Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most impressive ancient monuments in Britain. It was once the northern frontier of the mighty Roman Empire and covers 84 miles of rugged countryside from Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria to Wallsend on Tyneside.
Today this is spectacular walking country, whether you’re a serious walker or a casual visitor looking for a gentle trek across its ruins and fortifications.
Earlier this month I dusted down my walking boots and headed to Steel Rigg, my favourite spot, for a circular walk which was both bracing and breathtaking.
Four seasons in one day
The classic Steel Rigg route is one of the best for taking in the wall in just a few hours. Start your trip at the Steel Rigg car park and head through the wicket gate along the route of the wall eastwards.
I’d come well prepared for the weather. ‘Layering’ is what you need when visiting the wall at pretty much any time of the year. It’s common to experience four seasons in one day.
My Canadian colleagues, Anne-Marie and Pierre, are used to the harsh winters of Quebec, but even they were feeling the chill factor, despite being equipped for the changeable British weather.
After an all-too-brief sunburst, the sky turned ominously dark. it was only a matter of minutes before we were running back to the car for hats, gloves and waterproofs. Better to be prepared than stuck in a downpour.
Then the sun broke through the skies, the temperature soared and the light rippled across the landscape as we started the walk along the ridge.
It’s a short climb from the main footpath up a paved path to the top of the walk at Peel Crags, but I still felt like a mountain goat as we made our ascent.
It’s easy-going if you’re relatively fit but still requires a quick burst of energy, if you’re a couch potato for most of your week.
I kept imagining the Roman soldiers patrolling the wall in all kinds of weather in ancient times. During the cold and harsh winters this exposed location must have felt a very long way from their homes in the sunny Mediterranean.
World Heritage site
Built by the Romans between AD 122 and AD 130, Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage site and it’s top of most visitors’ tour schedules in the north of England – for good reason.
Along its route you’ll see fortresses, milecastles, ruined garrisons and turrets in a rural landscape that has changed little over the centuries.
It’s remarkable to think that the Wall was built in just six years by three legions, totalling around 15,000 men.
The Steel Rigg section is one of the best circular walks if you only have a few hours to spare – and the terrain is relatively easy for the average walker.
It can be combined with a visit to nearby Housesteads Roman site, set in a spectacular location , if you want to extend your visit to take in a full day.
The route of the circular walk is easy to follow but it’s worth taking an Ordnance Survey map with you or checking the route on the National Trust website.
For the short route (four miles), take the path along the impressive Whin Sill and then turn in at the farm near Crag Lough, a lovely glacial lake, which shimmers on the horizon.
Alternatively, extend your route by continuing along the wall to Bromley Lough before returning along the farmland below the wall. We chose the former as the weather took a turn for the worse – and we were keen to eat our picnic in a sheltered spot.
One of the highlights of the route is the iconic Sycamore Gap, a dip in the landscape with a perfectly shaped tree. Below it, there are some interesting Roman remains.
Today it is known as ‘Robin Hood’s tree’ following its appearance in the ‘Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves’ film with Kevin Costner.
Head through the woods above Crag Lough and continue along the wall, taking in the views and scenery. Then drop down to the Hotbank Farm track below the wall to return on the circular leg of the route.
Follow your nose as you run parallel to Hadrian’s Wall and admire an alternative view of the Whin Sill from ground level.
As we walked along the fields, the weather started to turn colder and drizzly so we decided got take cover and eat our picnic lunch.
Luckily, the rain help off and we were able to enjoy our posh deli delights from Waitrose, washed down with lashings of locally produced Fentimans Rose Lemonade.
The sun popped out again as we were mid-picnic, providing a glorious opportunity to have an extended lunch break without the sandwiches getting soggy.
Refreshed, we moved off on the final section of the walk, and the weather started to blow up a storm. A misty, murky veil dropped over the landscape, making it look like Dartmoor on a drab day.
I can only try to guess what Roman soldiers would have written home about this changeable and murky weather.
On the return route, there were great views of Sycamore Gap from a very different angle – and I wasted a lot of time trying to capture the perfect photo – but to no avail.
By now, the weather was looking bleaker by the second – and the waterproofs were deployed for the first time on the trip.
I was glad that we hadn’t left them in the car because by now even the sheep and their lambs were diving for cover from the hammering rain.
A tiny lamb cowered by a stone wall, taking shelter from the storm with its mother. I was tempted to hunker down with it, but decided to press on against the force of the wind.
As hail stones and then snow came down, we speeded up but not before even the Canadians confessed to it being a bit on the freezing side.
In our attempt to hurry back, Pierre almost landed in a giant puddle face first, whilst I narrowly avoided a dunking in a swampy patch of farmer’s field.
It’s funny but the slogan on the Northumberland National Park website kept ringing in my ears – “Hadrian’s Wall – breathtaking whatever the season”.
The description was bang-on, but perhaps it should have mentioned that we might easily get ‘four seasons in one day’ on the Wall.
Despite everything that the weather had thrown at us, this had been a great walk. As we arrived back at the car park, the sun beamed down on us again, proving that Hadrian’s Wall Country is a rugged yet stunningly beautiful place.
This iconic location is one you keep on having to come back to… whatever the season and weather.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall is located in the north of England on the border between Northumberland, Cumbria and Scotland. It’s about 40 minutes drive from Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Steel Rigg walk starts from the car park (signposted Steel Rigg) west of Housesteads – take the signposted turn-off the Roman Military Road (B6318).
The new Northumberland National Park Visitor Centre is currently being built over the road from Steel Rigg and should be open in the near future.
If you’re planning to walk the whole wall you’ll need around 5-8 days to complete the journey depending where you start. There’s plenty of advice online for potential walkers. It’s 84 miles long so break your journey into smaller sections.
Don’t forget to take clothing that works for all weather. Layers and walking boots are strongly recommended – plus a picnic lunch and plenty of drinking water. The nearest pub is the delightfully-named Twice Brewed.
Decide on your itinerary – Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda are also good places to visit during your journey back in time.