It's the sword that makes it real to me. Of all the sights encountered in a long, memorable day exploring Hadrian's Wall, the most remarkable is a rusted sword and its corroded hilt. They were unearthed by an archaeological dig just weeks before my visit to Vindolanda which was once the site of a garrison town serving soldiers stationed in northern England, at the extreme edge of the Roman Empire.
Vindolanda's unearthed foundations are fascinating, but it is the artefacts on display in its museum that create a link with the people of that age. Almost 1900 years ago soldiers patrolled Emperor Hadrian's nearby defensive wall. Though it's possible to hike the wall's entire 135-kilometre length, the best preserved section is in hilly country well away from the coast.
Not everyone is an ace hiker, nor has the time to walk long stretches of the wall, so luckily there's an alternative: the AD122 bus. Running in warmer months, it provides a much-needed link between locations along Hadrian's Wall for less-fit people like me. To access the bus I catch a train from Newcastle upon Tyne to the small town of Hexham, its eastern terminus. The AD122 runs hourly from here to Haltwhistle railway station, stopping at museums, former forts and other key sites along the wall.
My first stop is Chesters Roman Fort. Hadrian's Wall crossed the North Tyne River here, and the ruins of the fort run down to the riverbank. It's a peculiarly English setting, with sheep grazing in lush green meadows beside the low stone foundations of Roman structures. There's little of the actual wall to see, but I am impressed by a former bath house which was preserved for centuries beneath silt.
Back on the bus, I alight next at Housesteads, another former fort. Here at last is the ancient wall, though to reach it there's a 700-metre walk up a steep path from the visitor centre. It's chilly atop the ridge, but it provides a wonderful vista. Those Roman soldiers would have had a commanding view across the countryside, of their own lands and those of the unconquered Picts. Though it's a beautiful bucolic scene, it's hard not to think of Game of Thrones and glance nervously northward for the undead White Walkers.
It's time for a walk myself. Google Maps confidently predicts it will take an hour to cover the 4.6-kilometre hike west past Sycamore Gap and its much-photographed lone tree, to Steel Rigg where I can rejoin the bus. So much for technology. It's not a difficult walk, but the terrain is unrelentingly undulating, and occasional light drizzle makes it slippery in places. It's necessary to pick my steps carefully, so my progress is less than rapid.
I'm compensated with marvellous views, and a sense of history via the ever-present wall. About a metre high, it tapers into the distance along the line of the ridge, an attractive feature of the landscape. At one point it's broken by a stone arch, presumably once a guarded gate through which people could pass to north or south.
What should take an hour stretches into two, and I still have a fair distance to cover. So, spotting a farm access road which leads down from the ridge, I bail out. On the road below, I hail the next AD122 bus – luckily it's allowed to pull over anywhere that's safe – and climb aboard.
Lunch is at The Sill (the National Landscape Discovery Centre) and then there's another short hop on the bus to Vindolanda, to admire that recently recovered sword. After my short-lived effort at patrolling the wall, I have a new respect for the ancient soldier who bore it.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific, Visit Britain and Accor Hotels.
County Hotel is a classic pub in Hexham with pleasant rooms and good food, from £110 a night. Ibis Carlisle City Centre is an affordable option near Carlisle railway station, from £45 a night. See countyhotelhexham.co.uk; ibis.com
The AD122 bus runs from late April to September, with train connections to Newcastle and Carlisle; day ticket £12.50, three-day ticket £25. See hadrianswallcountry.co.uk