A new exhibition in the British Museum looks at the man behind Hadrian's Wall

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Probably the least embarrassing of all the cock-ups perpetrated by BA and BAA during the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 a few months ago was the claim that Richard Rogers’ building was the largest free-standing structure in Britain.

Wrong. That record has been held for the past 1,880-odd years by Hadrian’s Wall — which is, in my view, a rather more impressive sight.

Walking along the Walltown Crags with my family last month, I kept stopping to admire this extraordinary relic of Roman times. The long, low stub of the rampart snaked eastward over the uneven line of crags and bluffs like the articulated tail of a stone lizard.

What had once (probably) been a crenellated battlement up to 20 feet high, studded with turrets and mile-castles, was reduced to a few courses of fine-hewn stone topped with ragged turf. Over the centuries, it had seemingly fused into the landscape. In a sense, this feat of engineering has become a geological feature.

I had certainly never seen it looking so serenely beautiful. The last time I was here — on this very spot — a bitter wind was swirling snow flurries over the ramparts and the tractor ruts in the mud were frozen like steel rails. Even the hardy Cumbrian sheep were taking shelter under clumps of storm-blasted rowan trees.

Today the warm breeze was barely enough to shake the seedheads on the dandelions, while a slight haze shimmered over the moorland so that the distant forests seemed to float above the horizon. On days like this, it is easy to see why up to a million visitors a year stream off the M6 or the A1, on school trips, family days out and holidays, to cycle, ramble, or visit some of the many museums and sites along the wall.

If Hadrian ever came here, it would have been in the high summer of AD122. The view to the north, and perhaps the weather, might not have been all that different. But what was he doing here? And why did he decide to build his wall?..

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