SECTION 1: Introduction
- Components of the Frontier
SECTION 2: History of the Wall
SECTION 3: The Wall east to west as it exists today
- South Shields to Benwell Hill (including Newcastle)
- Benwell Hill to Rudchester (including Heddon-on-the-Wall)
- Housesteads to Great Chesters (including Steel Rigg and Cawfields)
- Great Chesters to Birdoswald (including Walltown)
- Stanwix to Burgh-by-Sands (including Carlisle)
Click on the article links above for directions/information to get to each area. The map below shows the major Roman forts/line of the Wall.
RELATED VISITOR ATTRACTIONS/MUSEUMS
A major tourist destination Hadrian’s Wall has a number of major museums/exhibits along its length and offers a whole range of walks of varying difficulties/lengths in beautiful countryside. The following are related staffed museums/forts on or very near the Wall or the West Coast defences (links open in new window):
- Vindolanda Roman Fort (off direct line of wall)
- Roman Army Museum (Magna)
VISIT OFFICIAL SITE (Opens in new window)
For more info see the official Hadrian’s Wall Trail Website.
Reconstructed army accommodation at Arbeia in South Shields.
In the first and second centuries AD, Roman forts were traditionally built to the same design which had evolved from that used for so-called marching camps. The Romans were always at their best in the open field when configured and ready for action and were clearly at their most vulnerable overnight. To compensate the army, when marching, would allow sufficient time at the end of a day’s march to build a makeshift fort that would protect them overnight. These were always configured in the same way - a playing card shape marked out by a ditch with the spoil from that pilled up to make a rampart. Inside, the tents would always be positioned in the same place - the General in the centre with the army accommodated in their own tents in all quadrants.
This effective design was simply re-used when building more permanent forts (albeit with much more style). Accordingly the Roman forts of the Hadrianic era were all based on the playing card shape with a Headquarters building in the centre (aligned to the threat), a Commanding Officer’s house, a hospital, granaries for food storage and around that, in each quadrant, would be barrack blocks. Whether to accommodate a Legion of 5000 men or an Auxiliary unit of 500 the basic design was the same - only the size and scale differed.
A diagram showing the layout of Housesteads fort on the line of the Wall - other infantry only forts were very similar.
The garrisons of forts could be cavalry, infantry or a mix of the two. The design remained the same with barrack blocks simply being dual purpose as a stable and accommodation area. The only difference, unique to the Wall, was that cavalry or mixed unit forts were situated to straddle the Wall meaning more of their exits were to the north enabling rapid deployment.
A diagram showing the layout of Chesters fort on the line of the Wall - other forts with cavalry and mixed units were very similar.
When many view the remains of Roman forts they are surprised how different they are to later Medieval castles. Whereas the latter have narrow, heavily defended gateways this isn’t the case at Roman forts. Instead they generally had large double arched gateways on every side. The reason for this was simple - the Roman’s strength came from a highly disciplined mobile army and the large gateways enabled rapid deployment. Unlike latter medieval periods, the Romans felt they were better than the opposition and by marching out and fighting them they would always win. The forts merely provided secure places to stay.
A reconstructed Gatehouse at Arbeia in South Shields.
Hadrian’s Wall was more than just a mere stone barrier - it was an entire frontier system. It consisted of a deep fighting ditch, the Wall itself and a huge southern earthwork that forged a vast military zone. Supporting the frontier was a network of roads that spanned the width of the island. This article explains the components that made up the frontier.
HADRIAN’S WALL: COMPONENTS OF THE FRONTIER
Visiting any part of Hadrian’s Wall is greatly enhanced by a basic understanding of the configuration of the frontier. Without such it is very easy to walk pass earthwork remains of key components blissfully unaware. Many assume the Wall was just that - but the Wall was just one part of the frontier and arguably not even the most extensive element of it. As is clear from the diagram above by the AD 160s the ‘Wall’ consisted of:
Houseteads - an infantry fort on the line of the Wall (see relevant section)
The Wall itself was 3 metres deep (reduced to 2.1 metres as building progressed) and at least 4 metres high probably topped with a parapet. Nowhere on the Wall does it exist to its full height although reconstructions at Wallsend and Vindolanda give an idea of its original appearance. The eastern section, from Wallsend to the River Irthing was built in stone from the start. The western section, from Birdoswald to Bowness-on-Solway, was initially an earth rampart topped with a timber palisade but was rebuilt in stone in the AD 160s.
The Fighting Ditch was a ‘V’ shaped trench built in front of the Wall for its entire length except where clearly unnecessary (on the Whin Sill Crags or when the Wall ran in front of the River Eden). A substantial fortification in its own right it was 3 metres deep and around 10 metres wide. Designed to slow an enemy down and put him in the optimum position to be attacked by a throwing spear (pillum). The sharp angle at the bottom of the trench was known as an ankle breaker. The existence of this trench strongly implies the Wall had a parapet (else why have a trench designed in such a way?).
The Fighting Ditch near Brocolitia fort (see relevant section)
Reconstructed Wall at Segedunum (see relevant section)
A term first used in the early eighteenth century, it is used to describe the fortified gateways that were built every Roman mile along the line of the Wall. Nominally numbered 1 (which, if it existed, would have been near Wallsend) to 80 (at Bowness-on-Solway). Originally planned to be the military access route north/south, they were superseded early in the life of the frontier when the decision was made to position forts on the line of the Wall. Nevertheless they remained in use suggesting they also had a garrison role - perhaps accommodation for troops manning the turrets. Archaeological evidence seems to support this - excavated Milescastles suggest most had two buildings within along with cooking facilities. Like the Wall the Milecastles in the west were originally built of turf and timber (a reconstructed example is visible at Vindolanda) before being rebuilt in stone in the AD 160s. They seem to have had a parapet walkway around the perimeter (stairs to access it are still visible in some sites) and a gravel road ran through each one. No archaeological evidence exists but it is believed the Milecastles had a turret over their north gateway.
Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) near Steel Rigg (see relevant section)
The frontier continued beyond the western terminus of the Wall at Bowness-on-Solway. A system of Mileforts, built every Roman mile from Bowness down to at least Maryport and maybe much further. Very similar in style to the Milecastles they seem to have had a garrison role. Interestingly they also sported two gateways suggesting they may also have been used for access - a timber palisade was certainly built as part of the Western Sea Defences of the frontier. The Mileforts only seem to have been occupied during the first phase of Hadrian’s Wall (AD 122-140) and were only ever earth and timber constructions.
Sample Milecastle (left) and Milefort (right) layouts
Turrets were built from Wallsend to the end of the Western Sea Defences. Two were positioned between each Milecastle or Milefort. Today we number them based on the Milecastle/Milefort to the east and give them an ‘A’ or ‘B’ suffix - for example Milecastle 1 was followed by Turret 1A and then 1B. From the start turrets were always built in stone. Following the campaigns of Septimius Severus many turrets were demolished as the focus of the frontier switched solely to defence via the forts.
Reconstructed turret at Vindolanda (see relevant section)
The Vallum was an earthwork fortification built to the south of the Wall consisting of a mound, ditch and mound structure. Probably the equivalent to modern day barbed wire, it created a military zone to the south of the Wall. The decision to build it was probably taken once the design of the frontier was changed to move the forts onto the line of the Wall - with the garrisons on the ‘right’ side of the Vallum it had clear advantages to security both for the frontier and for ensuring military property wasn’t pilfered by thieves. The name originates from a mis-understanding of Latin but has stuck. Vallum crossings were built at forts situated on the Wall.
The Vallum crossing at Benwell Hill (see relevant section)
The Stanegate - the Stone Road - was a Roman road that pre-dated the Wall and initially acted as the frontier. It connected Corbridge with Carlisle and may have even stretched onto Kirkbride. It enabled the Romans access to the north Pennines and for the first 40 years was the main communication artery along the Wall albeit it is in some areas significantly displaced from the line. Corbridge and Vindolanda were both fortifications on the Stanegate.
A section of the Stanegate Road at Corbridge (see relevant section)
About 40 years after initially built, a new Roman road built directly to the south of the Wall to facilitate improved access along the frontier. The new road ran between the Wall and the Vallum (in somecases running along the northern bank of the latter).
Housesteads Roman Fort (see relevant section)
Seventeen forts were built on the line of the Wall from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway with further forts forming part of the Western Sea Defences and multiple others in direct or indirect support to the north and south of the Wall. These were substantial structures housing garrisons of around 500 soldiers - infantry, cavalry or a mix of the two. We presume the garrisons of these forts manned the turrets and Milecastles of the Wall, as well as responding to any threat that might emerge. Note these forts were manned by non-Roman Auxiliary soldiers not Roman Legionaries. For additional information on Roman forts, see the additional information box to the right.
The Military Road at Cawfields (see relevant section)
REFERENCES / FURTHER READING
Breeze, D.J (2011). The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley.
Burton, A (2010). Hadrian's Wall Path. Aurum Press Ltd, London.
Crow, J (1989). Housesteads Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
English Heritage (2010). An Archaeological Map of Hadrian's Wall, 1:25,000 Scale. English Heritage, London.
Hodgson, N (2011). Chesters Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
Moffat, A (2009). The Wall. Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh.
Wilmott, T (2010). Birdoswald Roman Fort. English Heritage, London.
Bedoyere, G (2010). Roman Britain: A New History. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London.
Dando-Collins, S (2010). Legions of Rome. Quercus, London.
Hobbs, R and Jackson, R (2010). Roman Britain. British Museum Company Ltd, London.