A ragged mist swallows the rolling hills and checkerboard farmland ahead of me. An icy wind whips at the hood of my jacket. I'm alone today, a solitary hiker following in the footsteps of history, and this is just what I came for: a bleak and breezy walk along the ruined skeleton of England's most impressive ancient monument.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the north of Britain walled off to keep the advancing "barbarians" at bay. It took him six years and more than a million cubic meters of stone to do it, but by 128 AD his 70-mile barrier loomed defiantly over the undulating hills of Northumberland—and Hadrian's Wall, the largest ancient structure in all of Northern Europe, was born.
It was, in nearly every sense, the Roman equivalent of China's Great Wall. At the height of Rome's power, the wall stood an imposing 15 feet high and 10 feet thick. It housed as many as 17,000 legionnaires and bristled with forts and watchtowers every third of a mile. And its goal was simple: Keep the northern savages from advancing into the south.
Day hikes along the wall
Though Hadrian's Wall has stood for nearly two millennia, the actual way-marked long-distance path (LDP) that shares its name has only been a recognized national trail since 2003. The official trail spans 84 miles and runs east to west from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway, providing a coast-to-coast tour of the wild and empty landscape of Northern England. But there are ample accommodations and easy day hikes for those who just want a taste, as well.
I used the youth hostel in the tiny town of Once Brewed as my base of operations and explored the wall over a series of several long day hikes. Once Brewed is about a mile's walk from the most spectacular section of the wall, which starts with the well-preserved remains of the Roman fort at Housesteads and ripples for miles along a barren ridge known as the Whinshield Crags until it reaches an equally remote stretch of hills called the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall. All told, this section of the wall spans about 10 to 12 miles and is perfect for a long day hike.
Damian Parker, who runs the youth hostel at Once Brewed, estimates that about 10,000 visitors pass through Once Brewed each year on their way to explore the wall—and not just students, either. "Our guests are an even split of young families, backpackers, and individual walkers and cyclists," says Parker. "A lot of people think hostels are just for the young, but this is not the case. We have a large body of adult guests from all over the world, and it is this mix of families and different people that makes a stay at a youth hostel a great experience."
The accommodations are simple but clean, and start at just £14 a night (about $27; see XE.com for current exchange rates). During my stay at the hostel, I had breakfast with a mother and daughter from Kent, dinner with a girl from Finland, and shared half a day's walk with a fellow hiker on break from Oxford. I find hostels particularly welcoming when you're traveling on your own.
If you have the time and motivation to walk the full length of the wall, the official national trails website is a valuable resource for planning your own trip. The accompanying Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail Guide (£12.99, Aurum Press) is an essential read.
Many travelers, though, prefer to let someone else handle the particulars like luggage transfers and booking accommodations. For those who fall into that category, there are a host of self-guided walking tours and luggage services that cover all or part of the official path.
"The major advantage of booking a self-guided tour is that everything is organized for you," says Mark Townsend, Managing Director and co-founder of Contours Walking Holidays, which offers a five-night self-guided trip for as little as £250. "All you have to do is turn up and enjoy your walk. You don't have to spend hours researching a suitable itinerary, finding and booking accommodation, arranging the transfer of your luggage between your overnights, or researching how to get to the start of the trail and back from the end of it."
"Travelers can start the walk on any day to suit them and they can travel at their own pace," says Alan Robertshaw of Discovery Travel, whose seven-night self-guided walking holidays start at £385. "Every evening their accommodation and luggage is waiting for them and there is always somewhere where they can buy an evening meal. If there are any problems we are only a telephone call away to sort things out."
It takes about a week to walk the full length of the path at a gentle pace, and the trail is well marked and easy to follow. The biggest drawback to this accessibility, of course, is the throng of casual hikers who crowd the trail during the peak walking season.
"It's busiest in July and August," says Robertshaw. "May, June, and September are quieter and the weather is often very pleasant."
If you can stomach more "authentic" British weather (read: cold and gray), April and October are even better. "There are fewer people around and the weather is often quite changeable," notes Townsend. "It makes the walk so much more atmospheric."
"There's a real sense of remoteness," agrees Robertshaw. "You really feel you are on the border of an ancient empire."
Today the legendary wall lies in ruins, but the mythical landscape it guarded retains a sacred, almost timeless connection to the past. Forts and temples, mileposts and ancient roads—these relics of the past are still scattered throughout this remote region of England, while along the ruined wall stray sheep now graze the hills where Roman legionnaires once walked.
Yet on those days when the weather is just right and the trail is hauntingly empty, it takes only a small leap of imagination to transport yourself back in time to an era when Rome still ruled the world.