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Archive for Sunday, March 3, 2002

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March 3, 2002

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— In A.D. 128, hundreds of soldiers from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire were garrisoned on this remote hillside, guarding their conquests in Britain from the barbarians to the north, on the other side of their brand new wall.

Standing on the same spot on a winter's day in January 2002, with the wind gusting over rugged moorland and driving sheets of icy rain into your face, history becomes tangible here at Hadrian's Wall, the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain.

Cutting through picturesque dales and wild mountain heaths, the 73-mile-long fortification was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, who came to Britain in A.D. 122.

The series of turrets, guard posts and forts took the Roman army six years to complete. The wall marked the northwest frontier of one of the greatest empires in history.

Despite the ravages of weather and pilfering locals who stole stones when the Romans departed Britain some 400 years later, much of the wall remains intact and is classed as a World Heritage Site  ranking it with India's Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

"We get people coming from all over the world to see it," says John Heslop, head custodian at Housesteads, the most complete Roman fort in Britain and located in one of the best-preserved stretches of the wall.

"This area has a real rugged beauty," he adds, as rain lashes the window panes of the ticket office. "The weather is very changeable but it all adds to the charm of the place."

Hadrian's Wall, its forts and accompanying museums explaining the Roman occupation of Britain, is one of the biggest attractions in Northumberland in northeastern England.

Although one of Britain's most rural counties, with untamed moors, sweeping coastline and beautiful farming land, the area is easy to reach.

Overseas visitors, who usually begin any visit to Britain with a hectic tour of London, can travel north to Newcastle by train in just three hours or fly there in under an hour. From there it's a 30-minute drive along country roads to the first of a series of Roman-related sites, such as Housesteads fort, the Roman Army Museum and the Vindolanda Fort where excavation is still in progress.

According to Heslop, Housesteads fort was home to some 800 soldiers from as far afield as North Africa. It was a thriving community, with barracks, granaries, a hospital and an ingenious latrine system that used piped spring water to flush the toilets.

Soldiers would man the wall, guarding against invasion from the untamed north and levying taxes on any traders wishing to pass through the heavily fortified gates dotted along its length.

Today, thousands of tourists every year brave the inclement weather to come here, many of them walking along the length of the wall through the beautiful moors of Northumberland into the neighboring county of Cumbria, home of the famous Lake District.

"It's excellent," says Michael Stuckey, an Australian tourist bundled in a raincoat and hat as he wanders around the ruins.

"There is so much of the stone work left you don't need to use your imagination too much to see how it all worked."

Although Hadrian's Wall is the most famous attraction in Northumberland, the county has plenty more to offer.

There are miles of paths through spectacular National Park land, medieval castles, bustling towns with farmer's markets and antiques fairs and fishing villages along its coastline. Fishing, horseback riding, golf and cycling are among the outdoor pursuits.

If you go in winter, don't forget your raincoat.

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