Northern frontier of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall celebrates its 1900th anniversary this year. Gillian Thornton followed in the legions’ footsteps.
Standing beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland amongst the ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort, I’m immediately struck by two things. How little the wild, open landscape has changed over nearly two millennia, and how bleak it must have seemed to the soldiers stationed within these grey stone walls.
Farlam Hall Hotel
Many had been conscripted from warm Mediterranean countries conquered by the Romans and were unused to the bone-numbing chill of a harsh British winter. I’m visiting in midsummer, but I still have a precautionary fleece and a waterproof in my rucksack, not to mention a cosy hotel to return to. Latest addition to the Pride of Britain Hotels portfolio is Farlam Hall Hotel in Cumbria, set in six acres of secluded gardens and an easy drive from the Roman wall.
And whether you enjoy history, archaeology, or just fabulous countryside, there’s no better time to visit Hadrian’s Wall Country, as this year marks a milestone anniversary for this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Begun on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in AD 122, the wall was a way of separating the ‘Barbarians’ north of the masonry from the civilisation of the Empire to the south. Part defensive, part crowd control, the barrier stretched for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.
The wild northern frontier of the Roman Empire (Credit: Gillian Thornton)
After the Romans left Britain early in the 5th century AD, local people began plundering their masonry for building projects, but 1900 years after the first stones were laid, Hadrian’s Wall still packs a picturesque punch.
Originally standing more than 4 metres high, the wall is punctuated by small forts or mile castles, interspersed with two equally-spaced watch towers. Crossing rolling farmland at either end, this formidable barrier winds up hill and down dale before coming to a crescendo amongst the rocky outcrops and deep ravines of the central crags. And whatever your interests, you’ll find something to enthral you about this ancient feat of military engineering, whether you have a few hours or a few days to spend here.
If time is limited, head for one of the large ruined forts that bring the life and times of the Roman legions zinging vividly into focus. Stroll amongst the masonry of their forts and townships, see artefacts and archaeological finds in the museums, and follow the line of the wall to stand where they once looked out from the northern frontier.
Housesteads Roman Fort is a stunner in anyone’s book, perched on the Whin Sill escarpment and flanked by some of the most intact sections of wall. Managed by English Heritage on behalf of the National Trust, it covers a 5-acre site and includes the remains of the commandant’s house, the hospital building, and some multi-seat communal lavatories – a popular place for Romans to catch up on the latest gossip!
Communal toilets at Housesteads Roman Fort (credit: Gillian Thornton)
Other atmospheric forts to visit include Birdoswald, Chesters and Corbridge, all of which are hosting anniversary events over the coming months, from exhibitions and demonstrations to food festivals and military re-enactments. Full details from English Heritage.
And don’t miss Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum, run by an independent charity that was established in 1970 to excavate remains on its own land. Explore the extensive remains of streets, shops and houses, and head inside the temperature- controlled room to see the famous Vindolanda tablets. These fragments of handwritten letters on wood provide a snapshot of life in this fortress community, including an evocative invitation to a birthday party!
For active historians, the Hadrian’s Wall Path follows the line of the wall, which is flanked by a deep ditch on the north side and a parallel earthwork to the south, both clearly visible in places. You don’t need to be super fit to walk the full 84-mile trail, which I tackled over a week in a guided group. Much of the route follows gently undulating farmland, but stout non-slip footwear is essential and I would recommend taking a walking pole for the steep central sections between Chollerford and Birdoswald.
Chesters Roman Fort (credit: Gillian Thornton).
No time to walk the whole route? If you’re just after a good day out, it’s easy to experience life on the wall on an independent circular route from one of the public car parks. Or hop on board the AD 122 shuttle bus which links key sites and runs daily from April through October, weekends only in winter. View the timetable at Go North East and find details of special anniversary events at Hadrian’s Wall Country.
And if the anniversary inspires you to discover more about this fascinating period of history, plan a trip to some of Britain’s other Roman sites, several of which are easily accessible from Pride of Britain Hotels.
Stay at Sopwell House Hotel in St Albans to visit Britain’s best preserved Roman theatre and see mosaics, jewellery and other artefacts in Verulamium Museum. Or head for Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa or the Royal Crescent Hotel to experience the spectacular Roman bath complex in Bath.
You can even find Roman remains in the City of London, including a surprising amphitheatre 20 feet below the modern pavement of Guildhall Yard, an unusual excursion from Pride of Britain’s three London hotels. Discovered in 1988 by archaeologists from the Museum of London, the site includes a stretch of the stone entrance tunnel, the east gate and arena walls. Even the Romans can’t have imagined that 21st century Britons would still be marvelling at their workmanship!