Exploring Hadrian’s Wall

It’s confession time. Although I’ve been a history geek for as long as I can remember, I’d never been to Hadrian’s Wall until last month. We’d decided to head up to Scotland for a couple of weeks camping and thought it would get us off nicely if we started with a few days exploring Hadrian’s Wall.

Not being much of a Roman history aficionado, I’d rather assumed that exploring the Wall would be a bit like searching in fields for the odd piece of stone or curious shaped ditches. Also, having left our holiday plans to THE VERY LAST MOMENT – are we the only ones? – I hadn’t had time to do any research.

Incredible views from Housesteads

So imagine my surprise on day one of our expedition, to arrive at Housesteads Roman Fort and discover – A MASSIVE ROMAN FORT. Sorry, I’ll stop with the capitals now, but you’ll understand that I was really very surprised. It wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind.

My previous experience of Roman ruins hadn’t prepared me for the sheer scale of the remains. And having walked up the hill to the Fort itself, from the Visitor Centre, I was

Under floor heating Roman style

even more amazed to find that you can still see great sections of the Wall.

We spent ages there. There’s so much still intact, it fires up your imagination – and the landscape in that part of the Wall is truly dramatic.

Eventually pulling ourselves away, we went on to Chesters Roman Fort. Having learned all about fort layouts at Housesteads, we were beginning to get the hang of it by the time we started exploring Chesters.

Riverside Chesters

This one has a different character. More bucolic. A little more manicured? But still fascinating, with a quirky museum and a grand river on site. It also has a cafe, which did good ice-creams, although I doubt they were Italian.

Spent the evening sheltering from the rain in The Black Bull in Haltwhistle. A cosy pub, with excellent beer and 277 horse brasses on the walls and beams (well that’s what the daughters counted – might not be entirely accurate). We had steamed sponge pudding and custard – who could ask for more.

The weather decided to celebrate our arrival in the area by showing us just how bad it could be. The tents stayed up – miracle, but we were pretty constantly worried about them. The gale force winds were accompanied by a lot of rain which meant that day two was spent almost entirely dressed in full waterproofs.

Nevertheless, we visited Birdoswald Fort – we were getting very good at working out the various buildings by now – it was very wet underfoot, makes you wonder what the poor Roman soldiers made of the place. Different again from the character of the other forts, it felt a bit dour to me, but in that weather even Disney would have had a difficult job. It does have a good exhibition which helps you get your bearings.

As the weather was so atrocious, the husband suggested we go to the Roman Army Museum, which is indoors to get out of the rain. We bought tickets which also give you entry to Vindolanda – a few miles further along the road.

I had been fairly unenthusiastic about the Roman Army Museum, but once we got inside, I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s been put together with lots of thought, and is a very good way to help children of all ages, understand more about the Wall and the people who lived in the area. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone visiting the Wall because it’s a very visual way to get your bearings.

A reconstructed wooden tower at Vindolanda

Eventually we went on to Vindolanda, which was also fantastic. The excavations are interesting, but the museum is fantastic, and of course you get to read the Vindolanda tablets. I fell in love with a little piece of Roman glass with a Gladiator on it.

After two full days immersed in Roman history, we felt very much better informed than we had been at the beginning of the week. We didn’t have time to get to know the rest of the area, it’s definitely a place I’d like to go back to. Hadrian’s Wall could probably keep you entertained for weeks – it would be wonderful to walk the length, but I’d hope for much better weather, and my heart goes out to the few brave souls we saw who were doing just that.

 

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