The Story of the Wall
The Emperor Hadrian (AD 76 - 138) travelled to Britain in around the year 120 to review the situation in the province, at the north-western edge of his vast empire. He quickly became aware of various difficulties. Not only were there the usual problems of provincial government and the struggle to maintain discipline and morale among the garrison stationed here, there were also real difficulties with the tribes in the north of Britain, who continued to raid the province, causing havoc and disrupting trade.
Hadrian was a very able man: well-educated, an artist and an architect as well as a decorated soldier. He evidently had such a good memory that he could remember the name of every officer in his legions. He was also a clear thinker and a formidable strategist. He realised that if Rome was to enjoy the extensive conquests of his predecessor Trajan (AD53 - 117) they would need to consolidate their gains rather than continue to expand.
As a result of this he reviewed the situation across the Empire. In Asia he withdrew his forces to the River Euphrates, a natural frontier. In Germany he ordered the building of a wooden frontier to mark the edge of the empire. In Britain he decided that a stone frontier was needed, and so he ordered the construction of a heavily fortified barrier stretching from the outskirts of Newcastle in the east, to the Solway Firth in the west.
The building of the Wall itself was a stupendous achievement, requiring nearly four million tons of rock to be quarried by hand and hauled up to the crags and ridges where it was built. It stretches nearly eighty miles, and was maintained by the Romans for nearly three hundred years.
Although many aspects of the history of the Wall still remain mysterious, many sites have provided invaluable sources of archaelogical evidence supporting our knowledge about the life of Roman soldiers in Britain. Come with us as we follow the wall from East to West:
1. ARBEIA ROMAN FORT & MUSEUM
2. WALLSEND ROMAN FORT
3. DENTON BURN WALL AND TURRET
4. BRUNTON TURRET
5. CHESTERS FORT
6. LIMESTONE CORNER
7. HOUSESTEADS FORT
9. WALLTOWN CRAGS
10. BIRDOSWALD FORT
11. LANERCOST PRIORY
Arbeia Fort was built on the south bank of the Tyne to protect the mouth of the river, and it acted as a supply base for the garrisons along the Wall.
There is an impressive reconstruction of the West Gate, featured in the programme about the Wall, which gives a good idea of the scale of the original building.
Arbeia is a short walk from South Shields Metro station.
Tel. 0191 456 1369 for opening times, or visit the Arbeia website.
The remains of another fort can be found in Newcastle, at Wallsend, in the shadow of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the north bank of the Tyne. This area of Newcastle is now known as Wallsend, and the fort here was originally called Segudunum, or 'Strong Fort'. It marked the beginning of the Wall itself.
The whole site has recently undergone extensive development, partly funded by the National Lottery, and a full-sized replica of a Roman Bath house can now be found on-site.
There is also a short length of reconstructed wall here, featured in the 'Hadrian's Wall' programme, which is built to the height of twelve feet. The evidence used to calculate the height was two fold: the writing of a monk call Bede, three centuries after the Wall had gone out of use, who tells us that the Wall had survived to about twelve feet in height. There are also the lower steps of stairs surviving along the Wall, and it is estimated that these would have originally continued to a height of fifteen feet. At Wallsend they went for the conservative estimate, and so it is possible that the Wall might even have been three feet higher than the already impressive reconstruction here.
Evidence has also turned up at various points along the Wall suggesting the it might originally have been whitewashed: traces of white plaster have been found. If that is the case, the Wall would have been visible for miles, a vivid statement of Roman military power.
Segedunum is a 200m walk south from Wallsend Metro Station.
More information is available at the Segedunum website.
As you head out of Newcastle along the A186 you will come across the first meaningful stretch of wall at West Denton. This was Guy's first stopping point in the programme. As well as a stretch of wall, there are also the remains of a turret (Turret 7B).
Turrets were two storey structures, built of stone and about 14 feet square inside. The ground floors often contained fire places and were used as a mess-room by the off-duty soldiers. A timber ladder led to the upper floor, which would have provided a look-out post.
Denton Burn Turret is now on the side of a very busy road, and it is hard to imagine what it must have been like here nearly 2000 years ago. You'll find much more impressive sites as you head out of Newcastle into the wilder up-country.
1.2 miles to the west of Benwell on the south side of the A186.
Free access at all times.
After approximately a third of the wall had been completed there was a significant change of plan. The Wall had been originally built to a ten foot gauge (known as the 'Broad Wall'), but then the plans changed, and the rest of the Wall was built to a much narrower specification. The reason is unclear, although it was probably to speed things up, or perhaps because the stone was beginning to run out.
Brunton Turret (Look-out tower 26B) is a good place to see this change of plan, because you can see both the ten foot foundations (which were laid out first by advance parties) and the narrow curtain wall subsequently built there. This tells us a lot about how the Wall was constructed: the turrets and milecastles would be built first, then the foundation connecting them was laid, and finally the curtain wall was brought up to its full height.
Turn left at crossroads on the A6079, near Chollerford.
Free access at all times.
Chesters Fort is in a beautiful setting, alongside the River Tyne, adjacent to the remains of what must have been a most impressive bridge across the river. The fort was built here to protect the vital river crossing, and is in fact the best-preserved cavalry fort in Britain.
The remains of the bath house at Chesters are particularly impressive, and it is one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain. There is also a museum, which was featured in the programme about the Wall. It was opened in 1903, to house the collection of keen amateur archaeologist John Clayton.
He brought together a fascinating display of finds from all along the Wall, including many stone inscriptions which provide some of the best evidence about who lived and worked on the Wall. There is also an impressive carved phallus, a familiar Roman symbol found at various places along the Wall. It represented good luck as well as fertility, and was seen as a defence against the 'evil eye'.
More information on Chesters Fort is available on the English Heritage website.
To get to Chesters Fort by road, head west from Chollerford along the B6318, a little beyond the Tyne crossing. Turn left at the Chesters signpost shortly after.
The Wall was just part of an extensive military zone. On either side of it huge ditches were dug out, and at Limestone Corner you can get an idea of just how difficult this must have been for the soldiers and the military engineers. Here you can see a large number of massive stone blocks abandoned by the men working here. They would split the rocks by chiselling holes in them, and then inserting wooden wedges which had been soaked in water. Over time these would swell and split the rocks along natural cracks and fissures.
In the middle of the ditch, is one such boulder with the chisel holes clearly visible: it obviously proved too much for the men and was left there to this day - a clear reminder that even the Roman army wasn't completely perfect!
Limestone Corner can be reached about two and a half miles to the west of Chesters Fort. You need to park by a field gate on the north side of the B6318 (OS Ref. NY 875715). This B road is surprisingly busy, and rather narrow, so you do need to take great care. Admission is free.
Housesteads Fort is the most famous and best preserved fort on Hadrian's Wall, with fabulous views of the Wall and the surrounding countryside from its dramatic site high on the crags. Perhaps its most famous building is the multi-seater latrine, featured in the programme. Situated in the bottom corner of the fort, an ingenious drainage system ran water into the sewer to flush out the waste, and also to provide water for the sponges which the soldiers are believed to have used in place of toilet paper.
As well as the gates into the fort (the East Gate having clearly visible cart ruts running through it) there are also impressive remains of Barrack blocks and granaries and a small museum.
Access by road from B6318.
The fort at Chesterholm has always been known by its Roman name: 'Vindolanda' meaning 'Bright heath'. Built some distance form the Wall itself, and the site of several earlier forts, it has been the setting for a very ambitious series of excavations since the 1960s, and is most famous for the remarkably well-preserved wooden writing tablets which have been uncovered here. The water-logged soil has been a key factor in their preservation: by sealing out the oxygen it has meant that bacteria have not destroyed the organic material in the tablets, or in other artefacts like leather shoes and wooden objects. Many of the finds are on display in the museum here, and they give a fascinating insight into everyday life in this area in the years leading up to the building of the Wall.
Vindolanda has the best preserved vicus, or civilian settlement, on the Wall. These settlements sprang up around all the forts soon after they were built, making the most of the business opportunities offered by the garrison. The remains of stone buildings here suggest that the standard of living was remarkably high for the residents. There is also a full-size reconstruction of a stretch of wall and of a turret, which were built for research purposes but provide a vivid reminder of the scale of the Wall.
[Tel 01434 344277 for opening times. 2.6 miles west of Housesteads, with signposted access heading south from the Twice Brewed crossroads on the B6318.]
There are many impressive stretches of Wall where you can walk and enjoy the combination of the remains clinging to the crags and the fabulous views to the north and south. A very popular walk is between Housesteads Fort and Steel Rig, a few miles to the west. Another splendid walk can be had at Walltown Crags, which tends to be considerably less crowded. This is the setting for the discussion between Guy and Robin Birley in the 'Hadrian's Wall' programme.
Access from minor road on B6318, signposted to Roman Army Museum. Admission free.
Further to the west, Birdoswald is another Wall fort, which tends to be less crowded than the more famous sites at Chesters and Housesteads. It is proving to be a very rich site archaeologically, and is throwing new light on what happened in the later years of Roman occupation, nearly three hundred years after Hadrian ordered the Wall to be built. The reason for this is that earlier excavations at places like Housesteads focused on the early years of the Wall, meaning that the archaeologists dug straight through the later layers, destroying them forever. Birdoswald remained a working farm until recently, and so those later levels have been preserved intact.
In the later years of the Wall's history many of the soldiers inter-married with local women, and their sons followed them into the army. Britain had become their home, and the garrison here had been significantly reduced. The archaeological evidence had shown how the fort here began to fall into disrepair.
The granary, for instance, had become derelict by around the year 350, and a large timber building was put up inside the foundations. Presumably a large timber hall, it had a big hearth at one end, around which various high-status goods have been found which would have been dropped by the inhabitants. Evidence like this has been taken to suggest that some kind of sub-Roman chieftain society had been established in the area, with the soldiers staying on after the Romans abandoned Britain.
Access from minor road, signposted south from B6318 a mile west of Glisland. Telephone 01697 747602 for opening times.
Lanercost Priory was the final stopping point in Guy's journey along the Wall. It was built in the 12th century by Augustinian monks, who used the Wall as a handy source of pre-dressed red and grey stone blocks, many of which can be seen in the now-ruined church walls.
Access by minor road off the A69, north west of Brampton.
Telephone 0169 773 030 for opening times.