A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall

186 Walltown Crags (2)

Last August, Nick and I spent some time up in the North of England in order to visit one of my all-time favourite sites . . . Hadrian’s Wall. I’m totally smitten by this structure and the wonderful, open scenery around it, but I can well imagine what the Romans felt about manning it, particularly in the cold, wet, or icy winter months. It really is quite desolate up there, with nothing to see for miles other than the odd farm and plenty of sheep.


Sheep around Hadrian's Wall

We took lots of photos of the various forts and museums, as well as several of the Wall itself. I thought I’d do the first post about Hadrian’s Wall in general and follow it with a couple about the forts we visited along its route. To start with, here’s some information about the Roman Invasion and the building of the Wall:

The Romans first invaded Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but this was not a success, and permanent occupation of the island only began in AD 43 when the Emperor Claudius launched an invasion…

Statue of Claudius in the Vatican Museum. Author: sailko. Creative Commons
Statue of Claudius in the Vatican Museum. Author: sailko. Creative Commons

Even then, the invasion was not as easy as Claudius had hoped. The Celtic tribes were savage  and warlike and most had no intention of succumbing to Roman domination. Some did, of course, including the Brigantes – whose queen, Cartimandua, I mentioned in my Chester post. It was only once the Boudicca uprising of AD 60-61 had been quelled that the Romans were able to move out and establish control over the rest of the country.

The fort of Roman Chester (Deva) was established by AD 70. The great fortress at York, Eboracum – which became the provincial capital of ‘the North’ – was also founded at this time, and shortly after AD 100 the most northerly army forts stretched between the Tyne and the Solway. These were linked by a road now known as the Stanegate, which provided good communications between Corbridge towards the east and Carlisle in the west. It was along this line that, in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the Wall.


Hadrian’s Wall is the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain. For 300 years it was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. According to Hadrian’s biographer, it was intended to separate Romans from the barbarians further north. But in many ways, the Wall is the recognition of Rome’s abandonment of its intentions to conquer all of Britain. Having originally intending to conquer further north the Romans had now become more interested in controlling goods in and out of their empire and focused on their frontiers.

Location of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. Author: NormanEinstein. Creative Commons
Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Author: NormanEinstein. Creative Commons

Hadrian’s Wall stretched for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) across country, from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east, and forts were located about every five Roman miles. It followed the natural contours of the Whin Sill Ridge:

0551 Whin Sill

It was built by the soldiers themselves, mostly the legionaries:

Legionaries building The Wall
Legionaries building the Wall. Photo from Housesteads Visitor Centre.

The Wall is thought to have been up to 3.1 meters thick and about 4-5 meters high. At the top was probably a protected walkway for soldiers on patrol. At first, it was built either of stone or, in the western third, of turf and timber and replaced by stone after 30 years.

Milecastles were  gateways, placed at every mile between the forts, as legal crossing points:

The remains of Castle Nick, Milecastle Milecastle 39, between Housestaeds and Onve Brewed Visitor Centre for Northumberland. Author: Adam Cuerden. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
The remains of Castle Nick, Milecastle Milecastle 39, between Housestaeds and Once Brewed Visitor Centre for Northumberland. Author: Adam Cuerden. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Turrets, or small watch towers, were built into the wall at intervals of a third of a Roman mile (equivalent to 541 yards) i.e. two turrets between each milecastle. The reconstructions below are from Vindolanda (the site of one of the forts along the Stanegate road, already in existence before the Wall was built.):

087 Wooden milecastle
Wooden turret at Vindolanda
086 Stone turret
Stone turret at Vindolanda

Below is a reconstruction of a Roman soldier on watch over the Wall – probably at one of the milecastles or turrets. It wasn’t the most pleasant of jobs during the cold northern winters – especially for soldiers used to Mediterranean climes.

011 Soldier on the Wall (2)

During the building of the Wall, it was decided to build an additional 12 or 13 forts actually on the wall line. South of the Wall, a great earthwork known as the Vallum was completed. This consisted of a ditch with a mound set back on either side stretching the length of the frontier from the Tyne to the Solway. Crossings through the Vallum were only at the forts. There was also a ditch on the northern side, except in places where the high ridge or the Solway coast made it unnecessary. Material from this ditch was used to make an outer band on the north side.

Cross section of the works. Author: Ujap.de. Creative Commons
Cross section of Hadrian’s Wall. Author: Ujap.de. Creative Commons
Vallum at Hadrian's Wall. Photographer: Optimist on the run. Creative Commons.
Vallum at Hadrian’s Wall. Photographer: Optimist on the run. Creative Commons.

Soldiers from three legions of Britain (Legionaries) came north to build the Wall, with soldiers from the provincial army (Auxilliaries) and even sailors from the fleet to help. In the ‘overbright’ picture below from The Roman Army Museum, the Auxilliary soldier is the one with the oval-shaped shield:

Legionary and Auxilliary

It took them over ten years to complete. But on Hadrian’s death in AD 138, his wall was abandoned on the orders of the new emporer, Antoninus Pius, who ordered the building of a new wall almost 100 miles further north, acoss what is now known as the Central valley of Scotland. It stretched for 37 miles, from the Forth to the Clyde estuaries and, unsurprisingly, became known as the Antonine Wall. After 20 years, it was abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

Outside of the forts, civil settlements (vicus) became established, where the soldiers’ families lived. There were also shops and inns in these settlements, seeking to make a living from the soldiers, who were relatively well paid compared to the farmers of the frontier region. l’ll say more about these settlements in my next two posts.

Since the Roman withdrawal from Britain in AD 410, Hadrian’s Wall has gradually reduced in size due to local people plundering the stones, for a variety of purposes. Many churches, farms and field walls, as well as several castles contain stones originally found in the Wall. Plundering continued until the 19th century when archaeological excavations began and interest in the preservation of heritage sites took on an importance. The agricultural revolution of the 18th century also led to further destruction of the Wall as the land was cultivated. Today, although the actual Wall has disappeared in places, it survives in place-names such as Wallsend, Heddon-on-the-Wall and Walton – amongst several others.

I have visited most of the forts along the Wall, as well as The Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. There are several sites I really like, but intend to do posts only about a couple of them. Each site has something different to offer. To finish with, here’s a photo of a Roman Legionary we met at Birdoswald Roman Fort. He was very chatty and friendly and put on his special scowl just ‘for the camera’:

015 Bird Oswald Soldier (1)

44 thoughts on “A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall

    1. I have a few photos of the nice legionary as he did his routine for the visitors. He put on a good show for visitors. Hadrian’s Wall is a wonderful place to visit. There are some fantastic sites to visit all the way along and it’s great for hikers too. 🙂

      1. That would be wonderful, Millie, but please don’t think I am stalking you to get a story! Hahaha! I’m always happy when you can participate! And I understand when you can’t.

      2. No, I didn’t think that at all. I have a story in mind for the prompt, and I’d like to do a story before I ‘go off’ again to carry on with my book. 😀

      3. Sorry, Millie. I didn’t think you thought that at all, I just wanted to let you know that I’m not stalking you. I would love for you to participate and I look forward to reading your story.

      4. I’ve been wanting to write something this week, PJ, so when you commented on my post, I just thought I’d let you know. I honestly didn’t think you were stalking me. Lol I do miss participating, and can’t wait to get back to normal! 😀

      5. I am so sorry I made you feel that way. I didn’t mean for it to sound like I thought you thought that. I just wanted to let you know I wasn’t stalking you. I was just afraid it looked like I was. Sorry, I can’t help but laugh because of what this must look like and sound like to anyone reading these comments. Hahahahaha!

  1. Thank you, Lynn. We took so many photos on that holiday, it was difficult to pick the best ones to illustrate my points. I like the last photo, too. He was very amenable – for a Roman legionary.

    1. Thanks, Antonia. I really love it up there. It’s such open countryside – so fresh, somehow. Do you know what I mean? I also love anything at all about Romans. 🙂

    1. I’d love to walk the whole length of it, too, Peggy. I’ve regularly walked a short, seven mile section of it with the school children we used to take up there every year when I was still teaching, but no more than that. It is inspirational. The kids used to create great stories and poems about a soldier’s life on the Wall.

    1. There are always excavations going on at Vindolanda, which I intend to post about next week. The dig there has produced some of the most amazing historical finds of the last 50 years. Vindolanda is my favourite site to visit up there. I’m glad you enjoyed the visit today. 😀

      1. Thanks, Jean. I only asked because I thought my pingback hadn’t worked. I’d love you to do the challenge, of course, but don’t worry if you can’t fit it in. It can be difficult when you have your posts carefully planned in advance. I usually end up doing challenges and award posts weeks after I’ve been nominated. 🙂

  2. I like such historical places, they always help us to understand modern times better, since history repeats! I love your storytelling style, Millie! Thank you! Happy forthcoming Easter!

    1. Yes, I really agree with you. If we don’t understand what went on before, how can we possibly understand where we are now? The ‘present’ is a product of what went on in the past. Unfortunately, past mistakes are so often repeated: wars never seem to end.
      Have a wonderful Easter, Ann. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Cameron. I hope you’ll love Hadrian’s Wall as much as I do! I’ve been so many times, I’ve lost count. I went seven times with the school I taught at for a start, and have been many times since with family. I simply can’t keep away from the place. I know that’s partly due to my love of history, partly to my geology training. But the expanse and beauty of the landscape is ‘awesome’. The Roman remains are magnificent, and I hope you’ll have time on your walk to visit some of the sites. It’s a very long walk, if you’re doing the whole thing! I really hope you enjoy it up there. Most of the Roman soldiers found the climate and the ‘neighbours’ totally inhospitable! 😀

      1. Hey Millie, I wonder if you might be able to help me with my plans for the wall. I am also looking to get schools involved with the walking along parts of it. Would that be something the schools would be interested in in your experience? Any thoughts you could give would be amazing! Maybe message me through my site?
        Have a great bank holiday weekend 🙂

      2. Hi Cameron. I’ll happily fill you in with info. about Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll hop over to your site and continue chatting there. 🙂

  3. Another wonderfully interesting post – thank you so much for sharing, Millie! I was especially intrigued by thinking through the various entry castles and watch towers, and the ditches on either side of the wall — great diagrams and pictures. You can’t just put up “a wall” after all, you need people to come through it. Boy, those Romans were so organized!

    1. The Romans were totally awesome, Joy. My next book (when I eventually finish my Viking trilogy) will be set in Roman Britain, with Hadrian’s Wall being the major setting. I really love it up there. 🙂
      (I’m behind reading posts this week, but I’ll be hopping over to you very soon.)

  4. This is so interesting! Thanks for sharing your trip to the wall, and of course for your telling of all the history. I love the part about the stones from the wall being pillaged over the years. I mean, I hate that the wall isn’t perfectly preserved for us to appreciate today, but I think it’s kind of funny that it was slowly dismantled by people who saw an opportunity to do a little less work. At first it was shocking to read, but then I had to laugh at myself for being shocked. The idea that people from the year 410 to the 19th century would think twice about preserving the wall for future generations is kind of absurd, isn’t it? Life was hard enough, I’m sure. You need some stones? There’s a huge stack of them over there, help yourself.

    1. Thanks for that great comment, Cynthia. You’re absolutely right – people of the past didn’t give a thought to preserving old structures for future generations. Hadrian’s Wall is only one of many wonderful old buildings that have been subjected to pillaging. After Henry VIII had the monasteries closed down (Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-39) those buildings suffered exactly the same. As you say, why spend time and energy quarrying more stone when there was a ready supply at hand? Daily life and work was hard in past times – no machinery to do the work. It is sad to see how little is left of HW nowadays, and hard to imagine it at its full height, with the walkway and crenellations along the top. Some sections are impressive (eleven courses of stones surviving at Walltown Crags – top photo on my post). Other sections are much lower. 🙂

      1. I didn’t know that about the monasteries as well. It makes sense, it’s just still funny to me that I have to wrap my head around the idea of reusing stones in that way. Looking forward to reading more of your posts about the Romans in Britain!

      2. Thank you! I have two more to do on sites along Hadrian’s Wall – plus lots of other historical posts about places we visited last year. We have four breaks planned between now and June – another four or more posts! I’d better get cracking! 😀

  5. What a beautiful site to see. I felt as though I were there along with your travels. How beautiful, and how informative your post is. I love the history. I must say it just seems so serene over there. That peace and tranquility seems so heavenly.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Yes, it’s lovely and green and open up there, and very peaceful, too. It’s quite exposed, though, so winters are cold and windy. (Perfect for soldiers from sunny Rome! Lol)

  6. Interesting facts you have posted here, Millie. Many of them I was unaware of until now. And it seems that man has not changed very much at all as leaders or would be leaders are still wanting to build walls keeping people out or in…. Man wants to leave his mark!
    It was also staggering to think of the enormous human endeavour that went into building this structure. And also interesting is the fact that the wall was a springboard to development.

    1. Yes, I noticed your post about walls earlier. This wall was a huge achievement, as you say. But it gave the soldiers something to do in their spare time. Ha ha I imagine it kept them very fit too, in addition to the interminable daily drills.
      There are great Roman ruins all over Britain (not to mention every other country which had once been part of this incredible empire). It’s funnuy to think that the Anglo Saxons, who rapidly invaded once the Romans had left, hated and feared the old Roman buildings. They totally ignored most of them, preferring to build the same, simple wooden structures they’d had in their homelands on continental Europe. But Roman roads served them well and formed the basic pattern of many of our routeways still in existence today.

  7. The Anglo Saxons were new to Britain after the Romans left. There was a lot of superstition amongst the Anglo Saxons about Roman spirits and such like lurking in the old Roman buildings. As you know, the Germanic and Norse peoples believed strongly in such things – including elves. But at the bottom of it, the Anglo Saxons just liked to continue living in Britain as they had done at home. And they simply loved their wooden houses.
    The British peoples, who had lived under Roman rule for over 400 years by that time, had mostly become ‘Romanised’, enjoying everything the Romans had to offer, and accepting their way of life. Many of the British chieftains emulated their Roman lords, wearing togas and dining sprawled out on couches! To them, the A-Saxons seemed crude and savage.

  8. I so much enjoyed reading this. Old architectures, I feel, are like storybooks, waiting to get read and experienced by the explorers and enthusiasts. I am glad you shared the experience and the stories about this ancient structure- Hardians Wall with us! 🙂

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