Traversing England from the Tyne estuary to the Solway Firth, the Wall was conceived and ordered by Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 to mark and control the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire. The ambition was extraordinary, its fulfilment – far from the pool of skills and prosperity in the Mediterranean heartlands of the Empire – astonishing: a fifteen-foot-high wall 73 miles long through harsh, undulating terrain with 80 milecastles, 161 intermediate turrets and flanking earthwork ditches and ramparts.
Fifteen or sixteen forts, many straddling the Wall, housed a garrison of 12–15,000 soldiers from radically different climes elsewhere in the Empire, including Syria, Libya, Dalmatia, Spain and Belgium. A populous penumbra of supply bases and civilian settlements grew up nearby. As a feat of organisation, engineering and will-power, Hadrian’s Wall ranks among the most extraordinary of all Roman achievements. Its story does not end with its completion within Hadrian’s reign because for the remaining three centuries of Roman control there were constant changes both to the fabric and to its administration and occupation.
A study of the Wall leads to an examination of practically every aspect of Roman civilization, from senatorial politics in Rome to the mundanities of life for ordinary Romans – and Britons – who lived in its shadow. But the Wall itself remains the fascinating focus, and the subject of endless academic debate.
For the modern-day visitor the Wall has the further, inestimable attraction of passing some of the most magnificent and unspoilt countryside in England. Happily, archaeological interest is greatest where the landscape is at its most thrilling, and it is in this central section, furthest from centres of population, that the tour concentrates. The principal excavated sites can be visited with no more exertion than on an average sightseeing outing, but to see the best surviving stretches of the Wall, and to appreciate the vastness of the Roman achievement, to view many of its details and to immerse fully in the scenic beauties, there is no substitute for leaving wheels behind and walking along its course.
How strenuous are the walks? On most of the five full days there is a walk of between two and three hours, covering up to four miles. The slow progress is in part due to stops to examine the archaeology and to take in the wonderful views. But also the terrain is often quite rough, and periodically there are rises and falls, sometimes quite steep, though rarely of more than 50 metres and often aided by rough-hewn stone steps recently made for the Hadrian’s Wall Path. It is not a tough trek but nevertheless it should only be attempted by people whose regular country walks include some uphill elements.
A coach takes you to the start of each walk and meets you at the end, eliminating the need to retrace steps or carry much except water and waterproofs. Each day has been planned to provide a balanced mix of archaeology, more general sight-seeing and cross-country trekking, and for this reason the walks do not constitute a linear progression. On most days you return to the hotel by 5.00pm, allowing plenty of time to relax before dinner.
Housesteads. The coach leaves Newcastle Central Station at 2.15pm (or from the hotel, Matfen Hall, at 1.30pm) and takes you straight out to Housesteads. With standing remains of up to 10 feet, this is the best preserved of the Wall’s forts and evocatively reveals the usual panoply of perimeter walls and gateways, headquarters building, commander’s palatial residence, granaries, hospital, latrines. Remote and rugged, there are superb views.
Walk Steel Rigg to Cawfields; Corbridge. The first walk is perhaps the most consistently rugged as it follows long, well-preserved stretches of the Wall through moorland above the cliffs of the Whinsill Crag; a thrilling walk: 2.6 miles, c. 2. hours 45 minutes. Ascent: 121m. Descent: 212m. Pub lunch. Corbridge began as a fort in the chain built in c. AD 85 but left to the south by Hadrian’s Wall it became a large civilian town.
Walk Housesteads to Steel Rigg; Chesters. Again for much of the route the Wall rides the crest of the faultline of dolerite crags, dipping and climbing: 3.2 miles, c. 3 hours. Ascent: 233m. Descent: 174m. There are spectacular stretches, excellently preserved milecastles, staggering views: moorland, lakes, conifer forests to the north, richly variegated greens, plentiful livestock, distant vistas to the south. Pub lunch. Chesters, the most salubrious of the forts (lavish bath house), built for 500 Asturian cavalrymen, in enchanting river valley setting.
Vindolanda; Brocolitia, Chesters. The fort and town of Vindolanda is the site of ongoing excavations which are revealing everyday artefacts including, famously, the ‘postcard’ writing tablets which uniquely document details of everyday life. Drive to a couple of archaeological remains, the Mithraic temple at Brocolitia and the bridge abutments across the river from Chesters.
Walk Gilsland to Birdoswald; Newcastle. Walk through low-lying and pretty farmland with streams and wild flowers: 2 miles, c. 2 hours. Ascent: 104m. Descent: 75m. Included is the only mile with both milecastles and turrets visible, and good lengths of Wall. In Newcastle, the Great North Museum has the best collection of objects excavated along the Wall.
Walk Walltown to Cawfields; Carlisle, Bowness-on-Solway. The final walk is spectacularly varied, from rocky hilltops to lowland pasture: 5 miles, c. 2½ hours. Great Chesters fort has good remains of gates and other structures, with lengths of the Wall up to two metres high. Drive to Carlisle to see the Wall collections in the Tullie House Museum, and continue to the evocative estuarial landscape of the Solway Firth. The Wall ended at the remote village of Bowness-on-Solway.
South Shields, Wallsend. At South Shields, Arbeia is a fine reconstruction of a fort gateway, as well as reconstructions of a soldier’s barrack block and an opulent house belonging to the Commanding Officer. At aptly named Wallsend and now engulfed in the Tyneside conurbation, Segedunum was the most easterly of the forts, the layout clearly seen from a viewing platform. The coach takes you to Newcastle railway station by 2.30pm.
Archaeologist with over twenty years experience in field archaeology and an expert on Hadrian’s Wall. He has an MLitt in Archaeology from Newcastle University and until recently worked as Archaeological Project Officer for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. He is currently Assistant Curator of Roman Collections of English Heritage’s Hadrian’s Wall Museums.
Price – per person
2018: Two sharing: £1,980. Single occupancy: £2,120.
2019: Two sharing: £2,060. Single occupancy: £2,200.
English Heritage members (with cards) will be refunded c. £28.
Hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 3 lunches and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; travel by private coach; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Matfen Hall Hotel: a 19th-century Jacobean-style mansion, Matfen Hall is a fine country house hotel offering excellent service. Single rooms are double for sole use.
Please read the last two paragraphs of the introduction above. The tour involves a lot of walking on archaeological sites. Uneven ground, irregular paving, steps and hills are standard. A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. Average distance by coach per day: 60 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
The May 2018 departure of this tour can be combined with Music in the Cotswolds, 21–24 May 2018. Please contact us if you would like to request an additional night in a festival hotel or to seek advice on train times.
You can also combine the May 2018 departure with Tudor Power in South & West, 8–13 May 2018.
13 May: Travel with the Tudor group, arriving in London by 4.30pm. Stay overnight in London.
14 May: Take the train from London Kings Cross to Newcastle (c. 3 hours) to meet the Hadrian’s Wall group at Newcastle station at 2.15pm. You would need to book your own accommodation. We suggest St Ermin’s Hotel close to where the Tudor coach will drop you. You can book trains online with National Rail.
'Very well planned to introduce us to the historical and archaeological elements in a logical and understandable manner. The balance between walking and site visiting worked well.'
'A really great tour which far exceeded my expectations.'
'Matfen Hall Hotel is the most luxurious hotel I have ever stayed in.'
'I love the fact that just about everything worth seeing was covered by this tour. The ordering of what we saw and where we walked was excellent.'