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Exploring Hadrian's Wall

by Teri Foster Gray

Hadrian's WallRome traded with Britain for wool and tin for hundreds of years before Julius Caesar began the Romanization of Britain with invasions in 55 and 53BC. Nearly two centuries later, Rome controlled the bulk of the southern half of the island, but at a steep price: one out of every ten Roman soldiers guarding the borders of Rome's sprawling empire served along the 80-mile boundary between Roman Britain and the Pictish North. The emperor Hadrian, touring the border in 122 AD, decreed that a wall should be built to simplify this task. The wall served this purpose for nearly 300 years, until Rome's withdrawal from Britain in 411 AD. During that period and since, the Wall and the neighboring forts and towns have become archaeological gold mines. The district is home, as well, to museums and sites of non-Roman historical interest.

The Wall was not built to guard against massive attacks from the north, but to control the flow of people and goods in that part of the country. The soil is rich in the Border Country, but the short summers and cool temperatures severely limit agriculture, making the land sparsely populated even now. Customs of inheritance, which mandated equal distribution of property among the heirs, could reduce event the most prosperous homestead to a scattering of freeholdings in a few generations, with the inhabitants confronted with the stark choice, "steal or starve." The Roman Wall, Roman jurisprudence, and the chests of silver brought in to pay the troops brought stability and a degree of prosperity to this area for 3 centuries. Once they left, the region quickly reverted to anarchy, with the Wall regarded as a convenient source of building material for local farmers and cheap sculpture for local nobility. Once the legions pulled back to Gaul, the origins of the Wall were quickly forgotten. Not until 1840 was it definitively identified as the Wall decreed by Hadrian.

Hadrian's WallAlthough fragments of the Wall can be found as far east as Wall's End near Newcastle, and as far west as Bowness, the best-preserved section of the Wall lies in the less-populated center, from Corbridge to Greenhead.

Things have changed since the 1600s, when, surveying the wall, royal surveyors avoided this section for fear of "rankie robbers." The Wall is now a popular tourist destination and well served by bus and train. Both Newcastle-on-Tyne at its eastern end and Carlisle to the west -- fascinating stops in their own right -- serve as jumping off points via Hadrian's Wall Bus Service, Route AD122 (3-4 trips per day, June-September, single trip and Day Rover passes available from the driver); by public bus (hourly service year-round, every 2 hours on Sunday) or by train (the same frequency as the public busses, but with fewer stops).

If you are renting a car, or using a Britrail Ride/Drive pass, this is a good place to economise. The bus services are tourist-oriented and reasonably-priced, with point-to-point fares, day passes, family passes, and student and elder discounts. You need not chain yourself to one location, or haul your belongings as you visit the sites. Travelight (Tel. 016 977 2315) and Walkers, Ltd. will, for a modest fee, pick up your luggage and transport it to your next night's stop. Call the day before to arrange pick-up.

The easternmost of the wall towns, Corbridge is home to the Corbridge Roman Site, the former garrison town of Corstopitum, which lies on the west side of town near the river. This, the oldest Roman garrison in the North, was built in 80 AD as a supply base for the invasion of Scotland and to guard the crossing of the Tyne at Stanegate. There you can tour the foundation of a complete Roman fort: baths, granaries, temples, the headquarters complex, houses, and workshops.

Hadrian's Wall

Four miles west of Corbridge, Hexham's Market Square is dominated by Hexham Abbey (now the Priory Church of St. Andrew), originally built in 671 by St. Wilfrid. Once known as the finest church north of the Alps, it was destroyed by the Vikings and rebuilt in its present form between 1170 and 1250 as an Augustinian priory. With admission a non-mandatory £3 donation, the Abbey provides a cross-section of British history: a foundation of Roman stonework plundered from Corbridge (make that "salvaged;" Wilfrid, after all, was a saint), a Saxon-built crypt, the 8th-century Frith stool, and artwork dating from the 15th century to the present. (Someone has lovingly needle-pointed matched sets of kneeler cushions, and a plaque commemorates a widow's bequest of "£3 per year to be given to the poor at Christmas" in 1829.) You will need to ask to have the crypt unlocked to view it, and be careful: It is well lit, but the steps are very steep.

Roman AltarsNearby, the Old Gaol, constructed as an ecclesiastical prison in the early 14th century, is now home to the tourist office and the Border History Museum, which tells the tale of the English/Scottish border, the most blood-soaked region in Britain. (For more information, see Carlisle and the English Marches: Tracing the Border Reivers by Julia Hickey.)

Four miles north of Hexham, Chollerford is home to Chesters Roman Fort (Cilurnum), the outlines of which are still visible. For 200 years the Ala Asturias, or Second Cavalry Regiment of Asturias, in Spain, manned Cilurnum. The land there slopes to the east, and one can see the foundations of the bridge that carried the Wall across the North Tyne River.

The bath house is particularly well preserved, revealing the Roman ability to think things through to the last detail. Like all Roman bath houses, it contains hot, cold, and tepid baths; a sauna, changing room, and latrine, the last positioned so that the runoff from the other rooms continually rinsed it. It is also the most sheltered of the Roman sites, which one learns to appreciate when hiking the open Northumbrian countryside.

The museum contains numerous examples of Roman stonework and sculpture excavated by John Clayton, who built Chesters Great Hall just to the west of the site and did much of the early excavation. His nephew, J.M. Clayton, inherited the property and built the museum in order to open his uncle's collection to the pubic. He bequeathed the grounds and museum to the National Trust, and its displays stand today just as he arranged them in 1897.

Housteads, eight miles west of Chesters, is home to the most popular of the Roman forts and an excellent jumping off place for a hike. Half a mile west, the Pennine Way joins the Wall for a few miles. You can walk ten miles north to Bellingham, itself a nexus of bike and hiking paths, or follow the wall westward along the Whin Sill, where the Wall sits atop a limestone cliff. This takes you through some of the most spectacular vistas to Steel Rigg, about three miles to the west.

Hadrian's Wall

Be warned, however, that this popular walk is not for the faint-hearted, nor the out-of-shape. Housteads itself is a steep hike from the car park. Wind-swept does not do justice to Hadrian's Wall country. There are times when the wind is nearly substantial enough to sit on.

The quaintly named Once Brewed, a YHA hostel that takes its name from the neighboring pub, "Twice Brewed," lies half a mile south of Housteads and offers beds, meals, and coin-op internet access. Twice Brewed offers the same, and there are numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts in the area. (Ale, you see, is brewed twice, while the tea and coffee served at the Youth Hostel are only brewed once. ) The less creatively named Once Brewed Tourist Information Center sits on the other side of the hostel. No meals available there, but the internet access is free.

Vindolanda lies another 1.5 miles beyond Once Brewed, toward the southeast. There, in addition to the usual outlines of barracks, stables, and headquarters, you will find a recreated section of the Wall with a mile tower.


The Vindolanda Museum is a gem. The wet climate, silty soil, and the Roman habit of dumping their trash into the drainage ditches have conspired to produce an archaeologist's heaven. Hundreds of documents -- from paymaster lists to letters from home -- and thousands of objects (weapons, hairpins, shoes, tools, even a wig) fill the meandering rooms of the museum. The gift shop there also has the widest selection of books. The finds provide a window into the lives of the cavalry who manned the garrison and the townsfolk they ruled. The archeological staff there estimate that it will take another century or two to fully excavate and study the site.

Seven miles east, Great Chesters Fort marks the beginning of the Walltown Crags, a section of the wall containing a signal turret that predates the wall. In Carvoran, three miles west of the Crags, the Roman Army Museum has dioramas of life in a Roman fort. One can buy a joint ticket that gives admission to both that facility and Vindolanda.

Birdoswald, 15 miles west of Once Brewed, is not as developed as other sites, but it does have two advantages. One is an on-site hostel. (A night at the hostel buys you free admission to the site.) The other is The Roman Festival on Bank Holiday Sunday and Bank Holiday, a.k.a Memorial Day Weekend, where costumed re-enactors drill in authentic Roman uniforms. In addition, the scenery around Birdoswald is some of the most spectacular along the Wall.

Hadrian's Wall

Related Articles:

Carlisle and the English Marches: Tracing the Border Reivers, by Julia Hickey

More Information:

Hadrian's Wall Country

About Scotland: Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall History

Hadrian's Wall (Wikipedia)

Birdoswald Fort

Birdoswald Fort



Vindolanda Trust

BBC: Vindolanda

The Romans in Britain
History, insights into Roman life, and links to a variety of Roman history sites and museums.

Wallnet - Hadrian's Wall Education Website
Information on Hadrian's Wall, Senhouse, Brigantium, and Birdoswald, plus details on Roman artefacts in the Museum of Antiquities.

Teri Foster Gray lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and Labrador Retriever. A mild-mannered banker by day, she writes novels and travels whenever possible. Her journeys have included two years in Hawaii, six months in Europe, and the British visit that resulted in this piece. She has recently completed a novel, The Shadow Empire.
Article © 2006 Teri Foster Gray
Photos 1-4 © Teri Foster Gray; photos 5 & 6 (hiker, Vindolanda) courtesy of Britainonview.com; dog photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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