As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Northumberland National Park, Jo Keeling explores Hadrian’s Wall by foot and on the AD122 bus, making sense of the geology that underpins this immense human endeavour and reimagining life on the northern edge of the Roman empire
The yellow bus skips along the B6318 – the military road that cuts a fairly straight Roman line just south of Hadrian’s Wall. To my right, walkers are silhouetted on the brow of the hill as they make their way along the 84-mile National Trail, running coast to coast from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth.
I disembark at the Twice Brewed Inn, already humming with ramblers. The origins of this pub’s name are somewhat woolly – one story links it back to Yorkist foot soldiers who demanded stronger beer on the eve of the Battle of Hexham in 1464; others refer to the way Hadrian’s Wall snakes its way along the brows (or brews) of the two hills opposite. Either way, the pub provides me with a cracking packed lunch of freshly-made sandwiches wrapped in foil, and now I'm ready to join the trail, heading east on the most dramatic section of the Wall.
Climbing up to Steel Rigg, I'm not greeted by acres of vast moorland, as I'd expected, but a wealth of colour. The light beaming down between the thick grey-blue clouds seems to coax out the richness of purple thistle heads pushing through bracken, vivid pink foxgloves and the soft violet hues of the far too delicate harebells.
Looking south from the top of the ridge are the kind of views that really mess with your sense of scale. The hills to the south ripple like shockwaves away from the Wall, the dips peppered with sheep or striped by tractors; the tops crested with dense clumps of forest like thick neat eyebrows. The ripples aren’t all as they seem: some are the ragged edges of rock layers, formed when a huge earth movement injected molten lava between horizontal beds of limestone, mudstone and sandstone 295 million years ago and titled the land so it dips to the south. Another ripple is the Vallum, an enormous man-made earthwork dug as part of the Wall’s defences, which stretches from coast to coast.
Milecastle 39 is known as Castle Nick as it sits on the nick of the hill with views over what was once the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Beyond lived the old tribes of Britain – the powerful Brigantes who refused to bow down to Roman occupation. I drop down into Sycamore Gap, well-known as the place a quick-footed Kevin Costner saves a young lad from deer hounds just a few hours after landing at Dover in Prince of Thieves (1991). It’s a photogenic spot – the perfect picture of a tree set in a neat dip between two symmetrical hills.
I continue along the path, following the grass-topped wall as skylarks ascend to either side, before cutting through tall pines as tiny goldcrests nip between branches. After three miles, I arrive at Housesteads, Britain’s most complete Roman fort. Here one can begin to imagine what life must have been like on the Roman frontier. Vercovicium, as it was known at the time, was built in AD124, two years after they started work on the Wall. Today, you can walk amongst the lichen covered stone foundations past the hospital, now taken over by weasels, to the bath house, taverns, granary and latrines. On the northern edge you’ll find the barracks where up to 800 men slept, waiting to be called upon for battle.
After another mile I drop down to the military road and wind up for the night at the Old Repeater Station, a well-loved pit stop on the National Trail. Once a telephone signal booster, this down-to-earth B&B is rather like a Tardis with five basic bedrooms offering bunks or en-suite doubles (for those who book early).
Its avuncular host Les cooks a hearty portion of lasagne for supper, before I settle down in the homely lounge and share Allendale Ales and banter with four bikers from Scunthorpe. Les, ever the raconteur, spins yarns and sips whiskey from his corner of the room. As he gets up to pour himself another drink he mutters cheekily: 'and don't anyone even think about taking my seat or there'll be hell to pay.' It would, I realise, take a Roman army to wrestle Les out of his favourite armchair.
The AD122 bus operates daily April-Sept, hourly between 9am-6pm. It connects up with buses in Hexham for onward travel to Newcastle, and with trains at Haltwhistle.
Hadrian’s Wall has its own country code called Every Footstep Counts, devised by the National Trail partnership, with tips on how visitors can help look after the Wall for future generations. Please read this before walking in the area, but most importantly you should never climb or walk on top of Hadrian’s Wall.