Climbing through ancient history

A Memorable Place

October 09, 2005|By BERNADETTE BURGER | BERNADETTE BURGER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My husband, Erich, and I met my folks for two weeks of vacation in England. Driving toward the Lake District on a blustery spring day, we stopped to see Hadrian's Wall.

I expected a typical tourist destination and was surprised when we found a section of the wall down a small country lane without a gate - no park entrance fee, and hardly even a sign. We simply parked on the side of the road near an elementary school in rural England where kids were playing in the schoolyard.

Not far from the road, Hadrian's Wall stretched off across the countryside, ranging in height from 2 feet to about 10 feet. At its widest, it was perhaps 8 feet across, and a few turrets could still be recognized. Built around 120 A.D. to solidify the Roman Empire's hold on Europe, the wall stretches about 73 miles.

English weather is notorious, and that day it was particularly fickle. From one moment to the next, it ranged between sunny and breezy to cloudy and blustery to rainy with spotty hail.

We zipped up our coats and started walking along a section of the wall that led through a farm and on to the ruins of an old bridge. The farmer charged a nominal fee for passage across his land, and at the gate, we had to gently push our way past the cows as the farm dogs barked.

We found the bridge ruins in the middle of a fallow field. The water had changed direction in the years since Roman times, and stones no longer sat in a river. There were piles of huge rocks, with interesting nooks and crannies. I couldn't help thinking that this would make a great playground for kids. So, acting like one, I scrambled around on the old stones. When the rain started again, my mom, Sharon Jacobs, took shelter by squeezing herself into a niche in the old wall.

Somehow, it seemed unusual to have the remains of history so close at hand, and to be free to explore them unfettered. To touch the stones, to be free to climb around them, with no ropes or signs warning me to "Keep Off," to be there alone with no one else in sight, and to reconcile it all with the occasional baa or moo of the resident sheep and cows. ... It all seemed a world apart from the distant, often dry history of my high school textbooks.

The rain and wind picked up, and it started to hail again. Despite the weather, a part of me wanted to stay and keep soaking in the history. But we were all cold and wet, so we headed back. When we got to the car, I glanced over at the elementary school. I had to wonder: What was their history lesson today?

Bernadette Burger lives in Baltimore.

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