Another bit of Hadrian’s Wall

One of my favourite lengths of Hadrian’s Wall is the area around Housesteads: I’ve previously posted photos of Broomlee Lough, one of my favourite places to swim (unfortunately the NT has now said that swimming isn’t allowed as the area is ecologically too sensitive), taken from the Wall astride the Whin Sill.

I’d been saying for a while that it would be good to run from Housesteads to Wall Town crags, and the opportunity presented itself a couple of weekends ago. It had been the music festival on the Friday evening and Saturday, and Penny’s husband was away, so she came to see the festival and then stayed at mine. As it’s a linear run we needed two cars, and left one at Wall Town crags before driving along and parking near Housesteads. We didn’t actually go through the fort itself but instead took the path which is just to the west of the fort area (it’s worth noting that there are public footpaths which cross the National Trust land surrounding the ‘playing card’ area, but I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of explaining that we weren’t going to pay as we weren’t visiting the fort) and which leads across the fields and up the hill to the wall path.

Obviously navigating the wall trail is relatively easy – mostly. This section in particular was easy: not only does it literally follow the remains of the wall itself, which are above ground in most places, but also there were plenty of other people out and about (for some reason they seemed to be going in the opposite direction to us, which meant they were going into the wind rather than having it behind them).

As it turned out, this is my favourite section of the wall. There is plenty to see, and perhaps a visual guide is the best way of representing it.

This is a view I’ve taken photos of several times before: that’s Broomlee Lough in the background, and we’ve just come across the field from the left of the picture and gone up the slope you can see. There are plenty of paths criss-crossing this area: we could have chosen to stay lower, but why stay low when you can go high and get a better view?
This is Crag Lough. I was keen to see whether there might be somewhere else to swim: unfortunately I think the only suitable entry point for this lough is at this end, and I’m not sure how accessible it would be: I don’t know if the track up to the farm is a private track, and have a feeling it may be. The other end is not too far from Steel Rigg car park, but is very weedy/grassy.

The path goes through the woods, though there were signs up advising people not to go through it at the moment as there are trees down due to storm Arwen (the evidence of Arwen is still clearly visible on both sides of the country up here). However as some people were coming through the woods we checked with them and they said it was fine, and that you just had to skirt round some trees. I guess for people who are a bit nervous about slopes and uneven ground it wouldn’t be such a great route: but we’re trail runners and uneven ground is our natural habitat.

Before arriving at Steel Rigg car park we came out at one of the best-known features of Hadrian’s Wall: so well known that I don’t even need to mention it’s name. I have to say that it’s far more distinctive from a distance than close up!

This photo, like the first, I think captures the essence of this part of the wall. It goes up and down constantly along the Whin Sill – some of the ascents/descents are quite steep – with stunning views in all directions. I love it.

The history of the area isn’t all Roman, either. I had never been to Cawfields quarry before, and the interpretation there showed industrial buildings from a far more recent era than the romans. It’s a pity that swimming isn’t allowed in the quarry, as the lake looked enticing: but I guess there could well be the remains of industrial kit under the water.

A quick google indicates that the romans may well have mined here, but that the more recent mining was from 1902 until 1952 – when people started to want to protect the older heritage more. It reminds me of Bath – apparently it was only in the 1960s, when a lot of new development was proposed, that people began to realise that actually Bath, with its Roman baths and beautiful Georgian houses, should be protected rather than destroyed. It’s interesting how some ruins, such as some of the ruined castles, were visited and (to a certain extent) protected during the 19th century, because they were viewed as romantic: but it took until the late 20th century for some other parts of our heritage to be protected.

One of the things I loved about this part of the wall, however – and I noticed this again yesterday, when I was out on a bike ride along part of the wall nearer to home – is that you spot all sorts of bits of roman ‘stuff’ which, not being in public or charitable ownership, doesn’t get commented on much. For example I had not been aware of Great Chesters Fort and milecastle 43, located in farmland to the west of Cawfields. It’s clear on a google maps satellite view from the air, but on the ground you’re running along navigating a farm, when first you see an arch and then what looks like the remains of rooms (barrack blocks?). But that’s what I also love about Hadrian’s Wall generally, and have done ever since I first visited part of it, many years ago: there it is, in a field, and you can just go up to it and touch it, and try to imagine what it would have been like almost two thousand years ago.

There’s some more up and down, and a turret (44b?) where you can sit and have a few minutes’ shelter if you need it, balancing your cup of coffee on a fallen archway, before seeing another lake, shaped a bit like a glass flask (a wider bottom and a narrow entrance) and then dropping down to Wall Town turret (45). From here you then drop further down, away from the wall – which more or less falls off the Whin Sill – and down to Wall Town quarry and country park. I wrote about this a while ago when I ran from Gilsland to Wall Town and back: it’s worth having a quick look on the Northumberland National Park Wall Town website as well as there is a stunning view of the crags at night. In fact it’s probably worth saying that the Northumberland National Park has invested quite a bit in visitor centres and so forth along the Wall in the past few years, and in my view have done a really good job.

This was possibly one of my favourite stretches of the Wall trail: although I also love the bit from Walltown to Birdoswald. I think it’s partly because of the quantity of roman remains there are to see, but also because the geology just makes it so stunning: whatever the weather.