The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Curtain Wall

What is a curtain wall? It is simply a continuous defensive wall, the sort you find running round a Roman stone fort, joining up the towers. And, just as Roman forts have curtain walls, so does Hadrian’s Wall. It varies between a Broad Gauge (the original width of around 3m or 10Rft), a Narrow Gauge (around 1.8m to 2.3m or c.8Rft) – the width that was subsequently adopted once the Roman army worked out how much effort it would save them) – and the Intermediate Gauge (which was neither one nor the other).

Hare Hill curtain wall

Hare Hill curtain wallThis is one of the most impressive short stretches of curtain wall you will see. At 2.3m in width, this is an example of narrow gauge wall. Long famed for being the tallest surviving section of the curtain wall (3m), the north face is in fact a late-19th-century reconstruction, undertaken at the behest of the Earl of Carlisle, although the core stands to its original height. However, all is not as it seems. The keen-eyed will note that the face is not even aligned on the much-more-modest (and more recently) exposed section immediately to its east and do-it-yourselfers will doubtless tut-tut at this example of careful Victorian laxity. This length of curtain wall actually conveys a powerful message about the way in which attitudes to the consolidation of the monument have changed. Whilst replacing facing stones was once thought acceptable, the more recent approach has been to consolidate it as found. If you happen to prefer one over the other, good for you; neither is necessarily right or wrong. Now might be an opportune moment to locate the centurial building stone on the north face (nine courses down from the top, two stones in from the left), reading ‘< P · P ·’ (centuria primi pili), or ‘the century of the senior centurion (of the legion)’. It (RIB 1958) was found some time before 1894, west of Turret 53a, and was built into the reconstructed face of the curtain wall. Remember, with Hadrian’s Wall, all is not as it seems.

Curtain wall west of Birdoswald

Curtain wall west of BirdoswaldHaving had our interest piqued by the short stretch on either side of Banks East Turret, this is the first substantial length of curtain wall to be encountered when travelling from west to east, but it is rather unusual compared to much of the rest of the Stone Wall. This is because it is not built on the line of the Turf Wall, which runs up to 200m to the south (at Milecastles 50SW and TW), 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 (Birdoswald), its full width is intact.

Some 12m west of the turret, on the top course of the south face of the curtain wall, the first of three phallic symbols in this wall mile can be seen.

East of Turret 49b, we may note in passing a number of drains through the wall at ground level before reaching a gap where a section has been removed many years ago around the entrance to the field. There is another damaged section further on, this time 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. This section terminates near Birdoswald fort, where the old farm access track runs across the line of the wall and the corner of the fort has been neatly rounded off when a ditch was run all round the fort. However, at ground level, the foundations of the junction of the wall and the fort is still visible; the wall butts against the fort as the stone fort pre-dates the construction of the stone wall.

Curtain wall east of Birdoswald

Curtain wall east of BirdoswaldEast of Birdoswald, this fine stretch of curtain wall continues as far as the edge of the Irthing gorge. 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 phallic symbol occurs 10m east of the western end of the field wall parallel to the curtain wall, just before 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. A building inscription (RIB 3434) is preserved in the top surviving course at 35m from the end of that field wall and another (RIB 3427) is found at 110m. There are two more (RIB 3426 and 3425) at 130m and 140m respectively. Finally, the third of the Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols occurs at 193m.

Just before the wall reaches Milecastle 49, it changes alignment slightly and this is the point where the Turf and Stone Walls converge once more. 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 have seen).

Willowford curtain wall east of the bridge abutment and west of Turret 48b

Curtain wall at WillowfordContinuing on the northern side of the curtain wall, you are next to a stretch of narrow gauge wall (about 2.3m) on broad foundations and, for the first time, we have left the territory of the Turf Wall, since Milecastle 49 was its easternmost extremity. We can take 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 reconstruction we shall see later in the Central Sector.

As the curtain wall ascends the river terrace, note how the coursing is kept level whilst the footings tend to follow the contours. Note too that the ditch starts again once the curtain wall climbs above the flood plain.

Willowford centurial inscription

Willowford centurial inscriptionAt Willowford Farm, the curtain wall itself is briefly interrupted by the farmyard entrance but 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.

Curtain wall west of the farm track and east of Willowford West Turret (T48b)

curtain wall east of WillowfordThe curtain wall west of the farm track breach 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 was excavated in 1923. Standing up to nine courses high, the turret has lost its south wall, but still gives a good impression of the limited space available within its ground floor. 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. The reasons are more readily apparent at Turret 48a.

Curtain wall east of the farm track and west of Willowford East Turret (T48a)

Curtain wall west of T48aThe 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 a breach in the line of the curtain wall and continues in the ditch.

Curtain wall east of T48a and west of Gilsland

Curtain wall east of T48a and west of GilslandBetween the turret and the wall there is more consolidated curtain wall which continues as the property boundary of the houses next to the road. Once again, the broad foundation is visible beneath the narrow gauge curtain wall.

Curtain wall adjacent to the B6318 at Long Byre

Curtain wall at Long ByreThere is an incongruous 8m length of curtain wall on a plinth next to the road at Long Byre. The story runs that when road improvements were being carried out here in 1957, Charlie Anderson, the Ministry of Works chief charge hand, noticed that the curtain wall was being exposed and was instrumental in making sure it was first excavated and then consolidated.

Walltown Crags curtain wall (between Walltown quarry and Walltown Turret)

curtain wall on Walltown CragsClimbing dramatically upwards, before weaving around outcrops of whinstone, we are now aware that the geology has changed for the first time since we left the Cumbrian coastal plain. Starting at Thirlwell Castle, we have ascended the Whin Sill, the outcrop of dolerite that dominates the central sector of the Wall and provides the tactical landscape for the mural barrier, as well as having donated the term ‘sill’ to geology. It is a characteristic of the Whin Sill that it slopes downwards to the south (known, appropriately, as the ‘dip slope’) and is accompanied by bands of sandstone and limestone to its south. It thus provided two key elements for the Wall’s construction: sandstone for the curtain wall itself and limestone for the mortar. Dolerite is too hard to be worked easily (the major reason it was preferred for road stone in more recent times, hence quarries like Walltown) so the Roman troops generally avoided trying to dress it as facing stones, although it did sometimes end up in the core. Thus the happy coincidence of the tactically favourable terrain, the presence nearby of necessary building materials, and the comparatively short distance between the coasts meant Hadrian’s Wall was placed in the Goldilocks Zone for northern frontiers.

Wall Mile 45 is one of the most spectacular and oft-photographed sections of the Wall, and the adaptation of the curtain wall builders to this terrain is interesting to observe. Climbing up from its unintentional terminus above the beetling cliff of the quarry face, the curtain wall turns a corner of about sixty degrees to the east, nicely rounded on the outside but angular on the south face (and so reminiscent of milecastle corners), keeping a comfortable distance from the edge of the cliff that matches the width of the berm elsewhere, where the ditch is present. Winding around some outcrops, it then plunges down into our first ‘nick’; the ‘Nine Nicks of Thirlwell’ are in reality glacial spillways, caused by melt-water when the ice was retreating at the end of the most recent Ice Age. Only pedants will care that there are no longer nine of them, due to the actions of the aforementioned quarry. This is the viewpoint for the famous Alan Sorrell reconstruction of the Wall at Walltown Crags. On the way down, some rather spectacular buttressing is undertaken to get over one particularly troublesome outcrop. This particular spillway still drains water, but now from the boggy land to the south, so has been provided with drainage slots at its base like those we have already seen further to the west. The curtain wall immediately begins to climb again, its coursing impressively levelled on footings that more casually follow the slope and even stepped as it goes around a slight corner. Then it is but a short hop to the site of Turret 45a, which is a rather interesting example of its kind.

Walltown Crags curtain wall (between Walltown Turret and Milecastle 45)

curtain wall east of T45aThe curtain wall continues for a short distance to the east before it vanishes, consumed by Greenhead Quarry (which, unlike Walltown Quarry, remains more as less as it was when abandoned: a mess). We can follow the fence round and start to climb the Sill and soon we see an impressive sight: the next bit of wall, perched on the edge of a quarry face (and often with crows ridge soaring above it). Gaining a bluff, we find ourselves looking down on another stretch of curtain wall, partly excavated and consolidated. Most people don’t know this is here and walk straight past it, which is a pity as it is particularly evocative of how the consolidation process was undertaken (and, in this case, abandoned). Immediately to the east, the curtain wall is covered again and only a few tumbled stones poke through the turf (affording an excellent opportunity to compare the two states of the wall) and as we follow it up to a low platform, we reach the site of Milecastle 45.

Walltown Crags curtain wall (between Milecastle 45 and Mucklebank Turret)

curtain wall at Walltown NickThe curtain wall trundles along the top of the crags in a north-easterly direction for about 200m before making a turn to a more southerly course and descending into Walltown Nick. We cannot easily follow it directly down but need to take a more southerly course, before finding a stile across a stone wall and then a paved causeway across the boggy base of this nick. To our right is a low mound surmounted by trees, known as King Arthur’s Well; this is not the last time we shall encounter the Once and Future King on our journey. We are now confronted by a steep climb up some rudimentary stone steps (they are modern and some have been cut with an angle grinder to give added grip). Ultimately this takes us to Turret 44b on Mucklebank Crags, but before we examine it, we can now turn and survey the path we have just negotiated and observe the Wall from our eyrie. The line of the curtain wall, although ruinous, should be clear, slightly to the north of the paved path. North of that again is the line of the ditch. Although not needed for much of the Wall’s course along the crags, the ditch reappears whenever a nick or gap appears where its defensive provision is deemed necessary. This, incidentally, hints once again at how important the ditch (rather than the curtain wall) may have been in deciding the course of the Wall and suggests that the latter was subservient to the former.

Mucklebank Crags curtain wall (between Mucklebank Turret and  Milecastle 44)

curtain wall under field wallAfter a brief exposure on either side of the turret, the curtain wall returns to being a low mound along the top of the crags for another 100m or so before descending into the next nick. Once again the curtain wall diverts south to embrace this and a short stretch of ditch appears to cover the break in the crags. It climbs again briefly and then repeats the performance with another diversion and accompanying stretch of ditch. This defensive trick is known as a re-entrant and allows a defender to dominate an attacker who might choose to assail a weak point (which has been helpfully reinforced with a length of ditch) from three sides. That is why the Wall does not run straight across.

After the third of these nicks the terrain settles down a little bit, we cross a stile and note that there is now a drystone wall on top of the curtain wall to our left and that a gateway through the wall we have just crossed marks the line of the Military Way, the road that links all the turrets and milecastles. The astute will even be able to make out the course of the road, about 35m south of the curtain wall. We pass Alloa Lee Farm (which you’ll usually see referred to as Allolee) to our right before encountering the site of Milecastle 44 just before a turn in the Wall slightly south of east. By now you should be getting your eye in for the humps and bumps of unconsolidated milecastles.

Cawfields Quarry curtain wall

curtain wall west of Milecastle 42Immediately west of Milecastle 42, we can climb the steps next to the truncated length of curtain wall. This is a dead-end, but worth going up for the view.

At the top of the steps, we can turn back and admire Milecastle 42, laid out before us in a way it is difficult to better once you are down next to it. You may also glance to the south and see the confident earthwork of the Vallum striding across the countryside, dead straight, enjoying its freedom from the crags. Between them can be made out the grassy strip of the Military Way, dogging the footsteps of the curtain wall like a faithful servant.

Why is that piece of wall a dead end? Because it was chopped off by Cawfields Quarry and thereby hangs a tale. Here, at this high point, let us consider a low point.

When the central sector of the Wall was sold off in 1929, at the breakup of the Clayton estate, the National Trust bought part but did not own the mineral rights. Those were leased off to one John Wake of Darlington, who planned to expand his quarry at Cawfields all the way along the southern part of the dip slope between the Vallum to within ten feet of the curtain wall. There had already been controversy when Turret 45b collapsed into Walltown Quarry in the late 19th century. It was realised that the new proposal would probably have been structurally disastrous, as well as totally ruining the setting of the Wall. At the time, the Ancient Monuments legislation was not sufficiently beefy to protect the monument from this indirect, but nevertheless very real, threat. Celebrities of the day rallied around, including Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan, letters were written to The Times, and the government was forced to act, compensating Wake and limiting the spread of his quarry, so that it grew no more than what we saw as we walked past, finishing working in 1952. Ugly truths had had to be confronted, particularly those touching upon employment (at a time of depression) set against ‘heritage’ (as we now insipidly term it), as well as the duty of the state in preserving monuments for current and future generations to enjoy. Every time a mountebank pops up and says planning legislation is too complex and too biased towards ancient monuments, whip yourself with the stingiest of nettles to remind yourself of this salutary tale.

Curtain wall (between Milecastle 42 and Turret 41a)

curtain wall east of Milecastle 42Heading east once more, and leaving Milecastle 42 in our wake, we climb gradually, with Claytonized curtain wall to our left, perched on the edge of Cawfields Crags. John Clayton, who owned this stretch of land during the 19th century, had his workmen consolidate the wall by excavating the tumbled facing stones that lay to either side of it and reconstructing them as coursed drystone walling on top of the surviving in-situ courses. This differed from the preferred Ministry of Works method of ‘as found’ consolidation in later years, but a compromise was reached whereby the newer was combined with the older to preserve the unusual character of the National Trust-owned stretches on top of the more accurate modern approach.

Before long we pass the site of Turret 41b before encountering a small re-entrant at a slight nick, with a gate through the curtain wall. This is Thorny Doors. Immediately afterwards the wall makes an assault on a particularly steep section of the Whin Sill and it is here that the highest surviving piece of curtain wall (as opposed to reconstructed, like the facing at Hare Hill) is to be found. When consolidated, it is said that putlog holes for wooden scaffolding were found in the outer face of the wall and that it was eroded in an unusual manner, perhaps because of the way in which the wind is funnelled through the nick. We can only admire the horizontal coursing of the curtain wall as it seems to ascend the crags effortlessly.

Curtain wall (between Milecastle 40 and Steel Rigg)

line of curtain wall east of Milecastle 40The curtain wall is under the field wall and the ditch is to the north of it, but the latter peters out once we get to the higher ground and the crags begin to render it unnecessary again. The course of the wall up to those crags ensures the land is falling away to the north; think ‘foreslope’.

To the south of us, the Vallum has now joined the line of the 18th-century Military Road, which was constructed on its south berm for a distance of about 1.9km. Further south still is the Stanegate, making its way towards Vindolanda, and then the terrain slopes down into the valley of the South Tyne.

Curtain wall (between Steel Rigg and Peel Gap Turret)

curtain wall at Peel GapEast of the road, the National Trail moves to the northern side of the curtain wall, which is now Claytonized once more. The path carefully, almost inconspicuously, sidles into the ditch itself, so that as we turn to the south-east after 140m, we can look up to our right at the curtain wall behind its berm. The keen-of-eye will note that we are entering another re-entrant covering a gap in the crags, and this is Peel Gap.

Curtain wall (between Peel Gap Turret and Milecastle 39)

curtain wall west of Castle NickThe curtain wall romps up the side of the crags, partly covered by a field wall, and turns a sharp left to the north, thus closing the re-entrant. We can see the turn to the right, once at the top, next to the stile. The Trail then takes us along the south side of the Claytonized curtain wall. There is little to mark the site of Turret 39a, other than a slightly smoother sward. We begin to descend and paving stones appear to reinforce the Trail but there is no re-entrant and accompanying ditch here, despite a wiggle to the north by the curtain wall, since it is just following the edge of the crags, as it heads down into another nick. This is Cat Stairs. Up, again, and then we encounter another one of the iconic views of the Wall: Milecastle 39 sitting in another meltwater spillway, Castle Nick.

Curtain wall at Sycamore Gap

curtain wall east of Sycamore GapThe consolidated curtain wall to the east of Sycamore Gap stands impressively high. Unusually, it incorporates considerable amounts of the dark whinstone, strongly suggesting that this length has been rebuilt, since the original builders avoided whinstone precisely because it is so difficult to work.

Curtain wall at Rapishaw Gap

curtain wall at Rapishaw GapIn Rapishaw Gap, there is a modern drystone wall on top of the curtain wall, pierced by a gateway that marks the arrival of the Pennine Way. The easiest way down the bluff with its terminated wall is to head south for a short way and then almost double back to get up to the line of the wall again, so that we are only descending easy slopes and not risking life and limb scrambling down rocks. Ahead lies Hotbank Crags.

Curtain wall (between Milecastle 37 and Housesteads fort)

curtain wall in Housesteads plantationIn the plantation to the west of Housesteads fort there is a rare treat: the only chance to actually walk on the curtain wall. Once upon a time, walkers merrily yomped along the top of the wall in the central sector without giving much thought to the damage they were doing. Increases in visitor numbers mean such access has had to be limited to this one carefully controlled section, here in the woods immediately west of Housesteads fort. It should be pointed out that the drop to the north is a bit hairy and there is a popular climbing pitch along here. Occasionally, richly accoutred climbers will pop up whilst you are heading along the top. Smile benignly at them and pass on. The vertiginously inclined can walk on a path immediately to the south of the curtain wall, but still in the plantation; should you be dendrophobic, then you can take the Military Way west from the fort (a broad mown strip) and skip the woodland altogether.

Curtain wall on Sewingshields Crags (west of Turret 35a)

curtain wall on Sewingshields CragsAt the summit east of Busy Gap, we can pause to look back to the west, where we can see Broomlee Lough, Greenlee Lough beyond it, and Housesteads Crags, with Crag Lough and Peel Crags in the distance. At the top, a short length of curtain wall emerges from underneath its guardian field wall, just to remind you of its existence. Another length of wall is exposed before we stumble unexpectedly on Turret 35a (Sewingshields).

Curtain wall between Turret 35a and Milecastle 35

curtain wall east of T35aThe next stretch of curtain wall we find has a rather nicely consolidated expansion near its eastern end, confirming that these were not just a product of the imagination of Clayton’s workman but were a genuine feature of the south face of the curtain wall, along the Central Sector at least.

Moving on we encounter further spasmodic sections of curtain wall bursting out of the turf and before too long we reach another trig point, which is a good place to consider King Arthur. Who? Why? Well, remember King Arthur’s Well in Wall Mile 44? Tradition (although not a very old one, truth be told) has it that he and his sleeping knights lie nearby, waiting for the call to defend Britain once again. Having dozed through sundry national threats (the Armada, Napoleon, for example) he was supposedly disturbed from his slumbers by a Northumbrian shepherd in pursuit of a ball of twine (string-related mishaps being common among northern stocksmen). This has little relevance to Hadrian’s Wall, other than to show how it has acted as a focus for myth formation as much as any other human activity (but most notably stone robbing), and Arthur is both ubiquitous and ‘sticky’, as well as beloved of tourist authorities the length and breadth of the land.

More stretches of curtain wall lead us to the site of Milecastle 35, clinging on to the edge of Sewingshields Crags by its fingertips.

Curtain wall (between Limestone Corner and Black Carts Turret)

curtain wall east of Limestone CornerEast of Limestone Corner, the consolidated curtain wall is visible again. Note that the Military Road is not on the line of the wall, here, but rather sits on the north mound of the Vallum (where it stays for nearly four Wall miles).

Across a small lane, there is a splendid stretch of narrow-gauge curtain wall and accompanying ditch. On the north side of the wall, there is a building inscription 55m from the west end (or 90m from the east) of this stretch of wall, recording construction work under a centurion from the first cohort of a legion by the name of Nas(…) Ba(ssus). It has been suggested that legio XX was responsible for the initial construction of this section of wall. Bassus crops up elsewhere and an almost identical stone can be seen in Chesters museum which, although unprovenanced, may well be the pair to this stone. It has long been thought that building inscriptions were only placed on the south face of the curtain wall and that those on the north side were a result of rebuilding work. The fact that this stone is in the second course may give pause to question this argument for their placing, but it may equally hint at a very thorough rebuilding of this bit of the curtain wall (and such major reconstruction work is known elsewhere).

Brunton curtain wall

Whilst Brunton Turret is the focus for any visit to this site, the curtain wall on either side of it is rather interesting. It lies at an important junction between the narrow wall (on its east side, marked by a short yet familiar wing wall) and by the narrow wall to the west, marked by the turret being bonded seamlessly with it. It is clear, then, that the decision to change from the broad to narrow gauge occurred at around the time the curtain wall gang reached this turret from the west (or did they start from here and work westwards, the next gang starting further east and heading towards Brunton?). Hadrian’s Wall is all about change, modification, and adaptation, and here this flexibility is plain to see. The threshold to the doorway reveals slots for monolithic stone jambs and a pivot hole (with a respectable channel) on the eastern side.

Planetrees curtain wall

curtain wall at PlanetreesThis short stretch of curtain wall has achieved fame by virtue of the fact that it owes its continued existence to intervention by William Hutton whilst he was walking the Roman Wall. Arriving here, he found the local tenant in the process of demolishing it. Ironically, the Military Road had preserved it by veering off its course some way to the east in order to descend into the valley of the north Tyne by a less bold route than that adopted by the Wall.

This is the eastern end of the stretch of narrow wall we saw at the bottom of the hill, meeting Brunton Turret. The junction here at Planetrees is equally abrupt, broad wall on a broad foundation suddenly changing to narrow wall on that same broad foundation. The gang building the foundation had included a drain running the full width which protrudes incongruously, a memorial to changed plans.

Heddon-on-the-Wall curtain wall, ditch, and Vallum

curtain wall at HeddonThe existence of Heddon-on-the-Wall caused the Military Road to make a small diversion in order to avoid it, thereby preserving a rather splendid length of curtain wall and ditch for our delectation and pleasure.

There are various signs that point us towards the consolidated length of wall at the east end of the village. We slip through a narrow gate and instantly we are walking along the line of the ditch, with the wall immediately to our left. In the distance we can see the point where the Military Road and curtain wall reunite, but for the time being we can enjoy this section of Broad Wall. It is some 215m in length and survives up to seven courses high. Near the west end, a circular kiln has been inserted into the ruins of the wall, possibly during the post-medieval period. Reassuringly, the Vallum survives as a subdued earthwork in the field to the south.

Even more of the curtain wall was excavated in 1926, when Northumberland County Council decided to improve the gradient on the road and, in so doing, grubbed up some 55m of the wall which lay beneath the original road surface. Remember, that’s a length of wall preserved by the Military Road, and destroyed by a county council! Luckily it was possible for Parker Brewis to excavate it before its destruction. It is wise to take with a pinch of salt all protestations of vandalism levelled against the original builders of the road; there are plenty of sections of curtain wall destroyed in the medieval and post-medieval periods where there was no road to blame (as William Hutton found at Planetrees). The Military Road is just one of many predators that have nibbled at the corpse of Hadrian’s Wall.

West Denton curtain wall

curtain wall at West DentonThere is a short length of broad-gauge curtain wall perched up on an embankment immediately south of the roaring A69, thereby proving that the road is now on the line of the ditch (in case you were doubting this revelation).

Denton Hall curtain wall

curtain wall at Denton Hall

To the east of the east of the A1 Western Bypass, there is Turret 7b, embattled and proud, its site graphics care-worn and battered, all set within a small area of grass next to a bus shelter. A fine piece of curtain wall survives to either side of the turret, but it is worth noting that this was not excavated until 1929.

Denton Burn curtain wall

curtain wall at Denton BurnNear the library, we find a small piece of broad-gauge curtain wall at Denton Burn which, when Hutton saw it, had an apple tree growing out of it, although by the time that Collingwood Bruce had woodcuts prepared for his Handbook, it had died and was little more than a stump. The burn itself was carried through the wall by means of a culvert, long vanished.

The smallest piece of curtain wall

the smallest piece of curtain wallAfter admiring this piece, we can then head towards the service station at the corner where, nestling up against the Indian restaurant, there are a few stones of the north face of the curtain wall. This is the smallest consolidated piece of Hadrian’s Wall you will see but serves to confirm that the property frontages on the way into Newcastle still respect the line dictated by the curtain wall.

Mining Institute curtain wall

curtain wall line outside the Mining Institute

The line of the Wall runs under the statue of Stephenson, across Neville Street (which runs in front of the railway station), and is found again on the same line outside the Mining Institute building, where its course is marked in rather faded pink concrete, accompanied by a plaque giving details.

Shields Road curtain wall

curtain wall on Sheilds RoadHere, the road itself follows the ditch and the curtain wall is just behind the shop frontages. On the south side of the road, the shop frontages give way to an open plaza and there, for your delight, are the foundations of the curtain wall and small metal studs marking the location of the same sort of berm pits seen in Throckley and at Wallsend.

Fossway Roundabout curtain wall

curtain wall at Fossway roundaboutNext to the roundabout to the east of the bicycle shop on Shields Road, there is a 5m consolidated length of curtain wall foundation.

Wallsend curtain wall and reconstruction

curtain wall at WallsendThere is a replica of the curtain wall slightly to the south of an excavated length of the original wall, a series of short stubby posts marking the position of berm obstacles like those at Throckley ad Shields Road. The excavated length is actually considerably more than that consolidated, but much still lies under plastic, awaiting consolidation. When examined, it was found that the wall along here collapsed due to proximity to s stream.

Now we can turn our attention to the reconstructed curtain wall. Although building regulations demanded that it be built to modern standards and with a completely inaccurate handrail at the back, it gives a good impression of the state of our knowledge of what the curtain wall actually looked like. Go towards the back, noting as you pass the sever weathering that the modern building inscription has already suffered. We shall briefly resist the temptation to mount the steps, but instead direct our attention to the base of those stairs, at the west end of the south face of the wall. Here, several different interpretations of the plastered/whitewashed/pointed debate have been realised and it will be readily apparent that the whitewash option is already nearly completely vanished.

Now we may proceed up the stairs. Here it is possible to appreciate just how much room the narrower curtain wall of this sector provides for a walkway, even allowing for a parapet. Note too the efficacy of the merlons at providing protection for defenders (although some might argue for broader merlons these are details to which we have no definitive answers at the moment). This, together with the Vindolanda reconstructions, is a splendid example of the value of physical reconstruction; sometimes CGI just will not do.

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