Imagine this. You were born by the shores of the Mediterranean. Your childhood summers were hot and your winters temperate. But now you are grown, and you are a soldier, posted to the furthest reaches of the Empire where icy winds blow down from the north and snow falls in the winter months. You have probably never seen snow before.
Your posting is to Vercovicium, the fort that today we know as Housesteads. Vercovicium means ‘the place of the effective fighters’ and you are here to defend the empire. Unlike most of the forts which straddle the great wall which was built at the command of your emperor Hadrian, this one lies just to its south. You are one of around 800 soldiers based here.
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.From ‘Roman Wall Blues’ by W H Auden
Fast-forward to the 21st century
Relatively little remains of the fort today; but there is enough for us to be able to trace the layout of the buildings and learn something of how those soldiers would have lived. Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be seen here today. These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort. The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries, with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.
There was a workshop, hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia. This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place; a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor; and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.
In truth most of the troops based would have been mostly recruited from the north-western provinces of the Roman empire. But some were from further afield like my imaginary soldier above.
The soldiers’ job was to guard the wall. In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep ‘intact the empire’, but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power.
The Wall was an impressive piece of engineering for its time. It stretched from what is now Wallsend (Roman Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria in the west. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. Historians think that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around. This reinforces the belief of some that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power; not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade.
The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals to garrison the troops who guarded the border; milecastles at approximately every mile; and two turrets evenly spaced between each of these, meaning that the soldiers had observation points every third of a mile.
To the south of the Wall was the Vallum, a large ditch that was dug by the Romans to reinforce the defences. This Latin word was the origin of the English word ‘wall’. It meant ‘stake’ rather than ditch, derived from the Roman system of temporary defences. The Roman legionaries on campaign each carried two sharpened stakes (in Latin sudis,plural sudes). These were usually made of oak and were about one and a half metres long. They were used as additional defences on the earthworks of their temporary and campaign camps, either sticking out at an angle as an additional barrier or as a vertical fence along the rampart.
After the Romans
After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building. The nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion. Local people still refer to this as the Military Road.
In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall. He started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations and also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is at Housesteads.
Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg, a few miles west of Housesteads. Walking between the two you are rewarded with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough.
Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall; walking on it however is discouraged to avoid further damage. In many places now the Wall is little more than a rampart, or even just a few crumbling stones. Nevertheless it isn’t too difficult to see it as those soldiers would have done, as they braved the chill winds to defend the Empire.
I visit Hadrian’s Wall quite regularly. My photos were taken on my last visit in the summer of 2015, when it wasn’t at all bleak!