The Bessietown Grange Guest House provided gorgeous views of the blooming spring countryside looking toward and into Scotland, luxurious bedrooms and fabulous breakfasts. "We have eggs, bacon sausage, to-mah-to, mushrooms beans, haggis, black pudding and toast," our host, clad in green suspenders with red Welsh dragons marching down their length, announced to my grandson on our first morning there. "Do you want The Full Monty?" The Full Monty, he explained to us, is the full spread of choices, named after the Commander of Britain's forces in World War II, Field Marshall Montgomery. Popularly called "Monty," he believed that soldiers fought better on a full stomach, so ordered large breakfasts every day. Grandson Cameron, a brave lad, tried it all, pronounced that he indeed liked haggis, and even managed the black pudding at least once. His fascination with haggis overcame even American astonishment at tomatoes and mushrooms for breakfast, forgetting how often at home he has asked for salsa for his scrambled eggs.
Fortified for a full day of exploring, we set out to find Romans, but first found sheep, grazing freely around the ruins of a border castle. Surprisingly, we also found llamas, frolicking with the sheep.
We would see sheep, more sheep, and even more sheep though, during the next two weeks. Cameron quickly learned to identify the differences between a Swaledale Ewe and a Scottish Blackface.
Nearby, we stumbled on a tiny little church guarding a graveyard and the remains of a seventh-centuy cross. Humbled by its mystery, we paused to ponder the lives memorialized on lichen-covered gravestones, thinking of blustery winters and long, lonely days during the long centuries of the Middle Ages among small communities building churches of this tiny size.
And we did, finally, find the wall, and Romans. In amazingly good repair, the long stretches of the wall can be hiked between frequent mile castles and a sprinkling of restored forts. Begun in the first century A.D., it remained the last bastion protecting Romanized British citizens against marauding barbarians for nearly four hundred years. It is a vivid testimony to the engineering skills and military organization of the Roman Empire.
The museums scattered along the length of the wall and maintained by British Heritage tell the story of the frontier between civilized Roman territories and the wild land of the Picts and the Scots who never succumbed to the mighty Roman military engine. Reconstructions, artifacts and videos bring to life the conditions of Roman life along this long borderland. The four hundred years of Roman occupation from the construction of the wall until the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century is a time span hard to mentally process until one remembers that the settlement of what is now the United States of America is scarcely four hundred years old.
The emblems of the legions look surprisingly modern in their abstractions, but tell of troops marching long miles along Roman roads to fulfill their tours of duty along this northernmost imperial frontier. In later centuries of the wall's existence, the third and fourth and the final fifth, these troops were more than likely British-born though Roman in lifestyle and culture, but the early guards who came north from the sunnier lands of Italy must have strongly cursed the cold winds that sweep this land even in summer.
We would eventually get to Scotland, and that was equally fascinating and exciting for all of us. But that is a tale for another post. Northumberland and the country of Hadrian's Wall are alone worthy of a week or more exploring backroads and country lanes. We spent three days there, and longed for more time. If you go in June when the flowers are fresh and plentiful and the air is crisp and invigorating, you can begin the day with a Full Monty and spend the rest of it tracking barbarians, Romans, Medieval citizens, llamas and sheep, yes, lots and lots of sheep. Stay in a country guesthouse--Bessietown Grange if you can get it--eat Monty-sized breakfasts, and be grateful for the travel gifts that come your way. Choose any road--in this case, almost all do in fact lead to Rome, or at least to the Roman wall.