Long ago, a stone wall was built along the edge of the Roman empire to keep out the barbarians in the north. The year was AD 122 and Hadrian was the emperor. Romans called the north men “Barbarians” but that is the name the proud Romans gave to a people group that they could not subdue.
The wall extended from sea to sea entirely on what is now English soil. On the west coast in Bowness-on-Solway the wall is near the current day Scottish English border. On the east coast, however, the border is about 60 miles north of Hadrian’s wall. Vestiges of the wall still remain today 1,900 years after it was built.
In Birdoswald, the longest visible stretch of Hadrian’s wall can be observed. It is at this point Trin and I began our trek towards the Housesteads Roman Fort that would cover almost 13 miles of the 73-mile wall (equal to 80 Roman miles). It is a beautiful scenic walk through the countryside over hills and pastures of cattle and sheep.
The footprint of a Roman Fort is sprawled atop a hill at Birdswald. Just outside this fort Trin and I could see Hadrian’s wall extending as far as the eye could see. The wall in this section is only a whisper of what it once was. Originally the wall was believed to be 12 feet high and 10 feet wide. What we see now is only the foundation and maybe a couple of feet in some sections. The vallum (earthen rampart) that the Romans dug along the entire length of the wall still remains as a long impression in the earth visible for miles from this point.
At every Roman mile (just a little short of an English mile) along the wall stood a milecastle. These outlooks have a relatively small footprint but were believed to be three stories high. They could be heated from the first floor and provided a place for the soldiers to guard the border.
Housesteads Roman Fort
Housesteads Roman Fort, built between AD 122 and AD 132, is the most complete example of a Roman fort. The fort covers 2.2 hectares (about 5.5 acres). It sits atop an exposed ridge with views over the countryside in all directions. When it was in use it was large enough to fit at least 10 narrow long barracks (for 800 men) and housing for the centurion. The footprint remaining enables us to envision the past. It even includes the oldest best-preserved stone-built latrines. To read more about Housesteads and its history check out the English Heritage site.
When we visited Housteads, a large art installation had been erected in the back of the fort. It looked like a huge conglomeration of modern billboards and children’s art looming over an earthy 1,900-year-old ruin.
Vindolanda is a Roman outpost that predates Housesteads and Hadrian’s wall. Originally built out of wood in AD 85 it was abandoned when troops were moved up a few miles to Housesteads. The new fort was stone built directly on the wall. Vindolanda was then reconstructed in stone and inhabited until the Roman occupation ended in AD 410.
Archeologists have uncovered artifacts that give us insight into the daily life of the Romans at the time. Wooden leaf tablets about the size of a postcard were found with notes written in ink. The unique oxygen-starved soil near Vindolanda has preserved these tablets remarkably well. One of them contains the oldest known writing by a woman. It was an invitation to a birthday party.
Vindolanda is an active archeological site. It is exciting to see new discoveries about life almost two millennia ago. Read more history of Vindolanda on the British Heritage site.
There is a series of hills in a long row through a relatively flat landscape to the north and south. The wall and thus the trail made us climb every single hill.
On top of each hill, the wind was quite intense forcing us to quickly put on all our jackets and zip them up. Between each hill, we were protected from the wind and suddenly would feel quite warm. One by one we unzipped our outer layers and removed our jackets. The day was spent continually changing layers.
Two miles from our Airbnb the sky let loose a torrent of cold sideways rain that soaked through all four layers to the skin almost instantly. The windbreaker layer I purchased in Australia before our failed pandemic flight to Finland turned out to be useless in the rain. This was the first since then that it had been fully tested. Thankfully we were near the end of our hike. We picked up speed to increase our heat generation.
The trail runs along a burn (referred to as a stream in the USA) through a cattle field. At one point the narrow path was so flooded that the water was ankle-deep on the trail. Veering off to the right would have us in the burn and up the hill to the left was too steep and slippery to have any traction.
It was calving season so we had been careful to give the cattle and calves their distance. They can become very protective. There on the path in front of us stood a momma cow and her calf. The rain was torrential, we could not turn right or left, standing still would have caused our temperatures to drop. We wanted to get home rather than turn back and add a mile to our trek.
The cow moved as we approached, but followed the footpath in front of us. I’m sure she felt like we were following her, because we were. Then she stopped at the gate – our exit – and turned to bellow at us. She was not happy. Neither were we as we were forced to stop to keep our distance and wait for her to move away. Finally, she went up the hill with her calf and we hurried through the gate.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” – An Old Norwegian saying
Unlike most Airbnbs that we’ve stayed in, our accommodations for the evening thankfully had a dryer. We left our muddy boots downstairs and then peeled off all our layers to throw into the washing machine. The down coats went into the dryer on low heat and next the load of laundry. Everything was dry by morning and ready for us to use for the next long hike.
By the end of the week, we were at a Decathlon store (similar to REI) to purchase new rain shells that could keep us dry.
When the Romans Left
After the Romans left Briton many crofts nearby reused the stone from Hadrian’s wall to build their own homes. My personal guess is that it was probably a goodbye and good riddance, thank you for mining the stone for our homes.
The ruins of Thirwall Castle are open for exploring near the wall. It was a great place to imagine what it must have been like to live here in 1369 when it was built. The family used stone from Hadrian’s wall erecting thick castle walls to protect themselves and their livestock from raiders.
Livestock would have been housed on the first floor. The family lived on the second floor and even had a toilet that emptied down a chute in the wall.
Walking along a wall that is nearly two millennia old and placing our hands on stone blocks laid there by someone from a time so long past made history feel closer. It also makes me wonder what will remain of our current disposable society two millennia in the future. I wonder how we will be remembered when our buildings fall, or when rust and dust cover our toys.
Where to Stay
We stayed in Haltwhistle, the midway point between Birdoswald and Housesteads. It was a great location and we had a wonderful host. The Airbnb home we stayed in was *built in 1649 but beautifully redone inside. Leona the owner heated the home nicely. We have found that many homes skimp on the heat here as costs are rising astronomically. This home was warm and we felt very comfortable.
*This is not an affiliate link, just a home we recommend