Home » Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall

We spent some time on Hadrian’s Wall taking part in its’ illumination, commemorating the 1600th anniversary since the Romans left Britain. I wrote about it. (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?)


Black and white tv

From out of the ether of a childhood long ago, the white iconography of the ATV symbol – Associated Television to you, O youth – swirls through the mists of time. It’s shimmering from out of the darkness into the light of an old black and white TV set, standing in the corner of a living room, somewhere in the West Midlands.

On that set, in between Joe 90, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, the adverts boomed out metronomically, every 15 minutes, intoning the wonders of the age… “Stork, you won’t believe it its not butter”, “Esso blue!”, and most strangely of all, “Hadrian, Hadrian the deep gloss paint! For a really professional finish, use Hadrian!”

Of all the hundreds of hours of adverts I watched as a child, plonked down in front of the TV set, and out of my mother’s hair, believe it or not it’s that deep gloss paint I remember the most. Is it any wonder, named as I am after the great Emperor himself? Well at least my parents had the forethought to remove the H from my name. In 1950’s England the full title may have caused more of a stir than any small boy could handle.

In my 50s news of the exhibition at the British Museum brought the luminosity of the Paint to mind, and inspired a trip to London to see the mementos and stories of my great forebear, Hadrian.

Emperor Hadrian

Of course it’s a story of epic proportions, as you well know. There are great deeds, massive architecture, amazing mausoleums, and a few things of a less than savoury nature. Thankfully the one thing we remember most about Hadrian, is not his 6 year long affair with the boy Antinous, who was only 12 years old when they met, but the 73 mile long Wall he commissioned and had built, across Northern England by his army to control the movement of, and keep the Picts out of the Empire.

Today, there’s not much of the Wall left standing, but its course from Solway-on-Firth on the West coast to Wallsend in the East, has been fully charted. A National Trail exists, heavily subscribed to by armies of walkers, keen to tread those same centurion footsteps.

For no sensible reason, I decided that this year would be the one that I made physical acquaintance with the Wall, to walk its length, hopefully during a classic warm, but not too wet, British summer. The plan is to walk the Wall over several days, bed and breakfasting, and in the occasional inn (as long as it has its own micro-brewery). I haven’t let go of the dream yet, but it is a massive “ask”, given my current level of activity.

Marion’s been press-ganged into my very small army as well. She is after all a great support, and totes a little sports bag on these occasions marked ‘Wilson Staff’. Between you and me, she may say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

It was no great surprise when, inspired by this much trumpeted great enterprise of ‘the walk’, that my long suffering wife brought to my attention the plan to Illuminate Hadrian’s Wall on the 1600th anniversary of the Roman’s final exit from Britain in AD410. It turned out that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. intended to recruit volunteers to light up the Northern sky with 500 points of light in the form of gas burners, marine flares and the occasional ceremonial Roman Candle, and we had signed us up for this enterprise. What a fitting beginning to the year, thought I.

On a cool morning on 13th March 2010 we filled the car with the 21st century equivalent of the sorts of provisions that had kept the Roman armies marching across Europe, and set off for our muster point, a couple of hours up and off the M6, at Lanercost Priory. The Priory was founded about 1166 by Henry II. The nave is now used as a Parish Church, and the remainder is ruins in the care of English Heritage the blurb says.

It turned out there was an awful lot of mustering involved on the day. 1200 people were corralled and trained to carry out the art of incendiaries by team leaders all along the Wall.

“That will be £5 please” said the callow youth to me at the car window, as I wheeled the family chariot into the serried ranks at the Priory.

“No we’re not visiting, we’re Illuminators” the Wilson staff patiently explained to the boy. “Ah well, you need the next car park then” quoth he. “Turn right out of here and take the next right.”

We duly obliged and found ourselves in the thick of lots of worthies. Some were clad in thick outdoor clothing probably hewn out of Kevlar, some wearing green camouflage gear appropriate for the kind of jungle warfare they would probably find themselves involved in in Vietnam. One man had come as an English huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ country gentleman in plus fours and a dashing brown brimmed hat. One Scot had arrived in a smart black and white houndstooth kilt. I don’t know what things are coming to, he wouldn’t have got in the country during the Emperor’s time. The place has gone to the dogs.

The 2 team leaders wandered amongst us, making introductions and confirming with us which Cell we would be in. Our team leader was really quite serene, compared with Jimmy, a young clean-cut man with a booming southern accent who was either ex-SAS or had made very good in the City. Up to my usual standards of assessing people, it later turned out that he’s a roofer by trade. Although she dealt with situations quite calmly and directly, Serena still left our ears barely capable of hearing the rest of her instructions after the 1st minute.

We marched to the Gallery at Lanercost to fill in disclaimers that we would’t sue Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. in the event of us losing an eye, a leg or an arm, or perhaps all 3. We filled in a form advising our next of kin it had been our own idea to play about with flares and gas in the event that we proceeded to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime during the day. Finally we were each given a hi-vis vest and a large orange sticker to write our name on, so that we wouldn’t have to shout “Oi! you! Point that flare away from me” but rather “Oi! Janet! Point that flare away from me”. Most importantly of all we got a Food ticket to get a sandwich and soup to energise us.

All that done, we returned through the car park and on to a large patch of ground at the side of the Priory for demonstrations of various incendiary devices we’d be expected to wield. First on the agenda was a dangerous looking unit of 2 propane gas cylinders linked together by a brass Y tube, which in turn fed released gas into an orange tube, leading to a mini brazier at the top of a 7 foot long metal pole. I began to feel a bit nervous.

Serena gave us the demo, building up the burner from out of a cardboard box, ‘which must be kept and used to store the litter of plastic bags and paper instructions the goods are packed in’. Conservation was the name of the game. Helpfully Serena announced what she was doing with every turn of the spanner, and how to make sure we didn’t set casual bystanders on fire. She told us again how we shouldn’t, under any circumstance, litter the area around the Wall, with plastic bags or instructions, nor the caps from flares fired 30 feet into the air on starting up the infernal devices, as pronounced by English Heritage.

Next we were asked to ‘buddy up’. The 25th member of the crew would have to adhere to a group of 2 buddies, making a crowd of 3. It was now that I held the Wilson Staff firmly by my side, in case she fancied buddying up with anyone else. After a struggle, we knew which side our bread was buttered on, for richer or poorer, better or worse, etc. if you know what I mean.

Volunteers to check that the brazier had cooled sufficiently and take the whole machinery apart, were sought. Rob Roy and his buddy came on to the scene and made a good job of taking the apparatus down. Further volunteers were asked for, and after a couple of half-hearted attempts I finally managed to persuade my wife that we were caught between the devil and potential loss of a much cherished limb, and we should eschew the flares (the full lethal potential of which had not yet been demonstrated to us) and opt for the relative civility of a gas burner. It was then my wife said that she’d rather hoped to hold a Roman Candle up in the air for their reported burn-time of 40 minutes. Much to my credit, I ignored this fooldhardiness.

We took the next burner apart. Thankfully the Wilson Staff had been paying closer consideration than my limited attention span will allow, and muttered things like “No not that one”, “Use the spanner”, “No, take off that red thing first!” etc. We made a suitable fist of it and thought we must have passed.

Finally Jimmy called us all over to watch him light a flare. He said “I’m going to tell you the A B C D E and F of using these flares”. Again my attention span had let me down. However I do remember that he said, whilst looking a bit sweaty and pale, under the white hot plume of flame being emitted by the flare he had E-xtended (yes that was the E word) above his head, “And finally F. These things are eFfin’ ‘ot and I do advise you to keep hold of the plastic handle, and on no account touch the red hot metal above there or your fingers will fuse to the casing”. It was at this point that I intoned, and not for the 1st time, to anyone who would listen, that under no circumstance would I ever be persuaded to light that particular blue touch-paper.

Yet another trip to the toilet and then we boarded the coach. It turned out that we travelled only 4 miles to a place called Banks. Volunteers to ‘walk on the grass’ were requested at one of the 2 stops we made on the journey. Someone (I know not whom) intoned that as walking on water was one of my strengths, we should hang on, to find out what the 2nd miracle might be. Alas the 2nd drop-off point turned out to be a t-junction in the middle of nowheresville.

We followed the serene one to the back of the coach, where she’d been hiding a large transit van. Hauling a 13kg canister of propane gas is not my usual idea of Saturday afternoon fun, but I managed to avoid bruising my shins and dropped it gratefully near a tree, by a small hillock of rock salt left over from the winter travails. Coming to, I gazed around this god forsaken spot, vainly searching for just a tiny piece of the Wall. One ancient stone would have done. But there was a ditch. So all wasn’t lost then.

And we had a crowd. Well, if 2 flea-bitten donkeys and a pregnant Shire horse make a crowd, we had a very inquisitive one. Still struck dumb by the apparent anonymity of this Roman look-out post in the middle of uncivilised Northern England, we went and explained the plan to the livestock. Fortunately neither donkey decided to hee-haw at our come-down, but the Shire horse was so bucked she decided to race around the field, and then wash her back feet in the drinking water. One of the donkeys was very displeased about that.

One man and his dog appeared from around a bend in the road and asked if we were going to leave the burner there. I said no, we were going to move it right under the tree. He decided I was joking and that he’d better throw a ball for the Jack Russell instead of deal with a lunatic.

Serena marched down the hill, past what I had hoped might be a pub, to check on our progress. Noting there had been no progress she said she wanted the burner across the road, away from the tree, and we should start to put the apparatus together. Now.

Luckily we only had one canister so we didn’t have to use the Y connector to join output from the 2 potentially lethal metal casings together. But the canister we did have proved very difficult to thread the regulator onto. Serena feared we wouldn’t manage it, after several attempts by Marion. She telephoned HQ but there were no spare canisters in the county. Exhorting us to keep trying, she left us to check on the next burners up the hill, on the grass. It was now that I achieved some Brownie points by taking charge of the situation and threading the regulator on, with sheer dogged determination. What a man, what a man, what a mighty fine man as Salt and Pepa once had it.

A couple walked down the hill and asked if we knew where the nearest pub was. Hmmm obviously they’d either drank the one on the hill dry, or it wasn’t a pub. I said “I’m sorry but I’m a stranger around here myself. And she’s a Pict”, nodding at my wife, “So you’ll have no luck there.”

By this time a Grandad and 2 grandchildren had come out of a charming white cottage, some yards down the road, to ask if we wanted a cup of tea and a Penguin. I have to admit that after a couple of hours of standing around, only broken up by numerous star jumps which had probably saved hypothermia setting in, I was not surprised to hear that there were penguins in the area. I said that I couldn’t manage a whole one, but a wing might be nice.

About 10 minutes later Grandma came out with 2 Batchelors Soup mugs of tea (yes it did taste a bit odd) and a couple of chocolate biscuits. But I think she may just have saved our life. She trotted back in to the cottage, possibly to put some thermals on, before bringing out Grandad, Mum and Dad, and their 3 young children ready for the lighting up at 18:25. We knew that was the time because Serena and I had synchronised earlier. Well they can’t touch you for it nowadays.

Many of the cars rolling up the hill stopped while the drivers and passengers asked where the best place to watch would be.
They obviously weren’t very impressed with our placement, and I knew how they felt. I suggested the higher the better, and they drove on, probably thinking how brave we were.

Clad in our hi-vis, we could be mistaken for police. According to one passing walker everyone was slowing down when they came round the bend and saw us directing the traffic. I felt good. You knew that I would.

At the appointed hour I lit the proverbial and stood well back. Actually Marion turned on the gas while I desperately waved the pietzo-electronic lighter in its direction at arms length. And I’ve got quite long arms. The 2 forces of fire and gas met and it was love at first sight. They were made for each other. We had a flaming torch on site and there was high excitement from all, except for Eeyore and his cronies. They’d retired to the rear of the field in order to miss the moment of ignition.

Cars continued pouring up the hill and in between telling them where the best place to watch might be, well wasn’t it obvious? – right here, right now – we warmed ourselves up. Grandma kept us amused telling us everything about the neighbourhood, who was passing, about the local pub (also known as Lanercost Cricket Club), and about Hadrian’s Wall which runs directly under their bedroom! Grandad sleeps in Scotland while she’s safely tucked up in England. A flare started shooting into the sky 250 yards up the hill right on cue, as the helicopter, filming the whole thing arrived overhead. Of course we waved and I swear I saw Robert Duvall grinning down at us. He’d have loved the smell of the napalm in the morning.

At 19:10 we turned off the burner as per orders. If it hadn’t have been for the car headlights it would have been pitch dark but we put on our head torches anyway. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.  A passing wag stopped his car to ask when we were lighting up. We politely told him that unfortunately he’d missed it. He moved on, speechless. Gutted, was my guess.

By now cars were coming down the hill to meet the traffic coming up the hill, and a mighty jam occurred but thankfully outdoor events organiser Serena strode over the hill again. She had arrived to organise and, whilst we guarded our burner and waited for the other illuminators and the coach to arrive, she told these car wallahs to get on their bikes, and make like hockey pucks, because the show was well and truly over.

I hauled the gas canister, which was now wearing a sheath of white ice crystals, across the narrow road to the pick-up place.

When the car lights had disappeared down the road, there was a gorgeous open sky to enjoy, brimming with starlight. Serena knew them all, pointing out Venus, Cassiopeia, Leo, the Plough, and a host of others. We’re sure we saw a shooting star or two.

When Jimmy arrived with the coach and attendant van, we gratefully stowed our burner equipment away, and exhaustedly clambered aboard. A free goody bag for all, containing loads of chocolate and a bottle of specially brewed beer “The Emperor’s Flame”, crowned the evening.

And if you ask me nicely sometime, I might let you see my commemorative heavy cotton t-shirt. It looks a treat under my armoured breastplate…

© 2009, 2016 adewils