It is nigh on impossible to select a single section that sums up the experience of cycling Route 72 along Hadrian’s Wall. The massive defensive fortification spanning the border between England and Scotland, built by the Romans at the height of their power to protect the northernmost frontier of their empire, snakes and undulates across a wonderful, historic landscape of rolling hills and rocky crags with a wildly turbulent past. There are many fantastic moments to be had along the route, but what are the best sections on Hadrian’s Cycleway?
You will ride coast to coast on Hadrian’s Cycleway, between forts at Bowness and Wallsend, via famous vestiges of Roman Britain in between including Birdoswald, Housesteads, Vindolanda, Chesters and Corbridge Roman Town. You’ll pedal past garrison towns, crumbling forts and remnants of the structure that guarded northern England’s wild frontier.
Even without the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hadrian’s Wall, the ride coast-to-coast across England on Route 72 would be a great one in its own right. Using mainly minor roads and cycle paths, the Hadrian’s Wall cycle route explores the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding National Beauty and Northumberland.
But what are the best sections of Hadrian’s Wall? What are the most scenic views, best-preserved ruins and must-stop sites along England’s most famous monument? We’ve handpicked the highlights of Hadrian’s Wall to look out for.
Beginning in the west, you start by exploring the Cumbrian coast and navigating the Solway Estuary, with its vistas and birdlife for a contrasting coastal prelude to the passages of the ride inland. The Cardurnock promontory, with its World War II and Cold War relics, is of more contemporary historic interest before you reach Bowness-on-Solway and the true beginning of Hadrian’s Wall.
Here, at the last point where the Solway was fordable, among the clumps of marsh grass and gorse, the Romans established the western end of their fortification. Expansive estuary sands give onto views of the firth, and beyond, Scotland. This section of Hadrian’s Cycleway, where you cruise along a raised road bordering Brugh Marshes with views unfurling alongside you and the land merging into the sky, is pure pleasure.
The gentle, rolling countryside of Cumbria gives way to the wild beauty of the northern Pennines as you pedal east. After Carlisle, the first climb from Brampton into the hills gives you a good indication of the character of the countryside ahead and the wild scenery you will be riding through.
Eventually, you come in turn to the emptiness of Northumberland National Park. Here you might come across bog orchids, black grouse and pipistrelle bats beneath the exceptionally clear views of the night sky that come from the lack of any significant light pollution.
But it’s Hadrian’s Wall that you’re really here for. Its sudden appearance as the reward for ascending to the tiny village of Banks is worth the effort. The next few miles then accompany the line of the wall, letting you start to imagine what it must have looked like when Roman soldiers squared up to barbarians from the protection of forts and turrets atop the giant stone barrier.
The main defensive fortification was a 10-foot wall with more than 150 turrets and 80 milecastles. There were also 17 prominent forts along its length. Many of these landmarks have gone, and in places, the stone has been pillaged to such an extent that nothing remains. In places, you can still uncover the footprint of the past and experience what it must all have looked like long ago.
Travelling east, the first significant site you’ll come to is Birdoswald. The Roman name for the site meant ‘spur,’ and the fort sits on such a landmark above the River Irthing in a lovely position. There are views in every direction.
Although the ruins here are pretty rudimentary, you have the chance to explore the fort’s defences, where three of the four main gateways have been unearthed in addition to the outer walls.
While you can ride alongside sections of the wall on the route of Hadrian’s Cycleway and see plenty from the saddle, there’s no substitute for getting off the bike from time to time and exploring sections away from the road. One such spot should be Walltown Crags, where the Wall has been carefully restored so that it rises up to eight feet high in places.
This is one of the best sections of Hadrian’s Wall and one of the finest places to see it traversing England’s impressive northern countryside. The imposing fragments of the wall hug the hills and dips that undulate along the crags of the wild, rugged Whin Sill.
Located just off the official route of Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway, Whin Sill is a chance to gain some impressive views and see what Hadrian’s Wall once looked like in its full and proper state. Here, the dramatic scenery lets you gauge just how imposing a defensive barrier it must have been.
Back on the official Cycleway, you’ll come to the fort at Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Though most of Vindolanda’s remnants are low-level, this still-active archeology site is historically important for the trove of artefacts found here and displayed in the museum.
Pottery, cutlery, weapons and tools are all present, but top billing goes to the paper-thin, postcard-sized wooden writing tablets used by the Romans for everything from official reports to love letters and party invitations. These give a colourful and unprecedented insight into everyday life in Roman Britain.
From Vindolanda, detour a little over a mile from the bike route to reach Hadrian’s Wall at Steel Rigg. This is another excellent spot to dismount and stretch your legs on a wonderful out-and-back walk along an excellently-preserved wall section in a dramatic landscape. A short walk allows you to see Peel Crags, the famous Sycamore Gap and Crag Lough, offering picture-postcard views of Hadrian’s Wall.
Close by is Housesteads Roman Fort, excellently preserved and probably your best chance to appreciate how a Roman fort would have looked. The dramatic remains of the walls are at their most impressive, and from a vantage point, you can get incomparable views over the fort as well as north and south across Northumberland National Park. Alongside the columns rising from the granary floors and the near-complete Roman latrines, there’s also a helpful museum with a model showing how the fort would have once looked.
Your onward ride on Hadrian’s Cycleway brings you to the impressive and exceptionally well-preserved cavalry fort at Chesters (a detour of about half a mile). Standing in a pretty spot on a bend in the North Tyne among mature trees, explore it for its excellent example of a Roman bathhouse, unusual in this part of the Roman Empire, and museum.
Next up is Corbridge Roman Town. At one time the hub of Roman activity in northern England, Corbridge was an important supply post for forts along this stretch of the Wall.
Later it was repurposed and rebuilt over the years. Corbridge is an extensive site where you can explore two large granaries, markets and workshops, as well as get a good insight into life on the wall in its fascinating museum.
Regeneration has transformed Newcastle into a surprisingly attractive city. As you cycle along the bank of the River Tyne, you’ll ride under seven bridges within a mile, including the iconic Millenium Bridge, with fantastic river views. On a historical note, the Great North Museum – Hancock is home to an excellent section of Hadrian’s Wall that looks at the history of the frontier fortification and analyses its construction.
At Wallsend, you’ll find Segedunum, the most easterly fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Climb the 35m high observation tower for a bird’s eye perspective of the most excavated of all the Wall forts. Step into the interactive museum to see some of the artefacts unearthed here.
Having navigated the city, arrive at Tynemouth on the coast, a finishing point of the route. Upon completing your ride along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, head back to the city centre. The revamped Quayside is home to numerous bars, bistros and buzzing nightlife perfect for celebrating your achievement.