Wall Mile 49 [HB 291–309]
Regardless of whether we are following the Trail (which soon dives downhill to join the Stone Wall after passing Milecastle 50 TW) or walking along the road, our paths now (almost) unite on either side of a section of consolidated curtain wall. Having had our interest piqued by the short stretch on either side of Banks East Turret, this is the first substantial length of curtain wall to be encountered when walking from west to east, but it is rather unusual compared to much of the rest of the Stone Wall. This is because, as we have just realised, it is not built on the line of the Turf Wall, which runs up to 200m to the south (at the Milecastles 50), and was constructed shortly before Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned in favour of the Antonine Wall in the AD 140s, being built to the narrow, rather than intermediate, gauge. At the western end, this stretch of curtain wall has been damaged on its northern face by the road but, by the time it reaches Turret 49b (Birdoswald), its full width is intact.
Stone Wall leading to Birdoswald
For those who have opted to follow the Turf Wall, this consolidated section of stone wall and its turret can still be reached from the Trail by climbing over the stile at Turret 49b. Some 12m west of the turret, on the top course of the south face of the curtain wall, the first of three phallic symbols in this wall mile can be seen. The turret, the entrance to which is on the right, is bonded to the curtain wall – in contrast to those already seen (52a, 51b and 51a) – and was never free-standing. Since it is on the Intermediate Wall, it was constructed after those to the east of the Irthing and before the move to the Antonine Wall. It was first excavated in 1911 and consolidated for display in 1953–5.
Heading west, we may note in passing a number of drains through the wall at ground level before reaching a gap where a section has been removed many years ago around the entrance to the field. There is another damaged section further on, this time with a disguised stile incorporated, so the wall can be crossed if wished to see the remnants of the ditch to the north of the road. This section terminates near Birdoswald fort, where the old farm access track runs across the line of the wall and the corner of the fort has been neatly rounded off when a ditch was run all round the fort. However, at ground level, the foundations of the junction of the wall and the fort is still visible; the wall butts against the fort as the stone fort pre-dates the construction of the stone wall.
A hidden stile
Birdoswald fort (BANNA)
The Turf Wall originally strode across the site of the fort at Birdoswald unhindered. When the decision to add forts was made, it is fairly certain (although not yet proven) that the first here was constructed in turf and timber, flattening the Turf Wall rampart and Turret 49a TW, and filling in the ditch. That first fort seems to have been slightly smaller than the stone one we see today, for when the Vallum was built, it avoided the southern end of it with a slight detour, although not enough to avoid successfully the stone fort defences. So much for the early fort, which we can’t even see, but it is time for a brief tour of the stone one, which is admirably apparent.
The Trail guides us up the western side, amongst some trees, and along the northern defences of the fort, on the road to the English Heritage entrance. After entering and paying, another door takes us into a courtyard. Public conveniences are to the right, the museum to the left. Entering the museum at ground level there is an audiovisual presentation in a room to the right whilst the stairs take us up to the main gallery, through a reconstruction of a turret. There are various items of interest here, but at the far end of the gallery, just before the exit, note the ‘stuffed archaeologist’, a passable likeness of Tony Wilmott, director of excavations here since the 1980s and even rumoured to be wearing one of his old wax jackets.
Exiting the museum, we make for the path to the right of the youth hostel and this leads to the west gate (porta principalis sinistra) of the fort. A causeway pierced by a drain crosses the fort ditch, bringing a road through the one surviving gate portal; the other, to the right of it, is blocked. The blocking of twin-portalled gateways will become a theme for our journey along the Wall. To the right of the blocked gateway is some very fine masonry, about the only true example of ashlar masonry you will see on this trip. Most of the stonework on Hadrian’s Wall is what masons term ‘squared rubble’ so this piece is rather special and it has been suggested that it may originally have been part of some sort of commemorative monument constructed here. Crossing the causeway, we can see that the guardroom to the left has been given underfloor heating in its later years, whilst the blocked portal to our right has also been used as a room. When excavated, the Turf Wall ditch was found here, carefully backfilled with rubble.
Once inside the fort, it is important to understand that, for display purposes, the later years of the fort’s occupation have been emphasised. This is not unreasonable, for Birdoswald is especially interesting, in that it demonstrates continuity of occupation from the Roman period, through the early medieval and medieval fortified settlements, right up to modern times and its earlier life as a working farm and subsequent career as a visitor attraction.
Time for a whirlwind tour of a generic Roman fort. All forts had a tee-shaped main road system, with the via principalis running across the fort and the via praetoria running from the main gate (usually on the northern side for Hadrian’s Wall forts) to the headquarters building. In addition, these were all linked by the via sagularis, which ran right the way round the inside of the defences. Key to the way Roman forts operated was their zoning into three parts: a central range of buildings contained the commanding officer’s house, store buildings (often now called granaries), and in the centre a headquarters building. The other two thirds, at either end, were mainly occupied by barracks and (where appropriate) stables. Sundry utilities (cooking facilities, latrines, workshops etc) were scattered around the periphery of a fort. Now you know Roman forts: they are all the same; except they’re not. But we’ll come to that later. Let’s just compromise on ‘they’re all similar’.
At Birdoswald, the two granaries – which are on the right, to the south of the via principalis – were found to have been demolished and overlain by a large timber hall in the post-Roman period and the positions of its main uprights are marked by post stubs. The granaries (horrea) themselves are of a type seen throughout the Roman empire: buttressed outer walls, elevated floors (raised above ground level on dwarf walls or short columns), and loading platforms at one (or even both) ends. The headquarters building (principia) and commanding officer’s house (praetorium) have not been fully excavated and are visible only as (in the words of one former chairman of English Heritage) humps and bumps in the ground. Having admired the granaries, we may now pass through one of the pair of modern gates and turn right, heading for the south gateway.
South gate at Birdoswald
Both portals of the southern gateway are open, although when originally excavated in 1851 the eastern was found to be blocked and converted into a room. Examination of the portals shows that the pairs of door leaves originally opened inwards and were stopped against a threshold over which wheeled traffic had to bump, a bit like ‘sleeping policemen’, the wheels often wearing ruts in the raised part of the threshold. Roman gates were also not hinged, but rather pivoted, which made them much stronger: whilst a hinge would have had to be nailed to a wooden gate leaf, pivots were integral to its fabric. These pivots were then inserted into socket stones, one at the top and one at the bottom, the lower of the two usually having a channel to enable the pivot to be slid into place. The pivot was fixed by means of an iron ring placed around it which was then cemented to the pivot stone by means of molten lead. We shall see such pivot stones several times on our journey (look on either side of the portals now), but when we get to Benwell we will actually see one of these iron rings still in situ.
Passing out of the southern gateway we now find ourselves standing on a promontory above the gorge of the River Irthing. When excavated, a Roman encampment was found, complete with preserved fragments of wood and leather (it was one of the first sites where pieces of Roman tent leather were identified), and it has been suggested that it may have belonged to troops building the Turf Wall.The Vallum swerved around the south end of the fort and a causeway with a gate was discovered during the excavations: there is nothing to see now but, as just hinted, we will be inspecting an example at Benwell, later in our journey.
Returning to the fort defences, we take the path to the right and pass around the south-east corner of the fort (rounded, as they all are on the Wall). As we head north along the eastern wall, ahead of us is a section of tumbled curtain wall, frozen in the act of tumbling outwards. Excavation showed that this was in fact a reconstruction of a previously fallen length; the botched reconstruction of failed structures is another recurring theme on Hadrian’s Wall. Beyond the tumbled length of wall, take a close look at the upstanding section to the north of it, particularly the coursing of the stones. It is clear how the construction of the wall was split into stints, a feature that is known from other Roman sites such as the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts at Pevensey and Richborough, and it is likely that each stint was the responsibility of one work gang.
East gate at Birdoswald
Moving on to the east gate, we can see that the northernmost jamb survives to the height of the springer for its arch. Again, excavation in 1852 revealed that the north portal was blocked. So why build all those twin-portalled gates only to block one gate on each? We don’t know, but it may be that use showed that only one was needed or desirable.
Time to head back to the exit and be on our way once more. Shopportunities await the acquisitional in the English Heritage retail outlet on the way out, but remember: what you buy you are going to have to carry.
To avoid the road, the Trail briefly weaves through a small plantation and, as it passes over the eastern fort defences, we may look down to our right and see a circular post-medieval corn-drying kiln set into the Roman wall. Before passing through the kissing gate, we can walk a little way down the path towards the car park and admire the length of Wall that is exposed on our right, weirdly sculpted right back into its core by the combination of its former role as a field boundary and the action of some large tree roots that had to be removed when it was consolidated in the 1950s. As you look eastwards, the ditch is clearly visible in front of the wall. We may now return to that kissing gate and head along the south side of this same curtain wall.
The curtain wall east of Birdoswald
East of Birdoswald, this fine stretch of curtain wall continues as far as the edge of the Irthing gorge. When consolidated by the Ministry of Works masons, this section produced numerous building inscriptions, many of which are now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, although some have been left in situ. It also revealed two further phallic symbols on the south face; if the same density found in this Wall Mile were repeated for the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, there might originally have been around 350 along the Wall. The first phallic symbol occurs 10m east of the western end of the field wall parallel to the curtain wall, just before a culvert through the wall. The culvert is interesting, since it is additional to the normal ground-level drains that can be seen in this Wall Mile and whilst it may have been designed to cope with a spring which is no longer evident (which seems unlikely), it may have served to debouch a sewer from an as-yet-unidentified extramural building into the ditch to the north. A building inscription (RIB 3434) is preserved in the top surviving course at 35m from the end of that field wall and another (RIB 3427) is found at 110m. There are two more (RIB 3426 and 3425) at 130m and 140m respectively. Finally, the third of the Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols occurs at 193m.
Just before the wall reaches Milecastle 49, it changes alignment slightly and this is the point where the Turf and Stone Walls converge once more. The Turf Wall ran in a straight line from here towards the main east–west street (via principalis) of Birdoswald fort (it pre-dated the fort, as we have seen).
Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) [HB 291–3; haiku]
Much of the interior of Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) has been removed by the modern track which passes through it, but this is the first consolidated milecastle encountered when walking from west to east. It therefore provides our first real opportunity to get the measure of one of these fortlets, although it is not as informative as its neighbour, Milecastle 48, which we will reach soon. The main structure inside the milecastle is part of a medieval farmstead, recalling just how many milecastle sites came to serve as a farm. 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 we get to the next milecastle. The modern farm track does not use the Roman gateway, which is just to the west of it.