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Ancient Hadrian's Wall Lets Down Its Guard : The English countryside reveals miles of the barrier built by Rome's legions, as well as cricket and good conversation.

August 29, 1993|JUDITH MORGAN

On a day of breezy sunshine--there in the north of England--the cricket batsman took a mighty swing.

Then another, and another.

The high-scoring game of cricket has always baffled me, but this player proved hypnotic, swinging with persistence atop a weather vane in the Northumbrian village of Corbridge.

Dressed in proper whites, the batsman was on a cottage roof opposite the cozy Wheatsheaf Hotel, where I had stopped for lunch on the way to Hadrian's Wall. It was mid-October; poplar trees were turning to gold, their leaves shimmering like new coins. A fire glowed in the hearth.

At the next table, overlooking what in summer is a beer garden, two women were chattering about their Yorkshire terriers who were waiting in the car park. Two children, in T-shirts from Bath, finished their fish and chips and went outside to turn somersaults.

The ploughman's lunch, with both Edam and Cheddar, was exceptional. Reservations were being accepted for Christmas dinner and for New Year's Eve. Truly a place of peace, I thought, and goodwill.

Hard to imagine Roman legions clanking past almost 2,000 years ago to build a fortified wall across England on orders from the Emperor Hadrian. Yet evidence of Roman occupation begins not far from the Wheatsheaf, where the ancient town of Corstopitum, with granaries and fountains, has been excavated along the river Tyne. And the most dramatic stretches of the wall itself lie northwest of Corbridge along the little road B6318.

It was my first visit to Hadrian's Wall, once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. As with the Grand Canyon, long ago, I had greatly underestimated its size. Miles of wall survive, commanding the ridge crests between Solway Firth in the west and the mouth of the Tyne River on the east.

In October, the hillsides had turned russet with heather, and ripe apples hung on the trees. Manor houses ruled the dales. Beyond an arched stone bridge at Chollerford, in the middle of a sweeping field, I saw my first chunk of what might be the wall. Sheep were grazing around an outcropping of stone blocks that seemed too big and regular to be a casual rural fence. Clumps of golden gorse grew at its base.

The wind had grown cold by the time I arrived at Housesteads Fort, with its commanding position atop the barren Whin Sill ridge. The English Heritage/National Trust gift shop was doing a brisk business in wool mufflers and hot cider. Curly horned sheep hunkered along the path to the Roman gateways and barracks.

Hadrian's Wall, about 10 feet high and six feet thick at this point, forms the northern border of the fort, which covers five acres and is shaped like a playing card--rectangular but with rounded corners.

Hiking atop the wall remains enticing, especially the spectacular three-mile stretch between Housesteads and Steel Rigg. As I stared north toward the moors of Northumberland National Park, a dozen shivering teen-agers set out for the west; their school bus, they assured each other, would pick them up there.

Although the walk was tempting, there was also the market town of Hexham to see before sundown. Its remarkable abbey was built in the 7th Century with stones from ancient Corstopitum. Most of that original church was destroyed by the Danes, a vestryman explained with a shake of his head, and much of what remains dates from the 12th Century.

Only in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall would you hear apologies for the Middle Ages.

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