Hadrian’s Wall - A view from our expert author

Hadrian's Wall Northumberland England UK by Dave Head Shutterstock
Hadrian's Wall stretches for 73 miles across the neck of England © Dave Head, Shutterstock

It was, say English Heritage, a kind of Berlin Wall, and controlled the north–south flow of human traffic for some 250 years until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.

When built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in AD122, the Wall extended for 73 miles from coast to coast with a 25-mile extension south through Cumbria. It took three legions consisting of 5,000 men as little as, perhaps, a decade to build. But, they didn’t just build a mighty wall with a deep channel on its north side: 16 forts were constructed, as well as the vallum – a 20-foot ditch with a mound either side running the length of the south side of the Wall. According to English Heritage, this immense earthwork likely functioned as ‘the Roman equivalent of barbed wire’. Now, if it weren’t for the colossal and visually more striking Wall, perhaps more would be made of the vallum in history books. It really is a remarkable feat in its own right.

Although the Wall had a defensive role, it mainly functioned as a barrier marking the northwest edge of the Roman Empire (Hadrian being more concerned with containing his kingdom than expanding it). It was, say English Heritage, a kind of Berlin Wall, and controlled the north–south flow of human traffic for some 250 years until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.

To this end, a number of guarded posts were built along its length, one every Roman mile (1,620 yards). Between these milecastles were two observation towers – or turrets. Some, like the Milecastle 37 west of Housesteads with its broken arched gate, are impressive to this day. Little kindles the imagination more than on a wet, misty morning when the Wall rises and falls through the fog and the walker is forced to seek shelter on the inside wall of a milecastle. One can only imagine what the Roman soldiers thought about being stationed on this remote ridge.

Despite the ‘recycling’ of Wall stones in settlements and farm buildings in the Tyne Valley in the centuries that followed the retreat of the Romans, the central section, between Chesters and Brampton, where you’ll find a string of impressive Roman forts, is still well preserved. Chesters, Vindolanda, Housesteads and Birdoswald all have their highlights and some superb on-site museums housing Roman treasures unearthed over the last few centuries. Also worth visiting are the forts in Corbridge and Segedunum in Wallsend.

Archaeologists and volunteers at Vindolanda continually find new items every year during their annual summer digs. The preservation of the forts and Wall in this central section has been greatly assisted by the rough, inaccessible countryside. Of course, this is also what makes Hadrian’s Wall exceptionally good walking and cycling country, and an increasing number of visitors come here to take on the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path or 160-mile Hadrian’s Cycleway.

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