How the Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall began

Running every decade since 1849, the Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall might claim to be Britain’s oldest archaeological tour. David Breeze traces the origins of this trip to the Roman frontier.


In the summer of 1848, a Newcastle schoolmaster was prevented from going on his planned visit to Rome by the revolutionary upheavals occurring on the Continent. Instead, he undertook a tour of Hadrian’s Wall. The schoolmaster was John Collingwood Bruce, head of the Percy Street Academy in Newcastle. He had visited Hadrian’s Wall before, but now, at the age of 42, this expedition was to change his life.

Bruce was clearly a good teacher and his school was well respected. One of his approaches to teaching history was to take his pupils to historic buildings. He also prepared textbooks on history and geography. This was all good training for what was to come.

This image depicts John Collingwood Bruce (bottom left in the top hat) and his son Gainsford (on the stone), together with the brothers Henry and Charles Richardson, and William the groom at Limestone Corner on their 1848 tour of Hadrian’s Wall, the precursor of the first Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall the following year.

Bruce carefully recorded the Wall in his notebook. But, most significantly, he took with him two brothers, Charles and Henry Richardson, the latter the drawing master in his school. They had instructions to make a record of the Wall as it was, with no embellishments. Henry prepared four dozen drawings, and in the winter he added colour wash to create a series of wonderful paintings of Hadrian’s Wall.

Bruce returned from his ten-day tour, and that winter gave five lectures to the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle. His audience was amazed at the state of the Wall, so close to their city but relatively unknown. As a result, Bruce offered to lead a tour of the Roman remains, which took place the following summer when a score of Pilgrims set off from Newcastle. Along the way they were joined by local people, so it is difficult to give an exact number for the participants, but this became known as the first Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall.

Writing on the Wall

There was another legacy from that tour and the subsequent lectures: Bruce decided to write a book about Hadrian’s Wall. He worked on this through 1849 and 1850, and the whole book appears to have been typeset by the end of that latter year, for he wrote the final element, the preface, on 1 January 1851 and sent the first copy to his wife the following day. This was The Roman Wall, a Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive account of the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus, extending from the Tyne to the Solway, deduced from numerous personal surveys.

Two editions followed, and also a shorter version, The Wallet-Book to the Roman Wall, later renamed The Handbook to the Roman Wall. In all, Bruce published three editions of his Roman Wall, and three of the Handbook, the last when he was 80. Subsequent editors included the distinguished archaeologists R G Collingwood and Ian Richmond. In 2006, the 14th edition of the Handbook was published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle. This month will see the 14th Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, organised by the society and its sister-body the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.

The Pilgrimage in 1969 (at Carrawburgh; David Breeze can be seen to the right explaining his excavation to the pilgrims) and 1886 (at Lanercost Priory; Bruce is seated to the right).

So we have two legacies which we owe to John Collingwood Bruce: The Handbook to the Roman Wall, perhaps the oldest archaeological guidebook continuously in print, and regularly revised, and the Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, seemingly the oldest archaeological tour in Britain.

Traditions of pilgrimage

There are some basic traditions about the Pilgrimage – for example, the way that it reverses the direction of travel each time. This year, we start in Newcastle. We usually have four coaches, each with two leaders, all specialists on Hadrian’s Wall. Pilgrims are encouraged to change their coach each day in order to hear the different perspectives of the guides.

Obviously, one purpose of the Pilgrimage is to consider new work on the Wall since the last expedition (some of which we will explore in the coming pages of this special edition of CA), and the first challenge is to find the most appropriate places where the relevant points can be discussed. These must then be woven in with return visits to the old favourites – the core sites such as South Shields (see p.30), Wallsend (p.32), Chesters, Housesteads, Birdoswald (p.40), Vindolanda (p.34), and Maryport (p.46). Bruce would be amazed at what there is now to see on the Wall.

The programme of visits is enlivened by the inspection of museums such as the Great North Museum in Newcastle, Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, and the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. Nor is the inner man or woman forgotten. Between the opening dinner in the Civic Centre in Newcastle and the closing dinner in the Crown & Mitre Hotel in Carlisle are several receptions, as well as lunch in the magnificent Victorian town hall of South Shields.

The Pilgrimage is a great opportunity to celebrate new work on Hadrian’s Wall, in good company, and with many specialists on the subject. And for those who cannot remember all that they have heard, they can consult the handbook to the Pilgrimage, Hadrian’s Wall: 2009-2019, compiled by Rob Collins and Matt Symonds.

Professor David Breeze is a leading expert on Hadrian’s Wall, and was Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic Scotland between 1989 and 2005.
All images: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.