Walk of the month: Ramble along Rome's northern frontier

The new Hadrian's Wall National Trail is 84 miles long. Stephen Goodwin walks in the footsteps of Romans, then gets on the bus
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The Independent Travel

'Buon appetito." Sitting on the low stones of Piper Sike turret on Hadrian's Wall, eating our salami and cheese, it seemed appropriate to be greeted by a son of Rome. The tongue may have been Italian rather than Latin, but then it is doubtful the language of court was ever heard much on this distant frontier. The wall was generally manned by auxiliaries from Gaul and Germany, or locally recruited Brigantians.

The Hadrian's Wall National Trail, launched last month, runs for 84 miles from Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria to Wallsend, east of Newcastle. However, you do not need to walk the whole of it to get the windswept feel of Rome's northern boundary. Piper Sike turret was our lunch stop on a six-mile hike in Wall Country from Gilsland, on the Cumbria-Northumberland border, westwards to the romantic ruin of Lanercost Priory.

As a linear walk it means maximum time can be spent in the footsteps of Rome and the start and finish points are connected by public transport, the Hadrian's Wall Bus. Much of it is also on "new path", so new and green when we walked it four days ahead of the official opening that not all the signposts were in place and the track in places was a barely discernible trampling of the grass.

From the bus stop by the Bridge Inn take the road heading south-west out of the village until, just opposite the primary school, a gateway on the north side opens on to a fine section of original wall. Gilsland enjoyed brief popularity as a Victorian spa but today could do with a slice of the £7m it is predicted will be spent annually by trail walkers.

The wall itself, the courses of stones standing head high, is our guide for the next half mile, past a dairy farm and down to the remains of the Roman bridge at Willowford - once truly impressive to judge by an artist's impression on the interpretation board. Today, however, the abutments are landlocked, the River Irthing having changed its course.

Cross the river by the new footbridge, one of several built to create the trail. This one cuts out a long diversion on metalled road. Its sweeping arc has the same "rust" patina as The Angel of the North. It also matches the bottle-brown colour of the Irthing after rain. The path climbs the escarpment on the west bank of the river to the remains of a mile-castle and a fine stretch of wall leading straight as an arrow to Birdoswald Fort. Not everything about the wall is monumental. There is fascination also in small detail. Carved into a block just east of Birdoswald is a phallus, a familiar symbol along the wall and the Romans' graphic way of warding off the "evil eye".

Birdoswald was the fort of Banna and has extensive remains, overlooked by a towered farmhouse, much modified over the centuries. Former barns now house a visitor centre with the only refreshments along this walk. Leaving Birdoswald by a couple of new gates, the trail enters a field and, after hugging the south side of the visible wall for less than half a mile, crosses the field southwards to gain the line of the the original turf wall and ditch-like vallum. These distinct grass-covered features, plus new trail signs with the acorn logo, lead us for the next mile and a half, crossing Wall Burn and through a small wood to join a lane just east of Piper Sike turret. The trail now has an on-off affair with the Tarmac westwards to the remains of Pike Hill signal tower and the hillside cottages of Banks. Soon after Pike Hill with its commanding view towards the Solway plain and the mountains of the Lake District, the mark of Rome becomes more subtle with only occasional juttings of masonry. At Banks follow a signed lane branching right and into a damp hollow before climbing again to turn left and then right up to Hare Hill, with a remnant of rebuilt wall.

Continue westwards through new kissing gates and across mixed arable land and pasture. Discreet plaques on some gates note the contribution of the Heritage Lottery Fund to the trail - half the £6m cost was met by the nation's gamblers. About a mile after Hare Hill, the way drops to a farm track and a footbridge over a stream. This is Burtholme Beck and here we leave the national trail. Do not cross the footbridge. Instead turn left (south) down the bridleway track, skirting Abbey Gill Wood to arrive in 15 minutes at Lanercost Priory.

To the discomfort of its Augustinian monks, Lanercost found itself the seat of Edward I's government for six months in 1306. The monastery was dissolved under Henry VIII and today is part romantic ruin and part lofty parish church. After keeping company with Hadrian's Wall, you may find much of Lanercost's masonry has a familiar, recycled appearance.

The facts

Getting there

Lanercost Priory is two miles north-east of the market town of Brampton in Cumbria, bypassed by the A69 trans-Pennine trunk road. Main rail stations at Carlisle and Newcastle connected by Tyne Valley line with stations south of the wall. Park at Lanercost and catch Hadrian's Wall Bus AD122 to Gilsland, alighting at the Bridge Inn. This takes 16 minutes. Service is seasonal. Check times with Traveline (0870 608 2608). If two cars are used, one can be left at the car park beside Gilsland Primary School.

Walk

Distance: 6 miles. Total walking time: 3.5 hours. Allow extra time for Birdoswald fort and other stops. Map: New Hadrian's Wall Path Harvey map, scale 1:40,000.

Further information

Hadrian's Wall information line, including enquiries about accommodation (01434 322002; www.hadrians wallcountry.org). An accommodation list is available on the website.

Further reading

Official guide is Hadrian's Wall Path by Anthony Burton, Aurum Press, £12.99.

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