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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'I chose this valley, said the tree to the wall; stretching my roots under your scored foundations.'

7 January 2022

Within an hour of leaving sunny Whitby, big splodges of soft ice splatter the windscreen. Minutes later the soft sleet turns to real snow and before long, visibility is cut. Slowing down to a crawl, I can see that the landscape outside the car is changing. The green and gold patchwork beyond the road is being rapidly replaced by a blanket of snow. I'm glad we are on the freeway because the traffic is flowing and it is safe for this novice snow-driver.

Just before we reach Newcastle, we turn off the freeway as the clouds scatter and the sky turns a brilliant azure colour; the sun shining. The panorama surrounding us is beautiful, but as the road is narrow, there are few places to pull off the road to take photos of this view. I will need to commit the images to memory.

Being a weekday, we are only able to visit a few of the sites along the wall, but we are on limited time and cannot see everything either. Housesteads Roman Fort is open as is Vindolanda. Although not far from Hexham and several small villages and towns, we are not inclined to visit these places, instead of stopping at the Sill National Discovery and Visitor Centre. The white snowy landscape is still intriguing for us Aussies and there is a deep yearning to be able to play in the snow.

Housesteads Roman Fort was built just two years after the wall was started in 122. It is a typical Roman fort; a standard design that was based on a template so it was allegedly quick and easy to build. We toil 600 metres up a hill in the freshly-fallen but quickly melting snow and the first step into the museum to get an overview of the site. Leaving the warm museum, we battle against the elements; an icy wind blasts at me so much that I resort to wearing my covid mask to try to keep the icy air from freezing my face. As we walk up to the remains of the Roman Fort, which lies on top of the hill, we also catch sight of the reason we are here today.

Extending 118 kilometres from the east to the west coasts of England, Hadrian's Wall was the boundary between Roman Brittania and the unconquered Caledonia in the north. Forts, such as Housesteads, where we are currently standing, were built to house soldiers and may have been valuable as a means to controlling trade and the economy.

Hadrian's Wall is on the far side of the ruins and despite the mud and ice underfoot, we make our way over to the edge of the fort as the snow begins to melt. There is a stark difference between the grey stones of the building and the white landscape.

As we turned to leave, an orange setting sun emerges from the clouds and light up the sky. We need to see one more thing before the day ends. We can reach it from this location but it is a forty-five-minute hike each way, so we decide to tackle it from the opposite direction, but when we arrive, the trail has been closed.

We return to the car and decide to view it from the road, but we need to drive slowly to get just the right photo. Sycamore Gap is a sycamore tree growing next to Hadrian's Wall in a dramatic dip in the landscape. Incorporated into a dramatic scene of the 1991 movie, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, the tree has become one of the most-most photographed in England. We manage to get an adequate photo with plans to return tomorrow.

The dwindling daylight is a prompt to find accommodation for the night, and we decide to book into the Twice Brewed pub for the night as our first stop tomorrow is just two kilometres away.

Title Quote: From the poem, 'Sycamore Gap' by Zoe Mitchell

Sycamore Gap

You’re history, said the tree to the wall; the last crumbling remains of empire.

You are the invader, replied the wall.

I am the conqueror, said the tree to the wall; sending platoons of seeds across my territory.

I stand alone, replied the wall.

I chose this valley, said the tree to the wall; stretching my roots under your scored foundations.

I belong here, replied the wall.

I am growing taller, said the tree to the wall; you’re a lonely stone sentry outstripped by a sapling.

I remain, replied the wall.

I am a survivor, said the tree to the wall; I host the resurrection of each turning season.

I endure, replied the wall.

You’re the one they blame, said the tree to the wall; insensate barrier, stone-deaf to the rough bark of liberty.

You cannot know, replied the wall.

(Published in 'The Guardian' January 27 2020

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