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 48 and 49) and both intervening turrets (Turrets 48a and b), as well as substantial lengths of ditch in various states of preservation. There is the added bonus of a bridge abutment to throw into the mix as well.
We leave Milecastle 48 by the gate at the north-west corner and head down the path to another crossing of the railway, where we take great care when crossing it. Once on the other side, it is apparent how the railway embankment passes over the Wall and effectively masks the original lie of the land (the curtain wall drops abruptly beneath that embankment).
The first section of curtain wall in this mile lies to our right 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 from our vantage point beyond the railway crossing, as can the depression of the ditch to the north of it.
We now follow the path down the side of the embankment and across a stream, then down the side of the school. When we reach the end of this section, we emerge onto a pavement and the wall is in plain sight in front of us. We must cross the road and make for the kissing gate next to the cattle grid. The track bends round the the left and we follow the curtain wall until we reach the site of Turret 48a.
Turret 48a (Willowford East) [HB 288–9]
This turret, excavated in 1923, survives up to seven courses in height and we may observe that its entrance is on the western side of the southern wall.
The wall foundations here are to the broad gauge (10Rft or 2.74–2.97m), as is Turret 48a. As we have seen before, short lengths of curtain wall on either side (‘wing walls’) were constructed at the same time as the turret, but then the width of the curtain is similarly reduced to only 8Rft, sitting on that broad foundation. We are coming to the end of the narrow/broad gauge saga, so make the most of it, for Turret 48a is one of the clearest demonstrations of this feature.
We can still see the ditch off to our right, but that soon disappears, eroded by the Irthing gorge. Another short length of curtain wall appears and it is worth walking around to its northern side to see just how much of it survives, showing off some offset footing courses rather nicely. Continuing westwards, we find a drystone wall sitting on the curtain wall line, but beyond it the ditch is clear. Soon the farm track crosses the line of the curtain wall to continue to the north of it.
We pass through a kissing gate to walk immediately south of the curtain wall. 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. Another example of a road or track using the ditch.
The curtain Wall itself is now very clearly 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. Next we arrive at the remains of Turret 48b.
Turret 48b (Willowford West) [HB 289]
Turret 48b, which was excavated in 1923, stands up to nine courses high. It 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. This is our last set of wing walls. 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) takes us over the curtain wall and delivers us back onto that trackway in the ditch.
Next to the farmyard entrance 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.
We go through a gate and now, as the curtain wall descends the river terrace, we note how the coursing is kept level whilst the footings tend to follow the contours. At the bottom of the slope, the wall runs across the flood plain to Willowford bridge abutment.
We can afford 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 Claytonized reconstruction we saw in the Central Sector.
Willowford Bridge abutment [HB 290–1]
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.
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. 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.
Having examined the Roman bridge, we pass through a kissing gate and head off towards the modern means for crossing the Irthing, the (intentionally rusty) Millennium Bridge. The path leads across the bottom of a slope and then diagonally up it to deliver us to Milecastle 49. Before we inspect that, however, go out through the northern entrance and turn right to follow the wall to the edge of the cliff.
Originally more survived, but the river has eaten into the hillside over the years removing all trace of how Hadrian’s Wall 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. It is time to consider that we are at the eastern end of the great earthen rampart, known now as the Turf Wall, that initially comprised the western three-eighths of the Wall. Although it was later replaced by the Stone Wall in this sector, we shall soon be able to see the Turf Wall in all its glory.
Now we can walk back to the milecastle and give it our proper attention.
Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) [HB 291–3; haiku]
Much of the interior of this milecastle has been removed by the modern track which passes through it, but this is the last consolidated milecastle we shall encounter, walking from east to west. It therefore provides our last real opportunity to get the measure of one of these fortlets, although it is not as informative as its neighbour, Milecastle 48. The main structure inside the milecastle is part of a medieval farmstead, recalling just how many milecastle sites came to serve as farms. 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 comparing it with the last milecastle and its wing walls. The modern farm track does not use the Roman gateway, which is just to the west of it.