Walking Hadrian’s Wall

A guest blog post 
by Cimorene Ross

It was the year I left school that I first encountered Roman remains. It was also the summer that the first incarnation of THE EAGLE’S WING was born as a school project, along with the Sixth Form play, to keep us occupied after the A-level exams until the end of term. My friend and I decided to walk from Northumberland back home to Yorkshire, staying at Youth Hostels on the way.

On the first day we visited Corstopitum (Corbridge), which had been replaced by the fort at Halton when Hadrian’s Wall was built. It didn’t become a supply base until much later, so wasn’t in use during the period of THE EAGLE’S WING.

The following day we discovered Cilurnum (Chesters), which I must admit was the only time I have visited the fort that I hijacked to house the 3rd Augusta Gallorum (with apologies to the 2nd Asturian Horse who actually garrisoned the place). Cilurnum is situated beside the river where the remains of the Roman bridge can still be seen alongside what is considered to be the best military bath-house in Britain.

Ruins of bath-house at Chesters Roman Fort, along Hadrian’s Wall. (photo by Steven Fruitsmaak, 2007, Wikimedia Commons)

The reason I chose Chesters rather than the better known neighbouring Vercovicium (Housesteads) is that I needed a cavalry fort. Housesteads is a much bigger site built on a windswept hillside.

That summer in the early sixties we walked along the Wall itself exploring milecastles and watching rock climbers ascending from Crag Lough. Since then I have been back to Housesteads, once in a fog which was very creepy. It was easy to imagine that an infantryman would emerge from the mist at any moment.

The last time I visited Housesteads was on the way back from an American Civil War event in Tynemouth, so Morgan Cheshire and I were accompanied by two Confederate soldiers which garnered some very odd looks. It being too warm for Victorian costume, Morgan and I were both in mufti, so we explored the praetorium and the hospital (my model for the one in Eboracum) while the scruffy members of the 33rd Virginia were unaccountably fascinated by the communal latrine in the south-east corner.

The latrines of Housesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. (photo by Steven Fruitsmaak, 2007, Wikimedia Commons)

Once we’d managed to drag them away and back onto the Military Road, our journey was disrupted by an overturned lorry stuffed with chickens – which brings me to Vindolanda (Chesterholm) and the 3rd Augusta Gallorum’s obsession with chicken rustling.

I know I have been to Vindolanda but I can’t remember when or with whom. Appealed to on the telephone, Morgan swears she has never set foot in Vindolanda, so it remains a mystery.

Some thirty or so years ago there was the amazing discovery of the hoard of letters that have revealed so much about life on Hadrian’s Wall. A recent issue of the Association for Roman Archaeology’s newsletter announced that there has been a new discovery of 1st Century writing tablets. It will be interesting to see what these reveal once the tablets have been deciphered. All my information about chickens in the diet of soldiers comes from the previous letters published in Anthony Birley’s book GARRISON LIFE AT VINDOLANDA. Until I read that I wasn’t even sure that domesticated poultry had reached Northern England.

My research into cavalry auxiliary forts came from these early visits and a lot of reading. All the books said that the arrangement of barracks and stables are still mostly conjecture for the smaller cavalry forts, and I chose to use what most archaeologists have agreed on.

It wasn’t until I had finished the epic that I visited two unusual forts, both courtesy of our village Coffee Club’s summer trips. About three years ago we went to South Shields. I and several other historically minded people set out to discover Arbeia, which is perched on a hill and acted as a seaport and supply depot, now incongruously surrounded by modern housing. An hour later and I was on my own (my fellow explorers long gone in search of lunch), admiring the reconstructed buildings – the magnificent gatehouse, the commanding officer’s house and, more importantly, a barrack block complete with officer’s quarters at one end.

The reconstructed barrack-block at Arbeia Roman Fort, in South Shields. (photo by Chris McKenna, 2005, Wikimedia Commons)

Long after THE EAGLE’S WING was published I finally reached reached Segedunum (Wallsend) on one of the last Coffee Club trips (most members are now too old or infirm for day trips). No one was surprised when I abandoned everyone in Newcastle to disappear down into the Metro and head for Wallsend. It is the only railway station in the world with signs in both English and Latin.

The fort has been excavated, but cut in two by the main road. Houses built on the site in the late 19th Century have since been demolished. It is now one of very few places in the Roman Empire where a fort can be seen almost in its entirety (the road is still a problem).

The cavalry barracks at Segedunum are several centuries after Lucius and Keret’s time and are totally different from those at Cilurnum. There the stables are separate entities, but in Segedunum three horses are stabled in the front part of the barracks with three cavalrymen sleeping in the back room. The decurion and his under-officers lived in the larger set of rooms, complete with their horses, at the end of each barrack block. It would have been nice to have seen this layout earlier, but the Cilurnum design suits the Pannonians better – the Wallsend pattern gives them no room for stockpiling ill-gotten gains.

Segedunum has an extensive museum with reconstructions of barracks and the strongroom, while a decorated bath-house is based on the Chesters building as the original hadn’t been found at the time. The real bath-house was discovered down by the River Tyne after the existing buildings were demolished in 2014, and parts have been excavated and are now on display to the public.

Segedunum Roman fort., from the viewing platform. (photo by Keith Edkins, 2004, Wikimedia Commons)

The legionary fortresses of Deva (Chester) and Eboracum (York) have very few remains visible above the ground apart from bits of the walls in York and the amphitheatre in Chester. There are smaller remains open to the public in unlikely places such as the basement of Spud U Like (a takeaway serving baked potatoes), and a piece of the strongroom is hidden in a side-street in Chester. The foundations of the headquarters building can be seen under York Minster. It is well worth a visit to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester and the Yorkshire Museum in York.

I would recommend membership of the Association for Roman Archaeology to anyone interested in this subject. Membership not only includes newsletters but free or discounted entry to 45 Roman-related sites.

Being a librarian, even though retired, I can’t help but conclude with a book-list.

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