#318 – Housesteads Fort and Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall – Peel Crags (nearest) with Highshield Crags and the lake of Crag Lough in the distance

For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!

The Hadrian’s Wall area running from Carlisle to Newcastle

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 central section of Hadrian’s Wall near Haltwhistle / Haydon Bridge

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.

The route (in blue) from Housesteads to Peel and return

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.


Setting out to Vercovicium Roman Fort (AKA Housesteads) on a misty, moisty morning

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.

Border Collie ‘Mist’ checking out the remains of the fort, almost 2000 years old (the fort that is, not the dog!)

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.

The west walls of the fort of Vercovicium Fort, now known as Housesteads ….
…. still in a remarkably well-preserved state after almost 2000 years ….
…. and which will probably still be standing there in another 2000 years

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.

Looking north from the fort into ‘barbarian’ lands, with the mist just starting to lift in the distance
A section of Hadrian’s Wall, heading west from Housesteads
One of the best-preserved sections of Hadrian’s Wall, at one time the northern frontier of Roman Britain

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.

A helpful sign, just in case we forget where we are
Milecastle 37, one of the 80 milecastles built along the wall
A Roman’s view of the barbarian lands beyond the Roman-controlled wall
A final look into the milecastle

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.

The wall continues to the west ….
…. following the line of the high ground
The more recent farmhouse at Hotbank, adjacent to Milecastle 38
The wall continues over the bumps and dips ….
…. including the famous Sycamore Gap

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!

The wall beyond Sycamore gap ….
  …. with more ups and downs
The dramatic drop down at Peel ….
…. with a view of the remains of one of the turrets on the wall
Looking back to Peel Crags with its steep drop

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.

The classic view along the wall looking east, with Peel Crags, Highshield Crags and Crag Lough

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.

Heading back to Housesteads, with a final view of that tree

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
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2 Responses to #318 – Housesteads Fort and Hadrian’s Wall

  1. I’ve done quite a bit of that section but, strangely, have never seen Sycamore Gap (except on calendars). I wonder what they’ll do when the sycamore dies off? They’ll have to plant a new one.

    I do the Bowness-on-Solway section quite often on my pedal bike as that’s my local ride nowadays around that section of the coast. I include Anthorn (the mast station) and usually go to around Burgh-on-Sands and then back via a B road further inland. Nice cycling just there.


  2. Pingback: #319 – The Eildon Hills in the Scottish Borders | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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