Thursday, 25 June 2015

Housesteads & Hadrian's Wall

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Route: Housesteads, Housesteads Crags, Milecastle 37, Hotbank Crags, Highshield Crags, Sycamore Gap, Milecastle 39, Peel Crags, Winshield Crags, Winshields. Seatsides, Layside, Kit's Shield, Vindolanda, High Shield, Milecastle 38, Hotbank Crags, Housesteads

Date: 25/06/2015
From: Housesteads 

Parking: Housesteads Roman Fort
Start Point: Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicivm)
Region: Northumberland National Park

Route length: 10.3 miles (16.6 km)
Time taken: 04:10
Average speed: 2.5 mph
Ascent: 650m
Descent: 657m

Summits on this walk:
Hotbank Crags (327m), Highshield Crags (283m), Peel Crags (278m), Winshield Crags (345m)

Other points of interest: Housesteads Fort, Hadrian's Wall, Milecastle 37, Sycamore Gap, Vindolanda Fort

A walk with a slightly more historical theme for you now, with some stunning views to boot. We spent a week up in Northumberland savouring its peace and quiet while also cramming in a number of the highlights that can be found across the county. One of these is Hadrian's Wall (Vallum Aelium), the 2nd Century Roman wall built as a defensive line at the limit of the Roman Empire in Britain. The fact that it was 80 miles long is impressive enough but add to that the fact it only took six years to build and parts are still standing 2,000 years later is astounding. It is a wonderful place to explore and it is best explored on foot.

It's easy enough to do a linear walk in the summer thanks to AD122 bus that runs up and down the wall all day. However, the cost of £12 for the ticket put us off somewhat so we devised a sort of circuit that would see arguably the most impressive and intact sections of Hadrian's Wall. We parked at the National Trust visitor centre at Housesteads fort for a much more agreeable fee of £4 for the day and set off in search of some history.

Housesteads Fort (Verovicivm - the place of the effective fighters) was built shortly after the Wall to maintain a Roman force of 800 men. It is built on a high escarpment and commands a panoramic view to the north. What remains is the most complete example of a Roman Fort in the country as well as being home to one of the best preserved latrines. We followed a footpath around the edge of the fort up onto the wall and began our westwards route along the escarpments of the Whin Sill.
Housesteads Fort
Grain storage in Housesteads
The Housesteads latrines
A low flying Chinook adds some entertainment
Sewingshields Crags
The Whin Sill is a tabular layer of dolerite and is one of the key natural features of the North Pennines. Many ancient landmarks including Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne take strategic advantage of the high cliff lines that the sill forms. The best explanation is this diagram from The Geological Society.

In reality, it looks like this:
The Wall atop Housesteads Crags
This photo was taken just above Milecastle 37 and shows the most dramatic (and photographed) section of Hadrian's Wall. It is only a short distance from Housesteads Fort so, if you're visiting, I'd highly recommend it. Incidentally, the path we were following forms part of the Hadrian's Wall Path, an 84 mile coast to coast walk right along the length of the Wall.
The gate at Milecastle 37
Milecastle 37
Hotbank Crags
The Wall at Cuddy's Crags
We continued on across the top of Hotbank Crags and down to Hotbank Farm, prior to an exciting crossing of Highshield Crags to Steel Rigg. Below the crags is Crag Lough, an inland lake that was formed during the last ice age, which can be seen by looking down the near vertical crags of Highshield. Nestling in a depression between the outcrops is Sycamore Gap.
The Wall running across the top of Hotbank Crags
Crossing to Highshield Crags
Highshield Crags above Crag Lough
Highshield Crags
Crag Lough
Sycamore Gap is located at Milecastle 39 and is impressive in its own right, a lone Sycamore tree standing almost dead centre of the depression, though it was used in a scene from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves which is where most people may recognise it from. It, along with Milecastle 37, is probably the most photographed section of the Wall.
Approaching Sycamore Gap
Sycamore Gap
Sycamore Gap
Sycamore Gap with a bit of photo trickery
Beyond Sycamore Gap is another outcrop, this one called Peel Crags which continues for a few hundred metres before dramatically falling away to Peel, taking the wall with it. From here you can look back along a vast length of the Whin Sill.
Milecastle 39
Peel Crags
The remains of a turret at Peel
Peel Crags
Peel Crags
A slow incline climbs up the slopes of Winshield Crags, the highest point of the day. The Romans obviously thought this was a fine vantage point, as did the Ordnance Survey as a trig pillar marks the highest point. From this point we could look into the depths of the Kielder Forest to the north, wary of any invading northerners. We could also see that the weather was starting to deteriorate so we began a short descent down to Winshields farm to start our return back towards Housesteads.
Sara makes the climb up Winshield Crags
Looking down towards Peel Crags and Crag Lough
Trig pillar on Winshield Crags
The Vallum can clearly be seen in the distance
We crossed the B6318 to the open farmland on the south side of the Wall. The area is littered with the remnants of Roman camps and settlements including the very obvious Vallum. The Vallum is a unique feature unlike any other across the Roman frontier and runs parallel to Hadrian's Wall. It comprised of a ditch, 6 metres wide and 3 metres deep, with a flat bottom, flanked by two mounds about 6 metres wide and 2 metres high, set back some 9 metres from the ditch edges, a formidable feature one its own, let alone behind a stone wall. We climbed a shallow rise to Seatsides, crossing the line of the Roman Stanegate Road that once range from Corbridge to Carlisle. At Seatsides, after it had started to rain, we descended again though the woods at Kit's Shield to emerge at Vindolanda, another prominent Roman Fort.
The Vallum
Heading for Seatsides
The Whin Sill on the horizon
A replica of Hadrian's Wall in Vindolanda
Formerly a key military post on the northern frontier of Britain, Vindolanda is the home of Britain's 'Top Treasure' - the Vindolanda Writing Tablets. The writing tablets are delicate, wafer thin slivers of wood covered in ink writing, the tablets were found in the oxygen-free deposits on and around the floors of the deeply buried early wooden forts at Vindolanda and are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.
The Vindolanda Writing tablets in the British Museum
As the rain subsided, we continued up the hill to the B6318 again meeting the Vallum as the road unceremoniously ploughed straight through it. We were still a couple of miles from Housesteads and, after deciding the road was too busy to walk along, we detoured off back to the Wall at Hotbank Crags and walked back along the best section between Hotbank and Housesteads. As a friend of mine said recently 'you can't have too much wall'. And that's a fact.

Roman milepost near Vindolanda
Thorngrafton Common
Farm at Hotbank
The Wall atop Hotbank Crags
Hadrian's Wall is the most popular tourist attraction in the North East and rightly so, it's absolutely fascinating. This short section contains many of the highlights and some of the classic views that you will come across browsing the web. There are places where you can literally walk on the same stone floors that Roman soldiers did nearly 2,000 years ago which is pretty amazing. If the history wasn't enough, the dramatic scenery only adds to the spectacle of this small area of Northumberland.