Wall Mile 11

Wall Mile 11 [HB 166]

Ahead of us, we have a long, gentle climb along the pavement (passing Frenchmen’s Row on the right, home to refugee French royalists in the late 18th century) until we reach the crest of Great Hill, just east of Heddon-on-the-Wall.

On the way, we are passing more of those berm pits, explored during the water supply upgrade trenching. The berm pits are not universally accepted as evidence of an entanglement. One writer has 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 (and we shall encounter the results of inattention to this important point in Wall Mile 54).

Once past the houses to our right, we are suddenly greeted by the sight of the Wall ditch in their place. It is overgrown, but there nonetheless. The curtain wall, of course, still lies beneath the southern carriageway of the road, whilst the Vallum is in the fields to the south, often visible as a crop or parch mark.

The ditch near Great Hill

The ditch near Great Hill

As we reach the crest of the hill, it is time to consider the effect of the road upon the wall beneath it. 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; we shall come across plenty of sections of curtain wall destroyed in the medieval and post-medieval periods where there was no road to blame. The Military Road is just one of many scavengers that have nibbled at the corpse of Hadrian’s Wall.

Finally, we arrive at the sanctuary of the length of wall at Heddon, with its boot-welcoming turf, and we can cross over near the point where the curtain wall rejoins the Military Road at the crest of the hill, exercising all due caution as we do so. The existence of the village 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.

The curtain wall at Heddon

The curtain wall at Heddon

The curtain wall at Heddon

This section of curtain wall is built to what is known as the broad gauge (10 Roman feet, or about 2.96m), is slightly less than 220m in length, and survives up to four courses high.

The south face of the wall

The south face of the wall and the change in alignment

One third of the way along, it features a change of alignment onto a more northerly course of some 13 degrees. Note how, near the west end, a circular kiln has been inserted into the ruins of the wall itself, possibly during the post-medieval period. Reassuringly, the Vallum survives as a subdued earthwork in the field to the south.

The Vallum at Heddon

The Vallum at Heddon

As we prepare to leave this haven of grass and wall at its western extremity, we suddenly realise that we are briefly walking along the line of the ditch, before we slip through a narrow gate and emerge into the village itself.

Once in the village, National Trail adherents will stumble up to join us, wondering what they have missed. They will never know (unless they read this, of course). The price they paid for their abject act of cowardice is that they have had to walk further than us and have missed some rather good bits of Wall. Now, dear reader, we are going to share our journey until we reach the outskirts of Carlisle when, once again, they will misguidedly wander off in search of an easy, Wall-free life.

We now turn left and then, after 50m or so, cross the road to head up an unnamed lane towards the alleged site of Milecastle 12, until we see a junction and a new-looking house ahead of us.

Milecastle 12 (Heddon) [HB 166; haiku]

The lane leading towards the probable site of Milecastle 12

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

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Wall Mile 10

Wall Mile 10 [HB 164–5]

We have been keeping to the southern pavement on our trek out of Newcastle, but soon it will be best to change sides to the northern. After the site of Milecastle 10, the Wall undergoes a major realignment onto a more easterly course then plunges down into Walbottle Dene (known in Hutton’s day as Newburn Dene), presumably crossing it by means of a culvert or small bridge, before ascending again to the other side. The lowest point of the Dene is a good place to cross and traffic is warned by signs and rumble strips that pedestrians will be doing just that; nevertheless, take care.

The Military Road, reflecting the new alignment, 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 a transhumance gateway through Hadrian’s Wall here? We don’t know, but such drove roads tend to be old.

Throckley, looking west along the Military Road

We now continue up the hill through Throckley, passing the old reservoir to our north. From here until we reach the top of Great Hill, just east of  Heddon-on-the-Wall, renewal of the potable water infrastructure at the beginning of the present millennium led to roadworks along the berm (the northern carriageway of the road). This revealed the longest stretch yet of the berm pits we encountered earlier. Were they continuous throughout the eastern sector of the Wall? We don’t know.

Our environment is no longer urban, but now determinedly suburban, although housing still crowds us in. Here the survival of Hadrian’s Wall continues to be 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 more rural stretches.

Finally, beyond the reservoir, we reach Throckley Bank Top, the approximate location of Milecastle 11.

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

Looking west from the likely site of Milecastle 11

Looking west from the likely site of Milecastle 11

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. In the 19th century, a hoard of several thousand 3rd-century ‘silver’ coins was found nearby (rampant inflation meant that few coins were solid silver at that troubled time).

Wall Mile 0

Prestumble

If you are actually considering walking the Wall, there are many good reasons for doing it from west to east. It is far, far better than going east to west. You’ll find my blog for that walk online for all to read for free, or you can get the ebook for a modest consideration. However, if you are determined to walk it east to west, then digitally is the best way (at least the wind and rain in your face will be virtual).

Our journey begins next to the remains of the former Swan Hunter shipyard, where the Wall apparently once ran into the river. Once, by all accounts, Geordie kids paddled and splashed around its remains, but that time has long gone. For us, Wallsend is the start of what we shall boldly term our Echtmauerwanderung along Hadrian’s Wall: a stroll per lineam valli (literally ‘along the line of the Wall’). This has one distinct virtue: the Wall is only 118.4km (73.5 miles) long, whereas the National Trail is 137.0km (85.1 miles), so we don’t have to walk so far but get to see more Wall!

Anyway, without more ado, let’s start at the very beginning. If you require more detail, feature headings include references to the appropriate page in the latest edition of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (and the map includes clickable links to other resources drawn from English Heritage’s PastScape website, DeFRA’s MAGIC mapping base, and – occasionally – from romanbritain.org).

Milecastle 0 [Not mentioned in the HB; haiku]

Although it has been suggested that the curtain wall may have begun with a riverside milecastle, there is as yet no evidence to support this notion, but redevelopment of the former shipyard may ultimately provide clarification on this point.

Wall Mile 0 [HB 371]

The Branch Wall

Branch Wall as excavated

The Branch Wall as excavated

Branch Wall now

The Branch Wall now

Before entering the fort and museum of Segedunum, head east along the main road for a few yards, then immediately right, and make your way up onto the bridge that takes the cycle path round the back of the fort. Heading west, you will soon see your first piece of Hadrian’s Wall. This bit is known as the Branch Wall and it is this that ran down into the Tyne. This bit has actually been moved a couple of times (it was found further to the south when the slipway for the RMS Mauritania was being built in 1903, moved to a nearby park, then back again when Segedunum was opened) but it is not the most mobile piece of the Wall. That distinction belongs to a fragment of the Branch Wall that was in a display case on the RMS Carpathia (which was fitting out at Wallsend at the time of its discovery) and appears to have been present when that ship went to the aid of the Titanic. It may even have been the only piece of Hadrian’s Wall to have been sunk by a U-boat in 1918! There is a model of the Carpathia upstairs in the industrial section of the museum, but no model of the U-boat.

Wallsend fort (SEGEDVNVM) [HB 131–8]

Plan of Wallsend fort

Plan of Wallsend fort

Wallsend is very far from the best-preserved fort along the line of the Wall; we shall see better examples of virtually all of its features. However, it is the only one that lays all of them out for our appreciation, and even offers a convenient tower from which to view them. The order in which we proceed around Segedunum (the name, which is Latinised Celtic, means something like ‘strong fort’) is a matter of taste, but for our purposes we shall visit the site first and then look at the museum.

Wallsend fort was built when the Wall was extended eastwards from the original terminus in Newcastle during the Hadrianic period, after the initial construction phase was well under way (so probably well into the AD120s). Occupying 1.6ha (4.1 acres), it was only some 6.4km (4 miles) from the next fort at Newcastle. The garrison was cohors II Nerviorum in the 2nd century and cohors I Lingonum in the 3rd and 4th centuries and both of these were auxiliary units that contained a mixture of infantry and cavalry (in other words, a cohors equitata). On Hadrian’s Wall, the legions did most (but not all) of the building and the auxiliaries most of the garrisoning (but, again, apparently not all).

Before the campaign of excavations in the 1970s, the fort site was covered by housing and just its outline was marked out in the streets, so if you think the remains are rather scrappy, bear that little fact in mind. Now a large portion of the fort has been cleared for display and only the portion under Buddle Street remains largely unexcavated. ‘Largely’, because the great Wall scholar F. G. Simpson tunnelled under that road to check whether the junction of the curtain wall and the fort proved them to be of one build: they were. There are fine views of the fort and the surrounding shipyards to be had from the viewing tower that is part of the recent site museum.

The Defences

Wallsend east gate

Wallsend east gate

The fort was surrounded by a stone wall backed by an earthen rampart and, like all forts of its kind, it had rounded corners. In each of those corners was a corner- or angle-tower, whilst gate towers flanked each twin-portalled entrance (centrally in the north and south sides, and just north of the curtain wall on the westerns side). An eastern gate matched the western, but an additional (single-portalled) western gate was placed between the curtain wall and the south-west corner, probably to facilitate access to the civil settlement or vicus. Wallsend is unique in this asymmetric arrangement of its gates, a product of its location in an angle in the course of the Wall. Additional towers were placed between each gate tower and its neighbouring corner tower and – by analogy with other, better-preserved forts – the whole thing as probably finished off by a walkway shielded by a crenelated parapet. The fort defences were further enhanced by a ditch which continued the line of the ditch of Hadrian’s Wall itself.

The HQ building

CO's house, HQ (with forehall) and granaries

CO’s house, HQ (with forehall) and granaries

The best place to start our tour of the internal buildings is with the administrative centre, the headquarters building (principia). It lies at the junction of the two principal streets of the fort, the east-to-west via principalis and the north-to-south via praetoria. Unusually for a Hadrian’s Wall fort, this junction was covered by a forehall, a feature found in many continental forts and possibly used for training under cover. South of that lie the standard features of an HQ building: a courtyard, then a cross-hall (the origin of the basilical form later adopted for churches), and then a rear range of offices, the central chamber of which was the chapel of the standards (aedes signorum), under which was a strong room in which the unit’s savings were kept.

The CO’s house

To the east of the principia was the commanding officer’s house (praetorium), where he (and his family, including slaves) lived, comfortably separated from his soldiers. This was a ‘Mediterranean-style’, inward-looking courtyard structure, with four ranges of rooms around a central yard or (more likely) garden.

The Granaries and Hospital

The granaries and (right) hospital

The granaries and (right) hospital

West of the HQ were two store-buildings or granaries (horrea), recognisable by their raised floors and external buttresses, and another courtyard building that has been interpreted as a hospital. The raised floors helped deter vermin and moderate the temperate of any stored goods, especially grain (the Roman army ate spelt wheat and fed their horses barley and oats), whilst the buttresses served only to confuse scholars (since calculations show therm to have been structurally unnecessary and, in fact, they were even left off some granaries elsewhere).

The Barracks

Cavalry barrack

Cavalry barrack

One of the most interesting aspects of Wallsend is its cavalry barracks, split between men and animals. The pits set into the ground, designed to catch the less pleasant by-products of a reliance upon horses, have been identified at an increasing number of Roman military sites. These are invariably accompanied by very high phosphate readings when tested. Cavalrymen were organised in a turma of 32 men (two to each barrack block), whereas infantrymen were placed in a century (centuria) of 80 men (one to each barracks). Since Wallsend housed a mixed unit, both infantry and cavalry, and we have the cavalry here in the southern third of the fort, then the infantry seem to have been based in the northern third.

In the south-western part of the site, there is a splendid (albeit mirror image) reconstruction (capable of working when built) of the Chesters bath-house (not, please note, on the site of the Wallsend bath-house, which was probably further to the south-west). This will bring home just how inadequate ruins can sometimes be at giving a true impression of the magnificence of a building, especially when we finally get to see the remains upon which it is based at Chesters. The baths are periodically opened for inspection and nearby is a small herb garden, showing the range of culinary and medicinal plants that might be found in Roman times. Make sure you see the reconstruction Roman latrine north of the main changing room.

Reconstructed bath-house

Reconstructed bath-house

Now it is time to return to the museum, but before we do, note the line of the Branch Wall (marked in cobbles) running down towards the Tyne from the south-east corner of the fort. On our way past, we can also have a look at the monument recording the names of every single Roman whose name has survived from the Wall (with space so new discoveries can be added).

Once in the museum, there is much to do and see, including a rather dramatic representation of stratigraphy, the accumulation of archaeological layers over time. When you have seen everything, pressed all the buttons, and been lectured by the Geordie centurion, find your way to the observation tower (there are both lifts and stairs to get you to the top). Up there, a video demonstration dramatically illustrates how the site has changed over time. There is a fine shopportunity in the foyer to part you from your money before you leave, but don’t buy too much: you will have to carry it with you.

Wall Mile 0 [HB 139–41]

Wallsend and Wall Mile 0 from the air

Wallsend and Wall Mile 0 from the air

Exit the fort and museum site and turn left, crossing Buddle Street by the zebra crossing at the bend in the road (exercising all due care). If you have time to spare, the positions of the northern barracks and defences are marked out to your right, but we are heading elsewhere.

Excavated and reconstructed curtain wall

Excavated and reconstructed curtain wall

Here, behind some railings, we have another treat in store, for here is one of the few full-height reconstructions of the curtain wall. Closer inspection reveals that the replica is in fact built slightly to the south of the excavated wall, a series of short stubby posts marking the position of a series of pits which we now know formed berm obstacles. These would have been filled with something like thorn bushes to form the Roman equivalent of a barbed-wire entanglement. The excavated length is actually considerably more than that consolidated, but much still lies under plastic, awaiting the time when funds permit its consolidation too. When examined, it was found that the wall along here collapsed due to proximity to a stream. The collapse of bits of Hadrian’s Wall will become a recurring theme for our journey.

Now we can turn our attention to the reconstructed curtain wall. Although building regulations demanded that it be built to modern standards and with a completely inaccurate handrail at the back, it gives a good impression of the state of our knowledge of what the curtain wall actually looked like. Go towards the back, noting as you pass the severe weathering that the modern building inscription has already suffered. We shall briefly resist the temptation to mount the steps, but instead direct our attention to the base of those stairs, at the west end of the south face of the wall. Here, several different interpretations of a debate as to whether the curtain wall was plastered, whitewashed, or flush-pointed have been realised and it will be readily apparent that the whitewash option is already nearly completely vanished.

Pointing, rendering, and whitewashing

Pointing, rendering, and whitewashing

Next we can proceed up the stairs. Here it is possible to appreciate just how much room the narrower curtain wall of this sector (the wall to the west of Newcastle is built to a broader gauge) provides for a walkway, even allowing for a parapet. Note too the efficacy of the merlons at providing protection for defenders (although some might argue for broader merlons, these are details to which we have no definitive answers at the moment). This is a splendid example of the value of physical reconstruction; sometimes CGI just will not do.

Wall walk and parapet

Wall walk and parapet

Once we have finished inspecting this, and perhaps taken a look at the remains of the 19th-century colliery that used to sit atop the fort, it is time to start walking. Leave the fenced area and turn right down Buddle Street. We are going to be separated from the course of the Wall for a short distance, but don’t fret: we shall soon be reunited. At the roundabout, continue across onto Neptune Road, and then another roundabout and slight bend in the road takes us onto Fossway. After two more roundabouts, the Miller’s Dene recreation ground on our right-hand side marks the location of Milecastle 1, with the course of the Wall and Fossway converging but not yet meeting.

Milecastle 1 (Stott’s Pow) [HB 141; haiku]

Stott's Pow, site of Milecastle 1

Stott’s Pow, site of Milecastle 1

This milecastle has never been confirmed, although what has been interpreted as occupation material has been found. It used to be placed further to the east on Ordnance Survey maps. Nevertheless, both Horsley and MacLauchlan reported seeing it here so this is now the accepted location.

PLVad2

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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