Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Housesteads Roman Fort from above. Photo from the English Heritage website

Housesteads Roman Fort from above. Photo from the English Heritage website

While I was in the UK recently, my husband and I and his best friend went on a three day road trip to the northeast area of Northumberland. Our friend, Mal, had been there before but neither of us had been and there are quite a lot of interesting historical things to see. It was Mal’s suggestion and we thought it was a fine one. I knew, after doing some high level research, that we’d only make a bare glimpse at what the area has to offer but a little taste is better than nothing. Now, what can we put on the “To Do” list?

One place I’d always wanted to see was Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman occupying forces built it, all 73 miles of it, just below what is now the border between England and Scotland, a narrow “neck” of the island of Great Britain. It stretches from present day Carlisle in the northwest to Corbridge in the northeast, which is not far from the city of Newcastle. Emperor Hadrian came to Britian in 122 A.D. and the construction began shortly after. The plans were to build a guarded gate, or Milecastle, at every mile with observation towers between. In all 14 forts were built. There were large ditches on the sides of the walls, which were built of stone and sometimes turf. The plans changed with the addition of a handful of forts for extra protection and it took about 6 years to complete. There’s a pretty good overall history of the wall On the English Heritage website.

The wall was manned and staffed for the next few hundred years until the Roman Empire started to fall. Mainly, the wall and forts were abandoned, with the stone removed for local building over the centuries. What was left was the subject of a campaign of protection by historians and archeologists from the Victorian era forward. There are a number of sites remaining, some of which have been restored and preserved. We looked at the guide books and websites and decided on the Housesteads Fort as the one we wanted to visit. A number of them are situated off the road and a bit of a hike into the hills. In many areas, you can see the turf rising. There isn’t a lot of actual stone wall left but there are sites where you can see it and Housesteads is one of those, having quite a lot of the foundations of the fort and settlement along with a good stretch of the actual wall. Chesters Roman Fort is another very good site as is Birdoswald.

Housesteads it is, then. It was a few hours’ drive from Manchester after picking up Mal. We arrived around lunchtime on a cool day. It had been raining a bit all morning but had stopped just before we got there. We had brought a picnic though it wasn’t a great day for it. Never mind. We had our sandwiches and bought our entry tickets for the site. Remember I said a lot of the sites are a hike up into the hills? This is one of them. We went round the back of the visitor centre to face a path that climbed up for what we were told was a half mile uphill all the way. It might not have been a half mile (just under 1 KM) but it was bloody close. I’m definitely not one of the agile, and most definitely not fit but I was determined. I made the men go on ahead without me and took my time walking up the hill, 50 steps at a time, stop, rest the legs, take a few pictures, continue, 50 steps, repeat. Finally, I got to the top!

There are plenty of information boards around to tell you what you’re looking at and there’s a small interpretive museum and a gift shop just outside the ruins as well. The fort sits on the top of a hill with a ditch plummeting down behind the back wall. The views over the rolling hills are amazing, even under dark and threatening skies. The sheep certainly don’t mind. The wall appears to have been built to keep the incoming “barbarians” from what is now Scotland out, traditionally because they couldn’t be conquered. That probably isn’t exactly the case. They probably just decided that was the far border of the empire as they saw it.

To the left inside the garrison walls are the barracks. There’s the remains of the commander’s quarters, the headquarters building, what is probably a hospital and a granary, with the foundations of what would have been a raised floor to keep the damp from the grain. On the front left corner there is what they say is the remains of a latrine, too. We had a walk through the site and stood looking out north over the beautiful landscape, imagining the hordes of angry Scots/Pictish warrior storming the ramparts. My husband quipped that the Romans were probably standing there in their leather skirts, knees knocking in fear and in the cold north winds. He commented that the Scots were way “harder” than the Italians, after all. A nearby couple overheard him and chuckled to themselves.

We spent some time there then looked into the museum but really didn’t get a good look. It was crowded with a group of school kids and was too small for that many people. We left them to it. I had a quick browse through the gift shop and I wished I had bought a fridge magnet there because the visitor centre back down at the parking area didn’t have any nice ones. We partook of the facilities and headed back on the road, northeast to the little town of Seahouses on the coast, our base for the next two nights.

More about Hadrian’s Wall here.

More of my photos here.