It divided the ancient world, but what relevance does it retain in the modern? Walk the heart of the Hadrian’s Wall Path and discover the threads of history in England’s emptiest quarter.
Words: Dan Aspel | Photography: Steve Morgan
‘Forget not, Roman, this it is your special genius to rule the peoples; to impose the ways of peace, to spare the defeated, and to crush those proud men who will not submit’ .
Fierce stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. But as I stood on the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, those words felt many thousands of years distant. A brisk Pennine wind whipped across a broad and untroubled landscape. The geological tumblings of the Whin Sill rose and fell to the east and west. Ruins and remnants of this once six-metre tall barrier ran along a dolerite spine marked with rugged defiles. But other than this there was little sign of Roman authority. Once the well-garrisoned northwestern limit of the Roman Empire, today Hadrian’s Wall is merely a snaking outline; a shoulder-high stone stripe across the quiet and rugged wilds of Northumberland – England’s most sparsely populated county. Even the Scottish border seemed to have withdrawn further north out of benign disinterest. Bellow out such a rousing speech today and you’d just be shouting at cows.
It comes from The Aeneid, the great first century BC epic by the Roman poet Virgil. Part romanticised history, part founding myth, it was written at a time of surging ambition for the newly born Roman Empire and its first emperor Augustus. They were prophetic, too: at its peak some 200-odd years later the Roman army would contain half a million soldiers, control a population of 55 million and cover over 5 million square kilometres of the ancient world, from the Atlas Mountains to the Alps. Yet a mere two centuries after that the empire was unrecognisable; victim of a swift and unprecedented decline. Hadrian’s Wall remains one of the most prominent physical signs that the Romans were ever here at all – a stone and soil monument to the impermanence of power.
Rock of ages
From the moment I’d stepped onto the Hadrian’s Wall Path at Housesteads Roman Fort, however, it was clear why this 135km stretch of coast-to-coast terrain appealed so immediately to Roman frontiersmen – and also why it stood as a political barrier for nearly 300 years. Not only does it bridge the northern limits of England at the slimmest part of its neck but, in this section at least, it follows a natural curve of terrain: the exposed scarp face of the Whin Sill. Made of a fine-grained black rock locally called whinstone, but usually named dolerite, it’s a hard and slow-weathering material. All around this central section of the Wall it bursts from the ground in impressive crags, but it’s also responsible for the spectacular local wonders of Cauldron Snout, the Farne Islands and the mighty Teesdale torrent of High Force.
For walkers, the Whin Sill offers plenty of sheer, steep and knobbly bits of terrain to admire and, in places, tackle – a welcome counterpoint to the rolling and somewhat monotonous surroundings. Walking the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall Path national trail is a week-long task, so I’d opted for a day’s exploration from Housesteads. Skirting its prominent walls I was soon up on the small ridge that runs along its back, looking down onto the lower ground. The fort was built with defence in mind, as you might expect: the Romans had lost 3,000 men to the wild Britons before the Wall was built between AD122 and AD128. My day’s walk had a similarly clear and purposeful quality to it: head west and stick to the high ground.
Here, more than anywhere, Roman remains are clearly evident. The ramparts and occasional stonework that I was following could only have been the course of Hadrian’s frontier. The conspicuous foundations of Vindolanda – once a commercial and military hub, just two miles to the south-west – only added to the deep sense of history that seemed to ebb from the surrounding landscape.
More than that, this area is uniquely characterful. ‘One of the most remarkable things about Northumberland is its variety’, Julia Forster, secretary of Hexham Ramblers had told me. ‘The coastline is fabulous, but quiet, with long stretches of beautiful, empty sand. There are castles all over the place, and inland we have the Cheviots as well as Hadrian’s Wall. The area within a 10 mile radius of Hexham is known as “The Shire” – a place of delightful woodland and little narrow valleys with small streams running down them. It’s all so remote, and you can find yourself on or over the Scottish border without even realising it’. But Julia also added that although the scenery is stunning and the views magnificent – on clear days you can see the Solway Firth – on a bad day, it can be pretty bleak. ‘It’s not always good weather out here by any means. Though it can be quite satisfying and thrilling in the lashing rain and thick fog...’.
I’d only have to compete with one of those today, and it was more of a cloudy mizzle than a drenching downpour. I adjusted the peak of my hood and strode on. Should the weather become truly apocalyptic, of course, you can always escape onto the aptly named AD122 bus, which runs along the route between Hexham and Haltwhistle. But it would have to be quite extreme to tempt you away from this walk. Climbing and falling gradually through the folds of this landscape it winds past the postcard-perfect waters of Crag Lough and the overlooking Highshield Crags, the indelible silhouette of Sycamore Gap, the rough heights of Winshield Crags and the queer, industrial beauty of Cawfields Quarry. As I walked into the rain-tinged westerly breeze there was much to drink in and enjoy.
Yet look at the course of Hadrian’s Wall on a walkers’ map, and it is apparent just how much of England still lies above it. It sits at the absolute southern limit of the Northumberland national park, meaning that there’s at least 1,049 square kilometres of forest and lake and fort and hill between here and the Scottish border. An odd thought, considering that this wall, dotted with some 17 forts and many more mile-castles, once represented an absolute political limit. On one side was the dominion of a global empire, on the other an unconquerable realm of hill tribes. In a modern political era fixated on sovereignty, whether that relates to Scottish nationalism or UK independence from the EU, it’s fascinating to observe the barriers that once separated us, and to muse on the ways in which those divisions have either faded away entirely or become further ingrained in our culture.
The picture becomes ever more intriguing when you realise what an oddly multicultural enterprise Hadrian’s Wall was, as indeed was Hadrian himself. Born to a wealthy family from southern Spain, he was governor of Syria when, in AD117, the death of his guardian Trajan made him heir to the Empire. After assuming control of Rome, he travelled relentlessly – from modern day Palestine to Portugal – consolidating his territories and building defensive barriers in Germany, North Africa and Britain. Nicknamed ‘Greekling’ as a child, he built the Pantheon in Rome, wore a beard in the Classical style, founded a cult in honour of his lover Antinous and was regarded as one of Rome’s ‘Five Good Emperors’ – despite being, in the words of one historian: ‘... always in all things changeable’. His command to build the north-western wall we know today also brought with it an infantry unit of Hamian archers from modern day Syria to garrison it, as well as auxiliary soldiers from Morocco, Croatia, Turkey, France, Egypt and many other Roman provinces. Outside of their obligations to Rome and her army, all brought with them their own gods, languages and practices. This was not a band of Romans shivering on a far-flung watch-tower – Hadrian’s Wall was a multicultural outpost.
My walk finished in the nestling woodland south-west of Walltown Crags, where you’ll find the superb Roman Army Museum. By this point the rain had settled in a state of steady permanence, and it was with some relief that I headed to Haltwhistle to dry myself out in front of an open fire. The next morning I enjoyed a cross-table breakfast chat with walker and Ramblers volunteer David Chippendale. He seemed to have, modestly and without fanfare, completed most of the great long distance walks of England, and was currently walking the entire Pennine Way from south to north (for the second time). ‘You do look forward to this section’, he told me. ‘The Whin Sill and the crags around Walltown Quarry are utterly superb. Even if Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t here I’d walk and enjoy it all the same’. I’m tempted to agree.
TIME/DISTANCE The Hadrian’s Wall Path runs for 84 miles/135km from Wallsend, North Tyneside, in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Fit walkers are recommended to allow 6 or 7 days to tackle the whole path. Dan walked the 9 mile/14.5km stretch between the Roman Army Museum at Greenhead and Housesteads Fort, easily accomplishable in a day.
MAPS Harvey Maps: Hadrian’s Wall Path; OS Explorer 314, 315, 316 & OL43; OS Landranger 85, 86, 87, 88.
ACCOMMODATION Greenhead Hotel and Hostel (greenheadhotelandhostel.co.uk). A single en-suite room - including breakfast - starts at £50, while bunkhouse prices start at £15 for adults. For accommodation along the route visit nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrians-wall-path/plan
FURTHER INFO nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrians-wall-path