Steve’s Sojourns, Hadrian’s Wall
The sun settled down as an orange disc behind the stark outline of Hadrian’s Wall, one of those once in life time moments you know you have to photograph a split second later I realised I’d left my camera in the car half a mile away. I also realised the next day that like so many people I had only visited the Wall itself when in fact there is tremendous amount to see all along its length.
The Wall was not built in isolation and in fact made up just a single part of a whole defensive system of forts, signal towers and observation posts some ten miles wide either side of it. Getting to all the sites we wanted to see was easy as the Romans very kindly built a road running all the way along it which is still in use to day (The B6318). This means that that you can walk, cycle (many sites now have safe lock up sites where you can leave your bike) or drive along the wall’s length.
We started our trip at Birdoswald on the Northumberland/Cumbria border. This place is unique because at no other point along the wall can all the components of the Roman Frontier system be seen in such a small area. The early turf wall built in AD 122 is still clearly visible, over the original fort. The turf wall, stone wall, Harrow’s Scar Milecastle (a short walk along the wall) and the fort itself are stark reminders of Hadrian’s efforts
Travelling eastwards we came to the town of Haltwhistle which claims to be the geographical centre of Britain. Just like other areas of Northumberland all through this terrible, lawless time the buildings of Haltwhistle were heavily fortified and remains of these can be seen today. In fact it boasts more defensible houses than any other town in England with a cluster of fortified buildings on the Main Street.
If you want to know what it was like to be a Roman Soldier on the wall do go to The Roman Army Museum a living history museum next to the Walltown Crags section of the Wall and the Magna fort. Everything about the Roman solider is explained in an entertaining and informative way here. But if you really want to know about he wall then you must go to Vindolanda
Vindolanda’s writing tablets are a treasure trove of Roman records that give a unique insight into the thoughts and lives of the Roman occupants. The Vindolanda Trust carries out outstanding archaeological work as well as educating visitors to the site with a museum, interactive displays and reconstructions of the turf and stone walls. The tablets and other artefacts found here make any visit to the site truly memorable and the fort itself can seem so much more alive than other sites on the wall.
If you can tear yourself away from the cakes in the Vindolanda coffee shop you can burn it off by walking up the hill to Housesteads Fort. Sitting on a spectacular position with commanding views Housesteads is without doubt the most famous of all the forts built along the wall and has the distinction of being the most complete example of a Roman fort to be seen in Britain today. The fort at Chesters is the most picturesque of all the Roman forts in Northumberland and marks the point where Hadrian’s Wall crossed the river North Tyne with the Wall continuing right down to the water’s edge plus the house has is an excellent Walled garden you can walk round.
Well it wouldn’t be a holiday if you couldn’t go shopping and Corbridge is the up market shopping centre of Northumberland. This small town grew from Corstopitum a Roman garrison town which has the finest preserved example of Roman granaries in the United Kingdom. The Church has a Roman gravestone built into the interior walls and you’ll find a Roman archway transported and rebuilt from where it stood somewhere in Corstopitum. The street pattern today remains much as it did in mediaeval times, loads of tea rooms too.
Our last port of call was the ancient town of Hexham which is awash with history, the Old Gaol was built in 1330 and is the earliest recorded purpose-built prison in England. Hexham abbey is one of the most beautiful and important churches in the north and internationally famous for the Saxon Crypt. Under the walls of the abbey you’ll find the wonderful 18th century stone built covered market. If you can get to Hexham when the Farmer’s Market is on there’s a stall that sells the most fabulous home made fruit cakes.
Hexham Abbey 01434 602031 www.hexhamabbey.org.uk
The Moot Hall 01434 652351 www.tynedaleheritage.org
Hexham Gaol 01434 652349 www.tynedaleheritage.org
Corbridge retains much of its medieval street pattern.
A Roman arch can be found built into Corbridge Church
Hexham stone built covered market sits opposite the abbey.
Watchtower wall reconstruction
Vindolanda has reconstructions of the stone and turf wall.
Housteads is the most spectacularly sited forts of the Wall.
The wall winds its way along the crags for over seventy miles.
Even in stark winter the Abbey at Hexham can still impress.