The race is on to save a Roman fort from the effects of climate change and solve one the mysteries of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. 

The fort at Magna – also known as Carvoran – next to the Roman Army Museum near Greenhead, is run by the Vindolanda Trust and is under threat because the land is drying out.

 The waterlogged site on Hadrian's Wall is ideal for preserving archaeological finds and similar conditions at Vindolanda Roman fort resulted in the discovery of the famous writing tablets.

But Andrew Birley, the trust’s chief executive and director of excavations, said global warming was taking its toll on Magna, which predates the Wall, and money was urgently needed to fund excavations.

Andrew and the trust’s vice-chairman, Gary Calland have therefore launched Vindolanda Via Roma, a fund-raising appeal for the cause which will seem them ride Vespa scooters from Vindolanda to Rome and back in 13 days – the time it took for the Roman postal service to send a message from the northern frontier to the capital.

“Magna has never been excavated, yet retains one of the greatest mysteries of Hadrian’s Wall,” said Andrew. 

“The Vallum makes a half-mile diversion around the site and nobody knows why. The rest of way the Vallum is straight line. Rather than go around anything they cut through dolomite to keep it straight. 

“But at Magna it does a big dog leg around it. And in that dog leg is a peat bog and peat bogs are the most sensational archaeological environments. It is drying out and reducing in size rapidly. It is half the size it was in 2001. 

"The features are starting to rise out of the ground, which means that the protection that was there for centuries is disappearing. 

“All the information that comes from these sites which have been so sensational here at Vindolanda are very likely to be lost. The site is as least as big as Vindolanda, if not bigger.”

Andrew said prolonged dry spells were damaging peat bogs beyond repair and long term, would change the ecology of the Hadrian’s Wall corridor. 

“There is an archaeological myth that if it’s under the ground it is protected, but of course that is not true,” he said. “It just takes a small nudge in climate to do major changes under the ground.”

Andrew and Gary are aiming to raise £20,000 towards the excavation and preservation of the fort and after they set off in August, they are aiming to visit the lands of the ancient peoples who made Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall their home.

“We have 13 days to do 3,500 miles,” he said. “The Romans could push a little over 100 miles a day, changing horses and riders and they could do it in 13 days. 

“We thought, it’s the 21st century, can we get there and back in 13 days and can we take Roman roads as much as we can and visit the sites which provided the garrison of Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall?

“We are using a machine which has a range of 100 miles on a tank which matches the 100 miles a day, but which is not designed to do this sort of trip in any sense of the word. 

“What we are trying to do  is raise money to support the revealing Magna appeal, to combat the effects of climate change at Roman Magna and do an excavation there before the ground conditions change so drastically that the sort of artefacts that have been so sensational at Vindolanda are no longer there to be found as the land dries up. 

“The clock is ticking on us and the clock is ticking on the site of Magna.”

This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the trust and Andrew sees the journey as a fitting tribute to all the work that has gone on at Vindolanda over the last five decades.

Vindolanda Via Roma has already had support from local businesses, with Top Signs in Hexham providing the decals for the bike. The design shows a scooter painted on a Roman shield. 

And the Vespa dealer, based on Hadrian’s Wall in Newcastle, Motech, is offering technical support. “They are going to service the bikes for us and train us on how to maintain them,” said Andrew.

“We are going to learn how to change the wheels, the tyres the bulbs. They have got a drive belt that can go. We are pushing these machines way over their service intervals. We are doing in two weeks what people do in a year.”

Andrew and Gary are travelling through six countries and former provinces of the Roman Empire and will be spreading the word as they go, giving talks and meeting with fellow academics. 

They will ride through Gaul, which provided the 4th Cohort of Gauls, Holland where the Tavians came from, Belgium which was home of the Tungrians and Switzerland – the land of the Raetians. 

“We are also travelling more than 600 miles of the German frontier where many Roman soldiers from Britain served, and of course, many many places in between.”

Andrew and Gary are aiming to spend between 13 and 15 hours a day in the saddle during their fund-raising adventure, crossing the Alps on their 278cc scooters at the famous Great St Bernard Pass which rises to 8,100ft. 

And on their return journey along Hadrian’s Wall, they are hoping to be joined by many more Vespa riders who will accompany them on their way back to Vindolanda.

A cinematographer will be going with them, making a film of their experiences and updates will be put online. For more information, visit the Vindolanda Via Roma Facebook page and