Blog

The Sill and Hadrian's Wall: A visit to Rome's northernmost Frontier

Published
June 17, 2022
Listen to the podcastDonate for more content

AFTER CARLISLE, the next logical stop on my tour was an area halfway from Carlisle to Newcastle called the Great Whin Sill, or Sill for short.

The Great Whin Sill, including Crag Lough at its far eastern end, from Steel Rigg Carpark

At the Sill, a section of the famous Roman fortification called Hadrian’s Wall runs along a cliff amid the landscape that faces north. It’s this cliff that is called the Sill. Whin refers to the kind of rock it is made of. Here is a sign, at a place called Housesteads.

A sign at a spot called Housesteads showing the location of various aspects of the old Roman fortifications in the area of the Sill

(In reality, I drove to the Sill after climbing Scafell Pike, went all the way up into Scotland, and then came back to Carlisle after everyone told me what a wonderful city it was! With my knowledge, you can save doubling back.)

Location of the Sill (red marker) in relation to Carlisle and Newcastle upon Tyne. Map data ©2022 Google. North at or toward the top in this map and in the aerial image and all maps below.

A closer view of the Sill, with the north in the shadow of the cliff. You can see other local attractions here such as the local pub and YHA. The spot called Sycamore Gap has a dip with a lone sycamore tree in it, often photographed by Instagrammer types. Map data ©2022 Google. Imagery ©2022 Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, CNES/Airbus, Getmapping plc, Maxar Technologies.

Sycamore Gap as seen from the north, with the cliffs of the SIll to the left and to the right. Panorama by Clementp1986, 8 October 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The wall is named after the Roman emperor Hadrian (i.e., Adrian), who built the wall to fend off the wild inhabitants of the northern part of Britain from the lands to the south.

And, also, to gain more control over the lands to the south, which the Romans occupied and turned into a province of the Roman Empire.

The Romans built another wall further north, between modern-day Glasgow and Edinburgh, the so-called Antonine Wall, but eventually pulled back and made Hadrian’s Wall their permanent frontier for several centuries.

Map of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, originally by NormanEinstein, 20 September 2005, as retouched by Talifero, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The wall prevented the northern ancestors of the Scots from raiding into the part of Britain the Romans controlled, which eventually became England.

Along with the Roman Navy, which patrolled the coasts quite closely, Hadrian’s Wall also prevented rebels in the southern part from fleeing north, thereby discouraging rebellion in the first place.

The most famous of these rebels was Boudicca, a queen of the Iceni tribe from modern-day Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, who led an uprising against the Romans in 60 or 61 CE.

Statue of Boudicca in London

The construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 CE, a little over sixty years after Boudicca’s rebellion. The wall took another six years to complete. But the date of 122 CE meant that the 1,900th anniversary of the wall was being celebrated while I was at the Sill.

An information sign at the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre. This anniversary was a curious coincidence, considering that Carlisle Cathedral was celebrating its 900th at the same time!

Hadrian’s Wall stretched for 73 miles or 117 km, from the Solway Firth west of Carlisle, a city that was itself founded by the Romans, to a spot with the appropriate name of Wallsend in modern-day Newcastle. The wall would be patrolled by the Romans right up until 405 or 406 CE, a period of nearly three hundred years. There are a couple of amazing fly-over videos of the significance of Hadrian’s Wall and of what it was like, by the Smithsonian Museum in America, and I have embedded them here.

As you can see from the thumbnail of the second video, which shows a reconstruction of part of an old camp near the Sill called Vindolanda, Hadrian’s Wall and its fortifications were originally quite colossal. Indeed, on a par with the most spectacular parts of the Great Wall of China for much of its length.

After the Romans left Britain, much of the wall would be pulled down and quarried for building material, so the original parts still standing aren’t much higher than shoulder height at most.

The worst destruction was done as recently as 1746, when parts of the wall were used as foundations for a military road between Carlisle and Newcastle. Only the rugged terrain around the Sill saved that section of Hadrian’s Wall from the same fate. Ironically, the military road was built so that the Hanoverian (English) army could more easily subdue the rebellious Scottish Highlanders. Déjà vu all over again, in other words.

But in its day, Hadrian’s Wall was indeed on a par with China’s Great Wall, though shorter. The most solidly built sections were made of stone blocks, about three or four times as high as a standing adult, with a path on top, huge forts at regular intervals, and medium-sized forts and towers in between.

As to the origins of the wall, the famous Roman general and later dictator Julius Caesar first launched an expedition into Britain in 55 and 54 BCE. The Romans did not stay, but many of the British tribes paid homage to Rome thereafter.

Then, some ninety years after Caesar’s invasion, the emperor Claudius launched an invasion aimed at turning Britain into a Roman province in 43 CE, a task which took another forty-one years to accomplish in full. So, things were still in a state of flux when Boudicca rebelled in 60 or 61.

Campaigns of the Roman conquest of Britain, 43−84 CE. By ‘my work’, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

No attempt ever seems to have been made to take over Ireland. Whenever people speak of Roman Britain, or the Roman conquest of Britain, they are always referring to Great Britain.

Much of northern England was populated in Roman times by a tribe called the Brigantes, who rebelled from 108 CE onwards.

It’s thought that the revolt of the Brigantes and the mysterious disappearance of the York-based Ninth Legion around 120 CE may have been the spur for the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, designed not only to keep out the inhabitants of the unconquered north, which the Romans called Caledonia, but also to keep the Brigantes from hooking up with the Caledonians.

Even after the construction of the wall, it seems that Brigante territory and neighbouring regions such as Cumbria were never to become as Romanised as the south.

Indeed, it was this hilly northern region that would later become the heart of the Danelaw in the early Middle Ages. That is to say, the part of England, centered on the old Roman garrison town nowadays known as York, which was ruled by the Vikings while the Saxons held on in the south.

In other words, the divisions between the north and south of England, and also between England and Scotland, go all the way back to the time of the Romans.

There’s a fairly recent film, called Centurion, which deals with Rome’s misadventures in the north. It is not bad as an actioner, though perhaps with more “hacking and slashing” than character development, as one reviewer puts it. But certainly not as dire as most Netflix-fodder. It is loosely based, apparently, on a 1954 kidult novel called The Eagle of the Ninth.

Image of the cover of the first (1954) edition of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, from Wikimedia Commons, for purposes of illustration

I do think something really terrible must have happened to trigger the Romans into building Hadrian’s Wall.

But as to why the Romans went to all the trouble of trying to conquer Britain in the first place, well, that is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. They had the tribes where they wanted them even without invading Britain, since their navy dominated the seas around the island.

Nor was Britain, once conquered, ever the richest province of the empire by any means. The transformation of Britain into a rich country would have to wait for the establishment of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, about fifteen hundred years later.

In ancient Roman times, the wealthiest and most developed parts of the Roman Empire were in the Mediterranean world, especially the eastern Mediterranean.

North-Western Europe was an under-developed area which the Romans conquered, establishing frontiers along the Rhine and the Danube, mainly to keep the local tribes from sacking Rome and plundering the wealthier Mediterranean world.

Yet, obviously, the tribes of Britain weren’t going to march on Rome even if the Gauls did from time to time.

In fact, there seems to have been an element of prestige involved in the conquest of Britain. The Romans conquered this mysterious offshore island, basically, to show that they could. And then, with all the local revolts and the possible annihilation of the Ninth Legion, they just got in deeper and deeper like the Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan, ultimately to the point of constructing Hadrian’s Wall. Which was overseen on the spot, for a time, by the emperor Hadrian himself.

The old border between the Romans and the Caledonians would eventually morph into the border between the English and the Scots. Well, roughly speaking. The modern border between England and Scotland, which has stood for hundreds of years, is a bit to the north of the wall, though fairly close along the western half and very close at Carlisle.

I mentioned Game of Thrones in my last blog post, and how the show seems to have been inspired by the feud between York and Lancaster. Well, Hadrian’s Wall also seems to have been the inspiration for the ice wall in Game of Thrones, fending off the white walkers from the north: in other words, the Caledonians.

At their most ambitious, the Romans tried to subdue Caledonia as far north as the Great Glen, between modern-day Inverness and Fort William, to the north of which lies the land of Ross, divided into Wester Ross and Easter Ross. Yes, you heard that right. The name of Westeros is inspired by one of the areas where the Romans were driven back, though in the series Westeros is south of the ice wall.

There are a couple of huge architectural digs at the Sill that are constantly uncovering more and more of an old fort called Vindolanda, which is actually older than the Wall, and also at another old fort, probably called Vercovicium at one time though other names have also been associated with it, at Housesteads.

I stayed at the Hadrian’s Wall campsite, camping for fifteen pounds a night.

Hadrian’s Wall Campsite Sign

The name of the township is Once Brewed, a bit west of a larger town called Hexham. The local pub at Once Brewed is called Twice Brewed. You could park and sleep in your van there for fifteen pounds as well.

The Twice Brewed Inn

As you can see from the following signs, there was also a Roman Army Museum.

Some of the local sights

More information

I visited the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre.

The Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre

Outside the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre

Just as Carlisle Cathedral, to which I devoted about half my last blog post, was celebrating its 900th anniversary in 2022, so Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 CE, was celebrating its 1,900th anniversary!

At the Discovery Centre, there was a photo of the wall in winter, part of the 1900th anniversary exhibition called ‘Views from the Wall’

Inside the Discovery Centre

Roman armour. I think I snapped this inside the Discovery Centre, rather than the actual Roman Army Museum. Presumably it was supplied by re-enactors, as I think the original would be rather rusty by now.

There is a huge YHA right next to the Discovery Centre.

Part of the YHA at the Sill

Romani Ite Domum, as in ‘Life of Brian

There was a sign which showed the layout of everything at the Sill. There were several versions corresponding to different spots, each with a red circle to show where you were. The following photo shows the Housesteads version.

Here is another sign describing the Roman fort at Housesteads, in more detail.

Housesteads Roman Fort

The Roman Fort at Housesteads is quite well preserved in parts. It has the best-preserved latrines to have come down to us from ancient times, a humble but valid claim to fame.

There is also another fort a bit to the west of the area shown on the maps at the Sill, called Birdoswald. Each area seems to claim that it has the best fort.

The extreme western end of Hadrian’s Well, at Carlisle, is very close to the Scottish border, which hasn’t shifted much in centuries. Even at the Sill, halfway along past a region known as the Debatable Lands (how GoT is that?), Scotland isn’t too far away.

Between the Middle Ages and the 1700s, the area was inhabited by so-called border reivers, meaning bandits. If the reivers were pursued by the English they would escape into Scotland and vice versa. There were no mobile phones by which the respective authorities might have coordinated their activities in those days, and in any case, the English and the Scots seem to have been at war with each other about half the time.

In 1604, the Roman fort and the surrounding farmlands fell into the possession of one Hugh Nixon, described a “Stealer of cattle and receiver of stolen goods.” This was a fairly typical job description for the region back then.

After a while, the farm passed to other bandits, who used the old Roman fort as a pen for their stolen livestock, probably without reflecting too much on its origins.

By the end of the 1600s the border area began to settle down, with the last of the local outlaws emigrating to America — was Richard M Nixon among their descendants, I wonder? — after which, Housesteads became a more normal sort of a farm.

Once the new proprietors began to plough the land, large numbers of Roman artifacts kept turning up. And so, people began to take more of an interest in the history of an area that had otherwise been viewed, for generations, as bandit country and not much more than that.

A view along a farm wall leading to Hadrian’s Wall

And it was cold. As soon as the sun went down, I absolutely froze. I haven’t really frozen before, on this trip. I think it was because I was tired. I didn’t want to sleep in the tent for another night. Perhaps that was why I was so surprised to see this sign advertising a reptile survey. I mean if I was cold, how would snakes and lizards feel?

I didn’t know that there were snakes this far north!

A view of one edge of the Sill indicating a campsite. It is more spectacular in other parts.

Some of the best views are from a spot called Steel Rigg Carpark, where you can park for four pounds a day and enjoy a view of what’s perhaps the gnarliest part of the Sill with Hadrian’s Wall on top, and the Crag Lough beyond. There are walking trails in the area as well.

What to see from Steel Rigg

A couple of moderate walks

Here is my video of the Sill (just a short one):

Really, I was amazed to learn that snakes inhabited this chilly spot!

And here is a view that a Roman soldier might have had on watch. Although, the area might well have been forested in those days.

The view from the top, into the land of the barbarians

Which would have been all the more reason to keep a sharp lookout and have balls of fire ready to go from the war catapults, if the opening scenes of Gladiator are anything to go by (probably not).

Here are a few last photos, which show an information plaque about Vindolanda and the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site of which Hadrian’s Wall is a part, plus a couple of photos of the diggings.

All of the frontiers of the old Roman Empire are now a World Heritage Site

Some of the excavations at Vindolanda

People looking at Vindolanda

Vindolanda, with the reconstructed towers and wall section in the background

There weren’t any public toilets after 5 pm, which I think was absolutely appalling. In summer, the facilities just don’t cater to the number of tourists. I would strongly suggest not visiting on summer weekends when it is so busy.

At such times you should just pass through. You should visit the local Roman Army Museum and the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre and go for a walk: but don’t stay there as the accommodation gets crowded as well. There are other places to stay that are not so crowded.

Still, my campsite was beautiful. I could see horses, and woke up with birdsong in the morning at 5 am. Everybody was really friendly as well.

Useful websites

For more information about Hadrian’s Wall and the Sill, check out the English Heritage page on Hadrian’s Wall and hadrianswallcountry.co.uk, including 1900.hadrianswallcountry.co.uk.

The website of the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre is thesill.org.uk. As of the time of writing that website has a page on the Views from the Wall Exhibition.

Plus, you might be interested in Dr Neil Faulkner’s BBC History page on Roman Britain.

Regarding tours of the area provided by the Edinburgh-based tour firm Rabbie’s, check out the review page on Tripadvisor, here. There might be other tours on offer, but that is something to go on at any rate.

The Northumberland National Park website is northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk.

In my next post, I head up the Northumberland Coast, past the village of Alnwick!

Giveaways

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!

Thanks for subscribing. You can expect to receive more information about Mary Jane, her top travel tips, free downloads of Mary Jane's award-winning books, and more, straight to your inbox!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again or contact us if you're still having trouble.

Donate, share and subscribe

Like this post? Donate to us, or share this post to Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to new posts with RSS.

Recent Blog Posts

June 24, 2022

The Farne Islands: Once holy, and the home of Grace Darling, now a famous nature sanctuary

Continue reading
June 22, 2022

Alnwick: Gateway to the beautiful Northumberland Coast

Continue reading
June 15, 2022

Carlisle, the Capital of Cumbria

Continue reading