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Ford and Etal

Hadrian’s Wall Heritage

Roman soldier

Roman re-enactors on Hadrian's Wall © English Heritage

Once the northern frontier of the Roman empire, Hadrian’s Wall is now a mere shadow of its former self.

But the ruined fortification that stretches 73 miles from Wallsend (Segedunum) near the mouth of the River Tyne on the east coast to the Solway Firth on the west is still an imposing edifice nearly 1900 years after the first stones were laid on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian.

Many of the hand cut stone blocks may have found their way into local houses over the centuries (see it as an early form of recycling; our ancestors weren’t going to waste their energy quarrying new building materials when they had a ready source on their doorstep), but it is still possible to visualise the impact the wall’s construction would have had on the local tribes.

Slithering its way across the bleakly beautiful landscape like a giant serpent, it would have been a stark reminder to the ‘heathen’ tribes both sides of this manmade border of Rome’s strength, splendour and potential spite if you didn’t toe the imperial line.

Both the Romans and the stone barrier they laboured over may have been absorbed back into the very ground it rose from, but there is enough left to marvel at for Hadrian’s Wall to have been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1987, putting it on a par with the Pyramids.

Since then it has been included on the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire world heritage site, which represents the 5,000km border line of Rome’s territory at its greatest extent in the 2nd Century AD.

“The Emperor Hadrian’s work on building the wall was described in the Roman Chronicles. ‘Thereupon, having reformed the army of the Rhine in regal manner, he set out for Britain where he put many things straight and was the first to build a wall, eighty miles in length, by which Romans and barbarians should be divided.'”

World Heritage status has brought improved access and it is now possible to walk and ride the length of the wall. Award-winning camp and caravan sites, hostels, hotels and bed and breakfasts have opened along the trail to meet demand.

Hadrian's Wall near Housesteads

Hadrian's Wall near Housesteads © Britain on View/visitnorthumberland.com

For many visitors a walk along the wall is the highlight of their trip to Northumberland.

The most dramatic section is undeniably around Housesteads (jointly run by English Heritage and the National Trust) where the wall snakes up and down a high escarpment.

Once home to 800 soldiers, Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain with its barrack block and commandant’s house.

Look out for probably the oldest toilets you’ll ever see. In Roman times they would have been where the soldiers met to gossip about camp life while answering the call of nature.

Now nature has taken over and these once state-of-the-art Roman lavatories are instead a good place to stop and take in the stunning views of the fort, wall and surrounding countryside.

Vindolanda is another must visit attraction along the wall. Built in 85AD – nearly four decades before work began on the wall – it was still occupied 400 years later.

You can see reconstructed buildings, many of the thousands of archaeological finds unearthed over the years from shoes and wagon axles to tent pegs and pieces of pottery and furniture, as well as the famous Vindolanda writing tablets which give an insight into what camp life was like for the soldiers and civilians alike.

Vindolanda © shutterstock.com

There are also impressive Roman sites at Corbridge, Chesters, Birdoswold, Arbeia in South Shields and Segedunum in Wallsend.
But in this part of Northumberland you are never far from reminders of the area’s Roman past, whether it be a pile of too perfectly cut stones or an unusually straight road.

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest the world has ever seen stretching thousands of miles across Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Yet it is the frontier wall the Emperor Hadrian had built in the farthest flung reaches of his mighty kingdom that all these centuries on still stands as a reminder of that greatness – and still sends a shiver down the spine.