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Hadrian's Wall

Cawfields Roman Wall and Milecastle 42

Hadrian's Wall as we call it today, is a structure that crosses England, it is 73.5 miles or 117 kilometres long.

The wall contains milecastles every roman mile, a little shorter than our modern mile and in between these, 2 turrets, there were a few forts along the wall to start, the number of forts being increased later to 16 or 17. Behind the wall there are additional large forts on a supply road and between these at a days marching distance, smaller forts or marching camps. In front of the wall on the western side are three forts. Some think there were other early warning forts at intervals at around 8 to 10 miles north of the wall along the walls length. 

The eastern end of the wall was originally of stone and the western end where there was no natural rock, it was made of turf, with stone milecastles and turrets. Later much of this was rebuilt in stone.

Beyond this forts, milecastles and turrets continued for some distance down the Cambrian coast, but there was no wall between them. We have not included the coastal extended section here.

The wall structure developed over time, but the basic plan to start is shown on the right, in an illustration from an old book.

Starting at the north we have:-

A flat 60ft wide raised area, created from material from a ditch. Except where on a sheer drop.

Deep V shaped ditches with encampments in the bottom, except where on a sheer drop. The standard fighting ditch was 30ft by 13ft 6inches deep.

A 20ft berm or Patrolable or movement area along the wall.

So north of the wall for at least 110 feet there was no cover and with a V shaped ditch there was no hiding place from men on the wall top.

Stone curtain walls with milecastles, and turrets the initial design for the wall was 10ft wide, 15ft 6 inches high and surmounted by 6ft crenulations, so 21ft 6inches high to the north. Later some of the wall was created narrower. The crenulations were also probably on the south side although most illustrations show it one sided.

Military space, this varied, sometimes getting larger to allow easier digging behind. Later a military road ran up much of this.

Vallum, a bank, 20ft wide bottomed ditch and bank, defining the military area.

At each Roman mile there was a milecastle with a north gate opening through the Wall, surmounted by a defensive turret and a south gate. In the original plan there were two barracks and the milecastle maintained and staffed the turret each side of it. Turrets had a rear door only and ladder that could be raised to allow access to the upper section.

Initially the milecastles were the equivalent of tax collecting and control points and people could move both in and out, so at this time there had to have been a way to cross the northern ditch and vallum at each milecastle. Later most of the milecastles were not used and there were only a limited number of crossing places at forts. The vallum and ditches were then fully dug out the rest of the way.

A modern mile is 1760 yards while a roman mile was 1620 yards, this is 0.92 of a mile or 1.48km.

Plan of the wall See Larger Image

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Many years of resurfacing the road on the right has brought it well above the pillar base Corbridge Roman Town    

Today we refer to the rear ditch and bank structure as the vallum but the Romans called the whole wall structure "Vallum Aelium". At other times the wall was also known as the the Picts or Pictes wall and Severus wall, the Pictes name spelt two ways is shown in early maps from the beginning of the 17th century, and Severus on a map of Newcastle from 1610. Bede far earlier in Historia Ecclesiastica 1.5, gives an account of how the wall came about and credited its creation to Emperor Severus.

The initial design started in the east at Pont Aelius where  Newcastle upon Tyne now stands, and  proceeded west. It was later decided to extend it 4 miles to the east to Segedunum - Wallsend   5 years later in about 127AD, this was probably done so as to protect the river crossing at Pont Aelius.   The new section of wall was built in the narrow width used further west. A section of wall ran from the fort out into the river, which is tidal to at least the lowest tidal point.

Well before the wall there was a main Roman supply road the 'Stanegate', this ran from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The fort at Roman Vindolanda (Chesterholm)  stands about mid way along this vital supply road with the forts and roman towns at Carlisle to the west and Corbridge and Arbeia to the east. Smaller forts and marching camps would have been every days march, about 13 miles along the road. The wall is positioned just to the north of this, in some cases sharing bridges between the road and wall, while at other times the wall following the highest ground is a little way to the north, but never very far away. The original forts at Vindolanda and Corbridge   both predate the wall.

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East gate  Birdoswald   
Birdoswald Roman Fort

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Cavalry fort gateway - Chesters   
Chesters Roman Fort

The stanegate road does not exist as such today, although most of its route is known. The road that most see is the B6318 that runs near and in places on top of the wall. This was the military road that was created far later after an Act of Parliament in 1751 to prevent the recurrence of events that happened in 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie took over north west England and the Hanoverian commander Marshal Wade was stuck at Newcastle as the road to Carlisle was not up to supporting the artillery. The farmers were far more willing to sell land for the road over the stony wall area, so for many miles it runs on top of the road, the wall being saved where it went onto higher ground. The military road can still be traced going across the B6318 to Birdoswald Roman Fort     and the small road that continues from it past the surviving turrets, some on one side of the road and some on the other. For many years until the road was tarred, the stone wall could be seen in the base of the military road. Although the creation of the military road caused very many miles of wall to be destroyed, it also allows us far easier access to most parts that remain.

Hadrian's Wall was never a frontier in the modern sense of the end of a territory, the Romans operated well north of the wall at all times and had many forts and camps north of the wall. It was more a case of policing and tax gathering.

Most of the forts have a very similar look and layout, most are shaped like playing cards,, rectangular with rounded corners, most have 4 gateways, while some cavalry forts have 6, 3 either side of the wall.

Housesteads Roman Fort   from the air   Housesteads Roman Fort

This image shows the layout well. You can see the wall around and the four gateways.  We are looking towards the south east, the wall comes from the bottom right and goes away to the west in the top right. The most prominent building in the bottom right is the barrack block, to the left of this more like an outline is a store room, with a bathhouse more distinct near to the gateway, above the barrack block is granaries, and less distinct to its left is the Headquarters building. The larger building to the left again is the commanding officers house. Above the headquarters building is the hospital. At the extreme left, just within the wall, you can see the latrines, and outside the wall some parts of the civilian settlement.

Aerial photo by Simon Ledingham used with permission.
Previously on www.visitcumbria.com

Prior to the reign of Hadrian, the Roman Empire had been in a constant expansionist phase, they had intended to take the whole of the island of Britain and was planning a trip on to Ireland. They had fort lines and had carried out actions through much of Scotland, but it was not as easy to fit into the Roman world model as the areas further south. Their model was not to replace existing rulers but to turn them into puppet administrators, with most of their benefits intact but protected from aggression from others.  Further north into the Scottish Highlands this model did not work as people were scattered and far more independent, so policing, administering and tax collecting was more expensive than the revenue produced.

Hadrian decided to consolidate the Empire and ordered the building of Roman Frontiers,  not only in Britain but for thousands of miles in Europe and North Africa.

The line across the country was placed logically north of its main northern supply road but near enough to it to allow it to be used to construct the wall and supply forts. The line chosen follows the highest ground, even when doing so goes up and down extreme sections, and they could so easily have avoided this.  Although a very long military structure it was designed to be able to be defended from aggressors on either side. If one mile fort for example came under attack from the south, men could come out of the northern gates of others and along the north of the wall to provide reinforcements.

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Bathhouse - Chesters   

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Underground at Chesters   

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Hadrian's successor in turn decided to move the line up further and the Antonine Wall  was built, in this period many of the Hadrian's Wall forts were not occupied, although the wall was maintained. Later they abandoned the Antonine Wall  and went back to Hadrian's Wall before going back again to Antonine Wall and finally back again to Hadrian's Wall. 

Having built the wall, over the rest of the time the Romans were here Hadrian's Wall was breached on at least three occasions. Twice with damage to the wall when the garrisons were away. It was therefore necessary to keep large numbers of men in the line of forts. The wall was substantially damaged a number of times and had to be rebuilt. We know only of the times the wall was broken and needed to be rebuilt, what we do not know was how many unsuccessful attacks there were on the wall.

Different sources have slightly different dates and events, and not much is known of the wall area for periods while the Antonine Wall was in use.  The location guide on Corbridge also contains quite a lot of history, and I have not duplicated this here.

The main events in the history of the wall are shown below, which is at least a basic flavour of what was happening at the time.

 Major events effecting the whole or a substantial part of wall

Year AD Event
43 Romans invaded Britain, with support from some Britain's.
71 Roman occupation began in the Pennines.
78-84 Penetration of North of Scotland.
before 96 Most of Scotland abandoned.
117 Rebellion on Britain.
122-130 Building of Hadrian's Wall and associated structures.
139 Reoccupation of southern Scotland,
construction of
Antonine Wall  
Token force only left at Hadrian's Wall.
154-184 (some when between) Reoccupation of Hadrian's Wall, Antonine Wall abandoned.
180 (Around) An uprising and the wall being crossed with many military people killed, a general called Ulpius Marcellus, was appointed and brought the situation under control.
A lot of damage done to
Corbridge Roman Town  
184 - 197 Antonine Wall reoccupied and as well as Hadrian's Wall  but milecastles not occupied.
197 A lot of damage done to the wall while the garrison was away.
193- Rebuilding of wall.
208-211 Scotland  reoccupied.
211 Scotland abandoned, more outpost forts built north of the wall.
296 Successful attack on the wall, again while the garrison was away.
300 Rebuilding of the wall.
367 Successful attack on the wall.
369 Rebuilding of wall.
Just after 400 Wall ceased to be occupied.

Over the many years that elapsed, many forts were rebuilt a number of times, Vindolanda (Chesterholm) perhaps 10 times, Corbridge 5 times and many of the bridges show remains from at least three bridges on the sites. In addition to these complete rebuilds there were many smaller alterations, or changes of use. In addition, our understating of what was happening and the use of buildings is patchy, often with assumptions and many errors.

Sycamore Gap   as featured in Robin Hood film

Although much has been destroyed or built on, over the years, there is also a lot left, and of this some can be visited and seen exposed, some we can read about from past digs, and there are ongoing excavations and in some sites will continue to be excavated for over 100 years to come, while some other sites still have to be investigated. A lot of the forts are still just humps and bumps in fields.

We can explore this period in the Hadrian's Wall area by visiting:-

  • Open sites - stone wall remains, together with the remains of millecastles and turrets.

  • Attractions - excavated remains of forts, and other special features like temples and baths.

  • Museums showing the items recovered from excavations.

  • Reconstructed examples of sections of wall, a fort gatehouse, baths, temples, and more.

Identifying the locations that you may like to visit can be done by using Hadrian's Wall - Featured Places,   or the Hadrian's Wall Route Guide, both of which link to very many individual location guides with photos and links, in many to picture galleries with more.

Reconstructed Turret and Wall - Vindolanda  Roman Vindolanda

There are a number of sites you can visit that show reconstructed features that allow you to see how the building may have looked like. These include:-

Section of full size wall:


Gatehouse for a fort


Commanding Officers Residence




Multiple smaller displays

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  Reconstructed fort gatehouse Arbeia

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  Guess what in the reconstructed

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  A room in the reconstructed commanding officers residence at Arbeia

Reconstructed wall with original in front opposite side of road to Wallsend  
Segedunum  Roman Fort

Some of our location guides tell you a great deal more of what was happening in that particular location, our guide on Corbridge Roman Town  explains the sequence of forts and development of the town, as well as  what you can see today, and the guide on the Temple of Mithras  gives you a background to the religion involved and its similarities with other religions.

In addition to choosing to visit individual places on the wall, or using our route guide to drive it, there is also the Hadrian's Wall Path (National Trail), a long distance path that takes you near to the wall much of the way from coast to coast. Also a cycling route that covers a route nearby.

This area also offers many landscape photography opportunities and Hadrian's Wall - Featured Places also identifies some of these.

There are many places along the wall where photographic opportunities occur, and different people will be attracted to different scenes. However Cawfields Roman Wall and Milecastle 42 and Steel Rigg are two that stand out.

Several of the forts have exceptional views, although Housesteads Roman Fort  stands out here. Each of the fort attractions and Corbridge Roman Town have their own features of interest to photographers, and you may wish to check out each of the galleries to see the sort of photos available at each, but it may be worth pointing out that in most, between two of us we took several hundred photos and chose just a small number to give you a flavour of the sites.



Picture right a reconstructed

temple at Vindolanda 

To assist you we have produced a range of information on Hadrian's Wall.

  • Articles on aspects of the walls and other roman features.

  • Hadrian's Wall - Featured Places   this identifies the sites you can visit and links to our location guides.

  • A large number of location guides looking at individual locations together with many photographs of what is there. You can identify these from the featured list, route guide or from the index in our Roman Section.

  • Photo galleries of major places along the wall, mostly forts and roman towns.

  • A Hadrian's Wall Route Guide, for those visiting, to assist you with route planning and finding the locations quickly.

  • Hadrian's Wall Further Information providing other links that may assist you in further research.

  • Roman section index. Roman Britain  Topic index or Roman Section

Over time more information will be added.

See also:-

Roman Section

Roman Britain  Topic index

Hadrian's wall - featured places

Hadrian's Wall Route Guide,

Hadrian's Wall Further Information

Roman frontiers   

Antonine Wall  

World Heritage Sites

World Heritage Sites in the UK

Our images and pages

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All photos, except the aerial photos, this means you can use the pictures for your own non profit projects. See Creative commons explained.

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By: Keith Park   Section: Roman section Key:
Page Ref: Hadrians_wall Topic: Roman Britain  Last Updated: 05/2010

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