Hadrian’s Wall: Walking in Roman Footsteps

Guest post by Monica Castenetto

Hadrians_Wall_map.png: Created by Norman Einstein, September 20, 2005 derivative work: Talifero (talk) -Hadrians_Wall_map.png

You’ve always wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall, but thought you can’t do it on a time budget? Think again. Granted, in a weekend you won’t walk its 117.5 kilometres in their entirety, but you’ll certainly take in its unbelievable scale, connect with its intriguing history and experience the breath-taking landscape it runs in. Do go – it’s a brilliant adventure!

To ease myself into my adventure, I chose guided walks organiser Large Outdoors to take me onto Roman footsteps: This weekend, I’ll be joining twelve fellow walkers to walk part of the most iconic, mind-blowingly impressive artefact surviving from the Roman province Britannia: Hadrian’s Wall.

I reach our accommodation – a 250-years old lead miner’s house turned youth hostel – on Friday evening. It overlooks a sweeping green valley flooded by the golden rays of the setting sun. On my journey up from London I have already glimpsed that Northumberland   is   remote,  wild   and   ruggedly beautiful. Quite empty of towns and people, too. I’ve been told not to tell anyone, as they like their peace and quiet up here – yet here I am, spoiling the secret. Apologies. I couldn’t help myself – it’s just too gorgeous!

The Wall… It’s big!

I couldn’t resist a selfie with Hadrian’s Wall! Photo: Monica Castenetto

On Saturday morning we set off on our sixteen kilometres walk from The Sill National Landscape and Discovery Centre. When we first hit the Wall – forgive the pun – I feel a sense of awe, even though, here, it’s merely half a metre high. But these are the original rocks with which it was built, over two thousand years ago. It’s surprisingly wide – about three metres – and stretches far into the distance, following the ups and downs of the hilly landscape with its incredibly steep gradients.

In its day, the Wall was four to six metres high throughout – that’s two to three people standing on top of each other. In its front ran a three-metre-deep ditch and in its back a military road. Mindboggling!

There’s more: Fifteen thousand Roman soldiers built it in six years, essentially cutting off today’s Scotland and a wedge of Northern England from the rest of the country. Unbelievably, they did it all without power tools and machinery, nor adequate protection against the inclement weather that’s common up here.

Today though, with England in the grip of an unprecedented June heat wave, we’re enjoying temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius and sunshine hot enough to fry an egg. Later I will learn that, in previous summers, people have hiked here in freezing cold and horizontal rain!

Where the Wall is taller than me Photo: Chris Thomas

Living history

Squared stones outside, cemented rubble inside Photo: Chris Thomas

Building a structure of Hadrian’s Wall’s massive dimensions, spiked with milecastles, turrets and forts in regular intervals, and patrolled by thousands of soldiers, seems a bit excessive just to keep the Northern tribes at bay. Which, apparently, weren’t that threatening in the first place. That’s why historians still can’t agree whether the Wall indeed served as a defensive fortification, or whether it was a customs border, a boundary of the Roman Empire, or a show of the military and political power of the Roman Emperor.

Me, I don’t really care why Hadrian’s Wall was built.

I’m just revelling in the feeling of walking next to this humongous construction built by an empire that perished a long time ago.

I’m wondering if the locals were overrun by unstoppable Roman military forces, and saw their own land cut through by a Wall as gigantic and frightening as they’d never seen before. Or if this place was, as some historians believe, a bustling, thriving frontier, rather than a hostile and dangerous war zone, with Romans and locals more unified than pitted against each other.

Who knows whether the Northern tribes had a big celebration when the Roman Empire fell – as the Germans at the fall of the Berlin Wall? Or whether the Romans retreated gradually, leaving Hadrian’s Wall to fall into disrepair and be looted? That’s all still shrouded in mystery – living history, constantly adjusted, as archaeologists and historians discover more!

Top of the world!

But it’s not just Hadrian’s Wall that makes this weekend so memorable: There’s the landscape, too. The Wall is built up high, over three hundred metres at its highest. From up here, the views onto the windswept grassland below, vast under the endless blue expanse of the sky, are glorious and dramatic to say the least.

A Wall as far as the eye can see Photo: Chris Thomas

I feel tiny in this huge, wild, empty natural space. I feel hot, too – tired and sweaty from my exertions on the hills. I feel stirred by the heat of the sun on my skin and the force of the wind in my hair. I feel enveloped, awed and strangely affected by a sense of history.

Wild landscape, windswept and grassy Photo: Monica Castenetto

When I reach a high part of the Wall, alone, I let myself be carried away. I scream as loud as I can, into the strength of the winds, and down into the green, green countryside:

“I’m on top of the woooooooooorld!”

It’s wonderfully freeing. Somehow, I feel raw. And utterly, utterly alive. 

Stories

There are many more stories to this weekend adventure:

I could tell you about how we fought our way through the dried-up reef bog around Crag Lough, and discovered a teeming heap of minuscule black frogs at its shores.

The beautiful Crag Lough Photo: Monica Castenetto

About how the supposedly last three kilometres of our Saturday hike kept stretching and stretching, until we’d walked twenty-three kilometres instead of sixteen. About what Hadrian’s Wall has to do with Robin Hood. About walking a tamer part of the Wall on Sunday, around Birdoswald Roman Fort. About enchanted forests and rivers the colour of builders’ tea. Or I could tell you about how I acquired the title Queen of the Pink Sandals. But these stories are for a longer article. (Which you can check out here.)

The distinctive Sycamore Gap in the Wall Photo: Monica Castenetto
Most minuscule frog ever seen Photo: Chris Thomas
A river the colour of strong tea Photo: Monica Castenetto

Meanwhile, I hope this shorter taster has whetted your appetite to have your own Hadrian’s Wall adventure – even if it’s on a time budget. Me, I’m now thinking of freeing up more time to walk the entire Wall!  

About the author

Monica Castenetto is a Life Consultant, Change Coach and Author. She helps women stuck in a rut or at a crossroads discover, create and live a life that is right and feels meaningful for them – a life they truly love. And make the big or small changes this requires with joy and ease. She is the author of What’s Your Excuse for Not Living a Life You Love? (WYE Publishing) and has written many articles and stories about change and soulful living. Her website is www.livealifeyoulove.co.uk

Practical information

Hadrian’s Wall can be walked in its entirety, following Hadrian’s Wall Path, in little more than a week, but for this weekend trip I chose to walk some of its best-preserved sections near the middle, in Northumberland National Park.

I booked a guided walking weekend with walks organiser Large Outdoors. They run this Hadrian’s Wall weekend three times a year (April, July and September – see their website for dates and booking). Weekends cost £99 per person in a shared room and £155 per person in a double room at the time of writing, and include accommodation, meals and guided walks. In addition, you’ll pay for your own travel to the location, and for Sunday lunch (before travelling home).

I travelled by train to Newcastle (which can also be accessed via its international airport) and Hexham, and then onwards via taxi to the Ninebanks YHA at Orchard House, Mohop, Hexham, Northumberland, NE47 8DQ.

We started our walks from The SillNational Landscape Discovery Centre and Birdoswald Roman Fort.

For alternative ways of visiting Hadrian’s Wall check out hadrianswallcountry.co.uk for more information on short and long-distance walking and cycling paths, and on exploring the Wall by bus. The site also has lots of information on the many attractions and points of interest along the Wall – chiefly beautifully excavated and preserved Roman forts and museums, with the odd Roman town and country park thrown in.

For an overview about Hadrian’s Wall’s history, start at: Wikipedia – Hadrian’s Wall.

Oh, and watch the Boy on Treescene from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, filmed at the distinctive Sycamore Gap in the Wall, on Youtube here. 😊 

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