Hadrian’s Wall is a Roman fortification running for 117km (80 miles) across England from Wallsend on the East coast to Bowness on Solway on the West coast. Hadrian was the 14th Emperor of Rome and had the wall built for reasons which we can understand today. Firstly, it reduced raids by small bands of Picts or Caledonians who lived in what we now know as Scotland. It seems that cattle raiding was the national sport and continued after the Romans left right up to the end of the 16th century. Secondly, as with the wooden palisade across Germania (roughly, the north of Europe), it signified the frontier of the Roman Empire to the North. Thirdly, Hadrian was probably looking for a ‘monument’ to his reign and to appear strong to the folks back home in Rome. Does that sound familiar?
Hadrian had a shrine erected in York to Britain as a Goddess, and coins showing a female figure as the personification of Britain, labelled BRITANNIA were issued.
In Germania, the boundary was a wooden palisade but there were not enough trees in this area of England so the Romans used whatever was handy. In the East, this was stone and the wall was 3 metres (9.7ft) wide and 16-20 feet high. Needless to say, a lot of the stone has now gone – recycled by later generations! ‘Green and mean’ is not a new concept.
Every mile (or so, depending on geographical features) was a Milecastle with a garrison of just a few dozen troops. There were also intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. The Milecastles had gates to the North and South – perhaps for easy access to fend off raiders. Some historians suggest that there was trade between the North and South. Given that the troops were here for long periods, one can imagine all sorts of alliances with the locals, there were certainly marriages and the resulting sons following in their father’s footsteps.
We visited two major sites with David and Shirley. The first is Chesters Fort, known to the Romans as Cilurnam. Oddly enough, David and Alan visited this site first in 1956 – and so did I. Did we see one another? We’ll never know.
There is a lot more to see now than in 1956, thanks to English Heritage. The fort is situated where the wall crosses the Tyne river and the abutments of that bridge can still be seen on both sides of the river.
We can thank John Clayton for most of the preservation of what remains of Hadrian’s Wall. Son of Nathanial Clayton who was Town Clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1785 to 1822, he succeeded his father in that post – do I hear calls of “nepotism”? Be that as it may, his father bought Chesters Estate, in the grounds of which Cilurnam stood and covered the remains in order to have uninterrupted landscape to the river.
From 1834 John began buying land to preserve the Wall, at a time when the wall was little understood. He even had some restoration work carried out.
Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall which includes Chesters, Vindolanda and Housesteads. He was immortalised in a painting by William Bell Scott which hangs in nearby Wallington Hall.
It shows a Centurian overseeing the building of the wall but the face is that of John Clayton. More photos on Picasa.
The second site was very different. Vindolanda is basically an excavation in the raw and I would not recommend it for anyone who has mobility difficulties.
Administered by a Trust, whose aim is ‘to excavate and preserve the Roman remains associated with the land owned by the Trust’, we found it fascinating but confusing as there is little interpretation on the site, though there is a good display in the entrance area. It’s almost like being invited to watch a private dig.
I was amused to see that the few interpretation panels were in four languages – English, Latin, French and German. A nice touch. It is a huge site and we didn’t see everything as we ran out of time and had left the dogs in the vehicles. There is a museum down in the valley which we didn’t get to, to our disappointment. This houses a collection of finds including some writing tablets, the best known of which is the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina asking her to attend her party on September 11th " to make her day more enjoyable". This is the earliest surviving writing between two women in Western Europe.
The Vindolanda Trust has a Roman Army Museum just down the road which we would also like to have visited – we’ll just have to go back one day. More Vindolanda pictures can be seen at Picasa as well as a couple from Hadrian’s Villa just outside Rome from when we visited.