In a dip in the course of Hadrian’s Wall between Housesteads to the west and Sewingshields Crags to the east lies a tract of land known as ‘Busy Gap’. It may well refer in the present-day sense to the many thousands of walkers who pass this way every year. But, in fact, the term has a much more sinister connotation: for it was the common descriptive name for a thoroughfare of those of ill-repute – and a place to be very much avoided by those of a more peaceable nature.
Geographically, of course, the little col, or pass, provided an easy means of passage through an otherwise awkward zone. For centuries after the Romans left, the line of their wall provided nuisance value to the general traveller, and, in time, ways, paths and drove roads wore their way through the easy bits in the landscape. And, by the medieval era, the patch of low-lying ground to the east of Broomlee Lough became rather well-trod.
Such spots attracted all sorts of attention, though, both good and bad. And so it was that during the days of the Border Reivers (16th & 17th centuries), this route through the wall became a way by which ne’er-do-wells and the like could easily come and go on their evil ways. Such was the severity of the problem that a new catchphrase came into use across the region: the ‘Busy Gap Rogues’. Even as far as Newcastle – and well into the 18th century – the expression was a by-word for anyone who was suspected of being up to no good, and a downright term of abuse for those who lived out in the sticks. Even the famous traveller, William Camden, writing in his Britannia (1599), dared not visit the troublesome place on account of the “rank robbers” thereabouts.
From the mid-17th century an extended family of Armstrongs is known to have lived at what remained of Housesteads fort and the immediate vicinity. The area around the ‘gap’ became the headquarters for protection rackets and unruly horse thieves whose grasping fingers extended as far north as Perth and south into Yorkshire. There are remains in the landscape of Busy Gap today of old stock enclosures and the like, no doubt used by the Armstrongs during the course of their nefarious dealings.
Around the turn of the 18th century things began to change, and the area around Busy Gap – Roman remains and all – sank softly back into tranquillity. Eventually, of course, society came to appreciate the area for what it once was under the Romans and preservation, tourism and leisure became the order of the day. Gone are the rogues … and here instead roam the ramblers.