TRAVEL NORTH - 34: WALKING ROMAN REMAINS, Hadrian's Wall, Mile Forts and a Volcanic Plate

Take in the lie of the land - pace yourself

 Topography: Hadrian's Wall near Crag Lough, a large natural lake to the north of the wall. Still in Northumberland (the border's some way further north, past Kielder Water), Cumbria is way to the west past Haltwhistle
Topography: Hadrian's Wall near Crag Lough, a large natural lake to the north of the wall. Still in Northumberland (the border's some way further north, past Kielder Water), Cumbria is way to the west past Haltwhistle
Detail map of Hadrian's Wall between the two coasts, showing also Roman road links (established and estimated). Mileforts marked along the wall as solid box shapes.
Detail map of Hadrian's Wall between the two coasts, showing also Roman road links (established and estimated). Mileforts marked along the wall as solid box shapes.

Familiarise yourself with the Roman conquest of Britain from the time of Augustus in the 1st Century onward until when they left very early in the 5th. A comprehensive guide to Roman Britain that also covers the garrisoning of Hadrian's Wall (and the less successful Antonine Wall across central Scotland)

Hadrian's Wall landscape - undularing outline
Hadrian's Wall landscape - undularing outline
The locations of Hadrian's Wall between the Tyne in the east and the Solway Firth in the west and the Antonine Wall between the Forth and the Clyde - the latter was built AD142, abandoned after two decades
The locations of Hadrian's Wall between the Tyne in the east and the Solway Firth in the west and the Antonine Wall between the Forth and the Clyde - the latter was built AD142, abandoned after two decades
Another view of the wall looking east
Another view of the wall looking east
Milecastle gateway
Milecastle gateway
Miiecastle reconstruction
Miiecastle reconstruction
Remains of milescastle foundations
Remains of milescastle foundations
Looking across the steps of a milescastle
Looking across the steps of a milescastle
A Mithraeum alongside the wall for worship of the god Mithras
A Mithraeum alongside the wall for worship of the god Mithras
Sycamore Gap, site of one of the scenes in Kevin Costner's film 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves'
Sycamore Gap, site of one of the scenes in Kevin Costner's film 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves'
Vindolanda Fort remains dig south of Housesteads
Vindolanda Fort remains dig south of Housesteads
Cross-section of Hadrian's Wall with ditch and rampart works
Cross-section of Hadrian's Wall with ditch and rampart works
Cutaway detail of wall turret
Cutaway detail of wall turret

Ever wondered what went through the minds of Roman legionaries when they stood freezing, looking out over Pictland?

Some came from parts of the empire as remote as Sinope on the Black Sea coast (now Turkey) or Gades on the Atlantic coast of Iberia (Spain), others who came from Germania must have thought they were at the Roman equivalent of a holiday camp! On a good day they might have been able to see Luguvalio (Carlisle) in the west or Segedunum (Wallsend) in the east, but half the time they would have been hard put to see into their own back yard.

When you can see for some way off the scenery is stunning (been there, done that, got the 'T' -shirt). There is a lone sycamore tree in a col between two hillocks that was used in the Kevin Costner film, 'Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves' not far from Housesteads (Vercovicium) fort and a scenic walk near the Roman Vindolanda site takes you in and out of 'Britannia Major'. It shows the wall on its 'ledge', climbing and dropping with the contours. The wall sits on a geological feature known as the Whin Sill. This is a broad sheet of solid volcanic rock that stretches from Teesdale in the south of the region to the Farne Islands off Bamburgh. The Roman application of the escarpment as a 'platform' on which to base their defensive wall is one of the most significant feats of civil engineering.

You can park at Steel Rigg or alight from the bus at the *Once Brewed National Park Visitor Centre and follow the road north to Steel Rigg. Pass through the gate at the rear right of the car park. The classic view of Steel Rigg can be seen on your left. Carry on along the path and bear left through a gate, following the Hadrian's Wall National Trail left along the wall where Emperor Hadrian had this long landmark constructed around AD122. He was as interested in keeping in his British subjects as he was in keeping out the 'painted people', the Picti.

Take the path downhill, and left down steps. Next make your way uphill on a steeply inclined pathway before climbing over a stile at the top. At this point you are atop the Whin Sill. This 'crust' of hard rock was formed 295 million years ago when magma was pushed upward between limestone layers, sandstone and mudstone. It cooled in thick sheets of dolerite. This vantage point affords views over the mires dotted about. These areas of ancient peat bog shelter rare spagnum mosses and grasses.

From here follow the wall along the national trail where it drops down and climbs along the Whin Sill. At each Roman mile (1,000 paces) you encounter a mile fort or mile castle, being a fortified gateway erected to shelter weak points along the wall. After another mile you climb to Sycamore Gap, the col with the lone sycamore growing between two hillocks.

You have so far progressed one mile. Go on along the trail as where you ascend the picturesque Highshield Crags you will be unable to overlook the glacial Crag Lough on the left. Pass over a farm road and take note of the signpost labelled 'National Trail Housesteads 11/2 miles'. Hotbank Farm is to your left. Keep to the uphill path, past Hotbank Crags and Cuddy's Crags (a 'cuddy' is a cow, 'chewing the cud' and all that, right?).

Keep to the wall past milecastle 37 and pass through the woods on Housesteads Crags. Once through the wood pass through a gate, drop downhill to the historic ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort. At this 31/2 mile point of the walk, from Housesteads you have three options to ginish the loop. You can take the Hadrians Wall Bus to Once Brewed, go back on foot the way you came or pass along the path that runs along to the north of the wall, following waymarkers for the Pennine Way. This gives you a good view of the escarpment. Across Crag Lough you see the view the Picts had of Hadrian's Wall, and then there is the great view of the Whin Sill itself. Turn left at a road to get back to Steel Rigg car park to complete the seven mile (11 km) walk.


'Once Brewed, Twice Brewed: There were rival public houses nearby here, at one of which the landlord was notorious for serving watered-down ale. The 'standards' officers of the day collared the offending landlord, telling him he had to brew the ale again, hence the name Twice Brewed. That's the story I heard and I am sticking to it!

The ground you will cover is wet at times. Take the Roman Military Way that follows to the south of the wall. Alternatively take the path that runs north beyond Crag Lough.

By car, Steel rigg and Housesteads can be reached from the 'Military Road', the B6318, fifteen miles east from Brampton.

Public transport takes the form of the AD122 Hadrian's Wall bus that follows between Easter to October. This bus leaves Housesteads Information Centre and drops passengers at Once Brewed Visitor Centre. The fare for adults is £1, children 50p.

Refreshments can be had at Twice Brewed Inn, Bardon Mill, Hexham, NE47 7AN, www.twicebrewedinn.co.uk

Ordnance Survey Exporer Map OL43 covers the area, Grid reference NY 751 677 takes you to the start point.

Accommodation can be found at The Old Repeater Station, Militsry road, Grindon, ph 0134 688668, www.hadrianswallbedandbreakfast.co.uk - alternatively Haltwhisle lies to the west, Hexham to the east where both B&B and hotel accommodation can be found.

National Park Visitor Centre, Once Brewed, Military road, Hexham NE47 7AN, ph 01434 344396;

Hadrian's Wall National Trail: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall ;

Northumberland National Park: www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

Visit North East England: www.visitnortheastengland.com

Northumberland Tourism: www.visitnorthumberland.com

Hadrian's Wall north of the A69, Northumberland-Cumbria

A useful guide for walkers who wish to know the route they need to follow, sights to see as well as the watering holes and accommodation between Carlisle on the west coast, and Wallsend north-east of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Who manned Hadrian's Wall, and why was it built?

Publius Aelius Hadrianus succeeded Trajan as emperor in AD 117, and construction began on the wall that bore his name in AD 122. Many think to keep the Picts - Picti = Painted men - out of Roman held territory, Britannia Major. The Picts came through the gates of the mile castles to trade peacefully, when not waging war on their neighbours to the south. The wall was there to stop those under their law from leaving in droves, such as the Brigantes, who rebelled against Roman rule.

A second wall was begun not long after Hadrian's wall was completed - not by slaves, but by Roman engineers and soldiers . This was the Antonine Wall, named after Antoninus Pius, built from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. At around 37 miles in length (half the length of Hadrian's Wall), it lacked mile castles and forts and was abandoned not long after completion because it was more difficult to defend.

Men from across the empire manned the wall, from much warmer climes around Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey, from the Italian peninsula and Mediterranean lands. Latterly foederati from beyond the Limes, the Roman defences between the Danube and the Rhine, also manned the wall - poachers turned gamekeepers. Small writing tablets have been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda (between Hexham and Haltwhistle) that revealed the feelings of those posted to 'the ends of the earth'. These were recyclable tablets that could be smoothed over and written on again, back and forth between the homeland and wherever the senders were posted. Messages and graffiti have been found here and there, written in different 'languages' aside from Latin.

The Romans left Britannia at the end of the first decade of the 5th Century, leaving the Britons to their own devices. Much of the stone from the wall has been recycled to build farms and outbuildings, even Peel Towers in the later Middle Ages during disputes over the border between England and Scotland.

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Comments 25 comments

Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

My understanding is that the Scots were such fierce fighters that the second wall (just 100 k away of Hadrian's?) could not be held, hardly from the beginning.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

The Antonine wall was held for less than ten years, being abandoned in AD162. Completion took twelve years after Antonius ordered his wall to combat the Caledonians in AD142

The Scots were still in the north of what we call Ireland at the time. They didn't reach the region until after the Romans lit out back to Rome. The Picti - 'the painted men' as the Romans called them were related to the Welsh (their territory was intersected by the Angles in the 6th C; look at the map, Aberystwith is in Wales, Aberdeen is in N E Scotland). The Britons who repulsed Caesar in 54BC were also painted men - blue, like the Picts. Most Britons were pushovers, but the further north the Romans went the less 'amenable' the tribes were, the most warlike being the Belgae in the north east of what is now England and the Picti (between the Solway Firth and Tynemouth.


Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

That's fasinating history. Sounds kind of like the mix to tribes that the U.S. is trying to fight or unite across Afghanistan and Pakistans. Where would you build the wall?!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Back in those days diplomacy was only used to get you out of a tight corner. Nowadays we help build communities in Afghanistan to be willing to resist the parasites, aka. Taliban. The people either side of that border are the same tribe, Pashtuns, led on by power-mad clerics (a bit like some parts of the US) to believe the Yanks and us are there to corrupt them with ideas like educating girls or acquiring western traits such as liking music. The Picts and Scots were wishy-washy liberals compared to them, but hard fighters all the same when they got their gander up!


Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

I get it.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

To get a better picture of Scotland's history up to the time of the Vikings try 'VIKING - 4: IN THE HIGHLANDS & ISLANDS - A Near Takeover?' For a semi-legendary coverage of the Orkney & Shetland story follow VIKING - 19-21 about the Jarls and their shenanigins from the time of Norway's 'foundation'.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Now that I would totally love to see!

It's all so horrific, really, the history of Europe...all those wars against folks just wanting to ...well, I suppose some of them were into the wars...but I don't get it.

Interestingly enough...I was just watching "Gladiator," which I'd downloaded....I want to take the time to read "The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire" sooner or later....but over extending the troops ..etc...well, just build a wall!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Wes, I was wondering how long it would take you to cotton onto this one. All the walls in the world couldn't hold back the Barbarians - the bearded warriors. Ostrogoths and Visigoths in the east, Lombards in the north, Celts and Franks in the west, Vandals in the north and moving south... In Britannia Major (England) there were the Saxon shore forts. It was only a matter of time before Rome yielded. Few Romans even served in the legions by this time, most were Asiatic, Germanic or Celtic mercenaries. This was the time when Constantine was made emperor at Eboracum (York), the pullout began and Constantine would found his empire in the east, away from Rome.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

And Constantine's empire was far the wealthier and more peaceful, wasn't it?

I latched onto Hadrian's wall somewhere in high school from the ONE fantastic history teacher I'd ever had, and I never forgot about it over the years. I've wanted to see that thing for over twenty years now!

You folks have ten tons of places and things I want to see, of course. :)


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Constantine's empire was beset by Rome in the west - later in the form of the Normans under Robert Guiscard fe Hauteville and his family who wrested Sicily from the Saracens. They defeated the Byzantine army under Alexios Komnenos at Larissa (modern-day Greece) but Robert died shortly after, succeeded by Bohemond de Hauteville. Roger de Hauteville became King Roger of Sicily -whose cathedral still stands at Palermo. The Byzantine Empire finally fell to the Turks in mid-15th Century along with the whole of the Balkans. There is Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul from when it was Sta. Sophia's Cathedral in Constantinople (Miklagard to the Norsemen - see the VIKING series Hub on the Varangian Guard)


Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Alan, would you agree with me that all the wars and covert actions by the U.S. in the Middle East and Central Asia (starting with the overthrow of the elected government in Iran in 1953) ha e been about the control of the oil in the region?


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

There's no disputing that. Nobody's tried to oust Mugabe because there's no oil in Zimbabwe. It's not just the US, though. We've not exactly been 'on the level' either - witness Tony Blair crawling to the Libyans before he threw in his hand.


Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Fasinating. I did not understand that about Blair. I did know that Dick Cheney met with Blair after 9/11, telling him BP would get a section of Iraq to develop if he joined that fight. The French and Total turned down the offer. Hence the hatred directed toward them from the White House.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

So what's the Aussie stance in all this? Mind you, all this talk about Iraq and Blair is sort of 'Roman' off the point a bit (don't mind the pun, I'm just yer average Pom).


Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Like Poland, promises of new U.S. defense options (Poland got an F-15 factory, I believe).


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 4 years ago from California

A friend is traveling to England next week I will pass this on to him. I had a thoroughly enjoyable visit.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Dr Billy it seems Oz is just another static aircraft carrier like Britain.

Tirelesstraveler, nice to see you here. He/she will need some woollies going north (I'm off up to Yorkshire at the end of the month, and I shall have my thick-knit ex-Navy crew-neck with me - just in case, but I shall be wearing it outdoors from November 1st anyway)!


Frits Nijhof 4 years ago

very good website! good information.

Question: this describes a walking / hike trip; is there also a cycle-route available?

Thanks for your respons.

Heartly regards,

Frits Nijhof - the Netherlands.

mail: nijho817@planet.nl


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Frits, The same route can be cycled, but you wouldn't be long in the saddle. Better to follow the wall between Heddon-on-the-Wall (west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Gilsland along the B6318. The road is a bit 'up-and-down' but closely follows the wall. A back road leaves the B6318 west of Gilsland to shadow the wall, passes Burtholme, crosses the River Irthing and brings you into Brampton near the end of the wall east of Carlisle.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

Interesting and informative guide with useful ideas on a route to follow to see the wall at its best. And excellent photos too alancaster.

One fact which I believe to be true, (maybe you know better?) and which would make for an interesting trivial fact - at about 80 miles long, I believe the wall was the biggest 'building' ever constructed on British soil. Voted up. Alun.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Alun, this kind of trivia could be an interesting tidbit to add to the Hub. Glad you enjoyed reading it - there are another 35 of this series for you to explore between the Humber and the Border (No 36 is about Kielder in Northumberland - interesting that, Northumberland these days is just the bit north of the Tyne. Northumbria - as was - did stretch from the Humber northwards. It was 'chopped up' for easy management by the Normans, who also created Cumberland and Lancashire out of the old earldom, latterly kingdom).


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

I would be in heaven if one day I could visit these places. A former history teacher who has seen very little of the history he taught....you have made me thirsty once more to travel abroad. Thank you for the virtual journey.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Feel welcome, billybuc. We've got all these thousands of acres where sometimes you don't see a soul on the road. The one that runs parallel with 'the wall' between Tyneside and Carlisle is a bit like a rollercoaster, up and down. You don't see vehicles coming the other way and then suddenly they're there!

Take a look at the early Hubs in this series about driving in the Dales.The A66 is a great road to start off from, going north to Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale or south to Richmond and Swaledale or Wensleydale via the 'Buttertubs'. I've written a few that don't involve driving, too... Dive in (like at Scarborough).


cam8510 profile image

cam8510 3 years ago from Columbus, Georgia until the end of November 2016.

I spent some time a few years ago reading about Hadrian's Wall. So much of what you have written about here was at least familiar to me. The photos were great. Like billybuc, you have reignited the desire to see firsthand many of the things about which I have read. Thanks for another top notch hub.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Glad to be of service. Getcher hide up there, feel the Picts around you! There was a film recently called 'The Eagle' about a Roman who risks life and limb going beyond the wall to reclaim an eagle standard. Donald Sutherland was in it and the scenery was pretty rugged.

I went to Hexham several years ago, drove to Vindolanda and around to Twice Brewed as well as Haltwhistle (geographic centre of mainland Britain) after walking along the track and taking pictures.

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