Wall Mile 43 [HB 269–77]
Great Chesters fort (AESICA) [HB 269–75]
Great Chesters is unusual in that it is largely unconsolidated and remains an atmospheric ruin, rather than a manicured monument. Here too we can see how a fort has become a later farming settlement. Covering 1.35ha (3.36 acres), this fort is (rather unusually) aligned east to west and lies 9.7km (6 miles) from its neighbour, Housesteads. It was added to the Wall some time after AD 128 and was the base for the cohortes VI Nerviorum and VI Raetorum respectively during the 2nd century, and cohors II Asturum and the Raeti Gaesati during the 3rd. The Notitia records the cohors I Asturum as being here later.
Inside the fort, surrounded by a wooden railing, there is part of the vaulted strong room of the headquarters building. From here we can look down towards the remains of the barrack buildings in the south-west quadrant of the fort, barely visible on the ground but very clear from the air. To the south can be seen the southern gateway, where there is a Roman altar which usually holds a few modern coins left on top in its focus by bemused visitors. The west gateway demonstrates the use of blocking walls (which, as we now know, were usually removed by later excavators at other forts), with first one then both portals ultimately being blocked. The trail leads us across the site to a breach in the wall near the north-west corner, where we see the inner face of the appropriate corner tower.
Leaving the fort, we may note the ruinous curtain wall to our right and the quadruple ditches to the left. Quadruple?! Time must have passed slowly at Aesica and a little ditch-digging can help keep you warm. There is no obvious tactical reason why only the western side of the fort should have been ‘hardened’ in this way.
We continue westwards over a couple of stiles towards Cockmount Hill house, passing a solitary tree that marks the location of Turret 43a (more humps and bumps just east of the tree). The ruinous curtain wall has given way to a modern field wall. After the house, we enter the softwood plantation and emerge on the other side, and are rewarded with a treat.
It is as well to pause and look at the gateway through the modern wall immediately to our north. The western gatepost is an uninscribed milestone, probably taken from the Military Way, which runs only some 70m to the south of it. Roman milestones usually bore a carved inscription providing a date when built or repaired and sometimes a distance to the nearest significant point. However, there is now a strong suspicion that those that do not seem to bear such a carved inscription may instead have had a painted one (examples of these are known from Roman roads in the East). This not only means ‘uninscribed’ milestones may have been painted, but that ones bearing carved inscriptions (most such inscriptions are 3rd century AD or later in Britain) may also originally have been painted.
Leaving the milestone, we carry on westwards, with the field wall on top of the curtain wall to our right and the ditch keeping pace beyond it. We are gradually climbing as we go, for there are more crags ahead.
Milecastle 44 (Allolee) [HB 277; haiku]
This long-axis milecastle is visible as an earthwork. It has evidently been excavated at some point but when, by whom, and what was found remain a mystery. Excavation is sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘preservation by record’, but without a record, there is no ‘preservation’.