Day 64-65 – The Empire Stops Here

Starting mileage: 20283 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 21:00

Cumbria

Cumbria

The rainstorm and strong wind continues on from the last day, and since most of our sights designed for today are outdoors, this means we need to skip most of them – at least those which are not easily accessible from the main road, like the Swinside Stone Circle, or Muncaster Castle – its main attractions being the garden and the owl centre, both hardly fun when it pours buckets. We just drive on, in hopes of the weather clearing itself enough for us to be able to leave the safety of the car.

By the time we reach the sleepy hamlet of Ravenglass – perfect fantasy name – there’s a pause in the rain, and we can march through the woods, over the post-apocalyptic scenery of its half-ruined railway depot, towards the Roman Bath House. This particular bath stands today in the middle of a sodden field – there’s a fort nearby, but it’s barely excavated – and for some reason, perhaps due to its secluded location, is very well preserved. The walls stand almost to their full height, and instead of just admiring the layout in the foundations, as in most baths we’ve seen so far, you can actually walk from a ruined room to ruined room.

Ravenglass fort, or Glannoventa, as it may have been known, is the westernmost edge of the shoreline defences in Cumbria which formed extension of the Hadrian’s Wall. There is a number of these small forts along the coast, some visible as raised rectangles of earth, others serving as bases for churches, like at Moresby Hall. It was towards the Wall that we were driving – taking the long way around, past the old harbour of Whitehaven, where the waves roared against the sea wall as the storm had risen again.

Cockermouth (obligatory snicker), on the road between the sea and Carlisle, is a curious little town. We chose to stop there to buy some ale from the local Jennings Brewery, but we stayed for the pretty streets, homes leaning precariously over the raging Derwent, and dramatic and rich history. Cockermouth, although a fairly small market town, gave birth to three famous persons: John Dalton, of Daltonism and Dalton’s Atomic Theory, Fletcher Christian who led the Mutiny on the Bounty, and of course William Wardsworth, England’s foremost poet; his house is naturally a museum now.

As a town with working brewery should, Cockermouth has at least half a dozen working pubs on the main street alone, several cafes and delis; if you look closely, on many of the buildings you’ll see markers pointing to a line running roughly 8 feet above street level. This is the level of water in the great 2009 Cumbrian Flood, which ravaged the town badly. The recovery has been remarkable – other than the markers and a small side street dedicated to the memory of the flood, you can hardly tell anything happened.

We drove past Carlisle’s mighty red stone castle, straight towards the campsite; the leaflet claimed it was “positioned on Hadrian’s Wall”, and we took it for a small exaggeration – but it wasn’t; the Wall ran right past the farm’s fence. It was a good prelude of what awaited us the next day.

The compromise between wanting to stick to the coast and wanting to see the Wall that we had come to was this: one fort on the West side, one on the East side. The eastern fort of choice was called Birdoswald. Long before we reached it, we began seeing the rich remains of the wall; this is the place where you can see the longest non-interrupted stretch of the stone rampart, as well as several fortlets and milecastles (small turrets a mile apart). No longer just a line in the ground, or a faint outline of an embankment, the wall at Birdoswald is a real wall: several feet wide, and nearly two miles long, this is the place where the best photos of the Wall come from, as it snakes its way along the green rolling hills of eastern Cumbria.

The fort at Birdoswald (or Banna) is fairly well ruined, but there is a couple of interesting remains that is perfectly visible: the foundations of a double gate, one of four that would normally lead out of the fort, and of two massive granaries. What makes Birdoswald particularly interesting are the finds from a later era: somebody lived within these walls after the Romans left, and built a wooden hall over the barracks, of which traces were found. The settlement continued throughout the centuries, into the Border Reivers period when a two-storey stone fortified house was constructed as protection from the Scottish raiders, and then to Victorian age when still more buildings were added to the complex. The emerging layers of history destroyed quite a lot of the original buildings, but made the place far more curious than it would have been had it remained only an abandoned Roman fort. We have seen many backpackers trekking famous Hadrian’s Wall Path – a National Trail of 84 miles (one from our To-Do list).

On our way from Birdoswald we passed what seemed like a remarkably preserved medieval priory, and as it was another English Heritage site (like the entirety of Hadrian’s Wall), we decided to stop. Most of the abbeys and priories affected by the Disollusion are now barely more than a few grey columns and arches standing in the middle of a field. Lanercost Priory not only had its church still working and in almost full size and shape, but even the ruined part fared far better than usual – many of the windows were complete, and the vaults and crypt were still roofed. Only the cloisters remained as lines of bricks on the grass – which I always find a great shame, as the one good thing about Catholic monasteries are their cloisters, and it would be nice if the English had at least some left to stroll about.

The small map given at the entrance pointed to us, among other things, masonic markings and roman stones embedded into the walls – a reminder to always check the guide books and leaflets before you enter a site with such rich history, or you’ll miss plenty of tiny details.

From Lanercost we drove past Carlisle again, along the M6 towards Glasgow – and soon enough we passed the grand blue salter banner welcoming us to SCOTLAND.

Ravenglass Roman Bath House

Ravenglass Roman Bath House

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory

 


Bleatarn Farm is definitely one of the best campsites we’ve been to so far. Not only is it right on the Hadrian’s Wall, because it’s located on one of the most popular hiking paths in England it’s ready for all the backpackers’ needs, despite being fairly small. The facilities may look off-putting from the outside – they are in a small grey container of the sort the builders live in – but inside, they are a true gem, as clean and pleasant as is possible. And the price is a mere £15 with hook-up.

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