Friday, June 28, 2013

Walking on History

Last week we visited Hadrian’s Wall and walked a mile along the adjacent trail. As we hiked Mike Collins, an English Heritage inspector for the site, discussed the unique challenges of managing the trail. He told us how English Heritage has had to think a bit creatively since thousands of hikers pass through each year, walking on top of areas that need to be preserved for future archeological digs. Plus there are the problems of making sure hikers don’t walk on top of the wall!

Unlike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the United States, which encourages hikers to walk in a single file line to limit environmental damage and erosion, English Heritage wants hikers to do just the opposite by spreading out.  Hadrian’s Wall even posts signs telling people to walk side by side instead of a line. 

The AT contains constructed the trailheads and educates hikers to follow conservation guidelines; however on Hadrian’s Wall, little construction can be done to prepare the soil for large amounts of visitors because of the area’s potential archaeological significance. Therefore English Heritage along with the National Trust put down a layer of fertilized soil about once a year to maintain grass growth (and therefore resist erosion caused by hikers) and mow wide trials to encourage more people to spread out. 

Hadrian's Wall (on the left) and the wide trail

There are parts of the trail that are too narrow for hikers to spread out so in those areas, gravel or stone walkways have been installed. Other areas needed firmer trails since they were too muddy to expect people to willingly walk though. Also these more established paths encourage hikers to avoid hiking through the Roman forts scattered every mile or so along the wall.

OK, so Hadrian's Wall does have some signs.
Collins said that he tries to reduce the amount of signs since they ruin the historical and natural setting, and believes the stone trails are enough for hikers to know what is expected of them. From my experience on the AT, this sounded a bit funny since the trail regularly has white blazes to reassure hikers they are on the correct path. Also the AT puts up signs commemorating local events and hiking groups who maintain the trial. I am sure there are regulations about avoiding too much signs, but there is definitely more of an aversion along Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps this is because the wall does not have as many trees, which are more conducive to signs, but more importantly I think it is because Hadrian’s Wall is still seen as an active archeological site while the AT is viewed more as a challenge and attraction.

Another way English Heritage tries to reduce the hikers’ impact on the wall is through a stamp program. Hikers are given a passport that they can get stamped at various stations along the trail, but only during certain months. This way, hopefully hikers will plan to come during the months of the year when the wall can handle more visitors. I am not sure how much this would work; I think hikers just come during the months that have the best weather anyways.

Hadrian’s Wall faces a common problem we have heard from other places in trying to balance public accessibly with protecting the site from the wear of use. I greatly enjoyed walking along the wall and would like to come back one day to hike the whole thing; not only do you get great views but you also literally are walking on top of history. 

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