A Borders Blog May 2019

Welcome to this month’s piece and the final part of the introduction to Hadrian’s Wall which is followed by a description of the first part of the walk along the Hadrian’s Wall path.

I finished off last month by describing the Roman withdrawal from their northern outposts along the Gask Ridge on the edge of the south eastern highlands of Scotland after the Legio ll Adiutrix had been redeployed from garrison duties at York to shore up the defences on the Danubian frontier. This led in turn to the withdrawal of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix to York to ensure the continued stability of the Roman grip on southern Britain. After a brief pause along a line stretching between the Rivers Clyde and Forth which were abandoned during the early years of the second century the line of forts running east/west along the Stanegate road found themselves in the front line.

The Stanegate Frontier.

The road is unusual in so much as it contours through the landscape rather than following the traditional straight line expected of Roman roads and ran from Carlisle to Corbridge and beyond although its eastern terminus is not known.

The Stanegate road forms the central main east/west thoroughfare through Roman Corbridge. The buildings to the left were once granaries.

Corbridge, strategically situated next to the Tyne at the point where Dere Street crosses the river before advancing north into barbarian lands straddles the Stanegate which formed its main east/west thoroughfare. Roman control of the Stanegate was reinforced with some major forts newly built to reinforce existing establishments as the frontier retreated south. This building programme ensured that garrisons were separated by no more than a days march from one another. One reason suggested as to why the frontier was established here is that this is the northern boundary of the Brigantes tribal area, the Brigantes having been a client kingdom of the Roman regime for 50 years or so.(1) That the Romans may have realised that the withdrawal was permanent is suggested by the extending the line of forts along the southern Solway coast to include those at Burgh by Sands and nearby Kirkbride.

Image result for photos of burgh by sands parish church
The 12th century Parish church of St Michaels occupies part of the site of the Roman fort at Burgh by Sands. Finding itself once again on the front line, it was fortified in the 14th century.

In addition, there appears for the first time what is known as a small fort, as distinguished from a fortlet by being the home to a parent body of troops who were outstationed elsewhere. (2) Only two such sites have been definitively identified. Of the two, only Haltwhistle Burn has been excavated but it would seem that a central building may have served as a Principia or Headquarters building. It is suggested that the purpose of these troops was to man the watchtowers which were erected to the north of the main line of forts to act as a system of early warning of impending trouble. One such watchtower was subsequently incorporated into the wall as turret 45a perched on the edge of the scarp slope at Walltown Crags with superb views north.

The nature of the relations between the Romans and their northern barbarian neighbours is unknown. There is a tantalising suggestion that all was not well during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, 98-117AD, as the Cohors l Cugernorum, an auxiliary infantry unit from Germania were awarded honours for meritorious service, earned one assumes on the northern frontier. Certainly Hadrian’s biographer claimed that the natives could barely be kept under control and it would seem reasonable to suggest that the most likely place for any disturbance would be along the northern frontier. And so it was, that during his tour of the Empire’s provinces Hadrian visited Britain during 122AD and decreed that the wall bearing his name should be constructed.

Hadrian’s Wall Path.

Stretching some 85 miles, the path was opened on 2003 and tries as faithfully as possible to follow the wall for much of its length. The exception to that rule is the easternmost sections which follow the north bank of the river Tyne rather than the traffic congested streets of urban Newcastle upon Tyne. If you’re keen enough, you can follow the line of the wall as long as you’re prepared for the attendant cloud of diesel fumes. For those of you who may want to do that there will be a brief description of the route next month as there are a couple of sites of interest along the way.

One cautionary note to anyone intending to walk the wall. The vast majority of people embarking on the walk do so over the weekend, including me who walked the first 45 miles or so from Newcastle to Haltwhistle over the second May Bank Holiday. It puts a considerable degree of strain on the B&B accommodation which at certain sections is already at a premium. It is worth planning your visit well in advance!

One other point worth making is that the prevailing winds are westerlies hence consideration should be given to walking west to east so that any breeze is at your back. I can assure you that walking the Whin Sill into the teeth of a howling gale is not the greatest fun you’ll ever have!

So having ignored my own advice, I started at Wallsend (I spent Friday morning wandering round Newcastle researching some bits and pieces for subsequent blogs, well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). The Newcastle Metro Station conveniently forms part of Newcastle Railway Station and trains are every 20 minutes or so and the journey to Wallsend Station also takes approximately 15 minutes.

A helpful sign a few metres into the walk with the reconstruction of a Roman bath house as a backdrop.

Turn right out of the Metro Station and an immediate right to turn down the main road and a short walk will bring you to the museum and site of the easternmost fort at Segedunum and the start of the walk. The first few miles are very much a walk through the industrial decline of the area but could equally represent other parts of the former industrial north of England. This is most marked here as, on the banks of the river to your left is a large expanse of waste ground with the remnants of a couple of ramshackle prefabricated buildings which mark what used to be the site of the Swan Hunter Shipyard, once responsible for employing thousands but now home to a small design function employing significantly less than a hundred people.

The view east, a mile or so from Newcastle upon Tyne city centre. The skeleton of a beached ship is in the foreground.

For the first couple of miles there is very little to see as the path passes through the suburb of Walker. There are occasional glimpses of the river but it’s not until the path drops down to the river side that the view opens up. The Gateshead side of the river is largely wooded although the steep drop to the river bank which can be seen in the photograph above has been caused by the dumping of Thames ballast. The colliers, having emptied their cargoes of north eastern coal for the

Looking west towards the last vestiges of the chemical industry in the area. The Akzo Nobel site governed by far more stringent environmental laws that its predecessors.

London market at the Thanes river wharves, filled up with ballast dredged from the river for their return journey. Upon reaching the Tyne they emptied the ballast onto the river bank before refilling with coal for the return journey. The north banks of the Tyne at the point where this photo was taken was once the site of a vast chemical plant manufacturing, amongst other things, coal tar. Although a considerable sum has been spent on reclaiming the area for nature there are still signs warning people to stay away from the waterfront due to the effects of contamination yet despite that I’d just walked past someone on his hands and knees rummaging through the mud looking for fishing bait. At one point near to where these two photo’s were taken there is a very definite whiff of coal tar soap! A short distance from here one walks into the bustling city centre waterfront with its modern apartments and riverside bars which, on the Friday evening of my visit were crowded with the locals winding down for the weekend.

The wonderful Baltic Flour Mill, now the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

This was the first day’s journey’s end for me, in a hotel overlooking the Gateshead shore’s most famous landmark. The Baltic Flour Mill was designed in the 1930’s when buildings could still be designed to project a certain civic pride. It’s interesting to compare it to the modern apartment buildings which flank it and which are either superb examples of modern design with the accent on clean lines and minimalism or, charmless little boxes with little to please the eye. I’ll let the reader decide.

For those of you with a wider interest in the history of the Roman occupation of Britain there are a number of museums and sites of interest along the walk so….

……if you’ve got time.

Arbeia Fort – South Shields.

The fort at Arbeia is situated to the south of the Tyne at South Shields some 4 miles or so downriver from Wallsend. It seems that the south bank of the river has actually shifted north a short distance so that in its heyday the fort would have been much closer to the river than it is today.

Reconstruction of the west gate to the Roman fort at Arbeia.

The first fort, yet to be excavated, but close to the site of this the second, was possibly abandoned after the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142AD. However, when the Antonine Wall was in turn abandoned only a few years after its completion the frontier was re-established along that set by Hadrian’s surveyors. It seems that at this point the second fort was built to house a garrison of 120 cavalry and 480 infantry. The site is now owned and managed by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and is worth a visit for the reconstructions of both the west gate to what is thought to have been its original height as well as a barrack block.

Memorial to Regina, Catuvellaunian former slave and wife of Barates. The inscription underneath in both Latin and Aramaic is unique in Britain.

In addition it has a small but interesting museum containing a number of memorial stones to some of the people associated with the fort and in particular that of Regina the wife and former slave of Barates of Palmyra. She was of the Catuvallauni tribe centred on St Albans and he was from modern Syria. The tombstone has a rare and touching memorial inscription in both latin and Aramaic. The latin reads “To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up)”. Underneath, in the only example of its kind in Britain, in Aramaic, Barates first language it reads “Regina, freed woman of Barate, alas”.(3) Sadly, Palmyra and its inhabitants, near Homs in modern day Syria appear to have suffered during the recent war in Syria, its ancient ruins partly destroyed.

The preserved remains of the toilet. Situated behind the reconstructed barrack block there would have been wooden seats on top of the upright blocks and over the drain underneath.

Archaeological evidence would suggest that by the start of the third century, the fort had become a supply base for provisions from southern England as well as the continent as baggage seals have been found among the remains.

The museum also contains a complete suit of Roman ringmail thought to have been left behind by its owner when the barrack block in which it was found burnt down.(4) If one looks very closely, not only can the 7mm rings be seen but also the tiny rivets holding them together.

By the fifth century it is thought that the fort may have continued in use beyond the Roman occupation and there is a possibility that it may have become a Royal possession and the birthplace of Oswin, King of Deira. Certainly the evidence points to its continued use well into the Saxon period.

Further information on the site can be obtained by visiting their website at arbsoc.org.uk.


The fort at Segedunum lies at the eastern extreme of Hadrian’s Wall. A popular spot, the archaeological evidence points to it having been under cultivation when the Roman Army pitched up and requisitioned it for their own purposes. Remarkably, all the evidence indicates that furrows had been dug for the purposes of the planting of crops and which were then filled in by the Romans as they prepared the site for building.(5) It sits on a slight plateau overlooking modern Newcastle to the west and in Roman times the site of Pons Aelius (Aelius being Hadrian’s family name) and its associated fort guarding the river crossing, and to the east the supply base at Arbeia.

The layout of Segedunum is fairly typical of its type so I’ll not labour it here as I’ll look at that in subsequent pieces but the site is cut neatly in two by present day Buddle Street named after the 19th century mining engineer John Buddle. There is however a popular museum on the site. I can’t go into too much detail about what it contains because I visited on a Bank holiday and it was heaving with visitors (in marked contrast to the fort at the western end) and I didn’t hang about. The fact that it was so busy must however be suggestive of its quality.

Reconstruction of the wall to what is thought could have been its full height. The remains of the original wall can be seen just in front of it.

That said, it has a couple of interesting features that I did make an effort to see and that are well worth mentioning. At the entrance to the remains, the museum has set up a memorial to the names of all those known to have had a hand in the building of the wall. Taken from what are known as centurial stones, they are a record by the units involved in the building of the wall who recorded the name of the officer in charge of the building parties responsible for each section. There is also a reconstruction of a Roman bath house, not on its original site because it was Roman custom to build their bath houses outside the walls but which was, unfortunately on the day of my visit closed due to the roof having sprung a leak.

Clear evidence for the collapse of the wall sometime after its abandonment in the early 5th century. A pile of rubble remains where it fell just to the rear.

Just over Buddle Street and just outside the site there is a reconstruction of the wall to what is thought to have been its full height although it has to be said that some speculation must be involved as it is not known for sure whether the wall top was crenelated or not. What can be said with some certainty is that pits have been found just to the north of the wall that would have housed additional obstacles to attackers approaching from the barbarian side. However, for me the best part of the visit is the uncovered remains of the actual wall nearby. It is this part of the wall, possibly above any other that makes getting out and visiting these sites so well worth the effort. Standing less than half a metre in height the lower courses of stone that are left of the north face have caved in and lean at an improbable angle just as they must have done the day that the wall collapsed. This section of the wall sits in a slight gully which 1900 years ago was probably quite marshy.

The culvert built into the wall to allow excess water to escape without undermining the foundations.

This caused weaknesses in the wall foundations which translated into structural weakness in  the wall itself which needed repair on more than one occasion (the evidence for repairs having been carried out is clear, not least in the fact that a culvert has been built into the wall to allow the water to escape!) When the remains were uncovered by the archaeologists a pile of rubble was left just as found in its final resting place after it collapsed for the last time.

That’s it for this month but next month I’ll be continuing my walk along the wall and describing some of the sights that are on or close to its route. These include the remains of Newcastle’s medieval past and an introduction to some of the border region’s past personalities,

  1. Breeze, D.J., The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain. (BCA, London 1982).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Roman inscriptions of Britain.org RIB1065. Funerary inscription for Regina.
  4. Unknown. Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort. (Tyne and Wear archives and museums.
  5. Unknown, (Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum). Tyne and Wear archives and museums. 

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