Parking: At the Northumberland National Park car park, Steel Rigg. It costs £4 to park for the day but the ticket is transferable to the other Northumberland National Park car parks along the wall.
Starting/Finishing point: Steel Rigg Car Park
Distance: 4 miles
Time: Approx 2 ½ hours.
Difficulty: Medium. There are several short, steep sections in this walk and it can be uneven and occasionally very boggy underfoot. The route follows clearly marked footpaths and tracks and is for the most part relatively easy going. The route contains gates and stiles.
Footwear: Walking boots (or high-tech walking wellies). The ground is frequently uneven and sections can be heavy and wet underfoot.
Other: This route does pass through several fields of grazing land and at these points dogs would need to be kept on a lead. The nearest public toilets are at The Sill - The National Landscape Discovery Centre which is a short distance from Steel Rigg Car Park. There is also parking here and it is well worth a visit. For information on how to reach Steel Rigg by public transport visit traveline.org
There is a café at The Sill and just to the west, The Twice Brewed Inn has a bar and restaurant and its own micro brewery.
In AD 122 the Emperor Hadrian gave orders for his Governor Nepos to oversee the building of a wall that would stretch along the northernmost frontier of the existing Roman Empire. It was to run between the River Irthing at Thirlwall and Newcastle, with a turf wall extending to the west coast at Bowness on Solway. It is 73 miles (80 Roman miles) in length and, remarkably, was completed in six years! South of the wall a flat-bottomed trench six metres wide and three metres deep was excavated. This was the Vallum. This enclosed the ‘military zone’ between it and the wall itself. Originally the Vallum could only be crossed at the site of a fort.
After the Roman withdrawal much of the wall fell into decay and indeed became the source of much of the building stone for the immediate area. The entrepreneur and archaeologist John Clayton bought large sections of the land through which the wall passed and as such did much to ensure that what was left of the wall can still be viewed today.
The section between Steel Rigg and Housesteads is one of the most striking sections of the wall and provides a circular walk that is perfect for blowing out the cobwebs and excesses of the festive season! One piece of advice worth heeding though is to plan your walk so that the wind is at your back on the higher ridge sections along the line of the wall. So if the wind is from the west (the most common prevailing wind direction) complete the route as described (an anticlockwise circuit) and if it is from the east (considerably less common) reverse the route and complete a clockwise circuit.
1. Leave the car park via the gateway following signs for ‘Hadrian’s Wall’. Follow the path down the grassy bank beneath Peel Crags until you reach ‘The Wall’. Turn left through the gate and follow the wall until you reach the paved footpath. From here the route turns left up a series of steep steps to the top of Peel Crags. This ascent is mercifully quite short and once negotiated there are panoramic views of the surrounding landscape that provide a worthwhile reward(1). After a moment’s pause, continue east past Turret 39a and eventually down to Milecastle 39. The Milecastles were fortified gateways through the wall positioned at intervals of one Roman mile (about 1 ½ km). They allowed the Romans to control not only the flow of people, but also to tightly monitor the goods that were allowed to enter Roman Britain. By careful planning they were also often sited to reinforce perceived defensive weaknesses, further deterring attacks from the Northern tribes. Milecastle 39 is known as ‘Castle Nick’ (because it sits in a ‘nick’ in the hillside). First cleared in 1854 and subsequently excavated in the early 20th century, it is believed to have been in continuous use from its construction up until the late 4th century.
From Milecastle 39 take a short, gentle climb and then a steep and uneven descent to Sycamore Gap. Not only is this the most photographed site along the length of the wall, but the most photographed site in all of the Northumberland National Park. It has little significance in terms of Roman history but having featured in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves this dip in the wall and its solitary sycamore tree were swiftly catapulted to their current iconic status. In 2016 it was named as English Tree of the Year in the Woodland Trust’s awards
2. From Sycamore Gap cross to the north side of the wall for a steep, but again short climb onto Highshield Crag (2). This is situated above Crag Lough, the glacial lake that has been popping in and out of sight since leaving Steel Rigg car park. This section provides dramatic views to the north over the lake but care must be taken as there are a number of sheer drops down the rock face to the water below, one of the main reasons why this site has traditionally been so popular for climbing and abseiling. Continue along the path through the trees, down the gentle descent and through the gate. Follow the path from here until as you approach a farm track (leading to Hotbank Farm) you turn through a gate on your right. Once through the gate turn left across the track and through the gate opposite (signposted to ‘Housesteads’).
3. Follow the broad grassy path as it curves around to the left taking you around the far side of Hotbank Farm. Looking left there are excellent views along Crag Lough (3) to the west. As you pass the farm buildings on your left, turn left over the step stile, crossing behind the buildings and through a gate directly opposite the step stile. Follow the track to another stile immediately to the right of a gateway. Once over this stile turn immediately left and over a further stile into a large open field. Take the sign-posted track across this field and over the stile, continue over the next field. Glancing across at Highshield Crag it gives an immediate impression of how imposing the wall must have been when at full height and patrolled by highly trained legionnaires (4).
4. At the footpath sign you join a (rather muddy) farm track. Continue on this over the next stile and across another field towards two barns with a dry stone wall enclosure. Again looking left from this path you can see a less common view of Sycamore Gap set against the southern hills. Eventually this path becomes a maintained track (5) until it meets the tarmac lane. Turn left cresting a small hill that will bring you back to Steel Rigg car park on your left.