Six million pounds path marks relaunch of Hadrian's Wall
Monday April 14, 2003
Hadrian's Wall - the 84 mile section is the world's most expensive footpath. Photo: Roman hideout
When the Roman emperor Hadrian drew a line from the Tyne to the Solway for his great wall in AD120 there were no legal obstacles in the way of planners.
They worked for 10 years building 80 milecastles, 12 forts, umpteen turrets and three magnificent bridges over the North Tyne, Irthing and Eden rivers.
But when the government's countryside advisers decided to create a more modest footpath along the route of the wall in 1984 they entered a legal minefield. Some of the 700 landowners along the route were hostile, fearing wayward ramblers and urban hordes creating havoc on their grazing lands.
With much of the wall - a world heritage site - still unexcavated, archaeologists also dreaded the prospect of valuable sites being disturbed. "This could be one footpath too far," the critics said.
But diplomacy and cash won the day. The critics have either been silenced or bought off with compensation.
Almost 20 years after the initial plan, the country's most expensive footpath is to open along the 84 miles of Hadrian's Wall - from the salt marshes of the Solway through the uplands of Northumberland national park to the plains of industrial Tyneside.
Over the next few weeks 200 new signs will mark the route of the Hadrian's Wall path, from Irish sea to North sea, marking a triumph over sceptics who claimed the complex exercise was doomed to failure.
Fourteen new steel bridges have been erected as part of the £6m project, many in the "weathered" variety of steel which characterises the Angel of the North sculpture. Thirty miles of new rights of way have been created, so walkers can avoid the hazardous yet spectacular B6318 which runs parallel with much of the wall. Miles of new turf have been laid, to protect sites which may be excavated in later years.
There are scores of new stiles, extra fences, gates and updated visitor centres along the route from Segedunum fort at Wallsend in the east - itself a new £9m visitor attraction - to Bowness-on- Solway, west of Carlisle. New maps, a glossy guidebook, and even a "trail passport", which can be stamped at various points along the route, are about to go on sale in what amounts to a relaunch of an international treasure.
David McGlade, the official from the countryside agency who has overseen the project since it began in 1995, said: "As well as creating new rights of way, we have reviewed everything. "We have asked searching questions. Is the path in the right place? Is it the line people want to walk? In some cases it was clear they wanted another route. Above all, have we put the path in the right place to protect the integrity of the monument?"
He recalls initial hostility. "I shared a platform with English Heritage at a public meeting as we were getting off the ground and it wasn't easy. A lot of farmers made their feelings known. "They were worried about things like dogs and litter. Some of the land involved had not enjoyed access for 2,000 years. But when we began to meet people individually it got better." According to English Heritage, which plans to invest a further £7m to manage "the most complex and best preserved frontier of the Roman empire", the wall has been undersold for too long. Dr Simon Thurley, its chief executive, said: "We need to look at it as more than just a great monument.
"Our task is to make it an interpretation that is the greatest expression of Roman civilisation in England ... at present, it is not punching its weight. "It is as important as Stonehenge, but it has never been thought of in that way. It isn't just a wall, but a complex of forts, temples, turrets, museums and reconstructions that bring the frontier to life."
In a revised management plan, English Heritage has stressed that much of the wall, although eroded by time, has still survived undisturbed with a "high degree of authenticity in its components".
As the best surviving example of a Roman frontier, it "stood comparison on a global scale with other grandiose projects, such as the Great Wall of China". But walking the new Hadrian's Wall path should not prove too arduous. Mr McGlade suggests that visitors devote up to a week for the exercise to enjoy all the sights. But the fittest should be able to manage the 84 miles in three days.