Hadrian’s Wall – The Frontier Zone of Britain

The plan was to spend four days walking some of Hadrian’s Wall and getting a feel for the area – not for us the full trek from coast to coast. We decided to focus on the area between Brampton in the west and Chesters in the east. This would enable us to see a meaningful chunk of wall rather than just a dotted line on the map. But what does a ‘chunk of wall’ actually tell you?

I had a rough idea about Hadrian’s Wall before we went: along the lines of… it’s a wall the Romans built. I grew up being taught that the Wall was built to keep out the pesky Picts and Scots but apparently this was not the case – some trifling reason like there were no Scots in Scotland until later on…

The Wall, we’re now told, was a frontier marking the end of the Roman world in the north. It was a barrier rather than a defensive line. It was a statement of Rome’s power and resources but it was also a statement of the limitations of that power. I’m thinking a Game of Thrones-type wall only not so much permafrost and a little lower…

This is not an academic piece about the Wall because I don’t claim to be an expert about it. This is about our week exploring the Wall and its hinterland in the beautiful counties of Cumbria and Northumberland. We hoped to get some ideas about life in the Roman frontier zone south of the Wall by visiting several sites along its length. We began in Corbridge – or Coria as the Romans called it.

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Why Corbridge? Well, there’s a car park there which is free and very easy to find -otherwise, trust me, I wouldn’t have found it.                                                                              The other reason for going there was that my next novel, A Traitor’s Fate, is partly set there – well, to be more accurate, Ned Elder passes through Corbridge. Mind you, he’s nearly caught there. Anyway, moving on from the promotional mention, we left the impressively free car park and crossed the even more impressive bridge to walk into the little town of Corbridge.  We had a good look around the central area near St Andrews church and whilst examining the architecture I was nearly run over twice. I managed to stagger to the Tea and Tipple – great name – where we were well fed and watered. We then strolled along the river to the old Roman site where English Heritage now has an interesting museum.

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Had to get the umbrella out for a while and it was a bit tricky trying to hold the audio guide and press buttons as well as keep the umbrella in a vaguely upright position. Still, we learned a lot about the sort of place Coria was during the Roman period. It was a garrison, a storehouse of grain and the holdfast of the men who lived on the frontier; but if you were a soldier on the Wall it was also a place you went to on leave. Although Coria was set well back from the Wall, it was not exactly safe from attack. In fact it was attacked and rebuilt more than once.

I was interested to find out about the people who lived in the frontier zone of the Wall. Before we started we had watched The Flying Archaeologist episode about Hadrian’s Wall. I have to say I was a bit disappointed in it really as it seemed to have very little new to say over and above what had been written about six or seven years ago. As I said, I am no expert but I already knew that the use of aerial photography makes a considerable difference to one’s interpretation of most historical landscapes and Hadrian’s Wall is no exception.

During our week we walked to and explored several of the key sites along the Wall including the forts of Birdoswald, Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda. Of all the forts we visited Vindolanda was by far the best. It was excellent so if you only have time to visit one, then go to Vindolanda.

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It’s a live excavation and its commitment to education and research is to be commended. There’s a lot to see and it’s well presented. We arrived quite late in the day and felt very welcome. The outdoor parts of the site are not closed up at any particular time; there is a turnstile to leave by when the light fades. They basically said to put the cat out on the way out.

One of the less attractive features of the Hadrian’s Wall path is that it’s not easy to find a cup of tea along the Wall – I hope it was easier for the Romans!  We bumped into a couple of walkers in the late afternoon one day. They were looking for a pub, tearoom, anywhere to take refreshment in liquid form. We had to break the crushing news to them that, if they continued along the Wall, the nearest pub was about 12 miles further on. If you leave the path and venture through the remains of the Roman vallum to the south, you might find refreshment at Once Brewed or Twice Brewed along the old military road.  However, if you are trying to cover a certain distance it’s not always desirable to take a two or three mile diversion.

Now, about the Wall itself – what did we make of it?  Even taking into account the fact that most of it is missing, I was impressed. The parts of the Wall that remain give enough of an idea of the grand scale of it that it is not hard to imagine the rest of the structure.

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When you look along the line of crags where some of the Wall still sits – especially from Greenhead to Housesteads – and then you add in milecastle after milecastle and turret after turret you can get some idea of how the Wall would have dominated the landscape. Add to that also the ditch to the north of it and the Vallum to the south, not to mention the military road along its length and you have an extensive military framework which defined life on the British frontier of the Empire.

It was a frontier zone but it was not sterile; it was a living and breathing community. There were thousands of men defending the Wall but there were also many thousands who serviced their needs:  merchants, farmers, tradesmen, whores and many others. You only have to think about towns today where one of the armed services has a presence. People in the town may depend on it, directly or indirectly, for employment; teachers will teach the children of soldiers and soldiers and their families will shop in the town.  It was like that along the Wall: if you lived there then you had a part to play.

Some of the men who served on the Wall, especially in the earlier centuries, came from other parts of the Roman Empire. They served half a lifetime on the Wall then they retired, probably married locally and settled nearby. Vindolanda has a unique and fascinating exhibit which gives some remarkable details about the individuals who lived in the frontier zone. They left their records on small, wafer thin wooden tablets which were discovered at Vindolanda preserved deep down in the mud. Reading what these people wrote about gives us an amazing insight into their lives: subjects range from a birthday party invite to a record of the deployment of the fort’s personnel. They exceptional windows on the lives of these ordinary people and it is a timely reminder that history is not just about objects and ideas – it is about people doing what people do.

Although we found Vindolanda in particular very helpful, there were telling fragments of evidence all along the sections we walked and taken together these gave us some understanding of what life along the Wall was like. One example was at Chesters where we found these substantial remains of the soldiers’ baths on the banks of the North Tyne.

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Impressive enough you might think but then, only a few yards away was the site of the Roman bridge across the river. We expected to see nothing but, when we looked down into the margins of the river, there on the river bed were stones – large, shaped stones – and it did not take too much imagination to work out where they came from – they could only have been Roman. At such moments we were able to make a connection of some sort with the Roman world.    

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