The Stanegate (Miles 1 to 7)

Introduction

To follow the Stanegate is a journey along two river systems and across the watershed of England. It is a geological exploration with a strategic twist. This is a road that archaeologists and historians have long wanted to be a frontier. Its life as a Roman road began in the AD 80s, with the construction of a Roman fort at Corbridge to pair with the existing base at Carlisle (which we know from dendrochronological studies of its timbers was built in AD 72). Both Corbridge and Carlisle were on main north to south routes but now they were linked across the isthmus by this new road. New? Almost certainly not. Unlike most Roman roads, the Stanegate does not boast many long, straight stretches (although it has a few) and some bits are downright tortuous. The valleys of the Tyne and Irthing offer a natural route across the country and it is probably prehistoric in origin (it certainly remained popular after the Roman period, as we shall see later).

Wall Miles 1 to 7

In this first section of the road, only Mile 1 is at all certain. Miles 5 and 6 have been suggested by Raymond Selkirk but not tested by excavation, whilst Miles 2 to 4 are at best a guess to take the road from where it is known (Mile 1) to where it must cross the North Tyne (somewhere upstream of the confluence with the South Tyne, near Warden). If correct, Selkirk’s Miles 5 and 6 suggest that that crossing was near Warden itself).


Miles 1 to 7 of the Stanegate

Mile 1

The course of the first mile west of Corbridge is known from excavation, aerial photography, and from its subsequent partial re-use as the medieval Carelgate. After crossing the Cor Burn by means of a terraced zig-zag (excavated in 1938–9), this passes the mausoleum at Shorden Brae (which helps define the western extremity of Roman Corbridge, since cemeteries were normally outside town boundaries), the baths at Red House, and the ?supply-base at Beaufront Red House, and runs close to the possible temporary camp at Bishop Rigg. Handbook p.427

Miles 2–6


Corchester Lane where it may be on the line of Stanegate

Course suggested by Raymond Selkirk, On the Trail of the Legions (1995) pp.111–19

Mile 7


Stanegate running through Fourstones

The traditional course in Mile 7 was confirmed by watching brief and excavation in 1994.


Stanegate near the location of the watching brief and excavation

Corbridge (Part I)

Corbridge, along with Carlisle, is one of the pivotal sites of northern Roman Britain. It is near Hadrian’s Wall, but not part of it; it is south of the frontier with Caledonia, but always looked beyond it. And when Q. Lollius Urbicus set out to subdue that northern region, he seems to have started from Corbridge.

Corbridge Roman site from the air

Corbridge Roman site from the air

You will see it called many things (Corstopitum, Coriosopitum, Coria), but the name that seems to be endorsed by the Vindolanda writing tablets is Coria (which means a hosting place, an apt term for the junction of two roads by a river; remember, the Romans did not invent roads in Britain, they merely engineered them to be all-weather).

It is also crucial in the development of British archaeology, with the involvement of Francis Haverfield, the Father of Roman Britain as he was often called, and the training of some of the later big names in the discipline: the future Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, J. P. Bushe-Fox, began as a supervisor on the first campaign of excavations there, working with Robert Forster (who was a rowing partner of his brother). Fox it was who called in Eric Birley to supervise the clearance of the site in the 1930s, after it had been given to the nation, which developed into the second major campaign of excavations on the site. Ian Richmond became involved and work continued into the early years of the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that the major series of training excavations got under way, lasting up until the early 1970s. There was rescue excavation too: when the A69 bypass was put in and the new site museum constructed. Nevertheless, what we know of Roman Corbridge is derived from only a tiny proportion of its total area.

So, with that by way of introductory background, it is time to begin our virtual visit to the Roman site at Corbridge. Enter the museum but go straight out onto the site and leave the museum until later; everything should make more sense by then (you might also think in terms of suspension of gratification or cherries/icing on top of buns/cake).

In this first part, we shall consider the structures to the north of the Stanegate.

At the heart of the English Heritage site as you now see it lies the original forts which are, paradoxically, barely visible now. The first was the largest and they lasted from around AD85 to about AD163 and were replaced by two novel, walled, military compounds, each containing a detachment from one of the British legions. The stone granaries from the last fort were retained, presumably to supply the legionaries, since they were also walled off and these are the first thing you see as you venture onto the site.

The granaries at Corbridge

The granaries at Corbridge

Like all Roman military granaries, they have a raised floor with ventilated underfloor area; the hatchway at the south end of the west granary (Site 10) is clearly visible (it was blocked when first excavated but the blocking is long gone). Each had a raised loading platform at the south end, but the continual raising of the level of the Stanegate meant these ultimately became inaccessible: the awkward gap between granaries and road was Roman, not modern. The east granary (Site 7) still has an intact mullion in one of its ventilator slots (although the lintel above it has been replaced, ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere on the building).

The fountainhouse under excavation in 1907

The fountain house under excavation in 1907

Next to the granaries are the remains of the fountain house (Site 8) of the aqueduct. This was built after the forts had been levelled, the aqueduct swerving around the fort bath-house on its way to the site from the north (the water was drawn off the Cor Burn north of the A69). The legio XX Valeria Victrix proudly proclaimed their part in constructing the feature (and perhaps with it the aqueduct) and its significance should not be overlooked, for this is just one sign of a deliberate attempt at the urbanisation of Corbridge. Forts did not have prominent aqueducts and terminal fountain houses: towns did.

Tucked away behind the granaries and next to the aqueduct is Site 12, a strip-house of no great significance, other than it was here in 1908 that a hoard of forty-eight gold solidi from the late 4th century AD (probably some time after AD 383) were found. If gold is your thing then these should ding your bell; personally I find a box full of rust far more interesting (and informative), as we shall see.

Site 11

Site 11

To the east of the fountain house is situated one of the most unusual (and, so far, unique) buildings of Roman Britain: Site 11. A near-square courtyard structure, with ranges of rooms on four sides, it bears a close resemblance in plan to the Halifax Piece Hall and may well have been intended to have stairs in each corner. Its model may have been the Macellum Magnum built by Nero in Rome. Whatever it was intended to be, however, it was never completed, for the ambitious plans for Corbridge appear to have changed and only the west and south wings were finished. When it was found, the archaeologists bickered over its interpretation (Haverfield thought it a legionary headquarters building, Forster a forum).

Finally, to either side of this magnificent range of structures, there were ordinary strip houses of the sort you could find on most Romano-British settlements: Site 9 to the west (now replaced by the museum building) and Site 20 to the east, at the edge of the modern site.

So much for what you can see. What is no longer visible is the underlying military history. Both Site 9 and Site 20 lie directly over the ramparts of the cohort-sized fort that succeeded the earliest, larger fort. The courtyard of Site 11 contains (to the west) part of the headquarters building of the fort (the shrine of the standards to be exact), preserved because it was used as a builders’ hut during the construction of the massive courtyard building, and part of the commanding officer’s house. The post-war training excavations concentrated on looking beneath Site 11 and attempting to untangle the sequence of four forts: Phase I (the largest, c.AD86-103); Phase II (c.AD105-22); Phase III (c.AD122-38); and the first stone fort (c.AD139-63).

In the next part, we shall examine the area south of the Stanegate, then finally we can think about the Corbridge Hoard, a forgotten treasure of Roman Britain.

The PLV eboojs

Wall Mile 39

Wall Mile 39 [HB 258–61]

There is now a nice, gentle downhill stretch to take us to near Steel Rigg plantation and its neighbouring car park, where we need to cross the road (bearing in mind the traffic, looking for somewhere to park, frequenting this road). From the moment we leave Milecastle 40, at the eastern end of Winshields Crags, the ditch reappears to the north of the curtain wall (the line of which is still marked by its attendant field wall) and as we head for the plantation it makes a fine sight to our left.

The ditch heading for Steel Rigg car park

The ditch heading for Steel Rigg car park

To the south of us, the Vallum has now joined the line of the 18th-century Military Road, which was constructed on its south berm for a distance of about 1.9km. Further south still is the Stanegate, making its way towards Vindolanda, and then the terrain slopes down into the valley of the South Tyne.

Ditch and curtain wall at Steel Rigg

Ditch and curtain wall at Steel Rigg

Once we have crossed the road, the National Trail moves to the northern side of the curtain wall, which is now Claytonized once more. The path carefully, almost inconspicuously, sidles into the ditch itself, so that as we turn to the south-east after 140m, we can look up to our right at the curtain wall behind its berm. The keen-of-eye will note that we are entering another re-entrant covering a gap in the crags, and this is Peel Gap.

Peel Gap Tower

Peel Gap tower

Peel Gap tower

Excavation in 1987 revealed an additional tower inserted into the Wall scheme, between Turret 39b (the site of which we passed immediately west of the road) and Turret 39a (ahead of us, up on Peel Crag), inserted into a blind spot that may well have originally been a transhumance route. The tower was an afterthought and its builders did not take heed of their fellows who had built the rest of the curtain wall out of sandstone, since they dressed whin stone to make its walls. A platform on the west side may have been the base for an ascensus, or stairway to the wall walk (which may or may not have existed… and so on). The best view of the tower is to be obtained by carrying on up the steps onto Peel Crag and looking back: no pain, no gain.

The curtain wall romps up the side of the crags, partly covered by a field wall, and turns a sharp left to the north, thus closing the re-entrant. We can see the turn to the right, once at the top, next to the stile. The Trail then takes us along the south side of the Claytonized curtain wall. There is little to mark the site of Turret 39a, other than a slightly smoother sward. We begin to descend and paving stones appear to reinforce the Trail but there is no re-entrant and accompanying ditch here, despite a wiggle to the north by the curtain wall, since it is just following the edge of the crags, as it heads down into another nick. This is Cat Stairs. Up, again, and then we encounter another one of the iconic views of the Wall: Milecastle 39 sitting in another meltwater spillway, Castle Nick.

Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) [HB 257–8; haiku]

Milecastle 39

Milecastle 39 in Castle Nick

The surrounding walls of the long-axis Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) are Claytonized and it has been the object of the attentions of excavators in 1854, between 1908 and 1911, and most recently in the 1980s. The structures visible inside it are for the most part post-medieval (it is said to have been used as a milking parlour) and demonstrate once again the re-use of milecastles for agricultural purposes in later years. It was not located in its measured position but further east, perhaps deliberately to place it in the gap.

Wall Mile 45

Wall Mile 45 [HB 278–9]

A short walk along the northern fringe of the upcast mound for the ditch takes us to the road, Walltown quarry (as was), and time for a decision. Now is your chance to take a break from the Wall and explore the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. Strictly speaking, Carvoran was a Stanegate fort (falling between the regular forts at Birdoswald and Greatchesters – the Vallum swerves to the north to avoid the fort, huffily excluding it from the Wall zone), but we need not be so picky that we will stride on past and ignore it, especially in the light of its recent refurbishment which definitely makes it worth a visit. Besides, it gives the Roman military context to the whole Wall by explaining army organisation and so on.

Walltown Quarry

Walltown Quarry

So, whether you choose to visit the museum or just carry on along the Wall, after joining the road we turn right and soon see the entrance to Walltown Quarry, which we will either walk past or turn into, according to our preference. The former quarry, now a nature reserve, has a small shop with public conveniences next to the car park. Follow the path east out of the car park, our route curves round to the north, keeping the large upstanding mound to our left. At the point where the path starts to turn to the east again, we are close to the site of Turret 45b, which – left on a pinnacle – collapsed into the quarry in the 19th century and which provided an object lesson in the danger of quarry proximity to monuments that was to become relevant again in the 1930s, as we shall see. Musing on such things, we can carry on along the path until it takes us up past the quarry face to a gate in the south-east corner of the nature reserve, Once through that, we double back on ourselves and head north, keeping the stone wall immediately to our left until we see the curtain wall loom into view, just before it plunges over the quarry edge.

The curtain wall climbs up Walltown Crags

The curtain wall climbs up Walltown Crags

Climbing dramatically upwards, before weaving around outcrops of whinstone, we are now aware that the geology has changed for the first time since we left the Cumbrian coastal plain. Starting at Thirlwell Castle, we have ascended the Whin Sill, the outcrop of dolerite that dominates the central sector of the Wall and provides the tactical landscape for the mural barrier, as well as having donated the term ‘sill’ to geology. It is a characteristic of the Whin Sill that it slopes downwards to the south (known, appropriately, as the ‘dip slope’) and is accompanied by bands of sandstone and limestone to its south. It thus provided two key elements for the Wall’s construction: sandstone for the curtain wall itself and limestone for the mortar. Dolerite is too hard to be worked easily (the major reason it was preferred for road stone in more recent times, hence quarries like Walltown) so the Roman troops generally avoided trying to dress it as facing stones, although it did sometimes end up in the core. Thus the happy coincidence of the tactically favourable terrain, the presence nearby of necessary building materials, and the comparatively short distance between the coasts meant Hadrian’s Wall was placed in the Goldilocks Zone for northern frontiers.

Rounding a corner

Rounding a corner

Wall Mile 45 is one of the most spectacular and oft-photographed sections of the Wall, and the adaptation of the curtain wall builders to this terrain is interesting to observe. Climbing up from its unintentional terminus above the beetling cliff of the quarry face, the curtain wall turns a corner of about sixty degrees to the east, nicely rounded on the outside but angular on the south face (and so reminiscent of milecastle corners), keeping a comfortable distance from the edge of the cliff that matches the width of the berm elsewhere, where the ditch is present. Winding around some outcrops, it then plunges down into our first ‘nick’; the ‘Nine Nicks of Thirlwell’ are in reality glacial spillways, caused by melt-water when the ice was retreating at the end of the most recent Ice Age. Only pedants will care that there are no longer nine of them, due to the actions of the aforementioned quarry. This is the viewpoint for the famous Alan Sorrell reconstruction of the Wall at Walltown Crags. On the way down, some rather spectacular buttressing is undertaken to get over one particularly troublesome outcrop. This particular spillway still drains water, but now from the boggy land to the south, so has been provided with drainage slots at its base like those we have already seen further to the west. The curtain wall immediately begins to climb again, its coursing impressively levelled on footings that more casually follow the slope and even stepped as it goes around a slight corner. Then it is but a short hop to the site of Turret 45a, which is a rather interesting example of its kind.

Turret 45a (Walltown)

Turret 45a

Turret 45a

Interesting? Already, after only a few examples have come our way, turrets can scarcely be called interesting. This one is. Cast your mind back to Pike Hill signal tower, which we saw just after Turret 52a. That was a pre-Wall signal tower incorporated into the Wall; so is Turret 45a, as was evident when it was re-excavated in 1959 (it had previously been examined in 1883 and 1912). The curtain wall butts against it on either side and the tower-cum-turret, as with Pike Hill, has excellent views to the south and better views to the north than the neighbouring pre-Hadrianic fort at Carvoran. As with Pike Hill, the entrance is on the eastern side of the southern face.

The curtain wall, part-excavated

The curtain wall, part-excavated

The curtain wall continues for a short distance to the east before it vanishes, consumed by Greenhead Quarry (which, unlike Walltown Quarry, remains more as less as it was when abandoned: a mess). We can follow the fence round and start to climb the Sill and soon we see an impressive sight: the next bit of wall, perched on the edge of a quarry face (and often with crows ridge soaring above it). Gaining a bluff, we find ourselves looking down on another stretch of curtain wall, partly excavated and consolidated. Most people don’t know this is here and walk straight past it, which is a pity as it is particularly evocative of how the consolidation process was undertaken (and, in this case, abandoned). Immediately to the east, the curtain wall is covered again and only a few tumbled stones poke through the turf (affording an excellent opportunity to compare the two states of the wall) and as we follow it up to a low platform, we reach the site of Milecastle 45.

Milecastle 45 (Walltown) [HB 278; haiku]

Milecastle 45

Milecastle 45, as you’ve probably never seen it

Milecastle 45 (Walltown) has never been properly excavated, but the robber trenches dug to remove its walls (and their associated spoil heaps) are very clear and serve to delineate the structure. Try if you can to recall Milecastle 48 next to the Poltross Burn and reflect upon the two extremes of preservation and presentation.

The PLV ebooks

Wall Mile 52

Wall Mile 52 [HB 320–2]

Consideration was once given to consolidating a length of wall east of Milecastle 53, but nothing ever came of this and there is nothing to see. The lane next takes us down to cross the road close to Banks Burn and the Trail then leads us first left then right along the road and up the hill, whilst the Wall continues more directly up the hillside towards the hamlet of Banks. Soon we rejoin the course of the Wall and the line of the ditch is apparent to the left of the road. The Trail sticks to the road (watch out for traffic) until we are past Banks itself, when a right turn takes us onto a path running south of a wall separating us from the road. This soon takes us to the next major section of curtain wall at Banks East Turret.

Turret 52a at Banks East

Turret 52a at Banks East

Turret 52a (Banks East) was excavated in 1933 and was the first piece of Wall in Cumbria to be placed into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works (in 1934). The road, which used to follow the line of the curtain wall closely, originally ran over the top of it, but has subsequently been moved onto the berm (the ditch is very plain to the north of the road). The curtain wall to either side of the turret is, once again, the Narrow Gauge form that pre-dates the move to the Antonine Wall and is pierced at ground level by several drains, designed to stop water ponding against it.

Turret 52a

Turret 52a

The turret itself, being originally constructed free-standing and with the turf wall butted against it, is very clearly of a different build to the curtain wall. The butt joints between wall and turret are obvious and the turret protrudes to the north of the line of the curtain wall. On its north face is a fine plinth course that is reminiscent of that we noted at Drumburgh Castle some while ago and there are hints that it existed on the south side too. Why is the plinth course there? Nobody knows. Perhaps it marked a feature of the Turf Wall itself, such as the top of a vertical front ‘cheek’ (although turf ramparts were usually battered inwards so that they were narrower at the top than at the base, the lowest portion was sometimes vertical).

The plinth course and projecting front of Turret 52a

The plinth course and projecting front of Turret 52a

The chief distinguishing features of the turret are that it is square with an entrance at ground level (in this case at the eastern end of the southern side) and that it is recessed into the thickness of the curtain wall. A hearth lay against the west wall. As with all archaeological reconstruction, the higher up we look, the less certain we are about details. It is assumed it had entrances on either side at the level of the top of the Turf (and later Stone) Walls, although there are those who do not believe Hadrian’s Wall had a walkway or parapet on top (more of that later). As part of the Turf Wall, the front and back of this stone turret coincided with the front and back of the turf rampart, but when the stone curtain wall was provided, the turret was left to project slightly to the north (turrets to the east, built at the same time as the curtain wall, did not do this), so some scholars have suggested this means the curtain wall was lined up on those side entrances to the (presumed) walkway. Turrets and towers in the ancient world were generally intended to give a height advantage, so we can be fairly safe in assuming its top was higher than the Wall, although by how much is uncertain; part of the tumbled superstructure lies immediately outside the west wall. Equally, we do not know if it had a flat roof with a parapet and fighting platform or whether it was conventionally roofed. As you can readily see, what we know about turrets is far outweighed by what we have to guess.

Drainage channel through the lowest course of the Wall

Drainage channel through the lowest course of the Wall

Just 205m to the east of Banks East turret there is another square stone tower, this time set at an angle to the line of the Wall. This is Pike Hill Signal Tower, positioned on the crest and cut by the same road that overlay the neighbouring turret, although only parts of two sides and one corner remain to be inspected. Fortunately, the south-eastern side contains the entrance at its southern end. The tower has been interpreted as a pre-Wall signal tower, probably associated with the Stanegate ‘system’, which was subsequently incorporated into the Wall, due to its advantageous position for signalling.

Pike Hill signal tower

Pike Hill signal tower

After all that excitement, it is time to retrace our steps for a few paces, pass through a kissing gate, and head east along the National Trail next to the field wall that divides us from the road. The Vallum is just to our right but has been almost completely ploughed out. Finally, we hop over the wall by means of a stile and are back on the road in order that the Trail can pass Bankshead House, where the next milecastle was situated.

Milecastle 52 (Bankshead) [HB 319–20; haiku]

Milecastle 52 (Bankshead) was excavated in 1934 and found to be a short-axis example. It will come as no surprise to learn that two more altars to Cocidius were found here at the beginning of the 19th century. No trace can now be seen but once again it illustrates a milecastle site being used as a later farming settlement.

Wall Mile 61

Wall Mile 61 [HB 336–7]

The line of the Wall is now closely followed by the continuation of Birky Lane, the curtain wall lying just to the north of the road itself.

Lane on line of the Wall

Lane on line of the Wall

Just over half way along this stretch, the course of the ditch becomes apparent to the left and then, soon after, we rejoin the course of the National Trail, which comes stomping up from Low Crosby, where it has briefly followed the course of the Stanegate out of the village before crossing the busy A689 by means of a bridge shared with (but, on either side, segregated from) a farm track. At the point of the reunion, immediately to our south, a series of temporary camps are known from aerial photography, possibly labour camps associated with the construction of the Wall, although they may equally be associated with the passage of troops along the Stanegate. Continue eastwards, enjoying the easy walking provided by the leafy lane, making for the site of Milecastle 61 (Wall Head).

Milecastle 61 (Wall Head) [HB 336; haiku]

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 61

Looking towards the site of Milecastle 61

For some curious reason, the position of Milecastle 61 is not marked on the 2010 edition of the English Heritage map of the Wall, but we can be reasonably certain it lies slightly east of Wall Head farm and, indeed, geophysical survey has identified its likely position.

Seditio3ad

Wall Mile 62

Wall Mile 62 [HB 337–8]

 From the A689 as far as Walby, the course of the Wall is marked by the familiar field boundaries and is inaccessible, so we must retrace our footsteps to the roundabout, then head east for about 0.9km until we reach the junction with Birky Lane, which will take us north up to the suggestively named Walby. The lane kinks and jiggles until it rejoins the course of the Wall near Walby Grange, where the frontier has undergone a major course change onto a more easterly bearing, parallel to the line of the Stanegate to its south.

Milecastle 62 (Walby East) [HB 337; haiku]

Site of Milecastle 62

Site of Milecastle 62

Milecastle 62 (Walby East) was located by MacLauchlan at the point where the lane, which has made a short detour to the north of the Wall immediately after Walby, turns eastwards once more. In 1999, tests excavation identified the heavily robbed remains of the long-axis milecastle, as well as its turf predecessor. There are no visible remains.