Driving Hadrian’s Wall: the Main Car Parks V (Housesteads)

Housesteads (NNP)

Coordinates: N55.009974, W2.322925 Facilities: toilets, picnic spot, refreshments, visitor centre

Housesteads car park is not only well-signposted on the B6318 (the Military Road) travelling from both the east and west, it is right next to the road, although – situated on a bend and at a slight crest – it can appear suddenly. This is another of the Northumberland National Park car parks for which a season ticket can be acquired; an ordinary ticket bought from the machine here can be used on that day at any of the other National Park car parks along the Wall.

Advice

Always be aware of the possibility of thieves operating in the car park. Follow signs for the Hadrian’s Wall Path to access sites to either side of Housesteads. Stout footwear is advisable. Access to the fort and museum is by a paved path.

Housesteads car parkZone 3 (1km)

1. Housesteads museum and fort

2. Curtain wall Wall Mile 36

3. Knag Burn gateway

Zone 4 (2km)

4. Milecastle 37

5. Cuddy’s Crags classic viewpoint

6. Curtain wall Rapishaw Gap

7. Milecastle 36

8. Busy Gap ditch

Zone 5 (3km)

9. Curtain wall on Sewingshields Crags

10. Sewingshields Turret

11. Sewingshields Milecastle

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Wall Mile 36

Wall Mile 36 [HB 231–50]

We now descend into another gap, climb another hill, and then start to head gently downwards along Kennel Crags towards the plantation that precedes the valley of the Knag Burn. The Military Way is with us to the south (indicated by a broad grassy swathe for the most part). Further down the dip slope is the Vallum, die-straight as ever. Near the plantation, a hint of ditch survives to the north of the field wall, but it has not been identified over the rest of the Knag Burn valley, even though it might have been anticipated. Out the other side of the wood and we can now see the Roman gateway near the Knag Burn stream itself.

Heading towards the Knag Burn valley

Heading towards the Knag Burn valley

The valley of the Knag Burn was not only the site of the bath-house for Housesteads but also a lime kiln (neither now visible) and that gateway through the Wall. Do not go through the modern gate; stay on the southern side if you wish to inspect Housesteads (why wouldn’t you?!), but first let’s cast an eye over the gateway.

Knag Burn Gateway [HB 232]

The Knag Burn gateway with Housesteads beyond

The Knag Burn gateway with Housesteads beyond

The gateway, thought to have been built during the 4th century and examined in the mid-19th century, consists of two towers, one on either side of a single portal. As such, it is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give us a clue what the gateways on Roman roads at Carlisle, Portgate, and (possibly) Newcastle looked like. This, however, is not on a major road, but rather a minor route, perhaps a pre-existing transhumance route. Interestingly, there were two sets of pivot holes and it has been suggested that two sets of gates were in use at the same time. Clearly, there may have been other gates along the Wall which have not as yet been found.

Keeping to the south side of the fort, we can pass round the outside of the south-east corner of the fort and make our way through the excavated civil settlement to the museum to get our tickets. On the way, examine the outer face of the fort wall and note the long Crunchie-bar-like blocks typical of late rebuilding: this is one heavily patched fort!

The recently refurbished museum has a small video presentation, a compact display about the site incorporating some of the finds (including a thoroughly well-selected case dealing with the military equipment; just thought I’d mention it…), as well as a bijou shopportunity.

Housesteads fort (VERCOVICIVM) [HB 233–49]

Housesteads fort

Housesteads fort

By dint of visitor numbers alone, Housesteads is the best-known and most popular Roman fort in Britain, and with good reason. For many, it is Hadrian’s Wall. It lies 7.6km (4.75 miles) from Carrawburgh, but only 3.2km (2 miles) from the Stanegate fort of Vindolanda (the older name for which, Chesterholm, is seldom used now). It is oriented east to west, in order to fit it into the limited available space at the end of the dolerite ridge above the gap through which the Knag Burn flows. As it is, it occupies 2ha (5 acres) and still slopes quite considerably inside.

There was no ready source of fresh water within the fort, although there is the Knag Burn down the hill which supplied the bath-house down there. Therefore, quite unusually for a British fort and more in keeping with its cousins in Jordan or Syria, Housesteads was dependent upon the collection of run-off from roofs and road surfaces, so great attention was paid to the provision of water tanks. This in turn allowed the flushing of the latrine building in the south-east corner of the fort.

Housesteads from the air

Housesteads from the air

The garrison was the cohors I Tungrorum milliaria, which moved there from Vindolanda (the Tungri originated west of the Rhine, around the Ardennes). It was later supplemented by a cuneus Frisiorum and the numerus Hnaudifridi, both quite clearly Germanic in origin. The depiction of an archer on a sculpted panel from Housesteads (now in the Great North Museum, so we can see it later) has led to the suggestion that a detachment of cohors I Hamiorum (who we know were based in the Stanegate fort of Carvoran) may have been based there at some point (and they came from Hamah in Syria).

From the museum, we can make our way to the entrance to the fort (which has recently reverted to the south gate, after many years of being through a gap in the south wall near the south-west corner), but should pause briefly on the way to look at the exterior of the south-west corner, noting those Crunchie-bar-shaped blocks of stone that were used to repair it in the late Roman period.

The first thing to observe about this double-portalled gateway is that it has been adapted and the east tower has acquired an additional structure, since this was a fortified medieval farm, notorious in its day for the unruly nature of its inhabitants, as well as a corn dryer in its eastern tower. The south gate itself had its east portal blocked (and the blocking removed by 19th-century excavators). The central pier (or spina) between the portals contains two fine examples of pivot holes for the gates, each with channels to allow the gate leaf to be fitted. Looking up the hill from the gate, we are looking along the via principalis (the main short-axis street) from the porta principalis dextra (or south gate) towards the porta principalis sinistra (or north gate, which we can’t actually see because of the shape of the hill). So now it is time to go exploring the central range, since this is the first fort we have encountered that will let us explore all three principal components.

Courtyard of the CO's house

Courtyard of the CO’s house

First, on our left-hand side, we see the commanding officer’s house (praetorium). Although it conforms to the Mediterranean-style, high-status courtyard dwelling, it is a radically unusual example: the awkward terrain has forced its builders to terrace it into the hillside. The south-eastern corner contained a stable, whilst the east and west wings climb up the slope to the north wing, which is considerably higher than the south and has been taken to imply a second storey at the lower level (thereby pre-empting the medieval Borderers’ habit of living above their animals). The courtyard in the centre is worth a look, as it has been paved in a late phase with still more Crunchie-bar-shaped blocks and even bits of window head (monolithic blocks with a semi-circular cut-out, imitating an arch, that acted as lintels above window openings): heritage hardcore as crazy paving. The north range has a series of rooms with underfloor heating, something of a prerequisite for this area in a winter, but actually a common feature in commanding officers’ houses everywhere. The commander and his familia (his slaves being included within that term) lived and worked within those four ranges of rooms, socially delineated, functionally adapted, and decidedly terraced.

The HQ building

The HQ building

Now we move uphill to the principia. The headquarters building is a fine example of its kind. Entering from the main north to south street (the via principalis, if you recall), we enter the first of the three components of this building: the courtyard. Open to the elements, but surrounded by a peristyle, it harked back to the days when the centre of a Roman camp was its forum, where the soldiers could assemble. The Romans had no gutters on roofs, so there was an eavesdrip round the courtyard which channelled the run-off into the drainage system. Moving westwards, we proceed into the cross-hall, a high covered structure with additional entrances at each end (to our left and right). To our right is the raised podium or tribunal (yes, that’s where we get the English word from) from which the commander could address his troops, or more likely, his centurions at the daily morning briefing (for which we have documentary evidence from other sites), when the daily password was set and unit statistics passed on. Beyond is the rear range of offices, with the shrine of the standards, the aedes principiorum, directly in front of us. This is placed so that it is visible from the porta praetoria, in this case behind us, to the east. Offices on either side of the aedes contained the clerks who handled unit administration and looked after the records.

The hospital at Housesteads

The hospital at Housesteads

Immediately to the west of the headquarters building is an additional courtyard structure. Since another house seemed unlikely, the excavators decided this must have been a valetudinarium or hospital. All forts had them (the example at Vindolanda is mentioned in the famous writing tablets) so it is not an unreasonable deduction, although the evidence (similarity with other, larger, such structures) is circumstantial, rather than conclusive (like, say, a lopped-off limb or two or a set of medical implements). Rooms were arranged on four sides around a courtyard, one of them suggested as an operating theatre (it is bigger than the others), and with a latrine incorporated in the south-west corner of the structure.

The west end of the granaries

The west end of the granaries

The fort had two granaries, to the north of the HQ, but they are rather unusual, since it has been suggested they may originally have constituted one large structure. A central row of column bases, subsequently concealed between the north wall of the south granary, and the south one of its northern neighbour, are one clue, whilst those two butted partitions, inserted between the end walls, are another. If we stand at the west end of the northern granary, in its doorway, there are a number of useful things we can note. To the east is the interior, with its floor (long gone now) raised on small stone columns or pilae; these, together with the ventilator slots in the side walls, allowed air to circulate beneath the floor to keep the contents cool and (it is always said) discourage (but not necessarily completely defeat) vermin. The threshold upon which we are standing is in fact a loading platform, against which carts could be backed up, so that gives us a good idea of street level here in the Roman period. Looking down, you can see that sockets and openings reveal that there were once two inward-opening doors here. If feeling energetic, we can nip round to the south side of the south granary to see more evidence of the adaptation of this fort building into a medieval farm: another corn dryer in the middle of it.

Just north of the granaries, beyond another store building squeezed into the available space, we find the remains of Turret 37b, demolished (along with a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall) once it was decided to construct Housesteads. The north wall of the fort was pushed further north, right to the lip of the slope, to gain as much room as possible, hence the need to level the existing curtain wall.

The levelled remains of Turret 36b and the curtain wall

The levelled remains of Turret 36b and the curtain wall

The north gate now has an imposing drop below its external threshold, but this is a result of a causeway having been removed during the 19th-century excavations. We can stand near the edge and look at the usual attributes of a gateway, most notably marking-out lines which facilitate the placing of the massive opus quadratum blocks of the gate piers and jambs.

The north gate from the exterior

The north gate from the exterior

Between the north gate and the north-east corner, the Romans suffered repeated problems with the stability of the wall now that it was placed nearer the edge of the slope. This was compounded by the habit of removing the rampart to insert rampart-back buildings like workshops, then demolishing them and putting the rampart back! Anyway, several collapses later, they started reinforcing the back of the much-abused rampart, the back of which (marked now by lines of kerb stones) crept ever further across the road towards the barrack. What started out with room to drive a cart along ended up barely wide enough for a single person to get through. Excavations showed those workshops were busy working with leather (mainly cobbling, since the water tanks ended up full of old shoes, betrayed by their hobnails), blacksmithing, and casting copper-alloy equipment.

The ever-narrowing north-east rampart

The ever-narrowing north-east rampart

Things had also gone a bit wrong at the north-east corner of the fort at a very early stage. Placing the angle tower in the correct position meant, inconveniently, that it was not at the junction with Hadrian’s Wall itself (one wonders at which point this was noticed!), so that was demolished and a new tower placed slightly to the west of it. This speaks volumes about how the whole story of the Wall was one of adaptation (or fudge, the unkind might observe).

Barrack XIII

Barrack XIII

Two barrack buildings, XIII and XIV, have been consolidated in their late ‘chalet’ form, with each contubernium in the form of a separate hut, but more standard long barracks were located beneath them and some of the walls were reused in the later versions. The officers’ buildings were at the east end of the buildings and one of them contained a piece of a hackamore from a horse harness (on display in the museum). Next to Barrack XIV, to the south, was Building XV, originally a storehouse and later adapted to contain a small bath-house. Note those Crunchie-bar-shaped stones yet again used in its reconstruction. East of the two barracks is a late interval tower, but that is perched (rather precariously) on top of a larger Hadrianic bakehouse that was found to contain two circular bread ovens (which you can no longer see), presumably one for each barrack.

Intact blocking in the east gate

Intact blocking in the east gate

The east gate has a potent piece of folk mythology associated with it, the ruts in the threshold block supposedly influencing the Standard Gauge of 4ft 8½in (1.435m) adopted by Stephenson for his railways. The debunking of this myth is done with the aid of horses’ bottoms (naturally). The axle width of a cart is dictated by the need to comfortably fit a horse into the poles; hence modern carts resemble Roman carts in a lot of details, including axle width. Since railways evolved out of the horse-drawn waggonway carts that hauled coal along Tyneside from mine to staithe, also one horse’s width, we have our equally interesting, but less romantic, answer: it’s a coincidence.

Moving on downhill, we see the remains of an ascensus or stairway to the south of the east gate. This is one of the means by which soldiers got onto the rampart walkway. Next there is another interval tower before we reach the heavily modified south-east corner tower and its attendant facilities.

The latrine building in the SE corner

The latrine building in the SE corner

This corner provides everybody’s favourite bit of Housesteads: the latrine. This much-sniggered-over piece of functional engineering was flushed by water held in the large header tank with the scalloped edges, the water passing clockwise around the inner channel so that soldiers’ sponge sticks could be rinsed, and then anti-clockwise around the sewer beneath the seating space, finally debouching through an arched outlet straight into the civil settlement. Property prices in that area were probably rock-bottom. The scalloping around the tank has caused some comment, it often being suggested that this was caused by soldiers sharpening blades (unlikely, since hones, found by the dozen in the fort, were a much more efficient way of doing that). It may instead have been caused by washing clothes, the slight downward trend of the ‘scallops’ being a possible indication of this. Like much of life, if you have to sum up Hadrian’s Wall (and certainly Housesteads), you can probably do it with this latrine.

Now, how keen are you on gates? For the sake of completeness, you should see the splendid west gate on the far side of the fort but we shall be understanding if you decided to skip this part of the tour; we can leave you sitting morosely on part of the site (assuming it’s not raining, which it does quite a lot at Housesteads). Two portals again, both ultimately blocked (the northern first, it is suggested), and the north pier surviving to the height of the arch springer. Slots can still be found to secure the gates, as can the usual sockets, threshold blocks, and more marking-out lines.

Outside the fort are some of the vicus buildings. Next to the south gate is the House of the Beneficarius [sic] (yes, there were even spelling errors on old Ministry of Works signs), and further down the hill is the inspiringly named Murder House (you’ll never guess what happened there: two Roman bodies under a newly laid floor, one with the tip of a blade between the ribs). Don’t make the mistake of thinking the circular well enclosure is Roman; that belongs to Housesteads’ long history as a farmstead, rather than a Roman fascination with building circular structures with no apparent entrance.

If you’re hungry for more, you can find further photos of Housesteads here.

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

A chance to walk on Hadrian's Wall

A chance to walk on Hadrian’s Wall

Before long, we come down off the wall and exit the plantation. Now, just a short cavort up a bit of a hill, we stumble across Milecastle 37.

Milecastle 37 (Housesteads) [HB 250–4; haiku]

Milecastle 37

Milecastle 37

Milecastle 37 is perhaps the most visited, by dint of the fact it is closest to Housesteads (which enjoys the highest visitor numbers for Hadrian’s Wall), and is within staggering distance for the more adventurous car-bound visitor. It is presented in the same Claytonized form as the curtain wall on either side, facing stones reconstructed up to a regular height and topped with turf. It has been excavated four times between the middle of the 19th and end of the 20th centuries and, quite apart from offering an excellent sheltered location for a walker’s lunch, provides our first insight into the nature of the milecastle.

Beginning with the north gate, we can see that the reduction in width to pedestrian access is still in place. Comments are occasionally made that it is daft to provide gateways for some of the milecastle along the crags, but access would have been needed along the front of the curtain wall and ditch for the purposes of maintenance and many afforded some sort of rudimentary route to the north, the pedestrian blocking being a recognition of the fact that this was probably usually not by wheeled vehicle. In fact, the most recent excavation showed how partial collapse of the north gate led to its being blocked soon after construction and only opened up for pedestrian access at a later date. The lowest two voussoirs of the southern arch of the north gate are still in place on either side, but the others have been replaced in recent times for effect (a drawing of 1879 by James Irwin Coates shows those two springers, as they are known, in situ).

There is one internal building, east of the central north–south roadway, whilst the only excavated sign of a western structure here was a couple of hearths.

The interior and north gate of Milecastle 37

The interior and north gate of Milecastle 37

The south gate is less well-preserved than its northern companion but still stands to an impressive height and shows the use of responds on either side of the gate itself. ‘What’s a respond?’ you cry; it’s the sticky-out bit on either side of the jamb (upright) of the doorway. Why would you care about responds? Because they are one of the identifying factors that distinguishes the three (or four) types of milecastle gateway (which scholars think mark construction work by different legions). What do they do? They carry the archway over the gate; so now you know.

Wall Mile 22

Wall Mile 22 [HB 184–5]

We cross the drystone wall, and head west up the old line of the Military Road (the modern road has to been ‘realigned’ to provide a safer, curving approach to the Portgate Roundabout). The Trail sneaks through the bushes and up the verge, but you may choose to experience walking the line of the curtain wall up this strangely disused stretch of road.

The old Military Road with the Errington Arms in the distance

The old Military Road with the Errington Arms in the distance

The Trail now crosses Dere Street (Margary 8, if you are inordinately fond of Roman roads), more prosaically these days known as the A68, where we must exercise extreme caution once more, as vehicles exit (and approach) the roundabout extremely quickly.

The Port Gate [HB 184]

The site of the Port Gate gateay

The site of the Port Gate gateway

Dere Street passed through the Wall by means of a gateway. This tends to be known as the Port Gate, but in reality the name pre-dates the discovery of the gateway by several centuries, probably deriving from the fact that, in medieval times, the old Roman road was used to carry (‘port’) goods (especially livestock) along the road (‘gate’) to Stagshaw Fair, just to the south. Gate is one of those words that occurs in both Norse (gata) and Anglo-Saxon (geat) and, having the same root, means ‘road’ or ‘street’ (as well as the more obvious ‘gate’): think Gateshead – which, pace Bede, has nothing to do with goats, but which was also on a (largely goat-free) Roman road (would you like to know that it was Margary 80? I thought not).

Excavation showed that this awkwardly named Port Gate gateway (which lies buried to the south-west of the roundabout, next to the pub), had projecting flanking towers. Horsley first saw it but thought it was an extra milecastle, but as we know, the real thing lay slightly to the east.

Passing to the south of the Errington Arms (unless, of course, we feel tempted to some refreshment, such as their magnificent Port Gate pie), we cross a wall by means of a ladder stile and discover a fine section of ridge and furrow cultivation to our right and the low earthwork of the Vallum to our left. We continue in this fashion across a couple of fields, negotiate our way over a narrow lane (exercising caution) and enter another field. The Vallum is still on our left-hand side, but now decorated with a welcome burst of gorse.

Vallum to the left, curtain wall under the road to the right

Vallum to the left, curtain wall under the road to the right

The line of the curtain wall remains off to our right, under the Military Road, and the ditch beyond that.

Milecastle 23 (Stanley) [HB 185–6; haiku]

The low earthwork of Milecastle 23

The low earthwork of Milecastle 23

Before we reach Stanley Plantation, we encounter the earthworks that mark the location of Milecastle 23 to our right, tucked into the corner of the field. Another long-axis milecastle, this was – like its neighbour we just passed – examined in 1930.

Wall Mile 22

Wall Mile 22 [HB 184–5]

We are now accompanied by a fine stretch of the Vallum on our right-hand side, decorated with a welcome burst of gorse. The line of the curtain wall remains off to our left, under the Military Road, and the ditch beyond that. We cross a stile then, after crossing another field, come up to a lane that must be negotiated by means of a short dogleg. Now we are alongside the Vallum, immediately to our south, and making our way across this field, over another stile, and into the next, Dere Street now in sight. A fine section of ridge and furrow cultivation can be seen to our left, and then we find ourselves at the road and the opportunity for a break in the Errington Arms, where it is possible to sample the magnificent Port Gate pie.

The Vallum in Wall Mile 22

The Vallum in Wall Mile 22

The Port Gate

Dere Street passed through the Wall by means of a gateway. This tends to be known as the Port Gate, but in reality the name pre-dates the discovery of the gateway by several centuries, probably deriving from the fact that, in medieval times, the old Roman road was used to carry (‘port’) goods (and especially livestock) along the road (‘gate’) to Stagshaw Fair, just to the south. Gate is one of those words that occurs in both Norse (gata) and Anglo-Saxon (geat) and, having the same root, means ‘road’ or ‘street’ (as well as the more obvious ‘gate’): think Gateshead – which, pace Bede, has nothing to do with goats, but which was also on a (largely goat-free) Roman road.

The site of the Portgate gateway from the air

The site of the Portgate gateway from the air

Excavation showed that the Port Gate gateway (which lies buried to the south-west of the roundabout, next to the pub), had projecting flanking towers. Horsley first saw it but thought it was an extra milecastle; in reality we have yet to reach that.

The Trail now crosses Dere Street, more prosaically these days known as the A68, where we must needs be exercise extreme caution once more, and heads off along the remains of the old Military Road (the approaches to the roundabout have all been modernised and taken off their original lines). We soon cross the drystone wall to our right by means of a stile and land just after Milecastle 22 (Portgate).

Milecastle 22 (Portgate) [HB 184; haiku]

The stile near Milecastle 22

The stile near Milecastle 22

No surprise to learn that this was found to be a long-axis milecastle when it was examined in 1930, but intriguing to discover that the northern gateway was, later in its life, completely blocked (perhaps as a result of its proximity to the Port Gate gateway).

Wall Mile 36

Wall Mile 36 [HB 231–50]

Leaving Milecastle 37, we head east towards the plantation and a rare treat: the only chance to actually walk on the wall. Once upon a time, walkers merrily yomped along the top of the curtain wall in the central sector without giving much thought to the damage they were doing. Increases in visitor numbers mean such access has had to be limited to one carefully controlled section, here in the woods immediately west of Housesteads fort. It should be pointed out that the drop to the north is a bit hairy, so the vertiginously inclined can walk on a path immediately to the south of the curtain wall. There is a popular climbing pitch along here and occasionally richly accoutred climbers will pop up whilst you are heading along the top. Smile benignly at them and pass on.

Before long, we exit the plantation and a gate on the right takes you down past the fort to pay for a ticket at the small museum to examine Housesteads itself, whilst the Trail itself rather grumpily lurches to the left and would take you along the northern wall of the fort and down a rather steep and badly eroded slope without a chance of a peek at this most impressive of forts. The museum has a small display about the site and some of the finds, as well as a bijou shopportunity.

Housesteads from the air

Housesteads from the air

Housesteads fort (VERCOVICIVM)

By dint of visitor numbers alone, Housesteads is the best-known and most popular Roman fort in Britain. For many, it is Hadrian’s Wall. It lies 9.7km (6 miles) beyond its neighbour, Great Chesters, but only 3.2km (2 miles) from the Stanegate fort of Vindolanda (the older name for which, Chesterholm, is seldom used now). Housesteads is another fort that is oriented east to west, in this case in order to fit it into the limited available space at the end of the dolerite ridge above the gap through which the Knag Burn flows. As it is, it occupies 2ha (5 acres) and still slopes quite considerably inside.

A water tank

A water tank

There was no ready source of fresh water within the fort, although there is the Knag Burn down the hill which supplied the bath-house down there. Therefore, quite unusually for a British fort and more in keeping with its cousins in Jordan or Syria, Housesteads was dependent upon the collection of run-off from roofs and road surfaces, so great attention was paid to the provision of water tanks. This in turn allowed the flushing of the latrine building in the south-east corner of the fort.

The garrison was the cohors I Tungrorum milliaria (about 800 infantrymen), which moved there from Vindolanda (the Tungri originated west of the Rhine, around the Ardennes). It was later supplemented by a cuneus Frisiorum and the numerus Hnaudifridi, both quite clearly Germanic in origin. The depiction of an archer on a sculpted panel from Housesteads (now in the Great North Museum, so we can see it later) has led to the suggestion that a detachment of cohors I Hamiorum (who we know were based in the Stanegate fort of Carvoran) may have been based there at some point (and they came from Hamah in Syria).

SW corner of Housesteads

SW corner of Housesteads

From the museum, we can make our way to the entrance to the fort (which will soon revert to the south gate, after many years of being through a gap in the south wall near the south-west corner), but should pause briefly on the way to look at the exterior of the south-west corner, noting the Crunchie-bar-shaped blocks of stone that were used to repair it in the late Roman period.

South gate at Housesteads

South gate at Housesteads

Duly enlightened, we can now proceed to the south gate. The first thing to note about this double-portalled gateway is that it has been adapted and the east tower has acquired an additional structure, since this was a fortified medieval farm, notorious in its day for the unruly nature of its inhabitants, as well as a corn dryer in its eastern tower. The south gate itself, you will not be surprised to learn, had its east portal blocked (and the blocking removed by 19th-century excavators). The central pier (or spina) between the portals contains two fine examples of pivot holes for the gates, each with channels to allow the gate leaf to be fitted. Looking up the hill from the gate, we are looking along the via principalis (the main short-axis street) from the porta principalis recta (or south gate) towards the porta principalis sinistra (or north gate, which we can’t actually see because of the shape of the hill). So now it is time to go exploring the central range, since this is the first fort we have encountered that will let us examine all three principal components.

The CO's house

The CO’s house

First, on our left-hand side, we see the commanding officer’s house (praetorium). Although it conforms to the Mediterranean-style, high-status courtyard dwelling, it is a radically unusual example: the awkward terrain has forced its builders to terrace it into the hillside. The south-eastern corner contained a stable, whilst the east and west wings climb up the slope to the north wing, which is considerably higher than the south and has been taken to imply a second storey at the lower level (thereby pre-empting the medieval Borderers’ habit of living above their animals). The courtyard in the centre is worth a look, as it has been paved in a late phase with Crunchie-bar-shaped blocks and even bits of window head (monolithic blocks with a semi-circular cut-out, imitating an arch, that acted as lintels above window openings): heritage hardcore as crazy paving. The north range has a series of rooms with underfloor heating, something of a prerequisite for this area in a winter, but actually a common feature in commanding officers’ houses everywhere. The commander and his familia (his slaves being included within that term) lived and worked within those four ranges of rooms, socially delineated, functionally adapted, and decidedly terraced.

The HQ building

The HQ building

Now we move uphill to the principia or headquarters building, a fine example of its kind. Entering from the main north to south street (the via principalis, if you recall), we encounter the first of the three components of this building: the courtyard. Open to the elements, but surrounded by a peristyle, it harked back to the days when the centre of a Roman camp was its forum, where the soldiers could assemble. The Romans had no gutters on roofs, so there was an eavesdrip round the courtyard which channelled the run-off into the drainage system. Moving westwards, we proceed into the cross-hall, a high covered structure with additional entrances at each end (to our left and right). To our right is the raised podium or tribunal (yes, that’s where we get the English word from) from which the commander could address his troops or, more likely, his centurions at the daily morning briefing (for which we have documentary evidence from other sites), when the daily password was set and unit statistics passed on. In front of us is the rear range of offices, with the shrine of the standards, the aedes principiorum, directly in front of us. Remember, this is placed so that it is visible from the porta praetoria, in this case behind us, to the east. Offices on either side of the aedes contained the clerks who handled unit administration and looked after the records.

The hospital

The hospital

Immediately to the west of the headquarters building is an additional courtyard structure. Since another house seemed unlikely, the excavators decided this must have been a valetudinarium or hospital. All forts had them (the example at Vindolanda is mentioned in the famous writing tablets) so it is not an unreasonable deduction, although the evidence (similarity with other, larger, such structures) is circumstantial, rather than conclusive (like, say, a lopped-off limb or two or a set of medical implements). Rooms were arranged on four sides around a courtyard, one of them suggested as an operating theatre (it is bigger than the others), and with a latrine incorporated in the south-west corner of the structure.

North granary

North granary

The fort had two granaries, to the north of the HQ, but they are rather unusual, since it has been suggested they may originally have constituted one large structure. A central row of column bases, subsequently concealed between the north wall of the south granary, and the south one of its northern neighbour, are one clue, whilst those two butted partitions, inserted between the end walls, are another. If we stand at the west end of the northern granary, in its doorway, there are a number of useful things we can note. To the east is the interior, with its floor (long gone now) raised on small stone columns or pilae; these, together with the ventilator slots in the side walls, allowed air to circulate beneath the floor to keep the contents cool and (it is always said) discourage (but not necessarily completely defeat) vermin. The threshold upon which we are standing is in fact a loading platform, against which carts could be backed up, so that gives us a good idea of street level here in the Roman period. Looking down, you can see that sockets and openings reveal that there were once two inward-opening doors here. If feeling energetic, we can nip round to the south side of the south granary to see more evidence of the adaptation of this fort building into a medieval farm: another corn dryer in the middle of it.

Turret 36b foundations

Turret 36b foundations

Just north of the granaries, beyond another store building squeezed into the available space, we find the remains of Turret 36b, demolished (along with a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall) once it was decided to construct Housesteads. The north wall of the fort was pushed further north, right to the lip of the slope, to gain as much room as possible, hence the need to level the existing curtain wall.

The north gate

The north gate

The north gate now has an imposing drop below its external threshold, but this is a result of a causeway having been removed during the 19th-century excavations. We can stand near the edge and look at the usual attributes of a gateway, most notably marking-out lines which facilitate the placing of the massive opus quadratum blocks of the gate piers and jambs.

Between the north gate and the north-east corner, the Romans suffered repeated problems with the stability of the wall now that it was placed nearer the edge of the slope. This was compounded by the habit of removing the rampart to insert rampart-back buildings like workshops, then demolishing them and putting the rampart back! Anyway, several collapses later, they started reinforcing the back of the much-abused rampart, the back of which (marked now by lines of kerb stones) crept ever further across the road towards the barrack. What started out with room to drive a cart along ended up barely wide enough for a single person to get through. Excavations showed those workshops were busy working with leather (mainly cobbling, since the water tanks ended up full of old shoes, betrayed by their hobnails), blacksmithing, and casting copper-alloy equipment.

Things had also gone a bit wrong at the north-east corner of the fort at a very early stage. Placing the angle tower in the correct position meant, inconveniently, that it was not at the junction with Hadrian’s Wall itself (one wonders at which point this was noticed!), so that was demolished and a new tower placed slightly to the west of it. This speaks volumes about how the whole story of the Wall was one of adaptation (or fudge, the unkind might observe).

Barrack XIII

Barrack XIII

Two barrack buildings, XIII and XIV, have been consolidated in their late ‘chalet’ form, with each contubernium in the form of a separate hut, but more standard long barracks were located beneath them and some of the walls were reused in the later versions. The officers’ buildings were at the east end of the buildings and one of them contained a piece of a hackamore from a horse harness. Next to Barrack XIV, to the south, was Building XV, originally a storehouse and later adapted to contain a small bath-house. Note those Crunchie-bar-shaped stones used in its reconstruction. East of the two barracks is a late interval tower, but that is perched (rather precariously) on top of a larger Hadrianic bakehouse that was found to contain two circular bread ovens (which you can no longer see), presumably one for each barrack.

The east gate

The east gate

The east gate has a potent piece of folk mythology associated with it, the ruts in the threshold block supposedly influencing the Standard Gauge of 4ft 8½in (1.435m) adopted by Stephenson for his railways. The debunking of this myth is done with the aid of horses’ bottoms (naturally). The axle width of a cart is dictated by the need to comfortably fit a horse into the poles; hence modern carts resemble Roman carts in a lot of details, including axle width. Since railways evolved out of the horse-drawn waggonway carts that hauled coal along Tyneside from mine to staithe, also one horse’s width, we have our equally interesting, but less romantic, answer: it’s a coincidence.

Moving on downhill, we see the remains of an ascensus or stairway to the south of the east gate. This is one of the means by which soldiers got onto the rampart walkway. Next there is another interval tower before we reach the heavily modified south-east corner tower and its attendant facilities.

The latrine

The latrine

This corner provides everybody’s favourite bit of Housesteads: the latrine. This much-sniggered over piece of functional engineering was flushed by water held on the large header tank with the scalloped edges, the water passing clockwise around the inner channel so that soldiers’ sponge sticks could be rinsed, and then anti-clockwise around the sewer beneath the seating space, finally debouching through an arched outlet straight into the civil settlement. Property prices in that area were probably rock-bottom.

The sewer outfall

The sewer outfall

The scalloping around the tank has caused some comment, it often being suggested that this was caused by soldiers sharpening blades (unlikely, since hones, found by the dozen in the fort, were a much more efficient way of doing that). It may instead have been caused by washing clothes, the slight downward trend of the ‘scallops’ being a possible indication of this. Like much of life, if you have to sum up Hadrian’s Wall (and certainly Housesteads), you can probably do it with this latrine.

North pier of west gate

North pier of west gate

Now, how keen are you on gates? For the sake of completeness, you should see the splendid west gate on the far side of the fort but we shall be understanding if you decided to skip this part of the tour; we can leave you sitting morosely on part of the site (assuming it’s not raining, which it does quite a lot at Housesteads). Two portals again, both ultimately blocked (the northern first, it is suggested), and the north pier surviving to the height of the arch springer. Slots can still be found to secure the gates, as can the usual sockets, threshold blocks, and more marking-out lines.

'Murder House' in the civil settlement

‘Murder House’ in the civil settlement

Outside the fort are some of the vicus buildings. Next to the south gate is the House of the Beneficarius [sic] (yes, there were even spelling errors on old Ministry of Works signs), and further down the hill is the inspiringly named Murder House (you’ll never guess what happened there: two Roman bodies under a newly laid floor, one with the tip of a blade between the ribs). Don’t make the mistake of thinking the circular well enclosure is Roman; that belongs to Housesteads’ long history as a farmstead, rather than a Roman fascination with building circular structures with no apparent entrance.

We can usefully resume our journey by passing round the outside of the south-east corner of the fort and making our way diagonally down the slope towards where the curtain wall crosses the Knag Burn. As we go, examine the outer face of the fort wall and see more long blocks typical of late rebuilding: this is one heavily patched fort!

The valley of the Knag Burn was not only the site of the bath-house for Housesteads (no longer visible) but also a gateway through the Wall.

The Knag Burn gateway

The Knag Burn gateway

Knag Burn Gateway, thought to have been built during the 4th century and examined in the mid-19th century, consists of two towers, one on either side of a single portal. As such, it is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give us a clue what the gateways on Roman roads at Carlisle, Portgate, and (possibly) Newcastle looked like. This, however, is not on a major road, but rather a minor route, perhaps a pre-existing transhumance route. Interestingly, there were two sets of pivot holes and it has been suggested that two sets of gates were in use at the same time. Clearly, there may have been other gates along the Wall which have not as yet been found.

Looking back towards Housesteads

Looking back towards Housesteads

The Trail now leads us on into an angle in two field walls where a stile takes us over and into another plantation. A short length of ditch survives to the north-west of the plantation but has not been identified over the rest of the Knag Burn valley, although it might have been anticipated. Out the other side and we are now yet again following a field wall to our left that is on top of the curtain wall. The ditch stops as we ascend Kennel Crags but the Military Way is still with us to the south. Further down the dip slope is the Vallum, die-straight as ever. We climb a small hill, descend into another gap, then climb higher to a small plateau, King’s Hill, where we find our next milecastle.

Milecastle 36 (King’s Hill) [HB 231–2; haiku]

Milecastle 36 (King’s Hill) was a long-axis example perched on a hill, overlooking Busy Gap to the north-east. The identity of the king in question will become clearer once we get up onto Sewingshields Crags in a short while.

Wall Mile 43

Wall Mile 43 [HB 269–77]

After Milecastle 44, the Wall turns to the south-east and begins to descend gently towards the plantation at Cockmount Hill. The line of the stone wall itself is represented by a drystone wall, but if we glance over it occasionally we will see that the ditch returns as the crags diminish and cease to offer any defence to the north.

Wall Mile 43, looking towards Cockmount Hill

Wall Mile 43, looking towards Cockmount Hill

When we reach the wall surrounding the plantation, it is as well to pause and look at the gateway through the modern wall immediately to our north. The western gatepost is an uninscribed milestone, probably taken from the Military Way, which runs only some 70m to the south of it. Roman milestones usually bore a carved inscription providing a date when built or repaired and sometimes a distance to the nearest significant point. We also suspect that those that do not seem to bear such an inscription may instead have had a painted one (examples of these are known from Roman roads in the East).

Milestone serving as a gatepost

Milestone serving as a gatepost

We enter the softwood plantation and emerge on the other side, passing Cockmount Hill house and press on, making best use of this more level terrain. A solitary tree then marks the location of Turret 43a (more humps and bumps just east of the tree) and we carry on over a couple of stiles and suddenly there is no longer a modern wall on top of the Roman one, just the ruinous curtain itself. Finally we reach the field containing the western ditches of Great Chesters fort.

Ditch system on the west side of Great Chesters

Ditch system on the west side of Great Chesters

Great Chesters fort (AESICA)

Great Chesters is unusual in that it is largely unconsolidated and remains an atmospheric ruin, rather than a manicured monument. Covering 1.35ha (3.36 acres), this fort is (rather unusually) aligned east to west.

It was added to the Wall some time after AD 128 and was the base for the cohortes VI Nerviorum and VI Raetorum respectively during the 2nd century, and cohors II Asturum and the Raeti Gaesati during the 3rd. The Notitia records the cohors I Asturum as being here later.

North-west corner tower at Great Chesters

North-west corner tower at Great Chesters

After the unusually strong series of four ditches on the west of the fort, presumably the whim of an officer with nothing better to do, since the land to the east and south is not similarly provisioned. The trail takes us to the north-west corner, where we see the inner face of the appropriate corner tower. Once more we note how a fort has become a later farming settlement.

Strongroom

Strongroom

Inside the fort, surrounded by a wooden railing, there is part of the vaulted strong room of the headquarters building. From here we can look down towards the remains of the barrack buildings in the south-west quadrant of the fort, barely visible on the ground but very clear from the air. To the south can be seen the southern gateway, where there is a Roman altar which usually holds a few modern coins left on top in its focus by bemused visitors. The west gateway demonstrates the use of blocking walls (which, as we now know, were usually removed by later excavators at other forts), with first one then both portals ultimately being blocked.

Great Chesters is also remarkable for its aqueduct, the course of which is known for most of its length of 9.5km (from a source just over 4km away). It has been traced as an open channel, rather than an elevated structure. Sadly, there is nothing to see at the fort to mark its arrival. Most forts probably had aqueducts (Housesteads is an exception to this rule, as we shall see) but very few have been studied.

Milecastle 43 (Great Chesters) [HB 270; haiku]

Excavation at Great Chesters in 1939 showed that the fort had been constructed on top of the short-axis Milecastle 43 (Great Chesters), which was razed to the ground, and there is now nothing to see.

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