Hadrian’s Wall has been many things in its long life – linear fortress, border marker, provincial boundary, casual quarry, battleground, ancient monument, tourist destination and the setting for many tales (Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’, and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘On the Wall’ spring to mind). It runs from the Roman fort of Segedunum (Wallsend) to Bowness on the Solway Firth, and is just over 73 miles long.
Brought into being by decree of the Emperor Hadrian, during his tour of Britain in 120AD, the main purpose of the wall was to prevent the northern areas of the Roman province of Britannia from being over-run by Pictish tribes from the north, and also spasmodic sea-borne attacks by Danish and Norse raiding parties, who went ‘a-viking’ when the spring brought better sea conditions for their longboats. The best known of the three wall-like fortifications built across the province of Britannia, Hadrian’s Wall had (for the most part) a rubble core and faced stone blocks to a height of some 12 feet, in places. The more northern Antonine Wall, (built c. 142AD) at the shortest distance between the east and west coasts, was a constructed of mostly earth and timber. It is a little known fact that each Roman Legion carried its own engineers, and these were quite capable of undertaking major building works, such as Hadrian’s Wall, using local stone; three Legions undertook to build the wall, and traces of their handiwork can be identified to this day. When completed, the wall stretched from the North Sea (Oceanus Germanicus) to the Irish Sea. It was fortified each Roman mile, with so-called ‘mile castles’, strong watchtowers, which could hold a detachment of fighting men, and siege engines, including ballistas, capable of firing heavy dart-like spears at any attacking force. There was a deep ditch immediately in front of the Wall, which was strewn with thorn bushes and jagged rocks to make any approach from the northern side difficult. There were also some fortifications to the south, in parts, to prevent attacks from the rear, as well as a military road behind the wall running parallel to the fortifications.
As well as the mile castles, there were major forts immediately behind the wall, like the one at Housesteads, which has been preserved (especially the bathhouses), and which has a delightful museum about the Roman occupation. A number of outlying forts, north of the wall, were intended to subdue and control the Picts, locally.
The grip of the Romans on this area waxed and waned over the centuries, and the commanders had to rely on British auxiliaries to man Hadrian’s Wall. These auxiliary units would have included both infantry and cavalry, and would have been recruited, in the main, from local Romanized British tribes. When Rome finally withdrew the last of the Legions in 410AD, the Wall ceased to have a great deal of meaning – although some historians suggest that local ‘levies’ still manned some of the forts for a time.
This view, from just north of the wall and looking west, shows the natural, basaltic outcropping, which the Legions used as the basis for their structure, wherever possible (the western half did not have easily available stone). The remains – close to the fort of Vercovicum (Housesteads) – are still impressive, despite the ravages of time, and the depredations of local farmers through the centuries, and 18th century road-builders, who regarded the wall as a great source of quarried stone. Hadrian’s Wall is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it attained that status in 1987, and is managed by English Heritage.
It might not be the Great Wall of China, but it was built for the same purpose, and it is a place where you can still feel the winds of history, blowing.
p.s. Please READ 'Eagle of the Ninth', it is infinitely better than the film, despite being originally written for teens!