West to east or east to west, Hadrian's Wall offers a uniquely high density of artifacts and attractions from Rome's most northern frontier.
Stretching more or less across the pennines in a straight line from modern-day Newcastle in the east to Carlisle in the west, Hadrian's Wall needs no introduction. The concept of Roman emperor Hadrian, in answer to the persistent irritation of the small-time raids and pilfering from the tribes to the north the clear solution, was to build a wall to keep them out. Much of that wall still stands today after nearly 2,000 years, but since the invention of "the ladder," it has become less effective at its job.
I won't trawl over the historical facts in this journal - it would be obvious that I'd just plagiarised them from elsewhere anyway, so I've found a couple of links to some reliable background info here and here.
I'll concentrate on offering my opinion on how to get the best out of it and what I think are the best bits.
First thing is orientation. It's possible to take a hike along its length. The undulating terrain and the combination of exposed moorland and generally elevated position of the wall is a clear recipe for a "rosy glow," but I'd say it is probably one of the best, or maybe the best, hikes in Britain. It's likely to test endurance and tolerance to rain rather than athletic ability, and you're never far away from the salvation of the main road for a trip back to civilisation if you decide halfway through that you've had enough.
If, on the other hand, like most visitors, you want to sample the various attractions along the wall in one or two days or hike along just a bit of it, you'll want to pick the best access route. From the west, head for Carlisle, then head east first along the main trans-pennine route, the A69. This road runs parallel to the wall all the way to Newcastle at a distance never more than a mile or so. The road's okay, but gets busy with trans-pennine freight. As the road is only partially dual carriageway, this can lead to an irritating and unspectacular drive, especially since there's a better option. That better option is the "Old Roman Road," lately known as the B6318. The best spot to get onto it from the A69 heading east from Carlisle is at Greenhead. This is a convenient start in many respects, as it's very close to the site of Birdoswald Roman Fort. You can sort of view this from the wall, but to get closer to this attraction, you need to pay a couple of quid - this also gets you access to the compact, little museum of artifacts there. Car parking at this point, I believe, is free.
If you're starting your journey from the east, head for the A1, which passes south and west of Newcastle, and join the A69 just north of the River Tyne. Head along the A69 for 8 miles or so, then head north towards the B6318 at Corbridge.
The B6318 road is one of my favourites. It's only single carriageway, but it's much quicker and nicer than the A69. It doesn't get the freight traffic for one thing, even though it does get some slow moving caravans and tourist traffic. Under normal circumstances, this could prove a major driving irritation, but since these Roman boys knew what they were doing by building their roads straight as a die, you can easily pull out and see what's coming for miles ahead so overtaking is relatively easy. You do need to be careful not to lose oncoming traffic in the frequent dips and undulations in the road - it's a bit like a rollercoaster. There are fewer speed traps on this road, too. The main attraction of the road is that it follows the wall's path at a distance of no more than a few meters, so it's a very scenic drive, and every few miles there's something new to pull over and look at.
Access to the wall itself is largely free, quite rightly making it very accessible to many, but some attractions (like Birdoswald) carry a charge. The best (in my opinion) is Housesteads, which carries both a parking charge and an entry fee. Good job it’s worth it. Housesteads was in its time a major development on the wall, and the layout of its various cahmbers and structures is still there to see. There's also a nice museum and lots of info about the site and its past purpose and uses as a granary, etc. It can be found approximately halfway along the wall between Carlisle and Newcastle.
For me, a major draw of the wall is the terrain through which it travels. I don't get there as often as I'd like, as it is sheep-grazing country and we have dogs, but the barren exposed moorland, the wind, and incessant drizzle always seem to develop your appreciation of what it must have been like as a Roman soldier to get this as an assignment out of all the lovely places throughout the empire you could have been sent. Very...evocative.
If it's a nice walk along the wall you're after, assuming that you don't want to traverse the entire thing, you could do worse than park up at Cawfields, signposted near to Haltwhistle. There is free parking, toilets, and immediate access to a nice walkable stretch of wall, with a milecastle nearby, too.
It's great. I think you should go.