Itinerarium Septentrionale”) says, that two military ways belonged to the barrier; a small military way a little to the south of the wall, and, beyond it, the great military way. That there may have been a footway immediately under the wall which went from turret to turret, on which the Roman sentry marched when not exposed on the walls, is not improbable, although no traces of such a way exist. In the rebellion of the year 1715, the operations of the Royalist forces were greatly retarded by the absence of a practicable road between Newcastle and Carlisle, and the same inconvenience was experienced in 1745. Soon after this the present military road was constructed, upon the track of the great Roman road, which, in all likelihood, was laid down by Severus when he built the wall. And that the reconstruction of the whole frontier barrier is to be attributed to Severus appears, after a careful survey of the work itself, and due consideration of the opinions of the different authorities who have argued the topic, to be the most reasonable conclusion, in default of positive and contemporary testimony. Having thus satisfied ourselves we turned our faces to the sun, now declining to the west, and proceeded. still holding on to the wall, on our return to Haltwhistle for the night. The heights to the west of Housesteads overlook a prospect that reminded us of the fine apostrophe of our northern bard, Akenside, in his “Pleasures of the Imagination.”

Of Tyne, and ye most ancieO ye dales
Of Tyne, and ye most ancient woodlands, where
Oft as the giant flood obliquely strides,
And his banks open and his lawns extend,
Stops short the pleased traveller to view,
Presiding o’er the scene, some rustic tow’r,
Founded by Norman or by Saxon hands.”

A series of small lakes, those called Broomlee, Greenlee, and Crag Lochs, lying to the north of the wall, and Grindon Loch, the smallest of the four, to the south, stretch immediately beneath the eye. Opposite to Housesteads is the brown, heathclad hill of Barcombe, or Borcombe, from which the station appears to have received its name, from the Celtic word bar, a height, and the Latin vicus, a village. On another hill, a little to the east, is a circular British camp, and round the edge of the cliff runs a covered way, terminating with a series of hollows, which are surmised to have formed the basements of the dwellings of the British inhabitants. Proceeding still west, we see the massy square keep of Langley Castle, formerly a stronghold of the Percies, from whose possession it passed into that of the Radcliffes, who held it until the year 1715, when, with other large estates, it became forfeit on the unfortunate Earl of Derwentwater falling a sacrifice in his devotion to a hopeless and disastrous cause. To the west of Langley are seen the steep serrated banks of the Allan Water and the tower of Steward le Peel, beyond which the country rises into the wild and barren solitudes of Gelston Moor and the craggy heights of Alston and Cross Fell.

J. W. Archer.