Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/An artist's ramble along the line of the Picts' wall - Part 3

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AN ARTIST’S RAMBLE ALONG THE LINE OF THE PICTS’ WALL.

PART III.

The Wall near Haltwhistle - H G Hine.png
The Wall near Haltwhistle.

Taking up the thread of the wall at Milking Gap, we continued till we reached Steel-rig Gap, where, on the steep descent of the hill, our attention was attracted by the manner in which the courses of wall stones are stepped horizontally into the face of the ground. Hence the wall climbs a bold eminence, running along the verge of the cliff until it reaches Castle Nick, where the military way appears in very perfect condition, with the kerb-stones complete on either side. Passing another gap called Cat’s Stairs, we reached Peel Crag, where the face of the cliff rises in a lofty perpendicular wall of basalt, and Gap in the Wall, where a double ditch, in addition to the fosse, testifies that at this point the barrier was considered to require an extraordinary amount of strength. The next elevation is Winshield’s Crag, estimated to be the highest ground between the two seas: from its summit the sails of vessels upon the distant Solway may be perceived on a clear day; but the gathering shades of evening denied us this gratification, and we quickened our steps in anticipation of the tea and its accompaniments which we knew our good hostess of the Crown would not fail to set before us on our arrival.[1] Still proceeding westward, the last red ray of the sun glanced appropriately enough upon the Nick to which Dr. Bruce—who has well and truly entitled himself to stand sponsor to any hitherto unnamed portion of the Wall—has thought fit, in remembrance of the following circumstance, to endow with the ominous cognomen of Bloody Gap. North of the gap is a ridge of ground called Scotch Coulthard. When fugitive moss troopers reached this point, their escape was considered secure, for all beyond is waste and swire, where only they could find footing. Here then, between the Wall and Scotch Coulthard, was the place where, if the fugitive could not make his heels, or rather the sturdy legs of his shaggy Scotch nag, save his head, he must turn at bay; and that many a fierce encounter has here been waged is evident from the numerous skeletons turned up wherever the ground is broken for drainage operations. Further on we came to another gap, whose ominous title of Bogle Hole seemed invested with additional horror as the twilight deepened into the shadows of night, and we hastened our steps to the next, Caw Gap, whence we turned towards the descent of the steep road that conducted us back to Haltwhistle.

Wall at Cawfield Crags - H G Hine.png
The Vallum and Wall, Cawfield Crags.

While descending to Haltwhistle, W—— recited a passage from Procopius, a somewhat obscure author who is believed to have written in the fifth century, setting forth the notions entertained in his day regarding the outlying ground to the northward of the Wall. “Moreover, in this Isle of Britain,” he says, “men of ancient time built a long wall, cutting off a great portion of it, for the soil, and the men, and all other things, are not alike on both sides; for on the eastern (southern) side of the wall there is a wholesomeness of air in conformity with the seasons—moderately warm in summer and cool in winter. Many men inhabit here, living much as other men. The trees, with their appropriate fruits, flourish in season, and their corn lands are as productive as others, and the district appears sufficiently fertilised by streams. But on the western (northern) side all is different, insomuch, indeed, that it would be impossible for a man to live there, even half an hour. Vipers and serpents innumerable, with all other kinds of wild beasts, infest that place; and, what is most strange, the natives affirm, that if any one passed the wall he would die immediately, unable to endure the unwholesomeness of the atmosphere. Death also attacking such beasts as go thither, forthwith destroys them. . . . . They say that the souls of men departed are always conducted to this place, but in what manner I will explain immediately, having frequently heard it from men of that region, relating it most seriously, although I would rather ascribe their asseverations to a certain dreamy faculty which possesses them.” The people of the district still have their stories of “bogles and lang nebit things fra’ the neist warld” of flying men and of dogs in full pursuit, being scared back by some strange metamorphosis of the quarry.

Roman Wall Section at Walltown - H G Hine (transparent).png
Portion of the Wall at Walltown.

Next morning we sallied forth, W—— undertaking to accompany us part of the way, and took up the line of our march at Caw Gap, where we quitted it on the preceding evening. A road, which soon dwindles to a mere track, runs hence to the north. It passes a lone, uninhabited house, reputed to be haunted by the unquiet spirits of Nell Nichol and her two wicked daughters, who, in their lifetime, were the plague of the neighbourhood. The house was a notorious resort of smugglers and sheep-stealers. Passing another gap, called Thorny Doors, we reached a stage of the Wall, the base of which having been cleared, appears in all its original sharpness, the tooling of the stones looking as if fresh from the Roman hammer. The mile castle called the Cawfields Castle, which we presently reached, is the most perfect structure of that description remaining. The gap which it defended is denominated the Pilgrim’s Gap, having been so named by Dr. Bruce’s party, who walked along the line of the wall in 1849. The castle is a parallelogram, the corners at the southern side being slightly rounded off. Its inside measurement is sixty-three feet from east to west, and forty-nine from north to south. The south gateway is composed of massive slabs of rustic masonry, and a corresponding gateway appears, walled up, on the northern side, through the wall on which the castle abuts, and opens directly on the face of the crag. These gates have been closed by double folding doorways. The pivot holes are worn by the action of the bolt, which has tinged them with oxide of iron. The opening at each gateway measures ten feet. The width of the wall at the southern gateway is nine feet three inches; at the northern it is ten feet six inches. The castle stands on a slope of about one foot in five, and toward the lower side a level has been obtained by means of “made earth.” In clearing out the area, some tiles of grey slate, pierced for roofing, were found, these, it is to be presumed, had been used for the side coverings, the central part of the building being open. In one place the Wall is calcined by fire, where, it is likely, the hearth was placed. Here, sheltered from the wintry blast, crouching over the embers, some old legionary grumbler might have appropriately repeated the lines of the poet Florus:

Cæsar himself I would not be,
Were the choice e’er imposed on me,
To march on foot through British foes,
And bear their Scythian frosts and snows.

And, near at hand, fragments of coarse earthenware and millstones formed of lava, with a sprinkling of oyster shells, betokened the important business of cookery and the consumption of those

The CaledoniaWonderful oysters which
The Caledonian tide sometimes throws up,

celebrated by the poet Ausonius.

Mile Castle at Cawfield Crags - H G Hine (transparent).png
Mile Castle at Cawfield Crags.

The Cawfields Mile Castle is an exception to the general plan of those structures, in the opening of a gateway to the north, and the question naturally suggests itself, Why open a door on the hostile side of the castle? As an exceptional instance, it would appear to have been planned with a specific object. This portal opens almost directly on to the edge of the crag, which is precipitous, but not incapable of ascent or descent, so that it was assailable from the north ; and, in like manner, a sally in that direction could have been effected, although under very disadvantageous circumstances, the balance of advantage being much in favour of the enemy, who would only be induced to make the ascent under the concealment of a night attack. I can only conjecture that perhaps the gateway may have been planned for the purpose of communication with an outpost which had been planted to the north of the wall, or for the exit and entrance of a foraging party.

Roman Road near Cawfields - H G Hine.png
Military Road at the Wall near Cawfield Crags.

Leaving this interesting vestige, which lies about midway between the two seas, we made our way to Great Chesters—Æsica—the tenth stationary camp. This comprehends an area of about three acres. In the centre of the camp is a vaulted apartment, similar to that at Walwick Chesters, six feet and a half square and five feet high. It is accessible by a descent of steps, and opposite to the entrance is a stone bench covered with a slab of stone about two feet and a half high and the same in breadth. The vaulted roof consists of six ribbed arches, and the floor is paved with large slabs of stone. According to the Notitia, Æsica was garrisoned by the Cohors Prima Astorum. The name of Æsica is traced to a Celtic word signifying water, and may have had its origin in allusion to a watercourse which has been carried to it at a length of six miles from a body of water called the Saughy-rig Washpool, and which, it has been surmised, was planned to add to the strength of the camp by the further security of a wet ditch or moat.

Wall at Walltown Crags - H G Hine (transparent).png
The Wall at Walltown Crags.

To the west of Æsica the crags reappear, and again the wall, like Sisyphus of old, rolls its burden up-hill; and, following its lead, we stood on Mucklebank Crag, whence we looked over the wastes of Cumberland to Crossfel and Skiddaw, and, as we took them to be, the peaks of Arran in the extreme distance to the west. We next reached the Walltown, a solitary house which has some features of a peele tower. It formerly belonged to John Ridley, the brother of the Oxford Martyr. Near this house our comrade W—— directed our notice to abundant patches of chives which grow in the crevices of the whinstone rock, and are said by people of those parts to have been originally planted there by the Romans.

J. W. Archer.


 

  1. Peremptory in her kindness, mine hostess would say, when I have arrived in the evening wet with roaming among the mosslands, or drenched by a shower, “Sir, your tea is ready, and shall be served as soon as you are dry and comfortable, but until you have changed every wet stitch, not a bit nor a sup will you get from me.”