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Outpost of the Empire

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Some history

In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep ‘intact the empire’, but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power.

It was an impressive piece of engineering for its time, stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west – from what is now Wallsend (Roman name Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. It is thought that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around, reinforcing the belief of some historians that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power – not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade.

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Fort

The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals to garrison the troops who guarded the border, and milecastles at approximately – guess what? – every mile. Most of the forts straddle the Wall; one, Housesteads, is unusual in sitting totally to one side (the south) due to the terrain.

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building. The nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion, and local people still refer to this as the Military Road.

In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall and started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations and also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is at Housesteads.

Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall (walking on it is discouraged to avoid further damage).

Don’t expect however to see the Wall standing for its full length, is in many places today it is little more than a rampart. It is partly because the stretch around Housesteads is so relatively well-preserved that it is also one of the busiest parts – so don’t expect to have the place to yourself either, except in the bleakest of weathers!

Housesteads Fort

Of those forts that still have some remains, Housesteads, or Vercovicium to give it its Roman name, is probably the best known and most visited.

Housesteads Fort, looking south

Relatively little remains of the fort today, but there is enough for you to be able to trace the layout of the buildings and learn something of how those soldiers would have lived.

Housesteads Fort - outer wall and barracks

But more impressive than those few remains perhaps is the setting. With sweeping views over the Northumberland hills and one of the most intact stretches of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, in good weather it is a glorious place to stand. Imagine it though in the depths of winter, with icy winds blowing and snow falling. How must those Roman soldiers, many recruited from much warmer parts of the Empire, have felt in what must have seemed to them to be the ends of the earth?


Countryside near Housesteads

A tourist admires the view

Photographing the views

Life at Housesteads

At its height 800 soldiers would have been based here at Housesteads – or Vercovicium, as they would have known it (the name means ‘the place of the effective fighters’).

Barracks (on the left) and granary (right

Outer wall with oven

Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be traced here today. These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort. The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.

There was a workshop and hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia. This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place, a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor, and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.

Part of the Principia

A note about access

Housesteads Fort is jointly operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The latter’s website says ‘A cleared path is provided for the short walk from the visitor centre to the Wall and Fort’ and I noted that ticket seller didn’t explain the walk needed until after people had bought their tickets. The English Heritage website is more helpful: ‘The fort lies uphill from the car park (a fairly strenuous 10 minute walk on steep gradient). A disabled car park is available. Please ask at the visitor centre for directions to this car park.’ They also have a full page devoted to access to the fort: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-Wall/access

The start of the path

Reaching the top

The fact is that the fort is about half a mile on a gravel footpath with quite a steep climb at one point. The path crosses the Vallum, the large ditch that was dug by the Romans south of the Wall to reinforce the defences. Incidentally the name comes from the Latin word which was actually the origin of the English word ‘wall’; it meant ‘stake’ rather than ditch and reflects the fact that the defensive walls built by a Roman army on the march were of tree branches planted upright on an earthen barrier.

Looking back
The car park is in a dip behind the trees, which is the Vallum

This path presents no problem for the averagely fit but is a challenge for anyone unsteady on their feet and (I imagine) very hard work indeed for anyone pushing a wheelchair. Someone with significant mobility difficulties would find it very hard-going and would probably not be able to visit the fort using this route without help from a friend or family member. So have a look at the path if you can before committing to buying a ticket, and ask for the advice you need, as from what I observed it may not be offered. And do ask about that disabled car park as it may make your visit a lot easier.

The Wall at Steel Rigg

Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg. You can walk here from Housesteads Fort, or drive and park in the pay and display car park nearby, using the same ticket bought for Housesteads. You can of course also do the walk in reverse, starting at Steel Rigg.

At Steel Rigg
Peel Crags and Crag Lough, with Hadrian's Wall beyond

Whichever way you do it, it’s about eight miles (13 kilometres) roundtrip, depending on the route you take, and the parts on or near the Wall are very undulating with a few steep climbs. It is many years since I did this but the rewards for your efforts are great, with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill on Hotbank and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough. The National Trust website has route instructions, based on starting at Housesteads: Housesteads to Steel Rigg circular walk

Hadrian's Wall from Steel Rigg
You can clearly see the path alongside the wall

But even if you have no time for the walk, a detour to Steel Rigg is well worthwhile as you can really appreciate the drama of the Wall’s setting and the efforts the Romans made to locate it in the most strategic position. A very short walk on largely even ground will bring you to the point where my photos were taken. You can see the Wall snaking over the rocky ridge of Peel Crags, with Crag Lough beyond. If you’re up to tackling just one climb you can walk over Peel Crags and dip down to the much-photographed Sycamore Gap beyond (so-called because a solitary sycamore tree grows there in a great position for photos) – this spot featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We ran out of time, having spent too long at Housesteads, to do even this short walk, so will have to return.


Near Steel Rigg

Posted by ToonSarah 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes history ruins views fort national_park romans Comments (11)

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