Hadrian’s Wall, built around 122 A.D., is one of the largest surviving Roman monuments in Europe. Originally built as a defensive boundary for the Romans invading the conquered province of Britannia by Emperor Hadrian (Caesar Traianus Hadrianus) against the Celtic tribes and barbarians trying to reclaim their lands, the wall also served as a form of customs-control outposts through its various gates and forts that spanned sections of the wall, enabling the collection of taxes on goods.
Today Hadrian’s Wall, considered one of Britain’s top iconic cultural symbols, is also a cherished ancient tourist attraction. Even though this ancient Roman Britannia attraction was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, it remains open to the public to explore and respectfully walk throughout the ruins.
The building of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 A.D., and it took 15,000 legionaries (citizen-soldiers of the Roman army) nearly 6 years to build the 73-mile-long wall. The legionaries were made of units of specialists in the fields of architecture, masonry, and engineering fields.
In the early days of learning about the history of the wall, it was thought that the wall may have been built to mark the boundary between England and Scotland. Upon later discovery, we learned that it actually marked the boundary between Roman Britannia to the south and unconquered Caledonia to the north.
The wall, at one point, spanned the entire west-to-east width of Britan from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway for a total length of 73 modern miles. If you measure by the Roman unit of distance — mille possum or thousand paces, a pace being five Roman feet and a thousand of them equalling a 5,000-foot Roman mile — the wall was 80 miles long. Today’s “modern” mile was standardized in 1593 as 8 furlongs (a furlong was how far a team of oxen could plow in a single day — around 660 feet) or 5,280 feet.
During construction, the wall was divided into 53 sections. Each section was marked with a centurial stone that has the names of the centurions and their legions that built the wall carved on them. This collection of stones can be viewed at the Clayton Collection in the Chester Museum.
Forts Along The Wall
The original design of the wall was just that, a wall, but then it was decided that forts and gates should be added along it. Mini-forts, or milecastles, and gates were placed at mile markers and helped control the movement of people and market goods through and beyond the wall.
In addition to milecastles, there were 14 military defensive forts that were placed at 7 ⅓-mile intervals as well as watchtowers that were placed every third of a mile.
One of the most extensively excavated forts is the site of Vindolanda just to the south of Hadrian’s Wall. The closest larger city is Carlisle, England. Vindolanda was a notable defense garrison on Hadrian’s Wall and remained in use for 400 years after the Roman occupation of Britain was abandoned.
Nearly 25 percent of Vindolanda has been excavated with additional excavations continuing year-round. Because of the ongoing excavations, the Vindolanda Museum is able to add new discoveries on a regular annual basis. Some of the most interesting and notable finds were wooden toilet seats, a wooden toy sword, and wafer-thin wooden writing tablets with flowing writing in ink. Their burial in oxygen-deprived piles on the floors of some of the most deeply buried forts allowed the tablets to survive intact. They are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.
Another reason to put Vindolanda on your list of places to see when visiting Hadrian’s Wall is that you can book an excavation tour during which you’ll be able to learn archeological excavation skills and help with a section of the dig. Excavation tours can be booked March through September and require a minimum two-week commitment. Visit their website for pricing and details.
Birdoswald Roman Fort
The Birdoswald Roman Fort is exceptionally well-preserved and is the only fort along Hadrian’s Wall where the turf has been extensively excavated, uncovering the various phases of construction. Several of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall were still used well after the Roman occupation into the fifth century. Birdoswald was one of the first locations where this activity was discovered, with digs unearthing evidence of hall-type buildings on top of Roman granaries.
The Birdoswald fort is open to the public, please see its website for visiting details.
Housesteads Roman Fort
Originally known as Vercovicium, “the place of effective fighters” to the Romans, Housesteads is one of the most complete and intact examples of a Roman fort in Britain. In its heyday, the fort garrisoned 800 infantry and calvary military personnel “requited” from conquered lands throughout the empire, but mostly from the German-speaking area of Tongres (modern-day Belgium).
Much of the main areas of Housesteads have been excavated, revealing major buildings within its defenses as well as a civilian village outside the main walls. Some of the preserved structures you will see here are the commanding officer’s house and his stables, a headquarters building where important strategy meetings took place, barrack blocks, granaries with stone pillars that supported a raised floor for airflow, a complete walkable line of the fort’s curtain wall with its gates, and the best-preserved stone latrines and water channels in any of the Roman forts in Britain. If you are curious how the latrines were “flushed,” check out the site during a rainstorm.
The museum located in the civilian village is definitely a must-see when visiting. The museum collection shows what personal lives were like for a soldier stationed at the fort. Some of the artifacts you will see are hob-nailed boots with leather soles, cooking pots, French pottery, and Egyptian gems.
Trails Along The Wall
When visiting Hadrian’s Wall there is more to do than exploring excavated captains’ quarters, barracks, and latrines. Along many sections of the wall are footpaths that are part of the National Trail system of the United Kingdom. This series of trails runs through some of the most beautiful and stunning landscapes in the UK.
The trails that follow along Hadrian’s Wall are called the Hadrian’s Wall Path and comprise about 84 miles extending from Cumbria on the west coast to Newcastle Upon Tyne on the east coast. The path, although not particularly handicap accessible in all areas, is fairly easy to walk for most relatively fit individuals and will take you through beautiful rolling hills, craggy borderlands, and bustling the cities of Newcastle and Carlile. Due to weather conditions affecting the trail, the best time to walk is between May and October.
The Housestead Trail will take you to sites that are not as well known to tourists, such as Walltown Crags and Windshields Wall. The Chesters Trail is six miles from the town of Hexham and considered more relaxing, perhaps with an almost zen feel and more diversity in sites. On Chesters Trail, you will see the Temple of Mithras dedicated to the eastern god of light, Chesters Bridge Abutment, and the Planetrees Roman Wall that shows how the construction of the wall changed through time. The Corbridge Trail has a mix of urban and rural settings. This trail will take you through the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall, home to the longest unbroken section of Hadrian’s Wall in its original planned width and the remains of Benwell Roman Temple, which was dedicated to the British native god Antenociticus, who may have been “consulted” for war strategies.
I found it interesting that even though Hadrian’s Wall is one of Britain’s largest monuments and has such significance to its history, much of the wall is owned and maintained by private landowners. The English Heritage and National Trust own and maintain some of the more popular sections of the wall.
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall, the remnants of the forts, and villages along the wall’s path is an incredible way to bring history alive. Walk in the footsteps of Roman soldiers garrisoned in the forts and imagine what life was like for civilians in the villages and markets supplying goods and services. Regardless of what you do when exploring this amazing monument, it should be and is well worth being on your list. When my family and I visited, we had a picnic on the wall. It was a fabulous lunch.
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