A Guide’s View of the Wall*

- Having given talks and guided folk along Hadrian’s Wall for many years, there is an element that always takes folk by surprise. That surprising element being - it’s not just a ‘Wall’…

So, What is it?

When you think of a ‘Wall’, your mind’s eye sees just that - a vertical barrier stretched out in front of you. However, the one that the Roman Emperor Hadrian instructed to be built in AD122, had a bit more to it.

‘Hadrian’s Wall’ was intended to be a frontier - a line drawn between the Romans and the Barbarians. It was the northernmost boundary of the empire and had to straddle from one side of Britain to the other. There was of course a need for it to be manned and patrolled. Furthermore, it had to have gateways, allowing access in both directions.

The Ground

The narrowest point between Britain’s east and west coastlines lies roughly halfway between the northernmost and southernmost parts of the UK. It is almost 80 miles across, with a 20-mile long hill range in the middle - which we know today as the Pennines.

Its Purpose

Given that the primary function of the frontier was to be a border control, it obviously had to be protected. That protection needed to be from both sides - so that nobody crossed their border without the Romans knowing about it. This required a significant obstacle, with a manned 24-hour guard.

What Constitutes the ‘Wall’

The ‘Wall’ was constructed by three Roman Legions. It consisted of a stone walkway more than 4 metres above the ground, with a protective parapet above that.

In front (to the north) of the wall, was a ditch (the Fosse) 2 metres deep.

Behind the wall, to the south, was a military zone, with a Road for troops and supplies.

Beyond that was an earthwork fortification (the Vallum), which consisted of a 2 metre high mound, a 2 metre deep ditch and another 2 metre high mound.

Along the ‘Wall’, every mile there were crossing points (Milecastles) - 80 in total.

Equally dispersed between the Milecastles, were Turrets that housed the Wall’s guards - 158 turrets in total.

Bridges had to be constructed to navigate the rivers Irthing and North Tyne.

Then in order to man the frontier effectively, as well as patrol the land to the north, numerous Forts were needed. Smaller forts were built to house a few hundred men and larger ones catered for up to a thousand.

Now and Then

As I write this, it is now over 1900 years since this construction was embarked upon. And yet, parts of every element are still visible and tangible today. Even though I’ve known the ’Wall’ all my life, every time I walk it, it never ceases to amaze me.

I’ve often been asked who constructed the Wall and on occasion, I’ve responded that it was ‘Martians’. Sometimes that comment has resulted in a wry smile, other times a disparaging look. Either way, my follow-up has been the same. 

When the local inhabitants of northern Britain first encountered Hadrian’s Wall nearly 2000 years ago, then asked the question ‘Who built that?’ If someone had responded ‘they came from Mars’ - they likely would have believed you.

*Gary the Guide

It's now over 40 years since I first started giving talks on Hadrian's Wall, whilst serving in the Royal Marines. When I was at home (in the village of Wall - no clues as to where that name comes from), I would go for runs along the Wall and never see a soul - just the odd sheep. Because of the surprised reaction to those talks, it planted the seed that some day I would bring folk to the Wall so they could see it for themselves.

Unfortunately, back then, much of the Wall was not accessible to the general public. It took a further 20 years before they were able to create a new National Trail. It was then, that we were able to start our business 'Hadrian's Wall Ltd', encouraging and providing for folk 'Walking the Wall' - occasionally in the presence of a Guide...

A Book of Sorts

- There have been many occasions whilst guiding on Hadrian's Wall, I have been asked by clients, "Gary, why don't you write a book?"

This question is normally as result of me having imparted an endless flow of facts and anecdotes - and general story-telling. My response has always been the same, "I just don't have the time". Actually, apart from that, it was never on my agenda in the first place.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in the company of many interesting, certainly better-qualified than me, experts in their own field. Each time I've guided anyone, I have always been open to the possibility (if not probability) that I will learn something new that day. It then came to me that perhaps there was another way (other than a book) to share my gleaned knowledge, experiences and stories. So, I thought I'd write a book of sorts, a blog...

'Gary the Guide'

It is said that I, Gary Reed, am probably the person who has walked Hadrian’s Wall more than anyone else. The question you would rightly ask is how is that?

The easy answer would be it’s because I have been guiding folk along the Wall since the Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail was opened twenty years ago. But actually there’s a bit more to it than that. The real answer consists of what I have only come to consider, realise and even discover, in more recent times.

An Edutainer

My approach to working as a Guide on Hadrian's Wall, has always been an endeavour to provide clients with more than they expected. Although trained as a Mountain Leader and being a former Royal Marines Officer, my role goes beyond navigating the way. Being a graduate in Geography & Heritage Studies and a qualified teacher, it is more than just explaining historical facts. No, my priority has always been to encourage folk to open their eyes a little bit further - use their imagination.

To really see the Romans' Northern Frontier, requires a bit more effort than gazing at the obvious remains. In your mind's eye, you need to bring it back to life. To help clients get to that state, my method has been to tell stories. In effect, it's delivering stories that can be regarded as educational, but they need to be delivered in an entertaining manner. In other words, it's 'Edutainment'. Or you could describe it as informing folk without them realising it...

Where it Started

When I was a boy, the Roman Wall, as it was referred to then, was just something that happened to be on our doorstep. My parents lived, met, got married and had me, in Fenham, to the west of Newcastle. In Roman terms, that was just to the north, on the other side (the barbarian side) of their Wall. You could say our forebears were within heckling distance of those strange folk from far-flung parts, guarding lord knows what.

Growing up in that area as kids, we didn’t give too much thought as to why all those old clumps of stones were lying about the place. I was too young to understand why my grandfather was concerned about the big rocks he’d dug up in the garden. The concern being that the archaeologists had to be called in, only to find that Grandpa had unearthed a Roman Temple. 

The worry was of course, his garden was now at risk of becoming a visitor attraction, playing havoc with his leek trench. Apparently, a compromise was agreed with the relevant authorities, with the stones being covered up again and the least said about it the better. Although I did sometimes wonder where grandma got such an ornate large heavy square stone vase for her pansies.

The Road to More

Riding our bikes or walking around the streets we wandered along roads with peculiar names, ‘Severus’, ‘Hadrian’, ‘Condercum’, ‘Agricola’… It never really occurred to us that these names related to the Romans (men with swords, shields and chariots, like you saw at the cinema). We just thought of them as being difficult to pronounce or spell.

It was my father who first made the effort to explain what the connection was with us and the Romans. We would on occasion venture further out into the countryside, closer to where he’d grown up, where the piles of stones were more extensive. In fact, these weren’t just a seemingly random heap of rocks like at home, but long, high, straight, solid, well-built walls.

What also became apparent was that it wasn’t just a wall, but there were other things to look for beyond it. There was actually a very deep ditch in front of it and where the wall wasn’t in obvious view, the ditch was. And, as if one ditch wasn’t enough, there was another one further back behind the wall, with high earth mounds either side of it.

I suppose this was where my fascination with our Roman heritage began. In later years, I would read more on the topic, to the point that I would begin to question the validity of what I was reading.

Fact or Fiction

So many times the Wall has been described as a defensive barrier - defensive against who? Why would you build large gateways every mile in a defensive wall? What evidence is there of the Romans ever wanting to stand and defend anything?

The flat-bottomed ditch to the rear of the Wall, we know as the Vallum, has been suggested as a route that soldiers could take, so as not to be seen by the enemy. Really? The fact that the Vallum doesn’t have any kind of stone foundation, like every other Roman roadway, doesn’t apply?

Here it is

Ultimately, I first started to present my interpretation on the purpose of Hadrian’s Wall, whilst serving in the Royal Marines. Surprisingly to me, many of those in attendance, weren’t even aware of the Wall’s original existence and those that did know of its existence, were surprised to learn that it could still be seen. This being proven by my introducing a square lump of stone at the close of my presentation, which I would lay down in front of the audience and declare - “And my house is made of it”. But that’s another story…

Welcome Back

- It was a strange couple of years, when the world was effected by the Covid pandemic - flights stopped, general movement became restricted and the area of Hadrian's Wall effectively became a no-go area. However, after the lifting of restrictions, we were especially pleased to be able to welcome back our overseas visitors.

Clients patiently waited to come and discover and explore the Wall, from North America, Australasia, Scandanavia and all parts of Europe. In 2022, coinciding with the 1900th year of Hadrian's Wall's construction, boots returned after a long wait to follow in the footsteps of the Romans.

More to See

In AD122, the Emperor Hadrian gave the go-ahead to construct a Wall for the empire's northern frontier. It was actually more than a Wall, as it included a Fosse, a Vallum, numerous Forts, Milecastles, Bridges and Turrets. Such was the skill of its construction, all these elements are visible today.

Sites of interest were not freely accessible in those pandemic times - and for some folk, there's been a longer than expected wait for the opportunity to come. They say 'absence makes the heart grow fonder', perhaps it will have been worth making the wait...