Days on the Wall

Imagining the Wall as it was is almost impossible – especially in the east. With the constant hurtle and buzz of traffic, the sprawl of Newcastle and the confining canyons of the city centre, it is difficult to get even a sense of the rise and fall of the land. But at the Castle, what people often call the Castle Keep, in the heart of the city, it is possible to climb up and out of the noise and the river of people to see something of what the Romans saw. Wide stone stairs make for an easy ascent to the battlements and the flat roof. In both directions the view along the river is sweeping, and immediately to the south is the narrowing of the Gateshead Gorge. The Tyne is wide both upriver, particularly at the Dunston Coal Staithes, and downriver as it meanders towards the coast. But below the Castle Keep it is funnelled into the gorge where Hadrian had his engineers build the bridge named after him, approximately on the line of the Swing Bridge. It is the shortest crossing-point and no accident that the High Level, the Tyne Bridge and two others stand nearby. The ground falls away steeply from the Castle Keep down to the quayside, and opposite, on the Gateshead bank, the Hilton Hotel is perched on an equally steep slope.

To the north of the keep, the main railway line from Scotland crashes straight through to Newcastle Central Station. Bisecting the site of the castle with a black, smoke-stained viaduct, it is a piece of bloody-minded Victorian progress. Castle? Who cares? We need a railway and this is where it needs to go. Oddly, that sort of bloody-mindedness sits well on the line of Hadrian’s Wall. He would not have hesitated either. Under the arches of the now-scruffy viaduct are two bits of exposed archaeology, the remains of a Roman fort built after AD 122. With no information boards to explain, overshadowed by Victorian progress, few people notice them.

Wallsend is the eastern terminal of the Wall, but the Castle Keep seems a good place to welcome the Emperor to Britannia. And, for some obscure reason, it is better to start an episodic journey along the Wall in the east. Most people who walk the new path start at Wallsend and finish up 135 kilometres later at Bowness-on-Solway. Perhaps their instincts tell them to follow the sun, rising behind them over the North Sea and setting beyond the Solway. Better than walking widdershins.

In the 1920s and 1930s the suburb of Benwell was built up along the West Road, and a reservoir flooded over most of the site of the fort of Condercum. Nevertheless two fascinating relics can still be seen, lying only a street or two apart. In what looks like someone’s front garden, stand the foundations of a small temple. Dedicated to Antenociticus, a Celtic god, it is squat and surprisingly untouched, with no graffiti or vandalism. Perhaps the powerful spirit of Antenociticus is not entirely fled. One of his neighbours grows potatoes, double-digging in compost and horse-muck every winter. His collection of Roman artefacts covers every flat surface in the sitting room, and beautifully dressed stones line a short driveway.

Around the corner is something genuinely jaw-dropping. At the foot of a suburban crescent, there is a well-preserved section of the Vallum. Wide and deep, vastly out of proportion with its everyday surroundings, it has the monumental remains of a crossing and a gateway. Only the footing of the piers of the arch are left but they still somehow dwarf the houses, the parked cars and the garden sheds. The sheer incongruity is very attractive. The lady who lives in the house just to the north of the Vallum crossing has a key for the gate, and from her garden (with a Roman rockery) it is possible to see why the fort at Benwell was called Condercum, the Viewpoint Fort. Between the gable ends of the neighbours’ houses and over their garage roofs, it is possible to see over to the Gateshead Fells and, dimly, make out the unmistakable shape of the Angel of the North. These two sites are badly signposted and seen only by the tenacious.

Back out on the West Road, which runs arrow-straight along the line of the Wall, more surprises wait. At the junction with the A1, a terrifying roundabout, stands Denton Turret and a 40-metre section of Wall. And on the far side of the maelstrom of cars and trucks thundering south, there is another run, two or three courses high this time.

Once on the B6318, the Military Road, the presence of the Wall becomes clearer. On the right, the northern ditch begins to appear and, as the housing thins out and farmland takes over, traces of the Vallum can sometimes be made out on the left. But the most obvious memory of Rome is the road itself. Straight and with commanding views on either side, it stretches westwards, looking for the high ground and the cliffs of the Whin Sill. At a much quieter roundabout, one with an old name, the Port Gate, it is worth making a detour, turning south off the Wall, down Dere Street, the A68, a few miles to Corbridge.

The Roman site (no one seems quite sure what to call it) west of Corbridge gives the first and only sense of something quintessentially Roman – town life. The site is arranged around the Stanegate, what seems in this context to be a main street. A good reconstruction drawing on the information board helps. On the left there is the hulking outline of a granary, and the stumps of columns outside its portals add to the atmosphere of Rome-on-Tyne. In the summertime English Heritage mounts Roman festivals at the weekends with reenactors, Roman cookery, falconry, crafts and much else.

A few kilometres after the Port Gate, the Military Road begins to descend into the lovely valley of the North Tyne. At the crossroads with the A6079, it is rewarding to turn left and park at the sign for Brunton Turret. This is one of the first places where the Wall stands high. More than ten courses, well above head height, the turret is placed on a steep bank, no ditch needed in front. But its aspect to the north is completely blinded by a thick wood of mature trees. Nevertheless it is atmospheric, a place where it is possible to hear whispers of the long past, men soldiering, talking, complaining, stamping their feet in cold weather, looking up the valley in the summer sunshine. To the west, across the North Tyne, there is a good view of Chesters Fort and its impressive bath house. But a general sense of the first substantial fort on the Wall is made difficult by the way in which it has been excavated, with bits exposed in a version of keyhole archaeology and surrounded by fences.

Climbing up the steep hill at Walwick, the B6318 leads to suddenly higher ground and a very different landscape. After reaching its most elevated point at Limestone Corner, the Wall turns slightly to cross a long stretch of moorland. Perhaps the bleakest traverse in all its 135 kilometres, the path runs past the fort at Carrawburgh, the Mithraeum and Coventina’s Well. In poor conditions it must be a long, head-down slog on foot.

The road swings abruptly away from the Wall ditch and crosses the Vallum at Archer’s Wood. It is difficult to escape the sense that the modern road has taken a wrong turning and the grassed-over, ancient earthwork points the right way. The Wall at last makes its way up to Sewingshields Crag and begins its most dramatic run along the Whin Sill.

The fall of the ground cants the site of Housesteads Fort to the south and its impressive extent can easily be seen from the road below. Many travellers are tempted to stop and, even though the car park is some distance away – and followed by an uphill walk – Housesteads is the most visited fort on the Wall. From the gateway down at the Knag Burn, to the east, the fort looks commanding, even menacing. If anyone is seized with an urge to walk along a section of the Wall, Housesteads is a good place to begin. For almost 15 kilometres to the west, the Military Road is close and the Hadrian’s Wall bus, the aptly named 122, can be picked up at frequent intervals to take walkers back to where they left their cars.

The glorious vistas of Hotbank Crags, Crag Lough, Sycamore Gap and Steel Rigg are all nearby and the thirsty may wish to break off at the car park near where the Wall dives down and up and round a corner. Only half a mile to the south, downhill, stands the Twice Brewed Inn, with one of the best selections of good beer anywhere. The food is wholesome and plentiful, the service excellent and the upholstery just comfortable enough to extend lunch on all but the sunniest days. The 122 stops outside.

The heartbeat of the Wall, the place where it comes most vividly to life, is near at hand. At Vindolanda, where Britain’s greatest archaeological treasures, the lists and letters, were found, there is so much to see and understand that at least a day is needed – even for the most casual visitor. At the best of the Wall’s other sites, history seems to have happened, all is well preserved but presented in a freeze-frame. Nothing more needs to be said. At Vindolanda it is different. History keeps happening as the excavation programme continues. Each summer season Andrew Birley and his team open up new areas, and visitors are invited to watch and ask questions. Frequently, objects are found, cleaned and discussed minutes after they come out of the ground. There is no anxious, academic guardedness, only a willingness to share in new knowledge.

The museum is excellent, the artefacts fresh and well displayed, and a well-made film runs on a loop to explain their context. All that is missing is a special exhibition telling the story of the lists and letters – and showing the best of them. Because of the need for and cost of preservation, the great treasures of Vindolanda are currently kept at the British Museum in London. They belong where they were written, in the north, and perhaps one day money will be found to bring them home.

At Cawfield milecastle quarrying has taken a great bite out of the Wall. It seems as though the milecastle just escaped, tottering on the edge of extinction. The northern gateway, leading over a precipice, is a wonderful, timeless example of military daftness, and the sloping site must have been a nightmare for its builders. To the south stretches one of the very best runs of the Vallum.

More quarrying at Walltown has removed another section, but up on the crags there is a turret which predated the arrival of Hadrian. Looking out over Thirlwall Common, the dark fringes of the great Kielder Forest can be made out, and away to the west the glint of the Solway. At the nearby Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, the centrepiece of an excellent display is an animated film, Eagle’s Eye, and it offers a superb reconstruction of what the Wall and its garrison looked like.

The landscape shelves steeply down at Greenhead and undulates towards the valley of the River Irthing. At Gilsland, Poltross milecastle lies at the end of a winding path, half hidden by woods and immediately adjacent to the railway line connecting Carlisle and Newcastle. The walls still stand high but any sense of the past is instantly wiped when a train whooshes past, just across the fence.

The sector of the Wall between Poltross and Birdoswald Fort is less visited than it should be. In its way, with rollercoaster sweeps down to the site of the bridge over the Irthing at Willowford and, up the other side, it is just as spectacular as the Whin Sill. The section of the Wall leading from the milecastle above the river up to the fort is one of the longest and most substantial. Birdoswald is the last great site on the line. Excavated and exposed in only one corner, it nevertheless has high walls and massive gateways. Racing back across the centuries, a sense of what it was like comes quickly to mind at Birdoswald.

To the west, over towards Carlisle, the Wall quickly dwindles and even the Vallum is hard to see as it crosses fertile and frequently ploughed farmland on its way to the Eden Valley. Beyond it, walkers keep to the road leading from Carlisle to the Solway coast, and then follow the shoreline until the end of the path and the Land-Wall at Bowness-on-Solway. As they at last reach the village, those nearing journey’s end are directed to a path offering good views across the firth to Annan and the Galloway hills. About halfway along they meet a wooden structure which marks the end of their marathon. More like a bus shelter than anything else, it is a little disappointing. In fact the Emperor Hadrian would have been appalled. Surely a triumphal arch would have been more fitting – for the reality is that, after two thousand years, the Wall remains triumphant.

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