Driving Hadrian’s Wall: the Main Car Parks VII (Chesters)

Chesters (EH)

Coordinates: N55.028771, W2.138364 Facilities: none

Chesters is well-signposted on the B6318 Military Road travelling from both the east and west. The English Heritage car park immediately east of Chesters 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 (£3 in 2015 according to the EH website) reimbursed when you visit the fort. However, you can also use it as the starting point for for a short walk to explore the bridge abutment over the river (although there is another, closer, alternative).

Advice

As ever, be aware that there are car thieves operating, as there are at all of the car parks along the Wall. To get to the bridge abutment, leave the car park and walk back to the main road. Cross over (taking care of course) and, turning right, follow the pavement to the roundabout at Chollerford. Go across the bridge over the North Tyne and then turn right into the small pedestrian gate immediately east of the bridge. Go down the steps and then follow the footpath to the pair of kissing gates, and then down to the riverside where the bridge abutment is situated. Stout footwear is not necessary but is advisable.

Chesters car parkZone 1 (100m)

Chesters fort

Zone 4 (2km)

Chesters Bridge Abutment

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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)

Wall Mile 48

Wall Mile 48 [HB 285–91]

Wall 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.

Curtain wall west of the railway

Curtain wall west of the railway

We leave Milecastle 48 by the gate at the north-west corner and head down the path to another crossing of the railway, where we take great care when crossing it. Once on the other side, it is apparent how the railway embankment passes over the Wall and effectively masks the original lie of the land (the curtain wall drops abruptly beneath that embankment).

The unloved former vicarage and its unloved wall

The unloved former vicarage and its unloved wall

The first section of curtain wall in this mile lies to our right but, although it is in Guardianship (or ‘in care’ as they like to say these days, making it sound more than a little delinquent), it is on private land next to the dilapidated (but allegedly still occupied) old vicarage where Hunter Davies stayed when he walked the Wall and cannot, unfortunately, be visited. It can however be seen at a distance from our vantage point beyond the railway crossing, as can the depression of the ditch to the north of it.

The curtain wall east of Turret 48a

The curtain wall east of Turret 48a

We now follow the path down the side of the embankment and across a stream, then down the side of the school. When we reach the end of this section, we emerge onto a pavement and the wall is in plain sight in front of us. We must cross the road and make for the kissing gate next to the cattle grid. The track bends round the the left and we follow the curtain wall until we reach the site of Turret 48a.

Turret 48a (Willowford East) [HB 288–9]

Turret 48a

Turret 48a

This turret, excavated in 1923, survives up to seven courses in height and we may observe that its entrance is on the western side of the southern wall.

The 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.

The curtain wall west of Turret 48a

The curtain wall west of Turret 48a

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 the line of the curtain wall to continue to the north of it.

The ditch north of the field wall

The ditch north of the field wall

We pass through a kissing gate to walk immediately south of the curtain wall. You are not wrong: it is a bit cramped, especially if we encounter walkers coming the other way: footpath people call this a ‘pinch-point’, we can look to the right at the farm track, which is at this point within the Wall ditch. Another example of a road or track using the ditch.

The curtain wall east of Turret 48b

The curtain wall east of Turret 48b

The curtain Wall itself 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 (Willowford West) [HB 289]

Turret 48b

Turret 48b

Turret 48b, which was excavated in 1923, stands up to nine courses high. It has lost its south wall, but still gives a good impression of the limited space available within its ground floor. Before we move on, 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. This is our last set of wing walls. Now, the path (by means of a rather elaborate timber edifice, designed to stop visitors walking on – and damaging – the remains of the curtain wall itself) takes us over the curtain wall and delivers us back onto that trackway in the ditch.

Building inscription

Building inscription

Next to the farmyard entrance 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.

The curtain wall crossing the flood plain

The curtain wall crossing the flood plain

We go through a gate and now, as the curtain wall descends the river terrace, we note how the coursing is kept level whilst the footings tend to follow the contours. At the bottom of the slope, the wall runs across the flood plain to Willowford bridge abutment.

The north face of the curtain wall at Willowford

The north face of the curtain wall at Willowford

We can afford 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 Claytonized reconstruction we saw in the Central Sector.

Willowford Bridge abutment [HB 290–1]

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.

Willowford bridge abutment

Willowford bridge abutment

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.

South side of the bridge abutment

South side of the bridge abutment

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.

Having examined the Roman bridge, we pass through a kissing gate and head off towards the modern means for crossing the Irthing, the (intentionally rusty) Millennium Bridge. The path leads across the bottom of a slope and then diagonally up it to deliver us to Milecastle 49. Before we inspect that, however, go out through the northern entrance and turn right to follow the wall to the edge of the cliff.

The Millennium Bridge over the Irthing

The Millennium Bridge over the Irthing

Originally more survived, but the river has eaten into the hillside over the years removing all trace of how Hadrian’s Wall negotiated the west bank of the river. Large amounts of the spoil excavated from Birdoswald were dumped down here, only to be carried away again by landslips. It is time to consider that we are at the eastern end of the great earthen rampart, known now as the Turf Wall, that initially comprised the western three-eighths of the Wall. Although it was later replaced by the Stone Wall in this sector, we shall soon be able to see the Turf Wall in all its glory.

The curtain wall and ditch E of Milecastle 49

The curtain wall and ditch E of Milecastle 49

Now we can walk back to the milecastle and give it our proper attention.

Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) [HB 291–3; haiku]

A medieval farm building inside Milecastle 49

A medieval farm building inside Milecastle 49

Much of the interior of this milecastle has been removed by the modern track which passes through it, but this is the last consolidated milecastle we shall encounter, walking from east to west. It therefore provides our last real opportunity to get the measure of one of these fortlets, although it is not as informative as its neighbour, Milecastle 48. The main structure inside the milecastle is part of a medieval farmstead, recalling just how many milecastle sites came to serve as farms. On the east side there is one wall of an original internal Roman building. The rounded south-west corner is well-preserved. Astute observers will note how the defensive walls of the milecastle butt against the curtain wall. This tells us that the curtain wall was built first, then the milecastle, an important detail to remember when comparing it with the last milecastle and its wing walls. The modern farm track does not use the Roman gateway, which is just to the west of it.

Wall Mile 27

Wall Mile 27 [HB 191–210]

Just before we reach the bridge at Chollerford, there is a small, ingeniously counterbalanced gate to our left and that leads to a path that takes us along the side of the old railway line to the Roman bridge abutment, a distance of about 800m if you must know.

Chesters bridge abutment [HB 191–4]

The bridge abutment at Chesters

The bridge abutment at Chesters

The 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.The surfaces of most of the blocks contain central lewis holes. A lewis was 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 seen before and seldom afterwards in Britain.

The lewis

The lewis

Embedded within the apron, thought to have been constructed as part of a 2nd/3rd-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 (it often is), 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.

Apron with lead lattice channels and decorative column

Apron with lead lattice channels and decorative column

Now we must retrace our steps along the path back to the road, then turn left over the modern bridge. This had a medieval predecessor just downstream, but it is the Roman prototype even further away to which we now turn our attention. It is best to cross to the northern pavement for safety’s sake to actually cross the bridge. At the roundabout, we follow the signs across two roads until we finally get to the Military Road again (it is the third round anti-clockwise, the way we are forced to progress). We make our way along the road for some 640m before we find the entrance to Chesters, the first of the English Heritage forts on the Wall. Be careful walking into the site since, bizarrely, there is no pavement for pedestrian visitors (I always march long the white cross-hatched area in the centre of the driveway, but that’s just me).

Chesters fort (CILVRNVM) [HB 195–209]

Plan of Chesters

Plan of Chesters

Chesters 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 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.

The 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 part of 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 some of the bleak upland (or even urban) sites.

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. 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.

The north gate and aqueduct channel

The north gate and aqueduct channel

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 (the normal configuration for Wall forts) 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. 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 either AD 181–5 or c.AD217 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.

Hadrian's Wall at the junction with Chesters fort west wall

Hadrian’s Wall at the junction with Chesters fort west wall

Having 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. The northern guard chamber has very obviously been re-used as accommodation at a later date, since it has had a hypocaust inserted to keep its inhabitants cosy (and a fragment of it remains in the north-west corner). 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.

The 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 we have so far seen 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, only one of which is not on display). We can move on to the south gate, another twin-portalled structure, but this one still retaining traces of its blocking. This may be the point at which we should note for future reference that the construction of twin-portalled gateways and the subsequent blocking of one of those portals is a common theme at Roman forts; quite why is a matter for some thought. Propped up against this one 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.

The south-east angle tower

The south-east angle tower

Moving 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.

Now 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.

Minor east gate

Minor east gate

And 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.

Main east gate and drain

Main east gate and drain

After 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).

Cross-hall and part of the courtyard in the HQ

Cross-hall and part of the courtyard in the HQ

The HQ has entrances on either side of the cross-hall, 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 examine 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.Remember those sockets for jambs at Brunton Turret? These are of the same kind.

When we are done here, we can head across the cross-hall 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. A 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 we have yet witnessed. This seems like a formidable apotropaic insurance policy. Before leaving, it is worth noting that the newly built Hadrian’s Wall was quickly demolished here in order to construct the fort and excavation on the northern edge of the HQ building found the remains of Turret 27A, removed soon after construction.

Now we can turn and head northwards, across the courtyard and out of the main entrance of the HQ, and towards the barrack buildings ahead of us.

The barracks at the time of excavation

The barracks shortly after excavation

Before 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.

We shall leave the barracks the same way we came in and 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.

Let’s carry on down the hill to the enclosure containing the baths. Before entering, we 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. This is also a good time to recall the reconstructed baths building at Wallsend which, as I pointed out at the time, is a mirror image of the one you are now looking at.

The apodyterium of the baths

The apodyterium of the baths

Down 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). This 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 caldarium (hot room). 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.

The bath-house

The bath-house

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. This 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.

The museum at Chesters

The museum at Chesters

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 the days when one of the past curators complained about birds flying around the main gallery and leaving their calling cards on the cases.

The garrisons of Chesters included the cohors I Delmatarum in the 2nd century and the ala II Asturum from the early 3rd onwards. The latter, a cavalry regiment, 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.

If peckish, we might choose to visit the cakey heaven of Lucullus’s Larder before departure and then take advantage of the English Heritage shopportunity on the way out (just remember that what you buy you have to carry), and most especially the lavatories (they are scarce beasts along the Wall).

Leaving Chesters, we turn left and cross over (carefully, naturally) to the pavement on the other side of the road. The site of Turret 27B is inaccessible to us, in the grounds of Chesters House. At the bottom of the hill the Military Road soon swings westwards, back onto the line of the Wall, to begin the climb out of the valley of the North Tyne.

As we look uphill, the curtain wall is underneath the southern carriageway of the road, with the ditch immediately north of the road, in the field to our right, and the Vallum off to the left.

The curtain wall showing through the Military Road

The curtain wall showing through the Military Road

In the 18th century, the Military Road was of course originally constructed without a tarmac surface and a famous woodcut shows one of the lower courses of the curtain wall peeping through the southern carriageway at Walwick, just to the east of Milecastle 28. It was still visible in 1907, when Maria A. Hoyer wrote ‘at this point, part of the foundation becomes visible. It gave one a thrill to look at those venerable stones; surely they merited a salute, a genuflection! The road here mounts up steeply, and the rush of the rainwater probably keeps the stones bare.’ By the time Jessie Mothersole passed here less than two decades later, the road had been tarmacked and the curtain wall was no longer visible. As we reach the point where the Trail turns right (for a rather major detour), we are opposite the site of Milecastle 28.

Milecastle 28 (Walwick) [HB 210; haiku]

This was a long-axis milecastle on the other side of the road, but there is now nothing to see.

The PLV ebooks

Wall Mile 27

Wall Mile 27 [HB 191–210]

As we look downhill, the curtain wall was underneath the southern carriageway of the road, with the ditch immediately north of the road, in the field to our left.

In the 18th century, the Military Road was of course originally constructed without a tarmac surface and a famous woodcut shows one of the lower courses of the curtain wall peeping through the southern carriageway at Walwick, just to the east of Milecastle 28. It was still visible in 1907, when Maria A. Hoyer wrote ‘at this point, part of the foundation becomes visible. It gave one a thrill to look at those venerable stones; surely they merited a salute, a genuflection! The road here mounts up steeply, and the rush of the rainwater probably keeps the stones bare.’ By the time Jessie Mothersole passed here less than two decades later, the road had been tarmacked and the curtain wall was no longer visible.

The Wall showing through the Military Road at Walwick

The Wall showing through the Military Road at Walwick

At the bottom of the hill the Military Road swings north, off the line of the Wall, to make for the bridge at Chollerford, in order to cross the North Tyne. The Wall itself just carried straight on. We will follow the modern road northwards until we come to the signposted entrance to Chesters fort (now managed by English Heritage),

Chesters with the River North Tyne from the air

Chesters with the River North Tyne from the air

The site of Turret 27B is inaccessible, in the grounds of Chesters House, whilst Turret 27A was removed soon after construction to make way for Chesters fort (it was situated under the northern edge of the headquarters building of the latter, if you must know).

Chesters from the air

Chesters from the air

Chesters fort (CILVRNVM)

Chesters 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).

The 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 tea shop, Lucullus’ Larder, 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.

The north gate

The north gate

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.

The west gate

The west gate

Having 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. The northern guard chamber has very obviously been re-used as accommodation at a later date, since it has had a hypocaust inserted to keep its inhabitants cosy (and a fragment of it remains in the north-west corner). 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.

Interval tower

Interval tower

The 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.

A three-legged lewis (Wikimedia)

A three-legged lewis (Wikimedia)

What 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.

Moving 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.

The SE angle tower

The SE angle tower

Now 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.

The minor E gate

The minor E gate

And 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.

Hypocaust in the CO's house

Hypocaust in the CO’s house

After 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).

Side entrance to the HQ building

Side entrance to the HQ building

As 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?).

Underground strongroom in the HQ building

Underground strongroom in the HQ building

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.

The well in the HQ courtyard

The well in the HQ courtyard

A 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 we have yet witnessed. 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.

Phallic charm in the HQ courtyard

Phallic charm in the HQ courtyard

Before 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.

The barracks under excavation

The barracks under excavation

Exit 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.

The baths

The baths

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. This is also a good time to fix the baths building in your mind, because when we get to Wallsend we are going to see a reconstruction of it (albeit a mirror image, just to make your brain hurt a little bit).

The apodyterium with its niches

The apodyterium with its niches

Down 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).

Jambs, threshold, and pivot hole in the sudatorium

Jambs, threshold, and pivot hole in the sudatorium

This 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.

The hot plunge bath and its window

The hot plunge bath and its window

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.

The north end of the baths

The north end of the baths

This 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.

Chesters museum

Chesters 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.

The 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.

As we leave Chesters, we must cross the Military Road again (because there is a pavement on the far side) and walk northwards towards Chollerford. At the roundabout, we follow the signs across two roads until we finally get to the modern bridge. There was a medieval predecessor just downstream, but it is the Roman prototype even further away to which we now turn our attention.

On the far side of the bridge there is a small gate on the south side of the road and that leads to a path that takes us along the side of the old railway line to the Roman bridge abutment, a distance of about 800m if you must know.

Chesters bridge abutment

Chesters bridge abutment

Chesters bridge abutment

The 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.

A pier of the Hadrianic bridge embedded in the later abutment

A pier of the Hadrianic bridge embedded in the later abutment

The bridge abutment phallic symbol

The bridge abutment phallic symbol

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.

Decorative column lying on the abutment

Decorative column lying on the abutment

Milecastle 27 (Low Brunton) [HB 191; haiku]

Milecastle 27 (Low Brunton) lies isolated in the middle of agricultural land, but occasionally peeps out on aerial photographs. It was excavated in 1930 and 1952 and found to be of the long axis type. The finds were paltry, just one piece of undatable pottery.

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Wall Mile 48

Wall Mile 48 [HB 285–91]

Wall 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 49 and 48) and both intervening turrets (Turrets 48b and a), as well as substantial lengths of ditch in various states of preservation.

The Wall and ditch just above the Irthing Gorge

The Wall and ditch just above the Irthing Gorge

Before continuing along the Trail and down the track, we can take the time to examine the short stretch of wall and ditch between the milecastle and the gorge. Originally more survived, but the river has eaten into the hillside over the years removing all trace of how Hadrian’s Wall originally negotiated the west bank of the river. Large amounts of the spoil excavated from Birdoswald were dumped down here, only to be carried away again by landslips. Looking back towards the west, the original line of the Turf Wall was that followed by the Stone Wall in this sector and the Irthing gorge was the easternmost extent of that rampart.

The curtain wall (and the Military Way) crossed the river by means of a bridge, the remains of which we shall inspect in a short while. First, the Trail wends its way down the hillside to the floodplain of the Irthing, which it crosses by means of the (intentionally rusty) Millennium Bridge. Follow the path along, through the kissing gate, and only then does it bring you to the eastern abutment of the Roman bridge at Willowford.

Willowford Bridge abutment

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.

The bridge abutment, with the later masonry to the left

The bridge abutment, with the later masonry to the left

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.

The later tower and repairs to the curtain wall

The later tower and repairs to the curtain wall

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.

The curtain wall running to Willowford bridge abutent

The curtain wall running to Willowford bridge abutent

Continuing 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.

Willowford centurial inscription

Willowford centurial inscription

As the curtain wall ascends the river terrace, note how the coursing is kept level whilst the footings tend to follow the contours. Once we reach the top, the 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.

Turret 48b (Willowford West)

Turret 48b

Turret 48b

Now, the path (by means of a rather elaborate timber edifice, designed to stop visitors walking on – and damaging – the remains of the curtain wall itself) delivers you to Turret 48b, which 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. Before we move on, 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 will become more readily apparent once we reach Turret 48a (thus providing an incentive to be moving on).

The Trail to the south of the curtain wall and the track in the ditch

The Trail to the south of the curtain wall and the track in the ditch

As we follow the Trail immediately south of the curtain wall (and yes, you are not wrong, it is a bit cramped, especially if we encounter walkers coming the other way: footpath people call this a ‘pinch-point’), we can look to the right at the farm track, which is at this point within the Wall ditch. We shall see roads and tracks using the ditch again before our journey is complete. The curtain Wall itself is now 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. Soon the farm track crosses the line of the curtain wall to continue behind it and the curtain wall runs along the edge of the Irthing gorge.

Short length of curtain wall next to the track

Short length of curtain wall next to the track

As we join the track, we can still see the ditch off to our left, beyond the drystone wall. Before very long we find a short length of the curtain wall. Walking around to its northern side reveals just how much of it survives and shows off the offset footing courses rather nicely. Both the ditch and part of the curtain wall have been destroyed by the ingress of river bank erosion for a short distance, but we soon encounter another stretch of the wall leading up to Turret 48a.

Turret 48a (Willowford East)

Turret 48a

Turret 48a

Turret 48a, also excavated in 1923, similarly survives up to seven courses in height and we may observe that its entrance is on the western side of the southern wall. Since this turret is easier to understand than 48b, unencumbered as it is by fences and destroyed walls, it is time for a bit of wall width exposition.

What is interesting about this turret from our point of view is that it betrays something of the way in which the curtain wall was constructed. We noted the wall at Willowford abutment was built to what is known as the broad gauge (10Rft or 2.74–2.97m) and immediately to the east reduced in width, whilst still on broad foundations. Turret 48a is also constructed to that same broad gauge, as are short lengths of curtain wall on either side (known as ‘wing walls’), but then the width of the curtain is similarly reduced to only 8Rft, sitting on a broad foundation. We can conclude from this that a) the foundations of the stone wall were built separately to the superstructure; b) Turrets 48b and a (and probably the abutment) were started independently of the curtain wall on either side; and c) somebody had changed their mind about how wide the curtain wall needed to be to do its job and that they had done this after the foundations, some of the superstructure, and some of the features (in this case the turret and abutment) had already been constructed.

The old vicarage and its length of wall

The old vicarage and its length of wall

When we reach the end of this section, we must cross the road and look for the Trail path to the right of the school. The final section of curtain wall in this mile actually lies to the left of the school but, although it is in Guardianship (or ‘in care’ as they like to say these days, making it sound more than a little delinquent). It is on private land next to the dilapidated (but allegedly still occupied) old vicarage where Hunter Davies stayed when he walked the Wall and cannot, unfortunately, be visited. It can however be seen at a distance as you climb towards the railway crossing, as can the depression of the ditch to the north of it, and it is apparent how the railway embankment passes over the Wall and effectively masks the original lie of the land (the curtain wall climbs abruptly beneath that embankment). Once the path reaches it, take care crossing the railway line.

Milecastle 48 (Poltross Burn) [HB 285–7; haiku]

Milecastle 48

Milecastle 48

With the appetite whetted by Milecastle 49 and Turrets 48b and 48a, there is now the opportunity to examine Milecastle 48, one of the best preserved along the line of the Wall. First excavated in 1886, and then subsequently in 1909 and 1911 (and again in 1965 and 1966), it is perched rather precariously behind and sloping down towards the curtain wall. Its own perimeter wall joins the curtain perpendicularly (and is bonded to it), but its southern corners are rounded as Roman fortifications of the 2nd century AD usually were. On the eastern side (and on the western, but no longer visible) is a short wing wall similar to those on Turrets 48a and 48b, confirming that the milecastle had been built to the broad gauge before the (now narrow) curtain wall reached it. Here it differs radically from its later neighbour, Milecastle 49, which, as we have seen, was built after the curtain wall.

There are two internal structures, aligned on either side of the roadway that passes between the gates, the northernmost of which, rather excitingly, led out into Barbaricum (these days represented by the side of the embankment of the Newcastle to Carlisle railway). The north gate is well preserved and is of a type (III, if you must know) that scholars have suggested mean it was constructed by legio VI Victrix. The gate was subsequently narrowed to only allow pedestrian access, as happened at other milecastles.

Within the milecastle, a north–south road way ran between the north and south gates and on either side of it were structures thought to be barrack buildings. The slope is rather extreme and the floors were probably levelled up on joists inside. It is thought that the milecastle garrisons were outposted from neighbouring forts, in order to provide the manpower to patrol the Wall and man the turrets. ‘Thought’ because, in the absence of direct evidence from Hadrian’s Wall itself, we have to use comparisons with other provinces, where we know outposting was practised widely.

Remains of the oven

Remains of the oven

In the north-east corner are the remains of the oven used for cooking (the Roman army preferred to keep their celebrity chefs at arm’s length), so it is in the equivalent position to ovens in larger forts and fortresses. Roman ovens worked like a traditional pizza oven: the fabric is heated by inserting hot embers which are then raked out and the food to be cooked (mostly bread) placed inside. Carbonised Roman bread (as well as wall paintings of the uncarbonised original) is known from Pompeii, but as yet no pizza.

The steps

The steps

Milecastle 48 also provides another important fact that sheds some (but not quite enough) light upon our understanding of the Wall. This is the survival of a staircase in its north-east corner. Only the lowest three (and part of a fourth) steps actually survive, but by projecting their line upwards, it is possible to deduce that the wall-walk height here must have been in the region of 12 Rft (3.55m). The astute observer will note that the stairs were constructed after the north and east walls of the milecastle, since it butts against and is not bonded with them (the coursing of the facing stones is different).

The eastern 'wing wall' of Milecastle 48

The eastern ‘wing wall’ of Milecastle 48

This then leads on to the question of whether the curtain wall had a walkway along the whole length of its top, or just in select places, such as round the perimeter of the milecastle defences. Scholars can be found who favour either; the evidence is suitably and intriguingly ambivalent; but, in the end, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. Those brought up on a diet of Alan Sorrell illustrations, with a crenellated Wall striding across the crags, wind-blown Roman soldiers atop it warily eyeing distant squalls, find it hard to escape the image, even though we know other contemporary frontiers (notably those in Germany) had no such feature and modern military walls (like the Berlin Wall or the coyly named Security Fence around the West Bank in Palestine) get by quite happily without being patrolled from the top. No certainties there, then, but there are many who would argue that the Wall only makes sense with a walkway.