Hadrian’s Wall Day 4: Gilsland to Brampton

Day 4 Gilsland to

Our last day on the Wall. We started in some serious rain, the first that had fallen on us on the walk.


But with only 9 miles to go this day, we enjoyed the slower pace.

Us on Wall-2

At Willowford Bridge, the foundations of the turrets and abutments were built first, then the curtain wall built up over 9 courses high.

The most excitement we had during the day came when we ran across a couple walking with their dog. The dog was off leash, which is very much against the rule of walking through somebody’s pasture. But the woman thought it was hilarious that the “cows” thought the dog was a wolf, and would chase it. We were not so amused when we came across some steers, who did indeed chase the dog. The dog panicked and bolted towards the nearest humans — my husband and I. Five angry steers each weighing 800 pounds followed. With no time to run, I threw up my arm to make myself big and yelled at the steers. The steers stopped, and the disgruntled dog owners belatedly put a leash on their dog.

Bull on the trail

Just glad the dog encountered steers and not this bull.

But the livestock continued to be very blase about hikers. This herd has their favorite spot to lie in, and the hikers can darn well go around them.

Herd on the Trail

Yes, the trail is the greener strip around the red cow. This is actually a well defined section of path.

Just about our last bit of wall.

From near here, we turned south to Brampton, and another old fabulous bed and breakfast above a pub.

Scotch Arms Mews-2

The hardest part of the day may have been negotiating the dips in the steps up to our room for the night.

Random Thoughts With Which to End Our Hike:

Walking Hadrian’s Wall was a fabulous experience. Seeing the ingenuity of the people in building their forts and walls made us remember that although they may not have been as technologically advanced as we are, they were not stupid. They came up with lots of creative “ahead of their time” solutions, using nothing but wood, leather, stone, iron and sweat.

Seeing their frustrations made the people of that time much more real. We could hear the men swearing as they tried to get that boulder at Limestone Corner to move, because we’ve had the same emotions ourselves. Reading their notes left at Vindolanda showed us their daily lives, that in many respects were very similar to our own.

As we’ve walked behind and across a lot of these little farmsteads, it’s been a little mind-boggling that many of these families have been in the same area since the Norman Conquest, and very possibly since the Romans, or even before. Cultures change, but the people remain the same. None of the places we stayed after Edinburgh was built more recently than 500 years ago. One of the pubs received their charter to sell beer in 1190 from King David of Scotland. That kind of continuity is, again, mind-boggling, and a little reassuring in this time of political and social disruption.

The people we have met have been unfailingly nice, patiently helping us out when we were lost or confused. We thank them from the bottoms of our hearts for sharing their home with us.

Hadrian’s Wall Day 3: Once Brewed to Gilsland

After giving it our all yesterday, my husband and I decided that we could hike the Wall, or we could see some of the sites along the Wall. Given the time we had, we couldn’t do both.

Sore and tired as we were, we decided to take a day to see Vindolanda and Housesteads forts, and the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. We made the right choice.

Vindolanda reconstructions

Vindolanda features reconstructions of a turf turret, on the left, and a stone turret, on the right. They helped in visualizing how big these constructions were.

Vindolanda Fort was one of the forts built before the Wall was put up, and therefore it’s a little off the Wall. It is one of the most famous of all Roman Forts because of a quirk in it’s history.


The Romans in Britain didn’t use paper much, it was far too expensive. Instead, they used thin sheets of wood to write on. Each of these sheets was about the size of a post card.


The famous birthday invitation. Courtesy , via WikiCommons.

One of the things that made the Roman Army such a success was it’s organization. Along with organization comes bureaucracy. And along with bureaucracy comes record-keeping. The Romans kept records on everything — in quadruplicate. Vindolanda was no exception.

But in 105 AD, the garrison of Vindolanda was told they were being reassigned, probably to that other trouble spot in the Empire — Dacia, on the Danube.

When they got the orders to leave, they decided to clean out everything that wasn’t going to be needed. So they made piles of old stuff in the courtyard, and burned it. But when they were burning 500 of these wooden tablets, a rainstorm came along and put out the fires. The Romans were in a hurry, so they didn’t bother trying to burn them again before they left.

After a couple of months, maybe a year, another cohort was assigned to Vindolanda. They cleared off the rubble the first group left, and then covered it in clay and turf to level the site. The clay covered the tablets, sealing them in an oxygen-free environment. And there they stayed for 2000 years.

When they were discovered in the 1970s, the tablets gave a window into the lives of every-day people living in a frontier garrison. The most charming tablet deciphered so far is to the wife of the commander of Vindolanda, inviting her to a birthday celebration. But others are equally relatable — disputes among the people living in the fort, duty rosters, a request for more beer.

Vindolanda tongue & groove-2

Tongue and groove joint carved into building stones.

Housesteads Fort was equally interesting. The east gate of Housesteads is reputedly where we get the width of standard gauge rail lines.  The story goes that 4′ 8 1/2″ is just wide enough for a horse to pulling a cart to pass through. This width was used throughout the Roman Empire as a Really Useful Measurement.

When railroad tracks were first being laid during the Industrial Revolution, the width of the tracks was all over the place, meaning that different train lines couldn’t run on each other’s tracks. The story goes that a railroad engineer saw this gate, and proposed it’s dimensions as the “standard gauge” to be used by all railroads. No idea if this story is true, but at least now you know.Housesteads west gate.jpg

We made the right choice in taking the time to look at the forts and their museums. After enjoying the sites for much of the day, we picked up the Wall at the end of the Whin Sill, and the beginning of softer sandstone as a building material. Consequently, even where the Wall survives along this section, it has often been buried to protect it.

View of ditch above Greenhead

View  above Greenhead. The ditch is the grooved mound in the center of the photograph.

Instead, we were treated to a fabulous landscape in the evening light.

Deep ditch and mounds]

The trail led into the ditch for a bit.

So ended our third day on the Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall Day 2: Chollerford to Once Brewed

This was the longest segment of our Wall Walk — 12 miles. And it had more ups and downs.

Day 2 Chollerford to Once Brewed

The good news was that because the landscape is more rugged, fewer stones were taken for other building projects, and the wall is in better shape. The bad news was that because this section also held the most interesting sites, we dawdled more than we should have.

The first challenge of the day was walking up the long gradual incline of the Whin Sill dolerite intrusion. In fact, the Whin Sill donated the word “sill” to geology, meaning “a horizontal igneous intrusion”.

The Wall up here is built of Whin Sill dolorite. Sandstone and limestone are layered above and below the sill. These provide all the building materials the Romans needed to build their wall.

Limestone Corner demonstrated just how hard the Whin Sill dolorite is — the Romans couldn’t break up a large chunk of the dolorite to get it out of the ditch here, and just gave up. They didn’t do that very often.

Rock at Limestone Corner-3

Dolorite rock at Limestone Corner. Grooves show where they tried to split it. One guide book said “…it must have been a very bad day” when the Romans tackled this rock.

The Roman Empire’s the most northern point happens to be at this problem spot. After about half an hour of looking at the rock and the scenery, and talking about the Roman’s northern frontier, we moved on.

Soon we came to a little temple to the god Mithras next to the outlines of a milecastle.  The Mithraeum was built to mimic a cave. The entire temple could only hold 12 or so. Mithraism was an elitist, hierarchical cult. We spent about 45 minutes there, poking around and taking pictures.

Temple of Mithras-5.jpg

By this point, we had gotten over our aversion to walking through pastures. We eventually realized that everybody has the right to walk through a field, as long as they don’t disturb the animals. And everybody does. And they don’t get shot.

Hadrian's Wall_170

The missing path was there too — as a brighter green trace through the pasture, where the dead tan and grey plants had been broken up and pushed away by people’s feet. In fact, along the Wall it is standard procedure to walk off the trail, because of erosion. They don’t want to wear the plants down to the soil, so when it’s muddy, (and it is muddy a lot) we are supposed to walk side by side. In fact, it’s okay to take off across the field, totally avoiding the path to prevent wearing it out. That means that the “path” tends to be a wandering line of brighter green through the field, if it’s there at all.

We talked to some ladies from Alberta, Canada, who agreed with us both walking through fields and finding the path, so it wasn’t just us.

After a long pull, we had climbed up onto the Whin Sill, taking a few minutes for pictures along the way.

East to Sewingshields

The Whin Sill escarpment from Sewingshields Milecastle. The wall in the foreground is “field wall” built by farmers to mark their fields. It is on top of the remains of the Roman Wall.

Milepost 35 Sewingshields Milecastle had a nice view from top of crags.

Follow the Ridge around to the distance. We had to go beyond that this day.

Follow the ridge around to the distance. We had to go to the trees in the distance yet this day.

It was about here that we realized that, although were walking at about 3.4 miles per hour — a really good pace going up and down hills — when we were stopped to poke around and look at stuff, we were moving at 0 miles per hour. These stops meant that we were way behind schedule.

Housesteads Fort fits into the end of a dolorite ridge was built on a slope.

Housesteads from top

Housteads Fort, in the middle of the picture, is framed by trees.

But we couldn’t stop at Housesteads, because we had at least two more hours of walking to get to our pick-up point in time for the taxi to take us to our bed and breakfast.

Sycamore Gap

Sycamore Gap is an iconic view of the wall. We took the picture and kept moving.

Another few miles saw us to the charmingly-named village of Once Brewed, and our pick-up point at a pub called Twice Brewed.P9050865.JPG

Although we had had beautiful weather to this point, we were having problems with the number of miles we needed to cover. In spite of missing the fabulous Housesteads Fort, we got to our pick-point with just a half hour to spare, both of us very sore and totally exhausted. And that meant we wouldn’t see Vindolanda Fort, 2 miles south of Once Brewed — one of my must-see spots — at all.

We needed to rethink our priorities.




Hadrian’s Wall Day 1: Corbridge to Chollerford

The first day was supposed to be reasonably easy, from Corbridge to Chollerford.

Screenshot_2018-08-28 Topo Map, Hiking Trails, Satellite Map(1)

We actually went to the east a bit, and came onto the Military Road about where the eastern most trail hits it.

Corbridge started as a Roman town that predates the Wall. At first, the Romans figured they’d steamroll over the local population of Britain just as they had pretty much everywhere else up to that point. And they did a fairly good job of it — they pacified the English lowlands, Cornwall and Wales with a mixture of local alliances and the best military the world had ever seen. Caledonia (Scotland) was next on the list, and they had forts and patrols well into the northern reaches.

But the Britons under Roman control didn’t want to stay under Roman control. For most of the Romans stay in Briton, they had 4 legions there — more than they had stationed anywhere else in the Empire. Coria (or Coris, or maybe Coristopetum) — the current Corbridge — was one of these early garrison towns.

We started our hike by leaving Corbridge and heading north to the Wall. Our guidebook had clear and detailed instructions on several routes we could take. Being anxious to get on the Wall, we chose the most direct route.

Everything went well, until the guidebook said “…cross the style and follow the path to the next gate…” The problem was that the style crossed into somebody’s cow pasture — complete with bulls, to whom I give a lot of respect — and there was no obvious path. We were sure there must be some mistake. I mean, in the American West, if you walk through somebody’s field, especially one where there livestock, you could get shot.

After a loud discussion, we decided to find one of the other, longer routes to the Wall.

This ended up taking us two very hard miles, and two hours out of our way. So much for it being an easy day. But along the way, we were offered help by people who saw that we were very obviously lost. They nudged us back to the right path, and we eventually came  out at Aydon Castle. This was fine, because it was supposed to be in really good condition. Unfortunately, the hours had changed, and it wasn’t open the day we were there.

Aydon Castle

Exterior shot of Aydon Castle

From Aydon Castle, we were on a road that took us up to the Wall without further incident.

We Reach the Wall at Halton Chesters Fort

We Reach the Wall at Halton Chesters Fort. The Roman Wall is not the new structure you see behind us, but rather is under the road in the background.

Just getting to the Wall felt like an achievement.

Finally at the Wall, we walked west along the “Military Way”, still in use as B6318. This road runs along, and over the Wall for miles. Why? In 1746 Jacobites in the north revolted to put Scottish “Bonnie Prince Charlie” on the throne. The British Army objected, and pursued them across northern England and into Scotland, but it was hard going. So the Army built a road. The easiest place to put a road was where the surveying and grading had already been done, even if that meant flattening a 2000-year-old structure. This was war.

Once the Wall started coming down, others joined in, and stones were scavenged and reused in local buildings all along the route. This means that the only places where the Wall survives is where it was too much trouble to tear it down.

So we followed the Military Way, climbing steadily until we reached Chollerford, and Chesters Fort.

We finally began to see bits of the wall outside Chollerford.

You can see that the foundations of the wall are much wider on this section than the Wall itself. Sometime while building the Wall, somebody decided it would be cheaper and faster to build it narrow gauge.

Chesters Fort

Chesters Fort is just before you reach the little town of Chollerford. The Romans built it on the Wall to defend a bridge over the River Tyne.

Water system at Chesters Fort-2

Chesters Fort held a cohort of cavalry — the rapid response team of the day.

After a surprisingly hard day, we collapsed and called it good.


Hadrian’s Wall: Getting There

I’ve always wanted to walk Hadrian’s Wall, on the border between England and Scotland. The idea of hiking along a 2000-year-old artifact for miles on end, and finishing the day at a pub just really appeals to me.

The Wall cut all the way across northern England. It still does, in fact, although in the coastal areas most of the features are gone or hidden — stones have been scavenged, the ditch and Vallum filled in and farmed. In these areas walking along the Wall is like walking along any other urban/suburban path.

With that in mind my husband and I decided to focus on the central part of Hadrian’s Wall, the part that goes up and over the northern end of the Pennine Mountains, where there is more of the Wall to see. Interspersed along the Wall are Milecastles and turrets, forts and civilian communities where you can see how people lived in the Roman Empire. Should be fun!

Entire Route

The section of the Wall that we are hiking goes from north of Corbridge in the east, to north of Brampton, in the west.



Hadrian’s Wall: A Little History

I have always wanted to hike Hadrian’s Wall — no idea why. This summer, I finally badgered my husband into going. I figured if we didn’t do it soon, our legs wouldn’t handle it.

Route Across Great Britain

Hadrian’s Wall cuts across the island of Britain from Newcastle in the east to Maryport, southwest of Carlisle, in the west.

A Little Background

The Romans toyed with the idea of invading the island of Britain for a long time. Julius Caesar landed on the island twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC, but quickly left to put down revolts in newly conquered Gaul.

It was Emperor Claudius who committed the resources to take Britain, in 43 AD. The Roman Empire was built on conquest, and the lame, slightly deaf Claudius, who had never served in the army, needed to establish his military credentials. Although Claudius himself only stayed in Britain for a few weeks, the 4 legions he brought with him were permanent.

The plan, of course, was to take the whole island. The Romans pacified the southeastern section of the island relatively quickly. Wales, as always, was a bit more stubborn, but eventually came under Roman rule.  Caledonia, the northern part of the island, saw fighting as well. The Romans even built forts in the far north, as they did throughout the island at places like Coria (Corbridge) and Vindolanda, to establish their presence.

Just before the time of Emperor Hadrian, the machine that was the Roman Empire was reaching the maximum size that it could manage. One of the things I didn’t know before I started researching was that most of the time, some province somewhere in the Roman Empire was in revolt. After sixty years of pacification in Britain, problems in Dacia (modern Romania) meant that the Romans had to pull troops from the job of conquering the foggy island. And that meant they had to postpone Final Conquest indefinitely.

Emperor Hadrian, in fact, spent most of his reign consolidating Roman control on territory that they already controlled. That included drawing a line across Britain, and building a wall.

Why build a wall when you already have forts and roads all over the country, even into the frontier to the north? The easiest answer is: to keep the barbarians out. But that answer seems to only be partly true. After all, every milecastle had gates through the Wall. And it was possible to get over the Wall, if  you really wanted to.

The other reasons were 1) simply to demarcate a border. The Wall must have been a awesome symbol of Roman power, and it would have been a constant reminder to the northern natives that Roman Britain wasn’t to be messed with. 2) To slow down any raiders who came across. People could cross into Roman Britain with relative ease, either legitimately through a gate, or illicitly over or around the Wall itself. And once past the Roman garrisons, raiders could do some damage. But once the alarm was raised, getting back across the Wall to safety was just about impossible. You couldn’t take slaves or livestock over the wall, and you certainly couldn’t take them through a checkpoint. So why bother?

Roughly, the cross-section of the wall looked like this:

Looking at a cross-section of the Wall,  from the north, there was a berm, made of dirt from the ditch. Then there was the Wall, made of courses of local stone up to 20 feet (6 meters) high. Behind the wall was an open area, then the Roman Military Road (as opposed to the Military Way built in 1746), a north mound, the ditch-like “vallum” (which confusingly means “wall” in Latin; the word was originally applied to the earthen mounds, but here means the southern ditch), then the south mound. Nobody really knows what the vallum here was for, but it was evidently important, because it runs right alongside the Wall the entire length.

On the west end of the wall, they started building with turf, but soon replaced it with stone. On the east end, it was stone right from the beginning. They built a fort every mile, and two turrets between each fort.

When the wall was started, it was going to be about 3 meters (10 feet) wide, but as they built it, they decided it only needed to be about 2 meters (6 feet) wide, so there are sections of each — often the foundations are Broad Wall and the Curtain Wall itself is Narrow.

Whew! That’s enough history to get going with.