Walking: The Empire hikes back

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The Independent Online
It was built to keep the Picts at bay, but now it has become a promenade for walkers ...

Hamish Scott patrols Hadrian's Wall.

Old frontiers are thought-provoking. Rivers, hills and hedgerows that once defined a nation's territorial identity revert to being harmless features of a larger landscape once the winds of history have changed. Flint arrowheads and iron swords, bullet-cases and rejected visa applications may lie buried in the soil, but the line defended with such passion has vanished, like some long-dead tom-cat's urine trail, and can scarcely be detected on the ground.

In Northumberland, however, one of the most significant of frontiers in the history of Europe still exists. In AD 122 the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall that would define the farthest limit of the Roman empire. Perhaps even at the time there were questions raised about some details of the project, such as the need for gateways every mile, even on the steepest cliff, but orders were obeyed and within eight years the wall had been completed. Some 20ft in height, 10ft wide and 76 miles long, with garrisons sufficient for 10,000 men, it stretched in an unbroken line from the North Sea to the Solway Firth and was so superbly built that long stretches still remain virtually intact, a promenade for hikers following the footsteps of legionary patrols.

We began our own patrol at Steel Rig, from a tree-lined car park in a bleak expanse of Border moorland. Taking a footpath to the south, we immediately reached the wall, reduced by plunder to chest-height but still a massive barrier of well-cut stone aligned with military precision along the jagged edge of an escarpment. Our route lay to the left, eastwards through the grazing lands of the Votadini, a Celtic tribe whose views, presumably, were not consulted in the planning stages of the project.

Roman civil engineers took a virile attitude to contours. Following the whin-stone ridge, the path beside the wall dips and climbs along the basalt crags with no concessions to civilian knees. Legionaries could march for 20 miles loaded down like mules, and then, before they had their dinner, build themselves a camp that would last 2,000 years. Few modern visitors would care to haul a single block of stone up any of the steeper slopes.

Coming to our first milecastle, we rested to admire the view. To the north the ground dropped steeply from below the gateway, with rough, uncultivated pasture stretching to the conifer-clad hills of Kielder Forest.

The southern view, towards the Pennine moors, was equally as desolate, and imagination was required to visualise the roads and farmsteads, garrisons and settlements that formed the Roman landscape. Two tattooed walkers nodded to us in a friendly manner, but there was no sign of hostile Picts, so we continued our patrol above a reed-fringed loch, through a pretty cliff-side wood of rowan, hazel and Scots pine and on past a lonely farmhouse in the lee of Hotbanks Crags. Despite the setting there were no signs advertising Teas or Bed & Breakfast. Northumbrian hill-farmers, even on well-trodden routes, seldom fraternise with hikers.

The route grew busier approaching Housesteads, the wall's most popular attraction. The excavated fort is a ghost town of low, ruined walls that housed a garrison from far-flung corners of the empire. There's an impressive villa that was home to the commanding officer, barracks, stores and even a small hospital, but the most poignant symbol of the Pax Romana is a corridor that once contained a row of cosy seats built over a drain. If any soldier ever questioned the benefits of Roman life, his doubts were soon settled in the known world's last latrine.

Having dutifully paid our entrance fee at the museum, we carried on for half a mile to a stile across the wall at King's Wicket. The linear nature of the frontier does not provide many opportunities for decent circuits, but from here a pleasant footpath loops back to Steel Rig.

It's a lonely route across rough grassland grazed by sheep and shaggy Galloway beef cattle, leading through a small plantation and on past an old lime kiln. Agricultural improvers in the 18th century converted upland farmers to the benefits of quicklime with a zeal not seen since the Romans introduced the Votadini to hot baths. High above us to the left, the wall appeared as a spine of stone surmounting the cliff edge. Distant voices could be heard, faint enough to sound like Latin.

Wearily returning to the car park, having travelled for eight miles and 18 centuries, we headed off for lunch. The Twice Brewed Inn was built for soldiers working on the military road that General Wade constructed to protect the British empire from Jacobite barbarians. Apparently the beer was too weak for the redcoats, and required a second brew. Our Marstons was, however, strong enough and very welcome, while Sunday lunch, though scarcely rivalling the roast swan stuffed with peacock of Lucullus, was substantial, and cost just pounds 3.95.


Steel Rig is signposted off B6318 Chollerford-Greenhead road, opposite the information centre near the Twice Brewed Inn. From the National Trust car park at Steel Rig, follow the footpath sign to wall.

l Turn left along line of wall and follow way-marked right-of-way to Housesteads.

l From Housesteads, continue along the southern (right-hand) side of the wall for half a mile, to King's Wicket.

l Cross the stile and bear left along the footpath over grassland to a small plantation. Follow the path through it and across Pennine Way to a lime kiln.

l From the kiln, continue straight ahead along a faint path for half a mile, then bear left along a track towards Hotbanks Farm.

l Turn right over a stile before a farm gate and follow a way-marked path across fields to return to the car park.

Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 86