Hadrian’s Wall: The Extraordinary Remains of Roman Life in Britain
I’m on Hadrian’s Wall to defend Roman Britain from the barbarians in the north! Actually, I’m at Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built, starting in 122 A.D., to protect northern Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire, from attacks by the Picts and other tribes living in what is now Scotland. Along the wall, there were forts, garrisoned by both cavalry and infantry units, and surrounded by communities, every 5 miles. Turrets and milecastles, with smaller garrisons, guarded the areas of the wall in between the forts. Around 410 A.D., the Romans abandoned Britain, but archaeological evidence shows that native Britons continued to garrison the wall through the 5th century. Over the next few centuries, the wall fell into disrepair, and many of the stones were taken away to build other structures. Today, visitors can hike almost the entire length of the wall, can explore the excavated remains of several Roman forts, and can see fascinating collections of artifacts that reveal how Romans, soldiers from all throughout the Empire, and local people lived together, socialized, traded, and intermarried in the forts and communities along the wall.
Housesteads Roman Fort is the most complete of all the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Construction began on the fort in 124 AD, only two years after the beginning of the building of Hadrian’s Wall. The original name of the fort was Vercovicium, which means “place of the effective fighters”. Today, visitors begin the self-guided tour in the excellent museum which gives a necessary and interesting overview of the layout of the fort, the various stages of construction, the use of the site over time, and the daily lives of the soldiers and families garrisoned there. Next, venture out into the remains of the fort. A wonderful guidebook, which I highly recommend purchasing, will explain the nature and purpose of each building. There are also signs placed throughout the Roman ruins to help you understand what you’re seeing and see what the buildings once looked like. Here are some of the remains that are interesting to explore:
- the bakery where bread was produced for the soldiers and their families
- the granaries (photo upper right) in which wheat was stored; be sure to read about the intriguing system that was used to keep the wheat dry and protected from vermin
- the barracks (photo upper left) where the soldiers and their unit commanders lived; the soldiers were not native to Britain but rather came from provinces all across the Roman Empire including northern Africa, Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy; globalization isn’t only a modern concept!
- the bathhouse in which soldiers could not only clean themselves but also socialize and relax
- the hospital where soldiers were treated for sickness and injuries with medicine that was surprisingly advanced for the time
- the principia, or headquarters, which served as a basilica in which justice was provided and orders were given, a shrine to the gods and to the Roman emperor, and a strongroom to hold valuables
- the praetorium, or commanding officer’s house
- the latrines, or restrooms, (photo to the right) which are the most well-preserved Roman latrines in Britain
- the walls, ramparts, and gates
- the civilian settlement where approximately 500 local people lived, worked, traded with, and intermarried with the Romans
When you’re finished touring the remains of the fort, I highly recommend taking a long walk along Hadrian’s Wall. Doing so will allow you to see the amazing feats of engineering it took to construct this defensive structure across the different terrains in northern England. In addition, you’ll experience some breathtaking landscapes which I’m sure you’ll want to take photos of, like I did. All alone, way out along the wall, you can contemplate what life was like here in the past when Romans and native Britons lived together, socialized, traded, shared ideas and customs, and even intermarried. If I close my eyes now, I can still see the amazing landscapes along the wall. It’s an experience that you’ll never forget.
Location of Houseteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall
Houseteads Roman Fort is located at Haydon Bridge outside the town of Hexham in the country of Northumbria, England. For specific driving directions, click on the map below. If you don’t have a car, from the beginning of April to the end of September, the Hadrian’s Wall Bus (AD122) can get you to any of the forts, Roman sites, and museums along the wall, including Housesteads. This website provides detailed information about locations and timetables.