A Short History of Hadrian’s Wall
About two thousand years ago, the north of England was the northernmost point of the mighty Roman Empire. The Romans had conclusively taken over Britannia, at least up to the part that we today know as Northumberland.
Further north, things were a little shakier. Despite numerous forays into modern-day Scotland, the Romans struggled to hold onto power there. Eventually, in 122 AD, Emperor Hadrian decided to cut his losses, and build a thick wall from coast to coast in northern England. This would eventually become known as Hadrian’s Wall, after the Emperor who ordered its construction.
A popular myth says that this was to keep the “civilized” Romans away from the “barbarians” even further north in Scotland. This comes from a biography which was written some 200 years after the wall was built, and there are no sources from the time to support this view. Nonetheless, it’s certainly a popular theory.
Whatever the reason for its construction, it would take around six years for a team of over 15,000 men (divided into three teams) to construct it. Their efforts were aided by the fact that some of the Wall was already in place and had been for some time. Nevertheless, it is Hadrian who is most associated with the wall and this part of the world is now known as Hadrian’s Wall Country.
The original plan was for the wall to be made out of stone and turf, however, it was later decided that an earthwork would be added to the south, and the dimensions of the wall were changed.
As well as the wall itself, there were also dozens of gates, towers, and forts that assisted the Romans to defend the wall and their territory.
Once constructed, the wall would have been patrolled by battalions of Roman soldiers, their eyes out for anyone trying to breach the boundary. It also acted as a tax-collecting point for those bringing goods in and out of the Roman Empire.
After the Emperor Hadrian’s death in 138, the new Emperor, Antoninus Pios, tried to build a different wall called the Antonine Wall (after himself, of course!). However, the project was not successful and troops soon sheepishly returned to Hadrian’s Wall instead.
total, the wall would remain the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire for some three centuries and is the Empire’s most famous boundary. It is believed to have been in use right up until the fall of Roman Britain, which occurred in the early 5th century. This is supported by the discovery of Roman coins around Hadrian’s Wall, with the latest dating from 406.
The wall stretches 73 miles – which is around 117 kilometers, or 80 Roman miles. In the east, it begins at Wallsend on the River Tyne, and on the west, it ends at Bowness-on-Solway.
The fact that so much of the wall remains in great condition is quite lucky. For many centuries after the fall of Roman Britain, the wall was used as a stone quarry. This wasn’t stopped until the mid-19th century, with the wall finally declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
What is the Best Place to See Hadrian’s Wall?
With so much of the wall preserved, you might wonder what part of Hadrian’s Wall to visit. While trying to walk the entire length is a challenge tackled by some, most visitors choose a smaller section, or maybe a few, to explore. It’s something I definitely recommend if you are visiting the area or backpacking in the UK.
One of the most popular ways to see it is to enjoy a Hadrian’s Wall Walk, which I’ll cover in detail in the next section. There are many landmarks and attractions along the wall, which are all worth visiting. You can walk or cycle between them (see below for cycling), or between May and October (check the exact dates), there is a bus (see below to download the timetable). It’s also possible to camp Hadrian’s Wall (more below). Try to incorporate at least one fort when hiking Hadrian’s wall to get a sense of the scale of construction of this ancient feat of engineering.
Here are some of the most unmissable places to visit on the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail.
Birdoswald Roman Fort
At this site (managed by English Heritage), you’ll find the longest remaining uninterrupted stretch of Hadrian’s Wall. It is also one of the best-preserved sections of the wall, offering a fascinating look into life in Roman Britain. As well as the wall, you can see granaries and gatehouses.
English Heritage has made a significant investment in the Birdoswald Roman Fort. Most recently, they spent almost one-and-a-half million pounds refurbishing the Hadrian’s Wall Visitor Center, so you can enjoy some swanky new buildings including a cafe and a gift shop.
If you’re looking for somewhere different to stay when you visit Hadrian’s Wall, you can even stay overnight at the Birdoswald Farmhouse!
Housesteads Roman Fort
Another must-see destination is Housesteads Roman Fort, which gives you the opportunity to take a deeper dive into what life was like under Roman rule. This fascinating archaeological site enjoys a particularly spectacular location, offering beautiful views of the wild Northumberland landscape.
Wandering through the well-preserved fortress gives you a sense of what life was like in Northern England some 2,000 years ago. There is an on-site museum complete with artifacts used by the Roman soldiers who lived and patrolled here, as well as a unique cinema experience.
Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort
This UNESCO World Heritage site stands proudly above the entrance of the River Tyne, where the fort has protected the main sea route to Hadrian’s Wall for centuries.
Arbeia Roman Fort was integral to the ability of the Roman military to supply the other Hadrian’s Wall forts, making it an important tactical stop. It was also the Roman Emperor’s headquarters when planning and carrying out the invasion of the Scottish borders. There’s no doubt this was one of the most important strategic locations in the entire Roman Empire.
Today you can discover the history of the Fort with interactive exhibitions and reenactments carried out by volunteers.
Buildings within the fort have been reconstructed to bring to life what it would have been like to live there, including the Commanding Officer’s house and a soldier’s barracks.
Segedunum Roman Fort
The name means ‘strong fort’ and this Roman settlement does not disappoint, being one of the best-preserved Roman sites in northern England.
Originally, this fort was built to guard the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall, close to the banks of the River Tyne.
Today it has been majorly excavated with original foundations on show.
There is also an interactive museum that brings the history of the site to life. Another unique feature is the only reconstructed Roman bathhouse in England.
Ravenglass Roman Bath House
Incorporating the tallest remains of the wall, the Ravenglass Roman Bath House is a definite must-see. The remains of the bathhouse are among the tallest Roman structures still surviving in Britain.
Due to their height, in many of the buildings, you can still see windows and doorways that once adorned Roman houses. It’s fascinating to look upon them and think that they have stood for almost two thousand years! So, for a true goosebump-inducing experience – pay a visit to this amazing site.
Corbridge Roman Town
This may not be a fort, but it is well worth a visit. The town was a hive of civilian activity where traders would sell their wares to the locals.
Today you can walk the cobbled streets and feel what living in the Roman era might have been like as you stroll down the central boulevard. There’s also an onsite museum which houses English Heritage’s largest Hadrian’s Wall collection, with many fascinating objects and artefacts.
See below for the best places to stay in this picturesque town as your base to walk the Wall.
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Okay, so technically it’s not Roman – but if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s well worth paying a visit to this fascinating place.
Dominating the skyline of the city it is named after, this well-preserved castle is situated close to the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. The castle, also managed by English Heritage, includes a fascinating museum that brings to life the 900-year-old story of the castle’s inhabitants.
The Castle was ‘home’ to Mary, Queen of Scots from 1568 when she was held captive in what is known as Queen Mary’s Tower. Mary was allowed to take walks within the castle grounds, so you could be walking in some famous footsteps!
And if you’d like to stay in your own castle very close to the wall, the delightful Langley Castle Hotel has landscaped grounds, woods, walking trails and an award-winning dining experience that includes pre-dinner drinks in the castle drawing-room. Check prices, availability, and reviews here.
FAQ and Key Considerations
If you are considering a Hadrian’s wall walking holiday, here are some of the most Frequently Asked Questions about the route and some key considerations at the outset:
My Hadrian’s Wall walk suggested itinerary: Walking Hadrians Wall west to east is a more scenic route but the major tour companies prefer to begin their walking routes from Newcastle. If you are doing it yourself, always choose to walk west to east. Similarly, cycling in this direction is less hilly.
Is Hadrians Wall walk hilly?
There are several steep sections but this is over the whole 73 miles.
How long does it talk to complete the Hadrians wall hike or walk?
Hadrian’s wall walk 7 days itineraries are the most common.
What is the one thing I must take for a Hadrians Wall Walking Holiday?
Hiking boots! You need a pair that you have worn in well before you start out on a Hadrian’s Wall hike of more than a day or so.
What is the next most important thing to take on this trip?
A hiking pack.
And the third thing?
A guidebook (see the best ones below) that includes a Hadrian’s Wall map.
Is the Hadrian Wall the best part of the UK National Trail?
I certainly think so. I would consider taking the Hadrians Wall walk challenge first. Once you’ve conquered Hadrian’s walk I strongly recommend taking on the wonderful South West Coast Path and the Cotswold Way. Just after Milecastle 37 you can join the Pennine Way National Trail.
Is there a Hadrian’s Wall bus service?
Yes, there is a dedicated bus service to the main sites along Hadrian’s Wall. Here is a free pdf of the AD 122 Bus Timetable. The other bus service you may need runs between the main towns and villages along the Hadrian’s Wall walking route. Here is a free pdf of the North-East Bus Timetable.
Best Hadrian’s Wall Walks
Whilst it’s true that there are other countries with walls built by the Romans, its hard to think of one as famous, picturesque and eminently walkable as this one! The Best Hadrian’s Wall walks are here and further on you can also find out how to cycle along Hadrian’s Wall cycle route.
There are many incredible sections along the wall which are perfect for walking, and it is certainly the most popular way to take in various sights. With many different trails, hikers of all ability are welcome to enjoy the natural beauty and incredible history of the area. Below you will find the major sections for walking, National Trail downloadable maps and books detailing the many different walks available. It is possible to take anywhere from a short walk, to a 6-day walk!
Before heading off on your hike, there are a few things to be aware of:
- Never climb or walk along the wall itself, as it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and vulnerable to damage.
- Be careful when walking in the winter months or after heavy rainfall, as the risk of damaging the monument is greatest then, and conditions can be very slippery and cold.
- Close all gates that you go through, as livestock may be grazing close by!
- It can get EXTREMELY windy on the Wall in winter and spring.
- Parking costs a fortune at the Housesteads site.
- Hadrian’s Wall trail is muddy and there are several steep sections. Hiking boots are necessary. I have slipped in running shoes in springtime.
Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail
If you are feeling brave, then why not commit to walking the entire length of the wall – either as part of one epic journey or in smaller stages? The unbroken 84-mile trail goes from coast to coast and passes through some of England’s most beautiful countryside.
You can even complete the Hadrian’s Wall Passport by getting stamped at all seven stations along the way, which will earn you an exclusive Hadrian’s Wall Path badge and certificate.
If you don’t have time to walk the entire wall (or if walking approximately 10-15 kilometers per day (6 – 9 miles) is not your cup of tea), there are many shorter walks that will give you a taste of the history and beauty the Wall has to offer. The central section of the Wall is the best preserved
Click here to download a free pdf of all of the walks possible along Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail. These include the Thirlwell Castle Walk (2 miles), the Steel Rigg and Sycamore Gap Walk (4 miles), and the Greenlee Lough Walk (7.5 miles). At either end of the Wall, in Solway and the Tyne Valley, there are many other walks.
Wylam to Prudhoe
This walk is about 3.5 miles long and follows the River Tyne, starting in Wylam you walk along the Wylam Wagonway to Prudhoe Castle. The walk can take around 2.5 hours at an easy pace and offers gorgeous views along the river. You can even make a stop at the brewery in Wylam to rehydrate!
A Barbarian’s View of the Wall From Sycamore Gap
No visit to Hadrian’s Wall can be complete without seeing the famous Sycamore Gap, popularized by the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves staring Kevin Costner. This walk starts at the Steel Rigg car park and is about 3.5 miles in length, finishing at the same point. Don’t forget your camera – you’ll want to immortalize these jaw-dropping views!
Hadrian’s Walk Walk Route Planner
My favorite walks are contained in the following Hadrian’s Walk walking guide (simply called “Hadrian’s Wall Path”). Besides this great itinerary planner and guide, see below for a round-up of the other three very best Hadrian Wall route guides for walking Hadrian’s Wall Path. Each book has individual tours with Hadrian’s Wall walk route maps, what to expect, and how to get there. Buy one of these essential little books to slip into your suitcase!
Cycling Hadrian’s Wall – the New Hadrian’s Wall Cycle route
It is possible to cycle Hadrian’s Wall. The Hadrian’s Wall cycle route is a coast to coast ride that is much gentler than the better-known C2C cycle with hills 600m above sea level. Hadrian’s cycleway only rises to 250m above sea level. The Route has been newly created and is signposted as National Route 72 (NCN 72).
This route moves in an out of sight of Hadrian’s Wall and often runs alongside the Wall on the way from Carlisle to Whitley Bay. You can read Hadrian’s wall cycling stage-by-stage guide here. This downloadable pdf is an essential resource is you are thinking of cycling Hadrian’s Wall.
The route takes 4-6 days if you plan to see all the Roman sites. It is imperative to take spare parts and water. An average of 5 hours of cycling per day means carrying 3.5 liters of water per person.
Hadrian’s Wall Walk Accommodation
After a long walk through the gorgeous countryside, you’ll want somewhere elegant and cozy to rest your weary legs. Luckily, the stunning area around Hadrian’s Wall certainly delivers in this respect. So, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay after enjoying our Hadrian’s wall guide – here are a few of my favorite Hadrian’s Wall hotels, Bed and Breakfasts, as well as all the available Airbnb stays.
The hotels near Hadrian’s Wall have excellent reviews and represent fantastic value for money given their amenities and proximity to the main attractions of Hadrian’s Wall.
Located in a lovely market town of Basingstoke, this inn offers traditional rooms with the bonus of local food on offer downstairs. The hotel is just a 15-minute drive from Hadrian’s Wall, so it is ideal if you are looking for somewhere comfortable and convenient for uncovering the history of the area.
A B&B for people that want some luxury in their hiking experience! This 18th-century farmhouse offers modern but charming accommodation with stunning views. It is ideal for couples who wish to enjoy a romantic retreat after a hike through the countryside, or anyone who wants to explore Hadrian’s Wall at a leisurely pace, with a touch of luxury.
Who doesn’t want the chance to stay in a real 19th-century mansion? The hotel could be straight out of Downton Abbey, so it is perfect if you are looking for a little extra glitz, glamour, and charm during your stay. There are even large windows to enjoy the view, and a modern spa to help ease the aches of a day spent hiking.
Camping Hadrian’s Wall
There are 31 campsites in Wall country, most of them seasonal, stretching from coast to coast and along Hadrian’s Wall. There aren’t any campsites in Newcastle and Carlisle. Hadrian’s Wall walk camping is increasingly popular in summer. However, “Wild camping” is not allowed, and the police will move you on if you are caught. This doesn’t seem to detract people!
I find the new official Hadrian’s Wall interactive map to be cluttered and difficult to read, but it does have the very great advantage of being able to show you the exact location of each camping site. You can access it here.
The Best Hadrian’s Wall Walking Tours
Taking one of these Hadrian’s Wall tours is a great way to learn more about the history behind Hadrian’s Wall. Especially if you don’t have your own transportation, or you would like to see several sections of the wall, and of course, if your time in the north of England is short, a Hadrian’s Wall Walking Tour is an ideal solution. Having everything arranged for you and not having to think about the logistics of a walk along this Wall when you’re on holiday is a big plus!
I use Get Your Guide tours in the main because they have penalty-free cancellation up until 24 hours before your trip, they have instant mobile tickets you can download to your phone or print out at home and so there’s no risk in getting a tour booked early to ensure your spot and then canceling if your plans change at the last minute. I also like value for money and these services are at no charge – they are exactly the same price if you booked a tour yourself through a tour operator directly on the web.
If you don’t have a lot of time to spare then this tour will give you a taste of the history on offer, with a knowledgeable local guide!
- An award-winning tour with perfect reviews
- The Tour begins at Cawfields, near Haltwhistle. Walk on the best sections of the Vallum defensive ditch and see a Milecastle (a rectangular fortification).
- Transportation to and from the tour is not included. Take the train to Haltwhistle and walk the very short distance to Cawfields or use private return car transfers that you can book here.
This award-winning tour will make the incredible history come alive as you explore Hadrian’s Wall and discover what life would have been like for people living on the frontier. The tour walks along some of the most beautiful and well-preserved sections of the Wall.
- Another award-winner tour, this one of 7 hours duration (10 am to 5 pm and is considered a ‘leisurely walk.’)
- Meet at Cawfield’s Quarry to begin the tour. Transportation to and from the tour not included. Take the train to Haltwhistle and walk the very short distance to Cawfields or use private return car transfers that you can book here.
- At the end of the Walking part of the Tour, you head to two nearby Roman Museums of your choice, including Vindolanda Roman Fort, The Roman Army Museum, Housesteads Roman Fort, or Chesters Roman Fort.
- Admission to the Roman Museums is included.
This tour shows you the incredible scenery that surrounds the Wall, it takes in the Lake District, Cumbria, and the Scottish Borders. Follow Hadrian’s Wall past Mile Castles and Towers finally reaching the Roman Army Museum. You will stop here for a spot of lunch and take a look around. After lunch, continue walking along the wall taking in the spectacular sites of Fell End, Sunny Rigg, Great Chester, and eventually Steel Rigg. Return to the Lakes via Alston, England’s highest market town. Stop for a and view the Cumbrian Mountains from Hartside Pass. The tour also includes a visit to the Roman army museum.
- A tour with only perfect reviews. The tour has only limited availability so book well ahead.
- Transport in a mini-coach
- Admission to the Roman Army Museum and Vindolanda
- Children under 5 are unfortunately not permitted on this tour.
If you are lucky enough to be on holiday in Edinburgh, this is undoubtedly the best Hadrian’s wall and Hadrian’s Wall walking tour you can do! It has only perfect reviews. This is because the tour has been intelligently designed – it sees the very best and most beautiful parts of this wild and beautiful part of the world and gives you time at multiple sections of the wall that most people don’t see on their quick visits to Hadrian’s Wall.
This day tour from Edinburgh gives you a little bit of everything with several walks along the wall, scenic drives through the countryside and stops at Roman settlements.
Travel in a comfortable minibus with a group of like-minded explorers to the Scottish Borders, stopping off at the beautiful market town of Jedburgh. Its Augustinian Abbey has to be sen to be believed and you walk to the Abbey as part of the tour. You will pass through Carter Bar, which was the crossing point between Scotland and England and has formed the border between the countries for 700 years.
Afterward, you can explore along Hadrians’ Wall and take a photo at the famous Steel Rigg site section of the Wall.
The Tour continues past the Steel Rigg Hadrian’s Wall section, following the route of Hadrian’s Wall to Birdoswald Fort. There is time to then walk further sections of the Wall.
What a day!
- This is understandably a best selling tour of very high quality that sells out quickly.
- See Roman Dere Street, Jedburgh Augustinian Abbey, Lanercost, Moffat, Birdoswald Fort, the Cheviot, and Galloway Hills.
- An 11-hour tour with free cancellation up to 48 hours in advance. The tour returns at 7 pm and departs from Rabbie’s Cafe in Waterloo Place.
This tour has a maximum of 16 people per tour. It is a highly-rated tour that explores Scotland’s storied past and uncovers the mysteries that surround the Wall.
You will hear stories of the Holy Grail which may have been kept at Rosslyn Chapel, as well follow in the footsteps of your ancestors as you cross the ancient border between England and Scotland. Visit Melrose, Rosslyn Chapel and Hadrian’s Wall at Housteads Fort.
- This is a best selling tour of high quality. Admissions fees are not included.
- The tour leaves from Edinburgh by mini-coach and crosses the border at Carter Bar
- The tour visits Hadrian’s Wall at Housteads Roman Fort.
Links and Further Information
- There are so many incredible things to see and experience in the UK! See the best things to do with Get Your Guide here
- Whilst you are in Northern England you must stop by the largest angel statue in the world and Britain’s largest sculpture. See why you must visit the Angel of the North here. This post includes the best hotels in Newcastle City as well as the best hotels next to the Angel of the North.
- See also this interesting round-up by travel writers of the 12 Best Cultural and Historical Places in England to Visit
- To help plan your next trip to Europe, browse all of my Europe articles here
- More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page
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