Walking in the green pastures and rolling hills of northern England it’s hard to imagine why the Roman empire stretched this far from Rome. But it did. In fact, by 80 AD the far reaching empire controlled not just this part of norther England but much of present day Scotland as well. Of course, with their military lines stretched so far and so thin something had to give, and as the tribes along the Danube started rising up, Rome called back troops from the other frontiers and the troops in Britain pulled back. When he came to power in 117 AD, the Emperor Hadrian knew it was time to stop expanding and work on holding the lines. He ordered a wall to be built across the width of the country from the Irish sea to the English channel. It was a grand and glorious feat of military engineering with forts, towers, watch towers, beacons and semiphore stations, and of course unbroken wall and earthen works all designed to keep the northern tribes out of “civilized” Roman territory.
Today, there’s not much left of the wall. It has been conserved through most of its length with stones up to about three or four feet high and five or six feet thick. It rolls along over gently undulating hills, through fields of wild flowers, and past bleating sheep in bright green pastures. There is a walking and biking trail that one can follow to traverse the entire length of the wall but we didn’t have time for that so we concentrated our efforts at Birdoswald, the sight of one of the main fortresses.
As with the stretches of wall we’d seen while driving, Birdoswald has little more than the stone walls forming the outline or footprint of the old fort. You can walk amongst the ruins and get a good idea of the defensive layout, storerooms, and the baths. Again, we found the vivid green grass covered with sheep (and their dropppings) but this really just added to the forgotten and lonely mood of the place. Of course, there would have been a thriving town full of casinos, wine bars, kebab stands, and brothels back in the day–everything the lonely soldier far from home would want–but now there is little more than the tea room and tiny museum with a small shop.
It’s hard to say just how effective the wall was in its day, but on the day we visited we discovered that thieves had invaded the surrounding countryside and broken into one or two cars down in the parking lot (GBP 4 per day). As with other tourist sites in the UK, it’s always good advice to take all valuables with you out of the car and make sure there is nothing at all still visible in the vehicle.
Are you a fan of Roman Ruins?
We’ve chased them all over the globe. Here are a few more you can check out: