HOUSESTEADS FORT & HADRIANS WALL

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After an enjoyable, quiet evening’s stopover in the Kielder Castle Visitor Centre car park, we arose early in order to be away, and heading towards our next destination, by an appointed time. Our final destination on this Mini Northumberland Adventure was Housesteads Roman Fort, on Hadrian’s Wall, about an hour’s drive South of Kielder. It being managed by English Heritage meant we’d had to book entry tickets online, for a set time. The time we chose was 10am; a relatively early one because we also planned to hike along the wall, and preferred the idea of taking a look around the fort first.

I have to say, English Heritage really have their car parking at the site stitched up like a kipper. As you drive in, CCTV cameras record your registration plate. They also record your plate on exit, so if you only want to stay for 15 minutes (or drive in and drive straight out again), then it’s free. After that, it’s £3 for up to 3 hours, followed by an eye-watering £2 per hour thereafter, with a maximum charge of £10, payable on exit. Needless to say, since we were there for a huge chunk of the day, it cost us £10. The good news is; the machine takes card payments, and the transaction is painless.

It’s just as well our National Trust Membership entitled us to free entry; tickets for non-members are £9 per person (and car parking isn’t included).

From the car park, it was a short walk ten minutes walk up the hill to the fort, where an assistant was stood waiting to check tickets and welcome us. It’s probably worth mentioning that an entrance ticket isn’t required to walk up to Hadrian’s Wall, since this is a public footpath, and much of the fort can be viewed from the outside, since there’s nothing higher than about three feet.

Communal Loo

I’ve visited the location several times over the years, but this was the first time that I’ve actually been inside the fort and had a chance to wander around it properly. As with many Roman ruins, you have to use your imagination a bit to really appreciate it, but there are many information boards dotted around the site to help with that. Throw in the expansive views across the surrounding countryside and down the length of the wall, and it all adds up to an impressive piece of history, and a worthy place to visit.

After we’d done wandering around the fort, we headed off along Hadrian’s Wall, in a Westerly direction. The first part of our walk, adjacent to the fort, is the only section of the wall where visitors are actually permitted to walk on top of it. From there, the wall rises and falls dramatically as it follows the contours of the land. Housesteads Crags, Cuddy’s Crags and Hotbank Crags provide spectacular topographical punctuation, while the construction of the wall itself – or what remains of it – remains a constant curiosity.

We paused to eat lunch atop Highshield Crags, where we were able to enjoy the view across Crag Lough below, and the sight of wild deer roaming in the scrublands over on the lake’s far bank, before continuing on our way.

At Milecastle 39, where the land dips down, a large sycamore tree grows, and gives its name to the gap; Sycamore Gap. It’s big and old (believed to be several hundred years at the last count), and attracts much attention from visitors. Quite rightly so, as it is a significant, iconic landmark (and famous for its appearance in the 1991 film, ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’, where Kevin Costner took an unusual route from the White cliffs of Dover to Nottingham via Hadrians Wall and Aysgarth Falls in North Yorkshire).

A final stretch of crags (Peel Crags) brought us to our turning point at Steel Rigg car park, when we took a turn right, over the fields, back towards Housesteads. Our original plan was to follow the footpath as far as Broomlee Lough and double-back, over-shooting the fort and rejoining the wall at Milecastle 36. Upon reaching The Pennine Way, however, which intersects Hadrian’s Wall travelling from South to North, we chose to join it (as time was getting on, and we had a long drive back home), heading south a short way, back onto the wall between Cuddy’s Crags and Hotbank Crags, and followed the earlier path back to the Fort.

This area is always a pleasure to visit, steeped in history as it is, and we were lucky once again with the weather, it being warm enough to ‘take the legs off’ my walking trousers. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that upon being greeted and steered towards the entrance to the fort by an on-site assistant, she was also very keen to point us in the direction of the feature that everyone (apparently) asks about… the toilet. Which just prompts the inevitable question; ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’…

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Peter Woolley

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