The soles of hundreds of people lined the wall, from baby to adult size. They were dusty, flattened or ripped apart, tongues hanging out and eyelets empty of laces; found buried deep in the earth. They are the shoes that the Roman Army left behind over 1,500 years ago at the site of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall. I followed in their footsteps but did not think I would carry the weight of these shoes with me on my walk along the wall.
I imagined the men, women, and children huddled within the walls of this fort. As I trekked Hadrian’s Wall, my journey took me through lush hillsides filled with lavender flowers and bleating sheep. I visited majestic cathedrals and ancient crumbling ruins. Discovered excavation sites filled with iron masks used to shield the face from sharply carved lances. There were eroding swords and arrowheads, leather saddles and horse harnesses, artifacts of a soldiers’ life along the wall.
With signs of battle came signs of life. Carved stone statues recovered from shrines dedicated to gods, told a story of people seeking the divine. Crumbling pieces of farming tools, vast quantities of pottery, the skeletal remains of domestic pets and a recent discovery of writing tablets revealed community life inside the safety of the forts.
Every stride of my 83 miles (ca.134 km) hike through the Northumbrian countryside brought me in step with the armed forces and tribes that fought each other. At every fort, tower, and milecastle, I found myself unconsciously talking in a hushed tone as if in respect for the ancient history that had occurred on this land.
I stood at the entrance of the commander’s house and stumbled along the cobblestone in the center of the fort. I walked along two rows of barracks where the Roman cavalry slept with their horses. I saw the tools of communication, read the written and carved messages, and even one communicating a beer shortage. Everywhere I looked there were signs of their life. I could picture the women cooking in the now crumbling fireplaces, children asleep in wooden cradles. I envisioned soldiers keeping watch in the tower on the hill.
I was inspired to walk Hadrian’s Wall for its history. I wasn’t prepared to step into the shoes that were leftbehind. I’m glad that I did.