Hadrians Wall again!

Panoramic view of Chesters fort from the West Gate An unexpected trip to Yorkshire for a family funeral in mid-September left me with yet another cross-country journey, and time on my hands. I decided that the best use of the day was to retrace my steps along the route of the Wall and try to visit some of the sites I had missed in May. My chief target was Chesters, which I had ducked out of the last time due to the appalling weather. On this occasion I was rewarded with mild and dry conditions, though no sunshine - I really do wonder what a Roman soldier from any of the Mediterranean countries, would have thought of our climate! Chesters (Cilurnum) is the largest surviving Roman cavalry fort in Britain and was built to house a detachment of 500 protecting the point at which the Wall crossed the North Tyne. The bridge abutments on the fort side of the river have disappeared, but the eye can follow the line of the Wall down to the water’s edge and see where the Wall begins again at the other side. But that is getting ahead of myself!

The stonework of the Wall can be seen continuing beyond the North Tyne The entry to Chesters is through a pleasant tree-ringed car park with picnic tables that would be very attractive in better weather. The fort is protected by English Heritage and tickets are purchased in the usual style of gift shop/kiosk. Beyond, however, lies the world of John Clayton, the early 20th century Town Clerk of Newcastle who, above any other, was responsible for the preservation of the central Wall sections as we see them today. His family’s lands once included the forts of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, Vindolanda and Carvoran, and he devoted much of his time and energy in sparing the stonework from further depredations. The first thing the visitor to Chesters encounters is the small museum built at the beginning of the 20th century to house the Clayton collection of sculptured and inscribed stones gathered from many of the sites along the Wall.

A small part of the collection of inscribed stones in the Clayton Museum.

Statue of Juno Dolichenus, a goddess of a cult originating in Syria. The base of the corresponding Jupiter figure can be seen to the rear left

Altar to the divine power of the Emperor and the genius of the first cohort of Vardullians by their tribune Flavius Titianus during the governorship of Antistitus Adventus c. AD1736. The site itself is accessed via a fenced pathway leading into a sheep meadow in which the surviving stonework is itself fenced to keep the ovine population out - it doesn’t always work!

West Gate complete with ovine marauder

The splendour of the East Gateway can be estimated from these remains.

The barrack block

The headquarters building. The well is seen in the right foreground and the raised stonework rear left conceals the unit’s strongroom.

The strongroom housed the unit’s military insignia, as well as the soldiers’ wages

This turret stood at the southeast corner of the fort. Looking carefully you can see the curve of the outside wall forming the traditional “playing card” shape of the fortifications The fort is approached close to the original north gateway, the first of the upstanding remains. From there one can enter each of the fenced areas in turn to explore the gateways, the barrack blocks, the headquarters building, the outer defences, and the Commanding Officer’s house, where the pillars of the hypocaust system showed that life on the Wall wasn‘t cold and miserable for everyone

. This hypocaust would have kept the commanding officer and his family warm.

But for perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the remains at Chesters, one has to venture outside the confines of the fort walls. At the edge of the river, in a beautiful setting, stands the bathhouse, said to be one of the best preserved anywhere in the Roman Empire. The hot, warm and cold rooms are clearly defined, as are the niches (in which it was believed the clothes and belongings were left while bathing), and the stoke hole for the furnace.

The bathhouse on the riverbank. The furnace stokehole can be seen in the left foreground

The caldarium, or hot room, of the bathhouse

One amusing aspect of this visit happened whilst walking to the bathhouse. Suddenly all the sheep on the site took it into their heads that they had to move from one field to another, and they

ran in single file directly across the path. They came to a dead halt when a couple with a dog on a lead came along the path. They resumed their headlong rush, seemingly with gratitude, only when the dog moved on!

The wall niches of the bathhouse changing room, and the sheepy rush hour in the background Having viewed the site thoroughly I had a bite to eat and resumed my journey along the Wall. I again passed all the sites we had visited back in May, but this time did not stop as I had a second venue in mind. Another site maintained by English Heritage, but very different from the Roman architecture of the Wall - Lanercost Priory Author and photos Valerie Reilly