I have always wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall, in fact I harbour an ambition of walking the entire length of it one day. I loved reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels when I was a child – especially Eagle of the Ninth – and the thought of those Roman legions stationed at the edge of the empire has always been fascinating to me.
A bit of research and a look at a Hadrian’s Wall map quickly revealed that Housesteads Roman Fort is a short detour from the M1. Hadrian’s Wall runs from the River Tyne near the North Sea all the way to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea but in many places not much remains. Housesteads is one of the best places to see Hadrian’s Wall intact.
Thanks to Ms Sutcliffe I have often imagined legionaries used to the Italian climate battling not only the Celtic tribes but the grim weather of the Scottish borderlands.
However, on this morning in November the weather could not have been more glorious. You could see for miles across the beautiful Northumberland landscape from this dramatic hilltop location. And in fact I found out that the troops stationed here were from Belgium. So the weather may not have been as much of a shock as I had imagined.
This incredible ruined fort is jointly looked after by the National Trust and English Heritage. They do a fantastic job, unsurprisingly. There is a welcoming Hadrian’s Wall visitor centre, including a gift shop with refreshments. The visitor centre displays information and artefacts from the site, as well as a film giving a strong impression of the building and manning of what the Romans knew as Vercovicium.
It was only an auxiliary fort but it is one of the best preserved remaining structures, with the foundations and walls of extensive buildings laid out for visitors to see. There are the barracks and granaries, kitchens and officer’s quarters – so much more than I was expecting.
And at the edge of it all lies the wall, dropping steeply away and then curving off across the hills as far as the eye can see. How long is Hadrian’s Wall? Well it is quite an achievement. There would have been a fort about every five Roman miles (an imperial Roman mile was 1,000 paces or nearly 5,000 feet) along the 73 miles (120km). Housesteads is the best preserved of the 16 forts still in existence.
The Romans started building Vercovicium around AD124 and it was garrisoned for around 280 years. At times there were up to 800 soldiers here and a civilian settlement grew up in the shadow of its walls, with shops, inns and temples, as well as crops growing and livestock grazing within field boundaries that can still be faintly made out.
Information boards around the site make it easy to imagine how it would have all been laid out and how life would have been carried on here at the edge of Roman Britannia.
Next time I visit Hadrian’s Wall I’d love to do all or part of the Hadrian’s Wall walk. The Hadrian’s Wall Path is a National Trail that takes 7-10 days to complete. Apparently it is one of the most visited national trails in the UK.
I’ve been perusing the Cicerone Hadrian’s Wall Path guidebook by Mark Richards and it looks wonderful. This guidebook includes a new Cicerone feature – an OS 1:25,000 map booklet slipped into the sleeve of the guidebook so you don’t have to buy a separate map. The guide includes history, information on accommodation, useful contacts and transport links. It’s on the bucket list!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited Hadrian’s Wall? Where do you recommend as the best place to see it?