Writing on the wall
An ancient fortification twists through stunning regions of England. And the journey's much easier than it was 2,000 years ago
"Veni, vidi, vici," said Julius Caesar after a memorable victory: "I came, I saw, I conquered."
After our encounter with Hadrian's Wall, erected by one of the Roman dictator's successors, our updated motto is: "We came, we walked, we beat a hasty retreat to the bus."
Though the structure is paralleled by a trail through the beautiful rural districts of northern England, walking the entire route of Emperor Hadrian's defensive wall is not for everyone. For one thing, the trail runs 135 kilometres from eastern Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.
For another, the best-preserved central section of the wall winds through demandingly hilly countryside, following ridges which gave Roman soldiers commanding views of the unconquered Celtic lands to the north.
A good compromise, for less-fit folks such as myself and my wife, Narrelle, is to catch the AD122 bus. Cunningly numbered for the year Hadrian's pet project began construction, it weaves between the Northumberland towns of Hexham and Haltwhistle on a roughly hourly frequency, stopping at major sites of interest.
As the wall was punctuated along its length by forts, some of these have been excavated and now host museums. Jumping aboard at Hexham's modern bus station, we alight first at Chesters Roman Fort.
Hadrian's Wall crossed the North Tyne River here, and the ruins of the fort run down to the riverbank; it includes a well-preserved ancient bathhouse. The surrounding countryside seems quintessentially English, with sheep grazing in lush green meadows beside the low stone relics of the Romans.
After an hour, we return to the bus stop, where we chat with a group of academics from Indiana. It's the first of numerous social encounters through the day; there are people from everywhere visiting the wall, and they're happy to compare notes.
The next stop on the bus route, Housesteads, delivers us to the most impressive remaining stretch of wall and another major fort. It's also more of a physical challenge, lying at the end of a steep 0.7-km path uphill from the visitor centre.
It's cold at the top, but inspiring, with a sweeping view across farmland and the distant white dots of sheep against grass. It's not hard to imagine this land being farmed under the protection of the wall and its garrisons 19 centuries ago. And if you're a Game of Thrones fan, as we are, it's hard to stop the imagination running away to thoughts of that TV show's Wall and the dark forces it contains.
Back in the real world, however, we're about to stretch our legs (after pausing for a photo obligingly taken by a couple from Toronto). We've realized that following the walking trail west along the wall will take us past Sycamore Gap and its much-photographed lone tree, to Steel Rigg where we can rejoin the bus.
Google Maps provides us with a topographical diagram of the slopes ahead, and advises that the 4.6-km distance should take an hour to cover on foot. Though the diagram is helpful, the timing will prove to be very wrong.
Not that it's a particularly difficult walk, just one with many ups and downs that cause us to pick our steps carefully. At first, we stroll atop the wall itself, where the trail is shaded by trees. Then it breaks out into open country and runs alongside the metre-high remnant barrier.
It's an atmospheric, undulating hike with lofty views to north and south. Always, there's the wall to our right, and at one point we come upon the remains of a stone arch that would have allowed access between this Roman province of Britannia and the unruly north.
On this overcast day in relatively empty countryside, it's easy to imagine Roman troops, some drawn from as far away as Syria or North Africa, patrolling here and dreaming of being transferred to a warmer climate. After two hours on our supposedly one-hour walk, we spot a lake below a ridge in the distance, presumably near our destination. At this point the trail slopes sharply downward, and we have some difficulty picking our way down the hillside without slipping.
Then, as a passing stranger confirms we still have some way to go through muddy terrain, we arrive at a farmhouse situated by the wall. It has an access road running at a right angle to the trail, leading down to the main road on flatter land to the south. It doesn't take long to make the decision. Within 20 minutes, we're standing by that road and flagging down the next AD122 bus, which fortunately is allowed to pick up passengers anywhere it's safe to do so.
Lunch – two hours late – is at the next stop, the recently opened landscape discovery centre known as the Sill. We're exhausted but exhilarated, feeling pleased with ourselves for achieving our brief but scenic wall walk.
Then it's back on the bus to nearby Vindolanda, an archeological site featuring the remains of a fort which predated Hadrian's Wall. By lucky chance, just a few weeks earlier an excavation here had turned up an intact Roman sword – a rare thing to uncover, as such a valuable item wasn't often left behind by departing troops.
The sword, along with shiny buckles discovered at the same time, are on display in Vindolanda's onsite museum. Gazing at them, we feel privileged to share a link with the soldiers of that long-ago age – soldiers who were, it has to be admitted, much fitter than us.
If you go
The AD122 bus runs between Hexham and Haltwhistle from Easter weekend through September, with easy connections to Newcastle and Carlisle. A day ticket allowing unlimited rides costs £12.50 (about $21 Canadian), a three-day ticket £25; gonortheast.co.uk/ad122.
Details of landmarks along Hadrian's Wall, as well as maps and accommodation tips, can be found at hadrianswallcountry.co.uk.
Where to stay
- County Hotel: A classic British pub in Hexham, a short walk from the local bus station. Refurbished rooms have modern decor and amenities. Doubles from £110; countyhotelhexham.co.uk.
- Ibis Carlisle City Centre: Practical and affordable chain hotel with regular train connections to Haltwhistle for the AD122 bus. Doubles from £54; ibis.com.
The writer was a guest of Visit Britain and AccorHotels. Neither organization reviewed or approved this article.