Friday 21 February 2014

Hadrian's Wall & Housesteads Fort

I have ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS wanted to go to Hadrian's Wall. As there's a chance that Alex Salmond will be rebuilding it soon, I thought I'd get a move on. 

Hadrian's Wall stretches 84 miles from the Tyne to the Solway Firth. It was built in AD122 - that's a staggering 1,878 years ago. If, like me, you've just turned 40 and are feeling a bit old then it's a great place to remind yourself that you're not.

As it's very old and very long, there's a lot to tell you:

1. Who was Hadrian and why did he build a wall across northern Britain?

Hadrian was Roman emperor between 117 and 138. Rome had expanded into Britain to varying degrees in previous years, but Hadrian decided it was time to draw a line signifying where the Empire ended. He ordered the construction of a wall that would stop the 'barbarians' to the north from marauding into Roman territory.

2. What did the Wall look like?

Hadrian's Wall must have been utterly, utterly awe-inspiring. If I'd been a northern barbarian, I'd have taken one look at it and gone home. It was FIFTEEN FEET HIGH in places, and eight feet deep. There was a milecastle (basically a small fort) every mile and a turret every third of a mile, as well as thirteen forts along its length. And it took JUST 6 YEARS to build. Below is a photo of Hadrian's Wall today. Once the Romans went home, it was dismantled over time by people nicking the stones to build castles, houses, even churches. In places there's nothing left at all now but where it's visible, it's still impressive:

Hadrian's Wall

3. Who built it?

The Wall was built by Roman legionaires, the elite soliders who had the specialist skills required. They didn't live on the Wall, however; once they'd finished, they returned to York or Chester or wherever they were stationed and it was the auxiliaries that actually manned the Wall - recruited in Germany and the Low Countries, auxiliaries served for 25 years and were rewarded with Roman citizenship. 

4. What's the relationship between Hadrian's Wall and the National Trust?

The National Trust owns a six-mile stretch of the Wall, from Housesteads Fort to Cawfields. We started at the NT Information Centre at Housesteads where, to my initial distress, there was no tea-room and therefore no scones. But who needs scones when there's a 1,878 year-old wall to see? 

Hadrian's Wall Housesteads Fort

5. What happened at the fort?

Housesteads, like most forts, is shaped like a playing card. Two huge gates would have been built into the ramparts, with other towers along the walls. Inside the fort were streets separating the various buildings, including the commander's house and admin offices. Outside the fort was a 'vicus', a civilian settlement that provided services to the fort.  

6. What else is there to see?

There's LOADS to see. You might want to wander along to Sycamore Gap, where Kevin Costner first met nasty Alan Rickman's men in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or head to Vindolanda, which has an awe-inspiring range of artefacts that were dug from the mud. The best find was the Vindolanda Tablets, an amazing set of letters written by Roman people living in the fort, which contain fascinatingly mundane stuff like news of underpants and dinner parties. The dinner set below on the left was also uncovered - it looks like it was made yesterday, not 1,900 years ago. And the shoes on the right are not quite so pristine but still amazing:

Vindolanda Artefacts

7. Is the Roman Armey Museum worth a visit? 

YES. It's not National Trust but it's a brilliant museum with an exceptionally good 3D film that shows you what a legion of marching Roman soldiers would have looked like (formidable) and how the forts would have worked. 

8. How can you learn more about the Wall?

I highly recommend that you read The Wall by Alistair Moffat - it's a great book about the Roman invasion of Britain, covering Boadicea and Cartimandua as well as the Wall itself. Very entertaining and easy to read.

Hadrian's Wall & Housesteads Fort: 5/5
Scones: 0/5 - there's no tea-room but you really don't need one

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