Packing is a bit of an arse really particularly when on holiday, but we had stayed our time in Northumberland and were to move to Carlisle and the bracing air of the Irish sea and Solway Firth.  Originally we hoped to be able to make more ground today and get close enough to Carlisle to be able to rattle off the rest on Saturday morning and spend the afternoon visiting the castle. We had been told that the going was flatter and less arduous and the 20 odd miles in the day covered by the group we had met near Twice Brewed suggested the same. But we were battle-hardened men now and would listen to no tales of the ease of passage, we had been fooled by these in the days of our naivety on the journey and like Hannibal having crossed the alps must plan our entry to the city with precision.

After discussion with the Prefect at the start of the day it was evident that she was not impressed with our plan of carrying the load over two days and it was made clear that we were expected to have reached Carlisle by the end of the following day or there would be no triumph afforded us in the city and we would find ourselves conducting a scouting mission into the Northern reaches of Caledonia.  (I had in fact my suspicions that the Optio would be spared such a suicidal enterprise given that there was rumour rife about him conducting assignations with the Prefect.)  Our bodies were not holding up especially well and we did want to ensure a finish, preferably a grandstand one given the herculean efforts we had expended so we accepted the challenge and resolved to try to make it to Carlisle inside the one day, it would involve much struggle against the elements and the terrain but we must be strong and think instead of the rewards that might await in the homeland, Hibernia.

We hadn’t done the Roman Army Museum the previous day so we did it first thing having been warned by the proprietor of the bunkhouse that we should not park the car on its own as someone who had done so found their tyres let down and stuff stolen from inside.  The museum was small but managed to cram quite a lot into it, a 3D film heavily dramatised but quite fun and some lovely aerial shots.  A lot of information about how the army was arranged, a film of an army recruiter, another film showing the everyday life of soldiers on the wall that had clearly taken advantage of the handwriting information unearthed at Vindolanda.  There were models of the infantry, cavalry and auxiliaries that reminded me of a poster I had had on my bedroom wall many many years ago.  It was a pleasant stop off before we continued.

One of our men

When we set off again the going was not as hard, at least in comparison to day two in the hills or day three in the crags.  It was no easier than the first day though and back then we had the naivety to think that the first day was the hard bit coupled with the lack of the sort of pains and aches that now bedevilled every step.  There was still some nice scenery and at times when we were up high the views over the Cumbrian countryside were as good as much of those over Northumbria.  We still had to cope with the odd wildlife incident, talking to bulls across fields and on one occasion navigating a herd of oncoming sheep.  The weather couldn’t seem to make up its mind and we had to contend with rain followed quickly by sunshine and then a bracing wind.  This resulted in us having to put on our waterproofs only to have to take them off again, patience was not a virtue in high abundance as it was, there was simply no time for it!  Sweat however was in plentiful supply and the continuing shuttling of garments meant that we were able to maintain an almost constant supply of cold sweat to our backs.  We marched past forts and mile castles taking the odd picture to show we’d been there and towards mid-afternoon we ran out of wall.  We could have hypothesised about this bringing perhaps a lack of protection from the Picts but we were past worrying about marauding natives and focused entirely on making it to Luguvallum before nightfall so as to assuage the fearsome temper of the Prefect and the likely consequences of its unleashing.

Nuff said!

And then there was the chemical toilet… There can be few places that have managed to absorb all the filth from an entire county but this must have been close.  Don’t get me wrong I appreciate the sentiment of providing a toilet in the middle of nowhere in places where no other method exist and I cannot see cleaning same exactly a job that people will readily sign up for.  The result of which is a convenience that seems like a beacon of relief but then leaves one feeling unpleasantly dirty for some considerable time to come.  Uniquely in my experience as a counter balance there are also unmanned little outposts in Cumbria selling a variety of wares based on an honesty box system.  I sincerely hope that people do not abuse this system as it seems a vital service where otherwise one might go almost a whole day without access to water, sustenance or t-shirts.

I would go so far as to say that this was the first time that the trip began to take on the mantle of being a little of a chore, not in an overall capacity but small shards thereof.  We were no longer able to stand and marvel at the scenery, we weren’t able to sit and drink tea and eat sandwiches and cake and muse on our achievement or to shake off the trappings of the mission, the fatigue and the pain, and relax like men on relief.  We had to forgoe looking round the fort at Birdoswald, though we did sit and enjoy a nice strong cup of tea there and a clandestine piece of cake that we had produced from our personal rations.  The strategy of forced march was necessary if we were to have any chance of finishing and that was important to us now where before we had time, good surroundings and often quite pleasant conditions within which to do it.  Much of the landscape blurred into one conglomerate mass, more by the mist of rain over the valley than the speed at which we were walking.  We encountered an old Pict woman on a bicycle somewhere around Birdoswald (this was not mere artistic licence describing A N Other old crone, the fact that she was a Pict was clearly delineated by her tartan trousers).  She passed a pleasant few minutes with us  until we indicated our intention to walk to Carlisle that same day, at which point she clearly decided that we were mad and cycled off.  Either that or she was the advance guard and was off to warn the chief at the next outpost.  We would not have put up much of a fight at that point, running away wasn’t an option and fighting would have required strength as well as energy so there was no alternative but to be the bitches of some hairy woad-faces.

When we got as far as Newtown and the sign for Oldwall, the next checkpoint, the rain was lashing into our faces in a manner normally associated with sailing the high seas and thus with trousers wet through the legs gave out and we agreed, reluctantly, to knowingly deviate from the path for the first time on the trip, it was not a failure given what we had accomplished but it felt uncomfortable and that there was something unfinished.  We didn’t quite know where we were or how far we had left to go, but we were pretty sure it would be folly to continue even if we were physically able to, Carlisle was at our best estimation still at least 7-8 miles away and the likelihood was that we would run out of light even if we hadn’t already run out of energy.  We sought solace in a hostelry in Newtown since alehouses had proven good points to stop on the trip so far and the Centurion would easily be able to put two pints of the local brew away before such time as the prefect could be any the wiser, the Optio however of late had curiously chosen to imbibe a foul-tasting concoction called diet coke whose only qualities appeared for those intent on stripping the enamel off their teeth and those that may feel they had been poisoned and required a vomit-inducing device.  This only served to fuel the rumours of impropriety with the prefect for there could have been no other reason to drink such bilge.  The hamlet of Newtown was far from finished with us, being already the failure point for the day’s military operations, and threw up the dilemma of not being furnished with any such establishment where we might rest our weary legs and exercise our oesophagi.  We were directed by some Roman-friendly locals down a road, which no doubt seemed far longer than it was to the village of Irthington, could this have been a ruse, the road declared that it was twisty and with poor visibility, it seemed stating the bleedin’ obvious to be warning the pedestrians we agreed it might have been more use warning the metal chariots which were likely to do more damage to us than we were to them.

The Salutation Inn was closed when we arrived, but it did exist and was not a mirage as had been feared, this felt very much like kicking the men when they are down and so disconsolately we trooped round to the side to find if there might be shelter somewhere and call for our relief.  No sooner had we sent message to the Prefect when the lovely Vicky, appeared as an angel of mercy and opened up especially promptly to allow the two drenched boys so far from home in and save them from themselves and more pressingly the elements.  She was a veritable vision of loveliness and would have been so even were I not in an almost hallucinogenic state of being glad to see anyone at all.  Coupled with a few pints of the very palatable Thwaites Wainwright beer there was no doubt that the lovely Vicky was worth the rigours and endurance of the day not to mention a strong contender for my throwing out all my clothes to be able to put her in the car on the way home!  I could just see her back at the villa picking grapes and breeding children and waiting to greet me when I returned from hard campaigns.

Artist’s Impression

Simon settled down to massage his ailing knee whilst I got down to business.  I’m a lone operator, it’s better that way, the feral bachelor needs some time and space and not a married man beside to give off the aura that both protagonists may be taken.  As I went in for the kill I brought out my full armoury (matron!) and I know readers will be heartened to know that I was handsomely rewarded by obtaining what I had sought.  And hence the lovely Vicky may be accurately referred to as such due to the item of intelligence garnered, at great personal effort, thus sparing us the ignominy of referring merely to ‘the lovely barmaid in the Salutation Inn in Irthington’.  My prowess and captivation of the female species has proved to have been at a constant level and has not diminished with age, Venus was evidently smiling on this poor bedraggled wretch this night.

As ever the views of my beleaguered comrade can be found here, and the views of the self-proclaimed bossy harridan caring support team asset here

Songs Of The Day ~ The Temper Trap – Soldier On;  Gram Rabbit – New Energy