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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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