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Published: February 3rd 2020
Where in the world is Gabby the motorhome parked up?
On the edge of the Roman Empire . On the furthest outpost that a Roman could find himself sent to. It was cold. It was windy and it was wet . It probably felt that the end of the world to our Roman friend when he stood there. Not hard to imagine what life must have looked like for a Roman on the edge of Britain. A desolate spot. Probably no different now to what it looked like when the Romans were here. A long way away from the sun. Perhaps in summer it may not have been half as bad . Thousands of miles away from olives, hot bathhouses , civilisation togas and wine . Thousands of miles away from his good wine and good food . Surrounded by coldness, dampness and a bloody wall to build . And what a wall it turned out to be . You cannot fail to be impressed. This fort had been built on the river bend with extensive views from east to west . No-one could come up the river without being seen and challenged .
Britain had been
conquered by the Roman army by 43AD and by AD 100 they had reached the north of the country . Somewhere between the Tyne and Solway ithmus. Hadrian arrived in AD122 and set to put everything right by building his wall to keep out the barbarians . Building started in AD122 and work was completed in six years . Standing here on this windswept car park it was hard not to see this as a real achievement in a climate that was not conducive to health. Too cold, too wet and too barren to grow much in the way of food. The wall was intended to be part stone and part turf taking advantage of the topography of the land. It was guarded every mile by gates with observation posts in between. 14 forts were constructed and this was to define the northern edge of the Roman empire . An empire that stretched from Italy through Northern Europe to Spain and to North Africa. 73 miles of barracks and bathhouses that stretched from sea to sea and lasted over 300 years. Why would we not be impressed with its scale and endurance that even today is evident in the landscape.
Not all of the impressive wall has been robbed for the building of churches, houses and farms. Much of it still remains for us to see .
That was why we starting on its Western end and were sitting in the English Heritage car park at Chesters Fort . We were waiting for a break in the rain to go to investigate the car parking fee. The break did not come. We needed our thick coats, our scarves and our gloves. It felt more like Winter than Spring. Perhaps we thought too soon that Spring had arrived . The site was free to English Heritage members . That is us . Sion was chomping at the bit to see what Hadrian had built especially as he and his friend Woolly Mammoth have an intimate relationship with this most iconic of Romans.
We wanted to see some of the wall that stretched from Wallsend on the Tyne to Bowness on Solway some 80 miles away . Thats a Roman 80 miles . Three legions were drafted in to construct the wall 5000 infantry men . Manned by auxilliaries 500 to 1000 strong . And camp followers .
When Hadrian died Antonius Pius abandoned the wall and moved further north towards Scotland, He began the Antonine Wall which was less successful than Hadrians wall.
The museum was quite interesting. More interesting than we had expected . The exhibits were set out in a very Victorian way. Small altars and there were many of those displayed on concrete plinths . We have never seen them set out this way. Red writing on the plinth told the story of the altar . Which god it was honouring - Mars , the goddess of the water , Venus . You name it the Romans were hedging their bets and honouring all and every one of them.
Stone grave markers - the most interesting to the wife of what must have been the commander . She was young when she died . Glass cabinets held other treasures . Jet beads. Red pottery from back home. Glass bottles and other items of jewellry. Very fine buckles and fastenings . All the trappings of life in a Roman fort .
The rest of the site was laid out running down to the river . It was built here to give a
commanding view of anyone trying to attack from west or east . Everything was well preserved . The stones that remained showed the foundations of the garrison buildings . The streets were still well laid out . Steps with the ruts made by many a hob nailed boot climbing down.
The baths were the best feature by a long way. So well preserved . Walking through a gate I climbed down to the engine house of the complex. A brick built kiln that once would have been fired up with wood in order to heat the water that was required for the bathhouse. Many rooms led off from this area. Cold rooms, hot rooms they were all there for the entertainment of the forts inhabitants. . All enclosed and one with recesses for the bathers to sit in and talk and to hang their togas upon hooks . It was all cosy and probably welcomed by both the officers and the lowly citizens who looked after the fort.
It appeared that there was once a settlement outside of the gates . Camp followers may have lived there. The locals would have set up shops and sold local delicacies
to the soldiers . None of this had been excavated yet . What treasures were still hidden beneath the soil and grass of this ancient settlement . Still more roman finds to be discovered.
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