What is Hadrian's Wall?

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...