What to see on Hadrian’s Wall

The story of a Pilgrimage


Hadrian's Wall
Pilgrims progress along Hadrian’s Wall, going east from Milecastle 40. Here a modern boundary wall runs along the course of the wall.
This is the point where the Roman soldiers went on strike. They had been digging the ditch in front of the wall through hard rock, but here the ditch suddenly stops.
In AD 122, Hadrian decided to be realistic and to admit that the Roman Empire could not really expand much further. Britannia was a problem, so he decided to build a wall to divide Romans from Barbarians: the resulting wall was 80 miles long, stretching from sea to sea across northern England, from Newcastle to Carlisle. It was built in not much more than a dozen years, and is still one of the greatest archaeological monuments in the world.

The wall was built remarkably quickly.  Hadrian only ruled from AD 117 – 138 and his successor Antonius Pius decided that the wall was in the wrong place, so he moved it 80 miles to the north, roughly between the line of modern Glasgow and Edinburgh. This wall was built more cheaply, of turf rather than stone but it was not really a success so the emperor, Septimius Severus ( AD 193 – 211), moved the frontier back to Hadrian’s Wall,  which he rebuilt.  The wall then stayed in service for another 200 years until Roman rule eventually crumbled.  And even then the forts remained as strongholds for the local chieftains. 

Hadrian’s Wall remained the only stone built boundary in the Roman Empire; the other boundaries in Germany and the East were built of timber or turf.  But Hadrian’s Wall has remained as a wonderful emblem, both for tourists and for scholars, and generations of scholars have cut their teeth on the problems of Hadrian’s Wall.

The modern study of Hadrian’s Wall  really took off in 1849, when a young man, John Collingwood Bruce decided to make a ‘pilgrimage’ along the wall. He wrote an account of his pilgrimage which was a great success, so in 1886 the Pilgrimage was revived, and since then a pilgrimage has been held every ten years (more or less), attended by many of the leading scholars of the Wall.  The latest was in 2019 which I attended.  It was my fifth, and no doubt last: here I give an account of some of the sites we saw in the course of the Pilgrimage and also the 2009 Pilgrimage.


We start by going east, to Wallsend