Hiking Hadrian’s Wall–Day Two, the first glimpses of the wall

The second day of my hike across England dawns clear, a good omen considering the steady drizzle I endured yesterday. I feel glad to be out of Newcastle. There’s something deeply satisfying about walking out of a city and waking up the next morning breathing fresh air.

In the breakfast room of Houghton North Farm hikers headed either way along the Hadrian’s Wall Path swap information and anecdotes. I feel like I’m back in my early twenties, hopping from hostel to hostel in Europe and the Middle East. The owner doles out advice on the trail conditions and I listen to her every word. I have fifteen and a quarter miles to walk before my next bed.

“Do you know what you do with the shell of a soft-boiled egg after you’re finished?” she suddenly asks the room.

Blank stares all around.

“You smash it up, otherwise witches will sail out to sea in it and sink the ships,” she explains. Then she blushes a little. “Oh, I don’t believe that of course, but I do it just the same.”

That’s a new one on me. Perhaps I should ask her for a charm against rain.

But I don’t need one. As I leave Heddon-on-the-Wall the only clouds are puffy and white, broken by swaths of brilliant blue. The trail runs through farmers’ fields and up and down hills. I’m on the line of the Wall, but it takes some attention to notice. I occasionally see the remains of the ditch that lay to the north of the Wall and the Vallum, a ditch and double rampart, that stood to the south. They look like frozen waves in the harvested fields.

There are other traces too. Hadrian’s Wall had Milecastles, fortified gates really, every Roman mile along its length, and I notice that everywhere my map says there’s one there is now a gate into a farmer’s field. The stonework just below the surface meant no crops could grow on that spot, but it provided a solid base for driving carts. In some places I can see faint outlines of these rectangular structures. I begin to examine the drystone walls and farmhouses I pass, wondering if the more worn, weathered stones were taken from the Wall in some remote century and put to new use.

Up a hill and across a field and I come to the first strip of Hadrian’s Wall still standing above the surface (pictured here). I stop and touch it. I’ve been to hundreds of ancient sites, and dug up a fair number of them when I was still an archaeologist, but I’ve never gotten over the thrill of running my hand across old stone.

It’s easy to forget when looking at some low jumble of rock that it was once the center of some people’s lives. This Wall was a landmark for thousands of people not too different from us. The Roman Empire resembled our own in so many ways. We owe much of our architecture, language, and system of law to the Romans, but we owe them something else too–the idea of a multicultural society. Rome was a civilization whose citizens, generals, and even emperors weren’t just Italian, but Spanish, British, Arab, and African. The Empire was the first truly multicultural state, where race was no barrier and everyone could practice their faith freely. That is, of course, if you didn’t challenge the authority of the emperor like the Druids, Jews, and Christians did.


I pass the remains of Vindobala Roman fort, now just a rocky field good only for the grazing of cattle. A few forlorn stretches of wall poke out of the soil over the next few miles. I pass lush meadow and a reservoir rich with bird life before coming to the peaceful hamlet of Halton. Here stands Halton Castle, a single tower made of reused Roman stone with a later house attached. These sturdy little forts, called pele towers, dot the borderlands and protected locals during the many attacks by the Scots. In fact, this 14th century tower is actually a replacement for an earlier one the Scots destroyed.

It’s now owned by the Blackett family, specifically Sir Hugh Francis Blackett, 12th Baronet and an heir to a direct line of Blacketts who married into the Halton dynasty. In more than 700 years this place has been owned by two families. I’d love to knock on the door and see if the baronet is at home, but I doubt he’d want to speak to a backpacker with a colonial accent and cow shit on his boots. A Baronet may be one step lower than a Baron, but it’s still several steps above me.

So I content myself with the overgrown churchyard next door, where tombstones moulder under gnarled oaks and the great tomb of the Haltons still bears the weather-beaten family crest. It’s peaceful place and I have it to myself except for a young couple making out on a bench (is there nowhere else?) but I’m intrigued by what I’ll find along the Wall and head back out on the trail.

The bucolic mood is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of the A68 cutting across the Path. Running in a straight line across much of eastern England, it’s built atop a Roman road called Dere Street. Many European highways follow Roman roads. How the modern world moves is dictated by engineers who have been dead for millennia.

The highway is soon behind me and I notice that habitation is becoming scarcer. The farms and hamlets are fewer and farther between, and the fields are giving way to uncultivated wildlands, what the lords and kings used to call “wasteland” since it didn’t produce taxable crops. The fragments of Hadrian’s Wall are becoming longer and taller, there having been fewer people in this wild region to have taken away stones for their own use.

On an open, windswept high ground pattered by a light rain I come to the site of the Battle of Heavenfield. In 634 AD, when the land was a patchwork of little kingdoms and the Wall and all other Roman buildings were already crumbling, King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, Wales, invaded the divided kingdom of Northumbria. Facing him was Oswald, King of Bernicia, one half of the divided Northumbria. The Welsh marched up Dere Street and found Oswald’s army waiting for them. Oswald had picked his ground well. The right side of his army was protected by Hadrian’s Wall, now an overgrown ruin but still high enough to stop the Welsh advance, and his left was protected by a sheer crag. The Northumbrians slaughtered the Welsh and Cadwallon was killed. Oswald went on to unite the Northumbria and became one of the most powerful kings of his time. He spread Christianity to areas of Britain that were still pagan and he’s now venerated as a saint. This region is still called Northumbria.

A long, steady slope takes me down to the North Tyne river valley and the town of Chollerford. I’ve walked 15 miles but I’m not done yet. I couldn’t find an open room here and so I’ve booked one at the Barrasford Arms three miles up the road to the north. I’m tired, it’s getting dark, and I really don’t want to walk three miles on a narrow country lane with no shoulder, so I try something I haven’t tried for twenty years–I stick out my thumb.

I’m under no illusions here. I’m a ragged lone male on a lonely country road at twilight. Who’s going to stop? The first guy speeds past with a look of contempt. The next two cars are driven by lone women, no hope there, followed by a woman with a pack of kids. A young couple come next, speeding up as they pass and avoiding eye contact. I’m just beginning to resign myself to a dark and somewhat hazardous slog to my hotel when another car slows to a stop. A middle-aged couple tell me to hop in.

After only six cars I’m getting a ride! I’m going to have change my view of humanity completely. They’re a Welsh couple on holiday, and being a good guest I
don’t mention their ignominious defeat at the hands of Saint Oswald.

“So you’re a historian?” they say after we introduce ourselves. “The last person we picked up was a history teacher from Taiwan.” Not only do they pick up hitchhikers, but they make a habit of it! In a few minutes I’m in my hotel with a pint in my hand and dinner in the oven. Thank God Oswald didn’t kill all the Welsh.

Tomorrow: Day Three–The Underwater Temple

Read the entire series here.

All photos by Sean McLachlan unless otherwise noted.

Hiking Hadrian’s Wall–Day One

The Hadrian’s Wall Path starts with a bang.

It doesn’t look promising. This 84 mile National Trail begins at the appropriately named Wallsend neighborhood of Newcastle Upon Tyne, an industrial city in northern England. Not my ideal way to start a six-day hike, but right at the Wall’s eastern end is Segedunum, one of the most completely excavated Roman forts in the world. Virtually all of it has been uncovered except for a strip buried by a nearby road. An observation tower offers a fantastic view of the foundations of every building.

Going up six floors in the tower’s elevator, I step out into a broad viewing room with floor-to-ceiling windows. To the south flows the River Tyne, an important trade route even in Roman times. Wharves and shipyards line each bank, massive cranes towering over them. To the north, homes and shops stand in orderly rows stretching as far as I can see. At my feet the fort spreads out like a diagram from one of my archaeology books. The headquarters dominates the center. Next to it is the commanding officer’s villa. Even though nothing is left but the foundations it still emanates an air of luxury. The common soldiers had to settle for the long, narrow barracks that run the width of the fort.

Just beyond Segedunum I can see the beginning of the Hadrian’s Wall Path (pictured here) cutting through a screen of trees and disappearing amidst the crowd of buildings. Further to the west all I see is city. My first goal is a village 15 miles away, just beyond Newcastle’s western edge. I have a lot of walking to do before I get to the countryside.

But first I want to explore the fort.

The museum is filled with artifacts found at the site and around Newcastle. There are reconstructions of Roman rooms, diagrams of Hadrian’s Wall, and statues of the man himself. But the most interesting part is next door where there’s a faithful reproduction of a Roman bath, minus the water, slaves, and occasionally randy bathers. Roman forts usually had baths, as it was considered essential for good health and a symbol of Roman civilization. Even poor people went to baths, with the wealthy sponsoring free days for those too destitute to fork over a few copper coins.

After browsing the displays I wander around the fort itself. There’s nothing left but the outlines of buildings, and my ears are filled with the rush of nearby traffic and the horn from a passing boat, yet I find this place strangely evocative of the past. Its completeness despite its position in the middle of a bustling city makes it seem almost defiant, a 2,000 year-old reminder of Newcastle’s origins. But this is just a taste of what’s out there beyond the office towers. It’s time to get walking.


I won’t lie to you, this first stretch of the Path is underwhelming. I’ve never been one for city hiking, and it’s a long, hard slog over pavement. The path mainly runs by the river, so at least I get to watch the boats and get a few glimpses of the past–a Norman keep, some ornate Victorian buildings, and a series of magnificent bridges–but I’m in a hurry to get into the country. There’s nothing more beautiful than the English countryside in good weather, so it’s probably just as well that there’s been a steady drizzle ever since I left Segedunum. I’ll save the good weather for later.

I leave the city center behind and continue along the Tyne through the outskirts. At times the path leaves the river and passes by office parks and abandoned factories. In the distance I can see hills that haven’t been completely absorbed by the city. Housing developments stick like scabs to their otherwise green slopes. People are fewer here–the occasional jogger, a couple of cyclists with packs who are probably doing Hadrian’s Wall too, and a guy in a business suit who parks near the river, gets out, looks down at the water for a couple of seconds with a grim expression, glances at me, then gets back in his car and drives off.

I have one last bit of purgatory before the wilderness–an industrial estate with rows of buildings like concrete boxes. Past these sprawls a vast junkyard of thousands of rusted cars surrounded by a chain-link fence and enough barbed wire to supply the Western Front. Giant signs tell me NO PARKING. NO DUMPING. NO PHOTOGRAPHS. WARNING: GUARD DOGS. I don’t know who these signs are for because I see nobody. Many of the cars are wrecked, and one near the fence, which looks like a giant hand has given it a karate chop, has a message scrawled in yellow paint. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DRINK AND DRIVE. I imagine a group of laughing teenagers coming back from some Newcastle club on a Saturday night. A sudden turn, a truck coming the other way, the kid at the wheel swerves but it’s too late and they go under. I need to get to those hills.

Finally I’m through to a nice stretch of greenery along the placid river. It’s still raining but my spirits lift. The steeple of a village church rising through the trees on the opposite bank provides a welcome change from decrepit docks. Past that I see an old earthwork from the Battle of Newburn Ford, when in 1640 invading Scots met an English army here. The earthworks were English forts, placed there to stop the Scots from crossing the river. They didn’t work. It didn’t help that the English were outnumbered nearly four to one. Newcastle fell to the Scots and the massive amount of spending to get rid of them was one of the contributing causes of the English Civil War.

This has always been a border region. The Romans built the Wall to keep out the Picts and other tribes. The Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and later English kings had trouble with the Scots too. I pass through the battlefield and on through some farmers’ fields. It’s getting dark but it has finally stopped raining and I’m almost to my goal.

I continue on through a golf course and up a steep hill. At the summit is Heddon-on-the-Wall and my first stop, the Houghton North Farm. It’s a farm-turned-hostel at the edge of the village that serves walkers doing the Hadrian’s Wall Path. After settling in I head on over to the local pub for a huge meal of roast beef and a couple of pints of ale. One of the best parts about hiking in England is there’s always a pub waiting for you at the end of the day.

I feel pretty good. I’ve done the first and worst stretch of the hike and am 15 miles closer to my goal of crossing England. Most importantly, the city is behind me. From now on it’s open countryside all the way to the other coast. The good stuff is all ahead of me.

Tomorrow: Day Two, from Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford.

Read the entire series here.

All photos by Sean McLachlan unless otherwise noted.

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!