This must have been one of the least popular postings in the Empire. Apart from a brief foray into Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northern limit of power until the end of the fourth century AD, when the legions abandoned Britain.
The emperor, Hadrian, began construction of the wall in AD 122. Reaching a height of 3.5m (11ft), it snaked its way from Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria, to Wallsend, Tyne and Wear. During the succeeding centuries, much of the wall was plundered to build the surrounding farmhouses. Nevertheless, the central and most complete section continues to impress walkers on the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path, as they follow its line over the wind-withered switchback of the Great Whin Sill.
Rural Roman life
Occupying almost the exact mid-position on the wall, Housesteads Fort, perhaps more than any other comparable site, allows you to imagine what life would have been like for soldiers stationed on the wall. Imagination is aided by the newly refurbished English Heritage Museum that stands alongside the remains of the fort, and is reached by a short uphill walk from the National Trust visitor centre. The museum houses a multimedia exhibition with interactive displays and a collection of artefacts that have been unearthed at the site and that illustrate all aspects of life at this outpost of Empire.
Within the walls of the fort, the first ruins you enter are those of the hospital, and east of these, the headquarters. To the north lie the granaries, the floors of which stood on pillars that allowed ventilation. Continuing east are the barrack blocks, which housed up to 80 men in each room. The south-east corner is occupied by the best preserved communal latrines of any Roman fort in Britain. Toilet shyness must have been alien to a Roman soldier.
Running south, down the hillside, are the remains of a settlement that housed civilians who serviced and traded with the fort. Look for the Murder House, wheretwo bodies were found whose deaths aroused suspicions. One of them had the point of a knife lodged between his ribs.
You should make a short excursion along the Hadrian’s Wall Path to the west of the fort. It leads through a narrow strip of woodland, from which there are extensive views across wild country to the bleakly beautiful Broomlee Lough, which has provided inspiration for many a legend. To the south, the views are even more panoramic, ranging from Grindon Lough and Muckle Moss and over the Tyne Valley to the Pennines.