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It was April 2022, and we were heading for Northumbria and the Scottish Border on our ‘shake-down’ trip with the new camper van. If the van was new, Border Collie ‘Mist’ was starting to show her age at last (14+ years) but she was still capable of walking around 10kms, as long as there wasn’t too much steep up-and-down. Our last walk out a couple of days earlier had been over Gowbarrow in the Lake District (see post #317) and had been just right for the old dog.
The plan was to increase the distance slightly but reduce the height gain, to work out what ‘Mist’ was capable of. Neither Chris nor I, or the dog for that matter, had walked any of Hadrian’s Wall, but it was on the way to the Northumbrian coast where we were heading, so that became the plan. Although the line of the wall does go up and down quite a lot, it’s easy to avoid much of the height gain and loss by following a parallel route. So, that’s what we did.
If you’re British, you probably know a bit about the history of the wall, but for those who come from a different part of the world, or skipped school on the day that Hadrian’s Wall was taught, here’s a quick rundown. In 500 BC, Rome was a mere city-state, but over the next 500 years, that city-state expanded to conquer the lands surrounding the Mediterranean before continuing to take modern-day France, Belgium and Holland. In 55 BC, Julius Caesar (yes, that one!) set his sights on the island just off the French coast, known to the Romans as Britannia.
Things didn’t go well for Caesar, as the British tribes who inhabited that offshore island were not too keen on becoming part of the Roman Empire. Caesar gave the project up as a bad job, and the Brits were left alone until 43 AD when the Emperor Claudius decided to have a go. The British were still an uppity lot and around 122 AD Emperor Hadrian decided on a substantial wall to mark the northern extent of Roman Britain.
The wall that bears Hadrian’s name was built from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east, to Bowness-on-Solway near Carlisle in the west – we know this because (1) the winners write the history books and (2) an amazing amount of the 73 mile wall and its forts are still clearly visible, almost 2000 years later.
Construction of the fort known as Vercovicium by the Romans, but later named Housteads after the nearby 19th Century farmhouse, started around the same time that work started on the wall. It is the best-preserved Roman fort in the UK, and was part of a network of forts, mile castles and turrets along the length of the wall. The wall and forts were more than defensive locations though, they were also a statement – “We’re here and we’re staying here”! And stay they did, for the next 300 years or so.
At this point in this blog post, some readers will already be viewing with glazed eyes, so time to start walking! The scenery around the wall is pleasant rather than dramatic, and if it wasn’t for the Roman ruins there probably wouldn’t be as many visitors to the area. Looking north into what were once barbarian lands, the views are of rolling countryside with forests in the distance – the main interest remains the wall.
Fifteen minutes of easy walking brought us to Milecastle 37, one of 80 or so milecastles along the wall. 16-32 soldiers would have been lodged here, probably changing watches on a rota system with the 800 men based at Vercovicium. The milecastles controlled movement from the badlands in the north to the civilised Roman-controlled lands south of the wall, and the milecastle is in pretty good nick for a building almost 2000 years old, as is Vercovicium.
Beyond Milecastle 37, the wall follows the line of high ground, using that high ground as a natural line of defence. The wall and ridge line would probably have given us better views, but in deference to the old collie, we followed a good green path running below and parallel to the wall, passing Hotbank Farm and Milecastle 38 before arriving at one of the best known sites for photographs, the famous Sycamore Gap – I’ll let you work out how it got its name!
So popular is Sycamore Gap, that I must have spent about fifteen minutes waiting to get people just where I wanted them for a photograph of the famous tree – I bet they didn’t have that problem when they used the tree as a location in ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ starring Kevin Costner. Once I had the shot I wanted, it was more ups and downs before we arrived at the dramatic drop down to Peel Farm.
We carried on for a short distance to get the classic view along the wall featuring Peel Crags, Highshield Crags and Crag Lough – a bit of a photographic cliché, but still a good view. Then it was time to turn round and retrace our steps – as you might have guessed, a walk along a wall is always going to be, err …linear?! It had been a gentle trip out for ‘Mist’ and after 10 kms she was still looking good. That’s the thing with dogs though, they’re just glad to be having a wander out with new strange smells to check out.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock