2022 is the 1900th anniversary of the construction of Hadrian’s wall – once the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Until last year the only part of the wall we had visited was Segedunum, near Newcastle. It was definitely time to make the trip. How much could we manage to see in a weekend without a car?
Helen had wanted to visit Vindolanda since first learning about the Vindolanda writing tablets when studying palaeography (the study of old handwriting) as part of a Masters in Medieval Studies. The first tablets were discovered at Vindolanda by archaeologist Robin Birley in 1973, and a particularly large haul of 350 was discovered during excavations on the site of a rained-off bonfire in 1992. Made of thin pieces of birch or alder wood, approximately the size of a postcard, with writing in ink, the tablets provide a wonderful insight into the daily lives of the people who lived there. An invitation to a birthday party from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina is thought to be the earliest surviving example of female handwriting in Britain. Another tablet contains a business letter which includes a complaint about the state of the roads -some things never change.
Arriving via the excellent AD122 bus, we were surprised by the scale of the site, which is huge. The first Roman settlement there pre-dates the wall by 40 or so years and nine successive Roman forts and accompanying civilian settlements had occupied the site by the time the Romans departed in the fifth century. Highlights include the Headquarters building, Severan Commander’s House, butcher’s shop and tavern.
We made first for the museum, skirting the excavations and passing the 1970s experimental archaeological reconstruction of a section of Hadrian’s wall. Entering the museum, we resisted the tempting aroma of breakfast emanating from the café and focused on the exhibits. Vindolanda is unusual for the large number of organic artefacts which have been preserved by the waterlogged or anaerobic soil conditions. As well as the famous tablets, there are huge quantities of leather shoes and boots, wooden items, including toy swords for children and a workman’s bench with his name cared into it, even a woman’s wig made from a form of moss which is supposed to repels midges. Also attractive jewellery, combs and a rather smart Samian ware dinner service which was damaged in transit and thrown straight in the ditch. These items really help to connect visitors with the people who lived there in Roman times, but it is the tablets that really bring the site to life.
A short bus ride way, Vindolanda’s sister site, the Roman Army museum brings the Romans to life in a different way, by means of excellent audiovisual presentations. There is a classroom where you can learn some Latin from the virtual schoolmaster. In the lower level, a 3D film shows an eagle flying along the wall, eavesdropping on some of the activity, whilst another film presents a day in the life of a unit of auxiliary troops. These were not Roman citizens but men from other parts of the empire who were entitled to citizenship after 25 years service.
Another bus ride took us to Housesteads Roman Fort. The actual site is a 10-15 minute walk uphill from the bus stop and car park, where the National Trust have helpfully provided a tea room and toilets. Housesteads is famed for its well-preserved Roman toilets, but visitors are well-advised to make use of the more modern facilities. Up at the fort there is a small English Heritage shop and museum displaying some artefacts from the site.
The fort is situated on an exposed hillside, with a wonderful view, and lots of sheep, several of which appeared to be perusing the information board when we passed by. The fort follows the traditional ‘playing card’ design, which will be familiar to anyone who has already visited Vindolanda, with Headquarters, Commanding Officer’s House and Granaries in the middle and barracks either site. Off in one corner (on the downhill side, for obvious reasons) are the famous toilets – communal latrine trenches, which would have had wooden seats, down each side, and water for washing in a channel in the middle.
In contrast to the hillside location of Housesteads, Chesters Roman Fort commands a crossing place on the river Tyne This also followed the playing card design, but was a cavalry form. We boggled somewhat at how the men and their horses fitted into the barracks. The Headquarters building has an underground chamber which was used as a treasury. But the real highlight was the bath house, close to the river. Also not to be missed at Chesters is the Clayton Museum, a traditional museum displaying the collection built up by members of the Clayton family, antiquarians who played a major role in the preservation and excavation of the Wall.
In our two day trip we only scraped the surface of what there is to be seen, but we learned a lot, and will be back for more one day.
The Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus AD122 operates between Hexham and Haltwhistle via Chesters Fort, Housesteads, Vindolanda, The Sill and Walltown. There are announcements at points of interest, such as Sycamore Gap along the way. You can request the driver to stop anywhere along the route, provided it is safe to do so. We can recommend starting with refreshments from the Station Café in Hexham, which has friendly, helpful staff and a cosy seating area.