Hadrian's Wall – What is it? Why was built? Is it still there?

Emperor Hadrian was a Roman Emperor from 117AD – 138AD and is best known for defining the northern limit of the Roman Empire by building Hadrian's Wall in Northern England.

As an Emperor, Hadrian pursued a policy of peace through strength and consolidating the conquests of Trajan, his predecessor. In some cases he abandoned territories he considered indefensible and moved to strengthen others.

With regards to Britain, Hadrian was aware that there had been a rebellion from 119AD – 121AD and so, in 122AD he ordered the construction of what has since become his most famous achievement and a World Heritage Site, Hadrian's Wall or to give it its Latin name - Vallum Aelium

Hadrian's Wall measures 80 Roman miles or 73.5 statute miles and stretches across the width of Northern England from Bowness-on-Solway in the west, to Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne in the east. Primarily constructed of stone, the wall varied in width depending on the availability of building materials and in areas without usable stone resources, such as at the western end of the wall, earth banking was used instead.

The wall, although primarily a defensive military structure was actually much more than this. Whilst it certainly prevented incursions by the tribes to the north, it also controlled immigration and perhaps equally as importantly, it provided a secure customs barrier for the movement of goods into and out of the Empire. It also served as an clear example or Roman power, designed to impress and subdue the unruly native tribes of Britain.

Hadrian's Wall was largely completed within 6 years of commenced and its east/west orientation followed the earlier constructed Stanegate road and its accompanying forts. The wall itself incorporated milecastles at regular intervals and its own network of support forts to complement those located near to the Stanegate. Outposts were also constructed to the north of the wall.

At the completion of construction, the wall formed just one part of a formidable defensive network. To the north lay the outpost forts at Bewcastle and Habitancum, behind these was the glacis and ditch. If these were overcome rows of pits were next faced and beyond them stood the wall itself. The wall was garrisoned by forts at Segedunum, Pons Aelius, Condercum , Vindobala, Onnum, Cilurnum, Procolita, Vercovicium, Aesica, Magnis, Banna, Camboglanna, Uxelodunum, Aballava, Coggabata and Maia. These could easily and quickly be reinforced by troops stationed at the Stanegate forts at Corstopitum, Newbrough, Vindolanda, Haltwhistle Burn, Cavoran, Throp, Nether Denton, Castle Hill Boothby, Brampton Old Church and Luguvalium. In total the wall was garrisoned by as many as 9000 men, although this number did vary over the years of occupation.

Serious attacks were suffered by the wall in 180AD and later, between 190 and 197AD resulting in the wall requiring substantial repair. The wall remained occupied until the final withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the 5th Century AD.

Today, Hadrian's Wall remains visible although much of if its scale has been lost and much of the stone being robbed out to provide building materials for later buildings. Many of the older saxon churches in the region show evidence of possible wall material in their construction. Despite the expansion of the city of Newcastle in the east, sporadic above ground evidence is still visible in several places although no part of the wall retains its original height. Further west, longer stretches are still visible with the most famous being the stretch at Steel Rigg which follows a rocky escarpment lending itself to dramatic views. In 1987 the wall was declared a World Heritage Site. Hadrian's Wall is also a popular tourist attraction and even hosts its own long distance footpath "Hadrian's Wall Path" which was opened in 2003 and is a designated National Trail. There is also a cycle route "Hadrian's Cycleway" which runs for 170 miles from Ravenglass on the west coast. This is a designated National Cycle Route, number 72. Needless to say, these routes provide much demand for accommodation and refreshment en-route and help maintain the economy of this largely rural area.