OK, so following the full 73 miles of Hadrian's Wall might be pushing it, but if you just fancy a taster, this brief itinerary for a Northumberland day out should do the trick
The full 73 miles of Hadrian’s Wall would stretch the endurance of most dilettante walkers beyond its elastic limit. But if you just have an afternoon and yomping is not your thing, there is a way to experience Britain’s top ancient monument (according to USA Today) and still leave time for beer and sandwiches, too.
The key is the B6318, known hereabouts as ‘the military’ road’ - my favourite route from the northeast to the northwest of England, and fast track access for one of the best preserved and most dramatic parts of Hadrian’s Wall. Running parallel to large stretches of the wall, and following such a die-straight path, the road hints at its own Roman origins. However, the military epithet dates from 1745 and the Jacobite Rebellion – Hadrian simply assisted in the route’s construction by neatly stacking a ready source of hardcore nearby…
Anyhow, head out on ‘the military road’ as far as Twice Brewed, and opposite its eponymous inn (which makes a good place to stay overnight), take the short switchback ascent signed towards Steel Rigg. Here, amidst the remote, wild and rugged uplands you’ll encounter the slightly jarring Steel Rigg pay-and-display car park. It’s £1 for the whole day, so don’t dwell on the insidious nature of this metropolitan money-grabbing; just mentally convert your quid to sesterces, then pay up, park up and stride out, sinister, dexter, in the footsteps of the legions.
Though, as already noted, early recycling has seen its height diminished, the three-mile stretch of wall from Steel Rigg to Housesteads Fort has held its own against the centuries since AD 122. As such, no CGI wizardry is required to fuel the imagination, and the sense of excitement inherent in all frontiers is still palpable here after almost two millennia. If ever a place cried out to demark the most northerly outpost of empire, this is it.
Follow the path down towards the wall (you really can’t miss it - even I can’t!) and head east in characteristically unflinching Roman style, making a steep ascent and staying true to the ridge’s highest point. At the milecastle atop the crags of Steel Rigg, stop and take in the views. West towards Winshields and east to Hotbank, the plates of the Earth’s surface have ruptured. To the south, land slopes away steadily, whilst to the north, moorland tumbles off a precipice in an abrupt sawtooth of crags and cliffs, forming the eminently defensible natural frontier of the Whin Sill. Depending upon your progress, here’s a good spot for lunch, so cue sandwiches and coffee. Between mouthfuls, look tentatively down at the dark waters of Crag Lough 150ft below and then towards the wild country beyond the rule of empire and law - it’s hard to envisage Pictish assaults ever making much of an impact here.
A quick descent leads to Sycamore Gap. Yes, Kevin Costner’s mid-Atlantic Robin Hood climbed this now famous tree and my kids have tried, too. Ready to step into the breach should the spotlight of celebrity prove just too much, a young sapling grows nearby, protected within a circular sheep-proof wall.
Regaining the ridge, continue towards a small patch of woodland through which the trail leads down to the bucolic encampment of Hotbank Farm. Gaining height again, it’s a bit of a slog to reach Hotbank Crags (doubly so if you’re walking though winter snow), but from then on progress is fairly steady to the extensive remains of Housesteads Fort and the end of this short but highly rewarding trek.
During the summer, Wright Bros buses run a regular service from the car park in front of Housesteads’ gift shop, and for £1 they’ll drop you just below Steel Rigg at the Twice Brewed Inn, a short walk from your car. Feeling thoroughly justified after an hour or two defending the Empire of Rome, this pub is a favourite off-duty stop. Remarkably, licensees Brian and Paulene Keene seem to succeed in maintaining a local feel whilst also catering to the transient trampings of anonymous wall-walkers like me. Highly recommended Twice Brewed Bitter is always on tap, together with representatives from an ever-changing carousel of 60 other ales.
Supping your pint, warm and cosy in the pub, you can ponder on the unintentional humour in one of English Heritage’s crop of interpretive signs at the fort: ‘Bathhouse, initially unheated, later heated’. How long it took to decide upon that little luxury is lost in history, but my guess is somewhere between five and 10 minutes - this is Northumberland after all.
Where to stay
The Twice Brewed Inn, Hexham
The Otterburn Tower Hotel, Otterburn