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Should You Walk or Cycle Hadrian’s Wall?

Author: Alex Stewart
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The Best Way to Experience Hadrian’s Wall

The name ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ conjures up powerful images. To explore it is to follow in the footsteps of Romans, shadow an ancient monument and travel coast to coast across Northern England. Hadrian’s Wall is northern Europe’s largest surviving Roman monument, but what is the best way to experience this UNESCO World Heritage Site? Should you explore Hadrian’s Wall on foot or by bike?

In 2003, Hadrian’s Wall Path became the 13th National Trail in Britain, traversing the countryside between England and Scotland. Over 135 kms/84 miles, the trail follows the course of the great defensive wall built on the instruction of Emperor Hadrian in AD 122. The wall was built to defend the northern limits of the Roman Empire from the so-called barbarians beyond. It snakes across dales and meanders through moors from Cumbria to Northumberland. Hadrian’s Wall runs from Bowness-on-Solway to Segedunum at the aptly named Newcastle suburb of Wallsend, giving walkers a wonderful route to follow.

Cyclists were able to get in on the act when the slightly longer Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway, also known as National Cycle Network Route 72, opened three years later, in 2006. Part of the Sustrans collection of coast to coast routes, this 280 km/174 mile ride shadows the line of Hadrian’s Wall. With plenty of Roman points of interest along the way, the course navigates its way from Glannaventa Fort in Ravenglass, on the Cumbrian coast, to Arbeia Fort in South Shields, on the North Sea.

Should you walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path, or ride the Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway? Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of both.

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Hadrian’s Wall Path - What to Expect

Hadrian's Wall cresting hilltops

The majesty of Hadrian’s Wall is available to anyone with a bit of stamina and a determination to explore. Without downplaying the effort, or the scale of the commitment required to walk it, Hadrian’s Wall Path is considered one of England’s most accessible and shortest national trails. Stretching back to Roman Britain, the route’s rich ancient history also makes it one of England’s most interesting trails. In simple terms, it’s a seven-day ramble along a grassy path through pleasant countryside full of places of historical value – a wonderful introduction to multi-day hiking.

Hiking Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall exploring the forts

The Hadrian’s Wall Path offers plenty to anyone with a bit of stamina and a determination to explore. The history intertwined with this route makes it one of the most interesting National Trails in England, and it is one of the shortest too.

Although the cumulative effect of rising and falling on the path can be challenging, and there are some steep stretches to ascend, at just 345 metres/1132 feet, the high point, Green Slack, is reasonably accessible. Clearly waymarked, the path stays primarily between the Wall on one side and a road a way off on the other. It’s a straightforward trail to follow, with good facilities, cosy places to stay, and plenty of cafes and tearooms along its length to refuel and relax.

The best way to make the most of your Hadrian’s Wall hike is to join a trip where you won’t need to consider the logistics – leaving you to focus on enjoying the views and soaking up the history.

When to Hike Hadrian’s Wall

During the summer, you’ll have plenty of other trail walkers and day-trippers to meet and chat to, adding to the social aspect of walking Hadrian’s Wall. If you’re looking for a bit more peace, time your walk for the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. At this time of year, you’ll escape the busy summer months and can enjoy the must-see sights and finest views and have the trail mostly to yourself. English weather is usually fairly mild, making a spring or fall hike possible.

Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway

Cycling by a low stone wall in Northern England

Essentially, you should cycle Hadrian’s Wall for all the reasons that you’d walk it; it’s a wonderful opportunity to ride coast to coast, journeying through landscapes and history, exploring the many vestiges of the Roman Empire encountered along the way.

Hadrian’s Cycleway starts by journeying up the Cumbrian Coast and making its way around the Solway Estuary, giving you an extended and alternative experience to the Hadrian’s Wall Path. The official bike route makes a good fist of shadowing the walker’s path and following the Wall.

From the moment that you encounter Hadrian’s Wall – following the climb to the village of Banks – see and explore the main Roman points of interest. Forts such as Birdoswald, Housesteads, Vindolanda, Chesters Roman Fort and Corbridge Roman Town are fascinating remnants of Roman Britain’s heritage. Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway happily passes through or close to each site.

Rather than remain entirely historically faithful, the bike route winds back and forth from the wall, dropping into bustling market towns and whipping along quiet roads before returning to the wall. Although this makes for a pleasantly varied pedal, one should note that the official cycle route does not include every section of Hadrian’s Wall. The descent to the town of Haltwhistle, often an overnight base, and the following valley ride bypasses one stretch of wall from Walltown Crags east of the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran across the rugged landscape east of Steel Rigg.

Make the Most of Cycling Hadrian’s Wall

Milecastle 39

To make the most of cycling Hadrian’s Wall, allow enough time in your cycling schedule to stop, dismount and explore sections on foot. There’s no substitute for getting up close to Hadrian’s Wall. Walking a stretch of the wall gives you a feel for what it once must have been like. There are easily accessible out-and-back walks close to the official cycle route that make excellent detours, allowing time out of the saddle and offering additional highlights of Hadrian’s Wall.

The parking area with secure bike rails at Walltown Crags is only a short distance away from the official Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway. Walk just a mile east to discover an impressive section of well-preserved wall in a wild setting before doubling back to your bike.

Alternatively, lock your bike in Steel Rigg car park and head eastwards to find Milecastle 39, the stunningly photogenic Sycamore Gap, Peel Crags and Crag Lough, which together form the classic postcard views of the wall. It’s well worth factoring time for daily walks into your cycling itinerary to really get the best out of the ride. It will undoubtedly enhance your Hadrian’s Wall experience.

Why Choose to Cycle Hadrian’s Wall?

Exploring the foundations of an ancient Roman fort.

So why not simply walk the route? It’s a hugely satisfying challenge to cycle across the country. Of the routes running seashore to seashore in the north of England, there’s no doubt that the Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway is the most accessible. Despite being the least strenuous, Route 72 is not easy; you’ll need to be saddle fit to take it on. However, Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway is impressively bike-friendly and well signposted, making it uncomplicated to follow. The route predominantly follows minor roads, shared-use traffic-free cycle paths and dismantled railways, with far less time on or near busy roads than many cycle routes.

There’s low height gain in the early stages, and climbing is concentrated to the central Pennine sections of the route. This means there is considerably less ascent than on similar routes. The maximum elevation is less, too; Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway crests around 820 ft/250m above sea level, lower than even the walker’s path. To offer a comparison, England’s Coast to Coast trail climbs over 1968 ft/600m. The elevation isn’t everything, though – the Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway immerses you in the wild as you pedal through some of England’s emptiest landscapes.

Taking just three to four days, it’s an ideal beginner’s foray into long distance cycling, and as they say in the UK, it’s a “cracking” cycling tour. The route takes advantage of the same bunkhouses, B&Bs, hotels, guesthouses and inns along the walker’s path. It’s also flexible so you can easily adapt the schedule to your needs.

Got more time? Extend the trip and explore Hadrian’s Wall or discover the historic towns and villages you pass through. Got less time? No problem, push through on longer cycling days or condense the route to simply concentrate on the line of Hadrian’s Wall for the very best bits.

So Hike or Bike?

Whether you choose to hike the path or pedal the cycleway, prepare for an epic experience crossing northern England through some of its most spectacular landscapes. Ultimately, Hadrian’s Wall is a fascinating monument and a wonderful example of ancient heritage leaving its mark on today’s landscapes. It’s also set in some truly special and spectacular countryside. All of this makes exploring it a thrilling holiday, whether on foot or by bike.

In both instances, you’ll travel slowly, lean into the landscape and have time to immerse yourself in what you discover along this iconic monument. One can say that it’s the journey that’s most important – how you make it is up to you.

Walk Hadrian's Wall With Us

Meet the Author: Alex Stewart

A childhood being marched up hills and highpoints on family holidays has translated to a lifetime love of the outdoors. This led to a career working with tour operators and walking companies that, twinned with a passion for writing, has taken me on adventures all around the world. Over 20 years, I’ve explored and written about walking, trekking, hiking and tramping in places as far apart as New Zealand, Peru and the Swiss Alps, for guidebooks, newspapers, magazines and websites. These days I’m on a mission to prove that the UK offers as much adventure as anything you’ll find overseas. I’ve found a lot of joy in experiencing wild places close to home, sharing stories of the wildlife, history and heritage we have on our doorstep while also introducing my young family in turn to the outdoors. Home-grown adventures include racing coast-to-coast across Scotland and walking and cycling across England. I have trekked the Pembrokeshire and Norfolk coasts, claimed Yorkshire’s three peaks, hiked a number of our national trails, and camped in wild places while bagging Wainwrights and Munros. Friends joke though that, in many ways, alongside the pursuit of the perfect sausage roll, all this activity is really just an excuse to seek out artisan scotch eggs and local craft ales to try…

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