This was the day we visited one of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. It’s called Housesteads now, but was Vercovicium back when the Romans occupied it.
It was already a misty morning when we left the hotel, but instead of clearing up, it only became more foggy until you could barely see beyond the sides of the coach.
We stopped on the way in a village called Corbridge to pick up our guide for the morning, a local historian named Graham. As we drove along a Victorian military road actually built atop a section of Hadrian’s Wall, Graham gamely tried to point out the remains of Roman outposts–“over there, by that lone tree,” when we were barely able to see the tree looming out of the fog, never mind the stone ruins around it.
The previous night after dinner, after the others had gone to bed, I sat up for a little while with our tour manager Dave and had a cup of tea while he worked out where we were going to have lunch. One of the hotel waiters suggested a place called the Vallum, which is the Latin word for a ditch beside a wall. We didn’t end up going to that restaurant, but Dave and I agreed that when we were at the Wall, we could pretend we’d always known the proper Roman term for it. “Oh, yes, that’s the vallum right there.” But Graham spoiled it for us by pointing out the ditch and telling everybody on the bus what it was called.
Once we were there, we had to walk half a mile or so from the parking area along the track through a pasture full of sheep to reach the fortress on its hill. The voices of the sheep “meh”-ing came out of the mists and sounded eeriely almost human.
Before entering the fort, we stopped briefly at the little visitors’ center just outside. A number of “finds”–fragments of pottery, statues, and so on–that had been recovered when the fort was excavated were on display here, as well as a model showing how the fort may have looked when it was occupied. In the back room, there was also a short video primarily made for schoolchildren, narrated by Bernard Hill, that seemed to imply that the fort was eventually overrun by barbarians from the north. This didn’t happen–at least, not while the Roman were there. Like all places in Romanized Britain, it was abandoned when they completely withdrew at the end of the 5th century. It isn’t known if anybody else remained to use the fort after the Romans left.
Our tour of the fort began when Graham gathered our group just outside what had been the southern gate to point out the ruins of the vicus. Unlike “vallum,” I really did know what a “vicus” was before we got here; I picked it up from Time Team. It’s the civilian settlement outside a fortress, could be shops, taverns, homes for the soldiers’ local-born wives and families. Some of them were pretty good-sized small towns. This one looked as if it were only half a dozen or so buildings.
Then we went into the fort. Graham showed us the holes in the stone where the posts for the gates had been, then took us through the soldiers’ quarters, which had been extensively revised at some point during the 200 years or so that the fort was in use. One block was converted into stables–or else had been a stable and was later rebuilt to house more men.
Graham also pointed out the soldiers’ lavatory down in one corner–not much of a facility for more than 100 men, but it did have running water; you can still see the conduits which carried water in from the stream farther up the hill.
We also walked through the remains of the administrative offices and the home belonging to the commanding officer. The commander would have been the only man at the fort who would have his wife and perhaps children living with him, and their house would have been much more spacious and comfortable that the common barracks.
The fort was built right along Hadrian’s Wall, so that the Wall comes up to the northern side and forms the fort’s northern wall until it goes on again across the countryside on the other side. I didn’t really get a change to get down along that part of the Wall, but could see it over the edge of the fort, running down the hill.
While we were up at the fort, the mist slowly cleared and the sun began to peek through. It was a much nicer walk back down to the parking lot than it had been coming up.
On the drive back to Corbridge, we could now see all the things Graham had been trying to show us earlier that morning and he was kind enough to point them out again as we went past. We dropped him off at Corbridge, after thanking him and giving him a round of applause for his informative tour of the ruins–he really did know his Roman history and made even the stones under our feet interesting.
We ended up stopping at Corbridge for lunch, and I took the opportunity to find a drug store to get some cough drops and cold & flu pills for the cold I could feel coming on.