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 such as Vindolanda, that were associated with a Roman military road called the Stanegate.
The Stanegate runs from Corbridge on Tyne (Coria or 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 an important 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, situated on the River Irthing 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 Glenwelt.
The remains of a Roman fort at Carvoran, known in Roman times as Magna or Magnis, 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. A Roman altar dedicated to goddesses who were worshipped by Syrian archers has been found here.
Magnis was built many years before Hadrian’s Wall and is probably associated with Julius Agricola’s attempted conquest of Caledonia. Today, little can be seen of the fort but Carvoran is the home to the Roman Army Museum, run by the Vindolanda Trust. A great place to learn about how the Roman army functioned, the museum includes a 3D film and other multimedia features as well as numerous archaeological artefacts on display including some impressive reconstructions of Roman army catapults.
East of Carvoran the crags of the Great Whin Sill make their presence felt and dominate the most impressive central sections of the wall beginning at Walltown Crags.
The broken crags here are known as the ‘Nine Nicks of Thirlwell’ and in one of the nicks, turret number 45A, has outstanding panoramic views and is thought likely to have been built on the site of an earlier Roman watchtower built as an observation post during the building of Hadrian’s Wall.
Great Whin Sill
From Walltown Crags as far east as Sewingshields Crags just beyond Houseteads we find the most spectacular views of Hadrian’s Wall where the wall 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 near to which it forms the Farne Islands and the solid coastal foundations of the castles at Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne.
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.
Great Chesters and Cawfields
Eastward from the ‘Nine Nicks of Thirlwall’ is Aesica, 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.
Quarrying of whinstone in times past did cause some destruction of parts of Hadrian’s Wall. There were quarries at Walltown and to the east of Great Chesters at Cawfields. A prominent cross section of the whin sill can be seen at the lake formed by the Cawfield quarry.
A good example of one of the Roman wall’s milecastles – Milecastle 42 can be seen at Cawfields heading up the slope of the whin sill to the east of the former Cawfields quarry.
Steel Rigg to Sycamore Gap
The section of Hadrian’s Wall stretching from Steel Rigg (which means ‘steep path ridge’) to Sycamore Gap and onward to Housesteads is a particularly beautiful part of the wall.
Milecastle number 39 lies along this stretch and is an especially memorable milecastle situated on the approach to Sycamore Gap and Crag Lough, which lie just to its east.
For many, the beautiful Sycamore Gap is a highlight of the wall where nature has left its mark with the famed sycamore tree nestling in its picturesque setting within a dip of the Great Whin Sill.
Just beyond Sycamore Gap the wall and Great Whin Sill look directly down upon Crag Lough. This is one of a number of lakes or ‘loughs’ in the area and although smaller than Greenlee Lough to the north and Broomlee Lough to the east, it is the only lough that is directly overlooked by the wall.
Vindolanda and its vicus
Without a doubt, the two best known Roman forts 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 easily reached from the B6318 Newcastle to Gilsland road, in the vicinity of hamlets called Once Brewed and Twice Brewed. The B6318 follows the course of a Roman military road that was part of the Hadrian’s Wall defences. Housesteads is about a mile to the east of Crag Lough while Vindolanda is a mile to the south of Crag Lough and is situated away from Hadrian’s Wall.
So, Vindolanda is not actually situated on the Roman wall, but like the fort of Carvoran it was first built around forty years earlier as an important military garrison on another Roman road – the Stanegate – which linked Corbridge to Carlisle.
The fort of Vindolanda is strategically situated on a ‘holm’, a section of land formed by the junction of two streams and these form steep drops that border parts of the fort. The name Chester-holm adopted for a later house aptly describes the site. Vindolanda’s Roman-Celtic name means ‘white enclosed land’ or ‘white lawn’.
The fort itself is of considerable extent and interest, but equally impressive are the extensive stone remains of Vindolanda’s ‘vicus’, or civilian village just outside the western edge of the fort. Excavations on the vicus have revealed a main street along with a number of houses and shops (including a butcher’s shop) along with temples; a cemetery and workshops where weapons tools and jewellery were made.
One of the largest buildings in the vicus is a tavern which included a bar and kitchen along with rooms for accommodation. Numerous drinking vessels have been unearthed by archaeologists in this part of the vicus.
Another very prominent building on the north side of the vicus is the Roman military bathhouse which was heated by furnaces and a hypocaust system.
The remains of the walled Roman stone fort of Vindolanda are very impressive with extensive foundations of the usual expected features such as the Principia or headquarters building; the Praetorium or commanding officer’s house; granaries and barracks.
A more surprising feature which is unusual to find within a fort, is a temple near the north wall of the fort. Temples are usually located outside forts. This particular temple, dating to AD 220, is a Dolichenum, dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter Deolichenus.
There were a succession of nine forts at Vindolanda over the centuries of Roman occupation with the first five built of timber from around AD 85. The first stone forts at Vindolanda were built during the Antonine and Severan period with much of the Severan fort lying beneath the visible Roman town or vicus.
After Vindolanda fort was abandoned, a post Roman village developed from the fourth century onward within the last of the old stone forts. A fifth century Christian church was built within the fort on the foundations of a cavalry barrack.
Damp anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda have made the site a rich source of archaeological finds over the years and the excavation of the site is continuous with archaeologists working on site during the summer months. An extraordinary range of finds have been uncovered across the fort and vicus.
Numerous leather shoes have been found from different eras of Vindolanda’s Roman occupation, including the shoes of children. Some damaged shoes seem to have been immediately discarded by their owners while others have been extensively repaired giving an indication of the social status of the wearers.
Other finds include pottery; beads and jewellery; numerous keys; coins; combs; weapons such as swords and arrow heads and even wooden toy weapons for children.
The most famous finds from Vindolanda are however, the Vindolanda writing tablets, hundreds of preserved letters of written correspondence inscribed in ink on thin tablets of wood. They include letters sent by both genders and all ranks of society including slaves. Correspondence ranges from an invitation to a birthday party and demands for more beer to more mundane day to day business matters.
Many of the items, including shoes, weapons, jewellery and several of the writing tablets are displayed in Vindolanda’s Chesterholm Museum and research centre. The house, called Chesterholm, that houses this museum was built by an archaeologist, the Reverend Anthony Hedley in 1831 using Roman stones.
It later passed to the antiquarian John Clayton, a one time town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne who was responsible for preserving so many of the best features of Hadrian’s Wall and also noted for financing and supporting the Grainger town developments in Newcastle.
In the 1930s Chesterholm came into the hands of Eric Birley. The Birley family of archaeologists have played a key role in the archaeological investigation of Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda up to to the present day.
Close to the museum is a reconstruction of a Roman temple and a pottery kiln. A reconstruction of a section of stone and timber sections of Hadrian’s Wall may also be seen near the fort itself.
Hadrian’s Wall runs along the crags to the north of Vindolanda, in the vicinity of which are five small shallow lakes called ‘loughs’, in the fashion curious to Northumberland and Ireland, though the Northumbrian pronunciation is ‘loff’.
Hadrian’s Wall overlooks one of these lakes, Crag Lough, a mile to the west of the Housesteads. The fort of Housesteads was known to the Romans as Vercovicium, though Houseteads itself lies closer to Broomlee Lough, the largest of this group of lakes which lies a little to the north of the fort.
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.
The first thing you notice about Housesteads (an English Heritage administered site under the ownership of the National Trust) is its steeply sloping setting, rising from its southern walls to the crest of the whin sill where it adjoins Hadrian’s Wall overlooking the lands to the north.
Housesteads is the best known fort on the wall itself and covers 5 acres but when the wall was initially built this was the site of a turret on the wall which stood for a very short time before it was superseded by the fort.
Entering the fort from the south gate, one of the first defences we encounter is not Roman, but belongs to the Border Reiving age when the fort became a place of refuge once again. Here incorporated into the south gate is a sixteenth century defended bastle house built within the walls of the fort.
The farmland called Housesteads within which the ruins of the fort were located had been associated with reiving families such as the Nixons and Armstrongs, though the Armstrongs acquired it in 1692 long after the heyday of reiving.
Just outside this southern part of the fort in Roman times was situated the vicus or Roman civilian settlement but the remains are not as extensive as those at Vindolanda.
As at Vindolanda (and other forts in the area) there would have been shops, workshops, inns and houses. Furthest from the fort is the foundation of a house that has come to be known as the ‘murder house’. Here excavation revealed skeletons found beneath the floor of the Roman house.
Within the fort itself can be seen barrack blocks; granaries; a headquarters building (or Principia); a commanding officer’s house and a hospital. To the east of the south gate are the remnants of a Roman latrine.
A Roman museum is situated alongside the fort with an excellent collection of finds on display including jewellery, tools weapons and altars.
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 on the course of Hadrian’s Wall are Sewingshields Crags, once, apparently, the site of an old castle, 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.
See also: More about Hadrian’s Wall