We approached the top of the hill and Hadrian’s Wall finally came into view, dominating the skyline and the landscape surrounding it. The famous structure first became clearly visible in the form of Poltross Burn Milecastle: a largely ruined piece of fortress not far from the city of Carlisle…
I’ve wanted to visit the iconic wall ever since I first studied the Vindolanda Tablets as part of my dissertation (which I later changed to women in Roman Politics- oops!). And, despite holding a British Passport and living in England for most of my life, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only just made it to the North of England (and only visited Scotland for the first time a couple of months ago!). However, good things come to those who wait (or so I’d like to think), and a trip to Hadrian’s Wall didn’t disappoint.
Who even is Hadrian?
You may have found your way onto this page and be wondering who Hadrian actually is… and why his wall is so important (or why you should even care)! Well, Hadrian was a Roman Emperor in the 2nd Century AD. His full name was Publius Aelius Hadrianus and to this day, he remains an important historical figure in Europe.
After all, he remained fairly busy throughout his reign, changing the course of history through his various commissions and military campaigns. He rebuilt the Roman pantheon, travelled to nearly every province in the Roman empire (which, at the time, spanned much of modern Europe), and he is considered by some to have been an early humanist.
He was even dubbed one of the ‘five good emperors of Rome‘ by Machiavelli because he had managed to garner respect from everyone around him during his reign. (However, considering what we now know of Machiavelli’s political thought, perhaps the title should be taken with a pinch of salt…)
Hadrian’s most famous commission of all is probably Hadrian’s Wall, known as ‘Vallum Hadriani’ in Latin. The wall spans the length of Northern England, totalling 84 miles. Keen hikers will be happy to know that Hadrian’s Wall has been named as a National Hiking Trail and today, the entire wall can be hiked. (More information can be found on the National Tails Website)
What is Hadrian’s Wall?
Construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122. Eventually, the wall stretched all the way across the Northern part of England; reaching from the banks of the River Tyne, to the Solway Firth on the Western Coast of England. The wall was probably built for defensive purposes, though no solid explanation for its construction has ever been given.
Though many cite the reason for the Wall being to keep out the Scottish, others claim that the wall was built purely for tax purposes. Even in Roman times, tax evasion and smuggling were problems, and the wall stopped people from transporting goods across the border without paying duty. The wall marked the very fringes of the Roman Empire at the time of Hadrian.
Today, the wall remains the largest Roman artifact to be found anywhere in the World and over seventy miles of its stone structure survives to this day. There is a common misconception that the wall designates the border between England and Scotland. However, the wall purely runs through England and is situated a few miles below the English-Scottish border.
Poltross Burn Milecastle
Punctuating the length of Hadrian’s Wall, every Roman mile (1.48km), you’ll find a ‘Milecastle’. These were typically small forts, flanked by two towers. These small forts were home to a gate which would allow people to pass from one side of the wall to the other. They usually housed a garrison of 20-30 soldiers who would guard the wall, as well as control the movement of people from one side of the wall to the other.
Poltross Burn is a standard Milecastle, and you can see its outline in the remainders of the foundations that are scattered across the field where it lies today. It is also known as Milecastle 48 (for record purposes) and is one of the best-preserved Milecastles still standing today.
It was in use from the 120s, right up until the 4th-Century, at the end of Roman rule in the area. Poltross Burn Milecastle is situated a few miles from the more famous Birdoswald fort, where you’ll find a café, small museum, and another mile castle.