Driving Hadrian’s Wall: the Main Car Parks I (Birdoswald)

Birdoswald (EH)

Coordinates: N54.991552, W2.600871 Facilities: none

Birdoswald is well-signposted on the A69 travelling from both the east and west. The English Heritage car park immediately east of Birdoswald fort is primarily designed for visitors to that monument. That much is clear from the fact that you can get the cost of your parking (£4 in 2015) reimbursed when you visit the fort. However, you can also use it for exploring the surrounding bits of Hadrian’s Wall.

Advice

Do not park in and obstruct the bus turning area (you should hear what coach drivers call the idiots who do this!) and do not leave valuables in your car. There are posters warning about thieves for a good reason (last time I was there some cars were broken into only a couple of days later). Follow signs for the Hadrian’s Wall Path to access sites to either side of Birdoswald. Stout footwear is advisable.

Map of the area around Birdoswald car park

Zone 1 (100m)

1. Birdoswald fort

2. Curtain wall (Wall Mile 49) east of Birdoswald

Zone 2 (500m)

3. Milecastle 49

4. Curtain wall (Wall Mile 49) west of Birdoswald

5. Turret 49b

Zone 3 (1km)

6. Willowford Bridge Abutment

7. Turf wall (Wall Mile 49)

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Other Stuff

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle

Turf Wall replica in Tullie HouseTullie House has two Roman galleries. Downstairs is the newer Frontiers Gallery whilst upstairs is the original Borders Gallery and both are worth visiting. The Frontiers Gallery is more ‘modern’ (the museum designers have favoured ideas over artefacts) and is most definitely a Marmite display (you will either love it or hate it). It features material from Hadrian’s Wall, as well as from Carlisle itself (especially the Millennium Excavations on the centre of the Stanegate fort). In the Borders Gallery, there is a very important reconstruction of the Turf Wall and one of its turrets (cunningly woven into the fabric of the display). That too contains finds from the Wall and from earlier excavations on both the town and fort.

Willowford Bridge Abutment, curtain wall, and Turrets 49a and 49b

Willowford bridge abutmentWall 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.

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.

Thirlwall Castle

Thirlwall CastleThe 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.

Holmhead building stone

the Holmhead inscriptionTo the east of the Tipalt Burn is Holmhead guest house. This (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 Roman Army Museum at Carvoran

The Roman Army Museum at Carvoran is well worth a visit (it has its own car park for visitors). Carvoran was a Stanegate fort (falling between the regular forts at Birdoswald and Great Chesters – the Vallum swerves to the north to avoid the fort, huffily excluding it from the Wall zone) and its recent refurbishment definitely makes it worth a visit. Besides, it gives the Roman military context to the whole Wall by explaining army organisation and so on.

The Military Way

The Military Way and Vallum in Wall Mile 41The road that serviced all the sites along the Wall is nowadays known as the Military Way (not be be confused with the Military Road, which is the B6318 and was built in the 18th century). It tends to take the easiest course possible, avoiding the crags, so that it could be used by carts. Fine stretches are still visible between Cawfields Quarry and Caw Gap and between Steel Rigg and Housesteads.

Cockmount Hill Milestone

Cockmount Hill milestoneImmediately west of the plantation at Cockmount Hill there is a gateway through the modern wall. 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. We also suspect that those that do not seem to bear such an inscription may instead have had a painted one (examples of these are known from Roman roads in the East).

Winshield Crags

Winshield CragsWinshield Crags was Francis Haverfield’s favourite part of Hadrian’s Wall (he named his house in Oxford after it). The trig point is at 345m – 1132ft – above Ordnance Datum). Pause by this concrete pyramid and take stock. This is the highest point on Hadrian’s Wall. You may have to lean into a westerly wind to stay upright, and you may even have horizontal rain lashing against you, but it is worth a moment’s consideration. To our south, the Vallum is way down near the Military Road, keeping as ever to the easy route along the base of the dip slope. The curtain wall lies beneath the modern field wall.

Mons Fabricius

Mons FabriciusEast of Castle Nick, there is a small hill now known as Mons Fabricius, a name it gained in honour of the German scholar Ernst Fabricius, who visited the frontier in 1928 whilst in Britain to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Durham. A leading light in the study of the Roman frontiers in Germany (the Upper German and Raetian frontier or Obergermanisch-Raetische Limes), his is the singular honour of being the only scholar with a piece of the Wall landscape named after him.

On top of the hill there are some medieval shielings, or shepherd’s shelters, tucked up against the south face of the curtain wall. Just opposite those, almost invisible amongst the grass on the peak, is a row of stones that are in fact the Broad Gauge foundation, set slightly back from the built line of the Wall. Yet again, we see evidence of pragmatic adaptation during construction of the frontier.

Sycamore Gap

Sycamore GapThe Wall now turns sharply and descends into the iconic Sycamore Gap, with its eponymous tree rooted amongst the fabric of the collapsed curtain wall. Its future has been ensured by planting a replacement slightly to the south within a circular drystone enclosure (called a stell; this is where it was originally situated when Jessie Mothersole walked past in 1921, so the new one is third generation). This is the ultimate insurance against the day the main tree gives up the arboreal ghost and relieves the curtain wall of its burden. It is sometimes known as ‘the Robin Hood tree’, not through any folkloric association with that legendary character, but rather because it featured in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves during a journey supposedly undertaken by the eponymous hero from Dover to Nottingham!

This section of the curtain wall rather unusually incorporates some pieces of dolerite in the facing of the footings (visible as dark and shiny blocks incorporated in the core of the structure where the Trail crosses it).

The gaps and nicks

The gaps or nicks, which are a familiar feature of the central sector, are glacial spillways, where meltwater from the last ice age poured through the Whin Sill. When the Wall builders encountered them, they used a standard defensive trick: the re-entrant. Instead of going straight across the gap, the wall was recessed to the south slightly. This had the advantage of making it both easier to build (the slopes were less precipitous) and defensively stronger (any attacker was vulnerable on the front and both flanks, rather than just the front). For good measure, the ditch (normally absent along the crags) was reinstated. Who said Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t defensive?

Classic view at Cuddy’s Crags

Housesteads plantation from Cuddy's CragsFrom the top of Cuddy’s Crags, there is the most famous prospect of Hadrian’s Wall: the gap between Cuddy’s Crags and Housesteads Crags with Housesteads Plantation perched on the edge of the precipice. It is highly unlikely that you have never seen this view somewhere, whether it be on a poster, postcard, or book cover. One of the earliest versions was a postcard produced at the beginning of the 20th century by J. P. Gibson, Hexham pharmacist and internationally renowned photographer, and himself no mean excavator of the Wall. Having duly recorded the view for posterity in an appropriate fashion (camera, watercolours, charcoal, Etch A Sketch…), one may continue.

Knag Burn gateway

Knag Burn gatewayThe valley of the Knag Burn was not only the site of the bath-house for Housesteads (no longer visible) but also a gateway through the Wall.

Knag Burn Gateway, thought to have been built during the 4th century and examined in the mid-19th century, consists of two towers, one on either side of a single portal. As such, it is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give us a clue what the gateways on Roman roads at Carlisle, Portgate, and (possibly) Newcastle looked like. This, however, is not on a major road, but rather a minor route, perhaps a pre-existing transhumance route. Interestingly, there were two sets of pivot holes and it has been suggested that two sets of gates were in use at the same time. Clearly, there may have been other gates along the Wall which have not as yet been found.

Chesters bridge abutment

Chesters bridge abutmentThe bridge abutment nestles in a copse of trees on the southern riverbank and is still an impressive monument. The curtain wall is terminated in a large square tower, thought to have housed a waterwheel (since it has a leat leading into it, although it isn’t clear where the water went afterwards). The abutment itself is a large apron constructed of opus quadratum blocks, each layer originally held together with cast lead strips (you can still see the channels for these in the surface of the stones) rather than with cramps between blocks. Embedded within the apron, thought to have been constructed as part of a 2nd-century makeover of the bridge, we can still see the outline of one of the piers of the original Hadrianic bridge.

Looking down on the abutment from the riverbank side, move towards the northern (upstream) end and look at the basal courses. On the second row up, and assuming the abutment is not flooded, careful examination will reveal yet another truly outstanding example of a phallic symbol. Again, good luck was obviously as important as a lead lattice in holding together a Roman bridge. Finally, in the stone park beneath the trees, are the remains of a crane, probably used in the construction of the structure, whilst lying down on the apron opposite it is a decorative column that originally adorned the bridge parapet.

Heavenfield

All sign of the Wall (save a slight depression along the course of the ditch) has disappeared, but to the north of us is the 18th-century Heavenfield Chapel and, next to the gate, is a giant cross, for this is the traditional site of the Battle of Heavenfield in AD 633/4 (or Hefenfelth, as Bede called it). ‘Traditional’ of course means there is no actual evidence of a battle being fought here, just a tradition that one was. It is complicated by a reference in the text to Deniseburna, an unknown stream which seems to have featured in the battle and has been suggested as being located (on placename evidence) to the south of Hexham, some way away.

If you care to walk over to it, you will find that the chapel contains an uninscribed Roman altar re-used as a font.

Great North Museum – Hancock

Great North MuseumFor many years, some of the best finds from the Wall were held in the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle University (to which you will still find references in guide books), but the building has now gone and the contents have been transferred to the new Great North Museum just over the road.Inscription from Milecastle 38 in the Great North MuseumEntrance to the museum is free, photography is allowed, and the Hadrian’s Wall gallery is straight through the main entrance, on through a brief natural history interlude, before passing a couple of trees with loitering stuffed wolves (no, I don’t know what they’re doing there either). We are confronted by a huge video presentation that allows you to insert your initials on a stone block and a rather disinterested Roman soldier maunders around through a variety of weathers. Great for the kids but perhaps overkill for the rest of us. All around, you will find artefacts, inscriptions, and models to explain the story of the Wall. Dive in, press some buttons, and enjoy.

Altar to Mithras in the Great North Museum

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Wallsend)

Wallsend fort (SEGEDVNVM)

plan of WallsendIt was once thought that Wallsend fort was an afterthought, constructed when the course of the Wall was extended in the Hadrianic period, although this has recently been questioned. Occupying 1.6ha (4.1 acres), it was only some 6.4km (4 miles) from Newcastle. The garrison was cohors II Nerviorum in the 2nd century and cohors I Lingonum in the 3rd and 4th centuries and both of these were part-mounted.

Wallsend from the airBefore the campaign of excavations in the 1970s, the fort was covered by housing and just its outline was marked out in the streets. Now a large portion of the fort has been cleared for display, with fine views of it and the surrounding shipyards from the viewing tower that is part of the recent site museum.

We may examine the remains of the commanding officer’s house, headquarters building (with its forehall, a feature found in many continental forts and possibly used for training under cover), granaries, and hospital (another of those extra courtyard buildings).

Wallsend CO's house, HQ, and forehallOne of the most interesting aspects of Wallsend is its cavalry barracks, split between men and animals. The pits set into the ground, designed to catch the less pleasant by-products of a reliance upon horses, have been identified at an increasing number of Roman military sites. These are invariably accompanied by very high phosphate readings when tested.

Wallsend cavalry barracksIn the south-western part of the site, there is a splendid (albeit mirror image) reconstruction (capable of working) of the Chesters bath-house (not, please note, on the site of the Wallsend bath-house). This will bring home just how inadequate ruins can sometimes be at giving a true impression of the magnificence of a building. The baths are periodically opened for inspection and nearby is a small herb garden, showing the range of culinary and medicinal plants that might be found in Roman times.

Wallsend reconstructed bathsNow it is time to return to the museum, but before we do, note the fragment of the Branch Wall running down towards the Tyne from the south-east corner of the fort. This was found when the slipway for the RMS Mauretania was being constructed at Swan Hunter’s, moved to a nearby park and re-erected, then moved back here once the Segedunum project was under way. Part of the Branch Wall, however, was put aboard the RMS Carpathia, which was fitting out at the time, and appears to have been present when that ship went to the aid of the Titanic, and may even have been the only piece of Hadrian’s Wall to have been sunk by a U-boat in 1918! There is a model of the Carpathia in the industrial section of the museum. On our way past, we can have a look at the monument recording the names of every single Roman whose name has survived from the Wall (with space so new discoveries can be added).

the builders of Hadrian's WallOnce in the museum, there is much to do and see, including a rather dramatic representation of stratigraphy, the accumulation of archaeological layers over time. Once you have seen everything, pressed all the buttons, and been lectured by the Geordie centurion, find your way to the observation tower (there are both lifts and stairs to get you to the top). Once up there, a video demonstration dramatically illustrates how the site has changed over time.

Leaving the museum, if you want a closer look at the Branch Wall, turn right onto the main road, then immediately right again, and head up onto the bridge that takes the cycle path round the back of the fort.

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Newcastle)

Newcastle fort (PONS AELII)

plan of Newcastle fortNewcastle was the original eastern terminus of the Wall and yet no fort was built here until the Antonine period, which was probably when the bridge across the Tyne was constructed. The fort is mostly situated underneath the castle but it was originally 0.64ha (1.53 acres) in area. The garrison included the cohors I Ulpia Traiana Cugernorum in the 3rd century and (possibly) cohors I Cornoviorum in the 4th. A stone recording the cohors I Thracum may refer to another garrison from Newcastle, or possibly from an as-yet-undiscovered fort in Gateshead. The fort does not seem to have been attached to the curtain wall (there seem to have been buildings to the north of it) and it was, rather unusually, polygonal in form.

Newcastle fort HQMarked out on that piece of pavement are parts of the headquarters building (principia) and the commanding officer’s house (praetorium). The orientation of these fragments begins to allow an understanding of how the fort sat above the river. There is more to see, however. Head round to the north side of the keep, next to the railway arches, and you’ll see parts of two granaries marked out, one of them partly under the viaduct itself.

Newcastle fort granaryThe eponymous bridge at Pons Aelii has yet to be located (dendro-chronological dating of timbers supposed to have come from it proved to be medieval) but it must have been situated close to where the Swing Bridge is now located. Recent work in Gateshead has suggested that there may have been a military base there, too (elsewhere in the empire, many bridges over major rivers had military bases at either end).

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Benwell)

Benwell fort (CONDERCVM)

plan of BenwellBenwell was built after the Wall and its ditch and before the Vallum, which made a detour to the south to avoid it, and it is another of those that straddles the line of the curtain wall. The fort is 10.9km (6.75 miles) from Rudchester and covers 2.2ha (5.6 acres). The portion projecting north of the wall has been destroyed by a modern reservoir, whilst that to the south is wholly built over. It was garrisoned in the 2nd century by the cohors I Vangionum, then in the 3rd and 4th centuries by the ala I Asturum. The fact that the fort was not big enough to have contained the Vangiones, a double-strength mixed infantry and cavalry force, together with an inscription recording their presence at Chesters, has led to the suggestion that they may have been split across the two sites.

There is nothing to see of the fort itself but there are two rather intriguing sites associated with the civil settlement: the Vallum Crossing and the Temple of Antenociticus.

Benwell Temple of Antenociticus

temple of AntenociticusA small apsidal building, the Temple of Antenociticus contains concrete replicas of the original altars, which are now in the Great North Museum. Antenociticus was a local god (inscriptions recording him only occur at Benwell) and a stone head found here has been identified as representing the deity. The temple is comparable in size to the mithraeum at Carrawburgh and the fact that the inscriptions were set up by unit commanders may indicate he was an acquired taste amongst the social elite, rather than a popular figure. Enjoy the incongruity of the setting for a while (it can be surprisingly peaceful).

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Haltonchesters)

Haltonchesters fort (ONNVM)

plan of HalyonchestersHalton Chesters is 8.8km (5.5 miles) from Chesters, 12km (7.5 miles) from Rudchester, and is 2ha (4.8 acres) in area, having been enlarged from 1.7ha (4.3 acres) with a rather unusual western extension south of the curtain wall (making it the only fort on the Wall with an L-shaped plan). Its initial garrison is unknown but it may have been a mixed cohort. The increase in size may be because it later held the ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana. Once again placed astride the Wall, it – like Chesters – had six gates. A large internal bathhouse was excavated near the western defences, north of the modern road, in the 19th century, with barracks to the east of it. To the south of us, granaries were examined, but most of our knowledge of the site comes from a detailed geophysical survey.

Haltonchesters from the airThere is nothing to see of the site today beyond the fort platform and a few humps and bumps to the south of the Military Road, whilst to the north the fort is still under the plough.

Haltonchesters on the ground

The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Chesters)

Chesters fort (CILVRNVM)

plan of Chesters fortChesters is important for many reasons, not least as the house (The Chesters) was the home of John Clayton. In the 19th century, he was one of the leading lights in the conservation of the central sector of the Wall. The happy coincidence of the Military Road choosing to avoid the crags between Wall Miles 34 and 45 and Clayton owning the estate that included that stretch, combined with his passion for archaeology, meant that this part of the Wall at least received more care and attention than it had since Roman times. Elsewhere, at that time, landowners and tenants were still merrily grubbing it up and, as we have seen, even dynamiting it in some extreme cases. Any suggestion that the curtain wall might have survived in any substantial form had the Military Road not been built is, at best, debatable (and, as we shall see later, the road ironically helped preserve the wall in places).

Chesters from the airThe fort itself is 5.6km (3.5 miles) from Carrawburgh and is 2.3ha (5.75 acres) in area. It sits astride the Wall and needed two extra gateways (instead of the usual four) to accommodate this inconvenience. Within the fort, the remains of the commanding officer’s house and the headquarters building (including its subterranean strongroom) are on display, as is a pair of cavalry barracks. Down by the river North Tyne are the remains of the fort bath-house, preserved to an impressive height by hillwash. Naturally, John Clayton set about excavating parts of the fort. Set in formal parkland, it can now look rather lush and incongruous in comparison with the bleak upland site at Housesteads, which he also owned.

The best strategy for a visit to Chesters is to see the site first and then do the museum, but you do what you feel most comfortable with, and you may find the weather dictates your course of action (and the English Heritage tea shop is a handy retreat for the peckish). For our purposes, it is the fort first.

Unlike any of the other forts we have seen to the west, Chesters does not cower meekly behind the line of the curtain wall but in fact boldly protrudes to the north. This provided an unusual challenge to its constructors since, if they used the usual pattern of four gateways, one side (either north or south) would end up with three gateways, the other only one. They opted to give it an extra two ‘minor’ single-portalled gates to the south of the wall and have three twin-portalled ones to the north of it.

Any tour of the fort will begin at the north gate, to which the path from the museum leads you. This is the porta praetoria, the main gate facing northwards and, importantly (and unlike Housesteads), facing the enemy. A twin-portalled gateway, as you might expect, this was the main one facing into Barbaricum. There is a very obvious stone-lined channel under the western carriageway – drains and aqueducts nearly always left and entered forts at the gates (although Housesteads has already presented us with one exception to that rule). This example, however, is the aqueduct bringing water into the site (the main sewer carrying it out passed out through the slightly lower east gate, as we shall see). The aqueduct channel seems to have followed the contours round Lincoln Hill to get to the fort, with its source reported to be further up the valley of the North Tyne (although this has not been tested by excavation). An inscription of around AD 180 records the construction of an aqueduct, although we have to presume the garrison didn’t spend the best part of half a century without water, so it may have been an additional one or a replacement.

Chesters north gateHaving admired the north gate (the usual two portals, one later blocked, with flanking guardrooms) we can head off across the fort (there is usually a mown strip to guide us) towards the west gate, noting as we pass it a short length of the western curtain wall of the fort before we reach our goal. Adjacent to the south tower we can see the junction of Hadrian’s Wall with the fort, confirming that this west gate lay north of the wall. The curtain wall was in fact constructed before the fort and had to be dismantled to insert the fort. The usual features are present (threshold blocks with door stops, pivot holes, large opus quadratum blocks in the spina and inserted into the guard chamber walls) so we may note those and move on.

Chesters west gateThe path next takes us to the south-western interval tower (the western minor gate and the south-western corner tower have not been uncovered for display) where we can see that, unlike the turrets on Hadrian’s Wall, this fort tower has a central doorway at its base. We may briefly admire the eavesdrip channel along the base of the tower before trotting on towards our next gate (there are six, don’t forget). We can move on to the south gate, another twin-portalled structure, but this one still retaining traces of its blocking. Propped up against it is a large monolithic slab with a central lewis hole and two pivot holes, one of them intact. This is an example of an upper pivot stone, designed to sit above the spina and receive the upper pivots of the gate leaf on either side of it.

Chesters south gateWhat is a lewis hole? They were used on large blocks of stone to enable them to be lifted with sheer legs. A three-part wedge with a central removable shackle (known as a three-legged lewis or St Peter’s Keys) was inserted into a splayed rectangular hole in the stone which, when the middle component was inserted, would lock in place to be lifted. It is a characteristic Roman technique, not seem before and seldom afterwards in Britain.

lewisMoving on, we pass another interval tower before reaching the corner tower, located in the centre of the rounded south-east corner of the fort wall. Unlike interval and gate towers, corner towers tended to be wedge-shaped, so that their side walls met the curtain wall at a tangent in either case. It is less noteworthy that this too has a central doorway.

Chesters south-east corner towerNow we head north along the east defences and reach the only minor gate that is displayed. This, as mentioned above, was a single-portal gateway which gave access to the area south of the Wall and specifically to the civil settlement and the baths. Note that in its surviving form, there are two gate leaves (one pivot hole on either side) with a central stop block.

Chesters minor east gateAnd so to the last gateway, the main east gate. Here we can see a main drain passing out through the southern portal, but it is of course north of the wall, so not destined for the bath-house. The northern gate tower has been constructed over the backfilled (with rubble) ditch of the original version of Hadrian’s Wall. Both portals ended up being blocked and the lack of wear on the threshold blocks suggests neither were very heavily used. So much for all that effort to add extra gates.

Chester east gateAfter this heady tour of the defences and an orgy of towers and gates, it is time to turn our attention to the internal buildings that are there to be inspected. The first will be the commanding officer’s house (praetorium), the nearest and most perplexing of the structures, given the welter of inserted hypocausts, varying floor levels, and different styles of construction. If we enter it through the little gate next to the tree, we are immediately able to admire the finely moulded decorated plinth course on the north-east corner of the structure. Just to the south are some brick pilae from one of the many heating systems, but if you are willing to take a few paces even further south you will find an excellent example of a brick-arched flue through the east wall. Don’t worry, we’ll wait. We will next move a little to the west to see another heated room with a raised threshold, showing the level the commanding officer actually lived at, with all this heating technology at his disposal. Note how the threshold block is worn smooth in the middle and that there are two rectangular recesses on either side to receive the upright stone jambs, now missing. Doubtless you will already have spotted the channel leading to the socket for the door pivot. We will carry on moving westwards and make a left turn towards where the courtyard ought to be. The floor levels are still raised to either side of us and it becomes apparent that the standard courtyard-style praetorium has here been subverted in the later period, with additional rooms being added in the courtyard space. If we turn right we can now head west again, across where the courtyard would have been, and make for the headquarters building (principia).

Chesters CO's houseAs at Housesteads, the HQ has entrances on either side as well as its main northern one, these side entrances apparently serving more than one purpose. The one nearest the praetorium would certainly provide a useful short cut for the commanding officer, but the threshold of this eastern doorway shows clear evidence of wheel ruts, implying that carts were driven into the building on a regular basis. You may well wonder why this might have been. Let us enter the structure through the door and enter the cross-hall, noting the dais (the tribunal) ahead of us (this one clearly had a hatch underneath it; what were they storing there? And was it brought in with carts?).

To our left, in the range of offices, is a magnificent, vaulted underground strong room, where the unit savings would be kept (perhaps the carts were moving money around!). Mileage may vary as to whether we may enter it (sometimes it is flooded), but note how small the steps are (best to go down with your feet sideways) and the large monolithic stone jambs used here. When we are done here, we can head across the courtyard again and enter the courtyard. As ever, we find a peristyled rectangular yard with an eavesdrip running round it, indicative of a pent roof, and over in the north-west corner is a well (which still often contains water) which is worth inspecting.

Chesters HQ buildingA few moments may be devoted to pondering the well and its sacred significance before turning to face the south and the rear range of offices, where the standards would be kept. Look down at the paving on the western side of the courtyard. There, on a large circular boss, is one of the largest phallic symbols to be found anywhere on Hadrian’s Wall. This seems like a formidable apotropaic insurance policy. Now we can turn and head northwards, out of the main entrance of the HQ, and towards the barrack buildings ahead of us.

Chesters HQ building phallic symbolBefore entering the barracks enclosure, we should pause and note that not all of the barrack buildings are on display. Only five of the contubernia, the rooms in which the men were accommodated, are now uncovered, at least three more remaining buried beneath our feet. In front of us are two symmetrically arranged buildings, each with officers’ quarters at the far end and a verandah (continuing the roofline) in front of the men’s rooms. A central drain (originally covered) runs along the centre and fragments of columns can be seen (although Gibson’s photographs of the first excavations suggests things have moved around a bit since the 19th century). The barrack rooms housed the men, possibly with a central timber partition separating a front storage area from the rear sleeping area, whilst the end rooms would house the decurio who commanded each turma of cavalry (nominally 32 men) and his NCOs, including his deputy (the duplicarius, on double pay), the standard bearer (signifer), and the sesquiplicarius (on one-and-a-half times pay!). Before we leave the barracks, we need to do a quick calculation. Remember that there are eight men to a room and 32 to a turma? If we have at least eight rooms to a barrack, then it is likely that each building housed two turmae and that the officer’s quarters at the east end were duplicated at the unexcavated west end, making a double-ended barrack (we know of such structures from other cavalry forts elsewhere in the empire). After all that maths, we may well feel that we could do with relaxing in the fort bath-house. Fortunately, Chesters has one of the best preserved.

Chesters barrackExit the barracks, head east past the east gate and down the hill, pausing on the way to examine a short length of Hadrian’s Wall that is exposed. Excavation a little further to the east, between here and the river, found that the first clay-bonded wall collapsed spectacularly and had to be rebuilt with mortar.

Carry on down the hill to the enclosure containing the baths. Before entering, you can appreciate how the hill-wash, the soil moved downhill with time, has helped protect the building, since the tops of the standing walls reflect the profile of the hillside leading down to the riverbank.

Chesters bath-houseDown the steps, we enter through the porch to the changing room, the apodyterium, with its niches which may have held the bathers’ clothes (although there is a view that these were niches for statues of divinities). In a small delve next to the niches you can see the original floor level, revealing that the low ledge there was in fact originally a bench, perhaps lending credence to the clothes storage hypothesis. We can now move southwards and immediately turn right and right again to look at the sudatorium, the Ridiculously Hot Room (it had its own heating system under it, separate from the main baths).

plan of Chesters bathsThis is particularly interesting as it has more surviving examples of monolithic stone door jambs, as well as a fine example of a worn threshold similar to the ones we saw in the CO’s house, complete with pivot hole and location slot. Back out of this balneal cul-de-sac and turn right into the main bathing area, with the warm room (tepidarium) and then the hot room (caldarium). We are actually standing at the level of the base of the hypocausts, the floor level being betrayed by a threshold block to our left.

Before we go any further, turn round and look at the step we just came down to get here: it a curiously shaped stone. This in fact a voussoir made of tufa (light and fire-resistant), just one remaining component of a series of arches that ran along the length of the baths, slotted to hold thin bricks between these ribs and thus provide hollow tubes through which warm air (which was carried up the walls from the heating below) could also heat the roof space. All clever stuff.

Now we can move towards the south end, noting the hot plunge bath to our right and, behind it, the remains of a window through the wall. The south end contained the area where the fire actually burnt, beneath a large bronze water tank (now long gone), to provide the hot water for the plunge. We may sneakily pass out of here through the flue, noting as we go that there was a second bathing suite immediately to the east, and then we can turn left and left again to take us along the eastern side of the exterior of the building, buttressed for extra strength, to the latrines at the far end.

Chesters hot plunge bath and windowThis area has been heavily damaged by the river in the past, before it was ever excavated, but we can make out the sewer channel running around the seating area, whilst down to the right, nearer the riverbank, are examples of opus quadratum with their increasingly familiar lewis holes. We can finish with the baths by heading back along the path, around the exterior of the building, and back up the stairs. Now it is time to leave the fort, but if you haven’t already inspected it, this is your cue to visit the museum.

John Clayton’s son Nathaniel formed a small museum at Chesters (still lovingly tended in as near its original condition as possible) just before the First World War, housing the family collection of artefacts and inscriptions garnered not just from Chesters but from all the sites within the original Clayton estate, including Housesteads, Vindolanda, Great Chesters, and Carrawburgh. Its lapidarium is truly impressive, with rows of altars, milestones, and sculpture, and shelves of lesser stonework, including building stones from the Wall. It is worth devoting some time to and there is a treat awaiting in the back room, where some of Ronald Embleton’s original reconstruction paintings, undertaken for H. Russell Robinson’s book What the Soldiers Wore on Hadrian’s Wall, are hanging. The museum has only recently been refurbished and relit (a process that required the careful rehousing of a colony of bats) and is a splendid example of what can be achieved, and a far cry from when one of the past curators complained about the birds flying around the main gallery and leaving their calling cards on the cases.

Chesters museumThe garrisons of Chesters included the cohors I Delmatarum in the 2nd century and the ala II Asturum from the early 3rd onwards. The latter originated in Asturia, in what is now Spain. It has been pointed out that the name Cilurnum may owe something to a people called the Cilurnigi from that same area of Spain. You could say that this is a little bit of Northumberland that is forever Spain.