What, I wonder, did Hadrian think of this place, when he stood on its chilly hills 1,900 years ago? The ambitious Roman emperor was by most accounts born in southern Spain, and he was in his mid-40s when he found himself up here, at the very edge of his vast domain, contemplating a construction project for the ages. In second-century Britannia, the Mediterranean would’ve felt a lot further away than it does today. What did he make of the rolling green landscapes? Did he curse the fact he wasn’t wearing a thicker cloak?
We’ll never know, although the legacy of his visit endures in the form of a 73-mile barrier — or, at least, what remains of it — that once spanned the map, from west to east. Northumberland National Park plays home to a long, scenic stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, and on a soft spring morning, with skylarks astir and the countryside billowing out to all compass points, I’m lucky enough to be tracing this ancient fortification on foot.
It’s only been an hour since I left The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, in Hexham, but the ups and downs of the roller coaster hills are already sapping my legs. This gives the me the chance to stop and stare. Even today, with the Pennines ranging off to the south, it still feels a remote spot. The wall took at least six years to construct, rippling up slope and down dale, and would have been an ordeal for the conscripted, Latin-speaking builders. But they did a comprehensive job, erecting chunky milecastles at every Roman mile, with a pair of smaller turrets positioned between each. Almost two millennia later, parts of the ancient masonry are still in remarkably good condition. And with the region set to receive £30m in government and charity funding this year for better transport links and a visitor centre, Hadrian’s fortifications will soon be showcased better than ever.
Following the wall makes for a hugely atmospheric hike, but it’s by no means the only local remnant of occupation; the Romans were in the region for more than 300 years, after all. That afternoon, I visit nearby Vindolanda, a one-time military town that predates the wall by around four decades. Its excavated, open-air foundations — which include a bath house, officers’ residences and a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter — reveal a neat, ordered street plan. The onsite museum, meanwhile, displays a host of archaeological finds, from leather shoes and hefty amphorae to a clay floor tile marked by paw prints — the lasting gift of a Roman pooch that strayed across its surface while it was drying. “This was a living, breathing place,” a male staff member is saying to a visitor. “It holds so many stories.”
This is backed up by the museum’s most famous finds, the so-called Vindolanda Tablets. These wafer-thin sheets of oak and birch hold passages of writing, in ink, and represent some of the oldest handwritten documents ever found in the UK. The majority of the 1,300 tablets are in the British Museum, but a selection is on show here. Written in Latin, some are the personal correspondence between the soldiers garrisoned here and their families, others contain grievances or requests for more troops and supplies. Collectively, they give a fascinating glimpse into the rhythms of life up here on the frontier of the empire.
The same is just as true at Housesteads Roman Fort, a fortress perched high among the folds and furrows of the national park a couple of miles away. It’s estimated that around 800 infantrymen were once stationed here, and today it’s still possible to wander among their crumbling hilltop barracks. Built to a standard Roman design, the rectangular compound — one of the best-preserved examples of its kind anywhere — is surrounded by stone walls and once contained everything from granaries to a hospital. There’s even an ancient long-drop loo to admire.
Making up one edge of the fort is Hadrian’s Wall itself. I climb up onto the stonework and step along the top as it traces the raised crag of the land. An early-evening breeze is coming in off the hills and the sun is lowering, setting the age-old barracks aglow. Historical remains like this are rarely experienced in such a vivid, and walkable, form. Back in AD 122, Hadrian might not have been intending to create anything more meaningful than a whopping great barrier ‘to separate Romans from barbarians’ (as his biographer put it) but he ended up leaving an extraordinary landmark.
How to do it
The Twice Brewed Inn, next to The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, has double rooms from £110, B&B.
Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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