Wall Mile 49

Wall Mile 49 [HB 291–309]

Just after we leave Milecastle 49, the curtain wall changes alignment slightly and this is the point where the Turf and Stone Walls diverge. 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 shall see).

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

The fine stretch of curtain wall east of Birdoswald continues as far as just before the east wall of the fort. 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 of the Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols occurs at 163m west of the kissing gate out of Milecastle 49. Building inscriptions can be found at 218m (RIB 3425), 227m (RIB 3426), 248m (RIB 3427), and 322m (RIB 3434). The last is preserved in the top surviving course.

The first phallic symbol in Wall Mile 49

The first phallic symbol in Wall Mile 49

The second phallic symbol occurs at 347m, 10m east of the western end of the field wall parallel to the curtain wall, and just after 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.

After passing through the kissing gate at the end of the field, we can afford to take the time to walk back a little way down the path towards the car park and admire the north face of the length of wall we have just walked past, 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 retrace our steps and make for the fort. 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 left and see a circular post-medieval corn-drying kiln set into the Roman wall. The entrance to the fort is now signposted ahead of us.

Birdoswald fort (BANNA) [HB 294–307]

A word on pronunciation: you can ensure polite local amusement by calling the fort Birdo-swald but the cognoscenti all defer to Bird-oswald. With that out of the way, it’s time for a little castrametation.

The Turf Wall originally strode across the site of the fort unhindered. When the decision to add forts to the Wall design 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. By now you should be an old hand at Roman forts: all you need to remember is that they are all the same; except they’re not. Let’s just compromise on ‘they’re all similar’.

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.

The ashlar walling after excavation

The ashlar walling after excavation

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.

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.

The post-Roman timber hall on the granary

The post-Roman timber hall on the granary

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.

The south gate

The south gate

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 by now a familiar 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’ fort at Pevensey, and it is likely that each stint was the responsibility of one work gang.

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.

The east gate

The east gate

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 still going to have to carry.

We turn left out of the fort and walk to the rounded fort corner, admiring its northern defences as we go and stopping at that corner to look down and see the fragmentary foundations of the curtain wall, later removed by the fort’s ditch. The wall butted against the fort as the stone fort pre-dates the construction of the stone wall. We now have a choice between following the Stone Wall or the Turf Wall. Don’t worry if you change your mind as we can swap over in a while. If opting for the Turf Wall, follow the Trail signs through the plantation; if the Stone Wall, then follow the very obvious consolidated stone curtain wall (safer on the south side, but the north side is possible with care; traffic tends not to speed along here).

This is the last substantial length of curtain wall to be encountered when walking from east to west (although there will be some shorter bits), 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, its full width is intact.

The curtain wall W of Birdoswald

The curtain wall W of Birdoswald

If we decide to follow the curtain wall, we may note in passing a number of drains through the wall at ground level and a heavily damaged stretch 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. There is another damaged section further on where a section has been removed many years ago around the entrance to the field. Ultimately we reach Turret 49b SW (there was no 49a SW as the fort occupied its location).

Turret 49b SW (Birdoswald) [HB 313–14]

Turret 47b SW

Turret 47b SW

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. The turret, the entrance to which is on the right, is bonded to the curtain wall – a detail we need to bear in mind for comparison with turrets yet to come – and was never free-standing. Since it is on the Narrow 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. Some 12m west of the turret, on the top course of the south face of the curtain wall, the last of the three Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols can be seen.

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 curtain wall W of Turret 49b

The curtain wall W of Turret 49b

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

This 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.

The Turf Wall

Those opting for the Turf Wall route will find themselves departing the stone wall and heading south, climbing up the field. From there onwards, turning west, we are 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 Francis 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 while, just before we start to descend, we reach the site of Milecastle 50 TW and this affords a good opportunity to look ahead at the separated Walls west of us.

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

To say that there is not much to see of Milecastle 50 TW 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; believe it or not, this is the main argument for stone milecastles having towers). 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, and thus confirming it to be Hadrianic. It is customary to think of Roman inscriptions as being carved in stone, but (as we saw with the milestone just after Great Chesters) they could be painted on stone or carved or painted) on wood. These are amongst the Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowns’ of Roman archaeology.