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Hadrian’s Wall & Housesteads Roman Fort

On our way out of York, I thought it might be fun to stop in Whitby for lunch. I really wanted to see the beach and the cliffs.

It was beautiful but we didn’t stay long because it was really windy and cold. I’m sure Whitby is charming on a beautiful, sunny day, but we just weren’t feeling it.

We did park by some really cool brick homes! Check out those chimney pots!

After checking into our hotel following our drive from York and feeling way too comfortable to go outside and look at something else in the rain, we convinced ourselves to make our way to the first set of ruins at Hadrian’s Wall that I wanted to see: Housesteads Roman Fort.

Hadrian’s Wall was the North-West frontier of the Roman empire. It was built on the order of emperor Hadrian, after his visit to Britain in C.E. 122. His purpose for the Wall was “to keep the barbarians out.” It took the Roman army over 10 years to build the Wall. When it was done it was 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long, crossing the breadth of Northern England not too far from where the Scottish border is today (70 miles South on the Western end). But Hadrian’s Wall existed before the nation states known as “England” and “Scotland” existed. Hadrian’s Wall was occupied for almost 300 years.

I first heard about Hadrian’s Wall when looking up some information about Game of Thrones. The North Wall manned by the Night’s Watch is based on Hadrian’s Wall. Instead of ice and magic, the Romans used turf, stone, and timber to build their Wall. The Wall was made of turf to the West of the river Irthing and measured 20 feet wide by 11.5 feet high. The Wall East of the river was made of stone and measured 10 feet wide by 16-20 feet high. North of the Wall a broad and deep ditch was excavated, except where the landscape made that additional defence unnecessary.

It was originally planned that there would be a protected gate (milecastle) located along the Wall at intervals of every one mile. Two observation towers (turrets) would be placed between the milecastles. Before the Wall was completed, however, it was decided that 15 forts would be added to the Wall line—possibly because of security issues.

A deep ditch was also excavated behind the Wall and its forts and towers. This was known as the Vallum, and it effectively protected the military zone from intruders coming up on the Roman troops from behind. The Vallum also made it so that it was only possible to cross Hadrian’s Wall at a fort where a causeway was provided over the deep excavation. The number of crossing points was thus reduced from an original 80 or so to about 16.

Outside most of the forts, civil settlements sprang up where the soldiers’ families lived. Shops, inns and taverns also looked to profit from the Roman soldiers who were relatively well paid, at least in comparison to the farmers of the frontier area.

Below is a reconstruction of what the Wall would have looked like. Note the ditch in front of it.

Below is a reconstruction of a milecastle.

Below is a reconstruction of a tower turret.

Below is a reconstruction of an observation tower.

Below is a reconstruction of what the Housesteads Roman Fort would have looked like. The fort included a Headquarters building, a Commanding Officer’s house,  a hospital, granaries, and barrack blocks for the soldiers.

The layout of the fort is shown below.

Below is the view of the ruins of the fort, as seen from above, looking West. You can see a branch of the Wall at the bottom right of the picture. The Wall also continues into the trees at the top right of the picture. The fort is located South of the Wall.

Below is a glimpse of the ruins as you are walking in from the South.

Below are the remains of the Headquarters building.

Below are the remains of the granary.

The stones sticking up out of the ground would have been covered by stone tiles to create a raised floor. The raised floor helped keep the food dry and safe from rodents. Vents in the exterior walls allowed for a circulation of air.

Below is a reconstruction of what the granary would have looked like.

Looking across the barracks to the East. You can see the Wall stretch out toward the trees.

Below are the remains of the store house (the wider enclosure) and the bathhouse (the smaller enclosure). You can see the East gate just beyond the ruins (there’s a small wooden gate peeking out at the top right of the bathhouse.)

Some interesting information about the bathhouse. Interestingly, this one was located inside the fort, which was unusual because of the fire risk.

The bathhouse. Like the granary, the stones would have supported a raised floor. Fires would have been used to channel heat underneath the floor, making it as hot as a sauna.

The East gate. Housesteads actually faced East towards the rising sun, a preferred direction. This would have been its main gate.

The North gate. This was the only one of the four gates that opened into enemy territory. However, the approach from the North had that steep ditch to bypass. Like the other three gates, the North gate had two arched passages flanked by towers with guard rooms.

Neil standing in the North gate.

I can’t remember what this is.

The Wall.

Below are the remains of the soldiers’ barracks. A unit of Roman soldiers was a centurion, which consisted of 80 soldiers. There would have been 10 barracks, with 8 soldiers in each. There were two areas in each of the barracks—the front would be where they kept their armour and personal items, the back area would be where they slept.

More information on the barracks.

Below is a closer image of the illustrated reconstruction of the barracks.

Looking North, into the land of the so-called “barbarians.”

Looking North-East.

A wild barbarian appears.

Furthest North-West point of the fort. The Wall continues West on the left side of the picture.

West gate.

Looking South-West in the direction of the museum.

Looking South back into the land of the so-called “civilized world.”

Look, I found flowers!

Below are the remains of the hospital.

Some more information below.

Another view of the hospital.

A far-back view of the ruins looking South. Neil is in the hospital on the right. The Headquarters building is on the left.

Looking South-East.

The ruins of the Commanding Officer’s house.

Below is a reconstruction of what the Commanding Officer’s house would have looked like.

Like the granaries and the bathhouse, these stones in the Commanding Officer’s house supported a raised floor.

Commanding Officer’s house continued.

You can see some of the remaining floor slabs in this image.

Rome was in decline in the late 4th century. Gradually, Roman influence withdrew from Britain. By 410 A.D., the Roman legions and their administration were gone. The Wall fell into disuse, but continued to be useful to locals, as is the case below. Many of the stones from Hadrian’s Wall and its forts were also reused in the construction of farm houses, castles, fences, and other buildings.

The ruins of the castle house.

The sheep don’t seem to mind the ruins either.

All of the information and illustrations used in this post come from the English Heritage Guidebook of Hadrian’s Wall.

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