Managing the Wall: How to care for a 73-mile-long monument

Hadrian’s Wall was built to safeguard the Roman frontier – today, the fortification itself needs special care. Humphrey Welfare discusses the unique challenges of managing a monument that runs from coast to coast and spans diverse authority areas.

Anything in the landscape that is nearly 2,000 years old should be managed with care. If it is also a World Heritage Site over 100 miles long, and extends into eight Local Authority areas and two National Parks, then this situation can become quite complicated. The remains of Hadrian’s Wall run through a wide variety of townscape and countryside, from urban Tyneside to the upland pastures of the central sector, and the marshes and sand dunes of the Cumbrian coast. Some stretches lie in arable land, and other areas are primarily managed for sheep, or cattle, or visitors. All of these differences have consequences for the monument’s survival, sustainability, and how it is cared for.

above A muddy ‘pinch point’ on the National Trail, within Milecastle 33, at the end of winter. The bridge carries the path over the side wall of the milecastle.
A muddy ‘pinch point’ on the National Trail, within Milecastle 33, at the end of winter. The bridge carries the path over the side wall of the milecastle.

Effective management depends on having access to good archaeological records – how well features survive, the information that they can provide, and how significant each element is. These records come from centuries of observation, excavation, and analysis, supplemented during the last 30 years by detailed field survey, geophysics, aerial photography, and LiDAR. The current state of knowledge is summarised at www.pastscape.org.uk and depicted on the English Heritage Archaeological Map of Hadrian’s Wall (2nd edition, 2014).

Despite this wealth of information, there are still areas about which little is known, particularly in Newcastle and on the Solway’s marshy shores. It is difficult to manage what you do not know. Only a tiny percentage has been excavated, far less is displayed. The short lengths of the Wall that have been consolidated are mostly within the 20 miles of the central sector between Chesters and Birdoswald. These are fairly robust, but the earthwork remains – including the ditch and the upcast mound to the north of the Wall, the Vallum, and the temporary camps – need more gentle care.

Watchers on the Wall

Who is responsible for this care? Leaving aside the crucial work done by the owners and managers of the sites open to the public – the National Trust, the Vindolanda Trust, and English Heritage – it has been estimated that there may be as many as 1,000 landowners, great and small, who have sections of the Wall and the Vallum, and there are many other players – such as the public utilities – whose work potentially has a direct bearing on the archaeology.

In towns, the pattern of property rights is especially complex, and the statutory protection that is the basis of management is fraught with difficulty. In the countryside, farmers provide the first line of management, but even there, there is additional layering of responsibilities – as at Housesteads, where the National Trust, English Heritage, and the Northumberland National Park are all involved.

At an international level, our Wall – inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1987 – has become a constituent part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site: the limes in Upper Germany and Raetia was added in 2005, and the Antonine Wall in 2008. Most visitors are quite unaware of this wider framework, and more needs to be done to highlight this international dimension which, as it expands further, mirrors the Roman Empire itself.

The urban Wall at West Denton, Newcastle: there are huge numbers of stakeholders in this type of landscape.

Back on Hadrian’s Wall, the WHS is defined by the many Scheduled Monuments of its components: the linear bands of the Wall and the Vallum, contrasting with the individual sites along the Stanegate, the towers of the Cumbrian coast, and the outlying forts to the south of Maryport: Burrow Walls, Moresby, and Ravenglass. To deal with all of this, Historic England has a dedicated Inspector of Ancient Monuments responsible for providing advice within the Planning system, and for ensuring the relevant legislation is complied with.

Some areas of the Wall, however, have formally designated additional protection – for example, Natural England is involved in safeguarding the geology of the Whin Sill, and the habitats of migrant geese on the western shores. The WHS also needs to contribute to its own sustainability through the prosperity of the communities through which it runs. Scores of small businesses are dependent on the visitors who come to see the Wall: taxi firms and luggage carriers; tearooms, pubs, and shops; tour operators and coach firms; and accommodation of all kinds. All of these varied interests have to be taken into account.

Taking steps

In 2003, a hugely important development was the establishment of the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail. Every year, thousands of walkers complete the entire 84-mile route, and many more tackle shorter chunks. This has opened up access to long stretches that were not at all well known, transforming the public’s ability to understand the frontier zone as a whole – but at a cost. Even though the Trail’s course was carefully chosen to minimise damage to the archaeological earthworks from walkers’ boots, the maintenance of a healthy green sward can only be achieved by constant attention. To this end, a small team (employed by the Northumberland National Park but funded by Natural England and relevant Highways Authorities) is out on the Trail year-round on seasonal tasks: mowing, reseeding pinch points, and repairing signposts, kissing gates, and stiles. Strategic management is in the hands of the Trail Partnership, composed of the funders and Historic England.

left The urban Wall at West Denton, Newcastle: there are huge numbers of stakeholders in this type of landscape. above The Management Plans for the World Heritage Site. A fifth edition will begin in 2020.
The Management Plans for the World Heritage Site. A fifth edition will begin in 2020.

Fairly soon after the Wall became a WHS, it was clear that a strategic approach to management was needed. English Heritage therefore led the pioneering compilation of the Management Plan for the Wall, published in 1996 and the first such document in the UK. Since then, it has been revised every five or six years. The current iteration – the fourth – contains the Vision for the Wall, and associated model policies, objectives, and actions. It is only published online (https://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/hadrians-wall-management-plan) and is revised as circumstances change; having a dynamic Plan was another innovation that had to be put to UNESCO. Although there is a phase of public consultation during the preparation of each edition, an annual networking day provides an opportunity for fresh input, and a new Plan is now being prepared, to run from 2020.

Responsibility for the revision and progress of the Plan falls to a Partnership Board composed of representatives of Local Authorities, Historic England, Natural England, and the Chairs of the Delivery Groups. These Groups focus on particular topic areas, like conservation, marketing, archaeological research, learning and interpretation, and tourism and transport. Delivery by third parties is at the heart of the Plan, and everything is drawn together by the WHS Coordinator. Characteristically, although it is a product of the UK signing the World Heritage Convention, the Board has no legal status: it simply works because the stakeholders want it to. This cooperative spirit is a practical expression of the value that we all place on World Heritage.

Source
Humphrey Welfare chaired the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site Partnership Board until 2018.