This blog is not intended to be an in-depth historical account of the most important Roman monument in Britain, but if, like me, you have an interest, but not a degree in Roman history, and want to explore some of the more fascinating parts of this remarkable feat of engineering, then perhaps this tour will be a good starting point.
To put things in perspective, Hadrian’s Wall marks the extent of the Roman Empire in North-Western Europe, but unlike most of the other Roman borders, which used natural features, a man-made structure was needed to protect Roman Britannia from the ‘barbarians of Caledonia’.
Work started on building the wall in 122 AD and finished 10 years later. It ran for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne and Bowness-on-Solway and did what it was meant to do for nigh on the next 300 years.
The wall also consisted of protected gates every mile (known as milecastles) with two observation towers in between (turrets), and at least 13 forts (the exact number depends on different factors).
Those people who walk the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path will get to know it intimately, but for those who can’t or don’t want to, then it has to be worth knowing where to start.
I think even the experts would agree that the Northumberland section of the wall offers the most interest, and for this post this will be the area I’m going to cover.
I’m covering just four major sites that will give a good overall idea of what life was like at the northern extremity of Roman Britain.
It’s also an easy drive between each site, but depending on how long you want to spend at each one, will depend how long you might need to cover all four. As a guide I reckon you should allow one day for two sites and two days for all four.
I’m starting the tour at the Roman town of Corbridge which lies above the north bank of the River Tyne just two and a half miles south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The town was in a good strategic position; The Stanegate Roman road connected it to Carlisle, and Dere Street ran north to the wall, and although earlier forts had been built here, it was for its role as a supply base that it became an important part of Roman life.
Corbridge started to develop around the existing military compound in about 160 AD, and as traders moved in it became less of a garrison and more of an urban town, with a mixed civilian and military population. The remains are quite extensive but are in actual fact only about 10% of the town’s original size.
The Stanegate still runs through the middle of the site with the Granaries and Administrative Headquarters to the north, and the West and East Compounds to the south. Most of the remains are from the 3rd and 4th centuries and even though there is nothing much to see above ground level it’s worth coming to take a look to get an idea of what it must have been like.
It seems that when the Romans abandoned Britain then Corbridge became abandoned as well and in subsequent years much of the stone was carted away for use elsewhere.
Not everything has disappeared though and it’s worth checking out the museum before you leave which includes part of the Corbridge Hoard and the Corbridge Lion.
About a 15-minute drive north-west of Corbridge is Chesters Roman Fort, and the reason I’m recommending this site is for its lovely location overlooking the North Tyne River as much as anything.
Built in 123 AD at a point where the wall crossed the river, Cilurnum, as it was known then, was the base for a 500 strong Spanish cavalry unit from Asturias for well over 200 years and was occupied right up until the Romans left in the early 5th cent.
The site isn’t huge but there are some interesting remains, especially the Roman baths, and a museum which has one of the best collections of Roman finds anywhere along Hadrian’s Wall.
A 10-minute drive away along the B6318 is the best-known fort along Hadrian’s Wall – Housesteads, which lies in a commanding position overlooking the Northumberland countryside.
It may be a bit confusing as to whether the National Trust or English Heritage are guardians of the site, as usually it’s one or the other. The reality is that the National Trust own the site but English Heritage look after it, so if you’re a member of either it’s free.
Vercovicium, as the Romans called it, was built around 124 AD and covers about 5 acres. Some 800 soldiers were based here and was occupied until around 409 AD.
A circular wall surrounds the Commanding Officer’s House, Headquarters Building, Barrack Blocks, Hospital and Granaries, but it’s the position of Housesteads that will take your breath away. Hadrian’s Wall stretches across the escarpment and it’s not difficult to imagine how inhospitable it would have been here 2,000 years ago when the Romans were at the edge of their empire.
There’s an interesting museum that will help fill in the gaps of the history of the site and refreshments are available at the car park down below, but being the most popular Roman site along Hadrian’s Wall it can get busy, so, as always, try to choose a good time to come to get a real feel for the place.
The carousel below shows some pictures of the site and Hadrian’s Wall as it winds its way across the Northumberland countryside.
Although only a 5-minute drive away from Housesteads, Vindolanda is a bit out of the way and has an altogether different feel to it.
The other three sites are all managed by English Heritage, but this one is run by an independent charity trust, and although I was unsure as to whether it would appeal to my sense of historical values, I needn’t have worried.
On entering the site, your eyes will be immediately drawn to the ongoing excavations: The archaeologists who are digging here (many of whom are volunteers) are more than happy to engage in conversation about their work, which inevitably means that you can spend more time here than you might have originally thought.
Historically speaking, the Romans built their first fort here around 85 AD, some 40 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built – probably after their victory at Mons Graupius. The original fort was built of wood, and believe it or not, there were something like another ten forts built over it, making excavation pretty difficult to say the least. Most of what we see today is from the third and fourth centuries, including an area outside of the fort known as ‘The Village’, where wives, children, merchants, priests and slaves all co-existed.
The hard work in excavating so deep at least had its rewards in the preservation of a bountiful supply of archaeological finds. A path cuts through the fort, village and gardens to the Chesterholm Museum which shouldn’t be missed.
The most important of these finds are the ‘Writing Tablets’, which have been deemed so important that, apart from the latest excavations, are all housed in the British Museum.
These Writing Tablets are letters by ordinary people writing about their everyday business, and the museum does an excellent job of showing how important these finds were. Quite fascinating, but I don’t have any photos of them, so maybe photography wasn’t permitted inside the museum.
There’s also an outdoor museum, shop and café, which finishes the visit off nicely.
I always try to keep my blogs relatively short, but a subject like Hadrian’s Wall really requires a lot more information than I’ve been able to give here.
It was never my intention to go into that kind of detail, especially as there are people out there who have much more knowledge than me about the subject. Nevertheless, I hope that it kindles a spark of enthusiasm to visit, what is without doubt one of Britain’s most impressive landmarks in what is undeniably a magnificent landscape.