Walking across England along Hadrian’s Wall

A few days before my 40th birthday my three-year-old son woke me up by crawling on top of me and squashing his stuffed animals into my face.

“Be nice to me, I’m an old man,” I mumbled around a mouthful of orange fur.

“You’re not old,” he said. “If you are boring you are old.”

Good point, kid. Better celebrate my passing into middle age by doing something interesting.

So the day after I and a few friends held a memorial service for my youth (1969-2009) I set off to the English/Scottish borderlands to walk the UK’s newest National Trail–The Hadrian’s Wall Path. This path cuts across the width of England along Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Empire’s northernmost boundary. I’d never walked across a country before and figured it would be a good way to prove I’m not totally over the hill. Granted, that part of England is only 84 miles wide, but hey, I’m getting on in years.

Much of what we now call England was taken over by the Romans and called Britannia. Julius Caesar invaded in 55 and 54 BC, but didn’t stay, and it was up to the Emperor Claudius to take over the region in 43 AD. After a lot of fierce fighting Britannia became an important province. The common perception that it was a freezing backwater is untrue. Londinium (now called London) was a thriving provincial capital with impressive public buildings, and there was an extensive system of roads and public works all across the province.

Hadrian’s Wall was built starting in 122 AD by the Emperor Hadrian to defend against incursions by the fierce tribes of Scotland, especially the Picts. It’s the largest Roman monument in the world, a continuous stone wall with earthworks in front and behind it, as well as forts and lookout towers at regular intervals along its length. While it was obviously meant for defense, that was not its only purpose. The Roman legions weren’t constantly fighting hordes of northern barbarians swarming out of the mists. Trade was more common than swordplay, and the wall existed to control movement going north and south. A continuous ditch with earthen ramparts on either side called the Vallum was constructed to the south of the Wall. It’s purpose was to keep Roman citizens from passing to the north without being accounted for. The records are scanty, but they probably had to pay some sort of toll when passing through the Milecastles, fortified gateways found every mile along the Wall.

Most of the forts are located a few miles to the south of the Wall in areas with good farmland. If the sentries on the Wall spotted trouble the legions could march to the rescue. The smaller garrisons on the Wall itself could fight a delaying action until help arrived, or fall back and let the invaders cross over the Wall and get beaten by the legions in open battle.While Hadrian’s Wall is traditionally seen as the northernmost border of the Roman Empire, for a brief period there was a wall 100 miles to the north built by the Emperor Antoninus Pius beginning in 142 AD. The Antonine Wall stretched 37 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, but was abandoned after about twenty years because keeping the garrisons supplied that far to the north was expensive and the land between the two walls wasn’t very productive. A trail runs along that wall, and if there’s enough interest I might hike that one next year and write about it. Both walls are World Heritage Sites.

Hadrian’s Wall acted as the Roman Empire’s defense to the north for another two centuries until the Romans began to pull resources out of Britannia. Invasions by Persians and Germans were threatening more valuable provinces closer to Rome. One by one the legions were recalled to defend the Roman heartland, and in 410 AD the Emperor Honorius told the province to look to its own defense. More than three centuries of Roman rule had come to an end.

The Hadrian’s Wall Path became the UK’s 15th National Trail in 2003. It meanders for 84 miles along the route of the Wall from the Roman fort of Segedunum in the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, on Solway Firth. The path goes through urban areas, rolling countryside, rough crags, remote highlands, and quiet marshland, giving the walker several different experiences.

I decided to walk from east to west. While this put the prevailing wind in my face, it allowed me to leave Newcastle behind on the first day and to go into ever more remote regions of the English/Scottish border country. I divided the hike into six days of approximately 14 miles each. This allowed for time each day to take detours to the many museums and archaeological sites along the way, take hundreds of pictures, send lots of postcards to my son (he’s all about the postcards), and savor one of the most impressive and evocative hikes I’ve ever been on. So come join me every day for the next week as I walk across England and through 2,000 years of history.

Tomorrow: Day One!