Roman armies, under Julius Caesar, first invaded Britain in 55BC. By the second century they had established forts and supply routes all over England and as far north as the River Tay in the Scottish Highlands. During the next two centuries, troubles in other parts of the empire caused some of the troops stationed in Britain to be relocated, and maintaining defense of the northernmost frontier gradually became unsupportable. After a lengthy period of advances and subsequent reversals, it was decided to leave be the more intractable northern tribes (now Scotland) to their mountainous enclaves, and the frontier was finally set along a line between the River Tyne on the east and the Solway Firth on the west.
The building of a turf and stone wall began in 122AD during the rule of Emperor Hadrian. Within six years, the work was largely completed to heights of between 12 and 20 feet with manned milecastles (fortified gateways) and watchtowers erected at intervals all along the route.
It has been commonly supposed that the Wall was built merely to keep out so-called northern "barbarians," but just as likely it was a means of controlling trade movement and imposing customs, not to forget that building projects helped keep forces active, fit, and disciplined. Most of the "Romans" who manned the Wall were, in fact, non-citizen auxiliary forces recruited from all parts of the empire from Syria to Germany. An auxiliary soldier could only become a true Roman citizen after 25 years of army service.
As well as the stone and turf walls, earthworks called Vallum were thrown up later, creating a deep ditch to the south of the Wall, and eleven forts were built nearby at roughly 7-mile intervals.
When the Romans finally pulled out of Britain for good early in the fifth century, the Wall endured a millennium of plundering, so that most of Hadrian's Wall stones are now to be found in countless medieval castles, churches, and farmsteads. Today, the Wall is in a state of archaeological ruin with only bits and outlines of milecastles and turrets popping up here and there. Some sections, in the more remote high country, are still solid enough to give a good idea of the original height (average 15 feet) and width (3 feet). Interactive museums along the way help to recreate the lives and times of the ancients in whose steps walkers tread during a lively summer season, May through October.
The outline of Segedunum Roman Fort can be seen from an observation tower at the interactive museum situated next to the trailhead at Wallsend. A bit of reconstructed Wall adjacent to the museum marks the beginning of the trail and is the last sign of Roman Britain for the next 15 miles. The walk follows the River Tyne on paved and graveled paths through the city of Newcastle, passing through industrial scenes, woodsy patches, and riverside parks, then gradually becomes more rural as city scape falls behind. There are a few rises and dips in the terrain, but it is easy going until the path veers away from the river to follow the old disused Wylam Waggonway and then turns upward to make the first steep climb of the walk, about 100 meters (328 feet) up to the quaint hill town of Heddon-on-the-Wall. Here, besides finding food, lodging, and public transport services, you also see the first significant remains of Hadrian's Wall.
>> An off-path diversion worth a visit is the birthplace of George Stephenson, the engineer who is credited with developing the first moving locomotive, which subsequently led to the birth of the railway industry.
The day stars with a last look at the short length of wall preserved at Heddon. Leaving town, the path sits directly on the Wall, although you wouldn't know it as it has completely disappeared. The Vallum (Roman earthworks thrown up along the Wall) is recognizable here and there, the wall ditch is very evident at times, and bits of turrets and milecastles appear. The path rises steadily but gently uphill over open fields, through the odd small forest, soggy bog, and disused quarry, reaching a height of 850 feet (250 meters) at the remains of milecastle 25. From this point, the trend is refreshingly downward as the trail exchanges panoramic overviews for secluded glens and country lanes. By the time you reach the main road and cross a bridge into Chollerford, you have descended to a height of 164 feet (60 meters).
>> Leave Hadrian's Wall Path at the road to Halton Castle to visit a Roman museum and military headquarters in Corbridge. This is a 7.25-mile circular walk (11.7 km), usually done as a day trip add-on.
>> Well-preserved remains of Brunton Turret can be seen with an off-path sidetrack just before reaching Chollerford.
On the outskirts of Chollerford, Chesters Roman Fort is a must-stop to see its collection of artifacts and impressive ruins. Still evident are the quarters for regular soldiers and a bigger room for the centurion, an underground storeroom, and a bathhouse. After that, serious walking begins with a long uphill climb out of town, then the path leaves the road for field walking and clambering over scores of wooden and stone stiles. The trail deviates a little to visit the Mithraeum at Brocolitia, a temple dedicated to the Persian god Mithras. The terrain becomes ever steeper and rockier in Northumberland National Park, rising over 900 feet (300 meters) at Sewingshields Crags with sheer drops on the north side. More and more significant remains of milecastles and turrets become visible, and long lengths of solid wall streak up and down from ridge to ridge to the distant horizon. Built atop Housesteads Crags at an altitude of 290 meters (950 feet), Verconvicium (place of good fighters) Roman Fort is spectacularly situated above terraced hillsides. Rough toilets, water, and snacks are available here, on-path, or it's a long downhill walk to get to a roadside information center.
>> Vindolanda is a complex Roman excavation site where you can see archaeologists at work. You can leave the trail at Peel Gap and make a 3.25 mile (6.1 km) round-trip hike.
The trail continues up and down ridges to the highest point – 345 meters (1,132 feet) – at Winshields Crags. A down then up again course continues as the path follows one crag after another until reaching the last at Walltown Quarry where the trail descends to skirt a pond. From there it's back to field walking downward into a tree-lined valley. Rounding a bend you get a glimpse of the ruins of 14th century Thirwall Castle, then you proceed over a varied landscape of green hills and fields. Skirting the villages of Greenhead and Gilsland, you cross rail tracks, the occasional stream and then follow the River Irthing for a time. Then, it's upward again to Birdoswald, another restored fort and museum worth a visit. From then on, signs of the Wall become less frequent, and the walking becomes gentler, rising and dipping from one farm field to the next right to the village of Walton.
>> About 100 yards off the trail, just past Walltown Quarry, the Roman Army Museum uses hi-tech features in reconstructing garrison life on the Wall.
This is pretty, rolling Cumbrian farm country dotted with sheep and wooded patches and with distant hills draped against the horizon. Except for some earthwork humps and ridges, there is no recognizable sign of the Wall. From the attractive town of Crosby-on-Eden the path picks up and follows the River Eden into parklands at the heart of Carlisle, a city well worth a stopover break for some cosmopolitan dining. Carlisle Castle has to be among England's best-preserved examples of a medieval stronghold. The city's ancient past and Roman connections are on display at Tullie House museum.
Leaving Carlisle, the path keeps to the River Eden and then emerges once again to proceed over countryside interspersed with the picturesque villages of Grinsdale and Beaumont (pronounced Bee-mont), and Burgh by Sands (Bruff by Sands). From there the path follows the road alongside saltmarshes to Drumburgh (Drum-bruff) and then briefly diverts again to field walking until it reaches the village of Glasson. Again, it picks up the coast road to Port Carlisle and finally reaches trail's end at Bowness on Solway. Hadrian's Wall is no longer to be seen in this region as subsequent rulers recycled what the Romans had built, reusing the stones for their own purposes. One such structure is the Norman-era Drumbrugh Castle. Built in 1307 and enlarged over time, it stands today as a classic example of the fortified farmhouse so prevalent throughout centuries of border hostilities. Nowadays, there is no fear of Viking, Irish, or Scottish raiders appearing on the Solway, but walkers and locals alike still keep an eye out for flood-tides.
>> Trail information: guidebooks, maps, and links to accommodation, group-tour and baggage services are available at the UK National Trails website.
>> Accommodation: Options range from camp style to farm and home stays, to inns and hotels within a five-mile proximity of the trail. It is advisable to reserve ahead if walking in peak season. Getting between lodging and trail on your own may require a lengthy add-on walk, so independent walkers need to inquire about transport and baggage transfer options before booking accommodation.
>> Transportation: Trains and a variety of bus companies serve different points in the vicinity of the trail, but access stops are often anywhere from half a mile to three miles off path, so these distances have to be added on to the actual trail walk. The AD122 is a seasonal service with stops at all major Roman sites and museums located along the trail between the cities of Carlisle and Newcastle. Other bus routes run the gamut of towns and villages from east to west, including the 685 service between Newcastle and Carlisle. The towns of Hexham and Haltwhistle are main connecting points in the central section, but they are both well off-trail. It takes careful planning to coordinate daily walks with transport schedules.
>> Food, Drink, Toilet: Comfort facilities are sparse in the remoter parts of the trail. It's essential to carry water, snacks, tissue, blister patches, money. Camera and other non-essential but desirable carry-alongs, all add to the weight.