27 August 2012


Artist's impression of Vercovicium in the third century AD
If we could stroll back in time from 2012 - back three hundred years, we'd arrive at 1712AD. Australia and New Zealand had still not been "discovered" by Europeans and in England Queen Anne was on the throne. The Industrial Revolution had not begun and the America we know today was essentially just a disparate bunch of colonies on the east coast. 

Three hundred years. That is how long the Romans patrolled Hadrian's Wall, the ambitious structure they built across Northumberland from the North Sea to the Solway Firth. They developed this eighty mile long boundary wall to define the northern edge of the Roman Empire and to keep out marauding Picts and Brigantes from further north and Scotland. 

It wasn't just a wall.  It had service roads, military camps, protective ditches, wells, "mile forts", temples and turrets and at least six significant major fortresses where legionaires lived and ate, bathed and socialised. It was these legionaires who built the wall and its fortifications between AD122 and AD128. They had no dumper trucks or JCB diggers, no electric saws or drills to work the stone required. No modern protective clothing or steel toe-capped boots. No builders' yards.

In its heyday, the fort at Vercovicium - or Housesteads - in the centre of the wall accommodated some eight hundred legionaries and there were buildings outside the fortress where service industries thrived and where associates of the Romans eked out their lives. The fort functioned for three hundred years until legionaries were gradually withdrawn to fight other battles in distant lands as the Roman Empire crumbled.

On Saturday, Shirley and I drove up to a hotel on the outskirts of Consett, County Durham. After a hearty breakfast, we carried on to Housesteads on a Sunday morning which the weather forecasters had promised would be fine. We perused the fort and the associated museum before walking alongside one of the most spectacular sections of the entire wall then squelching across the rough grassland to the north of Housesteads and back to Hotbanks Farm where - on the track back to the main road - we encountered a pair of bulls with rings in their noses, guarding their cows. We weren't in the mood for arguing and so headed back for the wall, taking a different and more spectacular path over Hotbank Crags - back one thousand nine hundred years to Housesteads - Vercovicium...
Ruins of the North Gate
The Granary - preserving foodstocks was vital
The wall leads over Sewingshields Crags
View to Sewingshields
Horse in the paddock at Hotbanks Farm

Over the heather the wet wind blows, 
I've lice in my tunic, a cold in my nose. 

The rain comes pattering out of the sky, 
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why. 

The mist creeeps over the hard grey stone, 
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone. 

Aulus goes hanging around her place, 
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face. 

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish; 
There'd be be no kissing if he had his wish. 

She gave me a ring but I diced it away; 
I want my girl and I want my pay. 

When I'm a veteran with only one eye 
I shall do nothing but look at the sky. 

W.H. Auden


  1. A truly fascinating post. One must get a different perspective on present-day silliness when one has things like Hadrian's Wall and the ruins of Vercovicium so near at hand.

    The nearest thing we have at hand are a couple of historical markers about the Trail of Tears and the removal of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma by the U.S. government in the 1830s.

  2. Such a fascinating place. That why I love it .

  3. i HAVE LEARNT SOMETHING on a rainy Bank Holiday Afternoon

  4. What an example you are YP. The mister and I have just returned from an amble in the local park and were talking about having a long weekend in York/Harrogate....and now this has piqued my interest. I have always wanted to see the wall...

  5. What a difference between Romans and Italians.

  6. RHYMES WITH..You're right. An appreciation of History can put present day matters into proper perspective.
    HELEN I remember you explored some of Hadrian's Wall during one of your visits to Britain. You were wearing a red fleece and a pink patterned shirt.
    EARL GRAY Glad I made some little cogs turn in your noble cranium.
    LIBBY The reason Shirley and I went up on Sunday is that we were pretty confident we'd get decent weather. If we had visited on either Saturday or today (Monday) it would have been grey and miserable. I think I chose well in picking Housesteads as the focus of our trip but you could also look at Vindolanda.
    JAN BLAWAT You're right. Many modern day Italians seem so intent on the easy life that they're in danger of falling over but The Romans were incredibly industrious and ambitious.

  7. I enjoyed the poem, the photos, and hearing about your trip. I very much envy you your life in an area with such a long history of habitation. Where I live--Oregon, USA--humanity goes back some 14,000 years, but until 150 years ago, the local population was indigenous, and they left almost nothing to tell of their lives.

  8. SNOWBRUSH Thank you for dropping by. I may not know the difference between a rodent and a bird but I appreciate the passing of time and what our forebears have left for us. Best wishes to Oregon from Sheffield, England.

  9. Hmm, it sounds as if Britain was Rome's Afghanistan and Hadrian's Wall and Vercovicium their Camp Bastion.

  10. SHOOTING PARROTS But they civilised us - well most of us - not you, obviously.

  11. A fascinating piece of British history that I was only vaguely aware of. Thanks for the history lesson, - Dave


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