Hadrian’s Wall

Sinuous course of Hadrian’s Wall running along the top of Walltown Crags
HADRIAN’S WALL – My personal artistic interpretations of the first Hadrianic turf and later stone-built Wall (southern aspect).

Hadrian’s Wall and the curious walker

For the last thirty years I have repeatedly been drawn to explore and describe Hadrian’s Wall and its greater cultural setting. Over the years primarily my writing, photography and graphic art has been directed to the creation of practical walking guides, more recently to the mountain landscapes of Cumbria. But Hadrian’s Wall has long had a special fascination, founded on my own interest in frontiers which can be traced back to when I prepared the first ever practical walking guide to Offa’s Dyke Path in the early 1970s. So when invited in 1991 to realise the same for Hadrian’s Wall by my publisher Cicerone I was excited. A frontier from the classical age enigmatically cast coast to coast across the northern neck of England, the Tyne/Solway isthmus. This was a dozen years before the National Trial was opened. I was able to witness quiet passages of curious walkers where now there is an almost ceaseless intensity of trail walkers. An intensity perhaps only matched when it was a living Roman frontier! 

Invited to prepare a guide tracking the course of the Wall frontier back in 1991 I began with next to no knowledge of the landscape and soon got the antiquarian’s bug, in my search for a largely ‘lost’ Wall. The frontier stretched out enigmatically across a landscape redolent with at least 1900-years of human life coping with a damp chilly climate. An interface of history part pastoral, part industrial. Shielding hints of troubled times as a fierce borderland. One soon grasps that for all the Romans left a major monument far more fascinating was the succeeding landscape. That said the presence of a good three hundred years of Roman history lends the area a uniquely important place in the culture of Britain.

Strictly the justification for the creation of a National Trail is to nurture a tourist economy where previously there was little or none. This is why the Pennine Way came into being. Hadrian’s Wall has been a destination for as long as heritage tourism has existed and has never needed boosting. Of far greater concern the welfare of the monument itself. Yet in 2003 Hadrian’s Wall Path was inaugurated and has continued to attract a strong flow of long and short distance walkers precisely because it is waymarked intimate to the Roman Wall and is constantly given high-profile publicity.

Yet I have long been of the opinion that the creation of a waymarked coast-to-coast route was difficult to square with the long-term care of the monument. Inevitably it has attracted people who swam upon a promoted trail. But that is not the same as nurturing a desire to know and try to understand what can be seen. Energy needs to be directed to steer visitors to appreciate the unique qualities of the region. To engage physically with it and to draw lasting value from their time gently rambling in a landscape that contains multiple layers of human influence.

My own Wall Walk guide was published a decade before. Yet it was only once the National Trail came into being that the walking visitor numbers exploded. My reaction was to create new Roman-themed routes guides away from the immediate vicinity of the mural frontier, including circular walks in the countryside to north and south in a bid to introduce curious visitors to the wider heritage setting. But without official status and marketing they had little or no impact.

Future attention needs to turn to elevate the concept of Hadrian’s Wall as part of monumental landscape, reflecting how the frontier functioned, with supportive network of roads, forts, administrative and civil settlements. Thereby widening the vision of the region in context with this the most important landscape statement of classical history in Britain. Initiating a broad conservation corridor approach creating lateral east/west connections to the north and south of the strict line of the Wall to facilitate these aims and to open a greater appreciation of the area. Other walking journeys should be cultivated on a great range of themes and defined circular trails to link communities and other sites and heritage features to convey the deeper chronological history of the wide region.

Published works: The Wall Walk (1993), Wall Country Walks (1996), Spirit of Hadrian’s Wall (2008) Walking Hadrian’s Wall Path 2004, 2015, 2021 Cicerone Press Ltd; The Roman Ring 2006 (Shepherd’s Walks); Hadrian’s High Way 2017 (RJ Nicholls). Currently piecemeal working with Walks Around Britain on a set of five half-hour films for TV /video walking Hadrian’s Wall Path from Bowness to Wallsend. My co-presenter is Catherine Jarvis of handyhistory.co.uk, this series will be ready for 2022 to coincide with the 1900th anniversary of Emperor Hadrian’s only known visit to the province of Britannia. I am also developing The Heritage Hikers as a series of podcasts with videos walking through historic landscapes of northern England.