The Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall 2009

So how does the Pilgrimage work? Head Pilgrim David Breeze leads us through the tradition that first started in 1849.

I have been concerned with Hadrian’s Wall for over 40 years, and this past summer I completed my fifth Pilgrimage. I had the honour of being named Chief Pilgrim, which meant that I had to do much of the organising. As anyone who has organised a conference knows, the main reason for its success is careful planning, which, for the Pilgrimage, takes four to five years. We like to take it slowly, allowing time to shape and amend the programme. In fact, the planning starts almost 10 years ahead, as after each Pilgrimage we have a post-mortem and then shake the dust off that report as we start thinking about the next.

David Breeze accepts his festschrift, prepared in secret, and presented at the Limes
David Breeze accepts his festschrift, prepared in secret, and presented at the Limes.

I write ‘we’, but who are ‘we’? The Pilgrimage is organised by the two archaeological societies of the north of England: the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. Both societies are of considerable antiquity, the former being founded in 1813 and the latter in 1866. Each provides three respresentatives to a special organising committee for the Pilgrimage, with the Universities of Durham and Newcastle also furnishing one each.

The event that was subsequently recognised as the first Pilgrimage was held in 1849, when John Collingwood Bruce, a distinguished Newcastle lawyer, led a small group of ‘pilgrims’ to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall. The Pilgrimage may thus fairly claim the title of being the oldest archaeological tour in Britain. It might be expected that such an event would have its traditions, and so it does. Since 1930, the Pilgrimage has alternated running east to west and west to east. In 2009, it was the turn to travel west to east. A new tradition was invented in 1999: the laying of a wreath at the memorial to Bruce in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle, undertaken to mark the 150th anniversary of the first Pilgrimage, and repeated last year.

below Breeze at Brunton.
Breeze at Brunton.

The 1930 Pilgrimage saw another innovation: the introduction of a handbook. In the 1990s, the organising committee felt that it was time to move on from the relatively simple handbook, which had primarily been a programme with information on the sites to be visited along with details of recent research. Paul Bidwell was commissioned to produce a more detailed over-view of the previous 10 years of research on Hadrian’s Wall. This new approach was so popular that the format was repeated in 2009, when Nick Hodgson compiled Hadrian’s Wall 1999-2009. At about 200 pages apiece, each are indispensable for students of the Wall.

This handbook is not to be confused with the Handbook to the Roman Wall. The first edition of this was another action by Bruce. When Bruce undertook his 1848 tour, he had visited the Wall before, but this was a defining moment: the start of an interest in the Wall which continued to the end of his long life over 40 years later. The 1949 Pilgrimage was followed by a book, The Roman Wall, first published in 1851, with a new edition two years later and the definitive third edition in 1867.

In 1863, Bruce decided to publish a synopsis, The Wallet-book (later Handbook) to the Roman Wall, which rapidly became the definitive guide-book to the Wall and has been regularly revised to this day. As such, it is probably the oldest guide-book in Britain.

In 2006, I produced the 14th edition of the Handbook. In preparing the new edition, I walked the Wall from end to end and examined all its separate elements, which took me five years. There is a lot to Hadrian’s Wall: wall, ditch, upcast mound, road, Vallum, Stanegate, forts, milecastles, turrets, Cumbrian coast… I was surprised at how much new work there had been in the 20 or so years since the last edition. I was surprised, too, as I read previous editions, how often one level of interpretation had been laid on another. It seemed to me essential that these successive layers were stripped away to return to the original evidence, as far as is possible. As a result, I read most of the excavation reports of the last 100 years, as well as examining the visible remains and consulting with colleagues on my text. This, I felt, was of great importance for each successive Handbook is the statement of the interpretation of the Wall for its generation; therefore, it ought to be as corporate in outlook as possible.

Above The 2009 Pilgrims
The 2009 Pilgrims

The 220 Pilgrims who participated this summer were guided by archaeologists and historians who had, themselves, spent years studying Hadrian’s Wall. One of the most encouraging comments at the end of the Pilgrimage was that all guides had acknowledged that there was always a different point of view to their own. We hope to explore some of these different views in a subsequent issue of Current Archaeology.

David Breeze
Head Pilgrim
2009 Current Archaeology Archaeologist of the Year

David Breeze: an illustrious career
David Breeze is the foremost champion of the frontiers of the Roman Empire. His early work was on Hadrian’s Wall, about which he wrote the original definitive account with Brian Dobson in 1976. His working career has been with Historic Scotland, where he was Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments before being put in charge of the bid to make the Antonine Wall a World Heritage Monument. David is now turning his attention to the Roman frontiers in the rest of the empire, with an ambitious plan to have all the Frontiers of the Roman Empire declared as a World Heritage Site.