Hadrian's Wall was built by the Roman Empire to protect their colony in England from the Pictish tribes in Scotland. It stretches for 73 mi (117 km) across the north of England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in the counties of Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear.
Built by Roman soldiers in the 2nd century AD, only stretches of the wall are still visible, but the wealth of archaeological research has resulted in an almost unparalleled cluster of museums and excavations. Hadrian's Wall is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Cities & townsEdit
All these towns are near the wall, but the wall is strung out in the countryside.
Established emperors can skip this bit, but newbies start here: in order to protect your homeland, power base and own sweet self, you have to subdue the surrounding territories. Exploit them for the benefit of self and homeland (for dammit, you are the homeland) as ruthlessly as you dare without provoking rebellion. Recruit their young men into your army with steady pay, fine uniforms and tales of glory; send them to occupy a different territory where they've no local loyalty, will brutally do your bidding, and are politically expendable. Transition the military territory into a civic province dotted with your noble statue. But in order to protect it, you have to subdue the surrounding territories . . .
Such was the game of imperial dominoes that led Rome to conquer surrounding areas of Italy, then Greece, North Africa, and France which brought them within sight of the shores of Britain. Julius Caesar made brief expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, but the first invasion with a view to settlement began in 43 AD under Claudius. The Roman Empire quickly secured Kent, the Thames crossing at Londinium, and the English lowlands. They advanced up the lowland corridor along the east coast of Scotland, where in 84 AD Agricola fought the battle of Mons Graupius against the Caledonians, probably somewhere near Stonehaven. He won, but Rome was preoccupied by threats elsewhere, and couldn't spare troops to garrison and colonise Scotland. They fell back to a line of control between the Tyne and the Solway, where the emperor Hadrian built a defensive wall from 122 AD. After a few years they were again ready to advance, and the Antonine Wall was built between the Forth and the Clyde from 142 AD. But this was only a turf embankment and was abandoned after eight years; they retrenched to Hadrian's Wall and held it until Rome abandoned Britain early in the 5th century. It's likely that allied British tribes continued to defend it for another century.
So Hadrian's Wall was occupied for over 300 years along a mostly peaceful border, and the lands south of it transitioned into civilian settlements. Roman soldiers might spend their entire career here, with their families in a nearby town, and come to regard it as home; there are traces of villas, bath houses and temples along the Tyne valley to the east and the Irthing valley west. But when they were gone they were gone, with not even a folk legend to explain their mighty works to later peoples. Especially in the lowlands, the stone was recycled into other dwellings, and to create the 18th century Military Road of General Wade, nowadays the B6318. (In order to protect Britain, Wade had to subdue the rebellious Jacobite Scots . . . Hadrian would have approved.) It could have disappeared completely but for the efforts of John Clayton, who from 1830 began buying up the land and preserving the structure.
This means that the best of the wall, and the concentration of antiquities and natural views, is in a central upland section of about 20 miles between Hexham and Gilsland, much of it in the care of the National Trust. It follows the scarp of Whin Sill, the dolerite ridge that elsewhere creates High Force waterfall, the Farne islands, and the craggier features of the Northumberland coast. Ironically the very best is the wall-less wall west of Housesteads / Vercovicium, where the scarp is a cliff that needed no fortification. The Pennine Way traverses this central section, from the south joining the wall at Greenhead then marching sinister-dexter east as far as Housesteads before resuming its line north towards the modern Scottish border.
The entire route of the wall has been turned into a long distance footpath. For about 20 miles either side of the central section, this follows a well-defined earthwork descending west towards Brampton and east towards Prudhoe. It's a pleasant hike, and every thousand military paces you pass a bramble-encrusted mound which a little sign says was a milecastle. But the stone has gone and it's more accurate to call it "Hadrian's Ditch", a name that tourist publicity perversely declines to adopt. Further out, even the earthwork has succumbed to the plough and to road-building, and you approach Carlisle along a nondescript path, with only an occasional unusually-straight farm track to commemorate the grandeur that was Rome. In Newcastle the line has been obliterated and you follow a modern footpath along the north bank of the Tyne to Wallsend.
By road (perhaps bus) from main roads or transport hubs at Carlisle or Newcastle. Part of the wall is also on the Pennine Way long-distance footpath.
There is now a recognised National Trail, the 84 mi (135 km) long Hadrian's Wall Path, that follows (with deviations that mean the trail is longer than the wall) the whole length of the wall from Wallsend to the Solway Firth (or vice versa). The path is relatively easy going for most of its route, with the notable exception of the middle section around Steel Rigg. Here the path rises and falls steeply as it follows the escarpment. This section is however regarded as the most beautiful.
The region is well served by road and a railway runs parallel to the wall from Newcastle to Carlisle. A single ticket is approximately £13 (as of April 2010). There is a bus that runs the length of the wall from Bowness in Soloway to Newcastle (both ways) 7 days a week, circa April to September. Bus number AD122. Ideal for linear walking allowing return to a vehicle or lodging.
There are several excavated Roman forts. Most of the Roman remains are in the open air: dress for the weather and wear sensible shoes.
- 1 Housesteads, Haydon Bridge, NE47 6NN, ☏ . open weekends during the winter and every day in summer. The most famous sight on the Wall, Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain, and one of the best-preserved in Europe. English Heritage are in the process of improving the visitors' centre, replacing the rather small museum. adults £6.20, children £3.70, concessions £5.60.
- 2 Vindolanda. Vindolanda is not quite as complete a ruin, but has a somewhat better museum, and features a reconstructed section of Wall. It is particularly interesting to archaeology. £10 adults, £5.50 children, joint ticket with the Roman Army Museum.
- 3 Chesters (Cilurnum), Chollerford, NE46 4EU, ☏ . A former Roman cavalry fort, Chesters has a fairly extensive - if rather old-fashioned - museum including exhibits excavated at Housesteads and elsewhere. adults £5.40, children £3.20, concessions £4.90.
- 4 Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum, Buddle Street, Wallsend (Tyne and Wear), ☏ . Apr-May: daily 10:00-16:30; June-Aug: daily 10:00-17:00; Sep-Nov 1: daily 10:00-16:00; Nov 2-Mar: daily 10:00-14:30. The remains of the Roman fort at Segedunum, eastern terminus of the Wall. It's a short walk away from the Wallsend Metro stations. In fact many of the signs at the metro station have been translated into Latin, including the aptly named Vomitorium. Adults £5.95, concessions (60+ and students) £3.95.
There are numerous smaller forts, milecastles, temples and other buildings. While many are little more than lumps in the ground, many of the better-preserved are now under the care of English Heritage and are listed on the Hadrian's Wall section of their website.
- 5 Mithraeum. One of the few partially preserved temples of the god Mithras in the UK.
The museums are rounded out by the Roman Army Museum.
Look out for military jets training in the skies above Kielder Forest. There is a (relatively) secret RAF base within the forest that serves as an electronic warfare training base.
- For a nice day: Breakfast at the Once Brewed YHA hostel, walk to Vindolanda, then loop north to Hadrian's Wall, walk along the wall for a few hours, then walk back to the Twice Brewed Inn for supper and real ale.
- Daytrip from Newcastle upon Tyne: Take bus AD122 from Central Station at 09:30 to Chester Roman Fort (£4.50). Visit the Roman fort and museum (Entrance fee adults £5.00/concession £4.50), then hike on the Hadrian's Wall Trail to Housesteads. Visit the Housesteads Roman Fort and museum (Entrance fee adults £5.00/concession £4.50). Walk to the road (entrance to parking lot) and flag down the bus AD122, which passes here at 17:34 back to Newcastle (£5.50; and the only direct bus to Newcastle).
- Hike the whole of it, from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend or vice versa. Book your accommodation couple of months in advance, for the trail is very popular, and if you just knock on the door of a random B&B on your way you'll probably find it fully booked.
Eat & drinkEdit
Most of the larger attractions on the forts serve refreshments of some description. There are also hotels and public houses in most of the villages dotted around the area.
There is a range of accommodation from hotels to B&Bs, to bunk barns to camp sites.
- 1 The Greenhead Hotel and Hostel, Greenhead, Brampton, Cumbria, CA8 7HB, ☏ . The hotel and hostel are a short distance from the wall. For the hostel, ask at the hotel. Hostel (£15pppn), Hotel (£50-£80pppn).
- 2 Once Brewed YHA Hostel, Military Road, Bardon Mill, NE47 7AN. The hostel is pleasant and friendly. Beds from £16.
- 3 The Old Repeater Station, Military Road, Grindon, Haydon Bridge, NE47 6NQ, ☏ . Bed and Breakfast close to the middle section of the wall and offers very good accommodation, good food, good beer, and is a short walk from the wall.
There is a very slight risk of thieves looking for easy pickings at ill-attended tourist car parks. A locked car is precaution enough.
Certain sites on Hadrian's Wall are in upland terrain, and can be somewhat exposed. Dress accordingly with appropriate footwear.