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I'm not a big history buff, but whilst on a mini break in Northumberland, it would have been a terrible shame if we had not visited the very famous remnants of Hadrian's wall, the best preserved parts of which remain in the county of Northumberland, although the wall, in its day, stretching 73 miles went as far as the eastern shores of Cumbria.
Even those, like me, who don't count history as one of their favourite topics, would be impressed by this feat of engineering that is still standing (in some parts) 2000 years after it was built by the Romans. This wall devised by Hadrian was to act as as frontier, keeping the Scottish 'Barbarians' out of the England.
Prior to visiting Hadrian's wall, we had picked up a very good tourist map in a local tourist office, and we were glad we had, as there really is quite a lot ot get your head around, and if you were to do everything on offer, you would really need to set aside a lot of money, or rob a bank! It certainly isn't a cheap day out, but you can still see the best bits within a budget.
Hadrian's wall is signposted very well on the road from Newcastle Uopn Tyne to Hexham, and there are many different turn offs. We had been advised to get onto the old 'military road' that, for the most part, is in parallel with the wall. This old military or Roman road, is a bumpy affair, so don't be expecting a long straight open road. Those who are cycling or walking will find themselves climbing and descending rather frequently. To get onto this road, we decided to take one of the turn off's before Hexham, near Heddon on the Wall. This military road runs through beautiful countryside, which when the sun is shining, is quite spectacular. This is a dangerous road too however, and we were told that there had been many accidents on it, due to the many hidden dips.
We decided that once we had got onto the military road, we would head for the Northumberland National Park Centre at Once Brewed, which is at the further end of the main points of interest along the road. Sites are very well signposted along the road, so there is absolutely no trouble in finding it. We arrived at the relatively small car park of the Once Brewed Visitor Centre, where we noticed that although it was free admission, there was a car park charge of £3. We didn't mind so much however once we found out that this car park ticket was transferrable to the other car parks at the sites along Hadrian's wall. Inside the visitor centre, was a lovely helpful lady who was very knowledgeable about the area, and answered many of our questions, pointing out the highlights to us, one of which was Sycamore Gap, which was used in the filming of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves in the 90's. We wouldn't even have been aware of this apart from the lady, and certainly wouldn't have been able to locate it ourselves, as even the tourist map, doesn't have it marked.
I am only going to review the two areas of Hadrian's wall that we visited. Each of the sites along the wall are individually priced, and most of which are around £5 per adult, with some concessions available. So, if you were to see all the sites along the wall, and pay that at each point, you can see why it is a costly affair, with car parking on top of that. We chose to visit Steel Rigg, which although signposted along the road, is not marked on the tourist map and information, as well as Housesteads, which we were recommended to visit.
The road to Steel Rigg, is practically opposite to the road that leads to Once Brewed. After travelling up a steep windy hill, you come to a limited car park at the top, although there is an overflow car park in the neighbouring field, and your transferrable car parking ticket applies.
Since the weather was so nice that day, albeit it got a lot cloudier as the day went on, there were crowds of people at every destination, many of whom were walkers. The lady at the visitor centre had given us a more detailed map that showed us the location of the Sycamore Gap which was aimed at walkers. We parked the car, and headed for Sycamore Gap. Now, if you are unfit or have breathing difficulties, walking to Sycamore Gap really is not advisable, as the main way to get to this area is over at least three rather steep hills, that although are stepped, are steep in places and not for the faint hearted. I was five months pregnant though still in reasonable fitness and I managed it without too many problems, although good footwear is a must. Once you reach Milecastle, you can breathe a sigh of relief, as you are practically at the gap. You may wonder why people like us want to visit this place, apart from it being in a film, but it is also a rather pretty place to walk to, as there is a rather large Sycamore tree perched right beside a well preserved stretch of Hadrian;s wall, and I suppose it just is a rather strange place to have a tree, but yet it a lovely little gap between the hills and the tree is positioned perfectly in the middle. Now, there are many hardy walkers who would hardly stop at this gap and continue on their walk, but we found that this venture was enough for us, and we turned and took a flatter way back to the car (albeit with the last little bit on the steep road to the car park), that the lady in the visitor centre had told us about. It was a much easier walk, and I suppose it could be used to go to Sycamore Gap both ways, for those not wanting to climb up and down or don't have good footwear. Obviously as you walk along you are getting to see Hadrian's wall at its best, as the wall is extremely well preserved at this point, and you really appreciate the thickness of the wall, in comparison to other stone walls you see in the surrounding countryside.
As it was getting to lunchtime, we returned to the visitor centre, where there was a handful of picnic tables, and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the sunshine.
After this, we headed for Housesteads Roman Fort, which is back along the road. At this venue, is a much larger car park, with a kiosk, shop, toilet and further picnic tables. Admission to Housesteads is over £5 per adult, and you pay at the entrance to the Roman Fort rather than at the car park area. To get to Housesteads, it is short walk (although it is uphill) to the admission office from the car park, where there is also a very interesting little exhibtion about the wall. Housesteads is actually the best preserved fort on the wall. When we paid our admission, we were shown a guide that we could buy, but you really don't need this, unless you love history, as everything around the ruins is labelled telling you what it is. As you approach the first of the ruins, your admission ticket is checked and then you can stroll around the very well kept ruins, where remmants of a Roman hospital, gate entrances and even latrines are easliy viewed. I have to admit, that I have visited Roman ruins before, and these are one of the best example of a ROman fort that I have seen. If you are member of the National Trust of Englsh Heritage then your admission to all these places is free.
All in all, it would be very very easy to spend a whole day or even two at Hadrian's wall, particularly is you are willing to walk along part of the wall. To really appreciate the wall itself, going on even a short walk, really allows you to get up close to it, and see its depth and the sheer labour that went into building it. I would recommend Steel Rigg and Housesteads if you time is limited and your budget restricted. If you have neither issue, then there is plenty to stop off at along the way, that will keep you thoroughly busy!
Apparently Hadrian was a rather decent sort of chap. When he came to power he did indeed have all the leading Roman military leaders murdered so as to start off with a new broom, but apart from this rather drastic (and typically roman) act he set about making things relatively peaceful and sought to consolidate the empire rather than let its expansion run away and get out of control (perhaps he should have been in Banking).
And so Hadrian's Wall was built more to say - this is the limit of our empire, this is far enough rather than just to keep the marauding scots out.
His wife apparently refused to have a child with him claiming the thing would be a monster. She seems a touchy sort - but he did have a young male companion who drowned and left him inconsolable. So maybe she felt left out.
The wall runs from the coast by Newcastle to the opposite coast beyond Carlisle and on to the Solway Firth.
The wall itself is only a few feet high nowadays but is accompanied by what seems like countless remains of roman occupation along the wall, close by it and a short way from it. There are numorous excavated sites and museums to visit along the route and this could be treated as a tour of the wall in itself.
But we'd come to walk a section of wall to see if we'd like to try the whole thing from coast to coast at a later date.
We arrived in Northumbria with no hotel booked and decided to book on arrival. We had Hayden Bridge in mind as somewhere to head for - it looked pretty on the internet with the river running throught the centre but in reality it seemed a bit tired and run down.
So on to Haltwhistle and what a lovely place, more about that in another review I think.
Without realising it we had arrived at possibly the best part of the wall and set out from Haltwhistle bright and early. A two mile bus ride (a roller-coaster ride in itself) and we arrived at Housesteads Roman Fort.
We didn't sightsee here as we were champing at the bit to get up on the wall. And get up is right - it's a fair little trot just to get up on the wall.
I had imagined that the walk would be a rather mundane affair but nice and long with a few things to visit on the way. Not a bit of it.
To my surprise much of the wall is set on the top of what are really cliff-faces and is quite dramatic. There are woods to walk through, lakes to see over and the wall drops and rises quite severly in places and is not for the unfit. We came to a part of the wall where you all but have to climb down a steep drop and at this point the wind came up and made it quite hairy - the other half clinging to the ground for dear life - how we laughed.
I found the views looking north glorious and the brooding colours of Northumbria really give a feeling of portent and help you feel just as those roman legionairies must have felt nearly two millenia ago.
We came off the wall at a waterfilled quarry and followed a trail back to Haltwhistle. This led to an exceptionally beautiful ravine that felt as if we were walking through Lord of the Rings country.
All in all about seven miles and absolutely marvellous every step of the way.
Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is unique; it is one of the wonders of the world and among the most important archaeological monuments of the last two thousand years. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, who came to Britain in AD122 ordered the building of a wall to mark the boundary of the Roman Empires greatest outpost and to keep the barbarians out, over a period of six years the Roman army built a stone wall eighty Roman miles long, which converts to approximately one hundred and seventeen kilometres or seventy three modern miles, it was five metres (over sixteen feet) high and stretched across England from the Tyne to the Solway, the two extremities now being Wallsend in the east and Bowness in the west. It was one of the Roman Empire’s greatest feats of engineering, at each Roman mile along the wall there was a milecastle guarded by eight soldiers and between the milecastles, at one third and two thirds of a Roman mile interval there were sentry turrets therefore the whole length of the wall was constantly manned and every soldier was within sight of another; the whole of the countryside around the wall was under constant observation by the Romans. A deep, wide ditch (called a Vallum) flanked by mounds of earth was dug about ten metres north and south of the wall, these Vallums offered extra protection and made it more difficult for barbarians to penetrate the wall by slowing down anyone trying to attack. Once the wall was completed the Romans strengthened their position by building garrison forts at intervals across the country within easy reach of the wall and the local Celtic people built small towns around the forts to serve the needs of the soldiers and government officials. By AD410 the Roman Empire had declined and Britain was abandoned. The wall became derelict and stones were removed and re-used in local buildings and field walls. Today the best remaining sections of the wall are only one metre high but they a
re still very impressive and there are still many forts, milecastles, temples and turrets to visit along the line of the wall, as well as museums, reconstructions and visitor centres, which all help to bring the whole frontier to life. Hadrian’s Wall is not just the surviving Roman remains, but the landscape surrounding the wall, the field walls, barns, great castles and churches that have all been built using stone stolen from the wall. There is so much to see and do along the route of Hadrian’s Wall it would be impossible to write in detail about every attraction but some of the must see sights are the Museums and Forts along the route of the Wall. Wallsend Tyne and Wear Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum (Tel. 0191 295 5757) Here you find a military settlement marking the eastern end of the Wall on the banks of the River Tyne. Attractions at Segedunum include a section of the Wall, a reconstructed Roman bathhouse, a visitor centre showing what life was like in a Roman Fort, a thirty-five metre tower providing a bird’s eye view of the layout of the excavated fort and an archaeologists dig. Corbridge Roman Site and Museum, Northumberland (Tel. 01434 632349) Known to the Romans as Corstopitum, Corbridge developed into a prosperous garrison town and a supply base for Hadrian’s Wall. This is a lovely little town next to the River Tyne and the Museum contains some fascinating archaeological finds and remarkable sculptures. Chesters Roman Fort and Museum, Northumberland (Tel. 01434 681379) Chesters is an extensively excavated cavalry Fort, built next to the wall to accommodate five hundred soldiers. There are impressive remains of a Roman bathhouse along with a Museum containing Roman sculptures and inscriptions. Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum, Northumberland (Tel. 01434 344363) Know to the Romans as Vercovicium, meaning ‘place of the effective fight
ers’, this is an extensively excavated fort on a dramatic size and contains the only visible example of a Roman hospital in Britain, there are also superbly preserved Roman latrines with a flush system as well as the remains of granaries and barracks. Vindolanda Fort and Museum, Northumberland (01434 344277) Extensive remains of the fort and civilian settlement can be seen at Vindolanda, meaning ‘white fields’, together with rare Roman writing tablets including an invitation to a party held almost two thousand years ago, leather items, textiles, pottery and wooden objects in the Museum. In the grounds you will find ongoing excavations and reconstructions of Hadrian’s Wall in turf and stone, a Roman Temple and Roman house. The above are just a few of the attractions along Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologist digs are constantly ongoing and there is a wealth of opportunities for walks alongside the wall, the local transport system offers special Hadrian’s Wall rover tickets and there is a year round “Hadrian’s Wall Bus” connecting all the major sites to the main town of Hexham. Hadrian’s Wall is a very fragile monument; stones removed or damaged can never be replaced. Every single human and animal footstep causes a tiny bit of wear and tear that over time adds up to irreparable harm. To ensure this special part of our heritage is handed on to future generations a footpath runs alongside the wall and you are asked never to walk on the actual wall. An estimated one and a quarter million people visit Hadrian’s Wall each year so it is very important we care for, and preserve it. To find the wall head for the River Tyne and follow the signs, most of the wall can be reached from the A69 Newcastle to Carlisle road. Hadrian’s Wall is often mistakenly thought of as separating England from Scotland, in fact almost ninety per cent of Northumberland lies north of the wall
and nowhere along its entire length does Scotland come within miles of the remains. For information about Hadrian’s Wall contact: Website: www.hadrians-wall.org Hadrian’s Wall Information Line - Tel. 01434 322002 Newcastle Tourist Information Centre – Tel. 0191 277 8000 Carlisle Tourist Information Centre – Tel. 01228 625600 Hexham Tourist Information Centre – Tel. 01434 652220 Information and timetable for Hadrian’s Wall Bus can also be obtained from Hexham Tourist Information Centre.
In AD 122, the Imperial Roman army were kicking arses in Northern Africa, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Greece, not to mention humbling the mighty German army on the Rhine and the formidable Boadicea in England. They were unstoppable with their well-drilled army and modern methods of warfare. Unstoppable that is until they reached the river Tyne, a little known river in northern England. Thinking they had little to do to subdue these black and white painted heathens, they sent out legion after legion to capture local chiefs and bring them under the heel of Rome. Imagine their surprise when legion after legion either disappeared entirely or returned in such disarray that it was clear that all was not going to plan. These 'heathens' were in fact Geordies, and no one had told them that Romans were to be obeyed without question. I suppose they just could not take anyone seriously that wore that ridiculous short frock in the bitterly cold North East of England. The head honcho at this time was a certain Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus. Known to the Geordies as Gussie but to everyone else as the Emperor Hadrian. On hearing of this impudent race, Hadrian immediately set sail and arrived on the banks of the Tyne to see for himself the problem in hand. His reception by the Geordies or toon army as they were now called, must have miffed him to say the least as he coined the immortal words 'Sod this for a game of soldiers' and immediately returned to Rome, leaving instructions that a wall be built to 'keep the buggers out'. OK so I have possibly taken liberties with history, but who is to say that my version is not as plausible as any other that you may come across. The main thing is that Hadrian did in fact order a wall to be built across the entire country from coast to coast and it says much for the Roman craftsmen of the days that the 80 miles long wall was completed in 6 years. It ran from Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowne
ss-on-Solway in the west. Much of the wall has long since disappeared, but parts of the central portion which runs alongside the B6318 is in relatively good condition, and it is here that the forts and museums are situated. The height of the wall was some 15 ft and topped with a parapet. It was an extremely sophisticated piece of engineering. For every mile there was a milecastle guarded by at eight men. Between these milecastles were two turrets for sentries who kept watch over the surrounding countryside. Thus the Romans could keep a close watch on the movement of any goods or people crossing their frontier. To the north of the Wall a deep ditch was excavated called the Vallum, and to the south another ditch flanked by mounds of earth. The Vallum was the Roman equivalent of barbed wire, slowing down an attacking force before it reached the wall itself. As building progressed, Roman control was strengthened by the construction of huge forts along the Wall. It is interesting to note at this point that there were no recorded attempts at breaching the wall, indeed the Northumbrians and the Scots were content to wait until the Romans had tired of playing Bob the Builder and once the legions had bogged off back to Italy, proceeded to dismantle much of the wall and turn the ready made blocks of stone into cowsheds and houses. Now we bring the story up to date. Not the entire wall was destroyed; in fact most of the route is still visible to this day with parts of the wall in remarkably good condition. The Hadrian's Wall and forts we see today are the last remains of this incredible Roman structure. An estimated 1.25 million people visit Hadrian's Wall each year and visit the ten forts and museums, which are open to the public. As only 5% of the Roman remains been examined so far, it is fair to say that new discoveries will be made for many years to come. The forts and museums are: VINDOLANDA HOUSESTEADS CHESTERS <
br>BIRDOSWALD CORBRIDGE ARBEIA SENHOUSE TULLIE HOUSE ROMAN ARMY MUSEUM MUSEUM of ANTIQUITIES It is absolutely impossible to tell you everything that can be seen on a visit to the wall, but I will pick out two of my favourite sites to give you a taste of what you can expect. HOUSESTEADS FORT The Roman name for Housesteads Fort was Vercovicium, this translates as the "place of the effective fighters". I think they were referring to us don’t you? The fort had massive barracks that accommodated a regiment of some 800 men and the excavations, which can be inspected by the public, include Barracks, Granaries, Hospital, The Commandant's House and the headquarters of the garrison. Excavations are ongoing but everything is explained down to the smallest detail. Take your time browsing around the ruins. With a little imagination it is possible to reconstruct in your mind the hustle and bustle of the Roman way of life. Sit on the carved stone toilets (they were communal toilets in those days) as thousands of soldiers before you and give thanks to the great God Andrex. Sanitation was uppermost in those days and central heating and bathhouses were taken for granted. VINDOLANDA Vindolanda means white lawns or white fields and lies just a few miles south of Hadrian's Wall. It must have been the jewel in the Roman crown in the area. A huge timber courtyard that has been excavated outside the fort is thought to have been Hadrian’s residence during his stay in Britain. Much is known about Vindolanda as valuable wooden tablets were found during the excavations. These tablets provide a rare source of a material, which seldom survived, giving details about private life in the fort. Here you can see a reconstruction of part of the wall including a gatehouse. This gives you some idea of the immense undertaking that the Romans completed. Charges for
admission to the forts and museums vary considerably and details of these and further information of all these sites can be found at www.hadrians-wall.org To find the wall, leave the M6 at Carlisle and travel east along the A69 to Greenhead. Here take the B6318 and you will find yourself in Hadrian’s Wall countryside. In any case the wall is signposted for miles around and impossible to miss.