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Winding through the wild and windswept Northumberland countryside, Hadrian's Wall is Britain's most important Roman relic. It once formed the northern frontier of the Roman Empire—its most remote outpost and first line of defense against raiders from the north. Even today, as a ruin, the wall is an awe-inspiring structure.
One of the most surprising things about visiting the 73-mi-long wall is its openness and accessibility. Although many of the best-preserved sections are within managed tourist sites, Hadrian's Wall is also part of the landscape, cutting through open countryside. Signposted trails along the entire route allow you to hike or cycle along most of the wall for free. The area around the wall is also rich in archaeological treasures that paint a picture of a thriving, multicultural community. The soldiers and their families who were stationed here came from as far away as Spain and North Africa, and recent discoveries provide insight into their daily lives. Artifacts displayed at the wall's museums provide fascinating perspective.
Postcards from the Past
"Oh, how much I want you at my birthday party. You'll make the day so much more fun. Good-bye, sister, my dearest soul."
"I have sent you two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants. Greet all your messmates, with whom I pray you live in the greatest good fortune."
Seeing the Wall's Highlights
Hadrian's Wall has a handful of Roman-era forts, the best of which are concentrated near Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Chesters. Housesteads is the most complete, although getting there involves a quarter-mile walk up a hill; Chesters and Vindolanda have excellent museums. The separate Roman Army Museum near Greenhead offers a good overview of the wall's history and is very near one of the best sections in open countryside, at Walltown Crags.
When to Go
The best time to visit is midsummer, when the long hours of daylight allow time to see a few of the wall's major attractions and fit in a short hike on the same day. Winter brings icy winds; not all the forts and museums stay open, but those that do can be all but deserted. The weather can change suddenly at any time of year, so always bring warm clothes.
Getting Around by Car or Bus
The tiny, winding B6318 road passes within a stone's throw of most of the forts. It's a true back-road, so don't expect to get anywhere fast. Public transport is limited; the special AD 122 bus covers the highlights (but only during summer), and local buses 10, 185, 602, and 681 follow parts of the same route.
Exploring by Foot or Bike
Hadrian's Wall Path meanders along the wall's entire length; it's a seven-day hike. Joining it for a mile or so is a great way to see the wall and stunning scenery. Try the section around Walltown, or at Corbridge where the path goes by the remains of a Roman garrison town. Hadrian's Cycleway, for bicyclists, follows roughly the same route.
The wall is accessible but vulnerable. Don't climb on it, and never break off or remove anything. In muddy weather you're encouraged not to stand directly next to the wall, as over time this can make the soil unstable.
55 BC Julius Caesar invades what is now southern England, but does not stay. He names the island Britannia.
AD 41-50 Full-scale invasion. The Romans establish fortified towns across the south, including London.
75-79 The conquest of northern England is completed—but the Romans fail to take Caledonia (Scotland).
122 Emperor Hadrian orders the construction of a defensive wall along the territory's northern border.
208 After the Romans make another disastrous attempt to invade Caledonia, Hadrian's Wall is expanded.
410 The Romans leave Britain. Local tribes maintain the wall for at least a century.
1700s Stones from the ruined wall are plundered for road building.
1830s Local philanthropist John Clayton buys land around the wall to save it from further destruction.
1973 First Vindolanda tablets are found.
1987 Hadrian's Wall becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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