Wall Mile 33

Wall Mile 33 [HB 225–6]

We are still walking along the berm, with the field wall sitting just to the south of the curtain wall’s remains, descending gradually. To the south of us, the Military Road crosses the Vallum and disappears into a softwood plantation and the earthwork now keeps pace with us.

The Military Road crosses the Vallum and leaves us

The Military Road crosses the Vallum and leaves us

We are on our own and soon find ourselves to the south of the uneven (and unexcavated) remains of the curtain wall and its rubble spread. It is visible as a low mound with occasional blocks of stone poking out. Treat it gently and tread carefully. Before long, we reach another consolidated turret and short stretch of curtain wall, but this one has a special story to tell.

Turret 33b (Coesike) [HB 226]

Turret 33b

Turret 33b

This was a short-lived turret, with broad-gauge footings cut away by the narrow-gauge wall. For the first time, we find a (rather saggy) recess-filling wall added within the turret, probably to enable a wall walk to cross it safely. The doorway has been blocked, so the turret was evidently not completely reduced upon abandonment. Abandonment? The Roman army quit Hadrian’s Wall in the 140s in favour of a new, shorter, turf wall (the Antonine Wall) between the Forth and Clyde. This brief flirtation with the narrower isthmus did not last, however, and they returned south to Hadrian’s Wall in the 160s and recommissioned the older wall. A few features, including some of the turrets, were thought surplus to requirements and discarded.

Continuing westwards we can see a square, walled plantation of trees ahead of us and this is the site of Milecastle 34.

Milecastle 34 (Grindon) [HB 227; haiku]

The site of Milecastle 34

The site of Milecastle 34

Although its position is conveniently marked by the plantation, there is nothing to see of the milecastle itself, beyond an information panel (the stone wall is modern), but it makes a fine observation point from which to observe the ditch in either direction.

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Wall Mile 31

Wall Mile 31 [HB 215 and 224]

Carrawburgh fort (BROCOLITIA) [HB 216–23]

Carrawburgh fort

Carrawburgh fort

If you have the time and inclination, note that it is possible to enter Carrawburgh fort via a stile next to the car park. It is mostly humps and bumps inside (as a former boss of English Heritage once helpfully classified archaeology), but with a little imagination you should be able to envisage the layout, and – aside from the outlines of old excavation trenches, particularly around the HQ building – the remains of an excavated turret can be seen on the western side of the fort.

Carrawburgh (pronounced Carra-Bruff) is 5.6km (3.5 miles) from Chesters (pronounced Chesters) and is one of the forts that sits astride the Wall, rather than attached to the rear or even detached. Occupying 1.6ha (3.9 acres), it was constructed after the Vallum, the course of which runs under it. It was garrisoned by the cohors I Aquitanorum in the 2nd century and other units attested include the cohortes I Cugernorum, I Frisiavonum, and I Tungrorum (the last of which was milliary, so only a detachment would have fitted in). Cohors I Batavorum was recorded in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

There is little to see of the fort, although its platform is still prominent, but the mithraeum outwith the fort in the civil settlement is on display.We need to follow the path down the outside of the eastern fort defences, turn right and head down the hill until the small fenced enclose containing the temple heaves into view.

The mithraeum [HB 219–22]

When excavated, the waterlogged conditions preserved many organic remains that have enabled a detailed reconstruction to be built in the former Museum of Antiquities, now recreated with the video display we have already seen in the Great North Museum, both in Newcastle. On site, the organic components have been cast in concrete, which is also the medium employed for the replica statuary and altars.

The Carrawburgh mithraeum

The Carrawburgh mithraeum

Designed to mimic a cave and produce what excitable marketing types would probably call ‘an immersive experience’ these days, devotees entered at the south end of this small quasi-apsidal building, encountering a diminutive lobby or vestibule, separated from the rest of the interior by a wooden screen. Beyond the screen were two wicker-lined benches, one on either side, attended by Mithras’ familiar torch-bearing companions Cautes and Cautopates (the former with his torch held upwards, the latter downwards). Cautes has lost his head, but of poor old Cautopates, only the feet remain. At the northern end, there are three altars, dedicated by commanders of the cohors I Batavorum. The one on the left incorporates a nice little effect, whereby the radiate crown of Mithras has been pierced, enabling a lamp to be placed behind it for some minimalistic visual trickery. Evidence of what went on in here includes burnt pine cones, a chicken’s head, and bones from pork, lamb, and more chickens: obviously somebody’s idea of a fun night out in the vicus. The whole thing was thoroughly trashed in the 4th century AD and it is speculated that Christians may have been responsible.

Mithraism was an elitist cult (the temple could only accommodate twelve so it was obviously not meant for the common soldiery), with a strict hierarchy that mimicked the army’s rank structure, and a series of ordeals beloved of such institutions.

Immediately outside the entrance at the western end of the mithraeum was another small shrine, dedicated to the nymphs (unsurprising, given the presence of so much water in the vicinity) and the genius loci (literally ‘spirit of the place’). There was also a bath-house on this side of the fort, excavated by Clayton but not now visible… well, in fact, to be brutally honest, it is currently ‘lost’ (he published a plan but omitted to relate it to the fort).

Leaving the mithraeum, we cross a stile and a stream, then follow the path to the right. The stream issues from Coventina’s Well, which is stioll discernible is an extremely boggy portion off to the right of the path (between us and the imposing ramparts of the fort) and the section with a pond in the middle of it is in fact the site of the shrine itself. Coventina was a local water nymph and, when it was excavated in 1876, the site produced vast amounts of coins (more than 13,000; some were melted down and cast into a bronze eagle – must have seemed like a good idea at the time) as well as other votive material, some of which we saw in Chesters museum, and is characteristic of the Celto-Roman veneration of water deities.

The site of Coventina's Well

The site of Coventina’s Well

Our next re-crossing of the Military Road is about to occur, so keep a sharp lookout since they drive fast around these parts, as you already know, and the crossing point is at the bottom of the dip.

Once on the other side, it is a gentle climb along the upcast mound of the ditch until we reach Carraw Farm, where we are diverted off to the north (this bit can get a bit plodgy) and then back round and onto the upcast mound again, north of the ditch. Soon, unmarked by any ceremony, we arrive at the position of Milecastle 32.

Milecastle 32 (Carraw) [HB 224; haiku]

The site of Milecastle 32 from the air

The site of Milecastle 32 from the air

Don’t bother looking for it, as it is on the other side of the road (remember: the Military Road sits on top of the curtain wall, so the milecastle is south of that), but it survives as a low earthwork, was of the long-axis type, and was excavated in 1971.

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Wall Mile 30

Wall Mile 30 [HB 214–15]

If we move a little further on from the site of the milecastle, we can stop by a large rock protruding from the base of the ditch. Finally, we reach the most famous part of Limestone Corner. Wedge holes can still be seen in the top of the pinnacle where the attempts to split the whinstone were given up (whin naturally contains vertical cracks or joints, along which it will split); it must have been a bad day for the dtich-diggers.

Rock-cut ditch with wedge marks at Limestone Corner

Rock-cut ditch with wedge marks at Limestone Corner

To the south of us, large chunks of whin have been discarded down the slope, the largest of which (subsequently split into two by frost action) has been estimated as weighing around twelve tonnes (naturally, there is no record of anybody having actually weighed it; this is a guesstimate). Such pieces probably had to be removed with sheer legs, a technology with which the Roman army were not unfamiliar.

The scatter of whin boulders at Limestone Corner

The scatter of whin boulders at Limestone Corner

We must now plod on, crossing the ditch and then over a stile, taking us to the north of it and onto the upcast mound. Now we can admire those roadside drystone walls (they are easier to see from either side than from the road, due to the changes in level since the road was built). As we saw earlier, the larger blocks, curiously familiar from our perambulations next to the curtain wall, are interrupted by regular lines of throughstones.

The need for an all-weather east–west road across the isthmus became apparent after the Newcastle-based Marshall George Wade failed to intercept the Jacobite rebels in 1745 (who, ironically, exploited his new roads in Scotland to effect a swift passage into England at Carlisle). Wade got bogged down at Hexham during a horrendous blizzard and gave up. He died in 1748 and had nothing to do with the construction of the road, but sadly you will still find it called ‘Wade’s Military Road’ in less-well-informed sources than this, dear reader.

Construction of the Military Road began in 1749 with a survey from west to east, undertaken by two military engineers, Dugal Campbell and Hugh Debbeig (the latter serving later at Wolfe’s side at Quebec), detached from William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland. Their drawing of the survey was subsequently published, unattributed, by John Warburton. The actual work of building the road and walls was contracted out to civilian companies (unlike the other military roads in the Highlands, which the Hanoverian army built) and did not always stick to Campbell and Debbeig’s recommended route. The road had a macadamised surface (compacted gravel on a stone foundation) and its original form can be seen in one of J.P. Gibson’s photographs, taken near Carrawburgh. The model lounges on the road in a way that would be suicidal nowadays and it will be apparent that successive metallings have now raised the road considerably.

J.P. Gibson's photo of the Military Road at Carrawburgh

J.P. Gibson’s photo of the Military Road at Carrawburgh

Continuing west along the field, we finally reach a stile and then another crossing of the Military Road. As usual, you will need to exercise care here. On the south side, we encounter the Vallum (the constructors of which merrily ploughed straight through the whin outcrop at Limestone Corner without batting an eyelid). The Military Way (the Roman road that ran along behind the curtain wall) is now perched on the north mound of the earthwork. We press on westwards, past some recent quarrying next to the Military Road. The car park at Carrawburgh is now in sight and just before we reach it, we arrive at the location of Milecastle 31.

Milecastle 31 (Carrawburgh) [HB 215; haiku]

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 31 and Carrawburgh fort

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 31 and Carrawburgh fort

Milecastle 31 lay just east of the car park, part of one of the robbed walls having been found during the construction of the modern facility. Needless to say, there is nothing to be seen now.

Wall Mile 12

Wall Mile 12 [HB 166–7]

We now take the leafy lane (keeping the large shed to our left and the modern house to our right), which is Chare Bank, heading downhill with the old church (it has Anglian origins) perched on a mound to our left, until we reach a curious low metal gate which guards the entrance to the path. The sensible walker is advised not to attempt limbo-dancing under it. We turn right and, on the far side of the main road, can see the Three Tuns pub; that is where we are aiming for, as we now cross that road (in which we are aided by an elongated traffic island). On the corner, next to the pub, the road sign (which is set virtually directly on top of the curtain wall) helpfully points westwards towards Hadrian’s Wall.

We are now back on the Military Road (as the street name board reminds us) and can cross over to the northern pavement at our convenience. Our path is now leading us out through the western limits of Heddon towards open country, now accompanied by the vegetationally hirsute ditch over the low wall to our right, the line of the curtain wall to our left (beneath the road, naturally), and the Vallum in the fields further south. Is the curtain wall actually there? Be patient and you will be enlightened.

Ditch to the right, curtain wall under road, Vallum in fields to the left

At the end of this segment of the Military Road, the modern road branches off to the right to cross the A69 and you can see the orphaned section of the original road produced by this diversion when the new route was built. Excavation beneath this section (part of a study to determine the likely effect of heavy military vehicles travelling elsewhere on the Military Road) showed that the foundations of the curtain wall were still intact here, even if they have vanished (or, more correctly, been removed) elsewhere.

The orphaned road with the curtain wall beneath it

The orphaned road with the curtain wall beneath it

Heading northwards over the bridge, our enjoyment of this section is not particularly enhanced as we pass over the A69 by the accompanying roar of the traffic beneath us. When the dual carriageway was rather thoughtlessly inserted across the line of the Wall in 1975, excavation revealed the remains of a culvert carrying the Rudchester Burn under the curtain wall.

The bridge is a good place to cross over, and at the junction, like the B6318, we also turn left, proceeding behind the Armco barrier. Soon we reach a gate, go down some steps, and begin the climb up towards the site of Milecastle 13.

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

The site of Milecastle 13

The site of Milecastle 13

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

Wall Mile 8

Wall Mile 8 [HB 162]

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

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

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

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

Wall Mile 10

Wall Mile 10 [HB 164–5]

As we continue down the hill through Throckley, passing the old reservoir, the berm pits continue beneath the road. Our environment is still suburban but housing is beginning to crowd us in. Here the survival of Hadrian’s wall is always on a knife edge, the remains sparse and frequently heavily damaged when excavated. But it is still there and boldly continues to exert its influence on the landscape as we make for the terminus.

Looking east from the likely site of Milecastle 11

Looking east from the likely site of Milecastle 11

The Military Road is soon interrupted by a roundabout at the point where a major drove road from Scotland to England crossed it. Long used for taking stock south and across the Tyne by the ford at Newburn, in 1640 it saw a Scottish Covenanter army use it, leading to a skirmish by the river which became known as the Battle of Newburn (although it was less of a ‘battle’ and more of a ‘flight’ on the part of the English royalist forces). Was there another transhumance gateway through Hadrian’s Wall here? We don’t know, but such drove roads tend to be old.

Wall Miles 9 and 10

Wall Miles 9 and 10

All the time we have kept to the north pavement, but soon it will be best to change sides to the south. After the roundabout, the Wall plunges down into Walbottle Dene (known in Hutton’s day as Newburn Dene) before ascending again to the location of Milecastle 10, on its eastern rim. The bottom of the Dene is a good place to cross as the traffic is warned by signs and rumble strips that pedestrians will be doing just that; nevertheless, take care. Although the curtain wall usually seems to have been beneath the southern (westbound) carriageway of the 18th-century road, at this point the builders chose to swing slightly southwards and the road passes straight through the middle of Milecastle 10 (Walbottle Dene).

Milecastle 10 (Walbottle Dene) [HB 164; haiku]

The deviation in the course of the Military Road means the north gate of the milecastle survived and was duly excavated in 1928. The southern wall was examined in 1999–2001, revealing the milecastle to be of the long axis type. There is, as you might have guessed, nothing to see any more.

Wall Mile 11

Wall Mile 11 [HB 166]

Give thanks for Heddon-on-the-Wall. Why? Because the fact of its existence caused the Military Road to make a small diversion in order to avoid it, thereby preserving a rather splendid length of curtain wall and ditch for our delectation and pleasure.

Curtain wall at Heddon

Curtain wall at Heddon

The National Trail, however, now chickens out and dives off down the hillside to send the unwary wandering along the riverside for no good purpose. Don’t worry; the price they pay for this abject act of cowardice is that they have to walk further than we do and they are going to miss some rather good bits of Wall (including the smallest piece of consolidated curtain wall) into the bargain. Now, dear reader, we are on our own until we are reunited with these view-seekers at Wallsend.

There are various signs that point us towards the consolidated length of wall at the east end of the village. We slip through a narrow gate and instantly we are walking along the line of the ditch, with the wall immediately to our left. In the distance we can see the point where the Military Road and curtain wall reunite, but for the time being we can enjoy this section of Broad Wall. It is some 215m in length and survives up to seven courses high. Near the west end, a circular kiln has been inserted into the ruins of the wall, possibly during the post-medieval period. Reassuringly, the Vallum survives as a subdued earthwork in the field to the south.

View back towards Heddon

View back towards Heddon

As we leave the sanctuary of this length of wall and its boot-welcoming turf, we can cross over to the pavement near the point where the curtain wall rejoins the Military Road at the crest of the hill. Or, at least, it used to. In 1926, Northumberland County Council decided to improve the gradient on the road and, in so doing, grubbed up some 55m of the wall which lay beneath the original road surface. Remember, that’s a length of wall preserved by the Military Road, and destroyed by a county council! Luckily it was possible for Parker Brewis to excavate it before its destruction. It is wise to take with a pinch of salt all protestations of vandalism levelled against the original builders of the road; there are plenty of sections of curtain wall destroyed in the medieval and post-medieval periods where there was no road to blame (as William Hutton found at at Planetrees). The Military Road is just one of many predators that have nibbled at the corpse of Hadrian’s Wall.

The ditch at Great Hill

The ditch at Great Hill

Once we have reached the crest of Great Hill there is a long, gentle, downhill slope before us and some rather exciting archaeology buried beneath the road. From here, the Wall runs in a dead straight line to Milecastle 11. Now the ditch is to our left, albeit overgrown, the curtain wall lies beneath the southern carriageway, and the Vallum is in the field to the right, often visible as a crop or parch mark. The north carriageway lies on the line of the berm and it is this that has proved to be rather interesting. Excavation during work to improve the water mains along this stretch of the road found that the berm was covered with pits arranged quincunx fashion (like the spots on the 5 side of a die). These have been interpreted as pits designed to hold obstacles such as thorn bushes, acting like a barbed-wire entanglement. This would not only hinder an enemy coming across the ditch, from north-to south, but also stop anybody running along the berm to gain an advantage over patrols along the Wall. One writer has, however, suggested that they are no such thing and in fact represent an early timber predecessor to Hadrian’s Wall. An interesting idea, but the absence of a berm between this putative timber wall and the ditch would make it unlikely on the grounds of stability, if nothing else (remember how Turret 54a suffered from inattention to this important point).

The Military Road with the resurfaced water-pipe trench still visible

The Military Road with the resurfaced water-pipe trench still visible

Then it is just a long, steady walk along the pavement (passing Frenchmen’s Row on the left, home to refugee French royalists in the late 18th century) until we reach the crest of the hill down to Throckley, the approximate location of Milecastle 11 (Throckley Bank Top).

Milecastle 11 (Throckley Bank Top) [HB 165; haiku]

Throckley Bank Top looking back towards Heddon

Throckley Bank Top looking back towards Heddon

As you will already have deduced, this milecastle has also proved elusive, although by measurement it should lie somewhere under the working men’s club south of the road.

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