For nearly 2000 years, Hadrian's Wall has snaked its way across Northumberland, linking Newcastle to Carlisle, proudly marking off the edge of the Roman empire. Some parts lie unexcavated, while others run through private fields and explode unexpectedly onto the horizon. Whether you're attempting the whole 73 miles, or just a short section, it's a wonderful experience, trudging in the footsteps of the ancients. A good afternoon's walk would be the round trip from Steel Rig to Housesteads (and back again).
You can start at various points, but a sensible option is the Once Brewed Youth Hostel in Twice Brewed. The wall lies along the edge of a national park, and here is a national park car park. They charge just £4 for the day, and the ticket is transferable to their other car parks for the day. You can get kitted out at the visitor centre, and stop off at the toilets before starting the trip.
Diagonally opposite the youth hostel is a path up to Steel Rig. Signs lead you across stiles to the base of the ridge.The climb up at Steel Rig is one of the hardest bits, but the route does get easier. It's hard to get lost, as you are usually following the direct line of the wall, but occasionally you cross it, or move slightly away, so do be careful to follow the footpath signs rather than simply hugging the wall.
Sometimes you can wall on the 'other' side of the wall, and there are slopes of woodland descending gradually down. At other moments it is a terrifying, sheer drop into Crag Lough, impressive, but also a sign to keep children (and dogs) close by.
Two milecastles later and you close in on Housesteads. The wall was started in AD122 under the emperor Hadrian, and slowly different forts and bases were added. As you approach Housesteads Roman Fort, you can walk on the wall itself. It might not be its full ancient height, but there is something spine-tingling about following it like this. How often do you get this close to an ancient monument? You can imagine the soldiers, tired of the wind and rain, huddled in the milecastles and turrets, doing the best they can.
If you walk along the B6318 on the way back, there are no pavements, but the road is so beautifully straight, in true Roman style, that you can make your way safely along it. Be sure to walk against the traffic, listen out for cars, and walk onto the grass verge if you hear one coming.
You can also see Vindolanda in the distance. It is privately owned, rather than being owned by English Heritage or the National Trust, and has an excellent museum and fascinating reconstructed buildings. It's best known for the wooden tablets which should have been destroyed on a bonfire, but survived as postcards from the past, letting us in to details of daily life in Roman Britain.
As you head along the road, occasional roadsigns warning of a 'Sudden Dip' echo those great undulations you walked on the wall. On the approach to Twice Brewed you get a fabulous view of a milecastle and Sycamore Gap. Here a magnificent sycamore tree fills the 'gap' and is known for its appearance in the 1991 film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
An alternative is to cut down using footpaths to the Stanegate and walk along the route of the ancient Roman road, imagining your path all the way back to Chesters. If you use a good OS map then you won't lose your way. There is also a Hadrian's Wall trail map, but this is less good for understanding precisely what is going on in the fields and surrounding area.
It's only about five miles as a round trip, but you should allow several hours to walk it. The section from Steel Rig to Housesteads along the wall will take at least 90 minutes at a fast pace, longer if you're stopping to admire the view, or with children. The return journey along the road will still take over an hour, longer with any cross-country detours.
Designated a World Heritage site in 1987, and a transnational World Heritage Site in 2005, Hadrian's wall is a truly remarkable physical memory of the Roman occupation of Britain, and a walk like this will help train the body and feed the mind in equal measure.