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Route Master

As the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition opens next week, Andrew Eames took a hike along the wall itself to discover both the Roman past and a new bond with his son.

A mark of the increasing distance between parents and their offspring is when a son no longer laughs at his father’s jokes. There we were, ambling along Hadrian’s Wall and talking about how the Romans must have found it pretty nippy in Northumberland, when we were suddenly strafed by a shower of frozen rain.

“I know,” I exclaimed, putting a brave face on it. “What does a legionnaire write on his postcards home? All hail! Caesar! Geddit? It’s all hail.”

Thomas pretended he hadn’t heard. I couldn’t complain. Although he’d rather have covered the distance courtesy of a mouse and Google Earth, my 15-year-old hadn’t actually objected to walking. We’d even had some relatively fluent father-son exchanges, away from digital distractions, because walking tends to do that; it tends to take the pressure off being in each other’s company, allowing conversation to flow.

And as for the changeable weather, it was far better for a teenager’s complexion than anything a chemist could supply.

It was intended to be a bit educational, this walk along a famous 1,900-year-old pile of stones. The big Hadrian exhibition comes to the British Museum this month but we parents are having increasing difficulty in getting our children to do anything so remotely self-improving in their spare time. So I made a suggestion that, rather than be one of the grumpy tens of thousands doing Hadrian on a museum afternoon, we’d turn it into a field trip. In a very big field.

It is remarkable how little has changed along Hadrian’s frontier – described by English Heritage as “the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain” – since it was started back in AD122. The Milecastles and turrets that dotted its length have largely gone, of course, and the wall nowhere approaches its original 16ft height, but the views both to the north and south are still of skylark-rich, curlew-filled romantic desolation, rolling away into the distance.

It’s easy to imagine what it must have been like, patrolling the loping wall as it climbed along the escarpment of the Whin Sill, a seam of dolerite rock that runs much of the way between Newcastle and Carlisle. Hadrian chose a pretty stunning place to seal England off from the Scots, and his soldiers would have had no difficulty in seeing either the raiding parties approaching from the north or the hail showers rolling in from the Solway Firth.

These days there are still very few houses in the Wall’s vicinity which partly explains why its stones haven’t been “borrowed” during the intervening years. And even though the Wall is now Unesco-recognised and the path along it is a National Trail, there are still bits where you can walk most of the day without encountering a cup of tea – and where the only latrines are the ones the Romans left behind.

The two of us did about half of the trail, the best bit, where the Wall is a permanent presence, and where there are still the remains of fortresses at Housesteads and Chesters. Walking from Gilsland to Heddon we covered 10-15 miles by day sleeping in local guest houses by night, and hoovering up platefuls of mince in the local pubs en route.

Each overnight stop had its advantages. Saughy Rigg farm was an easy-going walkers’ way-station, within walking distance of the Inn at Twice Brewed, which did a pretty high-calorie chocolate pudding.

The next night’s Carraw B&B was more immaculate and silver-service but it also had the full range of Sky TV in a guest lounge, and its breakfast stayed with us the whole day. As we moved along the wall, past charismatic names such as Sewingshields and Fozzy Moss, King’s Wicket and Busy Gap, we worked out how many inches there were in a Roman mile, discussed career possibilities, debated whose turn it was to have the remote control that night, and talked about girlfriends past and present – both his and mine.

At Chesters Fort, on our last morning Thomas latched on to the fact that many of the soldiers garrisoned here had actually been German or Spanish auxiliaries, and they had been rewarded for doing time on the Wall with Roman citizenship. “So what do I get for it?” he wanted to know, as we set out for our final push. “The benefit of having spent quality time with your father,” I replied. He just grunted. But in my book, that’s an encouraging sign.

•Andrew Eames is the author of Something Different for the Weekend, published by Bradt, price £9.99

Way to go

Andrew Eames and son travelled to Northumberland courtesy of National Express rail
(08457 225225, www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com.), advance returns from £23

Walking arrangements were made by Shepherds Walks (01830.540453)
www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk), whose three-day Highlights of the Wall package costs £225 per person, and includes transfers, B&B accommodation, route information and luggage forwarding.

Further regional information on www.visitnorthumberland.com

Hadrian:Empire and Conflict, the first major show dedicated to the life and legacy of Hadrian, will run from Thursday 24 July until 26th October at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1
(020 7323 8181 www.britishmuseum.org/hadrian) Tickets £12, concessions available.