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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 83




Welsh cauldron finds offer rare insights

Broch builders house-proud, not warlike

Reindeer hunter preceded Canary fans

Rock art find in rare context

New light on Prittlewell "prince" grave

In Brief


From Universal Bond to Public Free-For-All
100 years at stonehenge: They may not have built it, but Druids ruled the last century

When Rome invaded: Gerald Grainge considers the Channel crossing

Freedom Fighter - or Tale for Romans?
The real Boudica: Richard Hingley looks for the native terrorist leader

Finding the Way
In Hadrian's footsteps: English Heritage report on the threat to the Roman wall

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Finding the way

Our news story about pressure on the monument from the new Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail sparked a public and professional debate. Paul Austen and Christopher Young, authors of the wall's 2002 management plan, reveal that only close monitoring will ensure conservation of the world heritage site.

Access to the historic environment – the framework of our lives – is vital to understanding how it has shaped us. Conserving past remains is essential to permit that access for us and future generations. This is why English Heritage has a primary duty to conserve and to encourage understanding of the historic environment, and why the World Heritage Convention places a duty upon governments to "protect, conserve, present and transmit sites for future generations". We also recognise that the historic environment should contribute to the economic and social well-being of society, now and in the future. Hadrian's Wall typifies the challenges and opportunities of balancing correctly conservation and sustainable access. The process is difficult and stimulates debate.

By most measures the Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail has been a great success. An estimated 400,000 walkers (of whom only 6,000 walked "end to end") used the trail between May 2003, when it opened, and September 2004. It has fulfilled economic objectives, having so far generated an estimated £4.5m within the regional economy. Businesses reliant on tourism welcome this, especially after the hardship suffered when visitor numbers fell during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. This also meets an objective of the world heritage site management plan. The trail has provided farmers on the wall, hard pressed before foot-and-mouth, with opportunities to diversify.

The trail brought several conservation benefits. The footpath was removed from the top of very fragile remains of the wall itself, and instances of historic erosion were repaired, such as the popular viewpoint of Cuddy's Crag near Housesteads, where walkers now follow a new pitched path to the south.

The trail also assists understanding of Hadrian's Wall as a continuous coast-to-coast frontier, dispelling the popular misconception that the wall is a series of disparate attractions managed by different organisations. The linearity of the wall is one of its most significant characteristics. The new footbridge at Willowford, for example, now connects two fine stretches of wall flanking the River Irthing.

Considerable planning lay behind this success. Successive world heritage site management plans informed the trail's development. The Countryside Agency recognised the "overriding need for the conservation of the monument... and its fine landscape setting", and the trail's contribution to enriching "appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the Roman Wall". The agency and the highway authorities committed themselves to manage the trail effectively. It was agreed that grass was the most appropriate surface in the predominantly rural setting; hard surfacing was applied chiefly to remedy areas of historic damage. The agency saw the trail as "a significant contribution to, and essential part" of conserving and managing Hadrian's Wall "in ways that matched its international profile". This commitment was enough to allay most initial fears about unmanaged erosion.

The Countryside Agency took part in an eu-funded project on proactiveearthwork management, initiated by English Heritage and focused on Hadrian'sWall from 2000 to 2003. The agency began by hosting a day conference about erosion control and paths, and further seminars explored experimental earthwork management and repair schemes. The results were published this spring (see end).

A pilot Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) project underway in the popular section between Steel Rigg and Housesteads includes the National Trail. LAC links monitoring and management: action is taken when changes reach agreed unacceptable limits. The technique was first used in the UK at Aonach Mor, a high peak near Ben Nevis, where if path edges become eroded, cable car frequency is regulated to keep visitor numbers within the capacity of the paths.

At Hadrian'sWall a monitoring system also recommends action ahead of expected changes – the "stitch in time" principle. However, to be effective this needs adequate resources and commitment from organisations.

English Heritage flagged up the need for monitoring the trail's condition, and assisted the Countryside Agency with six-monthly fixed point monitoring photographs for several years before the trail opened. These have proved their worth in identifying current problems at an early stage.

Erosion threat

Maintaining a balance between access and conservation has proved challenging. Traffic has taken its toll.

There are 116 monitoring points between Heddon-on-the-Wall and Burgh-by-Sands, where the trail follows the monument closely. English Heritage's Hadrian's Wall Coordination Unit has recently analysed photos taken there between April 2003 and November 2004. Condition was scored on a simple sixpoint scale: perfect grass sward (a), a visible path but with no damage to the root system (b), up to (c) and over (d) 50% of the path bare soil, all grass within the path lost (e) and erosion eating into the ground surface (f).

The chart shows a steady decline. Before the trail opened (April 2003), 68% of this stretch was in "good" condition (a or b) but by November 2004 this had dropped to only 20%. Conversely areas in poor condition (e or f) rose over the same period from a single case to 21.5%. Altogether, nearly 80% of the trail needs treatment, some minor, to restore a well-managed grass path after just 18 months.

Hotbank Milecastle was an erosion problem for many years before the trail opened. Over winter 2003–4, repairs under the EU-funded earthworks project covered the eroded banks and exposed masonry with a "sacrificial layer" of reseeded soil. When the trail reopened across the milecastle in May 2004, erosion started more or less straight away. By July a clear track had developed and by November an eroded path was visible. By this spring a second worn path across the earthworks had developed and the stonework of the east wall was again exposed.

So far all trail wear is reversible and archaeological loss has not occurred: but the danger signals are there. Prompt action to reverse the erosion has started, with proactive management to prevent reoccurrence.


What has caused these problems? In places the trail is only 2m wide, concentrating walkers and making management difficult if the path is to be kept open. Some landowners insisted on the trail being fenced, particularly in arable areas or where they feared the mixing of stock and visitors. Even where walkers can spread over a wider area, they have still often followed a single path.

A variety of short- and long-term measures can be used. Diversion is one possibility. Last winter a network of circular walks was promoted, with passport stamping stations away from the trail itself. Their effectiveness in removing pressure remains to be assessed. Sections of the trail can be moved temporarily for up to six months, and, in extreme circumstances, permanently, but this requires statutory footpath diversions.

Access need not entail actually walking on fragile archaeology, as long as visitors can see the remains in sufficient detail. At Housesteads, to prevent erosion English Heritage allows visitors to inspect but not pass through the Roman gateways. West of Birdoswald the trail follows a route suggested by English Heritage, which avoids any danger of erosion and gives a better view of the turf wall, in preference to the route originally proposed among its earthworks.

In many cases overall trail condition could be maintained by simple management used by English Heritage at its busy sites. At Stonehenge 800,000 visitors are moved laterally within the circular path around the site. At Housesteads, the most popular fort on the wall with over 100,000 visitors a year, a new movable interpretation panel just inside the fort entrance successfully prevents erosion, by moving visitors before the grass sward reveals stress.

Again at Housesteads, the path to the fort from the museum is reinforced by a plastic mesh, known as Golpla, in which the grass roots are protected within open cells: the effect is grass, yet the surface is robust. New "desire lines" could be mowed, for example, or areas roped off before damage to the grass system develops. Trail managers could explore the use of such reinforcing materials at pinchpoints where grass management is impossible.

It is important to allow repaired sections sufficient time to recover. The repairs at Hotbank could settle only a few months before walking resumed. By contrast, a new grass access path to the West Kennet long barrow near Avebury will have over two years to establish before being walked on. New grass needs time to consolidate, and the path needs to be moved before damage to the sward occurs again.

Key to all these measures is adequate personnel to intervene regularly. There are over 50 volunteers on the trail helping with visitor management and routine tasks such as litter picking: they could also monitor condition and conduct minor maintenance. The Countryside Agency carries out an annual "snagging" inspection, but monitoring has shown that problems can occur quickly, and more responsive monitoring and management is needed. The recent recruitment of a full-time "lengthsman" by the agency is a welcome move.

Much of the trail in east Northumberland was constructed on the edges of arable fields. In the longer term, arable reversion under the new Environmental Stewardship scheme could be applied to widen the trail where needed to permit proactive management.

No option

Critics suggest that the ambition to retain a grass sward on the Hadrian's Wall Trail was flawed. They argue that increased hard surfacing is needed because of the trail's success in attracting so many walkers. The Countryside Agency and English Heritage remain committed to the view that a green sward is the most sympathetic surface within the rural and special landscape setting of the monument. Walkers also prefer a grass surface.

Experience on Hadrian's Wall and elsewhere shows that large numbers of visitors can be accommodated without damage. Some ways of achieving this have been discussed here. Monitoring has allowed early identification of the problems and it is important to deal with these now. Erosion, once established, accelerates: the deterioration needs to be reversed before actual archaeological loss occurs. This will require effective daily management of the trail as well as some additional resources.

English Heritage and the Countryside Agency have recently discussed ways of ensuring that the problems are addressed. Ideas for improved training, use of volunteers, closer targeting of annual work programmes and streamlining consent procedures are all being explored. Within a world heritage site, maintaining the balance between conservation and access is not optional.

Paul Austen, Hadrian's Wall co-ordinator, and Christopher Young, head of world heritage and international policy, work at English Heritage. Managing Earthwork Monuments is available free from Karen Parker,Hadrian's Wall Coordination Unit, Abbeygate House, Market Street, Hexham NE46 3LX; The authors would like to thank Countryside Agency staff for help with this article

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