Stretching 73 miles from coast to coast across mainland Britain, Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous frontier of the once great Roman Empire marking the very North-Western edge of Roman territories. For 300 years it was the only barrier against the Celtic tribes of the North, but today the remains of the site are enjoyed by countless visitors, eager to take in a piece of history from this World Heritage site.
With so much of the wall to see we recruited the help of author, guide and Hadrian’s Wall expert, Mark Richards to take us along for the day on one of his favourite routes. A route that explores the most impressive stretch of the wall that's still standing today and the rich history that surrounds the local area.
Written by: Mark Richards
Photographed by: Callum Thompson
Anyone with an appetite for exploring the rich tapestry of historic Britain will doubtless enjoy wandering alongside, and in the vicinity of, Hadrian’s Wall, this is certainly true for me.
The term ‘explorer’ derives directly from the Latin ‘exploratore’, a term attributed to an elite military scout. There is something of the Exploratore in all outdoor adventurers so you can be sure that these Roman intelligence agents underwent many a reconnaissance mission both north and south from the mural frontier. Their ‘SAS’ duty was to check the activities of potentially restless natives, long before the notion of Border Reivers were abroad and the moss-troopers rode their scraggy-maned fell ponies through the mires of what are now the Border Forests of Spadeadam and Wark. There was nothing static about life on and along the Wall. For 300 years it was a live division and the northern limit of that great empire - a dynamic that continued down the ages, for all that the scenery may seem placid today.
“For 300 years it was a live division and the northern limit of that great empire”
With so much curious visitor attention directed upon the Roman remains, fragmentary though they are after 1800 years of neglect and intense stone ‘borrowing’, a walker seeking to sense the real essence of this important relic from the classical age will relish pacing it in the round. Personally, sticking rigidly to the National Trail has never cut the mustard. Indeed, over recent years I have tramped widely through the hinterland of the Roman Wall sensing its wild nature and history.
With this in mind I am about to undertake a figure-of-eight expedition from Birdoswald Roman Fort (English Heritage – loos/café/shop and interpretation centre) thereby observing the west/east border interface of Cumbria with Northumberland and visit two venerated and fashionable ‘resorts’ long before us ‘outdoor types’ were attracted to the area – prior to the designation of National Parks and National Trails.
To the Romans this was Banna, a name derived from the Celtic ‘horn’. Some 40 years ago it was a muddy farmyard with cattle, sheep and pigs, a place of hoof and horn! The urban paving looks strangely out of keeping with this agricultural vision. Mike Baxter, the farmer at neighbouring Kiln Hill, was brought up here so can reflect on the scene, one full of childhood memories.
The interior of the fort is largely revealed, although much of the original internal walling has been lost. The crenelated farmhouse is a mock Victorian pele tower, it was the spirit of the age to romanticize a glorious past.
Close to the farmhouse, in the base course of the basilica building (Roman indoor exercise hall), I spot an exceedingly rare stallion phallic symbol. The Romans were deeply superstitious and believed in the power of such symbols to confer health and good fortune. Though an auxiliary fort, horses will have been stabled here as the Maiden Way Roman road leads to a remote outpost fort at Bewcastle crossing the long horizon of Gillalees Beacon to the northwest.
Nearby I glance at a regular oblong pattern of large tree trunks set upon the Roman granary slabs. In the last 20 years archaeological research has revealed traces of a timber hall-house confirming how, no sooner than the Romans vacated the frontier, all building reverted to timber. This remained the case for secular building until about 1600 when stone-built bastle farms became the fashion, though from early medieval times castles and churches ‘borrowed’ the Roman masonry, witness nearby Thirlwall Castle and Lanercost Priory. The Priory plays into my walk in an interesting way – for I’d set my sights on a remote Holy Well, venerated by the Canons of Lanercost, situated west from Birdoswald alongside Hadrian’s Wall, a stone wall followed by a section of turf wall.
“To date, 60 marked Roman stones have been officially logged in the vicinity of Birdoswald”
I’m now firmly on course with the National Trail leaving the fort heading west crossing a pasture - the site of the vicus (civil settlement and cemetery). Before the vestige stone wall ends, beside the modern ridge road, I glance at a small weathered lucky charm – a more traditional phallic symbol – just a few paces beyond a turret. The turret contains a very modern interpretative panel, already tarnished by time ie 12 months! To date 60 marked Roman stones have been officially logged in the vicinity of Birdoswald making this the greatest concentration of such artefacts on the entire frontier. Overall there are 56 specific phallic stones on or close to the entire Wall.
A field wall intervenes so I swing up left to join the alignment of the turf wall. Hadrian’s grand frontier plan going west from the Irthing Roman bridge to the Solway Firth was constructed of turf with only turrets, milecastles and forts stone-built. Why? The lack of lime for mortar and handy sandstone for the masonry.
I stride on, over the access track to High House Farm, with traditional dusky black and brown Galloway cattle and shaggy Swaledale sheep, and admire the unusually massive linear vallum banks over to the left. Alongside the turf wall and northern ditch the vallum defined the military zone which here lies close to my pasture path.
Keen-eyed I was aware of a change in farms as the sheep breed changes to tight-fleeced Texel and muscular Charolais. Stepping down onto an access track by Wall Burn, hastily keeping ahead of a cattle feed lorry noisily approaching up the hill from Lanerton Farm, I jinked right and left through the line of mature beech trees. Heading on to the grassy banks to Milecastle 51 where the frontier turf and stone wall converge. The trail takes me through a dark muddy wood at the top of the Comb Crag gorge - a hugely exciting rocky dell I can heartily recommend exploring, but it was not for me today. A set of plastic garden seats made me pause at Combcrag Farm, as the farmer’s wife provides National Trail trekkers thirst-quenching and peckish treats. At the T-junction I said farewell to the strict line of the Wall though I have in the recent past tested my version of a Roman third-of-a-mile by pacing between the roadside turrets of Piper Syke and Lee Hill, a short way along the ridgetop road west.
So now I’m beelining north along a minor road passing the access road to Miller Hill and Triermain Farm, with the enigmatic remains of a pele tower, which features in Sir Walter Scott’s “Bridal of Triermain” a rhymed, romantic, narrative-poem.
Soon I swerve from the road passing the scrupulously restored Hall Guards farmstead and Clockey Mill, with its millrace fall, now a garden feature. I follow a gated road onto the B6318. Interestingly a quarter-of-a-mile west the OS map indicates the site of a salmon ladder at Kingwater Bridge, sadly a yesteryear relic.
“...raiding commonly occurred - with farm stock stolen and murderous night attacks too common for comfort.”
I next venture surreptitiously through the yard at Clarke’s Hill (seasonal caravan park) wandering on by field gates onto Watch Hill by old quarrying banks and an open birch wood echoing to the raucous sound of rooks. The name ‘Watch Hill’ clearly suggests the constant need for vigilance – certainly till the 16th Century this was troubled Border Reiver territory where mean-minded raiding commonly occurred - with farm stock stolen and murderous night attacks too common for comfort. An area often mistakenly called the Debateable Lands, a term that relates to a more precise area north of Bewcastle by Kershope into Liddesdale, which had formerly been known as the Bateable Lands, ie cattle and sheep grazed country.
I now pound along the fractured Snowden Close track and, after a cattle grid I am drawn half-left by a footpath sign traversing pasture to enter light birch wood, angling down a slippery path to a rickety footbridge spanning King Water.
The pungent stench of the sulphur spring in the rocky nook, fill my nostrils and make me smart. This substance was considered a cure-all for persistent ailments by many generations of countryfolk. The white mineral seeping from a cleft was the health spa of the Canons of Lanercost too, who annually celebrated St John the Baptist’s Day, 24th June, at this spot. I am shocked to see that the pewter tankard I had last seen here had been vandalised, on that previous occasion I sampled the ‘waters’ - clearly I have survived, it’s not poisonous, just rather weird!
Keen to advance my quest of the Roman Barbarian territory I backtrack, branching from the concrete track along a bridleway slushing through the rank rushes into a gorse-lined green lane to reach the B6318. Eagerly now on tarmac I pace left almost to Slack House Farm. the home of Birdowald Cheese. This artisan organic cheese is produced from a small Ayrshire herd, far-famed for its exemplary stock and soil welfare standards.
I join the Maiden Way Roman road bridleway, wrongly aligned on maps as being straight across Midgeholme Moss. Recent Lidar surveying has shown the legionary way avoided the damp hollow with its luxuriant growth of thigh-high marsh plants, keeping left, linking to the fort on the line of the modern road by the car park.
The second loop of the day takes me east beside the most impressive stretch of consolidated Roman Wall on the entire frontier with the little hills of the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall in the Whin Sill scarp dead ahead. I step over the site of Harrow Scar, Milecastle 49, I follow the track down as to Under Heugh cutting back with the paving slab trail to cross the Millenium Bridge, set in place by a Chinook helicopter in 1999. The bridge gave me a grand view into the brown waters of the boulder-strewn river. Next I came upon the Roman bridge abutments.
It’s as clear as day that, even in Roman times, the river was voraciously eating away at the steep river bank. Proof the interpretative sign depicts four stages of westward advancing development. I’m now marching beside the consolidated wall once more, I climb a flight of stone steps to Willowford Farm and keep within the access track deep within the north ditch of the Wall.
Hitting the village street in Gilsland I cross by the Primary School and watchfully stride the tracks of the first coast to coast railway in the world, Carlisle/Newcastle. With great excitement I come upon the enigmatically named King’s Stables (Milecastle 48) an impressive Roman exhibition on a slope with interior stabling barracks, with a late Roman period narrowed north gate and evidence of steps that may have led to a wall-topping walkway. I descend the concrete steps to cross Poltross Burn, thereby entering Northumberland. Gilsland is peculiar in that it is in two counties [Cumbria and Northumberland], two regions [North West and North East] and has three Parish Councils, collectively known as the Laverocks (skylarks)! Reflecting back I should say as I walked towards the railway I did catch a glimpse of a great banner proclaiming the desire of villagers to restore a stopping train, strictly all they need is a new platform. Originally this was Gilsland Spa Station, though the modern ambition not unsurprisingly is to call it Gilsland-on-the-Wall Station.
“originally this was Gilsland Spa Station though the modern ambition is to call it Gilsland on the Wall”
I duck beneath the low-slung railway passage coming through the remarkable array of sporting apparatus in the children’s playground, eye-watering the massive bank slide… I wonder what this might be like when slick in a rainstorm! Meeting the street at the village hall I dart left and right after Dacre House pacing up a muddy footpath upstream beside the Irthing. Above Irthing House I follow a minor road and, after veering left towards Wardew House, cut sharp left onto a wooded path.
The present Wardrew replaced a humbler dwelling where Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott lodged when “taking the spa waters” fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th Century. The path has the remains of old metal railing and lower down cobbling as it reaches the river. The single span bridge invites you to cross to inspect the Spa Well, rebuilt on the far side in the 1960s.
I want to take advantage of the pleasant weather so head upstream through the Woodland Trust enclosure. Crossing a further footbridge, held secure with wires, I gaze at the swirling frothy waters then stumbled along the rough riverbank to the Popping Stone.
Tradition holds that many a romantic proposal of marriage was made at this enchanting sylvan spot, including Sir Water Scott! High in the sky I watch with spellbound wonder a buzzard wheel above this intensely leafy water glade.
I backtrack by the earlier bridge and up the steep incline path to speed past the great Gilsland Hall Hotel, along the footway by the parish church, down the hill by Howard House. I turn right with the road by Hill-on-the-Wall and join a footpath traversing pasture, at mid-point dipping through a wooded dell to regain the start.
Was ever a walk more enjoyed… I think not. Every step of the way I have been absorbed by the wonder of now… a present redolent with a great sense of former ages, a history that I too was a part of for this one day.
This expedition, in the form of two guided walks, (published by English Heritage) is available in the shop at Birdoswald. Based upon my route text it gives more background into the heritage features encountered in Hadrian’s Wall hinterland. Should you be tempted to undertake Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail then you may wish to consult my Cicerone guide.