Wall Mile 52

Wall Mile 52 [HB 320–2]

Consideration was once given to consolidating a length of wall east of Milecastle 53, but nothing ever came of this and there is nothing to see. The lane next takes us down to cross the road close to Banks Burn and the Trail then leads us first left then right along the road and up the hill, whilst the Wall continues more directly up the hillside towards the hamlet of Banks. Soon we rejoin the course of the Wall and the line of the ditch is apparent to the left of the road. The Trail sticks to the road (watch out for traffic) until we are past Banks itself, when a right turn takes us onto a path running south of a wall separating us from the road. This soon takes us to the next major section of curtain wall at Banks East Turret.

Turret 52a at Banks East

Turret 52a at Banks East

Turret 52a (Banks East) was excavated in 1933 and was the first piece of Wall in Cumbria to be placed into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works (in 1934). The road, which used to follow the line of the curtain wall closely, originally ran over the top of it, but has subsequently been moved onto the berm (the ditch is very plain to the north of the road). The curtain wall to either side of the turret is, once again, the Narrow Gauge form that pre-dates the move to the Antonine Wall and is pierced at ground level by several drains, designed to stop water ponding against it.

Turret 52a

Turret 52a

The turret itself, being originally constructed free-standing and with the turf wall butted against it, is very clearly of a different build to the curtain wall. The butt joints between wall and turret are obvious and the turret protrudes to the north of the line of the curtain wall. On its north face is a fine plinth course that is reminiscent of that we noted at Drumburgh Castle some while ago and there are hints that it existed on the south side too. Why is the plinth course there? Nobody knows. Perhaps it marked a feature of the Turf Wall itself, such as the top of a vertical front ‘cheek’ (although turf ramparts were usually battered inwards so that they were narrower at the top than at the base, the lowest portion was sometimes vertical).

The plinth course and projecting front of Turret 52a

The plinth course and projecting front of Turret 52a

The chief distinguishing features of the turret are that it is square with an entrance at ground level (in this case at the eastern end of the southern side) and that it is recessed into the thickness of the curtain wall. A hearth lay against the west wall. As with all archaeological reconstruction, the higher up we look, the less certain we are about details. It is assumed it had entrances on either side at the level of the top of the Turf (and later Stone) Walls, although there are those who do not believe Hadrian’s Wall had a walkway or parapet on top (more of that later). As part of the Turf Wall, the front and back of this stone turret coincided with the front and back of the turf rampart, but when the stone curtain wall was provided, the turret was left to project slightly to the north (turrets to the east, built at the same time as the curtain wall, did not do this), so some scholars have suggested this means the curtain wall was lined up on those side entrances to the (presumed) walkway. Turrets and towers in the ancient world were generally intended to give a height advantage, so we can be fairly safe in assuming its top was higher than the Wall, although by how much is uncertain; part of the tumbled superstructure lies immediately outside the west wall. Equally, we do not know if it had a flat roof with a parapet and fighting platform or whether it was conventionally roofed. As you can readily see, what we know about turrets is far outweighed by what we have to guess.

Drainage channel through the lowest course of the Wall

Drainage channel through the lowest course of the Wall

Just 205m to the east of Banks East turret there is another square stone tower, this time set at an angle to the line of the Wall. This is Pike Hill Signal Tower, positioned on the crest and cut by the same road that overlay the neighbouring turret, although only parts of two sides and one corner remain to be inspected. Fortunately, the south-eastern side contains the entrance at its southern end. The tower has been interpreted as a pre-Wall signal tower, probably associated with the Stanegate ‘system’, which was subsequently incorporated into the Wall, due to its advantageous position for signalling.

Pike Hill signal tower

Pike Hill signal tower

After all that excitement, it is time to retrace our steps for a few paces, pass through a kissing gate, and head east along the National Trail next to the field wall that divides us from the road. The Vallum is just to our right but has been almost completely ploughed out. Finally, we hop over the wall by means of a stile and are back on the road in order that the Trail can pass Bankshead House, where the next milecastle was situated.

Milecastle 52 (Bankshead) [HB 319–20; haiku]

Milecastle 52 (Bankshead) was excavated in 1934 and found to be a short-axis example. It will come as no surprise to learn that two more altars to Cocidius were found here at the beginning of the 19th century. No trace can now be seen but once again it illustrates a milecastle site being used as a later farming settlement.

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