It is often said that when you live in a place for a prolonged period of time, you don’t often appreciate its true beauty, becoming so used to the things around you. That is how I feel about Newcastle. Living there for 18 years of my life, I am fully aware of how great a city it is, but never have I actually taken the time to learn about my own city’s heritage. When I was kindly invited to learn more about the history of Newcastle from English Heritage, I jumped at the chance to visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Fort.
English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and places. From world famous prehistoric sites, to grand medieval castles, to Roman forts, to a cold war bunker. Through these, the story of England is brought to life for over 10 million people to enjoy and learn each year.
Around a 45 minute drive from the centre of Newcastle lies Housesteads Roman Fort; a world heritage site surrounded by stunning panoramic views of the English countryside. It is open all year round and despite arriving on a windy winter’s morning, it was still an enjoyable day. I would recommend visiting in summer for obvious reasons, but definitely would not discourage visitors in the colder months.
So, what is Hadrian’s Wall?
Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia and was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987. It stands proudly in Northumberland National Park. Work on it began in AD 122, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian, measuring approximately 3m wide and 6m high. Running a total of 73 miles, it extended west from Wallsend on the River Tyne, via Carlisle, to the shore of Bowness on Solway. Although this marks the end of the wall, there is a system of mile castles and turrets known to have continued along the Cumbrian coast as far as Riseow, south of Maryport.
It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. Although it marked the Northern limit of the Roman Empire, the wall lies within England and has never formed the Anglo-Scottish Border.
Why was it built?
Although exact reasons for the wall are unknown, it was Hadrian’s wish to keep intact
the empire which had been imposed on him via divine instruction. Theories have been presented by historians that the wall was probably an expression of Roman power and Hadrian’s policy of defence before expansion. Another possible explanation is the degree of control it would have provided over immigration, smuggling and customs.
It is clear to see how Housesteads became such a powerful base for the Roman army and its advantageous position uphill, meant the enemy could be seen coming for miles.
If you want to witness a significant portion of Hadrian’s Wall, and immerse yourself in Roman History, Housesteads is the place to be.
Upon arrival, we were greeted at reception by incredibly friendly staff, who were extremely helpful and offered tips on which way to walk (west is best). We were encouraged to visit the museum first, to “set the scene” before exploring the ruins.
The museum showcases objects and tools once belonging to Roman soldiers, carved stones that were created in celebration after battle, and a mini cinema which takes you on a journey back in time to the age of the Roman Empire. It was incredible to see real artefacts that had lasted millennia. A fascinating collection of stones, tools, jewellery and weapons that had been excavated from the fort were on display, giving a snapshot of life 2,000 years ago.
A short film lasting approximately 10 minutes was played in the mini cinema at the back of the museum providing a historic overview of how and why the wall came to be. For someone who gets bored relatively easily, it managed to keep my attention from start to finish and I found it fascinating!
Housesteads is the most complete Roman Fort in Britain and is one of 16 permanent base along Hadrian’s Wall. The fort is the remains of an auxiliary fort on Hadrian’s Wall and was built in stone around AD 124, soon after the construction of the wall.
It was incredible to see the remains of what was an extremely powerful Head Quarters and imagine what life was like for the 800 soldiers living and working there, as you walk through the ruins of the Barracks, Granary, Commanders House, and Hospital.
The fort is unusual for Britain, in that it has no running water supply, and is dependent on rainwater collection from large stone tanks situated around the periphery of the defences.
At the back of the fort, runs Hadrian’s Wall. The part of the wall that runs west, is unique in the fact it is the only section of the wall you can actually walk on. This provides for a novel experience and let’s face it – it’s pretty cool to say you’ve walked on Hadrian’s Wall! The scenery is stunning and offers gorgeous views either side of the wall.
Once you leave the grounds of Housesteads and the landscape opens up, the views become even more spectacular. Unfortunately, we had other commitments in the afternoon so didn’t have time to hike past this point, but I will definitely have to return in the summer and dedicate an entire day to hiking it’s full length, visiting famous landmarks such as Sycamores gap.
Despite the time constraints, I learnt a lot of history and found the morning incredibly interesting. I think it would be a really cool idea to have some sort of a theatrical recreation of the soldiers working, living, and protecting the fort and bring it’s story back to life!
Whether you’re like me and are a local wanting to learn more about your hometown, or a tourist wanting to have a well rounded view of Newcastle, it’s definitely worth visiting.
Thank you again to English Heritage for providing my family and me with tickets.
For more information, please follow this link to their website: Housesteads Roman Fort