It took thousands of men eight years to build New York’s Rockerfeller Centre, and nearly 20 years for thousands more to build Shah Jahan’s magnificent love tomb the Taj Mahal. But it took only three legions of Roman soldiers, about 12,000 men, around six years to build Hadrian’s Wall – and they were wearing skirts and sandals.
A huge stone necklace that weighs heavy across the northern neck of the country, it’s a colossal triumph of Roman engineering. This is an awe-inspiring 73-mile chain of thick brick that slices straight across the realm from Newcastle in the east and cuts through Carlisle to the west.
These days you can witness the wonder of the wall in numerous ways. You can walk myriad routes: a grand commitment of a National Trail (an 84 mile trek through rugged moorland, rolling fields and urban landscape – quite something in terms of contrasting scenery), or you can amble from fort to fort, fort to port or around medieval town walls.
There are at least 16 Hadrian’s Wall walks, but for a different way to see it, cycle along the 174-mile Hadrian’s cycleway, ride the sea-to-sea route (from the Irish to the North Sea) or try the Pennine Cycleway along the backbone of England. Whatever your preferred mode of transport – feet or wheels – there is a glut of history to suck in along the way.
Two thousand years ago, Emperor Hadrian ordered his legions to build this wall as a frontier. It was an early passport control that was well guarded. There were once over 30 forts on the frontier, including 16 along the line of the wall itself, which was once 4.5m (15ft) high and up to 3m (10ft) thick in places.
Several roads crossed the wall through a system of fortified gates. This allowed the army to control all trade with lands to the north, and extract taxes on goods moving in and out of the Empire. This chain of forts and watchtowers continued down the Cumbrian coast to the west, where the Roman Army was in charge of a number of ports.
This was a busy, noisy, multicultural zone occupied by soldiers and civilians from all over the Roman Empire. You can get a taste for the lives these people led at the nearby Vindolanda site, which features the uncovered remains of the fort barracks and bathhouses. It also houses one of the greatest Roman finds in Britain – 2,000 thin wooden tablets covered in spidery writing, covering all aspects of personal life, from parties to family matters. The Roman equivalent of Twitter, perhaps?
All along the wall, there are plenty of museums and sites, with dedicated staff re-enacting battles in full costume, and hands-on archaeological events that the whole family can get involved with.
The emperor strikes back
And it’s all thanks to one emperor. Publius Aelius Hadrianus was the adopted son of Emperor Trajan. He was groomed for succession but like many a Roman emperor, his appointment was not smooth or necessarily approved of. He had four senators executed early in his reign for plotting treason.
Despite this, Hadrianus became known as one of the Five Good Emperors. His administration was very different to Trajan, who ruled with warfare and territorial expansion. Hadrian’s time in power was one of relative peace and consolidation. Almost immediately, he returned most eastern lands that Trajan had conquered because he believed that the empire was too big to defend.
Instead, he wanted to strengthen Rome’s frontiers – his greatest legacy to the empire. He used fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall to mark a halt to imperial expansion. It is the largest ancient monument in northern Europe and standing alongside it you cannot help but feel the energy of the past flowing through it.
In 2010 I was lucky enough to be involved in an illumination of a section of the wall for Countryfile. The torches cast an intimidating glow across the landscape, as they would have done all those centuries ago. It’s not difficult to imagine Roman guards watching over the wall in their tarnished leather and shiny helmets. When the beacons were lit as darkness fell, we all watched in wonder at the flickering lights as they spread into the night. It was certainly enough to scare away many a barbarian or bounder wanting to slip through. Clever man, that Hadrian.
HOW TO GET THERE
Follow the A69 from Newcastle. For Vindolanda, turn at the village of Bardon Mill. Newcastle Central is served by major stations, and buses run from the city centre to sites along the wall.
FIND OUT MORE
Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site
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Beautiful castle with 700 years of history to uncover.