Stretching 80 Roman miles (73 modern miles), from Bowness on the Solway Firth to Wallsend on Tyne, Hadrian’s Wall crosses the shortest east to west coast distance in England and runs along the northern fringe of the naturally formed routeway through the hills to the north of the Tyne Valley where the Great Whin Sill forms a natural precipice on which the wall is located for much of its course.
When Hadrian became Emperor in 117 AD, the Tyne Gap was already the site of a number of Roman forts associated with a Roman military road called the Stanegate.
This road ran from Corbridge on Tyne (Corstopitum) to Carlisle (Luguvalium) and was more or less a frontier in itself. On completion of Hadrian’s Wall, the Stanegate’s defensive role was relegated to that of a supply route for the new frontier.
For Hadrian’s pride shall open lie
To bittern’s boom and curlew’s call;
From Solway sands to mouth of Tyne
Vale is whispered on the wall.
Thirlwall and Gilsland
Some of the best sections of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland stretch from the Gilsland area on the Norhumberland-Cumbria border to Chesters near Cholllerford where the wall crosses the North Tyne near Hexham.
Near the Cumbrian border, the course of Hadrian’s Wall can be traced in the village of Gilsland where it runs through the vicarage garden. A number of former Roman camps may be seen in the locality of Gilsland, which were probably occupied during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
Gilsland was the place where the famous Scottish border poet, Sir Walter Scott, first met his future wife, Charlotte Carpenter and it was to Miss Carpenter that he dedicated the verses ‘To a Lady, with Flowers from the Roman Wall’, written at nearby Thirlwall in 1797:
Take these flowers, which purple waving,
On the ruined rampart grew,
Where, the sons of freedom braving,
Rome’s imperial standard flew.
Warriors from the breach of danger
Pluck no longer laurels there;
They but yield the passing stranger
Wild-flower wreaths for Beauty’s hair.
The ruins of Thirlwall Castle, to the east of Gilsland, lie close to what was arguably the weakest part of Hadrian’s Wall. It was here that the barbarians ‘thirled’, or threw down part of the wall, during a raid in Roman times. The castle at Thirlwall was constructed in the thirteenth century, long after the Roman period, but was built using Roman stones taken from the ruins of the nearby fort of Carvoran.
For many years Thirlwall was the home of a notorious Border family called the Thirlwalls, who took their name from the place. In the 1550s, the family were recorded as ‘prone and inclined to theft’. The Thirlwalls were immortalised in a well known local ballad (see South Tynedale), commemorating a border fray in which Albany Featherstonehaugh, a High Sheriff of Northumberland, was murdered. The ballad was used by Sir Walter Scott in ‘Marmion’ as a genuine border ballad but it may have been written by his friend, the Durham historian, Robert Surtees.
South of Thirlwall, Hadrian’s Wall crossed a tributary of the River Tyne, called the Tipalt Burn which probably accounts for the weakness in the wall at Thirlwall by which lie the villages of Greenhead and the Welsh sounding Glenwelt. The remains of a Roman fort at Carvoran, known in Roman times as Magna, lie to the north east of Greenhead. It is situated at the junction of two Roman routeways known as the Stanegate and the Maiden Way, both of which predate Hadrian’s Wall.
Magna was built many years before Hadrian’s Wall and is probably associated with Julius Agricola’s attempted conquest of Caledonia. Today, Carvoran is the site of an interesting Roman Army Museum.
Course of a Roman aqueduct
Aesica, is the name the Romans gave to the fort at Great Chesters, the remains of which can be seen north of Haltwhistle. As late as 1724, this fort was recorded as being exceptionally large, standing at a height of thirteen feet. It is probably for this reason that it acquired the name Great Chesters.
Like other forts along Hadrian’s Wall, Aesica had a civilian settlement and a bath-house outside its walls, but perhaps its most interesting feature, was a six mile long Roman aqueduct used to supply water to the fort. The aqueduct’s course can be traced in the hills to the north. There were also Roman aqueducts in the region at South Shields, Chester-le-Street and at Lanchester.
When the word ‘Chester’ occurs in place names like Great Chesters it usually signifies the former site of a Roman fort. The name ‘Chester’ was given to such places not by the Romans, but by the later Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless the word is of Roman origin deriving from the Latin ‘Caistra’, meaning ‘fort’ or ‘city’. In some parts of Britain the variation ‘caster’ is found in place names like Lancaster or Doncaster. Caster has exactly the same meaning as Chester.
The Great Whin Sill
Some of the most spectacular views of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen in the vicinity of Great Chesters, where it runs along the crest of the rocky crags formed by the ‘Great Whin Sill’. This is a cliff-like band of hard black basaltic rock called Dolerite which was formed by a volcanic intrusion 280 million years ago.
The Great Whin Sill can be traced as far south as Teesdale (where it forms waterfalls like High Force) and stretches north towards the sea near Berwick, where it forms the Farne Islands and the solid coastal foundations of Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne Castles.
The imposing inland cliffs formed by the Great Whin Sill run in an east-west direction a few miles to the north of the Tyne and would have been a very important consideration in the Emperor Hadrian’s siting of his great defensive wall.
Vindolanda and its vicus
Without a doubt, the two best known Roman sites of the Northumbrian ‘wall country’, are the fort of Vindolanda at Chesterholm and the fort of Vercovicium, better known by its present day English name of Housesteads. Both forts are just off the B6318 Newcastle to Gilsland road, in the vicinity of the hamlets called Once Brewed and Twice Brewed. The B6318 follows the course of a Roman military road.
Vindolanda is not actually on the Roman wall, but like the fort of Carvoran near Haltwhistle, it was built forty years earlier, as an important military garrison on the Stanegate Roman road between Corbridge and Carlisle.
The fort of Vindolanda is strategically situated on a ‘holm’, a section of land formed by the junction of two streams. Hence the Anglo-Saxon name Chester-holm. Vindolanda, the Roman name, means ‘white enclosed land’.
The fort itself is of considerable interest, but archaeologically Vindolanda is best known for the remains of the ‘vicus’, or civilian settlement just outside the fort. Excavations on the vicus have revealed a number of houses, shops, a cemetery and hoards of leather shoes, but the most interesting discovery was that of a Roman ‘mansio’ or inn containing rest rooms, kitchen, courtyard, a bath house, and a latrine.
Many of the items from the vicus are displayed in Vindolanda’s museum and research centre which was built by an archaeologist in the nineteenth century using Roman stones. The museum houses replicas of a Roman and a Celtic chariot and displays a recreated Roman kitchen.
A full-scale replica reconstruction of a small section of Hadrian’s Wall has also been made at Vindolanda. It gives a good insight into what the wall would have looked like in Hadrian’s time.
Hadrian’s Wall runs along the crags to the north of Vindolanda, in the vicinity of which are five small shallow lakes named ‘loughs’, in the fashion curious to Northumberland and Ireland, though the Northumbrian pronunciation is ‘loff’.
Hadrian’s Wall overlooks one of these lakes, called Crag Lough, a mile to the west of the Housesteads, a fort known to the Romans as Vercovicium.
When Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 AD, Housesteads succeeded Vindolanda as the most important garrison in the area and like Vindolanda it was the site of an important civilian settlement. The vicus at Housesteads suffered considerably from raids by native ‘Barbarians’ and eventually the civilian inhabitants were forced to move permanently into the fort for refuge.
King Arthur’s secret hideaway?
North of Housesteads is the shallow Broomlee Lough and further north still are the Kings and Queens Crags, which are supposedly named after Arthur and Guenevere.
Nearby, a mile to the south east are the Sewingshields Crags, once the site of an old castle near Hadrian’s Wall, where King Arthur is said to have held court. Arthur, a legendary Celtic king is said to have fought in battle against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall.
Legend has it that in the nineteenth century, a shepherd was sat knitting on the ruins of Sewingshields castle when he accidentally dropped a ball of wool. Chasing it through the mass of weeds and nettles that covered the overgrown ruin, the shepherd stumbled upon a secret passage infested with bats lizards and toads.
Looking towards the end of the passage the shepherd noticed a bright and distant light. He entered the passage to investigate further, until he eventually discovered a blazing but fuel-less fire emitting from the centre of a great subterranean hall.
Close to the fire, stood a table upon which lay a bugle, a garter and a sword. Around the table were seated King Arthur, his queen, his knights and his hounds. All of them lay in a deep, deep sleep.
Instinctively the shepherd removed the ‘Excalibur’ sword from its scabbard and proceeded to cut the garter. This astonishingly caused Arthur and his knights to awaken. The startled shepherd quickly returned the sword to its sheath, causing all but the king to instantly return to their sleeping state.
In terror the shepherd returned to the passage and ran from the hall as quickly as he could, his heart beating faster and faster. As he ran he heard the growling snores of King Arthur echo along the passageway as he fell back into his slumbering sleep. In the distance the king was heard to mutter these last angry words:
” O, woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle horn.”
The shepherd returned to Sewingshields on a number of occasions, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not find the entrance to the secret passage.
Some say that King Arthur will be found at Sewingshields once again and that next time the bugle will be blown, freeing Arthur and his knights from their sleepy spell to fight for Britain in the hour of its greatest need. This legend incidentally has striking similarities to the legend of Sir Guy the Seeker associated with Dunstanburgh Castle.
Admitedly, King Arthur is most often associated with south western England but throughout the country there are many Arthurian legends of a similar nature to the Sewingshields story. If such a figure as King Arthur ever existed, then the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall was very possibly his homeland.
Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh
There are a number of interesting Roman sites to visit in the vicinity of Hexham and a few miles north west of the town at Carrawburgh we may see the remains of the fort of Brocolitia, the next major Roman site on Hadrian’s Wall to the east of Housesteads.
In 1949 an important Roman find was made here when the ruin of a Mithraeum or temple to Mithras was discovered. Comprised of three inscribed altars dedicated to a god called Mithras by Roman officers, it is one of the best preserved in Britain:
Mithras, God of morning
Our trumpets waken the wall!
“Rome is above the nations,
But thou are over all !”
Now as the names are answered
And the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier,
Give us strength for the day!
Mithraism, the disciplined worship of the Persian god of life, was encouraged by the Roman army and involved secret initiation ceremonies. It was strongly opposed by Christians in later centuries and Christians were possibly responsible for the eventual destruction of the temple at Carrawbrough.
Mithras was by no means the only god worshipped on the Roman Wall and at Carrawbrough, a shrine called Coventina’s Well, has also been found. Coventina was a Celtic water goddess worshipped by the native inhabitants of the wall country. Coventina’s Well was excavated in 1876 by the archaeologist John Clayton, who also discovered thirteen thousand Roman coins on the site.
Roman bath house
A mile to the north west of Hexham, the River Tyne is formed by the confluence of the South Tyne with the North Tyne. The South Tyne is normally more closely associated with Hadrian’s Wall but at Chesters to the north of Hexham, Hadrian’s Wall actually crossed the North Tyne by means of a bridge. The North Tyne has its origins in the Border Country of the Cheviot Hills many miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall.
The ruins of the fort of Chesters, known to the Romans as Cilurnum lie close to the western bank of the North Tyne in attractive surroundings. This fort was one of the biggest in the Roman wall country and was originally built to house a cavalry regiment
The site is best known for the foundations of a Roman bath house, which is one of the best preserved in Britain. Lying almost right beside the River North Tyne, the bath house comprised of hot rooms, cold rooms, a sweating chamber and a large entrance hall. Soldiers would have relaxed and bathed in this bath house in much the same way as in a modern Turkish or Swedish bath.
In the nineteenth century Chesters was the home of the amateur archaeologist and classical scholar John Clayton, whose old house is situated in the parkland surrounding the fort. Clayton owned most of the Roman Wall forts in Northumberland and successfully protected them from the threat of whin-stone quarrying. It is largely to Clayton that we are indebted for the preservation of many central sections of Hadrian’s Wall.
In earlier centuries many of the forts along the central area of Hadrian’s Wall, had been protected by a more unlikely source, namely the Border Reivers and Mosstroopers. Some of these lawless clans, like the Armstrongs at Housesteads, used the wall forts as permanent bases and thus kept souvenir hunters at bay. They also discouraged local farmers from plundering the ancient sites for stone.