Hadrian’s Wall is Britain’s most underrated long-distance walk

Helen Pickles on the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail - Asadour Guzelian

Standing on Winshield Crags, the highest point of Hadrian’s Wall at 1,132ft (345m), and scanning the northern horizon, I thought: “Not a chance, mate. Not. A. Chance.”

Emperor Hadrian, in AD122 when he was mapping out the north-western frontier of his Roman Empire, probably used more technical language. But, whatever, there was no way anyone – barbarian or not – could advance unseen towards the Wall.

The landscape – rough pasture, moorland, copses – was visible in all directions, broken only by the occasional cluster of farm buildings. Hadrian incorporated turrets (watchtowers) and milecastles (fortified gateways) at frequent intervals along his 73-mile-long wall (80 Roman miles) so he had his observation credentials nailed.

Today, only remains of the Wall exist at scattered intervals, varying from solid (reconstructed) chunks, foundations and grassy bumps, but archaeologists (thanks, mainly to John Clayton’s work in the 19th century) have mapped its route. And thanks to the creation of a long-distance footpath, this year celebrating its 20-year anniversary, we can, literally, patrol in those Romans’ footsteps.

Helen Pickles discovered a roughly beautiful landscape on her journey
Helen Pickles discovered a roughly beautiful landscape on her journey - Asadour Guzelian

But here’s a thought. How do you protect this Scheduled Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, while allowing everyone to enjoy it? The violent destruction of the tree at Sycamore Gap, probably the most-photographed section of the route, shows what can happen.

“The instances of vandalism are very rare, people don’t take stones home with them,” observed Mark Newman, an archaeologist for the National Trust whose patch includes the stretch containing Sycamore Gap.

“It’s natural that people want to climb on the Wall. I’d want to. But it’s not designed for that. Today’s wall is a 19th-century restoration with soil on the top to hold it together,” he explained, adding: “The character of the place inspires people to care and love it.”

Gary Pickles (no relation), Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail Ranger, agreed: “The majority of people are respectful, careful and sensible,” he assured. “The little acorns go missing [the route indicators] because people want a memento. People, generally, are not wilfully damaging.” His main headache is erosion; managing the path so people can use it while still protecting the underlying archaeology.

The last picture at Sycamore Gap taken by Alice Whysall before it was felled later that evening
The last picture at Sycamore Gap taken before it was felled later that evening - Alice Whysall

On the rare occasion when there is wilful damage, it causes huge upset. Frances McIntosh, English Heritage curator for Hadrian’s Wall and North East England, recalled a case where someone removed tiles, probably 2nd century, from a bathhouse at Chesters Roman Fort.

“The staff were distraught. How did they not see it? That someone came in with the intention of doing that. It becomes their site, they love it.” She admitted that climbing on the Wall is a perennial problem. “I can enter Birdoswald [Roman Fort] and see them, even though there are signs asking you not to! It’s always a balance. It is for everybody but we need to protect for the next generation.”

Walking sections of the Wall last week, the overwhelming response from people I met was in the latter camp. “It is our heritage!” declared David Slack who, with his wife, Karen, and their two border collie dogs, Neo and Gem, was doing sections of the trail while on holiday from their home in Burton-upon-Trent.

“It’s the history of the area plus the ingenuity and precision of the build. We couldn’t believe how beautiful the Wall is. I’m an engineer and I marvel at the engineering.”

I marvelled at its variety – having, I admit, previously dismissed the trail as “a boring walk beside a wall” – I frequently stopped and just stared at the unfolding landscapes. One moment I was on a rocky escarpment with cliffs dropping sheer to water, the next I was entering a light-dappled copse. On another occasion I watched cattle grazing nonchalantly in the Vallum, a historic part of the Wall, but just a food source to them – before gazing at the hazy-blue horizon to the north west and wondering where England stopped and Scotland began.

David and Karen Slack with their two border collie dogs, Neo and Gem
David and Karen Slack with their two border collies, Neo and Gem - Asadour Guzelian

The other surprise was how sociable the experience was. Only one person refused to return my greeting. Even the staggeringly fit Mike King, a retired IT manager from Banbury and in training for the ghastly sounding Spine Race in January – running the 268-mile-long Pennine Way which, briefly, overlaps with the Hadrian’s Wall Path – was happy to stop and chat.

“I’ve trained here when the weather is absolute rubbish, and it can feel remote,” he said. “When it’s misty, you can almost hear the history. You almost expect cohorts of auxiliaries to come out of the mist.”

As it happened, we met beside the fallen sycamore, a place I’ve visited joyously before but now made me feel as though I was intruding on someone’s grief. (Who’s grief? The landscape’s?) People came and went, took photographs but mostly stood respectfully. Just days later, much of the tree was removed, but the stump (which could generate new shoots) remains.

I hurried on and was soon knocked out of my brooding by three effervescent Canadian guys, cousins who were doing the walk to celebrate turning 60.

Mike King, a retired IT manager from Banbury in training for the Spine Race, a 268-mile-long route on the Pennine Way
Mike King, a retired IT manager from Banbury in training for the Spine Race, a 268-mile-long route on the Pennine Way - Asadour Guzelian

“It’s our 37th annual hike together,” beamed Blair De Pape, a tousle-haired artist and musician. “We usually do [the hike] in Canada in a tent and the snow but this was on our bucket list. We’re all history nerds and have always known about Hadrian’s Wall.”

They’d spent the morning exploring Vindolanda, a pre-Frontier Roman site, and were still reeling from what they’d seen. “Everything here has exceeded our expectations in every way. The natural beauty, 2,000 years of preservation, the architecture. You get a sense in the stones, a sense of all the feet that have gone before us.”

His words pulled me up short. Maybe I’m guilty of taking this country’s history for granted. Yes, we have extraordinary remains from the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago, but I’ve grown up knowing that. And, yet, there I was, walking amongst them with no roped-off sections, no barriers. As Mike and Carolyn Gallagher, retired teachers from North Yorkshire whom I’d met the previous day, said: “People need to respect and understand that we’re very privileged to be in this area. This country is fantastic for allowing people to roam. It’s a game of trust.”

Walking down off Steel Rigg alone in the late afternoon sun, I glanced to my left, conscious of a movement. It was just my long shadow but, for a split-second, I fancied someone – a Roman soldier? – was marching beside me and keeping me in check.

How to do it

At 84 miles from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria, the Hadrian’s Wall Path is a substantial walk but, with no big hills or tricky terrain, achievable by the reasonably fit. Having said that, there are several short and steep rocky climbs and descents, and areas can be boggy or exposed. May to October is recommended to avoid the worst weather, and the increased risk of causing erosion. Most people take between six and eight days, although it can be done in fewer.

Walking east to west means getting the “urban” part done early – the western end, on the Solway Firth, is altogether more tranquil – but walking from the west can be easier as the prevailing (westerly) wind is behind. The Solway section can be affected by tidal flooding, so check ahead. A good range of accommodation is spread across the route, though not always on it – and essential to book ahead – but many places provide a pick-up/drop-off service. Alternatively, various operators offer an accommodation-and-luggage-transfer package.

Route tips

Some sections of the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail are remote from towns or villages, though rarely far from a road, so always carry sufficient food and water Walking boots, waterproofs, map or guide book are also essential. Twisted ankles are the main injury often caused by incorrect footwear or not being prepared for slippery, rocky sections. And, of course, never climb or walk on the Wall, and walk across the width of the path rather than in single-file, to reduce erosion

Where to stay

Layside (from £120), a mile south of the route from Steel Rigg, offers three peaceful and contemporary chalet-style rooms with Scandi design and glass walls overlooking fields, sheep and moorland. Owners Kevin and Sophie Stephenson deliver delicious breakfasts to the door; suppers, too, with 24 hours’ notice.

The trail skirts the grounds of Walwick Hall (from £270), a small Georgian hall near Chollerford and a definite luxury option. Bedrooms are country-house comfortable plus there’s a pool, small spa and afternoon tea on the terrace.

The Angel at Corbridge (from £130), three miles south of the trail, is a popular inn in pretty Corbridge with smart, if sometimes compact, rooms and a reputation for its food.

There are plenty of bed-and-breakfast options, too, on working farms or in villages, as well as bunkhouses, pubs, hostels and campsites. Check the interactive map section of this site.

Helen Pickles was a guest of Layside (doubles from £120 b&b).

For further information visit nationaltrail.co.uk, ldwa.org.uk, visitnorthumberland.com  and visitlakedistrict.com.

Have you ever walked the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail? Share your experiences in the comments section below