Built as a barrier between the ‘civilised’ Roman Empire to the south and the ‘marauding Scots’ to the North, Hadrian’s Wall is testament to Roman ambition and engineering skills. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site and one of England’s best historic sites. Several long sections of the wall remain fully intact and the remains of forts and ‘milecastles’, while in the most part reduced to foundations, provide a huge amount of information about the lives of soldiers and the communities that sprang up around them at this remote northern outpost. The wall crosses stark Northumberland scenery, making the sites all the more atmospheric and a great place to stretch the legs. Keep reading to find out about our favourite way to spend a few hours in the area.
Start by exploring Housesteads, the most well-preserved fort along the wall. It is set in a dramatic position high on an escarpment, looking out over the open expanses to the north. Housesteads is one of 16 permanent bases along Hadrian's Wall. It’s the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain and one of the very best places to see many of the original features of a Roman fort. Housesteads is run jointly by English Heritage and the National Trust and plenty of information is provided to help you understand the life of the soldiers and community that lived here.
The fort was built within a decade of AD 122, when construction of Hadrian’s Wall began, and was garrisoned by an infantry cohort of about 800 men until the end of the 4th century. At the very edge of their empire, the soldiers were secure and self-sufficient within the fort. They had a barracks block, hospital, Commander's House, granaries and communal toilets, all of which you can still see today. As well as the ruins themselves, take a bit of time to look around the visitor centre. While it’s quite small, there’s an interesting video which really puts the site and buildings into context. There’s also a fascinating collection of Roman artefacts, all excavated from the fort.
Housesteads is an excellent place to start a walk along one of the most well-preserved stretches of the wall, heading west from the fort. The path is clear and well-marked as it forms part of the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail – an 84 mile trail that runs from the Solway Firth on the west coast to the North Sea on the east. The route can be quite undulating (some sections are surprisingly steep) so just go as far as you feel comfortable with - you can just retrace your steps back along the wall back the same way!
If you want to spend a few hours on the wall, keep going to ‘Sycamore Gap’, one of the most recognisable parts of the wall –well-known for featuring in the film ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’! After about 2.5 miles, leave the wall at Steel Rigg and head down the minor road leading south from the wall. Just a couple of hundred metres down the road (turn right at the bottom of the road) stop at the Twice Brewed Inn. This traditional pub makes an ideal stop for a drink and, if you’ve timed it well, a bit to eat. Simple pub food is offered in a friendly environment and you can add a pin to the map on the wall showing where in the world people have travelled from to visit this remote seeming pub! There is outdoor seating as well at the back of the pub for when the sun is shining.
Suitably refreshed, you can either retrace your steps back along the wall to Housesteads or, if you want to extend the route and make it a circular walk, follow the trail from the Once Brewed Visitor centre and to one of the other key excavation sites in the area, Vindolanda (in fact, the area is still being excavated so on some days you will be able to watch the archaeologists at work). There’s a walk description for this route at the bottom of the page and will take about 5 hours to complete the route.
If you would like any help in planning your trip to Hadrian's Wall or would like a bespoke itinerary for a self-drive trip in Britain, please get in touch.