One of the hot topics of 2016 is the usefulness, or otherwise, of borders. The European Union has been moving towards the elimination of travel restrictions between countries, while attempting to maintain strict controls on its external borders. The fl ood of refugees from the war zones of the Middle East is putting this policy under strain, so that many countries are thinking about reintroducing border controls, and a few (like Denmark and Sweden) have actually done so. Britain never signed up to the Schengen agreement, so Europeans visiting the UK still have to show their passports before being allowed to enter the country. Occasionally, tourists even believe that there are passport controls at the border between England and Scotland and, indeed, one of the arguments put forward by opponents of Scottish independence is that if the governments of the two countries decided to follow radically diff erent policies on key areas such as immigration, it could lead to police or military checkpoints and patrols on the borders.
Whether this will happen is anyone’s guess, but there is a precedent: Hadrian’s Wall. This was begun during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD76-138), who visited Britain in 122. It was one of the largest building projects ever undertaken by the Romans, and was designed as a frontier control which would “mark a dividing-line between the Roman Empire and the barbarian world”. The wall runs for 74 miles, stretching from Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, on the outskirts of Newcastle, to Bowness-on- Solway, Cumbria. Forts, known as milecastles, were built on it at intervals of 1 Roman mile (0.95 miles), supported by large barracks at such places as Corbridge and Housesteads. Although it’s clear that the wall illustrates the Romans’ military might and engineering prowess, historians have doubted how eff ective it would have been in the event of large-scale barbarian invasions and have questioned the need for such a grand structure in a sparsely populated area. It has been asserted that Hadrian’s Wall was the Roman equivalent of a modern border, allowing control over matters such as immigration, smuggling and customs. It also enabled the authorities to tighten their grip on the population to the south of the Wall, who were – for the fi rst time in history – issued with passports, which identifi ed them as citizens and taxpayers.
After Hadrian’s death, the wall continued to serve its function until Roman rule of Britain ended in the early fi fth century. It fell into disuse, and in the eighteenth century large sections of it were used for roadbuilding. However, in the 1830s, John Clayton, the Newcastle antiquarian and town clerk (who was also involved in the development of the “Grainger Town” area of central Newcastle), began to take an interest in preserving Hadrian’s Wall. He bought land through which the wall ran, organised archaeological excavations and continued to make discoveries until late in his life; he died in 1890, at the age of 98.
Hadrian’s Wall is now the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. In summer, visitors can follow the wall by walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path, and the walk will take them through an impressive variety of landscapes. Cycling tours are also possible, you can visit picturesque market towns, there is a “Wall Bus”, and even a Hadrian’s Wall Festival every May. Or, if you happen to visit the area in winter and don’t fancy a walk in cold weather, Newcastle’s Great North Museum has a largescale, interactive model of the Wall with a host of historical information.