The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and were able to subjugate the southern section of the Island with relative ease. The area to the north, which is today known as Scotland, proved to be a different issue. The northern tribes were combative, resilient and avoided being conquered by the Romans. In the 2nd century, the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the area and decided to create a defensive zone across northern Britain to protect the Empire’s border.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall snakes across northern Britain for over 70 miles.  It is constructed of stone in its eastern sections and turf and clay in its western section.

The defensive fortifications ran from the Solway Firth in the west to a spot near Newcastle upon Tyne in the East. The linear distance between the two points is approximately 64 miles, but the Wall, constructed with defense in mind, snakes more than seventy miles across the countryside.

Hadrian’s Wall, which was the most heavily fortified border in the Roman Empire, was not constructed as an impenetrable barrier. Instead, the Wall allowed the troops that manned the Wall time to deploy and to extract a high price from opposing forces who wanted to cross.

The original Wall, composed of turf and clay, was approximately twenty feet high and ten feet wide.  It was accompanied by a deep ditch to the north of the wall.  The design of Hadrian’s Wall incorporated a small fort every Roman mile (the forts were called “milecastles”) with watchtowers between the forts.  Eventually, sections of the wall were rebuilt in stone (mostly in the east) and a number of large major forts were constructed, of which Housesteads is the most complete and interesting.  At their peak, the forts housed between ten and fifteen thousand soldiers.

Along with the construction of the forts, a vallum was added south of the Wall that included a deep ditch with high mounds on each side.  A military road ran between the Wall and the vallum.

Housesteads Fort
The ruins at Housesteads Fort are large and interesting. Follow the road B6318 (north of A69) to find the site.  Start your tour in the small but informative museum, it will only take a few minutes.  Be sure to buy one of the brochures that provides information on the details of the area. – Photo credit: dvdbramhall

Housesteads Fort is a five-acre site populated with the ruins of one of the Wall’s large forts.  The buildings have been reduced to their foundations and walls, but it is an informative and interesting place to tour.  Outside of the walls of the fort, a small civil community existed, to serve the needs of the soldiers.

Most forts were rectangular and had four gates for access and egress.  The major buildings were granaries and barracks for the soldiers.   You will notice the stone piers in some of the photographs. The piers were to keep the floor of the buildings off the damp ground and to allow air circulation to avoid rotting grains in the warehouses.  In other cases, the piers allowed hot air from fires to drift under the floors and heat the homes of the commanding officers.

It appears Housesteads and other forts were abandoned when the Roman Empire began to wane at the end of the Third century.  In the Middle Ages this area was reported to be a haven for robbers and brigands who took advantage of the area’s disputed ownership while Scotland and England evolved into modern states.