CARLISLE, England — Hadrian's Wall continues to draw legions of visitors, with many sections of this ancient monument still standing as a testimonial to Roman engineering skills.
We took in the wall (as well as several museums) on a day trip from Carlisle, 270 miles northwest of London.
Originally we'd planned to view the wall from the motorway en route to Edinburgh. But when I casually mentioned this to the proprietor of the bed and breakfast where we stayed (101 Warwick Road, Carlisle), he was horrified. Albert Shaw and his wife, Janet, are both teachers, just returned from a five-year stay in Zambia. But they are natives of Carlisle and justifiably proud of "their" wall. Albert often led tours to the wall that Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered built and manned to keep out the Picts to the north.
"You must go to the wall to see it properly," he insisted, "and be sure to visit Vindolanda." He gave us a map of the central section of the wall, with several names of forts and settlements underlined.
Ten miles east of Carlisle begins a 15-mile stretch of mostly visible wall, 10 feet wide and 15 feet high. It is dotted by four museums, two tourist information centers and five partially excavated Roman forts. The truly dedicated can visit them all for an immersion course in England's Roman period. For the less enthusiastic, two or three stops will do.
Small forts, the mile castles, were built on the wall every Roman mile (1,620 yards). These were reinforced by 17 larger forts on the wall. Of these 17, the ones at Birdoswald, Housesteads and Chesters have been partly restored.
The excavated forts at Birdoswald and Housesteads have the finest views of the wall. It dominates the verdant hills, marking the northern boundary of the Roman occupation.
Sheep graze in pastures on both sides of the wall built by Emperor Hadrian's order nearly 2,000 years ago. More than a million cubic feet of stone were quarried to build the wall, forts, mile castles and turrets. It was guarded for more than 250 years by as many as 16,000 men.
Gazing from the fort at House-steads to the flock of sheep below, a rancher from Nevada commented wryly, "It's a sheepherder's dream. No coyotes, and I bet they don't have to do much fence-mending on this side."
Housesteaders has a Tourist Information Center as well as a small museum. Stone deities on display in the museum are predominantly female, goddesses of love, fertility and the hearth, rather than gods of war. Housesteads is the most extensively excavated Roman fort in Britain. It is also popular, so plan an early visit to avoid the crowds if you go in summer.
Chesters has the best Roman cavalry fort. Visitors can still see the headquarters, commanding officer's house, gateways, towers and bathhouse. It also has a museum with inscribed stones and statues.
Carvaron's fort was demolished in the 19th Century. It remains only in fences, barns and homes scattered throughout the district. There is, however, a Museum of the Roman Army, opened in 1981, which has many reconstructed scenes of life along Hadrian's Wall.
If you are interested in a hike along the wall, this is one of the best places to do it. From Carvaron to Milecastle 42 at Cawfields is a three-mile walk. The wall is complete for nearly the whole distance. Carvaron and Cawfields have large parking lots and Cawfields has a good picnic area.
Remains of Roman Fort
About 40 miles east of Carlisle is Corbridge, where there are the remains of a Roman fort several miles south of the wall, which grew into a town. It furnished supplies for the auxiliaries guarding the wall and has the best-preserved Roman granaries. There is also a small museum with artifacts from the site.
The wall was built by legionnaires from Rome but was guarded for most of its 250-year active history by auxiliaries made up of conquered European tribes allied with Rome. After 25 years of service, an auxiliary was granted Roman citizenship. New archeological evidence shows that some Roman families also settled near the wall.
If you continue east to Newcastle upon Tyne you may visit the Museum of Antiquities at the university. It has an excellent Roman collection, including three altars from a Temple of Mithras from the fort at Brocoletia on the wall just west of Chesters.
Newcastle is also near the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall, but little of the wall is visible east of Chesters.
For another angle on Roman life along the frontier, try a visit to Vindolanda. Not just a fort, it is a vicus, or civilian settlement as well. Vindolanda is about a mile south of the wall between the village of Once Brewed and the fort atHousesteads. (If you like quaint English names, you can also visit the village Twice Brewed nearby.)
Horse Outlined in Turf
At Vindolanda you can explore the excavated fort and village settlement. On the way in is a horse outlined in turf, with Roman Vindolanda spelled out in marigolds. The horse is a recurring symbol at Vindolanda.