In southern Africa man's early legacy has the lightest touch, wistful hunting scenes painted in ochre on the furthest walls of inaccessible caves. Not so here in Britain, where the mighty Stonehenge still dominates the landscape, proclaiming man's soul to the heavens. Much later, the Romans. Apart from their compulsion to conquer the world, they were absolute sticklers for the straight line. Many roads here are still as straight as the Romans laid them two millennia ago. The ancient site of Silbury Hill, near the mysterious Avebury, was only dated as pre-Roman after someone climbed to the top, and noticed that the Roman road made a detour around it. Grandiose, the Romans certainly were, but you've got to hand it to them. Annoyed with the marauding Picts to the north, Hadrian built a monumental wall straight across the country.
We took an early summer walk along the Wall this year. Dodging the incessant rain, we managed a few dry days in the desolate rolling hills of Northumberland. There is of course a national trail running the whole length of the Wall, and desolate only works if you look away from it. The path is dotted with bright anoraks all the way. Naturally this being England, everyone has a polite greeting as you pass. But it becomes more competitive if you're heading the same way. The last thing you want is to stare into someone else's backpack for miles, so stopping at viewpoints and for lunch becomes finely timed. But it was good-humoured none-the-less, with friendly exchanges all beginning with "east or west?"
The vast blue hills north still feel untamed, with the shrilly whistling sky lark high over the hills. Also curlew, its call much like an excited puppy. While below, wild early purple orchid, their velvety clusters spiking the valley floors.
The wall is solid still, surviving eons of plunder. We passed huge farmhouses built from the quarried limestone, plus the odd church. It skirts the highest parts of the countryside, and goes on and on periodically studded with forts and garrisons. Below, not as desolate as you'd like, the dead straight B6318 still bustles with traffic. It was invigorating, long, and very thought-provoking. The huge settlements with mountains of sophisticated artifacts leaves you under no illusion that these were a primitive people, and it's hard not to to get a mystical feel for the thousands of legionnaires and the slaves who walked and fought, and built and lived in this rare place.
One thing about walking all day is the treat of stopping for food. We carried packed lunches, but I also brought slices of my special Energy Cake. This is a fruit and nut cake that tastes different every time I bake it. It has a wonderful quality, much like a Roman Wall, I'd like to think, that it gets better with age. So here it is:
Whisk together 3/4 cup flour, !/4 Tsps of baking soda and baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt. Then stir in 3/4 cup of light brown sugar, and 3 cups of chopped walnuts or any mixed nuts, 1/2 cup of dried cherries or cranberries (although I use glace cherries and cut down on the sugar), 2 cups of chopped dates and figs (I use more) and 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots. Mix well. In a separate bowl whisk 3 large eggs and 1 tsp of vanilla extract till creamy and thick. Add the egg to the fruit and nut mixture, and mix till everything is covered. Spread into a well-buttered loaf tin (9"x5") and bake for an hour or 75 minutes at 150deg. Best after a few of days, it will keep easily for two weeks, two months in the fridge - longer, even.