Wall Mile 44

Wall Mile 44 [HB 277–8]

The curtain wall trundles along the top of the crags in a north-easterly direction for about 200m before making a turn to a more southerly course and descending into Walltown Nick. We cannot easily follow it directly down but need to take a more southerly course, before finding a stile across a stone wall and then a paved causeway across the boggy base of this nick. To our right is a low mound surmounted by trees, known as King Arthur’s Well; this is not the last time we shall encounter the Once and Future King on our journey. We are now confronted by a steep climb up some rudimentary stone steps (they are modern and some have been cut with an angle grinder to give added grip). Ultimately this takes us to Turret 44b on Mucklebank Crags, but before we examine it, we can now turn and survey the path we have just negotiated and observe the Wall from our eyrie. The line of the curtain wall, although ruinous, should be clear, slightly to the north of the paved path. North of that again is the line of the ditch. Although not needed for much of the Wall’s course along the crags, the ditch reappears whenever a nick or gap appears where its defensive provision is deemed necessary. This, incidentally, hints once again at how important the ditch (rather than the curtain wall) may have been in deciding the course of the Wall and suggests that the latter was subservient to the former.

Walltown Nick

Walltown Nick

Turret 44b (Mucklebank) is unique in being set into a right-angled turn of the curtain wall, as it wends it way along the top of the crags. Still standing to about 1.9m high, it was excavated in 1892. Inside, the remains of an arch can be seen lying on the floor and that may originally have adorned the doorway.

Turret 44b at Mucklebank

Turret 44b at Mucklebank

After a brief exposure on either side of the turret, the curtain wall returns to being a low mound along the top of the crags for another 100m or so before descending into the next nick. Once again the curtain wall diverts south to embrace this and a short stretch of ditch appears to cover the break in the crags. It climbs again briefly and then repeats the performance with another diversion and accompanying stretch of ditch. This defensive trick is known as a re-entrant and allows a defender to dominate an attacker who might choose to assail a weak point (which has been helpfully reinforced with a length of ditch) from three sides. That is why the Wall does not run straight across.

Wall Mile 44 from the air

Wall Mile 44 from the air

After the third of these nicks the terrain settles down a little bit, we cross a stile and note that there is now a drystone wall on top of the curtain wall to our left and that a gateway through the wall we have just crossed marks the line of the Military Way, the road that links all the turrets and milecastles. The astute will even be able to make out the course of the road, about 35m south of the curtain wall. We pass Alloa Lee Farm (which you’ll usually see referred to as Allolee) to our right before encountering the site of Milecastle 44 just before a turn in the Wall slightly south of east. By now you should be getting your eye in for the humps and bumps of unconsolidated milecastles.

Milecastle 44 (Allolee) [HB 277; haiku]

The long-axis Milecastle 44 (Allolee) is visible as an earthwork. It has evidently been excavated at some point but when, by whom, and what was found remain a mystery. This is why excavation is sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘preservation by record’; without a record, there is no ‘preservation’.

PLVad2

Wall Mile 45

Wall Mile 45 [HB 278–9]

A short walk along the northern fringe of the upcast mound for the ditch takes us to the road, Walltown quarry (as was), and time for a decision. Now is your chance to take a break from the Wall and explore the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. Strictly speaking, Carvoran was a Stanegate fort (falling between the regular forts at Birdoswald and Greatchesters – the Vallum swerves to the north to avoid the fort, huffily excluding it from the Wall zone), but we need not be so picky that we will stride on past and ignore it, especially in the light of its recent refurbishment which definitely makes it worth a visit. Besides, it gives the Roman military context to the whole Wall by explaining army organisation and so on.

Walltown Quarry

Walltown Quarry

So, whether you choose to visit the museum or just carry on along the Wall, after joining the road we turn right and soon see the entrance to Walltown Quarry, which we will either walk past or turn into, according to our preference. The former quarry, now a nature reserve, has a small shop with public conveniences next to the car park. Follow the path east out of the car park, our route curves round to the north, keeping the large upstanding mound to our left. At the point where the path starts to turn to the east again, we are close to the site of Turret 45b, which – left on a pinnacle – collapsed into the quarry in the 19th century and which provided an object lesson in the danger of quarry proximity to monuments that was to become relevant again in the 1930s, as we shall see. Musing on such things, we can carry on along the path until it takes us up past the quarry face to a gate in the south-east corner of the nature reserve, Once through that, we double back on ourselves and head north, keeping the stone wall immediately to our left until we see the curtain wall loom into view, just before it plunges over the quarry edge.

The curtain wall climbs up Walltown Crags

The curtain wall climbs up Walltown Crags

Climbing dramatically upwards, before weaving around outcrops of whinstone, we are now aware that the geology has changed for the first time since we left the Cumbrian coastal plain. Starting at Thirlwell Castle, we have ascended the Whin Sill, the outcrop of dolerite that dominates the central sector of the Wall and provides the tactical landscape for the mural barrier, as well as having donated the term ‘sill’ to geology. It is a characteristic of the Whin Sill that it slopes downwards to the south (known, appropriately, as the ‘dip slope’) and is accompanied by bands of sandstone and limestone to its south. It thus provided two key elements for the Wall’s construction: sandstone for the curtain wall itself and limestone for the mortar. Dolerite is too hard to be worked easily (the major reason it was preferred for road stone in more recent times, hence quarries like Walltown) so the Roman troops generally avoided trying to dress it as facing stones, although it did sometimes end up in the core. Thus the happy coincidence of the tactically favourable terrain, the presence nearby of necessary building materials, and the comparatively short distance between the coasts meant Hadrian’s Wall was placed in the Goldilocks Zone for northern frontiers.

Rounding a corner

Rounding a corner

Wall Mile 45 is one of the most spectacular and oft-photographed sections of the Wall, and the adaptation of the curtain wall builders to this terrain is interesting to observe. Climbing up from its unintentional terminus above the beetling cliff of the quarry face, the curtain wall turns a corner of about sixty degrees to the east, nicely rounded on the outside but angular on the south face (and so reminiscent of milecastle corners), keeping a comfortable distance from the edge of the cliff that matches the width of the berm elsewhere, where the ditch is present. Winding around some outcrops, it then plunges down into our first ‘nick’; the ‘Nine Nicks of Thirlwell’ are in reality glacial spillways, caused by melt-water when the ice was retreating at the end of the most recent Ice Age. Only pedants will care that there are no longer nine of them, due to the actions of the aforementioned quarry. This is the viewpoint for the famous Alan Sorrell reconstruction of the Wall at Walltown Crags. On the way down, some rather spectacular buttressing is undertaken to get over one particularly troublesome outcrop. This particular spillway still drains water, but now from the boggy land to the south, so has been provided with drainage slots at its base like those we have already seen further to the west. The curtain wall immediately begins to climb again, its coursing impressively levelled on footings that more casually follow the slope and even stepped as it goes around a slight corner. Then it is but a short hop to the site of Turret 45a, which is a rather interesting example of its kind.

Turret 45a (Walltown)

Turret 45a

Turret 45a

Interesting? Already, after only a few examples have come our way, turrets can scarcely be called interesting. This one is. Cast your mind back to Pike Hill signal tower, which we saw just after Turret 52a. That was a pre-Wall signal tower incorporated into the Wall; so is Turret 45a, as was evident when it was re-excavated in 1959 (it had previously been examined in 1883 and 1912). The curtain wall butts against it on either side and the tower-cum-turret, as with Pike Hill, has excellent views to the south and better views to the north than the neighbouring pre-Hadrianic fort at Carvoran. As with Pike Hill, the entrance is on the eastern side of the southern face.

The curtain wall, part-excavated

The curtain wall, part-excavated

The curtain wall continues for a short distance to the east before it vanishes, consumed by Greenhead Quarry (which, unlike Walltown Quarry, remains more as less as it was when abandoned: a mess). We can follow the fence round and start to climb the Sill and soon we see an impressive sight: the next bit of wall, perched on the edge of a quarry face (and often with crows ridge soaring above it). Gaining a bluff, we find ourselves looking down on another stretch of curtain wall, partly excavated and consolidated. Most people don’t know this is here and walk straight past it, which is a pity as it is particularly evocative of how the consolidation process was undertaken (and, in this case, abandoned). Immediately to the east, the curtain wall is covered again and only a few tumbled stones poke through the turf (affording an excellent opportunity to compare the two states of the wall) and as we follow it up to a low platform, we reach the site of Milecastle 45.

Milecastle 45 (Walltown) [HB 278; haiku]

Milecastle 45

Milecastle 45, as you’ve probably never seen it

Milecastle 45 (Walltown) has never been properly excavated, but the robber trenches dug to remove its walls (and their associated spoil heaps) are very clear and serve to delineate the structure. Try if you can to recall Milecastle 48 next to the Poltross Burn and reflect upon the two extremes of preservation and presentation.

The PLV ebooks

Wall Mile 46

Wall Mile 46 [HB 283]

The ditch remains our companion as we press on, but ahead of us is a hint of what is to come, for the central sector looms in the shape of the Nine Nicks of Thirlwell, with both the Wall ditch and Vallum clearly visible running up the hillside. More of that later, however. To our right, the Vallum is running across an open field, but it is almost completely ploughed out, but we can make it out where it crosses rougher ground west of the golf course and survives as an upstanding earthwork.

Ditch E of Milecastle 47

Ditch E of Milecastle 47

In a while, the Trail leads us down from the berm and into the ditch and then across a rather boggy bit and ultimately across a burn. Once beyond the watercourse, the ditch has almost completely disappeared, ploughed out over the years. Soon we find ourselves descending, with no clue as to where the curtain wall and ditch have gone. In fact, the line of the wall is to our right and the drystone wall to our left is on the edge of the ditch. Who would have guessed?

Wall stub next to road

Wall stub next to road

As we reach the edge of the field we cross a stile and go down some steps to the road. We then turn right and as we pass the line of the curtain wall we can see an 8m length of it on a plinth next to the road at Long Byre. The story runs that when road improvements were being carried out here in 1957, Charlie Anderson, the Ministry of Works chief charge hand, noticed that the curtain wall was being exposed and was instrumental in making sure it was first excavated and then consolidated. We have to travel about 200m south-eastwards on the road, so take care as we need to cross it ultimately, near the terrace of houses opposite the golf course. A track leads us to the railway again, which we must once more cross very carefully. On the far side, we cross the cycleway and then follow the Tipalt Burn northwards to get us back to the line of the Wall near Thirlwall Castle.

Thirlwall Castle

Thirlwall Castle

The castle is a prominent landmark and important as yet another resting place for large amounts of reused Wall stone. Dating to the 1330s, it is more a fortified house than a proper castle, but in the Borders in the Middle Ages, even the outside lavatories were ‘hardened’, so dire were the circumstances. If you decide you want a quick look round it, we will wait, but not for too long. You will need to come back down afterwards, as the Trail now takes us across the Tipalt Burn on a narrow footbridge.

Building stone of the Dumnonii

Building stone of the Dumnonii

Once over the bridge, the house to the right (which sometimes sells teas) has an interesting building stone in its conservatory, recording construction work (probably 3rd-century reconstruction) by a levy from the tribe of the Dumnonii (from modern Devon and Cornwall, roughly). The Trail meanwhile starts to lead uphill, then doubles back on itself and then, suddenly, we are back on the line of the Wall, with the ditch prominent to our right, and a formidable hill in front of us. Set yourself a steady pace and do not halt until you reach the drystone wall and have crossed the stile.

The ditch looking uphill towards Milecastle 46

The ditch looking uphill towards Milecastle 46

Now you can look back at the view: there is the castle, in the foreground and, beyond it, the line of the ditch and wall running towards Gilsland. Beyond that the Irthing gorge and the site of Birdoswald. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Solway, providing you with a fine perspective on how far you have walked so far. You are also, incidentally, standing next to Milecastle 46.

Milecastle 46 (Carvoran) [HB 283; haiku]

Milecastle 46 (Carvoran) was first located in 1907 and excavated in 1946. All that can be seen now are some vague humps and bumps, although it looks clear enough from the air or on Google Earth. The most that can be said of it is that it affords a fine excuse to pause and take stock.

Wall Mile 47

Wall Mile 47 [HB 284–5]

After the excitement of the last couple of miles, we are now back to a slightly less thrilling section, allowing us to recover in time for the approaching crags, although it does still have a couple of surprises in store. Gilsland is a rather attractive village but the National Trail manages to weave its way round the back of it, but it is the Wall that must concern us, not villages. Crossing the Poltross Burn next to the lofty viaduct, we climb up a footpath then turn right through a kissing gate and emerge on top of a hill. Looking downhill, to the west, we can clearly see the course of the ditch and, to the south of it, the line of the curtain wall indicated by the property boundary at the end of the terrace gardens. Here is another good place to study how the Roman army used the terrain to their advantage when laying out the ditch, for here it is set back to the south of a prominent natural north–south slope, thus forcing an attacker to run uphill before attempting to cross it.

The ditch E of Gilsland

The ditch E of Gilsland

The Trail takes us through a gate and across a field before we cross a minor road and into another field where we get to walk along one of the finest – possibly even breathtaking (if you are inclined to having your breath taken) – sections of Wall ditch. As you survey it, remember that we are not standing at the original base, since sedimentation ensured that, however often it was cleared out, material would rapidly accumulate at the bottom. Once again, the ditch is cut into a foreslope, with the northern lip – enhanced by the ditch upcast – making it even more pronounced and a substantial obstacle to the would-be attacker. The line of the curtain wall is, naturally, indicated by a property boundary wall. We soon find ourselves weaving our way through the front gardens of a couple of houses before proceeding once more towards another road crossing.

Turning right up the road, we then follow the Trail left through another gate and embark upon a long stretch with the line of the curtain wall to our right marked by a field boundary, the ditch to our left much less pronounced. We soon join a track that takes us to Green Croft, where the Trail turns off onto a footpath, across a stream that is, if you look carefully, running in the Wall ditch. We carry on, still with the line of the curtain wall to our right, with its field wall perched on top of it. The ditch becomes more pronounced, recalling that fine stretch on the eastern edge of Gilsland and we approach the position of Milecastle 47 at the point where we cross a field wall by means of a ladder stile.

Wall Mile 46 and 47 from the air

Wall Miles 46 and 47 from the air

Milecastle 47 (Chapel House) [HB 283–4; haiku]

There is nothing to see of Milecastle 47 (Chapel House). It lies to the north of the field wall we are following and was in fact blown up with gunpowder in the 19th century in order to recover the building materials. An inscription from nearby records work by the legio XX Valeria Victrix under Hadrian so this long axis milecastle may have been one of their products.

CGHad

Wall Mile 48

Wall Mile 48 [HB 285–91]

Wall Mile 48 is one of the finest on the whole Wall for understanding the basics of the system, both ‘as designed’ and ‘as built’. This is not only because it is mostly intact, but also because it has both flanking milecastles surviving (Milecastles 49 and 48) and both intervening turrets (Turrets 48b and a), as well as substantial lengths of ditch in various states of preservation.

The Wall and ditch just above the Irthing Gorge

The Wall and ditch just above the Irthing Gorge

Before continuing along the Trail and down the track, we can take the time to examine the short stretch of wall and ditch between the milecastle and the gorge. Originally more survived, but the river has eaten into the hillside over the years removing all trace of how Hadrian’s Wall originally negotiated the west bank of the river. Large amounts of the spoil excavated from Birdoswald were dumped down here, only to be carried away again by landslips. Looking back towards the west, the original line of the Turf Wall was that followed by the Stone Wall in this sector and the Irthing gorge was the easternmost extent of that rampart.

The curtain wall (and the Military Way) crossed the river by means of a bridge, the remains of which we shall inspect in a short while. First, the Trail wends its way down the hillside to the floodplain of the Irthing, which it crosses by means of the (intentionally rusty) Millennium Bridge. Follow the path along, through the kissing gate, and only then does it bring you to the eastern abutment of the Roman bridge at Willowford.

Willowford Bridge abutment

Confronted by the bridge abutment at the end of a long section of Wall descending into the floodplain of the Irthing, one can be forgiven for being slightly nonplussed. The river is some distance to the west and has probably destroyed the western abutment. The bridge piers would have lain beneath the field between the river and the surviving abutment, whilst the abutment as it survives reveals several distinct phases to its existence.

The bridge abutment, with the later masonry to the left

The bridge abutment, with the later masonry to the left

If we start on the southern side of the abutment, the sequence is clearer. Easternmost was a simple abutment, angled back from the end of the curtain wall (which was broad gauge for a short distance and had a turret near the end), and now embedded within later masonry that was added to repair the abutment after damage (probably from flooding), also providing mill races for one or more undershot water mills. One of these races preserves two large, shallow, square sockets in its upper surface that would have taken timber uprights for one of the bridges crossing here. The basic rule here, then, is the nearer to the river, the later it is. Indeed, excavation has shown that the bridge went through several phases, starting with a simple pedestrian crossing, presumably fortified in a similar manner to the curtain wall on either side of it (although we cannot even take that for granted). It was then enlarged to allow the Military Way to cross, so had to be big enough to carry vehicles.

The later tower and repairs to the curtain wall

The later tower and repairs to the curtain wall

A new (larger) tower was also added, slightly to the east of the original one, and we may suppose that it was matched by a twin on the other lost abutment. The later phases reused earlier stone – one piece of opus quadratum (large, heavy stones that were usually jointed using iron or lead cramps, rather than mortared into position) on the southern edge has cramp holes set into it that imply it was originally joined to another stone, but now finds itself as an edge piece. If we walk round to the northern side we can see just how rough some of the later stonework was in places. The re-use of Hadrian’s Wall began early: to repair the Wall itself.

One niggling thought intrudes at this point, as we envisage this massive bridge structure majestically crossing the river. What was to stop intruders sneaking under the bridge? The answer is, depressingly, we don’t know. That there was some system in place seems beyond doubt, but no hint of a suggestion of an indication of an answer is known as yet. Sometimes archaeology is like that.

The curtain wall running to Willowford bridge abutent

The curtain wall running to Willowford bridge abutent

Continuing on the northern side of the curtain wall, you are next to a stretch of narrow gauge wall (about 2.3m) on broad foundations and, for the first time, we have left the territory of the Turf Wall, since Milecastle 49 was its easternmost extremity. We can take a few moments to examine the fabric of the curtain wall and observe how the blocks are fashioned (roughly squared at the face, tapering in to towards the core) and how the whole thing sits upon a footing which protrudes slightly at ground level. This is a barbarian’s eye view of the Wall and it is difficult not to be impressed. We may also note how rounded river cobbles have been incorporated in the core. The keen-eyed might even notice lime staining on the northern face of the wall, leached out from the lime mortar used to point it. This whole stretch is an example of the ‘as found’ consolidation style used in more recent years, with none of the reconstruction we shall see later in the Central Sector.

Willowford centurial inscription

Willowford centurial inscription

As the curtain wall ascends the river terrace, note how the coursing is kept level whilst the footings tend to follow the contours. Once we reach the top, the wall itself is briefly interrupted by the farmyard entrance but there is a centurial inscription (RIB 3407) built into the corner of an outbuilding. It was found nearby in 1986 and has been incorporated above a convenient plaque recording its contents.

Turret 48b (Willowford West)

Turret 48b

Turret 48b

Now, the path (by means of a rather elaborate timber edifice, designed to stop visitors walking on – and damaging – the remains of the curtain wall itself) delivers you to Turret 48b, which was excavated in 1923. Standing up to nine courses high, the turret has lost its south wall, but still gives a good impression of the limited space available within its ground floor. Before we move on, inspect the curtain wall immediately east of the structure. Note that the rear face is stepped (there is a foundation course, four courses of a plinth, then the main curtain wall) and that it soon changes, becoming abruptly narrower. The reasons will become more readily apparent once we reach Turret 48a (thus providing an incentive to be moving on).

The Trail to the south of the curtain wall and the track in the ditch

The Trail to the south of the curtain wall and the track in the ditch

As we follow the Trail immediately south of the curtain wall (and yes, you are not wrong, it is a bit cramped, especially if we encounter walkers coming the other way: footpath people call this a ‘pinch-point’), we can look to the right at the farm track, which is at this point within the Wall ditch. We shall see roads and tracks using the ditch again before our journey is complete. The curtain Wall itself is now sitting on a broad foundation and parts of the footings of the broader wall had clearly begun construction when the decision was made to narrow it. Soon the farm track crosses the line of the curtain wall to continue behind it and the curtain wall runs along the edge of the Irthing gorge.

Short length of curtain wall next to the track

Short length of curtain wall next to the track

As we join the track, we can still see the ditch off to our left, beyond the drystone wall. Before very long we find a short length of the curtain wall. Walking around to its northern side reveals just how much of it survives and shows off the offset footing courses rather nicely. Both the ditch and part of the curtain wall have been destroyed by the ingress of river bank erosion for a short distance, but we soon encounter another stretch of the wall leading up to Turret 48a.

Turret 48a (Willowford East)

Turret 48a

Turret 48a

Turret 48a, also excavated in 1923, similarly survives up to seven courses in height and we may observe that its entrance is on the western side of the southern wall. Since this turret is easier to understand than 48b, unencumbered as it is by fences and destroyed walls, it is time for a bit of wall width exposition.

What is interesting about this turret from our point of view is that it betrays something of the way in which the curtain wall was constructed. We noted the wall at Willowford abutment was built to what is known as the broad gauge (10Rft or 2.74–2.97m) and immediately to the east reduced in width, whilst still on broad foundations. Turret 48a is also constructed to that same broad gauge, as are short lengths of curtain wall on either side (known as ‘wing walls’), but then the width of the curtain is similarly reduced to only 8Rft, sitting on a broad foundation. We can conclude from this that a) the foundations of the stone wall were built separately to the superstructure; b) Turrets 48b and a (and probably the abutment) were started independently of the curtain wall on either side; and c) somebody had changed their mind about how wide the curtain wall needed to be to do its job and that they had done this after the foundations, some of the superstructure, and some of the features (in this case the turret and abutment) had already been constructed.

The old vicarage and its length of wall

The old vicarage and its length of wall

When we reach the end of this section, we must cross the road and look for the Trail path to the right of the school. The final section of curtain wall in this mile actually lies to the left of the school but, although it is in Guardianship (or ‘in care’ as they like to say these days, making it sound more than a little delinquent). It is on private land next to the dilapidated (but allegedly still occupied) old vicarage where Hunter Davies stayed when he walked the Wall and cannot, unfortunately, be visited. It can however be seen at a distance as you climb towards the railway crossing, as can the depression of the ditch to the north of it, and it is apparent how the railway embankment passes over the Wall and effectively masks the original lie of the land (the curtain wall climbs abruptly beneath that embankment). Once the path reaches it, take care crossing the railway line.

Milecastle 48 (Poltross Burn) [HB 285–7; haiku]

Milecastle 48

Milecastle 48

With the appetite whetted by Milecastle 49 and Turrets 48b and 48a, there is now the opportunity to examine Milecastle 48, one of the best preserved along the line of the Wall. First excavated in 1886, and then subsequently in 1909 and 1911 (and again in 1965 and 1966), it is perched rather precariously behind and sloping down towards the curtain wall. Its own perimeter wall joins the curtain perpendicularly (and is bonded to it), but its southern corners are rounded as Roman fortifications of the 2nd century AD usually were. On the eastern side (and on the western, but no longer visible) is a short wing wall similar to those on Turrets 48a and 48b, confirming that the milecastle had been built to the broad gauge before the (now narrow) curtain wall reached it. Here it differs radically from its later neighbour, Milecastle 49, which, as we have seen, was built after the curtain wall.

There are two internal structures, aligned on either side of the roadway that passes between the gates, the northernmost of which, rather excitingly, led out into Barbaricum (these days represented by the side of the embankment of the Newcastle to Carlisle railway). The north gate is well preserved and is of a type (III, if you must know) that scholars have suggested mean it was constructed by legio VI Victrix. The gate was subsequently narrowed to only allow pedestrian access, as happened at other milecastles.

Within the milecastle, a north–south road way ran between the north and south gates and on either side of it were structures thought to be barrack buildings. The slope is rather extreme and the floors were probably levelled up on joists inside. It is thought that the milecastle garrisons were outposted from neighbouring forts, in order to provide the manpower to patrol the Wall and man the turrets. ‘Thought’ because, in the absence of direct evidence from Hadrian’s Wall itself, we have to use comparisons with other provinces, where we know outposting was practised widely.

Remains of the oven

Remains of the oven

In the north-east corner are the remains of the oven used for cooking (the Roman army preferred to keep their celebrity chefs at arm’s length), so it is in the equivalent position to ovens in larger forts and fortresses. Roman ovens worked like a traditional pizza oven: the fabric is heated by inserting hot embers which are then raked out and the food to be cooked (mostly bread) placed inside. Carbonised Roman bread (as well as wall paintings of the uncarbonised original) is known from Pompeii, but as yet no pizza.

The steps

The steps

Milecastle 48 also provides another important fact that sheds some (but not quite enough) light upon our understanding of the Wall. This is the survival of a staircase in its north-east corner. Only the lowest three (and part of a fourth) steps actually survive, but by projecting their line upwards, it is possible to deduce that the wall-walk height here must have been in the region of 12 Rft (3.55m). The astute observer will note that the stairs were constructed after the north and east walls of the milecastle, since it butts against and is not bonded with them (the coursing of the facing stones is different).

The eastern 'wing wall' of Milecastle 48

The eastern ‘wing wall’ of Milecastle 48

This then leads on to the question of whether the curtain wall had a walkway along the whole length of its top, or just in select places, such as round the perimeter of the milecastle defences. Scholars can be found who favour either; the evidence is suitably and intriguingly ambivalent; but, in the end, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. Those brought up on a diet of Alan Sorrell illustrations, with a crenellated Wall striding across the crags, wind-blown Roman soldiers atop it warily eyeing distant squalls, find it hard to escape the image, even though we know other contemporary frontiers (notably those in Germany) had no such feature and modern military walls (like the Berlin Wall or the coyly named Security Fence around the West Bank in Palestine) get by quite happily without being patrolled from the top. No certainties there, then, but there are many who would argue that the Wall only makes sense with a walkway.

Wall Mile 49

Wall Mile 49 [HB 291–309]

Regardless of whether we are following the Trail (which soon dives downhill to join the Stone Wall after passing Milecastle 50 TW) or walking along the road, our paths now (almost) unite on either side of a section of consolidated curtain wall. Having had our interest piqued by the short stretch on either side of Banks East Turret, this is the first substantial length of curtain wall to be encountered when walking from west to east, but it is rather unusual compared to much of the rest of the Stone Wall. This is because, as we have just realised, it is not built on the line of the Turf Wall, which runs up to 200m to the south (at the Milecastles 50), and was constructed shortly before Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned in favour of the Antonine Wall in the AD 140s, being built to the narrow, rather than intermediate, gauge. At the western end, this stretch of curtain wall has been damaged on its northern face by the road but, by the time it reaches Turret 49b (Birdoswald), its full width is intact.

Stone Wall leading to Birdoswald

Stone Wall leading to Birdoswald

For those who have opted to follow the Turf Wall, this consolidated section of stone wall and its turret can still be reached from the Trail by climbing over the stile at Turret 49b. Some 12m west of the turret, on the top course of the south face of the curtain wall, the first of three phallic symbols in this wall mile can be seen. The turret, the entrance to which is on the right, is bonded to the curtain wall – in contrast to those already seen (52a, 51b and 51a) – and was never free-standing. Since it is on the Intermediate Wall, it was constructed after those to the east of the Irthing and before the move to the Antonine Wall. It was first excavated in 1911 and consolidated for display in 1953–5.

Turret 49b

Turret 49b

Heading west, we may note in passing a number of drains through the wall at ground level before reaching a gap where a section has been removed many years ago around the entrance to the field. There is another damaged section further on, this time with a disguised stile incorporated, so the wall can be crossed if wished to see the remnants of the ditch to the north of the road. This section terminates near Birdoswald fort, where the old farm access track runs across the line of the wall and the corner of the fort has been neatly rounded off when a ditch was run all round the fort. However, at ground level, the foundations of the junction of the wall and the fort is still visible; the wall butts against the fort as the stone fort pre-dates the construction of the stone wall.

A hidden stile

A hidden stile

Birdoswald fort (BANNA)

The Turf Wall originally strode across the site of the fort at Birdoswald unhindered. When the decision to add forts was made, it is fairly certain (although not yet proven) that the first here was constructed in turf and timber, flattening the Turf Wall rampart and Turret 49a TW, and filling in the ditch. That first fort seems to have been slightly smaller than the stone one we see today, for when the Vallum was built, it avoided the southern end of it with a slight detour, although not enough to avoid successfully the stone fort defences. So much for the early fort, which we can’t even see, but it is time for a brief tour of the stone one, which is admirably apparent.

The Trail guides us up the western side, amongst some trees, and along the northern defences of the fort, on the road to the English Heritage entrance. After entering and paying, another door takes us into a courtyard. Public conveniences are to the right, the museum to the left. Entering the museum at ground level there is an audiovisual presentation in a room to the right whilst the stairs take us up to the main gallery, through a reconstruction of a turret. There are various items of interest here, but at the far end of the gallery, just before the exit, note the ‘stuffed archaeologist’, a passable likeness of Tony Wilmott, director of excavations here since the 1980s and even rumoured to be wearing one of his old wax jackets.

Exiting the museum, we make for the path to the right of the youth hostel and this leads to the west gate (porta principalis sinistra) of the fort. A causeway pierced by a drain crosses the fort ditch, bringing a road through the one surviving gate portal; the other, to the right of it, is blocked. The blocking of twin-portalled gateways will become a theme for our journey along the Wall. To the right of the blocked gateway is some very fine masonry, about the only true example of ashlar masonry you will see on this trip. Most of the stonework on Hadrian’s Wall is what masons term ‘squared rubble’ so this piece is rather special and it has been suggested that it may originally have been part of some sort of commemorative monument constructed here. Crossing the causeway, we can see that the guardroom to the left has been given underfloor heating in its later years, whilst the blocked portal to our right has also been used as a room. When excavated, the Turf Wall ditch was found here, carefully backfilled with rubble.

Once inside the fort, it is important to understand that, for display purposes, the later years of the fort’s occupation have been emphasised. This is not unreasonable, for Birdoswald is especially interesting, in that it demonstrates continuity of occupation from the Roman period, through the early medieval and medieval fortified settlements, right up to modern times and its earlier life as a working farm and subsequent career as a visitor attraction.

Time for a whirlwind tour of a generic Roman fort. All forts had a tee-shaped main road system, with the via principalis running across the fort and the via praetoria running from the main gate (usually on the northern side for Hadrian’s Wall forts) to the headquarters building. In addition, these were all linked by the via sagularis, which ran right the way round the inside of the defences. Key to the way Roman forts operated was their zoning into three parts: a central range of buildings contained the commanding officer’s house, store buildings (often now called granaries), and in the centre a headquarters building. The other two thirds, at either end, were mainly occupied by barracks and (where appropriate) stables. Sundry utilities (cooking facilities, latrines, workshops etc) were scattered around the periphery of a fort. Now you know Roman forts: they are all the same; except they’re not. But we’ll come to that later. Let’s just compromise on ‘they’re all similar’.

At Birdoswald, the two granaries – which are on the right, to the south of the via principalis – were found to have been demolished and overlain by a large timber hall in the post-Roman period and the positions of its main uprights are marked by post stubs. The granaries (horrea) themselves are of a type seen throughout the Roman empire: buttressed outer walls, elevated floors (raised above ground level on dwarf walls or short columns), and loading platforms at one (or even both) ends. The headquarters building (principia) and commanding officer’s house (praetorium) have not been fully excavated and are visible only as (in the words of one former chairman of English Heritage) humps and bumps in the ground. Having admired the granaries, we may now pass through one of the pair of modern gates and turn right, heading for the south gateway.

South gate at Birdoswald

South gate at Birdoswald

Both portals of the southern gateway are open, although when originally excavated in 1851 the eastern was found to be blocked and converted into a room. Examination of the portals shows that the pairs of door leaves originally opened inwards and were stopped against a threshold over which wheeled traffic had to bump, a bit like ‘sleeping policemen’, the wheels often wearing ruts in the raised part of the threshold. Roman gates were also not hinged, but rather pivoted, which made them much stronger: whilst a hinge would have had to be nailed to a wooden gate leaf, pivots were integral to its fabric. These pivots were then inserted into socket stones, one at the top and one at the bottom, the lower of the two usually having a channel to enable the pivot to be slid into place. The pivot was fixed by means of an iron ring placed around it which was then cemented to the pivot stone by means of molten lead. We shall see such pivot stones several times on our journey (look on either side of the portals now), but when we get to Benwell we will actually see one of these iron rings still in situ.

Passing out of the southern gateway we now find ourselves standing on a promontory above the gorge of the River Irthing. When excavated, a Roman encampment was found, complete with preserved fragments of wood and leather (it was one of the first sites where pieces of Roman tent leather were identified), and it has been suggested that it may have belonged to troops building the Turf Wall.The Vallum swerved around the south end of the fort and a causeway with a gate was discovered during the excavations: there is nothing to see now but, as just hinted, we will be inspecting an example at Benwell, later in our journey.

Returning to the fort defences, we take the path to the right and pass around the south-east corner of the fort (rounded, as they all are on the Wall). As we head north along the eastern wall, ahead of us is a section of tumbled curtain wall, frozen in the act of tumbling outwards. Excavation showed that this was in fact a reconstruction of a previously fallen length; the botched reconstruction of failed structures is another recurring theme on Hadrian’s Wall. Beyond the tumbled length of wall, take a close look at the upstanding section to the north of it, particularly the coursing of the stones. It is clear how the construction of the wall was split into stints, a feature that is known from other Roman sites such as the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts at Pevensey and Richborough, and it is likely that each stint was the responsibility of one work gang.

East gate at Birdoswald

East gate at Birdoswald

Moving on to the east gate, we can see that the northernmost jamb survives to the height of the springer for its arch. Again, excavation in 1852 revealed that the north portal was blocked. So why build all those twin-portalled gates only to block one gate on each? We don’t know, but it may be that use showed that only one was needed or desirable.

Time to head back to the exit and be on our way once more. Shopportunities await the acquisitional in the English Heritage retail outlet on the way out, but remember: what you buy you are going to have to carry.

To avoid the road, the Trail briefly weaves through a small plantation and, as it passes over the eastern fort defences, we may look down to our right and see a circular post-medieval corn-drying kiln set into the Roman wall. Before passing through the kissing gate, we can walk a little way down the path towards the car park and admire the length of Wall that is exposed on our right, weirdly sculpted right back into its core by the combination of its former role as a field boundary and the action of some large tree roots that had to be removed when it was consolidated in the 1950s. As you look eastwards, the ditch is clearly visible in front of the wall. We may now return to that kissing gate and head along the south side of this same curtain wall.

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

East of Birdoswald, this fine stretch of curtain wall continues as far as the edge of the Irthing gorge. When consolidated by the Ministry of Works masons, this section produced numerous building inscriptions, many of which are now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, although some have been left in situ. It also revealed two further phallic symbols on the south face; if the same density found in this Wall Mile were repeated for the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, there might originally have been around 350 along the Wall. The first phallic symbol occurs 10m east of the western end of the field wall parallel to the curtain wall, just before a culvert through the wall. The culvert is interesting, since it is additional to the normal ground-level drains that can be seen in this Wall Mile and whilst it may have been designed to cope with a spring which is no longer evident (which seems unlikely), it may have served to debouch a sewer from an as-yet-unidentified extramural building into the ditch to the north. A building inscription (RIB 3434) is preserved in the top surviving course at 35m from the end of that field wall and another (RIB 3427) is found at 110m. There are two more (RIB 3426 and 3425) at 130m and 140m respectively. Finally, the third of the Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols occurs at 193m.

Just before the wall reaches Milecastle 49, it changes alignment slightly and this is the point where the Turf and Stone Walls converge once more. The Turf Wall ran in a straight line from here towards the main east–west street (via principalis) of Birdoswald fort (it pre-dated the fort, as we have seen).

Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) [HB 291–3; haiku]

Milecastle 49

Milecastle 49

Much of the interior of Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) has been removed by the modern track which passes through it, but this is the first consolidated milecastle encountered when walking from west to east. It therefore provides our first real opportunity to get the measure of one of these fortlets, although it is not as informative as its neighbour, Milecastle 48, which we will reach soon. The main structure inside the milecastle is part of a medieval farmstead, recalling just how many milecastle sites came to serve as a farm. On the east side there is one wall of an original internal Roman building. The rounded south-west corner is well-preserved. Astute observers will note how the defensive walls of the milecastle butt against the curtain wall. This tells us that the curtain wall was built first, then the milecastle, an important detail to remember when we get to the next milecastle. The modern farm track does not use the Roman gateway, which is just to the west of it.

PLVad2

Wall Mile 50

Wall Mile 50 [HB 309–16]

It might justifiably be argued that this is one of the most interesting of the Wall Miles. Not by me, I hasten to add, but I can see why it could be. Immediately after Milecastle 51, the Turf and Stone Walls separate, the most obvious manifestation of this being the fact that, whilst the Stone Wall ditch continues to the north of the road, the Turf Wall ditch now strides away from it across the field: two ditches for the price of one! Why do they separate here? Better scholars than I have debated this, but it may well be because it was felt that more room was needed north of the Vallum so when the time came to replace the Turf Wall, the new Stone Wall line was moved north and downhill from its predecessor.

Wall Mile 50 from the air

Wall Mile 50 from the air

The Trail takes us across the field, next to the Turf Wall (a low mound north of its ditch) and then across it on a nice new bridge and onto a lane. At this point, those who dislike livestock (there are people who like walking in the country but dislike livestock?!) are offered an alternative animal-free route along the road and this will be of use if we wish to follow the Stone Wall. The main Trail will take us along the Turf Wall, so make your choice.

The Stone Wall

Apart from the ditch to the north of the road and the comforting knowledge that the curtain wall lies beneath the road, there is not much to see if we go this way, although it does provide continuing assurance of the way in which the Romans used the terrain to enhance the effect of the Wall. Climbing up a gentle rise we arrive at a high point which marks the location of Milecastle 50 SW.

The Stone Wall ditch

The Stone Wall ditch

Milecastle 50 SW (High House) [HB 314–15; haiku]

Milecastle 50 SW (High House), a long-axis stone milecastle, was excavated in 1911 and produced three building inscriptions, two of them by legio VI Victrix and one by legio II Augusta. The fortlet platform can just about be discerned by peeking over the southern roadside wall at the right point.

Site of Milecastle 50 SW

Site of Milecastle 50 SW

The Turf Wall

Those opting for the Turf Wall route will find themselves walking along the northern lip of the Turf Wall ditch, with the mound of the rampart itself to the south of it and beyond that the earthworks of the Vallum, crammed into the limited space between the Turf Wall and the edge of the scarp north of the Irthing. It was along this stretch that the existence of the Turf Wall was first proved conclusively by Frances Haverfield and his co-workers when they cut a trench across it (they were less than impressed by his excavation methodology, it seems) and that section is reopened and cleaned up every ten years when the Pilgrimage wanders this way.

After a reasonably level stretch we start to climb up towards the site of Milecastle 50 TW and this affords a good opportunity to look back at the separated Walls west of us.

The Turf Wall and ditch near Milecastle 50 TW

The Turf Wall and ditch near Milecastle 50 TW

Milecastle 50 TW (High House) [HB 309–12; haiku]

To say that there is not much to see of Milecastle 50 TW (High House) is probably something of an understatement but no less true for all that. It has the distinction of being the only Turf Wall milecastle without a Stone Wall successor on top of it. Excavated in 1934, it was found to have an undug causeway across the ditch, a rampart of turf and gateways of timber (which, it is suggested, had towers, since there were thought to be too many timbers just for revetting the gateway). The Vallum ditch swerved south to avoid the milecastle, but more interestingly the excavations found a timber inscription, restored as recording its construction under A. Platorius Nepos. It is customary to think of Roman inscriptions as being carved in stone, but (as we shall see later, in Wall Mile 43) they could be painted on stone or carved (or painted) on wood. These are amongst the Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowns’ of Roman archaeology.