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Outpost of the empire

Hadrian's Wall offers historical interest and wonderful scenery, says John D Clare. Hadrian's Wall. A walk along Hadrian's Wall is a wonderful experience. Organising it is a headache. As a walk, it is of necessity linear, and motorists need to get back to their cars. There are two buses - an east bus and a west bus - and they run only sporadically.

By far the best plan is to start at Housesteads, and then to walk westwards, stopping at a convenient bus stop when time or energy run out. This, however, is possible only at certain times, and with careful planning and time-keeping. An alternative is to park, catch a bus to your starting point, and then walk back to your car, but you will need to be careful that you aren't over-ambitious. Wall walking can be strenuous; "family walkers" should allow an hour per mile. Mr Bainbridge, the local taxi man, will rescue you if all else fails (Tel 01434 320515 or 320105).

The soldiers on Hadrian's Wall weren't Italians, and they wore trousers. I have only walked the wall once when it didn't rain, and the "chill of the Sill" can be biting, even in summer. I'm definitely a trainers-and-kagool walker (as opposed to boots-and-backpack), but you'll have to use a bit of sense if you're not going to be miserable.

Dress in layers; you can always take layers off if the sun comes out. Wear two pairs of socks: a tight pair next to the skin, with looser woollen socks on top (this will prevent blisters). Take waterproofs, a drink, and a supply of Mars Bars. Walking boots are not essential, but this is real twist-your-ankle country, so be careful how you go.

The walk from Housesteads to Peel Gap must be one of the most beautiful and arresting walks in the north of England. It is about three miles long. Into those three miles are crammed some stunning scenery, some wonderful sections of wall, and a number of points of genuine interest.

Housesteads itself is fascinating. The great difficulty with the wall - especially for children - is to make the conceptual leap from the remains as a pile of stones to the remains as a glimpse of a way of life. House-steads is the nearest you're going to get. Even so, I tend to agree with Hunter Davies that the best thing is to get out on the wall and start walking.

The westwards walk runs along the top of a section of wall, which is exciting even for an adult. The view north is breathtaking. You peer out to see if you can see a band of wild warriors on their way to attack (remember that in Roman times the people who lived north of the wall were the Caledonians; the Scots arrived much later).

Half a mile from House-steads, you reach Rapishaw Gap at Cuddy's Crags. "Cuddy" is an abbreviation of Cuthbert, but is also local slang for a fool. Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate that you can climb down the rock face, or turn left and take a much gentler path down the slope. This apart, the walking is fairly easy, and steps have been cut in all the steepest hills.

You have to remember that much of the visible wall is not the original Hadrian's Wall. The core is Roman, but the skins are Victorian dry-stone walling, with earth on top to allow the core to breathe. You will soon learn to spot the difference.

The path drops down past Hotbank Farm into the woods along the side of the beautiful Crag Lough, and then winds up to Sycamore Gap, about two miles from Housesteads. Sycamore gap will enthral your children: it's the place in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves where Kevin Costner paused on his way from Dover to Nottingham.

Continue past Milecastle 39 (which is particularly well-preserved), and along the top of Peel Crags (which is popular with climbers). Shortly afterwards, you work your way down into Steel Rigg car park.

At this point, if you are just out for a stroll, you can leave the wall and walk down the road to the Once Brewed Information Centre. Serious walkers can strike out west over Winshields Crags towards the Cawfields picnic site (which is lovely), or further, to the Roman Army Museum, or even (for the power-walkers) to the excellent centre at Birdoswald.

John D Clare is editor of the I Was There series (Red Fox)

Start Housesteads

Finish Peel Gap

Distance 3 miles

OS Map 1:25000 Pathfinder 546, Halthwhistle and Gilsland National Park Information Centre Tel 0144 344396

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