On Saturday over 25,000 people visited Hadrian's Wall, packing every rolling hillside, car park and vantage spot to see in a huge illumination ceremony organised by Hadrian’s Wall Heritage.
Dozens of beacons studded the wall, one for every 250m of its 84 miles, lit by over 1,100 volunteers in an event the scale of which adequately honoured Emperor Hadrian's 1,900-year-old masterpiece.
Hadrian's Wall is a vast Roman ribbon of stone stretching from Wallsend in Tyneside to the Solway Firth, amongst hills, cliffs and lakes. No wonder rampaging Picts and Brigantes were held back after its construction in 122AD. Fifteen per cent of the entire Roman army was stationed at the wall at one point or other, a staggering figure for an empire which spread as far as Mauritania and Persia. Modern experts claim it would take 1,500 workers two-and-a-half years to recreate the wall, at a cost of £400m.
‘Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall’ marked not only the beginning of British Tourism Week but also the 1,600th anniversary of the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Alaric and his Visigoths rampaged through Rome bringing to a close one of man's greatest civilizations. Thousands of men stationed on the wall fled south to the motherland, ushering in Britain's Dark Ages.
But there was nothing dark about this event - if not for the line of light up on the wall than the equally bright lustre of traffic thundering down the adjoining B6318. Spectacular shows at Wallsend and Carlisle drew thousands for fireworks and re-enactment displays. At our vantage point at Steel Rigg, families, couples and camera crews packed a single slope, chatting and cheering as the dusk fell. It was more like stadium terrace of happy football fans than a World Heritage Site.
As the night set in, a beacon was lit some miles away. Then slowly two, three, four more lamps appeared, each to their own accompanying cheers. Soon the entire area was flooded with light, and hardy souls stopped sipping on their hot chocolates to get a proper look at things. The result could well have been underwhelming, but in truth it was spectacular.
With the beacons lit, you really got a sense of what Hadrian's Wall was: the frostbitten edge of empire; a vast lavaliere marking where Roman civilization began and ended.
"It must have been a critical part of defending the Roman Empire," said Linda Tuttiett, chief executive of Hadrian's Wall Heritage. Most at the event were British, but many had travelled much further, including Kathleen from Belgium, dressed in a rather splendid Roman slave outfit. "It's part of our own history," she said. "They're our ancestors, so a lot of their culture has been taken by us."
Soon the evening breeze took hold, and those of us without Arctic attire sloped off for a warming pint of Twice Brewed Bitter. But there was a palpable sense of achievement, like the 39,000-or-so visitors had somehow paid their respects to the Romans as best they could. And after having witnessed the vast line of light snake across the wall, it's hard to think otherwise.