Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain (“Britannia”) in AD122 and it was around this time that the 73 mile long wall we know today as “Hadrian’s Wall” was built right across the middle of the island.

The village of Haltwistle, just South of the wall, claims to be the exact geographical centre of the country; we haven’t got map and ruler out to check but it’s nice to think that the Romans divvied the place up fairly between themselves and the “barbarians” to the North……

We visited three sites on the wall. Birdoswald was, to be honest, a bit of a disappointment as there isn’t a huge amount of the fort to see.

That said, workers were busy finishing a shiny new on-site museum, due to open in March 2018. That might make the place worth the admission charge.

You can also do a walk along a section of wall from here (though if not visiting Birdoswald Roman Fort, which refunds the parking charge on entry, you’d be better off starting at the other end of the section of wall which is handily located across the road from the free village car park at nearby Gilsland).

The weather was pretty grim but it was an enjoyable short walk past the remains of a milecastle, turrets, and the site of a bridge.

The nearby small town of Brampton is quite picturesque and had a small supermarket for supplies. Here’s SOK parked up outside the Brampton Moot Hall which dates back to 1817 and would originally have had a regular market held on the ground floor and a meeting room above.

Our next stop was Housesteads Roman Fort. We’d been here before (it’s free with National Trust and English Heritage memberships; last time we came this way we were members of the National Trust whereas this year we’re concentrating on English Heritage locations) but Yvonne had recommended the Sycamore Gap Walk, so we had to do it come rain hail or shine….. (in the event we got a mix of all three, though decidedly light on the “shine”).

The weather really was cold and pretty slippery as the (previously very wet) ground was frozen solid. It was also very windy. I got blown sideways into the wall a few times; my new theory is that far from building the wall to keep the Northern barbarians out of the “civilised” South, the Romans built it simply to stop themselves “doing a Mary Poppins” – being blown away whilst defending the Empire’s Northern frontier…

There doesn’t seem to be any particular significance to Sycamore Gap. It’s a sycamore tree in a dip 2.6 miles from Housesteads, making an easy 5.2 mile wander suitable for the majority of visitors.

About 2 miles into the walk, a sudden wet splash hit me in the face. I called Mark, who was a couple of paces ahead. ” Was that a big drop of rain that just hit me or was it birdshit?” I asked, pointing at the location of the strike (I’m being a bit paranoid about birdshit following our encounter with the starlings – see previous post). “It’s not birdshit” Mark replied then set off walking again before slowly adding “it might have been snot from my runny nose”😪. Lovely. I spent the next few seconds trundling along hoping forlornly that it had been a precursor to a shower of rain (none materialised)….. 😕 That’s what you get for walking behind a man in cold weather……

Safely back at Housesteads we had a good look around the fort, which is fabulous in that you can easily see what the layout of the place would have been: an outer wall with gates and towers, barracks, the prefect’s house, a hospital, the headquarters building, a granary, and (always Mark’s favourite bit) the toilet block….

The site is pretty wild and windswept (you can just see the remains of the fort on the ridge in the centre of the photo below):

Remains of underfloor heating in the prefect’s house:

The granary, which would gave had a raised floor so air could circulate underneath and holes so small dogs could (most likely) be put in to sort out any rats:

The loos (there would have been wooden seats along the walls on each side,):

From one of the information boards by the barracks we learned our counterintuitive fact of the day: a Roman century comprised 80 soldiers. Hmmmmm 🤔. Wikipedia later informed us that a century comprised 80 soldiers plus 20 auxiliary servants. Phew, that makes much more sense 😀

It’s a pity that the Romans have deserted the on-site hospital, as Mark did manage to slip on the frozen ground, fall over, and hurt his wrist. He is insisting that it’s only sprained and doesn’t need to be x-rayed (but is looking more hopeful than certain). So far (3.50pm, about 2 hours after the incident) he’s asked for my wrist support, turned down the other first aid supplies in “nee naw” (as he calls our oversized first aid kit) but asked for some ibuprofen……

(Update: after one day his hand was turning a rather worrying grey colour. After 2 days it’s looking a bit less swollen and he reckons it isn’t as sore…….).

Many of the camp sites along the wall seem to be closed for the winter. We ended up spending a night at Herding Hill Farm, which seemed expensive at £24 low season (more at the weekends, more again at other times of year). Those with a pretty full toilet cassette can’t be choosy though; we do need to head to a camp site every third night, so we just had to take a deep breath and pay up (to be fair the place was nice enough and it did have a very shiny modern toilet block complete with piped music! I don’t normally venture into the facilities but at £24 I felt I should at least stick my nose in to check out what I could have used had I wanted to!).

Our third stop on Hadrian’s Wall was Chesters Roman Fort, which is another one that is well worth visiting. This one was a cavalry fort, so you have barracks that would’ve been shared by men and their horses, plus some of the same types of buildings that we saw at Housesteads, albeit in a much less wild and windswept setting.

More underfloor heating:

One thing that’s really impressive at Chesters is the bathhouse. You can easily see the different rooms and the positions of the channels, drains etc do make sense in terms of what the individual rooms would have been – a hot dry room, hot wet room etc.

Chesters also has a small museum containing a lot of artefacts belonging to a rich Victorian enthusiast, John Clayton, who was responsible for investigating and protecting much of what we can visit today. Quite handily, Chesters Roman Fort was under the front lawn of the family mansion he inherited in the 1830s, so that got him off to a good start!

Perhaps the very best thing about Chesters Roman Fort was all the things you can’t actually see. Bear with me…… Near the excavated barracks you can easily see where other barracks lie hidden under the grass. Even better, the field next to one of the gates, which is apparently the location of the vicus, or village, outside the fort walls, is just a mass of lumps and bumps. It really does make you want to grab a trowel and let your inner Time Team run amok!

We’ve visited the main sites along the wall now, though there are plenty of Roman remains in this part of the World and we may well add Corbridge Roman Town on our way South. For now, though, our next destinations are somewhat more modern: Warkworth, Belsay and Hexham.

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