A walk along the Celtic fringe

Hadrian's Wall is something of a Roman adventure playground for children - and adults, too.

Northumbria is too far from the south for those who don't like travelling and not far or mountainous enough for those who prefer the Scottish Highlands. As it result, it tends to be a little short on holidaymakers. And in the fabulous summer of 1995, our four sons spent several afternoons running over Hadrian's Wall and the surrounding empty landscape. With hand-held computer games abandoned in the car, they revealed themselves as being closet children of the Fifties, entirely able to amuse themselves for hours with hills, stones and water.

Hadrian's Wall is undergoing a long period of renovation and general tarting-up by English Heritage in an effort to conserve and inform. This phenomenal monument, with its extraordinary system of forts, milecastle and turrets, is a gift to anoraks of both varieties - walkers and trainspotters. Subject to gales and generally vile weather, it can be pretty grim. Yet in 1995, Hadrian's Wall was looking positively Mediterranean. If anything, that was a disadvantage, for the great joy of the Wall is the excuse to make lengthy walks from fort to fort admiring the view and deriving the satisfying smugness of the rambler who is enduring wicked conditions.

The most popular site is the fort at Housesteads, largely because of its spectacular location and its state of preservation. Almost all the ramparts and many internal buildings are on show, including the latrine with its Heath-Robinsonesque maze of water-channels. Unfortunately, the consequence is a jammed car park in high summer and a lethal turn off the B6318 for those travelling west.

Be warned - Housesteads is a good walk up a heavy-duty and horizontally challenged track, which means that if you have walking difficulties of any sort, you could have problems. The fort itself is slapped like a wet flannel on the ridge and has very steep gradients in it as well.

Nevertheless, the fort is the best one to visit. If you have time, take a short walk along the Wall to see milecastle number 37 to the west. It's the best preserved and still has part of its gateway arch in place.

The Wall was designed (probably by Emperor Hadrian himself) with a milecastle every mile, and two turrets in between. The plans were changed not long after construction started in around AD122 following the Emperor's visit, and a series of larger cavalry and infantry forts were added, sometimes demolishing a brand-new milecastle or turret to make way. It seems that the forts in which the troops had been stationed were simply too far away.

In fact, Hadrian's Wall is a prototype for the new British Library - a classic example of changes of mind and huge investment followed by abandonment and rebuilding. All of this has made for decades of laborious archaeological investigation in a bid to unravel the sequences. Sadly, the 19th-century excavators were more interested in uncovering walls and buildings, ignoring or destroying later levels as they went.

At Birdoswald (about 16 miles east of Carlisle), the results of recent excavations are now on show. They reveal that the fort here - or bits of it - experienced substantial reconstruction which went on long after the Roman government had abandoned Britain. The military granaries were used as the headquarters of an anonymous community who may have converted one into a kind of chieftain's hall in the fifth century.

But the true history of the excavation of Hadrian's Wall begins at Chesters fort to the east near Hexham. Almost buried in the lush vegetation of the Tyne Valley, Chesters was the home of the 19th-century antiquarian John Clayton. He bought the site, made his home there and dedicated his life to the retrieval of carvings, inscriptions and artefacts from the Wall. They are all on show in his museum, which forms part of the English Heritage site at Chesters.

Unlike most of the Wall area, Chesters is sheltered and has a small cafe. On a grotty day, it's a better prospect than the Cape Horn-style conditions of the high ground. It also has the best-preserved Roman building almost anywhere else in Britain - the extraordinary bathhouse with its high walls, and changing room lockers.

For my money, though, nothing beats Limestone Corner (two and a half miles west of Chesters fort) for a sense of the Wall's timeless presence. Roman ditch-cutters, charged with digging a deep ditch in front of the Wall, struggled manfully on until they got here. First they cut their wedge-holes, then they inserted the wedges, soaked them with water and waited for the rocks to split. Some did, but a lot didn't. So they packed it in and moved on. If you stop and look you can see the abandoned blocks, and the wedge-cuts just as they were nearly 1900 years ago.

For an instant, the passage of time vanishes; you can almost hear the legionnaires saying: "Stuff this for a game of soldiers."

Guy de la Bedoyere is the author of Roman Towns in Britain and Roman Villas and the Countryside published by English Heritage.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's First World War footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during the war. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end