northumberland 1The most blood-soaked piece of earth in Britain.


The English and the Scots argued over their common border longer than either nation has existed. In AD 122, the Roman emperor Hadrian noted that this 80-mile line in the sand required 10% of his border troops to maintain it against the marauding Scots and Picts. He built a wall, choosing its course for its geographic features, most notably the Whin Sill. The Sill isn’t much: a steep, north-facing cliff not even 50 feet high, but the wall made wise and economical use of natural features in service of military goals.

The bulk of Northumberland lies north of the wall. Ever disputed, it holds more castles than any other region of England, and has the lowest population density. Its economy flourished under Roman rule, bolstered by Roman military pay. Once Roman power withdrew, the area (along with pretty much the rest of Europe) became the target of the Vikings, resisted as always by the locals. For a time, (AD +/- 600 to 927) Northumberland considered itself a kingdom, its borders constantly fluctuating, sometimes reaching as far West as the Isle of Man.

Not only English and Scottish power politics endangered the peasants in the area. Border Reivers, as the armed bandits and cattle rustlers were known, provided a constant menace. So who attacked Corwin’s village and massacred his family? It could have been anyone: English or Scottish nobles employing scorched-earth tactics, mercenaries hired by either side, Reivers intent on plunder.

By 1190, when Corwin and Philippe wandered across England, the wall had faded into legend. Over the centuries, many of the stones had been re-purposed into everything from churches to barnyard sheds (still standing). What remained appeared to be no more than a long, overgrown lump. It was not until the Nineteenth Century, when archeology became a fad among the titled, that the remaining bits were connected to existing Roman documentation and identified as Hadrian’s fabled Wall.

An attempt was made to settle the area with small farmsteads in the Nineteenth Century, granting would-be farmers plots of land, housing materials, and a years supply of food. Unfortunately, the land lies too far north for all but a few crops: rapeseed, barley, and sheep. That effort failed, and the region’s canola oil, wool, and fishery income is now largely eclipsed by high-tech industries, mining, and tourists coming to see the fabled wall and other historic sites.

northumberland mapI visited in 2005. It’s great fun for a history buff like me. You can drive the road that parallels the wall, take bus Route 122, which runs on an hourly basis, or hike along the World Heritage Path that runs along the north side. Why the North? Because the southside, with its great, sweeping slope, generates enormous, continuous, winds. Climbing the hill to the ruins of the Roman fort, Housesteads, (Vercovicium) I rested several times by simply leaning my back against the wind. Yes, it held me up. English Heritage has wisely chosen to set up their ticket booth at the top of the hill, not the bottom, to avoid excessive refunds to those not quite up to the hike. And no, not everyone makes it all the way up.