Skip to main content

A Rome of our own

The Roman presence in the north of England was concentrated around Hadrian's Wall. But there's a lot more to be seen, as Ann Hills discovers as she wanders east along its 73 miles.

In AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian began construction on what became the best preserved frontier of the Roman world. From this northern boundary in the emperor's British outpost, which separated the Romans from the "barbarians", his Empire stretched 1,500 miles south to the Sahara and 2,500 miles east to what is now Iraq.

Remains of Hadrian's Wall extend across tidal marshes and rivers, up and down hills and granite crags for 73 miles from Wallsend on the Tyne, to Bowness on the Solway Firth. For centuries its stones were stolen for buildings, or buried under roads, but some stretches remain monumental.

The wall - originally about 15ft high - was more than just a boundary. It was bolstered by turrets and milecastles (small forts constructed at regular intervals), with 16 larger forts, a deep ditch or "vallum" on the south side and nearby military and civilian settlements which housed thousands of soldiers and civilians. Commanders' houses, temples, bath-houses, granaries and hospitals have all left their marks.

In 1987 it was listed as a World Heritage site - a UNESCO designation - and in October 1994, the Government gave the go-ahead for a national trail along its course. If an appeal for Pounds 2.8 million of Lottery funds is successful next month, the trail, which will be administered by the Countryside Commission, is expected to attract a four-fold rise in visitors from the present 5,000 to 20,000.

Interest in the Roman presence in the north of England is fuelled through archaeological digs and research, which continue to unearth glimpses of an ex-pat lifestyle. Love letters have survived, along with a commander's social diary, thousands of shoes and boots, gaming boards, lost purses and coins, even insects and microscopic samples which provide scientists with clues about vegetation and crops.

A reconstructed West Gate is the entrance to the Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum at South Shields. Inside are the headquarters building, with strong room and underground central heating, known as a hypocaust, which was fuelled by a subterranean furnace and tiled flues. Granaries, communal latrines and lines of walls are all visible. School parties can learn about Roman military life, about the ferocious weapons they used and examine important finds from current archaeological digs. Details of teacher's pack, courses, educational material and special events, plus loans of Roman remains and bookings for visits from the education officer, Jane Miller (0191 456 8740). Entrance is free all year.

The Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle has models of a fort, milecastle, turrets, a bath-house, and the wall. A guide to Latin inscriptions and sculptured stones will interest secondary pupils. The inscriptions come from 182 altars, 63 tombstones, and 133 sculptures, about a quarter of which are on display in the museum at any one time, with jewellery, bronze vessels and iron tools. Details from Lindsay Allason-Jones, archaeological museums officer on 0191 222 78467849. Admission is free. Open all year.

The Temple of Antenociticu at Benwall and a long stretch of wall up to 10 Roman feet thick in places at Heddon-on-the-Wall are among the remains as you head west. There are enough remains of bath-houses and the assembly hall at Chesters Roman Fort for historians tocreate meticulous reconstructions, with a nearby settlement still awaiting excavation. The museum on site contains finds from Chesters and beyond (such as a glass flask which carried oil used in bath-houses, found at Corbridge). Details from 01434 681379. Nearby, at Carrawburgh, are the remains of the Temple to Mithras (a Persian god), a cult which was sweeping through the Roman army at the time. This temple was possibly destroyed by Christians.

Housesteads Roman Fort is a famed, five-acre site in high, open countryside, It has 18 buildings within its walls and surviving parts of a civilian settlement beyond. Housesteads was occupied through the third and fourth centuries by the First Cohort of Tungrians with up to 1,000 men in the infantry regiment, plus civilians. The museum places the large complex in perspective with barracks, hospital, HQ, and latrines - complete with a flush system. Closed mid-winter. Details from 01434 344525.

Steel Rigg is a spectacular three-mile walk along the wall . It passes milecastle 27 (the best preserved, including some arch stones on the North Gate), Highshields Crags (where the wall survives to 10ft high) and Peel Crags, where a tower was discovered in 1987.

uVindolanda is owned by a trust set up by the Birley family, who werecriticised years ago when they built a full-scale reconstruction of a turret and length of wall before academics accepted such replicas. The finds at Vindolanda are exceptional - a couple of thousand leather shoes and boots from fine leatherwork to sturdy outer clothing. There are fragments of letters on wooden tablets, snippets of cloth, boxes of pottery, and wooden carvings. Robin Birley has recently added a reconstructed temple, house and shop so visitors can put an entire Roman settlement into a visual context. Archaeologists and conservationists are employed all year round. The Vindolanda Trust provides teachers with free familiarisation visits, wallcharts and teaching packs. Details from Patricia Birley, museum curator for the Roman Army Museum and Vindolanda, tel: 01434 3442777 (fax 344060).

At Cawfields, sections of wall were destroyed by a quarry. It has now been landscaped and provides a stopping-off point to study the geography - with help from area rangers. From here, the next stop west is the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran near Greenhead, with reconstructions, film theatre and display rooms coinciding with a particularly impressive section of the wall.

Between these sites is Northumberland National Park at Once Brewed (open weekends only in November; reopens daily from mid-March). This visitors' centre puts the stark but dramatic landscape and its social history in perspective and school parties can reserve its theatre for private showings. A leaflet on Hard Rock Trial suggests a walk starting nearby at the Walltown Centre, where quarrying began in the 1870s and on towards the wall, with explanations of the geological structures. Details from Alison Blair on 01434 606044 or Fiona Knox, education officer, on 01434 605555).

Birdoswald Roman Fort has in recent years been the subject of archaeological attention, with a dig this autumn at the edge of an escarpment above a deep valley of the river Irthing. In the past decade, two granaries have been unearthed along with workshops, stores, basilica, and gates in an area where the wall was originally built of turf.

A phallic symbol on the south face of the wall between Birdoswald and Harrow's Scar was thought to represent good fortune, though a similar carving of male genitalia at Vindolanda was found within the walls of the drain which more possibly indicated the direction of the waterflow.

The visitor centre here shows that life continued after the Romans: for example, stone from this section was used to build Lanercost Priory. Bookings for school parties may be possible outside opening times (Easter to the end of October) and discounts are available. Details from the site manager on 016977 47602.

The Tullie House Museum in Carlisle has an evocative exhibition on the Roman occupation and "the mysteries of Hadrian's Wall" which is open aall year. Details from 01228 34781 (fax 01228 810249).

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you