The fascinating history of Hadrian's Wall
Tired of staring at the same old walls? How about travelling to view one built 1,900 years ago? The Roman Army began constructing Hadrian’s Wall back in the year 122 AD as part of measures to consolidate their then mighty empire.
These days, the rural countryside of northern England, through which the wall runs proves popular with walkers. The national hiking trail that skirts the ancient monument typically takes seven days to trek in full.
History enthusiasts may need longer if they wish to spend time exploring the remnants of forts, mile castles and turrets along the 118 kilometres between Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria and Wallsend. The logic of that modern placename is obvious but Romans knew the town on the eastern fringe of Newcastle upon Tyne as Segedunum. Today, that Latin name is displayed outside a family-friendly museum conveying aspects of life long ago in the most easterly fort on what was for many years the Roman Empire’s northern frontier.
Inspired by local history with international resonance, Wallsend’s Metro station is the only one in Britain to display both English and Latin signage. It’s a 45-minute ride from Newcastle International Airport, which has direct Emirates’ flights from Dubai.
If following in the footsteps of Roman soldiers across the country seems a tad strenuous, visitors can board a seasonal bus, running until October 31, that pauses at points of interest between Haltwhistle and Hexham. For those who know when Hadrian’s Wall was built, the number of the bus is easy to remember — AD122.
As the broad stone wall snakes through the rugged landscape of Northumberland National Park, it rises to chest height. When the Roman Empire was in its heyday, the wall would have been a formidable barrier around three metres tall — the height of a basketball ring — set amid a militarised zone demarcated by ditches. Builders in subsequent centuries plundered the wall for stones shaped by skilled masons.
Local landmarks such as Hexham Abbey and Langley Castle, a medieval fortification offering overnight accommodation, count among the historic buildings that utilised ‘recycled’ stonework. The practice of building with stone carted from the wall explains why the ancient monument stands tallest away from urban hubs.
A 20-minute walk from Birdoswald Fort, Willowsford is widely regarded one of the best spots for viewing remnants of the wall, which in 1987 was inscribed by Unesco as part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. The foundations of a Roman bridge that crossed the River Irthing are also visible.
Museums by the remains of forts at Housesteads and Vindolanda introduce aspects of the wall’s history. It wasn’t purely a defensive structure. Gates along its course helped regulate the flow of people and taxation of goods. The wheels of wooden carts driven centuries ago wore grooves at Housesteads, making it easy to imagine those vehicles jolting over the stone thresholds of the gatehouses they went about their business.
Locals know to arrive early to secure spots in the car parks at Steel Rigg and Housesteads, which prove popular bases for day trippers to explore the surrounding countryside. Wooden signposts point the way along public footpath, which warrant sturdy footwear whatever the weather.
At Sycamore Gap, the ancient stonework dips between two neighbouring hills at one of its most photographed spots. A popular spot to pause for picnics, movie buffs may recognise Sycamore Gap from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which released back in 1991, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. The silhouette of the mature tree at its base occasionally features on photos along with the northern lights. Thanks to low levels of light pollution, the sky above Northumberland National Park falls within England’s largest International Dark Sky Park. Experts at Kielder Observatory provide insights into the celestial bodies that can be viewed.
Free to visit, the fort at Carrawburgh warrants a visit for its temple dedicated to Mithras. The roadside site displays replicas of the original altars. The ancient masonry is displayed along with other Roman era artefacts in the Great North Museum: Hancock in central Newcastle, which does an impressive job of putting the history of Hadrian’s Wall into context.
The seaside town of South Shields, on the south bank of the River Tyne, was known to Romans as Arbeia. The site of granaries to supply troops along the frontier, the excavated fort’s reconstructed west gate provides an idea of how those elsewhere would have looked. Remarkably, fragments of ancient letters and shoes found by archaeologists are displayed in Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort’s compact and free-to-visit museum.
Hadrian’s Wall provides a rock solid framework for exploring northern England’s countryside and aspects of Britain’s Roman history.