Novocastrian Roman history is intertwined with Hadrian’s Wall, the small settlement and fort of Pons Aelius eventually became Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Wall finishes at the now aptly named Wallsend. This year’s final Exploring Classical and Historical Northumbria trip was to two of the major forts to the West of Newcastle, Chesters and Housesteads. We also walked part of the wall, because it also wouldn’t be a proper trip to Hadrian’s Wall otherwise. To reach Chesters and then Housesteads, we needed to travel from Central Station to Hexham, before catching the AD 122 bus (named after the founding date of the Wall) which stops at most of the major Hadrian’s Wall points of interest.
Cilurvum is the Roman name for Chesters fort which sat upon the bank of the River Tyne protecting one of the two bridges that allowed Hadrian’s Wall to cross the river. The fort was a cavalry fort holding around 500 auxiliary cavalrymen from Spain, as well as some men from the Rhineland and Dalmatia during a brief period between AD 138-180. Most of the stables are now covered in earth, due to the landscaping of Nathaniel Clayton in the `9th century but some have been excavated and can be seen alongside grazing horses. However, it is rather the extravagant bath house and commander’s quarters that make Cilurvum stand out. There is also a very well-preserved underground treasury room, the Northumbrian weather often means that this is inaccessible, but this was not the case when we visited making it possible to stand inside the domed underground room, a feat of Roman engineering. In Cilurvum there are small details that reveal something about the Roman life there. Although a bath house sits outside of the fort on the riverbank it appears that during the period of decline the Romans converted part of the commander’s house into a smaller one so they could bathe inside the protection of the walls in case of raiding parties.
The history of Chesters is not limited to the scope of the Romans, as the Clayton family’s ownership of the land is equally as interesting. Nathaniel Clayton originally landscaped over the ruins but collected some Roman artefacts. It was his son however who is responsible for state of Chesters as we saw it. John Clayton performed his first excavation in 1843 and went on to also excavate Housesteads and Brocolitia. Although at Chesters his excavations unearthed thirty-three skeletons, his workmen out of respect reburied them but did not record where. Most of the artefacts however are in the Housesteads collection and many are in the onsite Clayton Museum, designed by R.N. Shaw (who designed much of the North East during the 19th century). The museum boasts painted glass, primitive ‘road spikes’ and parts of bronze statues, as well as many stone carvings from the cohorts stationed there. We stayed at Chesters fort for lunch, enjoying the English Heritage café before we got on the bus again to head up to Housesteads.
Vercovicium is the Roman name for Housesteads, arguably the most famous fort on Hadrian’s Wall. While Chesters occupies a reasonably flat plane of land, Housesteads is on top of a steep hill which while making it easy to defend makes it hard work just to walk up to it. When we reached the fort, we went around the small onsite museum. Some objects such as boot studs and inscriptions have survived; but one of the more beautiful items, a golden ring lost by the commander in the drainage system was not on display as the Housesteads collection is displayed across several museums. Moving from the museum to the fort there are remains of some of the houses from the vicus, the settlement outside of the fort. One such house has been dubbed the ‘murder house’ as under the floor two skeletons, stabbed to death, were found. This disregard for burial practice clearly shows something iffy went on. Crime was long a part of Housesteads as it became a base for the Armstrong clan, notorious border reivers, who reequipped the Southern gatehouse into a two storey bastle house to help survive raiding.
Inside the fort there are several signs which show Vercovicium to be a major centre along the wall. The troops that manned the fort were mainly some 800 Tungrians, from Gaul. The scale of the fort is immense, not only does it have two incredibly large grain houses but there is also a significant sized hospital which is very rare in the Roman world. Most famously Vercovicium holds the best-preserved latrine in Roman Britain, showing how flowing water was utilised to remove sewage. It is surprising then that it is one of the few forts which was built without a source of running water. There is the Knag Burn nearby, but as we experienced the number of mosquitoes that chose to make this their home suggests Vercovicium wasn’t the most hospitable place on the Roman frontier.
On past trips we have chosen to go Westwards towards the famous Sycamore Gap and the imaginatively named beers of the Twice Brewed Inn. On this occasion we decided to travel East to Sewingshields Crags as our day had been mainly spent in Chesters and Housesteads. This central section of the Wall is rather impractical as it traverses the top of many different crags, showing the Romans imperial strength rather than any necessary defence. When following the remaining wall this can still be seen, the steep crags are hard to walk up and must have been even harder to scale. The Northern Gate of Vercovicium also had to be closed as it was too steep for horses to approach. Our refreshing walk not only allowed us to look over the Northumbrian hinterland but also see some of the new lambs and calves. We returned in good time to catch the bus back to Hexham and have a cup of tea in one of the local pubs before returning to Newcastle.