Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Destination Life: Hadrian's Wall

PHS Editor Michelle Styles visits one of her favourite spots in the world -- Hadrian's Wall

I am very lucky that the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hadrian’s Wall, is literally on my doorstep. My children tend to go a bit ho hum as school trips have often involved visiting Roman sites. But when I was growing up, it was a place I always wanted to visit. And actually it does live up to expectations.

A few years ago, they developed a cross-country walk which goes along the entire length of Hadrian's Wall from the city and post industrial landscape of Newcastle to the rural section in Northumerland and further through the forgotten back water charm of Carlisle and onto the flat plains of Cumbria until it reaches the shore at Bowness on Solway. Not only do you get the Romans, but there is also other history. For example Heavenfield where the Christain army of Oswald of Bernica defeated the pagan Welsh in 633 and thereby ensured that Northumbria would be Christian, is at Chollerford, near to the Roman fort of Chesters. You can also see early industrialisation and of course the Tyne Valley railway is one of the oldest lines in the world. The various old mine workings on the south side of the Wall give a clue as to why the Roman Empire stopped where it did. The Romans did mine in the area.

I have walked parts but not the whole thing. I do applaud those people who have walked the Wall -- 70 miles. Even more impressive are the people who have walked the Pennine Way which bisects Hadrian's Wall just to the west of Housesteads. As the walk in linear, there is a local bus that runs along the wall. Alternatively you can do a thing with leaving a car at the either end of your proposed walk. Many people who walk the Wall have arrangements where various bits of luggage are bused to the next b&b or hotel. There are also a few campgrounds, basic bunkhouses and youth hostels along the route. There are however relatively few places to eat along on the Wall itself. This is partly because the most dramatic sections are within the Northumberland National Park and there are planning restrictions.

The central portion which is around where I live is the most dramatic with its cliffs and various forts. Personally I prefer to walk around Steel Rigg, just up from the Twice Brewed Inn rather than at Housesteads. Fewer people but the views are spectacular. However, in recent years, my visits to the Wall have become fewer. I used to use the Wall as a playground for my children, letting them run off steam by running around the ruins, playing hide and go seek. It was a great destination for picnic -- whether it was Housesteads (the ruins are further), Chesters or Corbridge. Vindolanda was always a good bet for rainy days and during the summer there is always an archaeological excavation going on. We happened to be there the day they discovered the remains of the Christian back in the mid-1990s.

So when a few weeks ago, there was a project to light the Wall, I knew I had to see it. I also knew there was little point in trying to see it from the Wall. Instead my daughter and I walked up to the New Alston crossroads so we could get a panoramic view. The roads around the Wall are normally clear but that night, they were nose to tail. The lights were pretty to look at, but really I prefer to see the Wall with few people around and to actually walk in and amongst the stones. The evening did remind me how much I do love the Wall and how it breathes history.

So sometimes, the best destinations are easily overlooked ones in your own backyard. They may not be exotic or new, but they can hold many memories. Equally they can be places other people long to visit!

Michelle Styles's most recent releases Compromising Miss Milton (May 2010 M&B Historical) and An Impulsive Debutante (June 2010 HH Direct) take place around Hadrian's Wall. You can read excerpts on her website.


  1. I really want to walk the Roman Wall one day! We've visited various sites along it - Birdoswald, nearer to the Carlisle end, has a great museum and excavations to explore.

  2. Hi, I did wonder about the evening the wall was lit up and wish there had been more about it on the news for those of us not near enough to go! It is a fascinating area.

  3. Alison -- Having done various bits, it looks fun. We did do some walks around Bowness -- very different to around the central part. I don't think the Newcastle part is v nice out to about Heddon...I suspect that is why lots of people start there.

    Carol -- it was okay. More hype than sustance. The beacons were far smaller than I thought they would be AND they were lit before nightfall, in the gloom. It was not as dramatic as when they did beacons for VE anniversary in 1995. Then we watched as they lit the one at Warden Hill on the stone aged fort. It really felt being part of something ancient. I had hoped for the same feel and it wasn't there.

  4. I must get to your part of the world on holiday - maybe next year because there's lot to explore and I want to relive some Michelle's story moments. I want to go to Holy Island too. Oh..and I love An Impulsive Debutante immensely. But you know this already. jx