Hadrian’s wall was once the Northern frontier of the Roman Empire. Stretching 84 miles across Northern England from from Wallsend on the east coast to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast. Today only parts of the wall are still visible, however there are still some fabulous sites to explore. The following guide details everything you need to know about visiting Hadrian’s Wall. In particular it will show you the best sites to visit as well as the best way of getting to them. Furthermore I will detail how to explore Hadrian’s wall both via public transport and own transport.
History of Hadrian’s Wall:
Many people believe that Hadrian’s Wall was once served as a border between England and Scotland which it wasn’t. However it did serve as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire against the Northern British tribes.
During his reign from AD 117 to 138, Hadrian abandoned continual conquest and expansion in favour of enclosing the Roman Empire within clearly marked frontiers. In some areas these where nothing more than a road or river with several roaming guards along the way. On the other hand the Northern border of the empire in Britain had been very troublesome.
The Roman Conquest of Britain started in AD 43 and was largely completed by 87. The Romans had many campaigns to conquer the North, however they came under extreme resistance from both Northern English and Scottish tribes. Consequently they realised having a drawn out war far outweighed any economic or political benefit and decided to leave the northerners alone.
In AD 122 under Hadrian, a defendable wall was constructed 84 miles long and took 6 years to complete. The wall itself was thought to have been up to 4.6 metres in hight and 3 metres deep. At mile long intervals along the wall you would find small guard posts or a small fort. In addition larger forts where situated at 7 mile intervals. Another feature that was introduced after the original designs were completed was a 6-metre deep ditch called the Vallum. This feature gave an extra line of defence and can still be seen along much of the route today.
After the Romans:
In AD 409 the Roman occupation was over, for the most part life continued as it had. The Romans had gradually left and a new era of Anglo-Saxon rule had begun.
The wall remained in a reasonable state right up to the Elizabethan period of the late 16th century. From this period though, stone from the wall was increasingly taken and used to build houses, churches and farms across Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear. However by the 1800s people interested in antiquities began to speak out and prevent this from happening. By the mid-19th century, momentum behind the drive to preserve the wall had grown and Victorian archaeologists and historians began to contribute to an understanding of the Roman frontier that continues to grow today.
Visiting Hadrian’s wall – How to get there:
Spanning across numerous counties in the North of England, visiting Hadrian’s Wall is relatively easy. You can easily take a day trip from cities such as Carlisle or Newcastle as well as some of the smaller towns along the route.
The car is by far the easiest way to check out some of the popular sites along Hadrian’s Wall. Most sites like the bigger forts will have car parking facilities. However to discover some of the more unique sections you may need to take a bit of a walk.
By public transport:
If basing yourself in one of the towns or cities along the route, it is very easy to see most sites with the use of public transport. However some of these services may not be running in the winter months so please check before travelling.
The AD122 bus route runs a circular route between Haltwhistle and Hexham railways stations. This bus is probably your best option for visiting Hadrian’s Wall stopping at some of the most popular sites along the route along with some scenic places to walk along the wall. For more information check out their information leaflet here.
My advice if using public transport is to base yourself in either Carlisle or Newcastle. From Carlisle you can get a local train to Haltwhistle and pick up the AD122. From Newcastle you can catch the train or bus to Haham and again pick up the AD122.
There are also some other bus routes to some of the more off the beaten track sites such as the 185 Haltwhistle to Birdoswald.
For some the only way to visit Hadrian’s Wall is to walk it! Many people choose to walk small sections of the Hadrians Walls National Trail. Equally some people prefer the challenge of walking the whole 84 miles!
Those who do intend to walk end-to-end can join the Passport scheme, which runs between May and October each year. Simply buy your passport, have it stamped at seven specific spots along the route and claim your enamel badge and achievers’ certificate. For more information check out the National Trails website here.
Whatever you decide, you are sure to pass through some beautiful landscapes and enjoy some fabulous historic sites along the way!
My visit to Hadrian’s wall and Vindoloanda:
Whilst staying in Penrith in September, I decided to see if I could check out Hadrian’s Wall for myself. However I wasn’t sure if it was possible especially after talking to my host who advised it was too far away to visit on public transport. Despite this I decided to take a chance and get the train into Carlisle and then see if there was any buses that would get me to the wall?
Initially I arrived in Carlisle and though maybe it would be too much hassle so I went and checked out the fabulous Carlisle Castle and the Cathedral. Both where great but after wandering around the town trying to decide what to do next I noticed the tourist information centre. So next thing I’m talking to one of the lovely staff who told me about the AD122 bus route and that it was my only option if I wasn’t to visit the Wall.
Getting to Hadrians Wall:
As it was already close to midday I decided to get my skates on, grabbed a leaflet and quickly got the next train to Haltwhistle and then caught the AD122 bus. An hour later I’m sat on the bus on route to my first stop of the day.
My first stop was at The Sill, the newly opened National Landscape Discovery Centre. This place features various exhibitions and event spaces that focus on inspiring people to explore the areas beautiful landscapes. Although this place isn’t on most peoples itineraries when visiting Hadrian’s Wall, it makes a great starting point. Not only is it serves by the AD122 bus it also has a large free parking area and a lovely cafe inside as well. The unique design of the building also lets you walk up to its roof to get some fabulous views of the surrounding area.
Taking a walk:
From here I noticed that one of the walls most famous locations was only a short walk away, the Sycamore Gap. This location has become famous due to featuring the 1991 film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, starring Kevin Costner. The tree has been known as the ‘Robin Hood Tree’ ever since.
The walk from the Sill to Sycamore gap only takes about 45 minutes. However, it can be quite steep at the start with lots of uneven steps up to the top of the wall. Once along the rim its quite a leisurely easy walk towards the gap.
After having a little rest and a quick bite to eat I walked back past The Sill and walked up to the old roman fort of Vindolanda.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Vindolanda, however I was pleasantly surprised. Vindolanda actually dates back earlier than Hadrian’s Wall with the first of its forts dating to AD 85. However years later during the construction of the wall Vindolanda became a major construction base.
After the wall was completed, Vindolanda became one of the walls garrison site. Moreover, it continued to play an active part in the walls history, maintaining a strategic position and regarded of a vital part of the frontier system.
Even years after the Romans had left Britain, families and communities continued to call this place home. It is thought the last people left Vindolanda in the 9th century. As a result the site gradually degraded from an abandoned ruin to a scrub woodland.
The site remained untouched until the 17th century when farmers started to clear some of the scrub from the land. Over a period of time these farmers discovered various artefacts. These included altars and inscriptions, urns and pots as well as Roman coins. Eventually the site was owned by various families over the years who wished to preserve and protect the site. In 1970 the Vindolanda Trust was set up along with further excavations and the now admission building and museum.
This place is truly remarkable! As you walk in through the entrance building you are greeted with the sheer size of the once Roman Fort. However, it’s easy to see that this would have been more than just a fort, it’s the size of a small village with most of the site still yet to be excavated.
You can wander through the old streets and even watch some of the excavators at work. Besides this you can check out a replica wall and turret, giving you a better idea of what it may of looked like in its heyday.
At the bottom of the site you will also find a fabulous museum, coffee shop as well as a landscaped garden filled with Roman art and exhibitions.
After having a good explore it was time for me to get the bus back to Penrith. As much as it was a busy day, I think if I’d got to Carlisle earlier and gone straight to Haltwhistle I would of had plenty more time to check out some of the other sites. However I really enjoyed my day out and it was a good way to visit Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall in a single day.
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall – Other places to visit:
Heres is a list of some of the other interesting places you can visit along Hadrian’s Wall:
Housesteads Roman Fort:
Set high on a dramatic escarpment on Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads Roman Fort takes you back to the Roman Empire. Wander the barrack blocks and the hospital. Peer into the oldest toilets you’ll ever see, and admire the stunning panoramic views from this ancient fortress.
Corbridge Roman Town:
Not all the sites on Hadrian’s Wall were heavily guarded fortresses. Corbridge was once a bustling town and supply base where Romans and civilians would pick up food and provisions. It remained a vibrant community right up until the end of Roman Britain in the early years of the 5th century.
Chesters Roman Fort:
Chesters Roman Fort is the most complete Roman cavalry fort in Britain. Wander around the unusually well-preserved baths and steam room, and the officers’ quarters. Discover an amazing collection of Roman objects and inscriptions in the museum, these were found at the fort and along Hadrian’s Wall.
Ravenglass Roman Bath House:
The remains of the bath house of Ravenglass Roman fort, established in AD 130, are among the tallest Roman structures surviving in Northern Britain. The walls stand almost four metres high and guarded what was probably a useful harbour.
Birdoswald Roman Fort:
Stand in awe at the longest remaining stretch of Hadrian’s Wall. Explore the ruins of the Roman fort, a turret and milecastle and look out along the wall as far as your eyes can see.
Senhouse Roman Museum:
Dramatically sited on cliffs overlooking the Solway Firth, this award winning museum is next to a Roman fort probably founded in the first century AD and rebuilt during the reign of the emperor Hadrian.
Arbeia Roman fort:
Standing above the entrance to the River Tyne, Arbeia Roman Fort guarded the main sea route to Hadrian’s Wall. It was a key garrison and military supply base to other forts along the Wall and is an important part of the history of Roman Britain.
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall – Where to stay:
There are many places to stay along the Hadrians wall route. If you have your own car then you could stay in one of the many hotels, guest houses and B&B’s located around the area. If camping is your thing then there is also many campsites, some of which in beautiful locations within Cumbria Northumberland National Park.
Those needing to rely on public transport may want to base themselves within and around Carlisle or Newcastle. It is also possible to take a trip to Hadrian’s Wall from the Northern Lake District such as Penrith like I did. however it is a bit of a hike to get there, I would defiantly recommend staying more local if you can.
For the best prices booking hotels I recommend using Booking.com, not only will you find the best rates, most options give you free cancelation, ideal for when you need to change your plans.
Hope you have enjoyed this guide to visiting Hadrian’s Wall, have you been to any part of the wall or recommend any other sites to visit? If so let me know in the comments below.
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Thanks for reading,