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.Gemma Hall, author of Slow Travel Northumberland
When built 2,000 years ago Hadrian’s Wall stood ten feet high; today half its height remains in places. Spanning 73 miles from coast to coast across the neck of England, it is the region’s most celebrated attraction – and an awe-inspiring feature of the rugged Northumberland landscape.
According to English Heritage it is ‘the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain’. The best-preserved stretch, between Chesters and Brampton, rides the tops of the highest hills and rocky ridges where undulating grasslands roll far into Cumbria and down through the Tyne Valley. This is superb walking country indeed.
What to see and do along Hadrian’s Wall
Ramblers will find no shortage of excellent walks in and around Hadrian’s Wall. The scenery doesn’t really get going until your back is to Heddon-on-the-Wall, but from then on the landscape becomes increasingly remote, rough, ascending and unbound.
By the time you clear Chollerford and Chesters Roman Fort on heading west, you enter the most memorable countryside on the whole of the Wall: undulating farmland, large glacial lakes, soaring craggy cliffs and far-reaching views north across Redesdale’s forests.
Hadrian’s Cycleway is well signposted (National Cycle Network route 72) on its 174-mile course from Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast to South Shields on the River Tyne. In Northumberland, it mostly runs south of Hadrian’s Wall; the off-road stretch along the Tyne through Newcastle to the North Sea is shared with the Hadrian’s Wall Path for walkers.
Cyclists can make good use of the Newcastle–Carlisle railway to access Hadrian’s Wall, which is never more than a few miles north of stations on the line. Bikes travel free; two per service; no need to book in advance.
Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain and the most visited of the four main garrison stations in Northumberland, owing in part to its dramatic position commanding the lip of an igneous cliff. Built in the years following the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the fort sits snug to the stone barricade, teetering on the edge of the Roman Empire.
As with other forts, Housesteads is typical in its arrangement of buildings with its centrally located headquarters, granaries, hospital and commanding officer’s residence. The last consists of rooms arranged around a courtyard and has an excellent example of Roman under-floor heating technology. The floor, now mostly removed, was raised on rows of pillars under which hot air circulated.
A mile upstream from Bardon Mill and the same distance south of the Wall is this Roman military station and museum housing some of the most important Roman finds ever recovered.
Discoveries are still being made today by experts and volunteers involved in Vindolanda’s active archaeological research programme that began in the 1970s. Recent finds include two leather boxing gloves, a new hoard of writing tablets, and a gold coin dating to AD64–65 that bears the image of the Emperor Nero. Its value to a Roman soldier was over half a year’s salary (pity the soldier who dropped the coin in the ground).
If Housesteads is ‘the fort with the loos’ and Vindolanda the one with the high street and writing tablets, then Chesters is all about the bathhouse.
At least that’s what it has become known for. Chesters also boasts a museum that has been open to visitors since 1896 and is filled with an astonishing collection of Roman treasures amassed by John Clayton between 1840 and 1890. It is thanks to him that so many Roman artefacts and buildings in Northumberland survive at all.
Compared with Housesteads and Vindolanda, the fort at Birdoswald is more ruinous and has fewer buildings, but its curtain wall, granaries and well-preserved fort gate are worthy of note – and, wow, what a view!
Situated at the top of a steep, wooded escarpment, the military station and Victorian farmhouse look across several miles of undulating fields and Roman Wall. The two granaries date to the early 3rd century, but were demolished and rebuilt in the following century. The posts you see mark where a later Dark Age timber hall once stood.