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