The Written Wall of Rome

If perchance you could have been around in the year A.D. 207, and if also perchance you may have been taking a leisurely stroll alongside the small River Gelt (now in Cumbria), and entering one of its woodland dells, you may have been surprised to have heard the regular rhythmic tap, tap, tap, coming from high on a rocky face fringing the river.

Glancing upwards, you would, most certainly, have been surprised to see a Roman Centurion standing on a platform of rock, and so patiently carving a lengthy inscription with his hammer and chisel. Time marches on, as we all know, but amazingly now almost 800 years on, the inscription is still there, a most historical tribute to the Roman master race who occupied our land for over 400 years.

Now, before taking you to the scene of the inscription, do let me tell you of my own fascinating discovery of what I like to call ‘THE WRITTEN WALL OF ROME’.

I have always loved maps, and often indulge in armchair reverie with a favourite map…tracing with my fingers, tantalising paths and tracks I have followed with my bike. It was so when I was browsing over a map of the Solway area, and I chanced to see tucked away in the shadow of Mighty Cross Fell, the words ‘HANGING WALLS OF MARK ANTHONY’. I chastised myself, why hadn’t I seen the name before. It was a mystery to be solved, and my terrier like nose for adventure was aroused.

There came the day, on one of my cycling weekends, when I found Mark Anthony’s Walls but was a little disappointed in what I saw, just uneven mounds in a field. Ah! but there was history here also, for The Walls’ had been a ‘Staging Post’ during the Roman era, when goods were transferred from Roman carts to pack animals for the long and arduous journey over the fells, to the garrisons on the building of The Roman Wall.

For many years I contributed a weekly-illustrated countryside article for a well-known Lancashire newspaper, and in it one day I included ‘The Hanging Walls of Mark Anthony’. Judge my surprise shortly afterwards, when I received a letter from a reader in Preston, telling me of an entry in the ‘Journal’ of her grandfather ‘Thomas Green of Penrith’ dated August 2nd 1868.

He had been a keen historian and on this day he had visited Gelt Woods on the outskirts of Brampton, where he had been shown by ‘Sergeant J.W. Burrows, an Instructor of Musketry attached to the ‘Brampton Rifles’, a quarry face in the woods with a lengthy Roman inscription cut into the face.

I was given an invitation to visit her to see the Journal penned in lovely handwriting, and I found myself bubbling with excitement, for surely this "Written Wall" was a little known link with the great wall of Hadrian not so far away.

There were precise directions in the Journal how to find the inscription and it was as if I should be following a trail of adventure and of course well over a 100 years, since the good Thomas Green and the Instructor of Musketry has been in the woods.

The opportunity did not come until a few months onwards when I was returning from a cycling tour of Norway, and a snap decision caused me to leave the Newcastle to Carlisle train at Haltwhistle, but a stone’s throw from Hadrian’s Wall itself. With me was a girl from our Norwegian touring party who hearing of my quest, expressed a desire to be ‘in at the kill’

I recall the summer’s day well, the freedom of harvest lanes scented with the sweet smell of hay, honeysuckle above the hedgerow tangles in the lanes we followed and masses of foxgloves drooping their crimson bells on the wayside verges. Such are the delights of cycle touring knowing adventure will be coming.

We followed the map to Low Gelt Bridge, and there entered the woods, though at first the river was hidden in deep foliage. We reached a clearing and a side path took us to the river bank, and what a fantastic sight it was, fissured holes and rock basins worn with stone action through the centuries, and the river imprisoned in runnelled channels. There were also dark ravines with the water dimpling in dark satanic pools. Thomas Green’s directions were with me and then EUREKA, I found

"Stone stairs set there on purpose for visitors to get better up to the inscription to a very narrow and dangerous footpath, some 7 or 8 feet below the famous record of the Romans"

Time had taken its toll, the "stairs" having almost vanished, the ground wet and slippery, but what a thrilling moment it was to climb with one foot balanced on a tree, and then to reach gingerly upwards, and with my heart beating with excitement to look at the faintly chiselled words and run my finger into the words.

My companion had, of course, to share the excitement, and I had to steady her in the precarious position, as she called down to me, some of the letters of the inscription.

At this stage, do let me tell you about that day in 1868 when Thomas Green and Sergeant Burrows, the musketry instructor was here and who had been the reason why I was here over a 100 years onwards. I quote from his ‘Journal’

"The Sergeant held me up against the face of the rocks that I might run my fingers in the letters as far as I could reach to my right hand."

How well I could picture it all, the Sergeant in his colourful tunic (most certainly a red one), holding Thomas Green against the rocks. Perhaps the Sergeant had left his musket leaning on the river-bank, and most certainly Thomas Green would have a large beard, and would be full of exclamations of wonder at what was before him.

Perhaps now, you may be wondering how the inscription came to be carved so high up a rock face, so now, do let me tell you how it came to be so. As mentioned, the Romans quarried here in A.D. 207 for stone to be transported for a section of Hadrian’s Wall. They quarried from the quarry face downwards and after each "cutting" there would be a platform of rock, which would be used by the centurions to cut stone from. This platform in turn, would be cut away and so down to the next platform.

It was during one of these spells, perhaps a quiet one, that a zealous stonemason had decided to carve the inscription, perhaps in some tribute to his calling, and the might of Rome. Then, the platform on which he had stood was quarried away, so leaving the inscription in a way ‘high and dry’, and so secure from its destruction.

So it has remained, so difficult to find, and though passing time, erosion and decay will take its toll, I do think that this relic should be preserved, as a link with our wonderful history. Ah!! Yes, that wonderful extract from the Journal of Thomas Green on the day he had found this ‘Written Wall of Rome’ had also given me, the full inscription expanded from the abbreviated form of the actual inscription:-

"VEXIELATIO LEGIONIS SECUNDAE OB VIRTUTEM APPELLATAE SUB AGRICOLA OPTIONE APRO ET MAXIMO CONSULIBUS OFICINA MERCATIUS FERNI".

The actual inscription is:-

"VEX. LEG II AVG SV AGRICOLA APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFFICINA MERCATI"

This translates into English as

"A vexillation of the second legion (Augusta) under Agricola, Aper and Maximus being consuls. The workplace of Mercatius."

A vexillation was a body of men selected from one or more units to carry out a particular task. A Roman Legion had men with all the skills to build anything from roads to walls and buildings. The two consuls named in the inscription make it possible to date the work as AD 207. Of course, this was some time after the actual building of Hadrian’s Wall which was started in AD 122.

(Thanks to Ron Smith of M&LFHS for his assistance in the translation of the inscription.)

By Albert Winstanley