Monday, July 14, 2014

A Photo Tour of Hadrian's Wall

by Richard Denning

Over the weekend of 4th to 7th July I spent parts of four days touring Hadrian's Wall.The father of a friend is a custodian of the wall (his job is to, as best as possible, keep the wall in good repair). Thus equipped with our own tour guide half a dozen of us set off up the M6 from Birmingham.

The idea was to hit as many significant locations on the Wall as possible in the time we had along with the secondary objective of enjoying some decent real ale along the way!

Brief historical Background.

The Emperor Hadrian established the main borders of the Roman Empire. Although later Emperors would try expeditions outside these bounds the Empire more or less maintained the size and shape that he defined for three centuries. To defend the most northern edge of the empire from the barbarians outside he ordered the building of this wall in the year 122. It was manned more or less continuously through to the year 410. Today it is a World Heritage Site.

Anatomy of the Wall


The wall consisted of a twenty foot high, ten feet wide stone wall that was around 70 miles long and capped with a parapet and crenelations. Every mile was a minor Mile fort that would house a small section of men. Between mile forts were turrets for a small patrol. Along the wall, or sometimes behind it, are major forts with large garrisons and a surrounding civilian town. 10,000 men in all would garrison the wall. In front of the wall is a ditch, and behind it a grass mound and ditch called the Vallum.

Centuries later after the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century came along. The main impact on the wall was that the English commander demolished large chunks to provide the rubble to build a military road from Carlisle to Newcastle running west to east behind and sometimes along the wall. Today it is the B6318 road and provides a perfect way to navigate along the wall.

Our Tour begins


On Friday 4th July we arrived at Carlisle around noon. We started with a visit to Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. This houses a good overview exhibit about the wall and the Roman Period and serves as an ideal starting point. We then went west out of Carlise to the Cumbrian coast. Although the Wall itself extended from Bowness to Wallsend there are supporting fortifications down both the Irish sea and North sea coast, and the idea was to see something of them.


We visited Maryport. In Roman times a fortress, Alauna, stood here. The fort was first established in around AD 122 as a command and supply base for the coastal defences that would prevent Pictish or Irish raids along the coast. Today the fort is only an outline in the grass. There is however a museum showing part of a large collection of Altars that would be made with each new commander. The old altars were used later as supports for posts of a large hall - perhaps in the post Roman period.

The mounds and lines that
show where Alauna once stood.


A replica wooden watch tower that now functions as a view point at Alauna.

Around this time we had the only bad weather of an otherwise rather pleasant July weekend. It just poured down, and we abandoned attempts to see the other forts in the area. We did stop briefly at Bowness and looked out over the Solway Firth at the spot that the wall once started. There are no stone ruins west of Carlisle however - for that we would have to head east on Saturday.

Our Friday night Hotel turned out to occupy the site of a Roman Fort that stood on the wall. Today nothing is visible but a display board, and the brick line in the carpark of the hotel shows where the fort stood. It was rather fun to spend the night in a Roman fort - even if the fort vanished centuries ago.

Uxelodunum Fort Carlisle - its location

Day Two

Saturday meant time for some ruins. Our itinerary on the Saturday was to visit the first sections of the wall still visible coming from the west, the Roman Army Museum and the Vinolanda Fort.


I can recommend the most western section of surviving wall for a nice walking tour. Here is the local map:


First stop was the first section of wall and a turret.

The most western surviving section of wall  and a turret just west of Birdoswald.

The first turret on the wall. (Turret 52a Banks Turret) Just off the Of map

Just further along this road is Banna (known today as Birdoswald. This is the location of a significant sized partially excavated fort.

Birdoswald is adjacent to a later farmhouse and small manor house whose
19th century owners were some of the first enthusiastic excavators of the site.

Birdoswald has a nice little museum recording the first haltering attempts to excavate the wall in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Inside Birdoswald Museum

For more images on Birdoswald click here

We then walked the wall from Birdoswald the two miles to Gilsland. This route took us past a long section of surviving wall, two turrets and a milecastle and the remains of one side of a Roman bridge.

The Wall between Birdoswald and Gilsland.


The River Irthing - once bridged at this point by a Roman Bridge. A beautiful peaceful spot.


The Bridge approach in the eastbank is now all that is left.

Roman Army Museum

This museum at Brampton gives a excellent overview of life in the Roman army. It includes a well done 3D movie "Edge of Empire" whose participants also appear in a film  later on about a day's life in the army. There are lots of replica items from the period.



Nearby is Vindolanda, one of the star attractions of the wall. A huge part of the fort and nearby Viccus is excavated. Vindolanda lies behind the wall. It was a nearby supply base for this section of the wall.

Vindolanda visitors can explore the site, visit a museum in the former house of an early excavator, as well as climb replica stone and wooden towers.

Excavation is still on going all along the wall and you can often see digs and get
explanations of what is going on. Here our own guide fill us in on wooden  walls found
deep below the stone fortress - maybe an early part of the first fort here.

A well inside the commandant's house.

This was a granary. The elevated floor was to allow ventilation beneath.
The Romans would let dogs and cats chase the rats out from there.
The side buttresses can be seen - reinforcement for the tall (often 2 story) walls).

There are more Vindolanda images here

Day Three

On the Sunday we took in Housesteads, Chesters Fort and Corbidge. On the way to Housteads we passed Sycamore Gap.  This section of the wall runs along an escarpment which is almost sheer in places.


There is a dip in the high ground of this escarpment, and in that dip a tree grows made famous by Robin Hood Prince of Thieves from the bit where Kevin Costner is walking home to Sherwood from Dover and ends up on Hadrian's Wall somehow! Ah well, at least Alan Rickman was good as the Sheriff. Costner chose a good cinematic location, mind you, and it is a good spot for a photo. A tip though. Park up in the nearby Once Brewed Carpark and walk along the ridge. Don't try and reach it from the road as fences lie in your path - as well as a bog.


Housesteads fort  lies on the wall. To me it is one of the most dramatic locations as the approach walk dips down from one ridge and up towards the site above you on the far slope. You then have to endure heart attack hill as one of of our party called it. But the walk is worthwhile when you find yourself in Housesteads.


Housesteads is built on a slope, and many of the buildings are built on more than one level.

Hypocaust under floor heating system

Looking North from Housesteads over the wall and a tower. This way lie the barbarians!

More images from Housseteads here

Chesters Fort is not far from Housesteads and is on the River Tyne. There is a fort at Chesters that has all the usual features like granaries, barrack blocks, and commanders house, etc., but after 3 days of this we were getting a little "seen that done that", so I was pleased that Chesters had a bath house in decent condition as that was something I had not seen close up in the other sites. The bath house was on the river.


Changing room



Drainage system

Chesters has a fine museum of stone relics and other items found on various digs.

Joking aside, the fort is also a fine example. For more images from Chesters Fort, including the fort itself, go here.

Corbridge

Near the wall were other settlements that sometimes had heavy military presence and at other times did not. Corbridge, not far from Chesters, is such a place. This has evidence of military compounds within a more open civilian settlement which itself was probably not fully fortified. It's a slightly different feel and rounded off day 3 nicely.

Among other structures was a huge pair of granaries that may
have stored supplies ready for shipping up to the wall.

Although not purely a military base, the headquarters of the military compound contains
an underground strongroom of the sort found in all the forts.
More images from Corbridge here

Day 4

On the Monday morning we packed up ready for the homeward trip. First though we had 2 final visits.

Segedunum

Segedunum is at the extreme eastern end of the wall. It lies within modern day Newcastle. The fort here is excavated in outline only - outlines filed in mainly with rocks and pebbles to show the layout. As such its not as impressive as say Housesteads. However it is in some ways clearer to see what goes where in a Roman fort especially as there is a panorama level in the adjacent museum which allows you to see the entire fort from up high (or at least the half that is visible above ground).

Looking down on Segedunum from the Panorama room.
The site also features a reconstructed Roman Bath House (alas closed during our visit)



The site also has the most eastern section of Wall. This is where the wall went down hill into
the River Tyne 70 miles from its western end on the Solway Firth.

There is also a memorial to the men and units that built the wall.

Arbeia

Arbeia is a mirror to Alauna/Maryport. Just as Alauna watched over the Irish sea, Arbeia stood watch over the coast line of the Northsea just below the mouth of the Tyne. Today there is a partially excavated fort but what is of main interest here is a replica gatehouse, barracks block, and commandants house.

This is me standing outside the replica gatehouse.
This is what Hadrian's wall would have looked like as you approached it.
A Roman squad of 8 men slept in here.
10 such rooms made up the accommodation for one century.

This is the more spacious centurion's room.

Bedroom in the Commandants House

Public dinning room in Commandants House.

More Arbeia images here

All in all a great 4 days. I had in the past visited the Wall 2 or 3 times and each time just went to one fort. This tour gave me a much clearer overview of the whole wall from end to end, its general anatomy, how it was built, and the way of life of its inhabitants. It is a World Heritage Site and for good reason.

On a nice sunny day - such as we had - it is a magical location combining amazing views in places with a structure of huge historical significance.

Oh - and we got some good ale too!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Richard Denning is a historical fiction author. His main areas of writing are the early Anglo-Saxon years. For more details go to his website: http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating photographic tour for those of us who might not get to visit.

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  2. I'm jealous! Last time I visited the UK - many years ago - I wanted to visit Carlisle(partly because I had a friend in the area, but mostly because of the ballad of Adam Bell) I just didn't have the time. Next visit I will catch up with some of the places I missed, including a trip to the Wall.

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  3. Great post. I hope I get to visit this someday.

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  4. Wonderful post, felt like I was there! Thank you!

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  5. Superb photos and a great trip write up. I've been to only a couple of the sites mentioned- Vindolanda being quite spectacular. I'd love to climb the watch tower at AIauna, though the base looks a bit odd! made a very brief mention of Hadrian's Wall yesterday on my blog article about The Antonine Wall - Roman Britain being the focus of my novels.

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  6. Wonderful mix of photos, facts and background information to inspire

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