Hiking Hadrian’s Wall

Looking back toward Housesteads along Hadrian’s Wall

Years ago, I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about hiking Hadrian’s Wall, and while I am not typically a mad hiker, the images and the idea lingered.*

Since England can’t seem to shake its heat wave this summer, going north sounded…cool. Refreshing. Hadrian’s Wall promised lilting breezes and a spring-like clime…Also, walking for miles along a rock wall in the north of England in rural splendor and solitude sounded very appealing after suffering the hordes of tourists besieging every corner of Oxford. Sadly, I am not a meteorologist. But I boarded the 6 am train in Oxford well-prepared for the four-hour journey to Carlisle – ah, the best laid plans of mice and men!

A little back story on Hadrian’s Wall: on the northern edge of their British territory, the Romans built an 84-mile long wall to separate their holdings from the “barbarians” (that is, Scotland) – the wall (and accompanying forts) were a visible presence of the power of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in AD122; this date is presumably when construction on the wall began. The construction of the wall is fairly impressive, but its beginning ties in with the end of the Roman Empire.

Depending on where the wall was built, the materials and methods varied. In most sections, the wall was built of stone, but in some areas, it was constructed with turf. The turf sections had wooden palisades and walkways on top. The height and width of the wall wasn’t consistent either. In the mid-19th century, the wall, many sections of which were still standing, began to be cleared, rebuilt and reclaimed. Large swaths of the wall were purchased with the intent to keep it intact, as over the years, dismantling of the wall provided building materials for locals.  In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The walk I chose (with my one afternoon there before a mad dash to York) was the 7.5 mile “Once Brewed, Roman Vindolanda and Housesteads'” walk, evaluated as “strenuous.” The main reason for going with this walk is that it allowed me to see two of the best museums along the Wall, AND it ended at my pub/inn.
Though there wasn’t any post-pint hiking like in the Lake District (the heat spell put an end to those thoughts) it was nothing short of miraculous to fall into my steak pie and pint after I finished…because while I wouldn’t say it was a hard hike, there was a lot of steep ups and downs to it…


Heading toward Vinolanda (along the Stanegate Road)

Vindolanda, a Roman fort south of Hadrian’s Wall. At least 8 forts have been on this site -some from before the wall. The fort guarded the Stanegate Road, a Roman road that run from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth (part of the Irish Sea).

Vindolanda is an on-going archaeological excavation that draws people from around the world. The Vindolanda writing tablets, discovered in 1973, are fascinating hand-written (on wooden tablets)accounts of life there – mundane articles of life, like requests
for socks and underwear, and invitations to parties.

While Vindolanda is not actually on the wall, Housesteads Roman Fort is – and the setting is magnificent. Vindolanda has an incredible collection and museum, but for an atmospheric ambiance, Housesteads is the better choice.

One of the really cool things was the different ways in which the Roman forts have been used – adaptive reuse is a human condition, not a historic preservation initiative.

Steps leading into fort at Housesteads

Dramatic sky and outline of the fort at Housesteads.

How can you get any better than this?

My only problem now is how to figure out the financing for a week or two at both Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District – a holiday cottage rental, perhaps some wild swimming, delicious hearty meals every night – and of course, lots of magnificent and sublime scenery.

*(I happen to be too much of a practical farmer’s daughter, you see – when your livelihood consists of working outside in all kinds of weather, it just doesn’t make sense to spend your free time tromping about outside. Our idea of a vacation is doing nothing at the beach.)

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  1. ELB says:

    JRB, those pictures are amazing! I want to go!!!!

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