What’s 84 miles long, 1,888 years old and marked the edge of Roman rule in Britain? Hadrian’s Wall of course – and the landmark got a spectacular makeover this weekend with a line of beacons stretching its entirety. The event, named ‘Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall’, marked the 1,600th anniversary of the end of the Roman occupation in Britain, and needed no fewer than 1,100 hardy volunteers to brave the harsh winds of northern England to make it happen.
We know it’s a far cry from London – about 300 miles, in fact – but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance (make that once-in-about-250-lifetimes) to see one of Britain’s most important ancient landmarks lit up to show its true magnitude. Check out this live blog to see photos and tweets from the event.
As the sun goes down we all hop in a cab, whose driver has predictably never heard of the press area at Steel Rigg. Much confusion and several stops later, we’re up in the Cumbrian hills wishing we’d all worn an extra pair of socks. But there can’t have been a better spot from which to see the illuminations: miles of winding Roman wall snaking off into the distance, beside lakes, cliffs and…cows.
It’s a stunning sight as sun set, and we’re lucky to meet Linda Tuttiett, chief executive of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage, who are planning an eco-revamp of the site. “The Emperor Hadrian realised he needed to contain the borders of the Roman Empire,” she says. Yet the traditional view of the wall keeping out mad Picts and Brigantes, fierce Celtic warriors, may be a little too simple: “It could be that the Romans were protecting the (area’s) valuable mineral deposits…it must have been a critical part of defending the Roman Empire.”
It was also home to Vindolanda, a huge Roman fortress town and home to the incredible Vindolanda Tablets – ink-written Roman postcards from the frontline that lend fascinating insight into the daily lives of the wall’s Roman residents.
With the sun disappearing over our shoulders, it’s time to put on the lights, and there’s a palpable sense of tension as we see one, then two, then three, four and five beacons lit in the distance. Helicopters whizz past us (catch aerial footage in the video) and camera flashes flood the night sky. Yet there’s a frantic few seconds on our flare as the illuminators fail to get it going straight away. Disaster soon averted, we’re all left to bask in the wall’s enormity.
Kids are running round cheering, people are drinking tea and hot chocolate (lucky) and there’s a general sense of achievement in the air. For while we might never see Hadrian’s Wall at its 2nd century might (except in reconstructions), the illuminations are a great doff of the cap to the Romans and their legacy in Britain and beyond.
We meet Matthias and Kathleen, Roman re-enactors who’ve travelled from Germany and Belgium respectively to witness the occasion – why? “It’s part of our own history,” says Kathleen. “They’re our own ancestors, so a lot of their culture has been taken by us nowadays.” It may be at the edge of England, but Hadrian’s Wall is a part of the entire world’s heritage.
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