There’s no signpost, but this unassuming spot has a claim to be the northernmost point in an empire that stretched from here to the Sarahan Desert.
|Limestone Corner is at the site of Milecastle 30|
It’s not the furthest north the Romans ever got, admittedly. They once had military outposts as far as the Firth of Forth, and their armies ranged right up into the Highlands. The historian Tacitus even claimed (somewhat dubiously) that his father-in-law, the general Agricola, ‘discovered and subdued’ the Orkneys in AD 98.
But Hadrian’s Wall gets bonus points for being a permanent frontier, and this spot, known as ‘Limestone Corner’, is definitely the northernmost point on the Wall.
No trace of the Wall survives here. It was unhappily demolished in the eighteenth century, its smashed and pounded stones used as the foundation of a military road connecting Newcastle and Carlisle, the present B6318. (Antiquaries of the time were horrified, denouncing the military engineers as ‘Goths’ and ‘Vandals’ for committing so gross an act of desecration.)
But never mind, since the spot has become famous not for the Wall, but for the defensive ditch that once ran in front of it. The ditch survives pretty well, and is unusual for being choked with massive boulders.
Usually, Roman legionaries were ruthlessly thorough in their engineering projects. They cut roads straight as arrows through the most hostile landscapes, threw up forts in sometimes ridiculous places.
|View of Housesteads Crags - the legionaries were surely chuffed that no ditch was needed here...|
|Heading east to Limestone Corner, with the ditch visible in the middle of the photo|
With the same bloody-mindedness they dug a ditch in front of the Wall, shovelling deep into clay, peat, and rock. But when they came to Limestone Corner the legionaries hit a snag in the form of a massive outcrop of stone that little short of dynamite was going to shift.
Realising that dynamite wouldn’t be invented for another 1750 years, they gritted their teeth and went ahead anyway.
God alone knows how much sweat and cursing ensued. If you squint, you can actually still detect a blue tint in the air hovering over the ditch. To be fair, they ended up with a ditch of sorts, just not quite as polished as their usual work. Crags jut out from either side, and the base of the ditch is strewn with boulders leading up to one particular monster that squats smugly right where nature put it.
Looking down at the top, you can still see the holes cut by legionaries in their vain attempts to demolish it. It isn’t hard to imagine a small crowd of Roman soldiers gathered round it, some muttering obscenities as they chisel away, some scratching their heads, others offering unwelcome advice as men tend to do in such situations, until the leader of the detail says: ‘Fuck it, it’s lunchtime.’ At which point they down tools, and then decide it isn’t worth the hassle to come back.
The empire had finally found its limit. It could chisel away all it wanted, but the north was never going to crack.
All photographs © John Henry Clay