Experience the History of Ancient Rome With a Hike Along Hadrian’s Wall

Evening light on Hadrian's Wall (Source: iStock / Gannet77)

Early in the common era (CE) — when Ancient Romans controlled most of the known world — Emperor Hadrian faced a pesky little problem in the north of his empire. Ancient Britons, most notably the Picts, were leading sorties into Roman territory on the British Isles, threatening Roman dominion. For Hadrian, the solution was simple: Build an impenetrable wall.

In 122 CE, then, the emperor issued a decree: A wall of stone was to be built stretching from the banks of the River Tyne in the west to Solway Firth in the east — some 80 miles of turf, stone, and wood dotted with towering fortifications. It would not only protect citizens from invading marauders, but would reinforce Roman supremacy.

Unfortunately for Hadrian, the wall was doomed to collapse. After his rule ended, succeeding emperors remained decidedly undecided about the point of the wall; some kept it well-guarded, while others abandoned it for other military pursuits. By the fifth century, it had fallen mostly into ruin — as had the Roman empire.

Today, the wall is less military asset and more historical curiosity. To experience it fully, many have chosen to hike along its path. This interest has become so great, in fact, that several guide books offer detailed instructions on how to do it properly and organized tours have sprung up to accommodate curious travelers.

To give you a primer, here’s what we recommend when trekking Hadrian’s great wall:

Milecastle 39 on Hadrian’s Wall (Source: iStock)

Planning

While many hikers opt to trek east to west, it’s actually advisable to go west to east for more favorable weather. Start in the city of Carlisle, then make your way northeast and follow the wall as far east as you can. If you plan to make the full 80-mile trek, set aside 10 days at a minimum and be sure you plan for food and lodging along the way. Fortunately, there are several hamlets on the wall’s periphery so you’ll easily find both.

Also, don’t underestimate the weather. Northern England is generally windy and cold, though the weather is unpredictable. Be ready with waterproof clothing, solid hiking boots, and warm under-layers.

Finally, be sure you have transportation set both to and from your start and ends points. After trekking as much as 80 miles, the last thing you want to have to do is arrange for transportation to an airport or travel hub. If you want some extra help and support along the way, consider a company like Hill Tours, which offers tours, meals, lodging, and more for a fixed price.

Romans building Hadrian’s Wall (Source: iStock)

Points of interest

If you like to hike, you might be satisfied just making your way across northern England, flanked by the remnants of the wall. However, you can also stop at many semi-preserved ruins as you make your journey.

For instance, several forts, including Housestead’s Roman Fort, Chester’s Roman Fort and Museum, and Birdoswald Roman Fort make great stopping places along the way. When you stop, take some time to learn about how the fort was used to repel invaders and get a peek into the daily life of the Ancient Roman military.

You can also get a look at the Ancient Roman supply town, Corbridge. Walk through the town’s streets and examine excavated armor and artifacts from Hadrian’s day while getting a sense of what it was like to enjoy ancient Roman life during breaks from sentry duty.

For more information and to help you plan your hike, visit the English Heritage site for Hadrian’s Wall.