Following the Roman Legions Along Hadrian’s Wall

As I left the car park at the side of Cawfields Quarry, I was glad of the breeze, for the day promised to be hot. I followed the footpath along the pond’s edge, past the tall quarry face and gently uphill to the walls of Milecastle 42. The section of Hadrian’s Wall through which I passed crept up behind me to the top of the quarry, where it was chopped off by the dolerite face. Little respect was shown to ancient monuments in the quarry’s active days.

Milecastle 39

Milecastle 39

Beyond the milecastle, the Roman wall continued eastward as far as I could see, over several small hills and a few larger ones. To the south, the land sloped gently toward fields and the towns along the Newcastle-Carlisle road, before rising again to a backdrop of the North Pennines. The fall to the north was more abrupt, and levelled out onto sparsely populated moorlands and the conifers of Wark Forest. Though the view, today, was quite beautiful, I could easily imagine the contrast, when winter blasted across these northern wastes, and the milecastles, 1000 paces apart, offered welcome shelter to patrolling legionaries. This posting must have been one of the least popular in the Roman Empire.

History of Hadrian’s Wall

Construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which ran for 73 miles (117.5 km), from Bowness on the Solway Coast to Wallsend upon Tyne, was begun on the instructions of Emperor Hadrian, in AD122. It was around six feet (2 metres) wide and rose to a height of eleven feet (3.5 m). It was long thought to have been a defensive structure against marauding Scottish tribes. Now, although it made a clear statement about Rome’s military power, it is believed to have served largely as a customs barrier, through which trade flourished between the Scots and the Romano-Britons. Arial surveys show evidence of large, thriving communities on both sides of the wall, and there were several Roman outposts much farther north. In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall, together with the German Limes, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Frontiers of the Roman Empire.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Hadrian’s Wall marks the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire.
  • The archaeology and geology along the route of the wall are fascinating and in places, quite spectacular.
  • This is great hill-walking country, not too strenuous and with some of the finest scenery in England.

After a mile, the path dropped to a road, and a gap in the hills called Shield on the Wall. The name was probably a corruption of the old word, ‘shieling’, that referred to a shepherd’s summer hut. Beyond that, the path rose again and continued for a short distance on the foundations of the wall, the stones of which had long ago been removed to build the surrounding farms and villages. Indeed, at no point along its entire course do its ruins stand taller than an average adult.

A few sustained rises brought me to the highest point of the wall (1132 feet/345 metres), marked by an Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar. From here, the track descended gradually, again following only the wall’s foundations, to Steel Rigg car park and the most photographed view of Hadrian’s Wall, that most frequently employed to advertise Northumberland’s beauties, and through which the next few miles of the wall make their spectacular way.

Over the Crags of the Great Whin Sill

I descended gently to a short, damp patch, then climbed very steeply to the top of a crag. The path continued along this before dropping almost as steeply to Milecastle 39. It then rose and fell again to Sycamore Gap, where stood a solitary tree that achieved fame for its appearance in the film, ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’.

Crag Lough from Hotbank Crags

Crag Lough from Hotbank Crags

The most impressive section of the wall now ran along the top of Crag Lough, which cast its gaze over the eponymous lake. This tall dolerite crag is an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, a volcanic intrusion, which forced its way through the sandstone and limestone bedrock 295 million years ago, and can be seen in several places throughout north-east England, from Teesdale to Lindisfarne.

I paused for lunch under the shade of a narrow strip of woodland that grew above the eastern end of the lake, then descended to Hotbank Farm. A long, steady drag brought me to the last high point, Hotbank Crags, from where the route stayed more-or-less level for a mile, with views across to the three largest natural lakes in the county. Greenlee Lough, to the north, is an important nature reserve, home to many water fowl and feeding station to migrating geese and the occasional Osprey. Broomlee Lough, smaller than its neighbour, is a place of legend, where King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur is said to rest. And to the south-east lies Grindon Lough, also a way-station for winter migrant birds.

Housesteads Roman Fort

A final short stretch of woodland led to the walls of Housesteads Fort. Occupying almost the mid-point of Hadrian’s Wall, this is the most complete Roman Fort in Britain. Entrance is via the adjacent English Heritage museum, which houses interactive displays and a collection of artefacts discovered here. Within the walls of the fort are the foundations of the headquarters, hospital, granaries, barrack blocks and communal latrine.

Latrines, Housesteads Fort

Latrines, Housesteads Fort

After spending a fascinated hour in the fort, I followed the track down to the National Trust Visitor Centre, where I waited for the bus, appropriately numbered AD122, which carried me back to the Milecastle Inn, from which a half-mile stroll returned me to my starting point.

The full Hadrian’s Wall Path covers a distance of 84 miles (135 km). The section I had followed measured little more than five of these miles, but they were unarguably the five most spectacular.

Practicalities

  • Hadrian’s Wall is easily reached from the A69 Carlisle-Newcastle road, or more
    conveniently from the B6318 road, which links Greenhead with Heddon-on-the-Wall.
  • The Hadrian’s Wall bus, AD122, runs between Hexham and Carlisle from the end of May to the end of October.
  • The Roman forts at Chesters and Birdoswald, and the Roman town of Corbridge are readily accessible, and are owned by English Heritage.
  • Just south of the B6318 and close to the start of the described walk is the Roman settlement of Vindolanda, with its museum and active archaeological dig.

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