Hadrian’s House

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 0:57 | Filed in Local Interest, The Pickards


The old Roman fort of Vercovicium stands at Housesteads on the Roman Wall, and is sometimes known as ‘Housesteads Roman Fort’. The fort was built around 124 AD (only a couple of years after Hadrian’s Wall itself was built and was occupied by the Romans until around 400 AD.

BTP with Roman soldier at Housesteads fort (flickr)

Oh, and they were back last weekend.

We had been undecided exactly where to go for our ‘family outing’ this week, but a quick poke around the internet revealed that were a couple of things semi-nearby that were of interest. There was a recreation of ‘the worst jobs in mediæval history’ at Lindisfarne priory, or the Roman VIII Legion were going to be at Housesteads fort on the Roman wall.

Of course, when we offered the choice to the boys, there was no question … we were off to see the Roman soldiers!

view from housesteads fort back towards the road (flickr)

Once you’ve parked the car and made your way past the gift shop, you begin the long uphill trudge towards the fort itself. According to the official information, the fort is five hundred yards from the entrance. I’m not convinced of that at all. I suspect if you follow the path, rather than being catapulted through the air, it’s actually nearer a thousand yards, and it’s all uphill on a gravelly path. But we all still made it up, even with me balancing a nearly-three-year old SWP on my shoulders the whole way.

The view looking back towards the car park was impressive, simply because of the elevation you were at. The Romans had quite sensibly placed the wall (and the fort, which was on the wall) at the highest point thereabouts, so the wall followed the line of the protruding Whin Sill rock formation, giving it commanding views to both the North and South. Note: in the view back towards the car park, you can’t actually see the car park itself or the military road on which it sits (they are over the far ridge; the car park behind the large distand stand of trees).

By the time we got there, we’d just missed the first re-enactment from the VIII Legion, and so wandered about the fort for a bit. We spoke to a couple of Romans in uniform, talked to one of them about how he made his own suit of chainmail over a period of about six months (me wants one) and how it weighs between thirty or forty pounds — I picked it up and was minded to agree. We saw a Roman wearing the segmented armour (lorica segmentata: note this name is a 16th C. name for it, the name orginally used is unknown) and explaining how it all strapped together, and then we wandered away from the re-enactors and over to the rest of the ruined fort…

SWP sheltering in the base of the old Roman granary (flickr)

We found the old Roman granary, which as I explained to the kids, is where the Romans used to keep their grandparents, hence the name…

SWP and BTP loved the granary because the small holes in the base of the structure were just sufficiently big enough for them to squeeze through, so they spent an entertaining five minutes popping in and out of these rabbit holes before, inevitably, SWP bumped his head and we had to stop for a few minutes.

BTP balancing on top of Hadrian's wall (flickr)

The granary was near Hadrian’s wall, which constituted the northern wall of the fort, and so we wandered over to the wall itself and were even able to clamber on top of Hadrian’s wall and wander around a bit, although we had to be careful, because while it was only between one and four feet off the ground on the fort side, it was probably between six and ten feet off the ground on the north side.

When standing on the wall, BTP therefore had to windmill his arms frantically and appear to panic, just to manage to keep his grandmother in a maximised state of anxiety about the whole thing.

After that, we looked at the Roman toilets which were considerably more advanced than those of Newcastle keep, despite being 1000 years older, having water running through them to remove the er… waste … and big stone basins for people to wash their hands in.

From there, it was time to head to the Roman arena, to watch the display. Firstly, the men were marched back into the arena, with the traditional “left! left! left, right left!” march being replaced by the latinized equivalent: “Sin! Sin! Sin, Dex, Sin!” (sinister= left; dexter=right). How accurate this was as a historical reflection I have no idea, but it added a touch of colour, anyway.

VIII legion in Testudo formation (flickr)

Then they lined up in various battle formations including the famous Testudo (tortoise) formation, where they basically make a shield wall in front and over their heads, to allow them to march towards enemies firing arrows at them while remaining safe. This led to the unusual circumstance of me actually seeing someone firing arrows at someone else as an archer at one end of the field continued to fire arrows at the testudo formation, with the arrows bouncing harmlessly off the shields at the front (although if one of the arrows had been about three inches lower, it would have got someone in the shins, which were left exposed by this formation).

Note that yer actual Testudo formation would have had more soldiers in it, so the sides of the formation would also have been shielded…

And once we’d watched these formations, and a reconstructed ballista being fired at a target, it was about time to go (the kids now wearing their helmets and waving their wooden swords as supplied from the shop by Grandma Jenny). After heading back to the gift shop/information centre, I decided to test exactly how good they were at supplying information — asking them if they knew of a nearby pub that did pub lunches.

They pointed us in the direction of The Twice Brewed Inn, which I’d heard of before, as I’m quite a fan of my real ales, and I knew that they brewed their own beer. What a perfect excuse to pop in.

I didn’t have a drink, as it happened, because it was such a hot day that I just wanted to quench my thirst, so I ended up just having a couple of diet cokes, along with my Beef & Guiness Cobbler and my Sticky Toffee pudding. The Beef Cobbler was well received — all of the adults had this, although the kiddies went for the reconstituted and reshaped meat that is no doubt to be found in a turkey dinosaur (but I don’t mind them having something like that once in a while: it’s all very well wanting them to have good quality food, but I’m not going to go all health-fascist about it when we’re having a day out).

Centurion SWP falls asleep on sentry duty

…but upon discovering that you could get bottles of the Twice Brewed ale, I did pick up one of them to bring home (and no, I haven’t had it yet).

So not only would I recommend a trip to Housesteads (or indeed Vindolanda, only a couple of miles further along) on the Roman wall, I’d also recommend popping into the Twice Brewed for your lunch while you’re out there.

But with a lot of walking about, a lot of sunshine, a lot of fresh air and then a big dinner, the strain of remaining on sentry duty proved too much for one of our little centurions, who after battling bravely for a while fell asleep in the car on the way back home.

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