Hadrian's Wall was built by the Roman Empire to protect their territory in England from the Pictish tribes of Scotland. It was built relatively quickly from 122 AD, with associated castles and forts, and stretches for 73 miles / 117 km from the Tyne estuary on the east coast to Solway Firth on the west coast. The best of it, both for its preserved structure and scenic upland location, is the central 20-or-so miles across Northumberland between Hexham and Haltwhistle. Hadrian's Wall is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- 1 South Shields is not on the wall, but its supply base of Arbeia was crucial to the military effort.
- 2 Wallsend is the wall's eastern terminus, with the Roman fort of Segedunum.
- 3 Newcastle upon Tyne obliterates the route, but it's a major transport hub with lots of visitor facilities and attractions.
- Gateshead on the south bank of the Tyne is a separate city; you might stay or visit here instead of Newcastle.
- 4 Corbridge is an attractive small place with the remains of the garrison town of Corstopitum.
- 5 Hexham is a pleasant old market town south of the cavalry fort of Cilurnum or Chesters.
- 6 Haltwhistle is a village near the best of the wall, around Vercovicium or Housesteads fort.
- 7 Brampton in Cumbria is another old market town.
- 8 Carlisle again obliterates the route. It's a large town with several attractions and good transport.
- 9 Bowness-on-Solway is the tiny village at the west terminus of the wall.
Established emperors can skip this bit, but newbies start here: in order to protect your homeland, power base and own sweet self, you have to subdue the surrounding territories. Exploit them for the benefit of self and homeland (for dammit, you are the homeland) as ruthlessly as you dare without provoking rebellion. Recruit their young men into your army with steady pay, fine uniforms and tales of glory; send them to occupy a different territory where they've no local loyalty, will brutally do your bidding, and are politically expendable. Transition the military territory into a civic province dotted with your noble statue. But in order to protect it, you have to subdue the surrounding territories . . .
Such was the game of imperial dominoes that led Rome to conquer surrounding areas of Italy, then Greece, North Africa, and France which brought them within sight of the shores of Britain. Julius Caesar made brief expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, but the first invasion with a view to settlement began in 43 AD under Claudius. The Roman Empire quickly secured Kent, the Thames crossing at Londinium, and the English lowlands. They advanced up the lowland corridor along the east coast of Scotland, where in 84 AD Agricola fought the battle of Mons Graupius against the Caledonians, probably somewhere near Stonehaven. He won, but Rome was preoccupied by threats elsewhere, and couldn't spare troops to garrison and colonise Scotland. They fell back to a line of control between the Tyne and the Solway, where the emperor Hadrian built a defensive wall from 122 AD. After a few years they were again ready to advance, and the Antonine Wall was built between the Forth and the Clyde from 142 AD. But this was only a turf embankment and was abandoned in 162 AD; they retrenched to Hadrian's Wall and held it until Rome abandoned Britain early in the 5th century. It's likely that allied British tribes continued to defend it for another century.
So Hadrian's Wall was occupied for over 300 years along a mostly peaceful border, and the lands south of it transitioned into civilian settlements. Roman soldiers might spend their entire career here, with their families in a nearby town, and come to regard it as home; there are traces of villas, bath houses and temples along the Tyne valley to the east and the Irthing valley west. But when they were gone they were gone, with not even a folk legend to explain their mighty works to later peoples. Especially in the lowlands, the stone was recycled into other dwellings, and to create the 18th century Military Road of General Wade, nowadays the B6318. (In order to protect England, Wade had to subdue the rebellious Jacobite Scots . . . Hadrian would have approved.) It could have disappeared completely but for the efforts of John Clayton, who from 1830 began buying up the land and preserving the structure.
This means that the best of the wall, and the concentration of antiquities and natural views, is in a central upland section of about 20 miles between Hexham and Gilsland, much of it in the care of the National Trust. It follows the scarp of Whin Sill, the dolerite ridge that elsewhere creates High Force waterfall, the Farne islands, and the craggier features of the Northumberland coast. Ironically the very best is the wall-less wall west of Housesteads / Vercovicium, where the scarp is a cliff that needed no fortification. The Pennine Way traverses this central section, from the south joining the wall at Greenhead then marching sinister-dexter east as far as Housesteads before resuming its line north towards the modern Scottish border.
The entire route of the wall has been turned into a long distance footpath. For about 20 miles either side of the central section, this follows a well-defined earthwork descending west towards Brampton and east towards Prudhoe. It's a pleasant hike, and every thousand military paces you pass a bramble-encrusted mound which a little sign says was a milecastle. But the stone has gone and it's more accurate to call it "Hadrian's Ditch", a name that tourist publicity perversely fails to adopt. Further out, even the earthwork has succumbed to the plough and to road-building, and you approach Carlisle along a nondescript path, with only an occasional unusually-straight farm track to recall the grandeur that was Rome. In Newcastle the line has been obliterated and you follow a modern footpath along the north bank of the Tyne to Wallsend.
Newcastle has an airport and is on the A1 and London - York - Edinburgh railway, while Carlisle is on the M6 and London - Preston - Glasgow railway.
Trains run every 30 min between Newcastle and Carlisle, stopping at Gateshead, Prudhoe, Corbridge, Hexham, Haydon Bridge, Bardon Mill, Haltwhistle and Brampton. They're every 30 min M-Sa and hourly on Sunday.
Stagecoach Bus 685 runs hourly from Newcastle to Hexham, Brampton and Carlisle. The A69 links cross-country and is mostly a fast dual-carriageway with no sidewalk. Cyclists and walkers are not prohibited but should instead use the loops of the former highway.
The valley transport corridor is five miles or so south of Hadrian's Wall, which hews to the higher ground, so you need wheels for the last stage. Car or bike-on-train would work.
Bus AD122 parallels the wall between Hexham and Haltwhistle, ideal for one-way hikes then a ride back to your vehicle or lodging. It runs hourly, daily mid-Apr to Oct, weekends mid-Feb to mid-Apr and Nov to mid-Dec. The main stops from Hexham are Chesters, Housesteads, The Sill, Vindolanda, Walltown, Greenhead and Haltwhistle.
- South Shields has the Roman supply depot of Arbeia: stuff was brought in by sea then carted inland, a never-ending logistic grind. The fort's western gatehouse and commander's quarters have been reconstructed.
- Wallsend is actually its beginning, as construction started here in 122 AD and worked west. The Roman fort of Segedunum is next to Mile Zero of the wall and Wallsend's main metro station. (Don't get off at Hadrian Road, a nondescript burb. Some Metro signage is in Latin: have your ticket ready for the vomitorium.) Hadrian's Wall Path follows the north bank of the Tyne but is entirely modern for 14 miles west, as through Newcastle the ancient route and structures are obliterated. Wallsend has places to stay and eat but is only 12 min ride from Newcastle city centre and you'll do better to base there.
- Newcastle upon Tyne is the best base for the east end of the wall, with Roman exhibits in the Great North Museum. The wall is lost beneath A187 coming in from Wallsend then A186 heading out west. A few courses of masonry of the wall and Turret 7B at West Denton (junction with A1) are the most easterly surviving stonework, but not worth seeking out. Its route becomes visible on B6528 towards Throckley and Heddon-on-the-Wall, where the path leaves the riverbank to rejoin it. Another short stretch of masonry outside Heddon, and it's then a path and low earthwork parallel to the road, here called Military Road and usually busy and ratty. Vindobala fort is barely visible. Use OS Landranger Map 88 from the outset at Wallsend until 4 miles west of Heddon, then switch to Map 87.
- Corbridge is 3 miles south of the wall at the junction of A69 and A68 the Darlington - Jedburgh - Edinburgh road. There are remains of the fortified Roman town of Corstopitum, illustrating the transition between military garrison and civilian settlement. Corbridge is a pleasant small place to stay or visit. The wall is a well-defined vallum parallel to B6318. (The otherwise excellent OS Map 87 here labels it B3618, which would be around London Twickenham if it existed). This stretch concludes at the North Tyne.
- Vallum is what you hike besides in the lowlands: "Hadrian's Ditch," which survives though stonework has vanished. It was built a short time after the wall, as close to the south side as terrain allowed. The ditch is about 20 ft / 6 m wide, with the excavated material made into embankments set back from it, a larger to the south and smaller to the north, with often a third on the south lip of the ditch. The Military Way, the marching trail, was on or next to the north embankment. The whole strip was about 36 ft / 10 m wide and seems to have been a forbidden military zone, plus an element of drainage; it wasn't fenced or palisaded. Originally vallum meant the embankment (the ditch was fossa), but it became the term for the entire strip, used on modern maps. There were no structures north side of the wall, they just cleared away any vegetation that could afford cover.
- Hexham is a larger market town with visitor amenities and attractions. The best of the wall starts 6 miles north at Chesters, and marches west towards Greenhead.
- 1 Chesters Roman Fort (Cilurnum), Chollerford NE46 4EU, ☏ +44 1434 681379. Daily 10:00-17:00. The original concept of the wall didn't include forts, but these were soon added. Early forts such as Cilurnum, occupied by 124 AD, straddled the wall and demolished earlier work; later structures (eg Housesteads) were set back. This fort guarded the bridge over the River North Tyne, and was a base for cavalry. So raiders from the north could expect not only pursuit over many miles, but destruction of any village that sheltered them or that might hypothetically do so in future. The troops of all the forts were auxiliaries not Roman citizens, following the strategy of imperial dominoes: those from Bosnia and from the Upper Rhineland were stationed here not long after their own homelands had been subjugated. They formed the 500-strong ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata, "the cavalry regiment called Augusta for its valor", and worshipped (or else!) the military goddess Disciplina. It's not clear how the fort was used when the frontier advanced to the Antonine Wall, but from 180 AD to the end of the Roman period it was garrisoned by the "Second Asturians" from northern Spain. A civilian town grew up on its south side but hasn't been excavated. The fort and wall were disused from the 5th century and the Saxons took the stone for building, while fields engulfed the site. From 1796 Nathaniel Clayton had it levelled, burying the site to create a more pleasing landscape, but his son John Clayton reversed this and began the preservation of the entire wall. Adult £9.90, child £6, conc £9.
- Milecastle, Turret, Turret is the recurring pattern over the central section - their foundations often survive even when the wall has gone. The turrets, one third then two-thirds of a military mile beyond each milecastle, were stubby sentry posts. Turret 24B is east across the river from Chesters Fort, then the first identifiable remnant west is Turret 29A "Black Carts". Only earthworks survive of Milecastle 29 and Turret 29B, and given the conditions, their ditches were probably as much for drainage as defence. The turrets didn't have crossing points, so to cross the wall you had to go through the checkpoint at one of the milecastles, with whatever tedious procedures happened to be in force: "How much longer they gonna be, poking into that dēfutūta cartload of turnips?" From here west to Housesteads, there's an ersatz wall, as Roman stones form the drystone field wall flanking the road. The footpath is a grassy trail across grazing land.
- 2 Mithraeum, the temple to Mithras, is the main interest at Brocolitia, the next fort west on B6318. Like Chesters, the fort was built astride the wall and had 500 troops (initially from south-west France, later from Belgium), but its stone was stripped to build General Wade's Road. The temple, in use 200-350 AD, had become hidden in a bog so its foundations and altars survived. The Roman Mithras was a development of the Zoroastrian Mehr, god of covenants and pledges, justice and light. Mithras was worshipped at communal meals in caves or crypts, which later became part of Christian architecture and practise. The site was private farmland until 2020, when it was gifted to English Heritage. Parking and access are free anytime, be prepared for soggy ground and grazing livestock.
- Mile 33 to 36: Coesike is a fragment of masonry where wall and B6318 diverge. It was Turret 33B; Milecastle 33 is an earthwork while Turret 33A has disappeared. The path starts to feels less pastoral and more like a frontier here as it comes onto a ridge. Milecastle 34 and Turret 34B have disappeared but Turret 34A (Grindon West) has masonry. Milecastle 35 (Sewingshields) has chunky foundations, and you can see the roadbed connecting it to the Roman Military Way, which in these craggy parts ran some way south of the wall. It was built over in medieval times, but this was removed in the 20th century. Hardly anything to see of Turret 35B, Milecastle 36 or Turret 36A, while Turret 36B became part of Housesteads. OS Landranger Map 86 has substantial overlap with Map 87 and covers from Mile 33 to the outskirts of Carlisle.
- 3 Housesteads (Vercovicium), Haydon Bridge NE47 6NN, ☏ +44 1434 344363. Nov-Mar Sa Su, Apr-Oct daily 10:00-17:00. This is the most substantial Roman fort not just on the wall but in Britain, and one of the best-preserved in Europe. It's referred to as an "auxiliary fort" but it was the 800 troops who were auxiliary, the Tungrians from Belgium and cuneus Frisiorum and numerus Hnaudifridi from Frisia; but all of these forts were as substantial as they needed to be to protect an empire. The north flank of Vercovicium was on the wall but it didn't straddle, perhaps due to unstable ground just north. It also lacked a running water supply, but collected enough from the lashing rain. The ruins include the barracks, bathhouse, Turret 36B, the adjacent civilian settlement, and the wall itself. In the 17th century a band of rustlers lived here and penned their stolen herds within; their farmhouse has been dismantled to uncover the present site. It's owned by National Trust and managed by English Heritage. Adult £9.90, child £6, conc £9.
- Mile 37 to 39 is the most scenic part of the entire wall and is often visited as a short hike from Housesteads. (By train get off at Bardon Mill.) Some 300 yards west of the fort is Milecastle 37, partly reconstructed; Turrets 37A and 37B are gone. The Pennine Way, which marches along the wall from Greenhead, here branches north to Bellingham up the valley of the North Tyne. Nothing to see of Milecastle 38 and Turrets 38A and 38B. Or indeed much of the wall, as this climbs to become the wall-less wall along the cliff above Crag Lough, where the natural defence needed no addition. Continue west for a photo at Sycamore Gap, where a tree is framed by a dip. The tree is several hundred years old, and also known as the "Robin Hood Tree" as it's ancient enough to have been a location in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Robin Hood (Kevin Costner) fights the wicked Sheriff's goons here, but as he was returning from the Holy Land via Dover to Nottingham, he can't have been using OS Landranger Map 87 or 86, which both cover this area.
- 4 Vindolanda, Bardon Mill NE47 7JN. Daily 10:00-17:00. Vindolanda was built in 85 AD so it pre-dates the wall and is two miles south. It was a fort, civilian settlement and caravanserai along Stanegate, the road between the Tyne and Solway. The road was designed for heavy carts so it was broad, paved, and wound up gradients instead of marching straight. Other forts lined Stanegate but they were more like secure truck parks, keeping out thieves but not mob-handed raids - that was the wall's job. The boggy soil has preserved many artefacts, such as sandals, wool-spinners' whorls, combs, a wooden toilet seat, a Christian chalice, and boxing gloves that appear sporting not gladiatorial. Writing tablets inscribed in ink (not by stylus) contain a birthday party invitation from 100 AD: most of these tablets are in the British Museum in London but a selection are here. In the gardens by the museum are reconstructions of Roman buildings. They also run the Roman Army Museum 7 miles west at Walltown: ticket prices are for both (valid for one year) though you can buy separately. Adult £12.50, child £6.85, conc £11.40.
- Mile 39 to 42 continues as a substantial wall across the hills. Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) has been partly reconstructed. Turrets 39A and 39B are gone; they were unusually far-spaced (the "Peel Gap"), so an extra tower was built between and its foundations are visible. Milecastles 40 and 41 and Turrets 40A, 40B and 41B have gone, but there's the foundations of Turret 41A (Caw Gap). The Romans appear to have demolished it to bring the wall across the site. This section concludes with Milecastle 42 (Cawfields), a solid remnant but its turrets are gone.
- Great Chesters or Aesica was a fort guarding the Caw Gap, where a stream runs through. It's south of the wall, as some inconsiderate fellow called Hadrian had already built Milecastle 43 where it should have stood, and had also changed the spec for the wall without this being divulged to the builders. The Milecastle was demolished once the fort was finished; they also built a civilian settlement and a six-mile aqueduct to bring stream water down the valley. A hoard of Celtic jewellery was found here. So it was an important place but there's only a few courses of stonework to see, and next-to-nothing of Turrets 43A and 43B.
- Mile 43 to 45 is the western end of the central section. Turret 44B (Muckle Bank) and 45A (Walltown) are visible, and the roadway from Milecastle 44 to the Military Way. The Roman Army Museum in Walltown is usually visited on the same ticket as Vindolanda, see above. Thirlwall Castle is a medieval stump, built from stone from the wall, which west of here reverts to being a ditch across farmland. The Pennine Way joins the wall at Greenhead, approaching from Alston along the South Tyne valley and tail-end of the Pennine range. OS Landranger Map 87 ends at Walltown, use Map 86 to the edge of Carlisle.
- Haltwhistle is the closest railway station to this section of wall. There's accommodation here and in Gilsland and Greenhead, which marks the watershed between the Tyne valley east in Northumberland, and Irthing valley west in Cumbria.
- Modern military frontiers: anywhere along the wall, but especially on the Hexham-Haltwhistle section, you'll see military jets, usually in pairs skimming low to practice flying under-the-radar. Their main role is to defend NATO and Europe against Russian supersonic bombers, which routinely hurtle across the Norwegian Sea, in international airspace but only a few minutes flight away from the major European cities. Russia has suffered devastating wars in its heartlands, which it seeks to protect by subduing surrounding territories, and by projecting its power beyond . . . here we go again. The RAF jets are based at Lossiemouth in northeast Scotland.
- 5 Birdoswald (Banna), Gilsland CA8 7DD. Nov-Mar Sa Su, Apr-Oct daily 10:00-17:00. This large fort overlooks a spur in the River Irthing. The wall this far west was only turf, then circa 130 AD the stone wall was built 50 yards north. It's the only fort to show clear evidence of post-Roman occupation, probably because of its lowland setting on a transport route, and this culminated in the 19th century farmhouse now within the site. You can park nearby but a pleasant stroll from Gilsland follows the wall past Milecastle 48 (Poltross Burn), Turret 48B, over a footbridge near the abutments of the Roman river bridge, then Milecastle 49 (Harrows Scar). A little way past the fort is Turret 49B. The site is managed by English Heritage. Adult £9.90, child £6, conc £9.
- Mile 50 to 55 are where the wall again deteriorates into "Hadrian's Ditch". You can either follow the grassy path or the quiet public lane. There are scraps of masonry at Turrets 51A and 51B, Pike Hill Signalling Station and Turret 52A. Camboglanna (or Castlesteads) Fort was mostly wrecked by river erosion and enthusiastic Georgian landscape gardeners.
- Brampton is a pleasant market town and base for this part of the wall, but it has no Roman antiquities. The wall pathway is waymarked but the vallum is indistinct and you could be walking through lowland fields anywhere.
- Carlisle obliterates the wall but has other attractions, places to stay and eat, and inter-city transport. Tullie Museum has the Roman exhibits. Approaching on the path from the east, switch to OS Landranger Map 85. The path is half a mile south of the wall, passing through hamlets such Low Crosby, Lipstock (where you bridge the M6) and Rickerby. The River Eden is notoriously flood-prone so after wet weather you may need to divert onto B6264.
- Bowness-on-Solway is the west terminus of the wall. You'd only come for the sake of completing the trail, as there's virtually nothing except a faint vallum. Coming out of Carlisle, use OS Landranger Map 85, and you need to be south of the River Eden. The path hugs the riverbank then follows the modern lane via Burgh by Sands, Drumsburgh and Glasson. End of, and a bit of anti-climax.
- Hike as long or as short as you like. Best for an afternoon stroll is the section from Vindolanda west onto the scarp; for a longer hike continue to "Robin Hood's Tree". You can do the whole wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend or vice versa, but you ought to book your accommodation a couple of months in advance, which does mean committing to each day's distance come fair or foul weather. But the lowland western sections are frankly no great shakes, and there's better hiking elsewhere.
- Moan about the cold to show solidarity. Squaddies are always mumping about something, so while their colleagues-in-arms in the Med groused about heat, dust and flies, this woeful lot complained about the cold. They'd been recruited from even colder regions, but endured long hours on sentry duty in the biting wind, with clothing and lodging on which every military expense had been spared. They wore sheepskin cloaks and boots, so muster resembled a mass parade of Uggs.
- Squeak! Learn Latin with Minimus, a series of textbooks for primary-school children, based around Minimus the Mouse who scurries beneath the feet of a Vindolanda army family.
Eat & drink
This section, and "Sleep" below, only describes facilities close to the central section of the wall and path, and thus at some distance from the towns, which have much more.
- Errington Coffee House is at the junction of B6318 and A68 north of Corbridge. It serves beer and wine but is no longer a pub. This junction was Portgate, where Roman Dere Street crossed the wall at Milecastle 22. You'll need to use your imagination.
- Twice Brewed is a pub with rooms, next to the hostel at Once Brewed, handily enough.
- Milecastle Inn is specifically by Milecastle 42 and Great Chesters Fort. They may have rooms.
- Greenhead Tea Room is in Greenhead village.
- Gilsland has Samson Inn and House of Meg cafe.
As above, this only describes places a short walk from the central section of the wall, and excludes self-catering, which typically lets by the week.
- Hadrian's Meadow is a pop-up campsite Jun-Aug 2021 a mile east of Chollerford or "Chesters Bridge" over the Tyne.
- Hadrian Hotel is a mile south of Cholleford.
- George Hotel is at the bridge in Chollerford, junction of B6318 and B6320.
- Walwick Hall is a plush place with spa, a mile west of Chollerford.
- Greencarts Farm has camping and a bunkhouse. It's quarter of a mile north of Black Carts Turret.
- Carraw B&B is quarter of a mile west of the Mithras Temple.
- 1 The Old Repeater Station, Military Road, Grindon NE47 6NQ (near Mile 34), ☏ +44 1434 689857. Comfy B&B close to the middle section of the wall. B&B double £100.
- Beggar Bog is a B&B half a mile east of Housesteads.
- 2 YHA The Sill (Once Brewed Hostel), Military Road, Bardon Mill NE47 7AN, ☏ +44 345 260 2702. 88-bed hostel but the dorm isn't available in 2021. They also have private rooms. Assistance dogs only.
- Vallum Lodge is a B&B just west of Twice Brewed.
- Winshield Farm a little further west has camping.
- Hadrian's Wall Campsite is a large site 2 miles west of Twice Brewed.
- Bridge House is a B&B opposite Milecastle Inn.
- Herding Hill Farm has camping and caravan pitches. It's half a mile down the lane from Milecastle Inn, and there are more B&Bs further south towards Haltwhistle.
- 3 Greenhead Hotel, Station Rd, Greenhead CA8 7HG, ☏ +44 1697 747411. Comfy hotel with good restaurant, their hostel is just across the road. Dog-friendly, £15 / night extra. Dorm £18 ppn, B&B double £130.
- Holmhead Guest House is next to Thirlwall Castle.
- Gilsland village two miles west of Greenhead has The Hollies on the Wall, Brookside Villa and Hill on the Wall B&Bs.
- 4 Hadrian's Hostel, 2 Hadrians Crescent, Gilsland CA8 7BP (100m NE of the wall crossing the B6318), firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 3pm, check-out: 10am. Hostel with single and double rooms. Pets allowed. £10.
Beware traffic! B6318 has long straight sections, which tempt many visitors to drive their chariots well in excess of LX milia passuum per hora. Look out carefully as you stroll across for a photo, and keep hold of children and dogs.
Usual care of valuables, don't leave them visible in your car.
And dress for the weather and for rough or soggy conditions under foot.
- Northumberland has a scenic coast once you get clear of the industrial and suburban sprawl north of Newcastle. The same hard rock that underpins the best of the wall creates outcrops on the coast with castles like Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, fishing coves such as Craster, and the Farne islands and Lindisfarne.
- Scotland only comes close to the wall near its west end: step over the wild frontier to see what frightened the Romans. At Gretna the invasion was all the other way, as English couples eloped to be married in the Reno of the north. And if Pictish spears weren't scary enough, there was the prospect of getting into a drinking contest with them: visit Dumfries for the poet Robert Burns' last years.
- The Antonine Wall was only a turf structure and ditch, crossing Scotland's waist between the Forth and the Clyde, so it was humble to begin with and has mostly been lost. Prominent earthworks remain around Falkirk, Kirkintilloch and Kilsyth. There isn't a long-distance trail, but the Forth and Clyde Canal runs close by and has a good towpath for cycling.