It is a familiar modern or urban myth that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object that can be seen from space, but this is in fact a very vague concept. Assuming that this means ‘with the naked eye’ it is still necessary to ask from how high an orbit such observations should be made and under what conditions. On its website, NASA shows how some segments of the Great Wall can be made out in photographs taken by astronauts but that the human eye cannot see it from low earth orbit. If it is that difficult for a large structure like that, Hadrian’s Wall stands no chance!
Nowadays, of course, remote sensing technology means that civilian satellites can routinely image down to 0.5m resolution and military satellites probably supply even finer detail. In that respect, Hadrian’s Wall is no different from any other monument in the degree of its visibility from space.
Further reading: Man 2008
The notion that the Romans used speaking tubes to communicate along the Wall can be traced back to at least Drayton in the 17th century and his poem called the Polyolbion where his personified Wall mentions
With hollow pipes of brasse, along me still they went
By which they in one fort still to another sent,
By speaking in the same, to tell them what to doe,
And soe from sea to sea could I be whispered through.
Although it was repeated by Camden, Collingwood Bruce rightly pooh-poohed the story and pointed out that no such brass pipes have ever been found, although noting that a similar tradition existed about the Antonine Wall.
Myth has a powerful place in the story of Hadrian’s Wall. The area of Sewingshields Crags has come to be associated with the tale of King Arthur lying asleep in a subterranean cave, waiting to be awakened to save England.
Further reading: Bruce 1853
By means of signalling. A few basic facts about Roman signalling survive, including the use of fire, smoke, and wooden beams. The first two are fairly obvious but the last, which is only mentioned in passing by Vegetius, is rather obscure and not understood. Beacons are shown being prepared and used on Trajan’s Column, presumably for the purposes of signalling. Modern studies have examined lines of sight between signal stations, forts, milecastles and turrets in the region of the Wall. Some signal towers allowed sites that could not see each other to communicate, as Barcombe Hill signal station did for Housesteads and Vindolanda.
Further reading: Woolliscroft 2001
There are full-size reconstructions of the stone curtain wall (narrow gauge) at Wallsend (on the other side of the road from the fort and museum) and (broad gauge) at Vindolanda, together with a stone turret. Vindolanda also provides a length of the Turf Wall rampart and a timber milecastle gateway. A full-size replica of the Turf Wall is also present in the Border Galleries at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.
Further reading: Breeze 2006
The visitor to Hadrian’s Wall is fortunate in having access to a fine series of museums containing not only finds from generations of excavations, but also explanatory material. These are located at Carlisle (Tullie House), Birdoswald (site museum), Carvoran (Roman Army Museum), Housesteads (site museum), Chesters (site museum), Newcastle (Great North Museum), and Wallsend (site museum). The Great North Museum contains most of the material that used to be in the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle (to which older books tend to refer). In addition, the Stanegate sites of Vindolanda and Corbridge both have excellent museums as well as sites worth the detour from the line of the Wall. If only to see the magnificent reconstructed gateway (there is actually so much more), a journey to the fort at South Shields will likewise repay the time and effort.
Further reading: Breeze 2006
There is no simple answer to this, as the statistics vary along the line of the Wall. Moreover, it seems there is more than one way of counting a visitor! However, it has long been well known that the central sector, and especially Housesteads, attracts the largest numbers; that site enjoyed a peak of over 150,000 annually in the 1970s but has since declined to around 100,000.
Since the opening of the National Trail, a new type of visitor, one not necessarily overly concerned with the Roman Wall, but rather with completing the Trail, has appeared. Automatic counters set up along the route show more than 7,000 people a year walking the Wall. In the central sector this climbs to well over 30,000 at Steel Rigg, reflecting day trippers out for a stroll (intriguingly classified as ‘amblers, ramblers, and scramblers’).
Further reading: Ewin 2000
There is a blurred line between antiquarians and tourists, but one of the first true tourists must have been William Hutton, who visited the Wall in 1801. Not only did this 78-year-old man walk the Wall twice (west to east then east to west), he walked to it from Birmingham and back again at the end – a total distance of 601 miles (he kept a careful record of his progress). His History of the Roman Wall, promptly published in 1802, is one of the first popular accounts of the monument and includes an account of his walk from east to west. Hutton was of the opinion that he was the first and would probably be the last to walk Hadrian’s Wall, but just one month later the Rev. John Skinner did the same thing, again from east to west, providing some hint of how popular walking the Wall was to become.
Subsequent walkers who were to write accounts of their journeys included John Collingwood Bruce (who would go on to become the doyen of Wall studies and to found the Pilgrimages to the Wall), Maria Hoyer, Jessie Mothersole, and Hunter Davies.
Further reading: Ewin 2000