04 APR 2019: The year was 55 BCE. The place was Rome. The protagonist was one Gaius Julius Caesar. And in the summer of that year, Caesar turned his gaze northwards upon an island, reported to be inhabited by barbarians. And Caesar wanted these uncivilized people to be subjugated to the rule and system of Rome. The era of Roman Britain was about to begin.

Over the ensuing centuries battles were lost and won, London (then Londinium, a mere wooden trading post) was first recorded in literature and Britons slowly adapted to and adopted Roman ways. There was culture and learning and peace. Towns were designed, roads and walls were built and the ‘Roman way’ spread. This was not to last, but Romans made a distinctive mark upon Britain that is still visible today, from the Roman walls of London to forts and ancient roads across England. And then there’s the most famous remnant of all: Hadrian’s Wall, an epic World Heritage Site that stretches from coast to coast across northern England.

Travellers of today need no excuse to journey to northern England, and especially to the beautiful region known as the Lake District. The names are familiar and beautiful: Ullswater, Grasmere and Windermere. There are literary connections: Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter were inspired by this lovely land. In addition to the lakes there are rolling hills and charming villages. And then, just a short distance to the north, stands the great Wall as well as interesting museums celebrating the region’s Roman times.

Hadrian’s Wall is also called the Roman Wall, Picts' Wall, or Vallum Hadriani in Latin.

It was originally a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in AD 122 in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It was the northern frontier of the mighty empire that covered what was then the known world. Its purpose was to protect Roman Britain from the warring Picts tribes in Scotland and it performed that task for about three centuries. It was built by a force of about 15,000 men in under six years; displaying the vision and engineering skills of the Romans.

And it wasn’t merely a wall. Along its length, where around 800 soldiers were stationed, there were forts and barracks, ramparts and turrets, shrines, toilets and bath houses, all combining to create vibrant frontier communities across England.

Today this epic World Heritage Site stretches approximately 73 miles across Cumbria and Northumberland from sea to sea, from Browness-on-Solway in the west to appropriately- named Wallsend near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the east.

It traverses some of the wildest and most spectacular and dramatic countryside in England, abundant in wildlife. Locals love to walk here regularly, while others come from around the world to visit the various sites or to make a walk-and-stay vehicle-supported vacation along sections or along the whole route. Covering the total route, which varies somewhat according to difficulty of hiking (and whether one opts to exclude busy Newcastle) can be up to 84 miles. It is a challenge taken up by many and it provides a wonderful vacation for the active. The trail is open all year with, naturally, the months between May and October being the most pleasant.

Much as I wish I could, I cannot claim to have done this walk. But thanks to good friends who live in the Lake District (one of whom is a historian) I have been taken to explore much of the area and seen many highlights - sections of the wall in spectacular locations and also to museums and archaeological sites.

The one of the wall’s most dramatic sites is at Housesteads. From this strategic highpoint visitors can see the wall snaking into the distance over Northumberland National Park. Another aptly-named location is picturesque Heddon-on-the-Wall, where the wall is nearly two metres thick in places. The picturesque village marks the journey’s end for many walkers as urban Newcastle begins to encroach some miles to the east. On the eastern side of the River Irthing lie the remains of the bridge that once carried Hadrian’s Wall across the water.

Funds from the Millennium Fund were used at the turn of the century to re-connect the route, creating the Millennium Bridge which takes walkers over the Northumberland-Cumbria border.

And then, for those non-walking days, there are the museums. Quite a number of them, in fact. Close to Housesteads visitors will find one of the region’s major Roman museums. Run by the Vindolanda Trust (who also run the Roman Army Museum at Hexham) and known simply as Vindolando, this museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a Roman garrison town. On display are well-preserved leather sandals, Roman helmets, fascinating writing tablets and jewellery. The excavated site also includes parts of the fort and town, and reconstructed turrets and temples. And of special interest is the fact that this is still an active archaeological site … while watching you may be lucky and actually see something dug up! And if the artefacts are too fragile to display (as in the case of some of the written tablets) there’s an excellent video describing their discovery and preservation.

Another attraction worth visiting is the Roman Army Museum at Hexham, close to one of the most spectacular stretches of the wall.

In addition to displaying genuine Roman artefacts such as weapons and tools, this museum illustrates what life was like here on this northern edge of the Roman Empire with colourful displays and excellent audio-visual aides and computer graphics.

The invitation on their website says: “Step into the life of a Roman soldier and experience life on the front line of Emperor Hadrian’s formidable British frontier. Explored through reconstructions, objects excavated along Hadrian's Wall and the Vindolanda Trust’s inspiring interpretations of army life including the exclusive 3D Edge of Empire film, the museum pays unforgettable homage to Rome's military accomplishments in Britain.”

If you have young people in tow this is the museum that will grab their interest.

On my wish list for my next visit to the region is the Stenhouse Roman Museum which I’ve read is dramatically situated on cliffs overlooking the Solway Firth in Cumbria, far to the west. This museum displays the largest group of Roman military altar stones and inscriptions from any site in Britain and unique examples of Romano-British religious sculpture.

The collection, which was begun by the Stenhouse family in the 1570s, is the oldest in the country, and is of international importance. Visitors should try to choose a clear day for a visit, for in the museum grounds there’s an observation tower. This can be climbed for a clear view of the site, which a recent geophysical survey has revealed to have been one of the largest and best preserved in the north.

This is a region to stir the imagination, whether in museums or archaeological sites or deep in the region’s spectacular scenery. For it was here, long ago, that Romans built their homes and defences, lived and worshipped, and defended England.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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