Immersed in history and reflection: Boise man walks Hadrian's Wall in England
On Fridays in the spring and summer, Paul Goldy walks to work.
He says: “You get up early ... and it’s amazing what you can see.”
He lives in West Boise and works Downtown, so that’s seven miles each way.
“Really, it’s about the pace. You get out and see things you can’t see when you’re driving in a car — or even riding a bicycle. ...
“You can stop and you can look at things. You can see things that you’ll never see otherwise.”
And, of course, there’s the exercise part as well.
“Fresh air, all the typical things you hear about that. That all applies to me.”
Paul also is intrigued by history. When he was a boy, his 12-year-old imagination was piqued when he read about the wall the Emperor Hadrian built a little more than a century after Christ, marking what was once the northern border of the Roman Empire.
“All the way across England. You’re 12 years old and I thought, ‘That’s huge!’”
Hadrian’s Wall, a World Heritage Site, runs coast to coast across England. A trail follows the entire distance, and so, last summer — taking advantage of his son’s wedding in the Isle of Man — Paul walked the 84-mile path.
“It was really a good chance to interact with — I don’t want to say ‘true history’ — but ‘old’ history. I mean, everything around here is so young. ...
“To really, really see it and absorb what went into making the wall, and how long it stretched and what the effort was. ...
“This was a chance to walk next to (history) for a long time.”
It is logistically possible to go from point to point along the wall in a car. But this is Paul, and that’s missing the point.
“Biologically or kinetically, how are (we) designed to get around? By walking.
“So to go faster than that, you’re going to miss something. It’s not practical to walk everywhere, don’t get me wrong; but if you want to enjoy something — it’s best to walk.”
Paul collected the first of his seven trail passport stamps in the port city of Segedunum, which grew up around an old Roman fort. At the start, the wall’s ancient stones have been re-purposed for other buildings, but here and there where the trail ventures into the countryside, remnants of structures and ditches will become more apparent. He followed the British National Trail symbol, an acorn, that marked the route.
Along the River Tyne, as Paul started west, he met a couple finishing their walk to the east. They exchanged pleasantries.
“I said, ‘Do you have any advice?’ and he said, ‘Yeah. Don’t stop. Don’t give up.’
“Apparently, some people tire and don’t finish. I could see if you weren’t very determined and the last part coming down (toward the tidal flats at the end), there’s not much to keep you engaged as far as the wall; you’re just out for a big long walk.
“So it was good advice: Don’t stop.”
• • •
Also as Paul walked, ancient history unfolded, became more detailed, more real.
“You’re not reading about it anymore. (And) you see all the details that are involved around (the wall). These were real people; it wasn’t just some story.”
With a vantage point thousands of years later, history looks like a clear progression of events and people, cause and effect.
“All the messy stuff has been cleaned out. ... Of course, that’s not really how it occurs. When you’re in it, like we are now, it’s really messy.”
Standing along the stones, watching the wall undulate over the hills and down the valleys — reading the guidebook — Paul could begin to unravel the layers of intrigue. There are, for instance, the sheer logistics of staffing and constructing the wall.
“All the factors that went into that: Getting enough people there. Sourcing enough stone. How do you finance all that without taxing your population to death? Because that’s how they did it; they would tax the locals and gather their food from them. You’ve got to make sure you don’t kill off your population while you’re trying to protect them.”
He also visited, for example, the house where George Stephenson lived — the man who invented the locomotive that allowed England to become an industrial nation. There were, of course, fits and starts to his invention.
“It’s kind of fun to learn about that complexity (back then) and how that kind of chaos or chaotic view even exists today.”
Because his thoughts didn’t always stay in the past.
“We can learn so much from history, and if you pay attention to it, you’ll be able to manage the future better. And if you don’t pay attention to it — the phrase has been said a million times — history will repeat itself.
“The Roman Empire is a great example: The rise to power. The overwhelming division between the poor and the rich. The collapse of the Roman Empire. And without a change in what’s going to happen today, that will happen in the next couple hundred years, too. … Something along those lines, that if the division between those who have and those who have not doesn’t come closer, things will change radically.”
• • •
Paul does walking excursions in Idaho, of course. But the walk along Hadrian’s Wall is a different style of walking. For starters, it’s far from arduous.
“I’ve always been fascinated to do something like this because — what do we do around here? We all do backpacking, right? And you can backpack this route, if you want to. But it’s so — uncivilized.
“Because you don’t have to. This is not the wilderness. There are good chunks of this where you’re walking right along side of the road, so there’s traffic and all that stuff.”
What this trail offers is an option for beds and showers at the end of each day at quaint bed and breakfasts.
“And beer. ...
“You don’t have to carry a lot. All you have to do is carry what you need for the day. Rain gear — you need rain gear in England; lunch, your phone and your guidebook.”
He averaged 17 miles a day, but without a backpack, that was easy to do, he says. And while this particular trail is more about history than, say, a spiritual pilgrimage, all walks provide that unfettered time just to think.
“You think of all the things that go on in your life when you slow down. You have a chance to think about them, because it takes a long time to walk somewhere. You just turn those things over in your mind and you learn something about yourself. ... ”
Paul, a software developer at White Cloud Analytics, is soft-spoken and thoughtful. On these walks, he becomes even more so.
“My favorite (things to think about) are, most of the time, that you shouldn’t talk so much. That’s really the trouble — is when I say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“The other one is to really listen to people. One thing I find is we don’t listen often enough to each other. People say that they’re good at listening, but often they listen for something, like when to interject, when to share something about themselves.
“Really, what you want to do is listen to what they’re saying, stand in their shoes, understand what they mean. To truly listen. it’s a rare skill these days. I don’t practice it often enough.”
• • •
At the end of his 84-mile walk, Paul came back to Idaho with a renewed determination to do more walks.
“As it turns out, I like this civilized thing. ...
“I think I’m going to do another one, not historically related but just to cover an iconic distance, and that is to take the High Route in the Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt. It’s about 15 days, hut to hut. Ever want to do anything like that?
“I want to do that one before I get too old, so in 2020.”
He turns 60 that year, so that’s a promise. As Paul was researching that trip, he also discovered a 50-day walk along an ancient pilgrim route from Northern Italy to Rome.
He’s also got a trip with friends planned to circumambulate the Seven Devils this summer — taking enough days to go fishing, hang out, enjoy the trip. It’s on the calendar.
“Yeah, the ‘someday’ thing doesn’t work. Because we used to say that a lot, ‘We’re going to do that someday.’ Someday never comes.
“So if you don’t put it on the calendar, it’s not going to happen. The wedding was a great motivator for (the Hadrian’s Wall walk); when I got back, one of the first things I did was (call my friend) who is going on the Seven Devils trip and say, OK, let’s pick a time period. So we picked a week in August and that’s it, we’re going. ...
“One thing on a list of many that we want to do before we’re dead.”
Why was the wall built?
When he became Roman emperor in 117 AD, Hadrian set about making the Empire more secure. He ordered his army to build the wall to define the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire.
Paul Goldy: “There is some documentation from the Romans, who wrote about it, that (the wall) was done to isolate the southern part of England from the ‘barbarians’ to the north, which the Scots love being called because they’re just tough people.”
Once built, the wall boasted 80 milecastles, observation towers and 17 larger forts. Between every milecastle were two towers, so that observation points were created at every third of a mile. Constructed mainly from stone, the wall was 6 meters high in places and up to 3 meters deep. (from HadriansWallCountry.co.uk)
“(The milecastles) are manned by, what I read, approximately 30 or 40 men. Every mile, enough that they can sortie out and take care of things along the wall. It’s really to keep an eye on things, and just because they built the wall doesn’t mean there was no traffic through it. There’s a gate at every one of these milecastles.
“It was really to regulate the traffic. And best of all, to tax it.
“Without the wall, you can see the landscape, it’s very mild. Anybody can cross anywhere. Well, if you’re trying to tax your commerce and everything else, and you don’t have any control over it, you’re not going to make much in taxes.
“So if you’re coming from the north and you’re bringing 100 head of sheep through the wall, and you’re going to trade them at Newcastle or one of these towns that are down further south, well, now you get to count all the sheep as they come through the gate, tax them at whatever rate you need to tax them, before they go and sell them.”