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Wall across England at the end of Empire

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In any league table of Britain’s wow-factor features from the past, the Roman Empire’s 73 miles long mile coast-to-coast security barrier stands at the very top with Stonehenge. Now the spotlight is back on the tremendous relic through the movie Eagle, based on The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954) telling the story of the loss of the Roman 9th Legion, and its standard, on a mission north of the wall. I list my must-see stops along Hadrian's Wall, now easily reached by public transport, together with my choice of other things to do in this ravishing landscape at the top of England. Photo - a section of original Wall, in Cumbria. By the writer, July 2009.

Wall worth it

Hadrian’s Wall, built in AD122 from Bowness to Wallsend, resisted all comers in its day, defending a dominance that stretched from here to Jordan. It’s worth, if you can, admiring the brutal genius of the Roman stonemason from the north side. I found the business face of the wall, around Cawfields Milecastle, where the wall still intimidates from the top of 50 feet high crags. How hopeless to have been a Pict, screaming down from the north, only to come to a dead end under the frowning face of the Roman Empire, with all those sophisticated ballistics raining down. The Romans couldn’t lose. A short walk south of Cawfields is the Milecastle Inn, drawn back at a respectful distance, the better to admire the view. They serve real ale and homemade pies in a snug little bar.

Old stones

It’s remarkable that so much of the Wall and Roman military settlements around it survives after 1700 years. In all there are 14 separate places to visit. The best are in the central section. There are well-preserved stretches of Wall near Walltown Crags, Housesteads, Sewingshields, Chesters and Brunton Turret. A spectacular stretch of Wall clings to the hillside at Cawfields. For an overview of the wall, visit Birdoswald, the best preserved of the 16 major forts and garrisons, where an infantry unit from Dacia (modern Romania) was based. You can still see traces of fortress gates, perimeter walls, towers, granaries and drill hall. Just east is the longest continuous stretch of Wall, over a mile long. The best view from it is on Winshields Crags, 1000 feet up: north, you see deep into the Cheviots; look south, and it’s way down into the Pennines.

Rail road

General Wade did visitors a big favour when he built his Military Road in 1745, parallel to the Wall. Through traffic keeps away, so it is ideal for pottering along between the various stops. And you don’t even need a car. The AD122 Bus runs from Carlisle city centre all the way to Newcastle railway station, stopping everywhere important. A team of Wall–aware drivers will, literally, tell you where to get off. The bus connects to stations on the Carlisle - Newcastle Hadrian's Wall Country Railway. Both bus and train take bikes. The best way of all to discover the area is to walk part or all (six days, if you are fit) of the Hadrian’s Wall Long Distance Trail.

Side Trips

Away from the Wall Carlisle is worth a visit, with its 900 years old castle, cathedral and medieval guildhall. For the deepest tranquility find your way to Lanercost, among the scatter of little villages east of the city. The Priory, where Edward I rested in 1307 shortly before his death, was closed down when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Cared for by English Heritage, much of its survives, including a triple tier of arches and some rare C16th murals. Another version of rural peace, about an hour’s drive south from here, is Castlerigg Stone Circle, one of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in Britain. The circle of 38 stones, on a plateau with a superb 360 degree view over the surrounding fells, was built around 3000 BC.

Fine Style

Farlam Hall Country House Hotel easily passed the welcome test. We were offered tea with cakes, as I’d hoped, before we had even slammed the car door. This was my third visit, and it’s good to see that nothing has changed, apart from the flat screen TVs – one in our bedroom and one in the bathroom. The only other novelty was a pied flycatcher pirouetting through the landscaped gardens directly outside our bedroom window . The same family has run this Victorian manor at Brampton, seven miles from the Wall, as a traditional country hotel since 1975. Furniture and decorations are frozen in some less flustered age, recalling an era when they had Stephenson’s Rocket parked in the garden.  Smartest clothes, please, for drinks in the lounge, the prologue to dinner at eight (English menu, with locally sourced ingredients), each day’s Big Performance.

Ride high

One of England’s most exciting and scenic half day excusrions is on the line which foolhardy Victorian railway barons speared through the sinew of the Pennines from Carlisle to Settle. It’s well worth an afternoon’s diversion. There’s an easy opening dash out of Carlisle station, across  the flat, rich lands of the Vale of Eden. We paused at tiny stations with stout Viking names - Langwathby and Lazonby. Then we hit the moors. Water the colour of Islay malt cascaded off rock shelves. The names grew shorter, as if to save breath: Blea Moor, and Dent - the highest station in England, clamped under a Bronte-esque gloom even in high summer. We got out at Ribblehead station (it took 83 minutes) and walked back to inspect the mighty Victorian viaduct of that name. Then back to Carlisle. Steam trains run in the summer.

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