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Hadrian’s Wall History

The Roman Empire was founded in 27BC, with Augustus being their first Emperor. Due to outstanding organisation and military skill, they soon began to conquer neighbouring lands. Between 110-350AD they controlled a vast region that stretched across southern and eastern Europe, around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, past Babylon, down to the Persian Gulf, across north Africa and to the north, it went as far as what is north England today. This covered an area of 3,500 miles across and 2,000 miles north to south.

Whilst conquering distant lands had advantages in terms of acquiring natural resources and taxing the locals, it did spread their manpower thinly and over such a vast area it was only a matter of time before cracks started to appear in the structure. They eventually had to trim back their boundaries, but in fairness, this did take more than 200 years.

In the meantime they marked their boundaries in various ways. There were obvious natural boundaries such as seas and rivers that provided ideal marker lines and these included the Rhine, Danube, Tigris and Euphrates. Other methods included ditches, roadways, timber constructions, invisible lines and occasionally walls.

The Romans first came to Britain in 55BC under Julius Caesar. Indeed it was they, who in calling the place ‘Britannia’, gave us our modern day name. The Romans were continuing their conquest of Gaul (present day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, western Switzerland and western Germany) and Britain was next on the agenda. Trading merchants had warned the British tribes of an imminent invasion and some tribes sent ambassadors to Gaul to offer submission before they arrived. The Romans crossed from Boulogne on August 23rd taking across 80 ships and about 10,000 men. They headed for Dover, but in seeing a mass gathering of British defenders on the cliff tops, headed seven miles east to Walmer, near Deal. The large ships struggled to reach land and the troops had to disembark into the water. There were skirmishes near the coast for a couple of days as the Brits resisted and during this time, Caesar waited for 500 cavalry horses and troops to arrive to complete his army. But due to a fierce storm, the cavalry boats, which had left from a different port, had to turn around, leaving Caesar without his main attacking force. To compound the problem, a number of his ships were wrecked in port by the conditions. Caesar made small incursions inland, but used the trip as more of a reconnaissance mission and returned to Gaul.

Around ten months later, on July 6th 54BC, he returned. This time with an enormous flotilla of 800 ships together with five full legions, full support and 2,000 cavalry. He landed between Deal and Sandwich, with most of his ships being custom built to allow them to beach – this he learned from the mistakes of the previous year. By a bizarre coincidence, again during the British summer, there was another monumental storm and 40 of his ships were wrecked in port, so the choice of landing was a lesson he didn’t learn; but he pressed on.

The southern tribes initially grouped together to repel the Romans and were led by Cassivellaunus who was king of the Catuvellauni. He was in a strong position, but when his allies went over to the Roman side he became outnumbered. They revealed his location at Wheathampstead and he surrendered. Surrender conditions were agreed, treaties signed, hostages taken and taxes pledged. A plaque seen today in Devil’s Dyke commemorates this event. Caesar installed Rome-friendly Mandubracius of the Trivantes tribe as king and again returned to Gaul. Tribal life continued and it’s not even certain if the taxes and pledges were ever paid.

The main tribe that inhabited the south of the country at the time was the Catuvellauni who were the dominant force and occupied the areas of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire today and their base was in Colchester, which became known as Camelodunum. There were also the Dumnonii of Cornwall/Devon, Durotriges of Somerset/Devon, Belgae of Somerset/Hampshire, Atrebates of Wiltshire, Dobunni of Gloucester, Regnenses of Surrey/Sussex, Cantiaci of Kent, Trinovantes of Suffolk/Essex and the Iceni of Norfolk. 

Whilst Britain wasn’t under Roman occupation, there still became a huge Roman influence in everyday life, mostly through the traders. Before the Romans, Britain had been an Iron Age nation whose inhabitants couldn’t read or write, but this started to change as Britain became ever more Romanised. Through their conquests, the Romans had acquired huge cultural diversity, with much deriving from the ancient Greeks. Britain was now being introduced to these modern ways.

Over the ensuing years there became much squabbling and friction between the British tribes, this not helped by some tribes becoming faithful to Rome and others staying independent. The Catuvellauni began to expand their territory and it’s understood that Verica, king of the Atrebates travelled to Rome to appeal for help and this is what is thought to have prompted the next Roman invasion.

In 43AD Claudius came over with 4 legions which were II Augusta, IX Hispana, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix with half the troops being pure Roman soldiers and the other half foreign conscripts. Whilst the invasion was under Claudius, he didn’t actually travel, and the force was led by Aulus Plautius who became the first Governor of Britain. The invaders are believed to have crossed from Boulogne to Richborough on the south east coast, a port that offered more shelter than the places Caesar landed decades before.

Some tribes welcomed them as they provided security to those who were Rome friendly, whilst others retaliated, but against such a well organised and armed force, this was futile. When victory in the south east was achieved, Claudius arrived from Rome to receive the official surrenders of eleven chieftains in a ceremony that was held in Colchester. He had elephants brought over for effect. Claudius returned to Rome, leaving his general to continue the conquest.

The people of Rome and the Senate expected a lot from Roman Emperors in those days and if they weren’t successful they were soon replaced and over the years a large number were assassinated. Caesar had been assassinated and Tiberius, who followed  Augustus, met the same fate. After Caligula, his son by Agrippina, was assassinated, Claudius, the brother-in-law of Agrippina, became Emperor. So it was a pretty fraught time and as his appointment was frowned on in some quarters of Rome, it’s felt that his invasion of Britain helped Claudius gain favour with the people.

After a great military victory, the Romans would honour the returning Emperor or member of the imperial dynasty with a parade called a ‘triumph’. A minor form, and for those of lesser rank, was called an ‘ovation’ and this is what Plautius received upon returning to Rome in 47AD.

Whilst the Romans took the south east, the Catuvellauni were still the dominant force further afield and they were led by Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus. To repel the Roman invasion Caratacus attempted to form a coalition of all British tribes, but was unsuccessful as some tribes preferred the security of a Roman alliance, even if it did mean paying taxes. Caratacus made a stand and fought a pitched battle near the Medway and again near the Thames. He was defeated, but escaped to south Wales which was the home of the Silures and a place where his resistence and leadership gained him legendary status.

The Romans moved west down to Dorset with the II Augusta under the leadership of Vespasian, himself a future Roman Emperor, before moving on to Exeter. Within a couple of years they had control of all the country below a diagonal line from the Severn estuary up to the Humber. The Hispana legion went up to Lincoln.

The Romans consolidated their position in Britain by building forts, roads and bridges and the whole infrastructure allowed them to move swiftly and rule effectively and in 50AD they established the port of Londinium, today’s London. They also brought culture that most Britons had never seen before and this changed many people’s lives. Towns and cities were designed in an organised fashion, with new road systems, services and modern administrative methods. European clothing became popular and the latest tiles and furnishings were introduced. Britain now changed a great deal from the general tribal existence of Iron Age times.

Caratacus moved up to north Wales, hoping to find the ideal location to defeat the invaders and from Snowdonia he moved to the north Wales/Shropshire border and this is where he was again defeated. He had become the legendary Caradog of Welsh folklore. He fled north, seeking refuge with the Brigantes, but their Queen, Cartimandua, who was an ally of Rome betrayed him, handing him over to the Romans who paraded him in Rome prior to his planned execution. Caratacus was given permission to address the Senate and he included the lines of ‘do you expect us to simply accept your slavery without resistance’ and ‘with all these fine buildings, why do you need our poor huts’ and he made the point that the Romans’ defeat of such a noble and determined leader as himself showed what a glorious victory it was. His speech was so powerful, that he was pardoned by Claudius and subsequently lived with his family in Rome.

Agrippina eventually assassinated Claudius, with her son Nero becoming Emperor, who, seemingly in keeping with the general tradition, ordered the assassination of his mother before later committing suicide.

The Silures were defeated in 61AD and the Romans moved north through Wales to take the island of Anglesey, home of the Druids, this ending with the Menai Massacre. But as this was happening, the Iceni revolted. Their king, Prasutagus, had died and had been succeeded by his wife Queen Boudicca (or Boadicea). The Romans didn’t approve of the female succession and took their land, they also degraded the Queen and her daughters. The Iceni and surrounding tribes revolted, attacking and destroying many Roman towns and cities with the loss of thousands of Roman lives. Things came to a head at the Battle of Watling Street and the Romans restored order. A statue of Boudicca can be seen today by Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament.

Shortly afterwards, in 63AD and in contrast to the relentless battles and bloodshed, Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Glastonbury as the first Christian missionary to Britain.

Under Claudius the Romans had established a treaty with the north through Queen Cartimandua, establishing the Brigantes as a client tribe, and the Romans provided support for her against other tribes. But in 69AD, as she appealed for help and resources weren’t available to support her, she was overthrown and the area became hostile again. As the Romans pushed north to subdue the area, they built their main fort in York (named Eboracum), this in 71AD. New forts were also established at Caerleon in south Wales and in Chester in around 75AD.

By 78AD the Romans had returned to north Wales and defeated both the Ordavices and the Druids, which now saw them control the whole of Britain up to Carlisle near where the Scottish border is today. This was under the new governor, Julius Agricola, who was a fine military general.

The Romans then pushed further north in an attempt to conquer the whole of Britain. They met fierce resistance and progress was slow, being interrupted at one point by civil war in Rome. The main road north from Dover to the main base in York was called Watling Street and Dere Street then continued further north to Corbridge, which was a major fort in the north east. Dere Street was then extended north as the Romans pushed on, this being one of two roads that ran through the Wall, the other being at Carlisle.

Under Agricola, the Romans invaded Caledonia in 80AD and gradually moved further and further north. By 84AD they had reached the north tip of Britain and had defeated the Caledonians in the battle of Mons Graupius, with the enemy suffering 10,000 casualties. When reaching the north point Agricola instructed a vessel to sail around the northern coast to ensure Britain was indeed an island. One of the forts they built at the time was at Cawdor, near Inverness.

The invasion of north Britain had been tough and supply lines had been stretched, with the Roman fleet keeping the legions supplied by sailing up the coast. Military setbacks in the Balkans saw troops recalled from Britain so Agricola withdrew to the Forth/Clyde line before he withdrew further to the Newcastle/Bowness line. This was to the ‘Stanegate’, the road between Corbridge in the east to Carlisle in the west.

By 87AD the Romans began to vacate the northern part and in 105AD Trajan ordered the complete withdrawal back to the line of the Stanegate.

Many believe Trajan to have been the finest Roman Emperor of all time. He had a warrior mentality and the Empire expanded rapidly under his rule. In contrast to Trajan, Hadrian was a consolidator and began to fortify existing boundaries, rather than push on and on as Trajan had done, but Hadrian was held in as high esteem as Trajan.

This northern limit ran from Newcastle to Corbridge and then on to Carlisle, and this was marked by a major road, the aforementioned ‘Stanegate’. During the next thirty years, the area became increasingly hostile from the Brigantes and it was at this point that Emperor Hadrian arrived, this was in 112AD and he was 46 years old. Far from earlier days of emporial strife, this was now a Golden Age in Rome with five exceptional Emperors ruling during this time, one after the other. Nerva ruled in 96-98, Trajan 98-117, Hadrian 117-138, Antonius Pius 138-161 and Marcus Aurelius 161-180.

Hadrian ordered the building of a wall, from coast to coast, which was a method used to define a boundary near the River Rhine and this task was given to Aulus Platorius Nepos. Some felt it was an admission that he could conquer no further, but he considered it an awesome spectacle which sent a message to those to the north of it. He felt any further expansion to the north would be fairly futile due to the hostile climate and lack of natural resources on offer. The wall stretched from Newcastle across to Bowness and on from that coastal fortifications were built for another 25 miles down the Cumbrian coast. The line of the Wall tended to be slightly further north than the low lying Stanegate and tended to take advantage of the Great Whin Sill, a natural geological feature that produced a high ridge, this mostly evident in the central section of the length of the Wall.

Twenty years later, after the reign of Hadrian, Emperor Antonius Pius pushed further north and instructed Governor Urbicus to build the 40 mile long ‘Antonine Wall’. This was built of turf and timber and stretched from the Forth to the Clyde. But after a further twenty years, in 162AD when Marius Aurelius became Emperor, this Wall was abandoned and the Romans retreated almost 100 miles back to Hadrian’s Wall and this is when the military road was built to the immediate south side of the Wall. For reconnaisance, forts were maintained in isolation north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Before Hadrian’s Wall there had been forts along the Stanegate, often a day’s march between sites and during the building of the Wall, these forts had played an important part, but geographically they were up to 3 miles away from the Wall. It was soon realised that, should an invasion take place, troops from the forts would have to travel miles to defend the boundary so it was decided to build forts on the Wall for immediate response. The Wall forts stretched from Maia (in Bowness) to Wallsend and subsequently on to South Shields on the east coast. In some places eg Housesteads and Chesters they were built over ‘milecastles’. There were 17 forts on the Wall.

Before they built the large Wall forts, for protection, the design was to build milecastles at every Roman mile, with two turrets at equal space between milecastles. There was thus a structure at every 500 yards… eg milecastle, turret, turret, milecastle, turret, turret, milecastle etc. The relatively short distance between positions allowed each position to be seen by the position on either side.

The Wall in general started in the east and worked west, but different sections were being built by different legions at the same time. There may have been a bit of conscripted local labour for mundane jobs, but in general the Romans provided the full workforce. They had expert architects, surveyors and engineers as well as masons, stone cutters, joiners, ditch teams and ground workers. Limestone was quarried for construction and was also used to extract lime by burning it. The lime was then used as a type of cement that when mixed with sand produced mortar and was used to create a firm bond between stones. It’s reckoned that the Wall took between 6-10 years to build and, whilst of no additional cost to the Romans as the resources were free and the soldiers were paid anyway, the cost if it was built today is reckoned to be around £100m. Three legions provided the manpower, the second Augusta legion from Caerleon in south Wales, the sixth Victrix from Chester and the twentieth Valeria Victrix from York. The Wall was divided into 5-6 mile work sections and started between milecastles 6 and 7 with the main construction taking place between April and October each year due to unsuitable weather in the winter.

Whilst there was a set design to start with, they adapted as they went along and one reason for this could have been a lack of convenient quarried stone. The broad wall width of early sections gave way to narrower widths after they reached the North Tyne River, but the narrower wall was then built on the wide foundations which had been built earlier on when they expected a continuation of the broad wall. The broad wall was about 10 feet wide and 18 feet high, this then narrowed to around 7 feet in width and once they reached the River Irthing, over half way to the west coast, they then decided to continue by constructing the Wall out of turf blocks and wooden posts. These milecastles going west were built out of turf and timber, but the turrets were built of stone. It’s believed that this was for speed as half a wall would be of limited use as the invaders would simply go around it. The turf wall was temporary and in later years it was replaced by stone, mostly sandstone. The standard construction of the wall (called the curtain wall) was of a solid base, which varied on ground conditions, with cube shaped stones on the outer two sides and odd shaped stones and rubble in the middle. The stones were bonded with mortar. The turf wall was built using blocks of turf approximately 18 x 12 x 6 inches in size (450 x 300 x 150 mm). Today turf Wall remains can be seen west of Birdosland, running behind the stone Wall and at Hare Hill, west of that.

The Wall, whilst impressive and formidable was only part of the frontier boundary. On the north side (the invaders side) the Romans dug a standard Roman ditch, this was ‘V’ shaped with the spoil that was dug heaped onto the north side of the ditch and then graded into a shallow slope so that invaders couldn’t hide behind it. Between this ditch and the Wall was a flat area of possibly 15 feet, this to prevent the wall from falling into the ditch. This flat area was called the ‘berm’. On the Roman side, there was another type of ditch and this was called ‘vallum’ and this ran parallel to the Wall. The vallum had a ditch with a flat bottom and sloping sides and was about ten feet deep. There were flat areas to either side of this ditch and then banks either side of the flat areas, these being built with the spoil from the vallum ditch. Between the Wall and the vallum was the military road, this having a cambered surface. So from the left, looking from the side, there was ditch, berm, Wall, military road, bank, flat area, ditch, flat area and bank. The vallum was sometimes a good distance from the Wall and was used to isolate the area between vallum and Wall as a military area, with the only crossings of the vallum being at designated places along the length of the Wall. There were around 17 forts along the route. The best example today of the vallum is in Denhill Park in Benwell, near Newcastle.

Around 10,000 troops guarded the line of the Wall and many of these were of non-Roman origin. Roman soldiers were well paid compared to locals and the army consisted of a large number of foreign conscripts, indeed it’s probable that a large number of soldiers guarding the Wall were British. Civilian settlements sprung up around the forts with soldiers families living there. Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry under Roman law, but many did under local law.

After the Antonine Wall was abandoned and the Romans withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall, the west part, from the Irthing to Bowness, previously built of turf was rebuilt in sandstone, with the first two miles to the west being built on a slightly different line.

Over the next few decades the Wall was becoming an increasingly hostile place. In 197AD the Caledonians and Maeatae put severe pressure on the line and as the Romans had limited troops, the Romans bought peace through payments. In 208 Severus ventured north of the Wall and whilst he defeated the aforementioned tribes, he lost 50,000 men. He then withdrew, and it was then, under his leadership, that the Wall was rendered with a lime wash plaster to give it a white colour.

The Romans had enjoyed a peaceful 3rd century, but then there was an uprising of the Picts, who were an amalgamation of a number of northern tribes.

In 395AD the great Roman Empire split in two, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. The Visigoths took Rome in 410AD, this the date that the Romans abandoned Britain, and after a defeat by the Germans in 476AD, the Western Roman Empire ended. The Eastern Empire carried on until the 15th century and it is generally thought that this ended when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, although it actually ended when they conquered the last Greek state ‘Trebizond’ in 1461.

As Roman defences weakened, other invaders appeared. The Jutes arrived in the late 4th century and the Anglo-Saxons followed in the 5th century.

The Romans having left Britain in 410AD, had patrolled the Wall right up until this time, but a bit like when the Berlin Wall came down in modern times, the locals soon started to dismantle parts of it as it provided an almost inexhausible supply of building stone, with locals using the stones to build houses, churches, field walls etc. In the 18th century General Wade, as part of the response to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, used stones to build a military roadway.

Whilst the pillaging of stone is seen now as unfortunate, it could have been a lot worse. A fellow called John Clayton, born in 1792, grew up in the area and his family bought the Chesters estate, and this was land that included the Chesters fort. To his father, the walls were an inconvenience and he had them covered over but young Clayton had a deep interest in archaeology. He became a wealthy lawyer and when he took over the estate he had his walls uncovered, but was dismayed at the dismantling that was happening in other places along the Wall. He then embarked on a sustained mission to purchase farm after farm along the route in order to save the monument. Whilst still a lawyer, he didn’t practice law on a Monday, but devoted that day every week to wall preservation. His farms provided money to fund restoration and he employed a workforce to carry out the job.

He excavated various sites and found a host of relics, displaying them in a garden pavilion which he opened to visitors. Following his death, his nephew displayed them in a permanent museum at Chesters and the Clayton Collection can be viewed today.

Today, plenty of what you see is down to John Clayton. For posterity, his face can be seen superimposed on the painting of a Roman centurian on display in Wallington Hall in Morpeth.

The Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is a huge tourist attraction.

 

Hadrian’s Wall Walk

Having done the Offa’s Dyke walk, Hadrian’s Wall seemed the obvious second trip and as a comparison, the latter was a fair bit easier. The gradients are much gentler than the great hills of Wales and at 86 miles, it’s obviously much shorter. Another thing that was easier was following the waymarker arrows – it was much more straightforward.

The obvious first question when considering the challenge is which way to do it – west to east or east to west. I did the former, finishing at Wallsend, which seemed logical, but I saw many walking the other way and most guidebooks I’ve seen show the east to west route.

Without prior knowledge or research it’s easy to think that there’s ‘wall’ all along, but like Offa’s Dyke, the remains are sporadic, but in fairness much more impressive than Offa’s Dyke when you come across them. Basically, if you divided the length into three, you’d find most of the remains of the wall in the middle third and these are sometimes enhanced by a nearby museum or visitor centre. This central part is ideal for those who just want to visit the ‘best bits’ and aren’t bothered about the full walk, and to see these they can either walk or drive between them.

If walking west to east, the trail starts in Bowness-on-Solway, a village about 12 miles west of Carlisle, and in doing it, you walk along the Solway Firth, looking over the short stretch of water to the Scottish mainland. Although close to Scotland at this point, the wall line doesn’t represent the English/Scottish border as that becomes further and further north as the wall makes its way towards Newcastle. The walking is all at sea level at the start and in doing 24 miles on the first day, I didn’t have a material gradient to climb, noticing no hills of any sort. This was ideal as it was easy walking.

An early part of the walk is along a dead straight road of maybe three miles and which is a tidal stretch. At high tide the road becomes under water, although as the signs assure you, this is ‘only’ to a maximum of twelve inches. For walking, if needed, there’s a bank to walk along the top of, and this is well above the water level and on the inland side of the road. The grassy coastal lowland is a pasture for cows and what seems like hundreds of them roam around freely, even on the road. Moving on, you pass through the small villages of Port Carlisle, Glasson, Drumburgh and Burgh by Sands before you join the River Eden at Beaumont. This gives some wonderful views as you head towards Carlisle. You miss the built up area and pass through some great parks as well as the Sheepshank Sports Centre which has a running track and arena. If you need refreshments, the tennis centre in the earlier park and the sports centre here are good places to stop before moving on. Coming out of Carlisle you stay in sight of the river and pass the edge of a golf course before you head into the rural countryside.

For my trip, preparation was fairly minimal and I found myself driving up the M6 wondering whether to turn right and park my car at the end of the day’s walk and get the bus to the start at Solway, or drive left to the start and get the bus back at the end of the day. The ideal way is to do the walk in one go. It’s 86 miles long which, in theory, you could do in three days if you averaged 29 miles a day. This would be around two to three miles an hour and would be fairly tiring, but you can certainly go too fast and in saving a day, could miss a host of detail that would make the walk much more enjoyable. Four days would thus seem sensible and many people I saw on the walk did it in five. Having said that, it may be that some would prefer a much shorter walk each day eg 8 or 10 miles and simply take longer. You tailor it to your needs.

I arrived at the start and started the walk from Bowness at about 7.45am on a Saturday and walked through the morning, getting to the Sheepshank Sports Centre, which was 14 miles away, by 12.30pm. After a 20 minute stop for food and a 10 minute stop later at the Stag pub in Crosby, I got to Newtown at 4.10pm. It was only then that I decided to look at plans to carry on or go back to the car. I’d planned to walk only a day as the weather forecast for the following day was poor and this made travelling on the walk easier as I left behind the tent and clothes etc that I’d need for an overnight stop and just carried my camera and a jumper. Coming into Newtown at the 24 mile mark, I still had, potentially at that time of the year, another four hours walking and could have done well over thirty but looking at the map ahead, I’d have just been walking further and further away from the bus route and, I have to say, my body was feeling a bit stiff and sore.

I asked what time buses went through Newtown and was told that the odd one came through now and again and I’d be better off walking to Brampton which was two and a half miles away – hardly the trek you want after a long walk, but it seemed a good option. I got the bus from Brampton, arriving in Carlisle by 5.30pm and got back to Bowness by around 6.45pm.

Doing the path this way in stages is fine, but not always easy to pick the path up again if you leave it in a fairly remote place and do it alone. In my case I’d have to work out the logistics of getting back to Newtown whilst leaving my car in a convenient place.

The thing that you need to be aware of, and certainly in summer with the light evenings which allow late walking, is that the museum and visitor centres of the mainly middle section will probably close at around 6.00pm and, if you haven’t planned properly may find yourself walking past on a warm summer’s evening and miss them. Good planning is important, certainly on this middle section.

If you do a walk like this, and certainly if you’re not used to walking long distances, be aware that foot soreness, blisters etc can be a problem. Blister plasters are good and a pair of shoes a touch too big worked well for me.

…….

It was now around nine months later, around the middle of the next summer and I decided to resume. The first need was to get to Newtown and, rather than drive to Brampton where the main bus route is and walk up the hill to Newtown to the start, I decided to park my car in Newtown itself and worry about getting back there at the end of the walk.

It was a Wednesday evening and I parked my car at 8.20pm during a fine weather spell and started on the 62 mile trek. I reckoned to have around two hours of walking time that night and duly found myself just over four and a half miles down the route and approaching Banks when I decided to camp for the night. It was 10.20pm. It was out in the wild and you certainly hear all the nocturnal noises with a fox passing at around 11.30 and 4.30 and probably plenty of times in between, but I was fast asleep after a fairly long drive and a good walk.

The early mornings are bizarre in the countryside with the sun out and the wildlife starting to chirp at around 4.00am, but I waited until 6.00am before I packed my tent away and carried on. Mindful that there aren’t regular shops on these kind of walks, I’d packed food and drink and reckoned that this should keep me going until I next came across refreshments. The strange thing (without proper planning!) is that you can pass through what looks like a decent sized village on the map and find no sign of a shop. 

Around Banks you start to get a foretaste of things to come with extensive stretches of ‘vallum’ and remains of isolated towers and turrets. These are all wonderfully maintained and the plaque on the site gives you plenty of information. Vallum is the name given to the vast ditches dug along the route and a good map will show locations of all. Further along you start to hit stretches of wall and this is where good research and a keen eye for detail kick in. Don’t be fooled into thinking a farmer’s stone wall is the Roman one. The standard construction of the Roman wall seems to be around four feet across with cube shaped stones on the outer sides, built in courses like bricks, and to fill the middle they used all the rounded and odd shaped stones. They are stuck together with a type of mortar. The first sight of the Wall is amazing, the next bit great, then fascinating, then Wall just becomes the norm, then it’s almost boring!

The first major site I came across was Birdoswald – this was around mile 33 and was at about 7.30am (I got to mile 29 of the route by the end of Wednesday evening). This is a fairly extensive site and shows many foundations and it seems likely, as suggested above, that the upper walls over the centuries have been demolished to provide locals with stones for building houses and field walls. But with just low walls you can easily see the site layout, which is perfect. There’s quite a nice Victorian house on the site, built by a couple of brothers many years ago and in it is the visitor centre… even better when you visit during opening hours!

After another mile or so of Wall, you approach Gilsland. You actually cross the road by a school as soon as you approach it and you thus seem to bypass the village, unless you plan to stop. At the time of writing. the direction marker had broken off and it’s easy then to unwittingly follow the road into the village as I found out. There’s certainly at least a tea room and pub there.

Greenhead came a couple of miles later and the path passes through a small car park with a cafe. It was now 10.00am. This place was ideal as there were drinks/ice creams etc, maybe even snacks, and a short distance up the road was a Roman museum. This had a cafe. These two facilities are just before you hit the Crags. To me this was the highlight of the trip. It’s was the start of a ten mile stretch mainly across clifftops with extensive stretches of Wall built along the top. This must have been such a daunting sight for the people north of the Wall. Along these Crags come a few steep climbs, not like going up mountains, but they are small hill sections which test you.

There are a few sections of Wall along the top of the Crags, often around half a mile, so fairly extensive and as the views north are incredible it’s a good idea to take your camera. You pass Steel Rigg and see the white hostel near Once Brewed at the bottom of the hill to the south, these at around the halfway point of the route (mile 43). Around here also is the highest point of the route as you continue along the clifftop. One word of warning here – there’s a point on the path with a steep drop to the side. One step off the path and the gully drops down a couple of hundred feet. The rest of the path seemed about three yards from the edge and as the path also runs a few feet lower than the edge of the cliff, it seemed no danger, just great views. This gully was a shock and the potential for an accident is obvious.

Carrying on, lakes loom below the cliffs and you make your way to Housesteads, which comes at around mile 45. It was now somewhere in the region of 2.45pm and I needed food/drink and a good 30 minutes to rest my feet. The site is the remains of an extensive fort and you could spend hours there. There’s a small museum and visitor centre, but down the hill there’s a much larger one with a cafe. When walking the route, many would be loathe to lose altitude and visit the museum as you’d have to walk back up. If you were strolling the route it would be no problem and highlights the fact that you can do the walk too quickly and miss important parts.

I was out of food and drink and the upper visitor centre had plenty of drinks, but foodwise only crisps, ice cream and a few sweets. The guy in the shop told me that the next place to eat on the route would be Chollerford, around 9 miles on. This is where planning kicks in. If this Housesteads centre had been closed eg 6.00pm, I’d have had no food/drink and the prospect of at least 9 miles more without. If I could continue, I may then have gone through Chollerford when shops were shut, although there’s a decent hotel there so I’m sure I could have got food/drink at most times. It highlights the fact that, unless you plan your itinerary well, you need to have an idea what villages are to the side of the route. By this I mean that if hungry or thirsty, you may find that a half hour walk to the side will take you into a village that has refreshments, but there may be none straight on.

Carrying on to Chollerford you eventually join the B6318 road and take the path alongside, mostly through field edges and you come across sections of vallum and the occasional small Roman site. Passing the Temple of Mithras at around 5.00pm, a site far less impressive than its grand name it has to be said, I passed two guys who looked a little forlorn and had reached the end of their journey for some reason – tiredness, injury, I’m not sure. How were they getting back? they were miles from anywhere – they didn’t know. This again highlights the Plan B scenario with maps, phones, bus routes etc being essential. I walked on towards Chollerford and passed Chesters Fort on the approach to it. This closes at 6.00pm and was duly shut. Thirst and hunger were my main priority though and when I came into Chollerford I saw the George Hotel in front of me. It was a grand, idyllic hotel with a river running by and I noticed a group of local swimmers doing a mile or so in the river from the hotel in the early evening heat.

It was 6.40pm. Logistically, I now knew I could make Wallsend by the next night, but would need a decent evening stint to do so. A 7.30pm departure from the hotel would be perfect as it would allow me nearly an hour’s rest and the prospect of around five miles more before nightfall.

When eating in the restaurant, fellow diners were the two guys from Mithras. They’d dropped lucky as a couple visiting the site were staying at the George and took them there before they made their way to the local station. A couple of hours before they were isolated and in the middle of nowhere and now they were offering me red wine in the restaurant of the best hotel in the area!

The good thing about the Hadrian’s Wall route is that it runs along the line of Carlisle and Newcastle, two major cities. The obvious implication is that it’s a popular stretch with trains and buses running along the route. In fact there’s even the Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus that runs between Penrith, Carlisle and then on to Newcastle, seemingly stopping at every site and village on the way. They seem to run about every three hours, certainly in the summer.

Leaving the George I moved on, wanting to reach mile 60 by nightfall and I duly came down the hill to the Errington Arms at 9.45pm, having passed miles of vallum along the way. Drinks were again welcome as well as snacks for the morning. I camped nearby.

This was to be my last day and an extra half an hour walking in the morning would do me no harm so at 5.30am on a glorious morning I moved on. I felt in great shape, my legs felt as though they’d done something, but were fine and my feet were fine. My shoulders felt a touch sore from the backpack, but nothing to worry about.

Apart from bits of vallum and a bit of Wall at Heddon, there’s no noticeable Roman bits between here and the finish, which is around 26 miles. I reckoned it would take around 13 hours so I would finish at around 6.30pm. I saw the early morning wildlife and went past the nature reserve just before Harlow Hill, before making my way to Heddon where I passed the Three Tuns pub and crossed the road to a petrol station with a small supermarket. It was now 9.50am. I could get anything I needed here and the funny thing is that my main craving was fruit drinks and things like ice lollies and sweets – it must be the sugar as I certainly didn’t crave more wholesome food. My feet were starting to feel a bit sore and dry socks had run out, only sweaty ones left.

I was now at mile 71, 15 miles to go. It had seemed a doddle up until about a mile or so before, but now things started to get tougher. Blisters started to appear on my feet and they can turn an easy downhill walk into a painful experience and fifteen miles is no short distance normally let alone under these conditions. Maybe dry socks would have prevented the blisters, but I’m not sure. The heat was a factor also, being in a 3 day spell that was by far the hottest that year.

The path signage isn’t good through Heddon, but you make your way down the hill, past the golf course to the river. You have about two miles along what is a great path for walkers and cyclists before you hit the built up area. With around ten miles to go I passed Lemington and saw a sign saying that the Lemington Centre welcomes Path walkers. Without the planning of B&B’s etc the mentality is that as soon as you see a place offering food/drink, you take it. It’s a community centre, had great food and even had a shower – great after two nights in the wild!

I was now around 9 miles from the end and started playing mind games as I reasoned that in a mile’s time I’d be at 8 miles from the end and be about a mile from seeing the first bridge, then at 7 miles I should see the first bridge, at 6 miles to go I would be at the first bridge, at 5 miles I’d be past the last bridge and then be only 2 miles from 3 miles to go! But no matter how you present it it can be a long way, certainly if every step is painful. With the bridges come city life, shops and drink opportunities and then later along the riverside, a cycling cafe. Then it’s really a push to the finish along the river. It sounds idyllic, but in reality is a little murky and industrialised – not the kingfishers and fly fisherman that no doubt frequent parts upriver. A couple of miles along the river are followed by the last couple past houses and industrial units on the way to Segedunum.

I hit the first bridge coming into the city at around 3.40pm and knew the Segedunum Fort visitor centre, the finishing point, closed at 5.00pm. Past the bridges and about two miles from the end there’s a new set of steps which take you up the hill away from the river. At about half a mile to go I decided to take my rucksack off to check the time, something I’d resisted for miles. It was 4.48pm… 12 minutes to closing! Thoughts of finishing the walk, getting to the door as a person locked it and mouthed ‘closed’ to me through the glass occurred and I upped the speed. Thankfully I got there with 5 minutes to spare. They offered to stamp a ‘passport’ – presumably this is something that you get at one end and get stamped at the other.

When finishing you may have the logistical problem of getting back to the start. From Wallsend it’s fairly straightforward. Go out of the main doors at the Segedunum Centre and turn left (up the hill) for about 150 yards. You’ll see the Metro (rail) sign and also see a group of bus stops together in one road. If you take the Metro, I think it’s three stops to Newcastle centre. I took the bus (no.12 or 40 at the time of writing) and you should ask for Eldon Square if you need to get back to Newcastle and a bus to the Path start. It costs about £2.50 to Newcastle. After about 15 stops you come into the city centre and on the left hand side you see a huge monument right next to the pavement. The bus stop is about 50 yards further on. You then cross the road, walk across Eldon Square, through the main shopping mall door (by Starbucks) and walk through the mall (about 50 yards) and you’ll see that an end of the mall is the inside of the bus station. (At the time of writing) go to the left hand door (of around eight) and look for the 685 bus to Carlisle. To Brampton, one stop short of Carlisle, it cost £6.20. The buses went every hour. I got the 18.45 and after a change at Hexham, got to Brampton at 20.30. The two and a half miles up the hill to Newtown took about an hour and after changing and driving back into Brampton for something to eat, I drove home.

How long to do the walk? Every individual case would be different with regards to speed and time available but the following could give an idea. I met two guys who were just past the midpoint and it had taken them three days to get there. I met a couple who were doing 12 miles a day. The guys in the restaurant said that they were going to come back and do it in four days. A group of eight friends of mine had done it in three days and had done it very sensibly. They had acquired a 12 seater minibus and a friend to drive, with this support vehicle waiting an agreed distance ahead – maybe 4, 6 or 8 miles on. They could even phone for the vehicle to come back if needed. This way they need walk with nothing more than a water bottle.

A slight variant on this is the Sherpa Van service. These run along the route, picking luggage up at one place eg a B&B and dropping it off at the next, at the end of your days walk. I think the charges are moderate.

There’s a hostel at the route midpoint and my friends had stayed there both nights, driving possibly 15 miles ahead to it on the first evening (before being ferried back next morning) and then being picked up and driven around 15 back the next evening. The beauty of this is that all food and clothing are available in the minibus plus change of footwear etc.

If I strung my hours together I’d have done it in around two and a half days, but I’d never dream of claiming such a time for two reasons. Firstly, it was in two parts – it would be a bit like telling someone your marathon running time and then saying that you did the first eight miles last year and the last 18 this year! Secondly, with the state of my feet and the pain of walking, I can’t think of anything worse to have to have done than walk another 24 miles after my two day walk – I don’t think I could have done it. It’s fine doing the first 24 miles and then coming out fresh for the next part, but if I’d carried on I’d have been in the pain I was in for the last 15 miles a lot earlier in the walk and also in the hills. If I was going to do it again, and again carry a pack, I’d probably aim to do it in a sensible four days, but remember that foot problems can change plans.

Other things to remember are that if walking in a group it may not be ideal if you’re the fastest or slowest unless you realise the situation before you start. If you’re going to do the trip amongst a group of friends do consider doing much walking beforehand eg go together for a 15 or 20 mile walk and you can appreciate the length and effect on your body (and friends) and it will make you stronger for the event. It can also turn a miserable trip (if unfit) into a wonderful one – well worth the training.

Another factor in talking in terms of days is how many walking hours in a day. I’m not a fast walker, but a steady plodder and I had a low number of days as I had a high number of hours per day and remember that the further you do it from the end of June, the less daylight you have.

To summarise I’d say 2-3 days is Army/athletic, 4 days is for those in pretty good cardiovascular condition, 5 days is a good steady walk for a group not necessarily athletic. Six and seven would often be couples who do 12-14 miles a day with plenty of stops, and one guide book tells you to do it in 10 days, which seems sensible to see all. My advice would be to pick your band and add a day and make the most of it – it’s a look back at history, not a time trial!

Further advice… you walk through many cattle fields – I didn’t see a bull, but keep your eyes open. I spotted plenty of cows with calves though and saw many warning signs of if the cow becomes aggressive towards your dog, let go of the lead. So even if you don’t have a dog, give them a wide berth to pacify them and remember that these usually docile animals can be aggressive.

Which direction to go? Makes no difference, but I think more do Wallsend to Bowness – and there may be a  car park at Wallsend where you can leave your car if needed. And ending in the west has a nicer finish for this type of countryside walk, not the built up area of the City of Newcastle.

How much of the route do you do? The pure way is to start at one end and finish at the other – a bit like running the aforementioned marathon. Personally, I just wanted to see the route so wasn’t bothered about this and others go a stage further and simply do the bit in the middle. I saw dozens of people in the middle section, walking between sites, but relatively few in the end thirds so walking the middle twenty or thirty miles or so must be popular.

Weather… it’s obviously good to pick good weather if you possibly can and being able to do the route at short notice can pay dividends for this reason. I can imagine it could be a miserable trek if cold and wet.

For me, it was a wonderful adventure, a great challenge and I highly recommend it.