For someone who finds herself drawn to Roman sites, Hadrian’s Wall and I were tardy in getting acquainted. The Romans have drifted in and out of my life since I was a child growing up close to the old Roman town of Verulamium, better known now as St Albans in Hertfordshire. As an adult, I’ve visited many wonderful remains in France, Italy and Turkey, but didn’t set foot beside Hadrian’s wonder wall until three years ago. I’ve longed to explore in more depth ever since.
Enter Ramblers Walking Holidays who offer a week-long itinerary across the summer months (£815 in 2015). Starting just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, their Hadrian’s Wall National Trail holiday covers around 66 miles to the wall’s most easterly point at Bowness-on-Solway.
Ramblers grade the itinerary as ‘moderate D/D+’, so if you’re reasonably fit, the walking shouldn’t present a problem. Much of it is along undulating farm tracks and moorland footpaths with a day and a half of steeper crags in the middle around Housesteads and Vindolanda – the iconic picture-postcard view as the wall clings to the edge of Whinsill. Walking boots are a must and I’d recommend a walking pole to help negotiate the sections of stone steps or grassy banks, especially if wet.
Weather is always a variable here. During early summer temperatures in the early 30s, I found myself fervently hoping for cooler weather in time for the walk. But be careful what you wish for! In mid-July, the daily temperature ranged from 14-17 degrees, and whilst we only got seriously wet on one afternoon, you do need to pack everything from sun cream to waterproof trousers and a jumper in your rucksack.
Walking from east to west means that if it’s breezy, you are usually walking into the wind, but hey, this is the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and moody weather goes with the landscape, so just zip up and enjoy those panoramic views. Along the crags, you’re treated to miles of nothing looking north towards Scotland and again south to the Pennines, and as you drop down towards Carlisle, a vista of Lakeland peaks comes into view across rolling farmland dotted with sheep and cattle. It is all utterly glorious, even beneath glowering skies.
And although you’d be wise to carry your waterproofs, you don’t have to carry anything else. Unlike the soldiers from across the Empire, stationed at mile castles, turrets and forts along Hadrian’s Wall, guests of Ramblers Countrywide Holidays are garrisoned in two very comfortable hotels.
First four nights are at The Battlesteads Hotel at Wark on Tyne, just a short drive north of Hexham. Owners Dee and Richard have won numerous awards for eco-friendly practices that include a biomass boiler and huge revolving solar dish. There’s even a Dark Sky observatory with visiting astronomer.
The food at Battlesteads is exceptionally good with a wide choice of home-made dishes and the rooms comfortable and mostly spacious. If you really want to pamper yourself, upgrade to one of the brand new chalet rooms for the luxury of Jacuzzi bath, fluffy dressing gowns, mini fridge, and your own decking terrace. And if you’re visiting independently and need disabled access, ask about wheelchair-friendly rooms.
The last three nights are at The Crown & Mitre Hotel in Carlisle, a large Edwardian property sandwiched between the pedestrianised town centre and Cathedral close, so traffic-free and blissfully quiet at night. Food is plentiful and well presented, and there’s a small indoor pool for those who like a dip before dinner. Each day, a coach transports walkers to the start of the day’s walk, and back to the hotel afterwards. Clients travelling in their own cars simply follow the coach on changeover day and leave their vehicles in a public car park near the Roman Army Museum till the end of the walk when the coach brings them back.
Any group activity can be more or less enjoyable according to the personality and knowledge of the tour leader. We were very lucky in Liam Newell who struck the right balance of friend and leader, and who knew exactly where to go for answers to our questions if he didn’t already know them. But he usually did, a mine of information on a wall completed in AD 128 after just six years of construction work.
We were lucky too with the mix of walkers. Average age? Probably 62/3 without getting very personal and asking outright, but between 40-ish and early 70s. There were several single ladies including a lovely Australian tacking a week’s walking onto a business trip; several married couples, some of whom had done many trips with Ramblers Walking Holidays; and a couple of ladies like me who had left their husbands at home to go walking with a friend.
The package does not include transport to Wark from home or back from Carlisle. Some took the train; others drove. Packed lunches can be bought at Wark or provisions in Carlisle centre. The itinerary includes time to visit Chesters Fort (English Heritage), renowned for its riverside bath house; Housesteads Fort (EH and National Trust), famous for its communal latrines (Roman not modern!); the Roman Army Museum with its excellent 3D film, Edge of Empire; and Birdoswald Fort (EH).
A group of us also elected to miss the last bit of the crags walk in favour of visiting Vindolanda to see the ongoing excavations, famous tablets (earliest examples of Roman handwritten letters), and collection of amazing leather shoes. Spine-tingling stuff. Entry fees to all sites are extra unless you are a member of EH or NT; Vindolanda and the RAM are owned by the Vindolanda Trust and a double ticket costs around £10.
On the last couple of days, you lose the wall, in as much as the stone has long since been recycled into local buildings, but a sign beside the Solway Firth marks the end of where it once stood. It’s a symbolic finale to an incredible feat of ancient engineering and one of the most satisfying and informative walks I have undertaken so far. Highly recommended to anyone who loves history, heritage and the great outdoors with a generous dose of end-of-the-day comfort.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays