Hadrian’s Wall has long attracted hikers and history fans and is now the heart of an 84-mile-long (135 km) National Trail through some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. Hadrian’s Wall stretches coast to coast across northern England, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast.
Considered as the most famous of all the frontiers of the Roman empire, Hadrian’s Wall stands today as a reminder of the past glories of one of the world’s greatest powers. Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site (see here), inscribed in 2005 and currently consisting of Hadrian’s Wall, the German Limes and the Antonine Wall in Scotland.
In 2011 and again in 2017, I set out to explore Hadrian’s Wall, following in Hadrian’s footsteps and the Roman soldiers who once patrolled the empire’s northern frontier. Hadrian’s Wall consists not only of the visible remains of the Wall itself but also of its associated forts, milecastles, turrets and earthworks. The sites of several Roman forts lie along the route including Segedunum at Wallsend, Chesters, Housesteads, Vindolanda and Birdoswald.
My walk began near the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. After visiting this great museum -which gives a rare insight into the daily life of a Roman soldier-, I started to walk eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall Path, all the way to Housesteads, the best-preserved Roman fort in Britain. This section covers a distance of around 9 miles (15.5 kilometres) and offers the most exciting walk of the entire Wall. It can be sometimes strenuous, but the views are magnificent, and there are several well-preserved milecastles and turrets along the way.
This article contains a selection of my best photographs, covering the Wall section from Walltown Crags to Housesteads (walking west to east).
Walltown Crags is one of the finest places to see Hadrian’s Wall, where it snakes and dives through the dramatic countryside along the crags of the Whin Sill. The Wall itself is especially well preserved here.
At one end of Walltown Crags is Walltown turret (45a), which unusually was first built as a free-standing signal tower during the early stages of the building of Hadrian’s Wall. Its location would have given long views for signalling to the Roman forts at Haltwhistle Burn (4 kilometres east) and Carvoran (1 kilometre south-west) and possibly to signal towers at Gillalees Beacon (11 kilometres north) and Pike Hill (10 kilometres west). Turrets were observation towers positioned at intervals of a Roman mile (about 1.48 kilometres) and were guarded by soldiers.
From Walltown Crags you can walk 4.5 kilometres eastwards along the Wall to Milecastle 42 at Cawfields, or 5.3 kilometres westwards to the Wall and bridge at Willowford, and from there another 1 kilometre to Birdoswald Roman Fort.
Less than a kilometre east of Walltown Crags stands Turret 44b, lying on the top of Mucklebank Crag. Mucklebank Turret 44b was excavated in 1892 and is unique in being set into the right-angle turn of the Wall. With an inner face of a maximum height of 1.9 metres, this turret is one of the smallest on Hadrian’s Wall. The latest occupation of Turret 44b is indicated by a coin of the emperor Valens (AD 364-78).
About 2.5 kilometres east of Turret 44b, the trail arrives at the western side of Great Chesters fort (Aesica). It was the ninth fort on Hadrian’s Wall, between Vercovicium (Housesteads) to the east and Magnis (Carvoran) to the west. Covering 1.35 hectares, Aesica is believed to have been added to the Wall some time after AD 128. It was the base of the Cohors VI Nerviorum and VI Raetorum respectively during the 2nd century AD and Cohors II Asturum with a detachment of Raeti Gaeseti during the 3rd century AD. Aesica later became a farming settlement.
The trail then leads to Cawfields Crags and Milecastle 42, situated on a steep south-facing slope on a well-preserved section of Hadrian’s Wall. Milecastle 42 is believed to have been built by the Legio II Augusta and covers an area of 17.8 metres by 14.4 metres. A fragment of a tombstone and a Hadrianic building inscription were found when the site was excavated. These can be viewed at Chesters Museum.
At Milecastle 42, a short distance south of the Wall, a great earthwork, known as the Vallum, can be seen.
Leaving Milecastle 42, the path descends into Caw Gap past Thorny Doors to reach the remains of Turret 41a. It is at Thorny Doors, some 500 metres from Milecastle 42 (Cawfields), that we see the highest standing sections of the curtain wall.
Turret 41a was excavated in 1912. It had a doorway on the east side of the south wall and was deliberately demolished in the Severan Period. The remains of Turret 41a were consolidated in 1972-3 and are 20 centimetres high.
The path then continues to Winshields Wall, the highest point along Hadrian’s Wall. We pass the site of Turret 40a (Winshields) which was completely destroyed during the Roman occupation and Turret 40b (Melkridge) which is badly preserved.
A nice stretch of wall now takes us to the remains of Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick), one of the best-preserved milecastles along the Wall.
A Roman tower (Peel Gap Tower) stands in the lowest part of Peel Gap, halfway between the sites of Turret 39a and Turret 39b (the longest known gap between two turrets along the entire length of the Wall). It was found when this part of Hadrian’s Wall was excavated in 1987. It appears to have been constructed shortly after the Wall had been completed as it was built abutting the Wall (rather than recessed into it like other turrets).
The path now reaches Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick). It was probably built by the Sixth Legion and was occupied continuously until the 4th century AD. Archaeologists partly excavated it in the 19th century while conservation works followed more recent excavations in the 1980s. Milecastle 39 measures 19m long by 15.5m across with stone walls standing 1.75m high. Inside, the structures visible are for the most part post-medieval and were used for agricultural purposes.
The path then has one of its steeper descents to reach Sycamore Gap. It is one of the most iconic and best Hadrian’s Wall views and a much-photographed point. The tree famously featured in the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieve (1991).
This is a particularly enjoyable section with great views all the way back to Peel Crags and Windshield Crags.
Continuing walking east, the view ahead is dominated by Highshield Crags and Crag Lough. Crag Lough is an inland lake located at the foot of the crags.
The next section of the path crosses Hotbank Crags and Milecastle 38. Little remains of this milecastle. However, it is notable for the joint inscription bearing the names of Hadrian and his close friend Aulus Platorius Nepos, governor of Brittania at the time the Wall was built. The milecasle 38 inscription proves that Hadrian commissioned the wall that now bears his name (you should watch this video which shows the inscription and explains its importance). It is on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
The path continues to Milecastle 37. It is perhaps the most visited milecastle due to its location, close to Housesteads Roman Fort. Inscriptions found here shows that the Second Legion built it.
The trail then reaches Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicium), the best-known fort and my favourite place on Hadrian’s Wall. See more photos of Housesteads here.
Hadrian’s wall trail is an extraordinary journey which gives you a unique insight into a fascinating era in history as well as massive respect for the soldiers who engineered and built the Wall.
And, PLEASE DO NOT stand or climb on Hadrian’s Wall!
- National Trails Hadrian’s Wall
- An Archaeological Guide to Walking Hadrian’s Wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend (West to East) (Per Lineam Valli) [Kindle Edition]
- English Heritage
- Hadrian’s Wall Country
- English Heritage Days Out – Hadrian’s Wall
- Housesteads Roman Fort
- Hillwalk Tours