June 17-24, 2017
We traveled to Scotland and England in June, primarily to see and walk along what remains of Hadrian’s Wall, a World Heritage Site. The emperor Hadrian ordered the wall to be built, to defend the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain and to regulate trade across it. The legions built it, and Hadrian came to inspect it in 122 A.D. The wall itself was about 73 miles long, stretching from Wallsend in the east to Solway Firth in the west.
The modern Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail is 84 miles long. We walked approximately 30 miles of it, including the central section between Chollerford and Birdoswald. That is the section where the most visible remains of the original wall and the associated fortifications can still be seen. It is also the section with the steepest hills and most dramatic scenery. The trail is well marked with acorn symbols and other signage.
We stayed in the town of Hexham and traveled by local bus (the “AD122” route) out to stops along the wall trail for each day’s hiking.
At first we walked over gently rolling hills. When we reached the Whin Sill rock formation we hiked up and down steep hills for a couple of days. The views were spectacular and well worth the exertion.
After that the terrain once again became more gently rolling hills. All along the way we walked past and through farms, mainly open meadows with flocks of sheep. We often climbed up and over stiles to get into and out of farm fields, and other times walked through “kissing gates.” We occasionally had to walk through cattle pastures. We had one particularly unnerving encounter, edging slowly around a bull and his cows, trying not to get between any cow and her calf.
We were amused by the sheep grazing over and around an ancient temple of Mithras which was located in the middle of their owner’s land. Meredith insisted on getting a photo of one sheep standing by the Mithraic altar; perhaps symbolic of the victory of the Lamb of God over ancient pagan faiths?
The best remains of the wall are in the most inaccessible areas, for the quite practical reason that it was easiest for builders in subsequent centuries to recycle (plunder) stones from the areas of the wall they could reach more easily.
When intact the wall was about 15 feet high and 8 to 10 feet wide. Each side of it was built with well cut rectangular stones and mortar; the middle of the wall was filled with rubble – roughly shaped stones — and mortar. Along the wall the Romans built several major forts. In between those large forts they built small forts called milecastles, which were staffed by detachments of 10 to 30 soldiers. Like the large forts, milecastles had gates through the wall. In between the milecastles the Romans built turrets, which were staffed by a couple of soldiers. Those were guard posts which did not contain gates through the wall. In addition to the wall, the Romans dug deep ditches on both sides of the wall, and even where the wall can no longer be seen, the remains of one or both of those ditches is often visible. We saw the ruins of a number of milecastles and turrets as we walked, and here is a photo of Bob at one of them:
We toured what remains of the forts at Wallsend, Chesters, Housesteads, and Birdoswald. There are excellent museums associated with each of those, although unfortunately for us the Birdoswald museum was closed for renovations. We also walked over and around the ruins of the fort at Great Chesters, which is mostly buried under a working farm. There we saw an ancient Roman altar, standing out in the middle of the farmer’s field, covered with modern “offerings” in the form of coins from many different countries.
We were blessed with generally good weather. For the first two days of our hiking the weather was sunny and about 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We were amused to hear the locals complain about how terribly hot it was; it seemed like normal San Diego weather to us! After that front moved on, the weather stayed partially sunny for several more days but with highs during the day in the mid 60’s; seemed cool to us, but great for hiking. It was windy most days, especially in the afternoons, and we had to be careful not to lose our hats. We had hard rain just one day, the final hiking day when we walked the area around the Birdoswald fort.
We visited museums along the way and will have to write separately about a few of those highlights.