Going to the Wall

Rosemary Burton on a handbook for Hadrian's Wall

Dismal airport delays, suspect airline food and international terrorism are merely the latest in a long line of deterrents to foreign travel. 'In the summer of 1848', wrote John Collingwood Bruce, 'I had intended making an excursion to the South of Europe, visiting Rome amongst other places. The revolutionary convulsions of that year prevented me fulfilling my intention. I went to the Roman Wall instead.' According to Roger Miket, writing in the book Between and Beyond the Walls (edited by Miket and Burgess, published by John Donald), this decision by Bruce 'provides one of the most notable milestones in the development of Northern archaeology'. If lead directly to publications of Bruce's Handbook to the Roman Wall, which is still in print, and it also established a tradition which continues to this day.

Lecturing in Newcastle-upon-Tyne about his observations along the Wall, Bruce detected a degree of scepticism in his audience. He invited the cynics to join him, in the summer of 1849, on a similar excursion – 'traversing the wall from end to end – forming a pilgrimage like that described by Chaucer, consisting of both ladies and gentlemen'. An advertisement appeared in the Athenaeum, inviting interested parties to sign up for the pilgrimage and, on June 25th, some twenty-six enthusiasts embarked on an 'antiquarian ramble' which was subsequently celebrated in verse:

But who can paint the route sublime,
O'er crag and glen, through fen and fields –
The motley group that dive, and climb,
To Busy-gap, and Sewing-shields?

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