It is in the far north of England, just below the border with Scotland.
The world has changed a lot since Roman soldiers, men from across the then wide ranging Roma Empire, built and then garrisoned the fort. All that began almost 1900 years ago.
Today much of Hadrian’s Wall still stands. A good bit of it of it runs through countryside. Parts of it pass through cities and towns, There are places along the wall which are remote and quiet, others are destinations for those who wish to know more about the wall.
Hadrian’s Wall: however and whyever you come to it. it is a place to feel, learn about, and understand the presence of history, and perhaps, feel the ghosts of time.
These days, too, you might wish to take note that quite a bit of these experiences may be had on line. The links, images, and video in this piece will help you with that.
If you are nearby the wall, the Hadrian’s Wall Path (more about that in a bit) has many sections which may remain rather remote and thus less visited.
Why would you want to visit? Touching history is one thing. The wall has seen many seasons in its long life, from the time in about year 122 CE when people began working on it, through the six or more years (estimates vary) it took to complete. It remained as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire in the British Isles for about three hundred years: the latest dated coins archaeologists have found in Roman areas of the wall are from around 403 CE. That is when folk left.
Why was Hadrian’s Wall built? Who lived and worked there in Roman times? What about the Antonine Wall a bit further north? What happened to the Wall after the Romans left? What and how can you see of Hadrian’s Wall today?
Let’s take that last question first, or part of it, anyway. Hadrian’s Wall is about 73 miles long, stretching from Wallsend along the River Tyne in the east to Bo’ness near the Solway Firth in the west.
If you want to walk near the wall (do not walk on it; not only will you be damaging history, Hadrian’s Wall is a protected Unesco World Heritage site), there is a well mapped and signposted UK National Trail, the Hadrian’s Wall Path, from which you can see much of the wall and easily visit museums and fort sites along the way.
Many tour operators offer guided walks for all or part of the wall, and parts of it may be reached from nearby roads by public or private transport.
It is not just the wall to see. The Romans built what are called mile castles, which are smaller fortlets where perhaps eight or so soldiers were stationed, turrets for lookout purposes, and larger forts where larger forces were garrisoned. Parts of these remain all along the wall in varying states of repair. You may also visit museums along the way.
Why was Hadrian’s Wall built? Part of it was for defense against the Picts and other tribes to the north, and part was for display of might against those same peoples. Both at the start and as time went on, forts, gates, and lookouts along the wall likely evolved more into customs posts to regulate trade, however.
Who lived there? Soldiers from all across the Roman Empire were stationed at this far frontier, archaeology has revealed. Higher ranks could bring their families along; lower ranks might do that informally (most were not allowed to marry formally anyway) or form connections with local folk. There’s evidence that women and children lived along the wall near the forts and forlets, so communities formed. They brought their traditions, including religion, with them also: Christianity was present, as was worship of the Middle Eastern god Mithras, and other faiths.
Community support or no, it may have been a challenging place in winter. Get an idea of changing seasons along the wall in this aerial video:
The Antonine Wall was a short lived attempt to extend Rome’s boundaries further north. It ran from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. After it was completed around 156, It was only in use for about eight years before the solders went back to Hadrian’s Wall. They left a lot behind to tell their stories, however, much of which you can see at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
There are several museums and historic sites along Hadrian’s Wall. English Heritage, The National Trust and other regional and local groups maintain them. I will have more to say about these in future (and do note, in present circumstances, most require reservations for timed ticket entry to control capacity; also many have online offerings to explore). To get you started, though
Segedunum is the most eastern fort on the wall. There’s a museum and a viewing tower. It is also where you can sign on to get a certificate if you plan to visit the entire wall
Houseteads Fort has well preserved archaeology and an excellent museum.
Birdoswald is toward the western end of the wall. You can see especially well kept gates, along with a visitors’ center with many exhibits. Follow the link in the name to take an interactive tour with Marcus the Roman soldier and/or Tony the archaeologist.
Interested to learn more?
Several times a year, Newcastle University offers an excellent short course on life along Hadrian’s Wall online through FutureLearn. There’s no cost to take the course.
What happened after the Romans left Hadrian’s Wall? That will be a story for another time…
The stone figure is from the Antonine Wall. It is in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
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