In the footsteps of the Romans: How walkers can finally traverse Hadrian's great feat of engineering

"What did the Romans ever do for us?" is a question often asked. But a more pertinent inquiry in Northumberland yesterday was: "what are the Romans still doing for us?"

The answer is, generating millions of pounds a year for the economy of northern England and creating numerous jobs in an area still suffering from the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

It is nearly 2,000 years since the Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall AD122 to protect the frontier of the Roman Empire from northern tribes. But since the Romans marched out of Britain, ramblers have been unable to traverse the full 84 miles of this feat of engineering.

But yesterday, after eight years of planning, negotiation and consultation with landowners, archaeologists, environmentalists and historians, the Countryside Agency unveiled Britain's newest national trail, incorporating about 30 miles of new rights of way, at a cost of £6m - more than half of which was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Walkers will be able to follow an unbroken path stretching from the site of the Segedunum Roman fort at Wallsend on Tyneside to Bowness-on-Solway on the Cumbrian coast.

Through the industrial and commercial centre of Newcastle upon Tyne to the east, past a patchwork of green fields and crops of yellow oilseed rape, up into the rugged hill country and down to the Solway in the west, nearly 2,000 years of history in a beautiful panoramic landscape is once again open for public enjoyment.

The path is one of 13 trails being established across England and the Countryside Agency believes it will benefit market towns such as Hexham and Haltwhistle, which act as service centres for the surrounding countryside.

"It might have cost £6m to create this walk but we estimate it will generate at least £7m a year to the local economy and create more than 80 jobs," said David McGlade, the national trails officer for the Countryside Agency.

"We think that at least 10,000 people a year will walk the entire 84 miles while another 10,000, at least, will complete some of the way or use some of the 40 shorter walks which have been built around sections of the wall."

The importance of Hadrian's Wall as an international symbol of Roman history has led to hopes that it will also attract a high number of visitors from abroad. At yesterday's official opening of the path at Wallsend, amid the pomp and ceremony provided by a troop dressed as Roman legionaries, was Bo Hellberg - a 60-year-old retired Swedish businessman who travelled to the UK to fufil his wish of being the first member of the public to complete the walk.

"This trail has everything going for it - beautiful scenery and masses of history," Mr Hellberg said. "I plan to take 10 days to complete the 84 miles as I want to enjoy the combination of nature and history as much as possible."

An estimated 1.25 million people already visit Hadrian's Wall every year, of whom about 500,000 go to the 10 forts and museums open to the public along the route.

In its heyday, the wall was a sophisticated piece of engineering. Every Roman mile there was a "milecastle", guarded by at least eight men, and between milecastles were two equidistant turrets where sentries kept watch on the movement of goods, people and animals across the frontier.

"The trail is the best thing to happen in this area since the wall was built in the first place," said David Taylor, the owner of the 15th-century Centre of Britain hotel, inHaltwhistle, which is situated half way along the wall, 23 miles from Carlisle and 16 miles from Hexham.

"With both agricultural and industrial sectors in decline, the Hadrian's Wall path has the potential to revolutionise the local economy," he said. "We've already seen a huge amount of interest in the trail and our location in the middle means we are ideally placed to benefit."

A few miles further, at the Robin Hood Inn, near Corbridge, the landlord Magnus Wilson is also expected increased trade from the trail. "We employ 20 people and have a 60-seater restaurant but this summer we are planning to open a semi-permanent marquee, which will accommodate up to 130 people for meals."

The Robin Hood Inn is one of only six official checkpoints for the Hadrian's Wall "passport", a souvenir gimmick allowing walkers to collect "stamps" from designated stopping places to prove they have completed the course.

Richard Wakeford, the Countryside Agency's chief executive, said: "Whichever way you look at it, this trail is good news for holidaymakers, dedicated walkers and people who want a refreshing day out. And it is definitely good news too for local people who live and work along the wall."

ROMAN HOLIDAYS

By Kate Shaw and Simon Calder

Since AD43, when the Roman Legions came ashore semi-permanently and assembled at Richborough in east Kent, their legacy has not always been enthusiastically preserved. The most visible stretch of London's old city wall, beside Tower Hill underground station, stands neglected beside a busy four-lane road. Nearby, the Museum of London presents a permanent exhibition on the Roman city, covering the invasion, conquest and settlement.

Outside the capital, Roman heritage is easier to find. Many locations are strung out along the course of Watling Street, which ran from Kent to Chester. Canterbury's Roman Museum includes a reconstructed market place and temple.

St Albans boasts the Verulamium Museum, pictured above, with recreated Roman rooms and some of the finest mosaics in Britain. And, at the Dewa Roman Experience in Chester, visitors can try on Roman armour. Just down the road are the partially excavated remains of Britain's largest Roman amphitheatre.

The Romans proved rather more successful than 21st-century Britons at creating working baths. The most celebrated of these are in the city of Bath, whose bathing complex, pictured below, was designed to cater for the needs of pilgrims from all over Europe.

The Romans built a spectacular bathing complex centred on the Sacred Spring, which fed all the baths with naturally hot water. It still stands today, thanks to the oak beams driven into the ground to provide stable foundations - they sank into the mud 2,000 years ago and still support the Roman reservoir walls. In contrast, the new Thermae Bath Spa has missed deadline after deadline; this Millennium Project is not now expected to open by August.

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