Corbridge (Part I)

Corbridge, along with Carlisle, is one of the pivotal sites of northern Roman Britain. It is near Hadrian’s Wall, but not part of it; it is south of the frontier with Caledonia, but always looked beyond it. And when Q. Lollius Urbicus set out to subdue that northern region, he seems to have started from Corbridge.

Corbridge Roman site from the air

Corbridge Roman site from the air

You will see it called many things (Corstopitum, Coriosopitum, Coria), but the name that seems to be endorsed by the Vindolanda writing tablets is Coria (which means a hosting place, an apt term for the junction of two roads by a river; remember, the Romans did not invent roads in Britain, they merely engineered them to be all-weather).

It is also crucial in the development of British archaeology, with the involvement of Francis Haverfield, the Father of Roman Britain as he was often called, and the training of some of the later big names in the discipline: the future Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, J. P. Bushe-Fox, began as a supervisor on the first campaign of excavations there, working with Robert Forster (who was a rowing partner of his brother). Fox it was who called in Eric Birley to supervise the clearance of the site in the 1930s, after it had been given to the nation, which developed into the second major campaign of excavations on the site. Ian Richmond became involved and work continued into the early years of the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that the major series of training excavations got under way, lasting up until the early 1970s. There was rescue excavation too: when the A69 bypass was put in and the new site museum constructed. Nevertheless, what we know of Roman Corbridge is derived from only a tiny proportion of its total area.

So, with that by way of introductory background, it is time to begin our virtual visit to the Roman site at Corbridge. Enter the museum but go straight out onto the site and leave the museum until later; everything should make more sense by then (you might also think in terms of suspension of gratification or cherries/icing on top of buns/cake).

In this first part, we shall consider the structures to the north of the Stanegate.

At the heart of the English Heritage site as you now see it lies the original forts which are, paradoxically, barely visible now. The first was the largest and they lasted from around AD85 to about AD163 and were replaced by two novel, walled, military compounds, each containing a detachment from one of the British legions. The stone granaries from the last fort were retained, presumably to supply the legionaries, since they were also walled off and these are the first thing you see as you venture onto the site.

The granaries at Corbridge

The granaries at Corbridge

Like all Roman military granaries, they have a raised floor with ventilated underfloor area; the hatchway at the south end of the west granary (Site 10) is clearly visible (it was blocked when first excavated but the blocking is long gone). Each had a raised loading platform at the south end, but the continual raising of the level of the Stanegate meant these ultimately became inaccessible: the awkward gap between granaries and road was Roman, not modern. The east granary (Site 7) still has an intact mullion in one of its ventilator slots (although the lintel above it has been replaced, ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere on the building).

The fountainhouse under excavation in 1907

The fountain house under excavation in 1907

Next to the granaries are the remains of the fountain house (Site 8) of the aqueduct. This was built after the forts had been levelled, the aqueduct swerving around the fort bath-house on its way to the site from the north (the water was drawn off the Cor Burn north of the A69). The legio XX Valeria Victrix proudly proclaimed their part in constructing the feature (and perhaps with it the aqueduct) and its significance should not be overlooked, for this is just one sign of a deliberate attempt at the urbanisation of Corbridge. Forts did not have prominent aqueducts and terminal fountain houses: towns did.

Tucked away behind the granaries and next to the aqueduct is Site 12, a strip-house of no great significance, other than it was here in 1908 that a hoard of forty-eight gold solidi from the late 4th century AD (probably some time after AD 383) were found. If gold is your thing then these should ding your bell; personally I find a box full of rust far more interesting (and informative), as we shall see.

Site 11

Site 11

To the east of the fountain house is situated one of the most unusual (and, so far, unique) buildings of Roman Britain: Site 11. A near-square courtyard structure, with ranges of rooms on four sides, it bears a close resemblance in plan to the Halifax Piece Hall and may well have been intended to have stairs in each corner. Its model may have been the Macellum Magnum built by Nero in Rome. Whatever it was intended to be, however, it was never completed, for the ambitious plans for Corbridge appear to have changed and only the west and south wings were finished. When it was found, the archaeologists bickered over its interpretation (Haverfield thought it a legionary headquarters building, Forster a forum).

Finally, to either side of this magnificent range of structures, there were ordinary strip houses of the sort you could find on most Romano-British settlements: Site 9 to the west (now replaced by the museum building) and Site 20 to the east, at the edge of the modern site.

So much for what you can see. What is no longer visible is the underlying military history. Both Site 9 and Site 20 lie directly over the ramparts of the cohort-sized fort that succeeded the earliest, larger fort. The courtyard of Site 11 contains (to the west) part of the headquarters building of the fort (the shrine of the standards to be exact), preserved because it was used as a builders’ hut during the construction of the massive courtyard building, and part of the commanding officer’s house. The post-war training excavations concentrated on looking beneath Site 11 and attempting to untangle the sequence of four forts: Phase I (the largest, c.AD86-103); Phase II (c.AD105-22); Phase III (c.AD122-38); and the first stone fort (c.AD139-63).

In the next part, we shall examine the area south of the Stanegate, then finally we can think about the Corbridge Hoard, a forgotten treasure of Roman Britain.

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Wall Mile 7

Wall Mile 7 [HB 158–62]

We have been enduring limited amounts of Wall for some distance now, but at last our patience is to be rewarded. Some 275m beyond the first footbridge, which marks the location of Milecastle 8, we find another, and then a short distance beyond that we find a short length of 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).

The curtain wall at West Denton

The curtain wall at West Denton

The adventurous can take a brief detour down into the housing estate along Southway to examine a stretch of Vallum that is preserved as open grassland around 150m south of the curtain wall. Although the ditch and mounds have been worn down, they are very clear from the air and worth seeing at ground level, even if the surroundings are a little incongruous (but nowhere near as strange as the Benwell Vallum Crossing and Temple of Antenociticus, as we shall see).

The Vallum

The Vallum

Returning to the curtain wall, our next task is to negotiate the A69/A1 interchange by means of a subway that cunningly turns into a footbridge over the A1 (and this is probably the loudest experience you will have on your journey along the Wall). When this, the Western Bypass, was constructed, the curtain wall and Vallum were excavated and it was at this point that discussion of whether or not the Wall was plastered or not was once again raised, since some evidence of what may have been rendering (or perhaps over-generous pointing) was recovered.

Turret 7b

Turret 7b

To the east of this traffic-filled trench we finally come upon our last turret, 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. When the housing estate was built to the south, just before the Second World War, examination of the Vallum produced building stones recording construction work by cohors I Dacorum.

Turret 7b

Turret 7b

The turret, with its door on the eastern side, has what may be a ladder base in the south-west corner, designed to afford access to its upper levels. Next to it was a hearth to provide some warmth and cooking facilities for those posted to it.

We are not yet done with Wall Mile 7, but already the hill up to Benwell looms large, the straightness of the road still reflecting the course of the Wall. We continue east to the pedestrian crossing at the crossroads and, near the library, we find a small piece of 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.

Curtain wall fragment at Denton Burn

Curtain wall fragment at Denton Burn, looking SW

After 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 it is far from the last. Now we must with all due caution cross the road and head uphill towards the site of Milecastle 7 (Benwell Bank). All the time the road is on the line of the ditch and the curtain wall approximates to the property boundaries fronting onto the pavement (which is roughly the line of the berm).

Milecastle 7 (Benwell Bank) [HB 158; haiku]

After we have crossed five roads on the southern side of the Military Road (50m beyond the last of these, Gretna Road) we have reached the measured position of Milecastle 7, although it has never been located.

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Wall Mile 8

Wall Mile 8 [HB 162]

Now the road curves round to a major junction and we lose the line of the curtain wall for a while. Here, beneath the mess that is the A69, something rather unusual happens: the Military Road leaves the line of the curtain wall. Instead it takes a much older and more influential line, which will come to dominate the town planning of Newcastle. The wall is now to the south of the road all the way to the centre, the road being in the ditch. Sound familiar? It ought to. There is, as you will have gathered, not much to see in this Wall Mile, which chiefly requires us to carefully negotiate our way across the junction and end up making our way eastwards, down the ramp leading off the southern carriageway of the A69. There now, that wasn’t too hard to understand, was it?! If you can see a metal footbridge over the A69 in the distance, then that is near the site of Milecastle 8.

We need to head down here (on the pavement to the right, naturally)

Milecastle 8 (West Denton) [HB 162; haiku]

Milecastle 8 (West Denton) has never been located but should be somewhere in the region of the Sugley Burn (which passed through a culvert, located during the 19th century but long gone), or in other words, close to the Alan Shearer Activity Centre.

Wall Mile 12

Wall Mile 12 [HB 166–7]

Leaving the site of the milecastle, we still have a bit of field to walk down until we have to undergo some diversionary jiggery-pokery in order to negotiate the A69, which has been rather thoughtlessly inserted across the line of the Wall and the Military Road. The B6318 (as it now is) lurches to the left, then hangs a right across a bridge, then left again to rejoin the line of the curtain wall, which is what we too must do. We pass up steps and through a gate to be guided along the edge of the road until the Trail rather inelegantly abandons us to get over the bridge by our own devices, skirting some Armco barrier on the way. Crossing over (carefully – remember the manic motorists) will not only provide the benefit of a pavement but also allow inspection of the ditch, which is going to reappear shortly.

Our enjoyment of this section is not particularly enhanced as we pass over the A69 by the accompanying roar of the traffic beneath us until, to our left, just before the road turns left again, we get a view along the ditch as it strides up to Heddon-on-the-Wall. Now look to the right and you can see the orphaned section of the Military Road produced by this diversion when the new road was built. Excavation beneath this section showed that the foundations of the curtain wall were still intact here, even if they have vanished (or, more correctly, been removed) elsewhere.

The disused Military Road

The disused Military Road

Our path is now leading us inexorably through the western limits of Heddon towards its centre, accompanied by the vegetationally hirsute ditch to our left, the curtain wall to our right (beneath the road, naturally), and the Vallum in the fields beyond. We are now going to have to get used to walking on pavement, as there is rather a lot more of it to come before we reach our goal on the north bank of the Tyne at Wallsend.

The ditch heading into Heddon

The ditch heading into Heddon

When we get to the end of the road (which is even called Military Road here on the street sign) and reach the junction, we need to cross and end up on the same side of the road as the petrol station. We then turn right but immediately bear to the left, keeping the war memorial on our left-hand side. A curious low metal gate guards the entrance to Chare Bank and that is where we want to be going. The sensible walker is advised not to attempt limbo-dancing under it. This lane leads us gently up hill, with the old church (it has Anglian origins) perched on a mound to our right, until we reach the top, where Milecastle 12 ought to be.

Milecastle 12 (Heddon) [HB 166; haiku]

Milecastle 12 (Heddon) has proved quite evasive. It should be located near the top of Chare Bank but attempts to find it have so far only produced what was thought to be a bit of the north gate in 1926. When the Military Road was being constructed here in 1752, a hoard of coins was found nearby, causing something of a furore; unfortunately nobody thought to record the contents, so we know nothing about it.

Wall Mile 13

Wall Mile 13 [HB 167–72]

As we leave the milecastle and the change of course for the Wall, we come down to the March Burn, crossed with the aid of a dinky yet serviceable bridge. Now we have a slight climb up towards Rudchester, placed in a commanding position to look to both east and west, whilst keeping one eye to the south too. The views to the north are nothing to write home about, however, but in this the fort builders were constrained by the line of the Wall and its own particular tactical requirements.

Rudchester fort (VINDOBALA)

As we enter the field containing the fort, the first impression is of an unspoiled gem, and that is partly correct. Like Chesters and Haltonchesters, Rudchester straddles the Wall (and, of course, the Military Road here) and although the southern portion displays enough humps and bumps to delight the head of any major national heritage organization, the northern part has been under the plough for many years and is a very different story. The site is actually owned by Northumberland County Council and one senses it is their little nest-egg, put aside for the day when something exciting can be done with it.

The corner of Ruschester fort

The corner of Ruschester fort

Rudchester is 7.5 miles from Haltonchesters and is 1.8ha (4.5 acres) in size and excavation found that the fort was built over the Wall ditch. The unit which the Notitia tells us was in garrison in the 4th century, the cohors I Frisiavonum, was probably there in the 3rd century as well, but the earliest occupants are unknown.

The civil settlement to the south included another Mithraeum. There is nothing to see now of the fort other than its platform and the Trail carefully shepherds us around the western and southern sides of the fort’s defences, but in so doing rewards us with a site graphic explaining the site. Sadly, there is no plaque commemorating the fact that I once dug here in horizontal snow in a trench so narrow I could barely get my arm into it. Such are the joys of archaeology…

Looking towards Heddon-on-the-Hill from above Rudchester

Looking towards Heddon-on-the-Hill from above Rudchester

We depart Rudchester by a gate that dumps us onto another manic rat-run, with a blind corner just metres away to the right, so extreme caution must be exercised in crossing this road. Once safely on the other side and through the next gate, we have a gentle downhill stroll past a line a hawthorn bushes, with the Military Road raised up to our left (and the curtain wall under it), intimations of the Vallum to our left, and the outskirts of Heddon-on-the-Wall coming into view beyond the A69. About 140m after we pass a gate in the wall on our left – and with the A69 making its presence felt – we arrive at the site of Milecastle 13 (Rudchester Burn).

Milecastle 13 (Rudchester Burn) [HB 167; haiku]

Site of Milecastle 13

Site of Milecastle 13

A short-axis milecastle, it was excavated in 1930, although its remains are now barely perceptible as a slightly raised platform. Treasure-lovers will be delighted to hear that a pot of 516 gold and silver coins was found here in the year of the American declaration of independence, although it is doubtful whether the two facts are linked. The latest coin dated to 168, thought to be a troubled time in northern Britannia. When thinking of Roman coin hoards, it is always difficult not to recall Samuel Pepys and his attempt to hoard coins when a Dutch invasion was threatened (unlike the Romans, he did not have the foresight to use a container that would not perish and so rendered recovery that bit more tricky).

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