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The Walk

The nine and a half miles of today's walk lays along the route of Hadrian's Wall, a relic of the Roman occupation of nearly two thousand years ago and one of Britain's premier ancient monuments.

Thanks to surviving documentation the history of the Wall is well known. It was built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and to prevent incursions by the Picts, then inhabiting what is now Scotland. The wall was built right across England from the Solway Firth to the North Sea coast, a length of very roughly 59 miles. It was built to a specification, being of standard width and height, with a "milecastle" every Roman mile, interspersed with two turrets. In addition there were a number of garrisons or forts along its length, typically where it crossed an established north-south route.

Digging into books and websites reveals a lot of information on the wall, some of it self-contradictory and therefore a little suspect. You learn that during its five hundred year life various sections of it were built, overrun, redesigned, rebuilt, demolished and replaced from time to time. It's alleged that some of the rebuilding was done to a lower standard than the original design, other parts began life sub-standard to cut costs, and some sections may have been jerry-built by local labour. Nothing changes, it seems. None of the wall remains in anything like it original form - fifteen hundred years' worth of weather and natural decay has taken its toll, of course, but in addition much of the wall was plundered for its ready-cut building stone, long stretches were demolished comparatively recently to facilitate road building, and other sections have been destroyed by quarrying. It's a marvel that so much still remains, and those stretches which do still exist are guarded jealously by various conservation bodies. Some parts are under archaeological study, others are being repaired or even renewed. You will meet the Wall in various states of decay or repair - sometimes there are no more than earthworks, other times you'll find lengths of it substantial enough that you can actually walk along the top.

The wall was built in this location for two reasons. Firstly, the 59 mile distance between the Solway Firth and the Tyne Estuary is the narrowest part of the country, and secondly much of this line is dominated by a line of north facing crags which provides a natural defence. These outcrops are formed by a layer of dolerite known as the Whin Sill. The other edge of this layer occurs around Teesdale, where it forms many of that river's famous waterfalls including Cauldron Snout and High Force. In recent times the existence of this outcrop has proved an irresistible temptation to the mineral extraction industry, and three abandoned quarries will be crossed today. The line of rippling crags means you're in for a good deal of ascent and descent, which can prove rather tiring.

Walk Statistics:
Length: 9.3 miles / 14.9 km
Total ascent: 1873 ft / 571 m
Total descent: 1415 ft / 431 m
Estimated time: 3 hrs 38 mins

Map: OS 1:25000 Outdoor Leisure 43 (Hadrian's Wall)

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Crossing the railway line

There's no railway station at Greenhead, a great pity, but it's on a regular bus route and the chances are that this is how you'll arrive. Find the previous day's finish point and immediately leave the road to climb a stile on the right. A short path runs behind a line of cottages to reach the railway line.The footpath crosses the line directly, so look out for approaching trains. A further short footpath brings you alongside Tipalt Burn, which you follow for a short distance to a dell, a delightful spot thick with trees. It's dominated from the opposite bank by the ruin of Thirlwall Castle, a stone tower dating from the fourteenth century, and possibly constructed from Roman walling stone. No trace of the wall itself has survived here.

Crossing Tipalt Burn; the route to Walltown

A tiny cluster of cottages crowds the far side of the footbridge across the burn, a locality apparently known as Holmhead. When I walked this section in 1988 one of them had a sign up saying, "teas, snacks and even­ing meals. Hikers welcome". Hopefully this facility still exists. Once across the burn the path ascends the opposite bank on a sharp curve and then heads due east, accompanied by a ditch along the right. This ditch was in fact part of the Wall earthworks, excavated a few paces north of the Wall itself where it was not defended by crags. A standard drystone wall on the south side of the ditch is apparently built on the foundations of the Roman wall.  


Walltown quarry and crags

After roughy half a mile of walking alongside the north side of the wall you come out onto a road, and opposite is the former Walltown quarry. When I came this way in 1989 the quarry was in the process of being landscaped by the national park authority and a tree planting scheme had begun. The place probably looks quite handsome by now. The official route of the Pennine Way skirts the quarry ground to the south but an alternative route through the grounds of the quarry should be possible.

The Wall met for the first time;  the east quarry and Walltown Crags; scene at Alloe Lea

Beyond Walltown Quarry the first section of genuie Hadrian's Wall is met. "This," says Wainwright, "is EXCITING!". Getting to it might prove a little frustrating; the route around the south side of the quarry runs along a minor road for about 400 meters before doglegging hard left to climb back through the adjacent pasture. A fresh visit will be necessary to determine whether there's a practical alternative; but for now just follow the crowds or the waymarks. The wall, when you first meet it, looks nothing out of the ordinary apart from its width. Then, of course, you realise that you're standing beside the remnant of a huge civil engineering project, conceived and built almost two thousand years ago. The sheer audacity of such a plan would raise eyebrows if it was mooted even today, so one can scarcely imagine what a leap of imagination it must have been back then, fifteen hundred years before the age of industry and mechanisation.

Walk along the southern side of the wall. It drops down into a dip. A second, smaller, quarry lays north of the wall. Beyond here you climb to Walltown Crags, where the wall's advantage as a viewpoint across the empty country to the north becomes obvious. The Wall has largely diappeared just here and you have some three miles to walk before you reach the next well-preserved section at Cawfield Crags. Beyond Walltown Crags is a dip and the tiny locality of Walltown lays to your right. It's barely big enough to be a hamlet and the "town" suffix does seem a little fanciful. Perhaps it had some historical importance. The map notes the antiquity of King Arthur's Well just here but it seems unregarded and forgotten - all Wainwright says is that the well is unromantically fenced off and covered over. Head ever eatwards, across undulating pastures with the lonely farm of Alloa Lea to the right.

Cockmount Hill

Approaching the site of milecastle 44;  Cockmount hill and retrospective view of trees;  Cockmount Hill farm

Near Alloa Lea is a row of trees, possibly Scots pines or larches (perhaps someone will write in and put me right?) that has been prominently in view for some time and will continue to figure in retrospective views for the rest of the day. Just past the trees you cross a stile (first image above) to reach a section of drystone wall apparently constructed from Roman walling stone. A couple of hundred metres beyond was the site of Milecastle 44. Descend gradually now, folllowing the wall on its south side, to Cockmount Hill farm. The farm is a rather utilitarian building set just beyond another group of trees.

Follow the path through three more pastures beyond Cockmount Hill farm to reach the rather more prosperous-looking Great Chesters farm. Immediately adjacent to the south is the site of Aesica, one of the major forts built along the wall. There's not a lot to see other than earthworks. The Way is routed to the south of all the farm buildings. A further half mile of walking, tending downhill, brings you to the lone building of Burnside. When I passed this way in 1988 it was deserted but showed signs of occasional use as a bothy (overnight shelter for walkers). Beyond Burnside you reach a road at the unglamorously named Hole Gap.

Cawfield Crags

There's another disused quarry here at hole gap, apparently nameless, but another that has been reclaimed and landscaped. It features a sizeable area of water, plus a picnic area. It makes a pretty good lunch stop in fact.

Milecastle 42 and Cawfield Crags

Beyond the quarry a short and steep ascent takes you up to the lip of Cawfield Crags, and here you find your second section of proper Roman wall. It seems that this section might have been rebuilt for, unlike the first back at Walltown, it gives the impression of havong been laid dry. As you progress along the line of Cawfield Crags the style of wall building chops and changes; it reverts to English drystone, then becomes a standard drystone wall laid on top of three courses of Roman foundation (obvious because of its greater width). There has been some significant restoration work around here within the last 50 years or so.

The Wall and Way now descend together to Caw Gap, which is crossed by a motor road


Winshields Crag from Turret 40B;  view NW from the same point; looking back to the west

Beyond Caw gap the wall reverts to common drystone again. The land rises in the first of three waves as it approaches the highest altitude of the day's hike, the 1230 ft summit of Winshields Crag. This three-pitch ascent is gradual, spread out along a further mile, during which the wall changes nature several times between English drystone, drystone using Roman masonry, Roman wall rebuilt dry, and Roman wall built (or rebuilt) with mortar. Towards the top, at a little col a side path goes off to Winshields Farm about half a mile to the southeast, The summit, when you eventually reach it, proves to be a superb viewpoint.

Footpath to Winshields Farm;  the crest of Winshields Crag;  loking back to Wain Rigg

Looking back to the west you can see all of the day's hike so far, and much of yesterday's walk in addition. The profile of Wain Rigg is prominent,with the obvious pimple of Highside standing out on the skyline. It's still just possible to make out the trig pillar on its summit, and this is at a distance of nine miles. Behind the Rigg and slightly to the left is the vaster and higher sprawl of Cold Fell, and the line of the high Pennines can be clearly seen stretching away southwards. Cross Fell itself is vaguely visible in a dip in the sky­line slightly west of south.

To the east you can see the remainder of the day's walk, notably the rippled profiles of Peel Crag and Housteads Crag, and three bodies of water (Crag Lough, Broomlee Lough and Greenlee Lough. To the southeast, about a mile off, is the lone building of Once Brewed youth hostel, standing by a crossroads.

The Tyne valley fron Winshields Crag;  Once Brewed youth hostel;  Crag Lough in the distance

Beyond the top of Winshields Crag there's a descent of about half a mile until you reach the road at Peel Gap The youth hostel is not far down the road to the right, but the chances are that you will get here too early; normal practice for hostellers, it seems, is to press on to Housteads and then come back later.

Peel Crags

Peel Crags and restoration works at Milecastle 39

A swift rise and fall after Peel Gap gets you to the site of what is apparently an extra turret between 39B and 39A, laying in a dip adjacent to Peel farm. A steep rise immediately afterwards gets you to Peel Crags, where another section of Roman wall is encountered. Some five hundred metres further on another sharp dip brings you to the site of Milecastle 39, and a jarringly steep ascent proves to be the first of three craggy outcrops known as Castle Nick. This section can be rather tiring. Castle Nick is succeeded by Highshield Crag, where remarkably precipitous cliffs to your left drop sheer into Crag Lough. It's a dramatic place. It's also a mite dangerous so don't let children muck about and keep your dog on a lead.

Highshield Crag

The path down from Highshields Crag descends through a wood to reach Hotbank farm and the site of Milecastle 38. There are just two ascents left now until you reach Housteads, one to reach Hotbank Crags and then the final rise to Housteads Crag. The ascent to Hotbank Crafg is relatively gentle and is accompanied by patches of woodland on both flanks. The view from Hotbank Crag is a fine one, with Wain Rigg still visible eleven miles to the west and Housteads Crag immediately ahead. Greenlee Lough lays a mile to your left with the neighbouring Broomlee Lough a mile to the east. A minimal descent beyond Hotbank Crags gets you to the shallow col of Rapishaw Gap, and it's here that tomorrow's route strikes off to the north east, the PW heading resoluteky for the gap between the two lakes to the north. The walk out to Housteads and back from this point is a spur and could be missed out, but few Pennine Wayfareres do so.  Come on, it's only another mile.


Housteads Roman fort

The ascent on the far side of Rapishaw Gap is a gentle one. Cuddy's Crag is encountered first, where you walk beside one of the better preserved sections of Hadrian's Wall. There's a small dip, the site of Milecastle 37, and then the final rise to Housteads Crag. Here the Wall is hemmed in by trees on both sides and, uniquely, the Pennine Way follows the top of Hadrian's Wall itself. It's a fascinating experience at first, but then it dawns on you that the one place from which you can't admire the Wall is the top of the Wall itself. The walk along Housteads Crag is a short one, roughly 400 metres in length, after which you descend to Housteads Fort itself.

Housteads, or Vercovicum (its proper Latin name) is by far the best preserved of all the forts along the Wall. It is administered by the National Trust, who charge a small entry fee. Housteads is extensive and fascinating. The layout and foundations of all the buildings are still intact, as are pretty much all the walls up to a height of between two and four feet. The buildings are identified; most were barrack blocks of course but you will also find structures such as the granary and the hospital, and the intricate drainage and underfloor heating arrangements are beautifully preserved.

The fort has a small National Trust shop and a refreshment room. There's apparently a Hadrian's Wall bus that runs during the summer months; otherwise you have a walk of some two and a half miles to get to Once Brewed youth hostel or three and a half miles to Bardon Mill for the train or regular bus service between Carlisle and Hexham.    


Once Brewed Youth Hostel
Hadrian's Wall Country
National Trust - Housteads Fort

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This page last updated 19th March 2006