Crossing over the modern road again we pass through fields that bubble with the calls of curlews. A female rises from her nest in the high grass and circles above us, passing close enough that we can make out its iconic long, down-curved beak. Butterflies cling to stems; the landscape buzzes with life. We rejoin Stanegate and head west along leafy lanes back towards the start when, opposite the front gate of a farm, a sign proclaims that we are beside a Roman milestone.
This column of sandstone has lost its writing over the years – which presumably gave the distances to the nearest major Roman settlements like Corbridge or Hexham – and it leans a little too, but this is now the only milestone left standing in its original position in Britain. Once these stones would have been along all this country’s Roman roads. Walking around it, tracing its surface with my fingers, I wonder how many children of Vindolanda would have done the same as me over the hundreds of years this site was occupied – perhaps too those Syrian archers and thousands of infantrymen from every far-flung corner of the empire.
The market town of Hexham is only a fifteen-minute drive from Vindolanda and the nearest place to stay. After picking up the car, we are soon winding our way through its picturesque streets as evening light begins to honey its sandstone facades. Our hotel – the handsome, smart fronted Best Western Beaumont Hotel – is easily the best-positioned place to down bags. Our room faces pretty, tree-lined grounds and, if I poke my head out of the window, I can see the fine abbey they belong to, which dates back to 674 AD, sitting at the end of the road.
After checking the daily menu and promising myself the local sea trout, I take a quick stroll down to have a nose around before dinner. It seems wherever you are in this region – even the rarefied atmosphere of Hexham Abbey – you’re never far away from Hadrian’s iconic structure. The Saxon crypt inside this exquisite building was built using Roman stone lifted from the wall, but it’s a striking Roman tombstone for a 25-year-old standard-bearer named Flavinus by the abbey’s night stairs that draws my attention. Carved in sandstone and once brightly painted, it depicts the young soldier riding a horse over a cowering, defeated barbarian – a native Briton – with the Roman squarely kicking his backside as he passes. It smacks of pride; the soldier must have put money aside to afford a headstone that told a story of his own bravery as well as asserting the everlasting dominance of Rome. And just like when standing in front of Vindolanda’s designer sandals, handwritten tablets, nit combs and finest pottery, the two 2,000 years between then and now vanishes in a heartbeat. The magic of places such as these is precisely that: they can make the distant past seem very close indeed.
Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall circular walk – 7.4 miles
1. From the Vindolanda car park, head west along the Stanegate road for exactly one mile and then, at the T-junction, turn right.
2. Stay on the track as it climbs and dips up towards the Military Road of the B6318. Just before they join, turn left and cut through the Twice Brewed car park and cut through to the Twice Brewed Inn.
3. After a quick drink detour, head back along the road and then turn left opposite the road that leads up from Vindolanda.
4. Follow the footpath that lead up behind an old bothy, now a National Trust cottage for hire and join Hadrian’s Wall and the Hadrian’s Way long-distance footpath, heading east, as it cuts up sharply onto Peel Crags.
5. Follow the wall and path all the way along as it dips and rises, past Sycamore Gap, which proved a seminal location in the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Price of Thieves, before rising above the calm water of Crag Lough.
6. Carry straight on at the junction, rising again onto the high crags.*
7. Keep following the Hadrian’s Way path until you reach the Roman fort of Housesteads, which is another fantastic visitor attraction belonging to English Heritage.
8. Either stop for a visit or cut through to join the footpath forking right and down to the B6318 again.
9. When the path meets the road, cross over and turn left, taking the next footpath on your right heading down past the farm of East Crinkledykes on your right.
10. Where the footpath meets the Stanegate road, turn right and head back along the road towards Vindolanda.
11. At Codley Gate Farm, look out for the Roman milestone, Britain’s last remaining milestone still sited in its upright position, where it was placed nearly 2,000 years ago. Then stay following the Stanegate road west, skirting the top edge of Vindolanda to reach the car park and the start of the walk.
* For a shorter route (4.8 miles) turn right at the junction (6) and follow the stony track down along a drystone wall to join the B6318. Cross over, turn right and walk along the verge until you reach a footpath sign on your left pointing diagonally through a farm field. Follow it past a farm, over a stile and down through fields to link up again with the Stanegate road opposite Codley Gate Farm, at the site of the old Roman milestone. Then skip straight to 11.