Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.
As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.
It’s only a short walk from the station to ‘Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum’, but don’t expect to see any substantial remains of the original fort, as most of what can be seen today has been excavated by archaeologists. Having said that the museum is definitely worth a visit.
The three storey museum includes exhibits and a history of the fort plus a 34 metre high Viewing Tower that overlooks the excavated site, the river and beyond.
It’s probably best to visit the museum first so that a walk around the site makes some sort of sense.
When the Roman Emperor Honorius effectively abandoned Britannia to its fate in 409 AD the fort went into a gradual decline, and it would appear that by the time of the Norman Conquest the settlement had moved about half a mile inland, probably because of fear of raiders sailing up the Tyne.
Nothing much happened to the old Roman fort until the mid-eighteenth century when coal was first mined in the area, and this is another reason why it’s worth visiting the museum first because it also provides information about how Wallsend developed after the days of Segedunum and why there’s not a lot left to see of the original fort.
From the Viewing Tower you can see that the original site is cut through by the modern A187 road which you will need to cross to take in everything there is to see.
Down at ground level you’re free to wander around the site as you please, but it makes sense to have an idea of what’s what.
The excavated site takes up most of the area and information boards will tell you what you’re looking at, but I’d be the first to admit that you would need to be passionate about the Romans and their way of life to get excited about what there is to see here. Fortunately, there are other points of interest to check out as well.
This includes the (rebuilt) end of the wall and a reconstructed Roman bath house, and on the other side of the A187 the remains of part of Hadrian’s original wall with another reconstruction showing how it would have probably looked originally.
Nearby are remains of what’s left of the old Wallsend Colliery, which although it doesn’t reveal much is still an important part of the area’s history.
From the end of the 18th century until 1969, coal from Wallsend was mined, loaded unto wagons and carried by rail tracks (at first by horses and then by steam) down to the river where it was transferred onto ships and transported down to London (and beyond).
The coal from Wallsend was of excellent quality, but it came at a cost. On 18th June 1835 an underground explosion claimed 122 lives – 71 men, 31 boys between the ages of 8 and 14, and 10 horses.
Although much of this coal was exported, it also helped catapult the area into the industrial age, and there was no better example of this than the Wallsend shipyards.
In the second half of the 19th century the Swan Hunter shipyard was formed and much of the land that was once the Roman fort came under the ownership of a building company who turned the site into housing for shipyard workers.
For the next hundred years or so Swan Hunter became one of the world’s great shipyards building over 1,600 vessels including oil tankers, destroyers, submarines, and its most famous ship of all – the Mauretania.
The shipyard has now gone the same way as the colliery, and the terraced streets that the huge ships once towered over have also gone with it.
It’s not just the jobs that disappear in these situations, but also the communities. For example, if it wasn’t for Swan Hunter there would have been no Wallsend Boys Club who produced more than 60 professional footballers such as Steve Bruce, Peter Beardsley, Michael Carrick and Alan Shearer.
Shipbuilding ceased in 2006, although Swan Hunter was relaunched in 2016 as a company providing specialist equipment for the oil and gas industries.
One positive thing to come out of this reversal in Wallsend’s fortunes is that the whole of the fort area has now been opened up to the general public (even the museum used to be the Swan Hunter canteen), and the River Tyne is now cleaner now than it has been for many years.
Although the collieries, the ships and the industrial landscape have all but gone, I still don’t think that Hadrian and his men would recognize Segedunum today – with, or without the fort.