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Guarding the Wall on Hadrian’s Wall Path

Built by the Romans, appropriated by the British and now presided over by hikers, Hadrian’s Wall guards the old northern border between England and Scotland. Hiking on the Hadrian’s Wall path gives visitors the opportunity to make like a Roman soldier. Hikers can patrol the old border, taking in the ancient history…and the view.

Who is Hadrian? And What’s With His Wall?

Hadrian was the Roman Emperor from 117-138 AD. The Empire during this time was quite far flung, reaching from what is now Portugal east to Armenia and Romania south to Israel. The most far flung outpost, however, was Britannia. The region that now comprises England and Wales was, in 122 AD, the northernmost outpost of the empire. There were ongoing rebellions in Britannia which Rome had a devilish time controlling. So Hadrian commissioned the building of a wall to protect the borders of the Empire and keep out “the barbarians”. By this, he meant the Scots.

And so a wall was built.

Hadrian's Wall to Housesteads Fort

There are still long sections of intact wall particularly between Chesters Fort and Housesteads Fort

The Building of the Wall

“When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.”
—-King of Swamp Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The process for building the wall was sort of like what the King of the Swamp experienced. The wall was first built of turf, like that was going to hold anyone out. Plus, it fell into the swamp. So they added wood pilings. But they fell into the swamp. So they switched to stone…good idea! But then, like all construction projects, it went over time and budget. So they narrowed the depth of the wall from 10 feet to 7. To further keep out the Barbarians, they dug a ditch, or Vallum on the flat sections to create a more defensible space. They also added turrets every third of a mile, milecastles every mile and forts every seven or so miles.

Now THAT’s a wall…the strongest in all of England.

Hadrian's Wall Path Winding Countryside

The wall winds along the natural contours of the countryside

Vallum of Hadrian's Wall

This deep ditch, or Vallum, was dug on the north side of the wall. Even in sections where the wall has fallen, hikers still need to navigate the ditch

Roman Architects are Geniuses

In addition to figuring out how to build a wall that didn’t fall into a swamp, the Romans had to architect a series of forts large enough to house and feed up to 11,000 troops guarding the wall. It’s easy to think of our modern architecture, with its central heating and eat-in kitchens as the apex of human comfort. And perhaps it is. But those Romans knew how to make themselves comfortable. The forts had fairly sizable housing for both man and horse. And each fort had its own bath house which was designed not only for bathing but also for socializing, gaming and exercise. They rigged up a system that included heated floors, a series of pools with different water temperatures and flush toilet facilities.

It sort of functioned like my gym- where the old guys work out for a bit, then they go into the spa area where they toggle between the hot tub and sauna room all the while jawing with their buddies and flexing their muscles. Perhaps not much has changed since AD117, but credit to the Romans for being the first to do the full macho.

Chesters Fort Baths

Elevated floors and good drainage were key features at the Chesters Fort baths

Chesters Fort housing

Chesters Fort housing for humans and horses

Housesteads Fort Hadrian's Wall Path

Elevated flooring at Housesteads fort served to provide storage rooms with drainage and protection from varmits

Take a Hike on Hadrian’s Wall Path

Hadrian’s Wall is both a UNESCO World Heritage and an English Heritage site. At one time, the wall was the guard, but now, the wall itself needs guarding if it is to be preserved. The development of the a walking path along the wall was a delicate business. Archaeologists and conservationists were resistant to the development of the Hadrian’s Wall path citing concerns that wall walkers would have a negative impact on the archaeology and natural resources of the site. A proactive site management scheme was put into place and in 2003 the full pathway was completed.

The path runs from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway for a distance of 84 miles. But hikers can take the wall at their ease as I did recently with a 4 day, 40 mile hike along a ‘best of’ section of the wall.

It is said that there are 11,000 hikers a year on the wall. Which, ironically, approximates the number of Roman soldiers that used to man the forts and guard the wall. Absent the need to defend against the Barbarians, today’s hikers patrol the wall for exercise and historical enlightenment.

Guys Hiking Hadrian's Wall

Following  the old Roman Road on Hadrian’s Wall Path

Hadrian's Wall Path Hiking

Despite the popularity of the trail, in June it didn’t feel crowded. Hikers can spread out along the 80 miles and enjoy the pastoral scenery and their own solitude

Hadrian's Wall Walk near Birdoswald

Meet Tiff and Gran. This grandmother/granddaughter duo were hiking the trail together. The Brits are a hardy lot and I find it encouraging that, for them, hiking is not just for young people.

UK Hiking Hadrian's Wall Path Carol Guttery

Outfitted in my Gore-Tex battle armour, I will defend my patch of the wall.

The True Guardians of Hadrian’s Wall

There are 15 million head of sheep in England and many of them have been pressed into service guarding the wall. That grass may be green because of England’s prodigious rain, but rest assured that the grassland along Hadrian’s Wall is well fertilized due to the careful ministrations of the guardian sheep.

Sheep on Hadrian's Wall

This guardian of the wall took her job very seriously

Sheep on Hadrian's Wall

Heavy wool sweaters characterize the typical soldier uniform. Much warmer than those skirt thingies that the Roman soldiers wore. No wonder they needed a hot bath

Rams on Hadrian's Wall path

These rams work in pairs to monitor movement of the hordes of hikers

Sheep walking Hadrian's Wall Path

Patrolling a section of the wall

Tiny Gate Hadrian's Wall

Lest the sheep escape their paddocks, this wee little gate allows hikers to pass through private lands. Doesn’t it look like something from the Shire?

50 Shades of Green on Hadrian’s Wall Path

The popularity of Hadrian’s Wall path is certainly driven by the its architectural history and the hiker’s love of a bracing long walk. But it wouldn’t be such a popular hiking trail were it not for the eye candy. Rolling countryside punctuated by bracingly steep crags. Grassy fields punctuated by groves of trees. The wall was built on defensible high ground, assuring that hikers, two millenia later, would be treated to grand views that seems to encompass all of England.

Poppy in the Wheat Field England

Knee deep in wheat and poppies

Hotbank Crags Hadrian's Wall

Hotbank Crags are one of the steepest parts of the wall path. No need to dig a ditch here

Beech and Pine on Hadrian's Wall

A copse of beech and pine forest along the wall

Sycamore Gap Hadrian's Wall

This sycamore tree guards the gap between two craggy segments of the trail

I could have rented a car and driven to the key sites along the trail. But by choosing to walk Hadrian’s Wall path, I got to visualize myself as a Roman soldier, patrolling the wall. Slowly traversing the countryside made me better able to appreciate the scale and ambition of the wall. And the countryside rewarded me with intimate views like the sheep in their pastures and epic views like the steep crags.

If you are interested in hiking the wall, check out my 4-day 40 mile hiking itinerary and my packing list for a UK hiking and sightseeing trip. I also encourage you to get the “Hadrian’s Wall Path” guidebook by Henry Stedman. It has detailed maps and tons of practical information to help you organize your own hike.

For more hiking inspiration, check out

Your Parting Shot

Windshields Crags Hadrian's Wall

Windshields Crags

Inspire others to patrol the wall….Pin it!

Guarding the old border between England and Scotland, Hadrian's Wall path offers hikers a beautiful way to patrol the England's Roman history

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