Hadrian’s Wall Path had gone on and off our list of ‘must do’ hikes in England several times. The reasons it had been on the list were obvious – it’s a path which follows a Roman wall built more than 18 centuries ago crossing from one side of the country to the other. The reasons it had gone off the list may be less obvious. For us the big problem with the walk was that it was largely urban, passing through two large cities with a long stretches on asphalt (not really our cup of tea). Combine this with the absence of any wall on large sections of the Path and the proximity of roads even when you weren’t walking on them and we had all but decided to give the whole thing a miss. That decision was, however, reversed when we met an English rambler on St Cuthbert’s Way who insisted that the section of Hadrian’s Wall Path below Northumberland National Park largely avoided these problems and should not be missed. Turns out he was right.
What and where.
Hadrian’s Wall Path is an 85 mile (137km) national trail in the north of England which traverses the country from Wallsend on the east coast to Bowness on Solway on the west coast. The trail keeps as close to the line of the Wall as possible (even where it no longer exists).
Best time of year.
The voluntary code of practice for walkers requests that the path not be walked during the wet winter months because of risk of damage to the trail and Wall.
The Wall was constructed in the 120s during the reign of Emperor Hadrian and ceased operation in the 5th century. The reason the Wall was built is the subject of academic debate. The Scriptures Historiae Augustae supports the commonly held view that the Wall was built to keep the Picts out of Roman Britain stating that it “was to separate the barbarians from the Romans.” Other reasons put forward include that it was an expression of Roman power and that it was to aid in the control of immigration and customs.
By 410AD, however, those reasons no longer applied, the Romans having withdrawn their administration and military from Britain. Archaeologists believe that parts of the Wall continued to be occupied into the 5th century, but from that point it began its long decline with stones from the Wall being removed for other construction. The rate of removal increased in the 18th century with the stone being used for road building and, in particular, the military road used to transfer troops to crush the Jacobite insurrection. That any of the Wall remains today is largely down to the efforts of one man, John Clayton. After inheriting an estate which included a section of the Wall he became obsessed with its preservation and in the 1830s he gradually purchased additional tracts of land so that he could protect and preserve it.
In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was declared a World Heritage Site. Hadrian’s Wall Path was officially opened in 2003.
Construction of the Wall.
The Wall was built over about 10 years by three legions (15000 men). The width of the Wall varied between 8 and 10 feet and required around two million tonnes of stone. The structure also incorporated forts (every 5 miles), milecastles and observation towers. On the northern side of the Wall ran an additional defensive structure, a V ditch, and on the southern side a military road and further double banked ditch. Today the Wall that remains is a bit of a composite construction having been consolidated and repaired over the years. In many places there is no Wall at all and in others all that remains is a ditch. The remains of forts and milecastles can be seen at various locations – the best structures are probably Birdoswald, Housesteads and Chester.
We walked the following sections of the Wall between Brocolitia and Birdoswald as out and back day walks (so if doing this double each distance):
- Brocolitia – Housesteads 8.6km
- Housesteads – Steel Rigg 5km
- Steel Rigg – Walltown Crags 9.6km
- Walltown Crags – Birdoswald 5.9km.