If the idea of walking from one side of a country to another seems like a challenge, just imagine what it must have been like for the Romans who built a heavily fortified wall over the same distance. Fortunately, the Hadrian’s Wall Path stretches across the narrowest part of England, a mere 84 miles. It runs alongside the route of the historic wall, but today the feet marching across the country are not those of Roman soldiers, but of long distance walkers. As I discovered, most hikers on this route are attracted as much by the history as by the beauty of the northern Pennine hills. And it is not just Roman history: there is plenty more to discover if you look hard enough.
Roman History on the Hadrian’s Wall Path
Of course, Hadrian’s Wall (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is an excellent place to explore Roman history. Built in AD122, it was part of a massive defensive system, marking the northern border of the Roman empire. Over the years much of the Wall itself has disappeared, the result of disuse, plundering of stone by local builders, and the activities of General Wade (who built a new military road on top of parts of the Wall in the 18th century). But you get a good sense of the scale of the enterprise by walking the length of the path. In many places you can clearly see the ditch and the Vallum (defensive earthwork) that flanked the Wall for much of the way, forming part of the overall defences.
Only around 10 miles of the Wall survive today, and even here it is considerably less than its original height. However you can see evidence of the original route in the Military Road (now the B6318) and the later stone walls. And some sections were rebuilt in the 19th century by the Wall enthusiast John Clayton. You can get some idea of the magnitude of the Roman Wall from the modern reconstructed sections at the museums of Segedunum and Vindolanda. Or watch the video reconstruction at the Roman Army Museum at Walltown for a bird’s eye view of the whole wall and the communities around it.
Forts and Milecastles
Of course, Hadrian’s Wall was much more than just a wall. It contained at least sixteen forts and around eighty milecastles. These, together with nearby towns such as Vindolanda give us an idea of Roman society and military organisation. There isn’t always much to see – some sites have disappeared or have not been fully excavated – but as you hike the route you will see the outlines of several milecastles and turrets, and other related sites like the Temple of Mithras near Brocolitia Fort. And you can visit four forts along the way where substantial excavations have taken place: Segedunum, Chesters, Housesteads and Birdoswald.
If you are walking a set number of miles per day you may find it difficult to fit in visits to all the forts and museums you pass. And for the “full Roman experience” there are nearby sites such as Vindolanda to explore, as well as the museums in Newcastle and Carlisle which house many of the excavated artefacts. You might choose to squeeze extra days into your itinerary to make sure you see everything, or decide beforehand which sites you wish to visit. Alternatively, you could do as we are doing, and plan a return trip to the bits you miss out!
Building Bricks and Other History
The Romans were in Britain for almost 300 years after Hadrian’s Wall was built but of course history didn’t stop when they left. As the Wall fell into disuse it became a valuable source of building material. You will see houses and churches built from the fabric of the Wall, and General Wade’s military road made use of both the stone and the route. There is even evidence of “double plunder” at Thirlwall Castle. This 12th century fortification was constructed from Hadrian’s Wall stone but when it fell into disrepair it was itself raided by local builders!
Some of the history is entirely unconnected with the Wall. There is little to see of ancient Britain, although there is evidence of an Iron Age settlement at Milking Gap and a later Saxon grave was built right up to the Wall at Sewingshields. But you will pass the sites of later events, including the Battle of Heavenfield where St Oswald defeated pagan armies in the 7th century, and the death of Edward I at Burgh-by-Sands. Then there is the Civil War battlefield of Newburn. If your taste is for more modern history, you may want to linger on the first section of the path, walking through Newcastle along the River Tyne. Here you will see displays and artefacts relating to the city’s industrial and commercial heritage. And you will walk down disused railway lines, including the Wylam Waggonway where George Stephenson began his engineering career.
Whether you are a Roman history addict, or you just have a passing interest in English history, you will find lots to interest you on the Hadrian’s Wall Path. With the added bonus of some spectacular countryside and the sense of achievement that comes from walking right the way across the country.
Tagged with: English history • hiking • Northumberland • Romans • UNESCO sites