Hadrian's wall
Hadrian's wall

Mark Corney on Hadrian's Wall: "I'll never forget that day"

This year marks 1900 years since the building of Hadrian’s Wall, a legendary fortification that was built to guard the wild north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. To commemorate this mighty anniversary, we sat down with expert Guide Lecturer and Andante favourite Mark Corney to talk about this incredible site – our conversation included everything from his earliest memory of visiting it to what he believes makes it so compelling to people today.

Tell us about your first ever visit to Hadrian’s Wall

I was 15 and my mum and dad had realised that my fascination, if not obsession, with the Romans was more than a passing fad, so we had a family holiday driving north. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the wall, which was in the high section up near Housesteads – and just being blown away by the scale of it and the way it snaked across the high ridges. I’ll never forget that day, it had such an impact on me, and I thought, this is a place I want to come back to.

Do you have a favourite part of the wall?

This is always a difficult one. No one could fail to be impressed by the central sector across the wind seal and around Housesteads, where the wall hugs the edge of this massive vertical cliff of volcanic rock and basalt, but also I love the western end, which very few people visit. They tend to go to the central sector. It’s like when we do the Andante Walking Hadrian’s Wall tour – we start at that far western end of Bowness and it’s a very different kind of landscape. Very low lying, parts of it marshy and with amazing views across the Solway Firth and into southwest Scotland. And usually on a clear day, you can see a massive flat-topped hill that was called Burnswark, which was a major pre-Roman hillfort and has Roman military earthwork surrounding it – I love that spot, just for that vista.

Also, just south of the wall, there are hidden gems. In particular in eastern Cumbria, not far from Brampton, there are extensive remains of quarries of places called the Rock of Gelt, which is a lovely name. You walk down this beautiful little wooded glen and there are kingfishers and dippers playing around on the stream, and you walk around the corner and there are these vertical faces of sandstone and you can still see the Roman quarrymen’s pick marks. High up, there are a series of inscriptions and graffito left by the quarrymen. Recently, there has been laser scanning of these which has revealed further inscriptions and lovely little caricature depictions. There’s one man with a pointy head and a pointy nose and one would love to think that someone behind the back of a centurion has given a less than flattering portrait of the boss!

What do you think makes Hadrian’s Wall such an enduring site?

I think partly it’s the setting – it’s the northern edge of Empire although there is Roman activity going on north of the wall. You have this astonishing structure that ran for 80 Roman miles from the east to west coast, and much of the central section is still there. It’s an incredible lasting testament to the power of Rome and the will to impose a barrier across this landscape. It’s always going to be evocative – whichever part of the wall you stand on, it's always slightly different, whether it’s the lighting or time of year, you just can’t fail to be impressed by the grandeur of the monument.

The wonderful thing about Hadrian’s Wall is that there’s so much active fieldwork still going on. Last year, a new three or four-year project started at Birdoswald, to the west of Vindolanda, being led by Tony Wilmott – another Andante guide. It’ll be fascinating to watch that and many of our tours will coincide with the excavation season there.

As a landscape archaeologist, what’s the most compelling aspect of Hadrian’s Wall?

There’s the dramatic setting of the central sector as it writhes across the crags, but also it’s the way the whole thing had been surveyed – especially at the western end to skirt the edge of the marshes, round the Solway Firth. One can have nothing but admiration for the Roman military engineers and architects that must have recced this route and then executed the construction. Also it’s the impact on the existing landscape and, of course, recently there have been so many great developments in remote or non-intrusive survey – particularly LiDAR, the laser scanning of the landscape. You can peel off woodland and reveal subtle earthworks and other features, and the major LiDAR survey along the line of the wall demonstrated that there was a pretty ordered landscape along much of the route, especially in the centre one can pick up areas of prehistoric – presumably – Iron Age cultivation and settlements, and the wall had just been imposed on this pre-existing landscape. It’s a landscape statement in itself – it not only functions as a military and economic frontier – it’s a statement of power. It’s a great visual barrier when seen from the north or the south, and you would not fail to be impressed and know this is a limit to what Rome would have viewed as the civilised and cultured world.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Mark, which is coming next month.

Join Mark Corney on one of our best-selling Hadrian's Wall tours this year:

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Mark Corney on Hadrian's Wall: "I'll never forget that day" was published on 21 February 2022