Travel review: Hadrian’s Wall

HANDS-ON HISTORY: Housesteads Fort.

HANDS-ON HISTORY: Housesteads Fort.

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Katie Baldwin is enthralled by the fascinating sites along Hadrian’s Wall.

WHEN Hadrian’s Wall marked the farthest reach of the Roman Empire in AD 122, soldiers on sentry duty would look out into the wilds to watch for marauding tribes from the north.

The Scottish border may be miles away now, and the country’s inhabitants much more friendly than their forefathers, but at Housesteads Roman Fort it’s not hard to imagine you’ve stepped back thousands of years.

On a blustery, drizzly day, peering out from the fort towards the amazingly well-preserved section of wall, the ruggedly beautiful landscape has not changed much.

And that’s what a trip to this part of the country is all about.

Dramatic scenery, big skies and fascinating history abound all along the 73 miles of Hadrian’s Wall.

In its heyday thousands of Roman soldiers were stationed in this part of the North-East.

Today the remnants of their stay still attract thousands of visitors from far and wide to get a glimpse into their lives.

Evidence of the Roman occupation was easy for us to see before we’d even arrived at our accommodation for our short stay.

Our directions took us on to a poker-straight road which we later realised was the B6318 Military Road, which for many miles runs alongside the wall.

Harlow Hill is a tiny hamlet, perfectly placed on the main road off which many of the 24 nearby English Heritage roman sites lie.

Many of its buildings are part of Harlow Hill Farm, which has recently been renovated and turned into self-catering cottages and one huge house.

Ours was the delightful Roman Well cottage, set back off the main road.

With a well-equipped kitchen, two beautifully decorated bedrooms and a cosy sitting room, we could quite happily have whiled away the days going on strolls and watching films.

But there’s no way we could come to Hadrian’s Wall country and not seen a roman fort or two.

A World Heritage Site, the area is – quite rightly – a major tourist destination.

Work started on Hadrian’s Wall in AD122 under the Roman emperor Hadrian and is said to be the most important site from the period in Britain.

It’s easy to see why. Travelling west from Harlow Hill, the remains of the wall become more apparent, as are the hardy walkers tackling the hugely popular trail route.

Despite the numbers of visitors who flock to the sites each year, the sheer scale of their setting means they don’t feel overrun with tourists.

A half mile walk from the car-park at Housesteads takes visitors to the remains of the most complete Roman fort in Britain, set on a hilltop with amazing views in all directions.

Housesteads was built around AD 124, with 800 infantry based there at its height.

Walking amongst the remains, it is easy to imagine the fort in operation, with the barracks, the commander’s house and the civilian village outside its walls all recognisable.

Inside the newly redeveloped museum adjacent to the site gives visitors even more of a taste of Roman life.

An exhibition includes a virtual tour of the fort and some of the artefacts which have been found there, including shoes, masonry and even carved jet beads.

These tiny fragments are a fascinating insight into every aspect of the lives of the Romans.

At Vindolanda – not an English Heritage site but one which offers a discount to members – even their clothes and shoes have been preserved.

Not to mention the famed Vindolanda Writing Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, which are stunning.

A visit to Chesters, another of the forts close to the wall, allowed us to experience one of the quintessential Roman experiences – the bath house.

In what is believed to be one of the best preserved Roman buildings in the country, the remains of the baths date from the reign of Hadrian himself.

Niches in the changing rooms are thought to be for the bathers’ clothes, while the complex also contains warm rooms, hot pools, a cold plunge bath and the ‘sweating room’ – not all that different from our modern day spas.

As well as the remains of the fort, Chesters is also home to a delightfully retro museum, originally opened in 1903 and full of find s from Hadrian’s Wall in their original Edwardian cases.

From the fort, a short circular walk leads up leafy lanes and through hamlets before providing spectacular views of the Northumbrian countryside.

They’re almost as good as those from Birdoswald, the fourth of the forts we visited.

The site is best known not only for the fabulous panorama from the hilltop setting, but also for housing evidence of life there after the Romans left, in the Dark Ages.

After exploring the remains, we took a stroll alongside the wall to Harrow’s Scar Milecastle, one of 79 at mile intervals along the wall. Scrambling down a step path, we reached the Roman bridge abutment at Willowford, now not even on the edge of the river in a demonstration of how the water’s course has altered.

Our final stop was the garrison town of Corbridge. Once a major Roman town, today visitors can still stroll along the main street peeking at the bases of columns and into what were once grain storage rooms.

At the modern town of Corbridge, we found the 21st century equivalent of the Roman food store – an amazing deli and teashop.

We sipped hot chocolate and sampled delicious cakes, the perfect ending to our foray into Roman Britain.

TRAVELFACTS:

For more information about Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman sites in the area, visit: www.english-heritage.org.uk/hadrianswall or: www.hadrians-wall.org.

Katie stayed at arlow Hill Farm, Harlow Hill, Northumberland, NE15 0QD. Call 01661 853884 or email info@harlowhill-mxvi.co.uk.

Hadrian’s Wall was originally 73 miles long and was then extended to Wallsend to make it 79 miles long.

The Hadrian’s Wall trail is 84 miles long as at Newcastle and Carlisle it takes a longer route away from the wall.

The trail may be walked in spring, summer or autumn but in winter archaeology can be easily damaged. For conservation tips and information, go to www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall.

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