Say the words “Map Test” to anyone who took Dr. Rogers’ English History class during her freshman year at Columbus School for Girls, and she’ll likely remember having to mark the precise location of several cities and important landmarks on a blank page bordered by a hand-drawn outline of England. After carefully drawing Hadrian’s Wall on that map many times during 1983 and 1984, I was thrilled to finally see this famous dividing line for myself.
The Romans had been trying to conquer Britain since Julius Caesar’s day, but they were finally successful when the Emperor Claudius invaded in 43 AD. Roman armies slowly worked their way to northern England, enforcing their authority by constructing fortifications and building roads to link them that followed existing trails that had been in place for thousands of years. Around 120 AD, the Emperor Hadrian directed the construction of a stone wall that crossed three rivers as it stretched across 73 miles east to west, from Wallsend on the River Tyne to the Solway Firth at Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria.
Maintained for almost three centuries of Roman military occupation of Great Britain, the wall defined the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Some viewed it as a strategic attempt to control, defend and maintain power, built to separate the British barbarians from the civilized Romans. Others regarded it as a deterring obstacle built by subdued Britons under the control of Roman officers. Whatever the viewpoint, Hadrian’s Wall remains as one of the most well-preserved ancient monuments in Great Britain. It is so important that UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site.
The Romans utilized the natural landscape to make their defensive boundary more formidable. Hadrian’s Wall wound its way across the undulating slopes of the Tyne River valley, ascended tall granite outcrops, crossed rivers and descended down sandstone ridges to the flat coastland of the Solway Firth. Once standing 15 to 20 feet high, and seven to ten feet thick, the wall must have been a massive undertaking to build. It incorporated lookout posts, 80 milecastles — small rectangular fortifications placed at intervals of approximately one Roman mile along the wall, capable of housing up to eight men — and turrets equally spaced between each milecastle, enabling Roman soldiers to watch what was happening along the whole length of the border.
While some of its stones were snagged for other building projects after the fall of the Roman Empire, remnants of Hadrian’s Wall are still visible in several places. A defensive ditch dug on its northern side, its accompanying earthworks, its roads and forts can still be traced by rolls, dips and bumps in the ground.
My first view of Hadrian’s Wall was near Birdoswald Roman Fort. For about one mile east, you can follow the line of the wall to Piper Sike Turret. About three miles to the west are the Roman Wall sites at Hare Hill and Dovecote Bridge.
Mediterranean snails called Clausilia dubia hitched a ride with Roman soldiers and have never died out; they can still be spotted here.
Quarries have destroyed Hadrian’s Wall by removing the scarp face of the Whin Sill and using the rock for surfacing roads, but you can still walk along a short, steep section of the wall that survives on the top of the cliff.
Walk a three-mile stretch of the wall from Steel Rigg to Housesteads, and you’ll see well-preserved remains of three milecastles.
In the section of Hadrian’s Wall between two crests just east of Milecastle 39, you’ll find Sycamore Gap, the site where a sycamore tree stands. Its location was made famous in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
For more, see Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, by Richard Hingley; A Walk Along the Wall: A Journey Along Hadrian’s Wall, by Hunter Davies; Hadrian’s Wall: History & Guide, by Guy de la Bédoyère; Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, AD 130, by Bronwen Riley; The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland, by Rory Stewart; Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier, by Patricia Southern; and English Heritage Book of Hadrian’s Wall, by Stephen Johnson.