If you are actually considering walking the Wall, there are many good reasons for doing it from west to east. It is far, far better than going east to west. You’ll find my blog for that walk online for all to read for free, or you can get the ebook for a modest consideration. However, if you are determined to walk it east to west, then digitally is the best way (at least the wind and rain in your face will be virtual).
Our journey begins next to the remains of the former Swan Hunter shipyard, where the Wall apparently once ran into the river. Once, by all accounts, Geordie kids paddled and splashed around its remains, but that time has long gone. For us, Wallsend is the start of what we shall boldly term our Echtmauerwanderung along Hadrian’s Wall: a stroll per lineam valli (literally ‘along the line of the Wall’). This has one distinct virtue: the Wall is only 118.4km (73.5 miles) long, whereas the National Trail is 137.0km (85.1 miles), so we don’t have to walk so far but get to see more Wall!
Anyway, without more ado, let’s start at the very beginning. If you require more detail, feature headings include references to the appropriate page in the latest edition of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (and the map includes clickable links to other resources drawn from English Heritage’s PastScape website, DeFRA’s MAGIC mapping base, and – occasionally – from romanbritain.org).
Milecastle 0 [Not mentioned in the HB; haiku]
Although it has been suggested that the curtain wall may have begun with a riverside milecastle, there is as yet no evidence to support this notion, but redevelopment of the former shipyard may ultimately provide clarification on this point.
Wall Mile 0 [HB 371]
The Branch Wall
Before entering the fort and museum of Segedunum, head east along the main road for a few yards, then immediately right, and make your way up onto the bridge that takes the cycle path round the back of the fort. Heading west, you will soon see your first piece of Hadrian’s Wall. This bit is known as the Branch Wall and it is this that ran down into the Tyne. This bit has actually been moved a couple of times (it was found further to the south when the slipway for the RMS Mauritania was being built in 1903, moved to a nearby park, then back again when Segedunum was opened) but it is not the most mobile piece of the Wall. That distinction belongs to a fragment of the Branch Wall that was in a display case on the RMS Carpathia (which was fitting out at Wallsend at the time of its discovery) and appears to have been present when that ship went to the aid of the Titanic. It may even have been the only piece of Hadrian’s Wall to have been sunk by a U-boat in 1918! There is a model of the Carpathia upstairs in the industrial section of the museum, but no model of the U-boat.
Wallsend fort (SEGEDVNVM) [HB 131–8]
Wallsend is very far from the best-preserved fort along the line of the Wall; we shall see better examples of virtually all of its features. However, it is the only one that lays all of them out for our appreciation, and even offers a convenient tower from which to view them. The order in which we proceed around Segedunum (the name, which is Latinised Celtic, means something like ‘strong fort’) is a matter of taste, but for our purposes we shall visit the site first and then look at the museum.
Wallsend fort was built when the Wall was extended eastwards from the original terminus in Newcastle during the Hadrianic period, after the initial construction phase was well under way (so probably well into the AD120s). Occupying 1.6ha (4.1 acres), it was only some 6.4km (4 miles) from the next fort at Newcastle. The garrison was cohors II Nerviorum in the 2nd century and cohors I Lingonum in the 3rd and 4th centuries and both of these were auxiliary units that contained a mixture of infantry and cavalry (in other words, a cohors equitata). On Hadrian’s Wall, the legions did most (but not all) of the building and the auxiliaries most of the garrisoning (but, again, apparently not all).
Before the campaign of excavations in the 1970s, the fort site was covered by housing and just its outline was marked out in the streets, so if you think the remains are rather scrappy, bear that little fact in mind. Now a large portion of the fort has been cleared for display and only the portion under Buddle Street remains largely unexcavated. ‘Largely’, because the great Wall scholar F. G. Simpson tunnelled under that road to check whether the junction of the curtain wall and the fort proved them to be of one build: they were. There are fine views of the fort and the surrounding shipyards to be had from the viewing tower that is part of the recent site museum.
The fort was surrounded by a stone wall backed by an earthen rampart and, like all forts of its kind, it had rounded corners. In each of those corners was a corner- or angle-tower, whilst gate towers flanked each twin-portalled entrance (centrally in the north and south sides, and just north of the curtain wall on the westerns side). An eastern gate matched the western, but an additional (single-portalled) western gate was placed between the curtain wall and the south-west corner, probably to facilitate access to the civil settlement or vicus. Wallsend is unique in this asymmetric arrangement of its gates, a product of its location in an angle in the course of the Wall. Additional towers were placed between each gate tower and its neighbouring corner tower and – by analogy with other, better-preserved forts – the whole thing as probably finished off by a walkway shielded by a crenelated parapet. The fort defences were further enhanced by a ditch which continued the line of the ditch of Hadrian’s Wall itself.
The HQ building
The best place to start our tour of the internal buildings is with the administrative centre, the headquarters building (principia). It lies at the junction of the two principal streets of the fort, the east-to-west via principalis and the north-to-south via praetoria. Unusually for a Hadrian’s Wall fort, this junction was covered by a forehall, a feature found in many continental forts and possibly used for training under cover. South of that lie the standard features of an HQ building: a courtyard, then a cross-hall (the origin of the basilical form later adopted for churches), and then a rear range of offices, the central chamber of which was the chapel of the standards (aedes signorum), under which was a strong room in which the unit’s savings were kept.
The CO’s house
To the east of the principia was the commanding officer’s house (praetorium), where he (and his family, including slaves) lived, comfortably separated from his soldiers. This was a ‘Mediterranean-style’, inward-looking courtyard structure, with four ranges of rooms around a central yard or (more likely) garden.
The Granaries and Hospital
West of the HQ were two store-buildings or granaries (horrea), recognisable by their raised floors and external buttresses, and another courtyard building that has been interpreted as a hospital. The raised floors helped deter vermin and moderate the temperate of any stored goods, especially grain (the Roman army ate spelt wheat and fed their horses barley and oats), whilst the buttresses served only to confuse scholars (since calculations show therm to have been structurally unnecessary and, in fact, they were even left off some granaries elsewhere).
One of the most interesting aspects of Wallsend is its cavalry barracks, split between men and animals. The pits set into the ground, designed to catch the less pleasant by-products of a reliance upon horses, have been identified at an increasing number of Roman military sites. These are invariably accompanied by very high phosphate readings when tested. Cavalrymen were organised in a turma of 32 men (two to each barrack block), whereas infantrymen were placed in a century (centuria) of 80 men (one to each barracks). Since Wallsend housed a mixed unit, both infantry and cavalry, and we have the cavalry here in the southern third of the fort, then the infantry seem to have been based in the northern third.
In the south-western part of the site, there is a splendid (albeit mirror image) reconstruction (capable of working when built) of the Chesters bath-house (not, please note, on the site of the Wallsend bath-house, which was probably further to the south-west). This will bring home just how inadequate ruins can sometimes be at giving a true impression of the magnificence of a building, especially when we finally get to see the remains upon which it is based at Chesters. The baths are periodically opened for inspection and nearby is a small herb garden, showing the range of culinary and medicinal plants that might be found in Roman times. Make sure you see the reconstruction Roman latrine north of the main changing room.
Now it is time to return to the museum, but before we do, note the line of the Branch Wall (marked in cobbles) running down towards the Tyne from the south-east corner of the fort. On our way past, we can also have a look at the monument recording the names of every single Roman whose name has survived from the Wall (with space so new discoveries can be added).
Once in the museum, there is much to do and see, including a rather dramatic representation of stratigraphy, the accumulation of archaeological layers over time. When you have seen everything, pressed all the buttons, and been lectured by the Geordie centurion, find your way to the observation tower (there are both lifts and stairs to get you to the top). Up there, a video demonstration dramatically illustrates how the site has changed over time. There is a fine shopportunity in the foyer to part you from your money before you leave, but don’t buy too much: you will have to carry it with you.
Wall Mile 0 [HB 139–41]
Exit the fort and museum site and turn left, crossing Buddle Street by the zebra crossing at the bend in the road (exercising all due care). If you have time to spare, the positions of the northern barracks and defences are marked out to your right, but we are heading elsewhere.
Here, behind some railings, we have another treat in store, for here is one of the few full-height reconstructions of the curtain wall. Closer inspection reveals that the replica is in fact built slightly to the south of the excavated wall, a series of short stubby posts marking the position of a series of pits which we now know formed berm obstacles. These would have been filled with something like thorn bushes to form the Roman equivalent of a barbed-wire entanglement. The excavated length is actually considerably more than that consolidated, but much still lies under plastic, awaiting the time when funds permit its consolidation too. When examined, it was found that the wall along here collapsed due to proximity to a stream. The collapse of bits of Hadrian’s Wall will become a recurring theme for our journey.
Now we can turn our attention to the reconstructed curtain wall. Although building regulations demanded that it be built to modern standards and with a completely inaccurate handrail at the back, it gives a good impression of the state of our knowledge of what the curtain wall actually looked like. Go towards the back, noting as you pass the severe weathering that the modern building inscription has already suffered. We shall briefly resist the temptation to mount the steps, but instead direct our attention to the base of those stairs, at the west end of the south face of the wall. Here, several different interpretations of a debate as to whether the curtain wall was plastered, whitewashed, or flush-pointed have been realised and it will be readily apparent that the whitewash option is already nearly completely vanished.
Next we can proceed up the stairs. Here it is possible to appreciate just how much room the narrower curtain wall of this sector (the wall to the west of Newcastle is built to a broader gauge) provides for a walkway, even allowing for a parapet. Note too the efficacy of the merlons at providing protection for defenders (although some might argue for broader merlons, these are details to which we have no definitive answers at the moment). This is a splendid example of the value of physical reconstruction; sometimes CGI just will not do.
Once we have finished inspecting this, and perhaps taken a look at the remains of the 19th-century colliery that used to sit atop the fort, it is time to start walking. Leave the fenced area and turn right down Buddle Street. We are going to be separated from the course of the Wall for a short distance, but don’t fret: we shall soon be reunited. At the roundabout, continue across onto Neptune Road, and then another roundabout and slight bend in the road takes us onto Fossway. After two more roundabouts, the Miller’s Dene recreation ground on our right-hand side marks the location of Milecastle 1, with the course of the Wall and Fossway converging but not yet meeting.
Milecastle 1 (Stott’s Pow) [HB 141; haiku]
This milecastle has never been confirmed, although what has been interpreted as occupation material has been found. It used to be placed further to the east on Ordnance Survey maps. Nevertheless, both Horsley and MacLauchlan reported seeing it here so this is now the accepted location.