The family-run farmstead-estate of Farlam Hall is just a few minutes’ drive from one of the best-preserved sections of Hadrian’s Wall, the defensive fortification that formed the northern boundary of the Roman Empire for about 250 years. Begun in A.D. 122 and made chiefly of stone blocks, the wall took about six years to complete. Seventy-three miles long, it was originally about 20 feet high and 10 feet wide, with a fort every mile and two lookout turrets in between. The largest Roman structure in existence, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1987.
We visited the wall at Cawfields, where it runs along a dramatic ridge and can be seen snaking across the rugged terrain for two or three miles in either direction. To the north, a windswept rolling landscape extends for nearly 40 miles to the Scottish border. (It is a common misapprehension that Hadrian’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland, but it lies entirely within what is now England. When it was built, the Scoti people were living in northeast Ireland, and the Angles were still residents of northern Germany.) Today the wall stands five or six feet above the ground and is about four feet wide. For centuries, its stones were used in local construction and, in the 18th century, for an extensive program of roadbuilding. But despite these depredations, it is still an impressive and evocative sight. A hiking trail, the Hadrian’s Wall Path, follows alongside for its entire length.
Close to Cawfields, two museums are well worth a visit. The Roman Army Museum seeks to explain the lives and experiences of the Roman soldiers on this far-flung frontier. Although there are relatively few original artifacts, the displays and reconstructions are excellent, as is a 20-minute 3-D film, “Edge of Empire,” which contains spectacular drone footage. In contrast, the Chesterholm Museum at Vindolanda is situated next to the extensive remains of a Roman fort, which are still being excavated each summer. Archaeologists have studied layers 20 feet below the surface, where thousands of artifacts have been preserved by the anoxic (oxygen-free) conditions.
Chief among them are the famous Vindolanda tablets, approximately 1,300 wooden sheets, each about the size of a postcard, with still-legible text written in ink. The first cache was unearthed in 1973, but they continue to be discovered. The tablets record vivid details of daily life, as well as official military matters. One highlight is an invitation to a birthday party held around A.D. 100, which is considered to be the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman. Most of the Vindolanda tablets are now on display in The British Museum in London, but a small selection can be seen at the site. The exceptionally attractive small museum also displays Roman boots, shoes, armor, jewelry and coins.