2022 marks the 1,900th anniversary of the Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britannia and the start of the northern frontier upgrade from earth and bank defence to stone wall. The Wall marks the fall back line beyond which no raids by Caledonian tribes would be tolerated. But more than that, it was a grand imperial statement that boasted of the might of the Roman Empire that came with a statement of intent: “You’d better get used to us as we’re here to stay.”
But the life of Hadrian’s Wall as a frontier barrier lasted for only another 280 years, abandoned by Rome around the year 410 – the year Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths.
I visited Hadrian’s Wall in September 2020 and was inspired to write my own story of frontier life in the heyday of the Roman Empire, choosing the final days of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in the year 180 C.E. My hero is Centurion Gaius Atticianus of the VI Legion, a real figure whose name is engraved on an altar stone excavated at Whitley Castle – once the Roman fort of Epiacum. I have imagined his story and struggle to survive in the harsh Northumbrian climate. I also wanted to showcase the work of archaeologists in uncovering and breathing new life into our understanding of Roman Britain, so I settled on a dual timeline story that flips from a contemporary tale to the life of Gaius in alternating chapters.
Guardians at the Wall is a dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall in which archaeologists uncover artefacts that connect them to the life of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia.
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My 2021 novel, Guardians at the Wall, is a work of fiction, inspired by an inscription on a Roman artefact discovered in 1803 at Whitley Castle in Cumbria, once the Roman fort of Epiacum. Following a visit to five Hadrian’s Wall museums located at fort sites in 2020, I became so intrigued by the work of archaeologists to uncover and piece together a narrative of how the Roman occupiers lived that I resolved to write my novel as a dual timeline with an archaeology story intertwined with the story of a Roman soldier during the occupation.
The main character in the contemporary thread is archaeology student Noah Jessop. In Noah’s presentation, he refers to three mentions he found of Centurion Gaius Atticianus. Of these three, two are fictitious and the true one is the dedication on an altar stone. In the Roman Inscriptions of Britain archives, there is an entry for an altar pedestal stone inscription, dedicated to the god Hercules. The translation reads: ‘To the god Hercules Gaius Vitellius Atticianus centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis’
This altar stone (sketch from http://www.romaninscriptionsofbritain.org) now resides at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford. From this, I’ve taken my character, Gaius Vitellius Atticianus of the VI Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis (‘the victorious, loyal and faithful Sixth Legion’), and imagined his story, including the invented burial of a payroll chest. One real event is included in the narrative; the burning down of Corbridge/Coria town in 180 or 181, thought to have been in an attack by Caledonian raiders from north of Hadrian’s Wall. 180 is also the year that Emperor Marcus Aurelius died – memorable depicted in the opening scenes of the movie, ‘Gladiator’. Two of my named Roman officers are also real, plucked from mentions in inscriptions on monuments or in surviving records, namely Legate of the VI Legion, Claudius Hieronymianus (between 190-212 C.E. – I liked the name so I placed him in office as a young political appointee, nine years earlier); and Tribune Publius Helvius Pertinax (VI Legion, 170s). Great names that deserve to live on. Further reading revealed that Pertinax retired to Rome after a long career as a provincial administrator, only to be persuaded out of retirement in the wake of the murder of Emperor Commodus by the Praetorian Guard. His short reign was the first three months of 193. He was murdered in turn and replaced by another candidate in the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.
My story of Noah and the archaeologists is fiction, although the settings are real. Both the Vindolanda Trust and English Heritage are registered trusts under UK law, and manage functioning museums situated at the sites of part-excavated Roman ruins. English Heritage manage many sites on Hadrian’s Wall, including the fascinating Corbridge Roman Town, Housesteads (near the much-photographed Sycamore Gap), and the beautifully located Chesters fort, baths and Victorian era museum in the grounds of the Clayton family estate.
The Vindolanda Trust has an ongoing archaeological dig, started in the 1930s by owner Eric Birley, and continued by his son, Robin, who in 1973 oversaw the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets. Vindolanda remains with the Birley family beyond 1970 when the Vindolanda Trust was founded, with Dr Andrew Birley as the current Chief Executive Officer. Many wonderous finds, including the tablets, can be seen in the onsite museum. Because peat contains very little oxygen, organic materials like wood, leather and textiles do not rot. They can survive for thousands of years, preserved by the stable anoxic chemistry of the soil.
I visited these places in September 2020, between Covid-19 lockdowns, and the idea for this story came to me shortly after, whilst I was blogging about my visits. I saw for myself the Gladiator drinking bowl or tankard (passed around by Gaius and his mates in chapter two and featured in miniature on the book cover) and was awe-struck by the Vindolanda tablets and the details of the inscriptions on the information cards. The whole museum is fascinating, as are the grounds. I was extremely grateful to escape the confines of my home for three glorious days in the fresh, Northumberland air. In January 2021, whilst in the midst of writing, I enjoyed watching Robson Green’s television series, Walking Hadrian’s Wall. I note that Mr Green is a Patron of the Vindolanda Trust, and his visit to meet with his ‘old mate’, Andrew Birley, was both fascinating and timely.
The novel’s title, Guardians at the Wall, came to me once I’d sketched out the plots of each timeline strand. The Roman and auxilliary soldiers stood guard at the Wall for over 200 years, but the current generation of guardians are the archaeologists, curators and historians who strive to expose the past and make it live on in public consciousness – a part of our history and cultural identity. In the novel I talk of a Combined Universities dig at Vindolanda. This is made up. There are no combined universities digs that I know of, but there are archaeology degree courses offered by Durham and Newcastle Universities, with fieldwork practicals.
The novel’s action is set at Hadrian’s Wall, one of Britain’s World Heritage sites. When finished, Hadrian’s wall stretched 117 km (73 imperial miles) from sea to sea. It stood about 5 meters (15 ft.) high and 3 meters (10 ft.) wide. The core consisted of packed earth and clay and the sides were faced with blocks of stone. There may have been intermittent platforms on top of some stretches of the wall between watchtowers and mile forts, where auxiliary sentries kept watchful eyes on the north lands. The wall was a highly visible symbol of the Roman Empire’s might and prodigious activity at the peak of its power and dominance. Now, barely 10% of Hadrian’s Wall remains in place, and its stone blocks have been pilfered over the centuries to build dry stone walls, buildings and even an entire village of over 300 dwellings called ‘Wall’.
2022 is a big anniversary year for Hadrian’s Wall, marking 1,900 years since the Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction during his visit in 122 C.E. At the time of writing, the Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Group are planning a number of events to mark the anniversary. Year-long activities based at or near Hadrian’s Wall, including online events, can be found listed at the Hadrian’s Wall Country website.
Guardians at the Wall is a 90,000 word novel available from Amazon in the following formats:
This blog post is a summary of Tim Walker’s self-published book titles from 2015 to date. He currently has fifteen titles available in e-book, print-on-demand paperback and hardback formats. Available from Amazon in Kindle (all titles) and Kindle Unlimited (all titles except A Light in the Dark Ages series); and from draft2digital.com in Apple i-books; Nook; Kobo and other online stores (A Light in the Dark Ages series only).
Historical Fiction Short Stories Thriller/dystopian novel Children’s books Poems and flash fiction
Published in June 2021, Guardians at the Wall is a gripping dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall. Archaeologists uncover artefacts that connect them to the life and battles of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia.
A LIGHT IN THE DARK AGES book series (see below) now has a new BOOK SERIES page on Amazon and is also now available in two HARDBACK VOLUMES!
Lose yourself in the mists of post-Roman Britain with A Light in the Dark Ages book series. Follow the link to visit the Amazon book page and download all five novels for less than £9 / $14 on Kindle.
Visit my AUTHOR PAGE on Amazon to view all my books and read the blurbs and reviews before deciding.
…or try being PERVERSE, with this 2020 collection of Lockdown short prose and verse.
Get the e-book for just 99c/p HERE or the paperback for just £$4.99 HERE
KIDS STUCK AT HOME, BORED?
Then dive into the Adventures of Charly Holmes three-book series, for readers aged 9-14.
Lose yourself in the fictional world of schoolgirl detective, Charly Holmes – get drawn into her adventures and find out if she will succeed in overcoming whatever problem, issue or overbearing adult that stands in her way!
Take advantage of my low prices on all three books in the Charly Holmes: Girl Detective book series (readers aged 9+).
The Adventures of Charly Holmes now has a book series page on Amazon! HERE
Book 1: The Adventures of Charly Holmes
Book 2: Charly & The Superheroes
Book 3: Charly in Space
GUARDIANS AT THE WALL is Tim’s latest book, a historical dual timeline novel, published in June 2021.
A group of archaeology students in northern England scrape at the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes. Twenty-year-old Noah makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He is living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding ancient riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it. In the same place, 1,800 years earlier, Commander of the Watch, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen. These are the protagonists whose lives brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one trying to get himself noticed and the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement. How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology dirt rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by his gaming mates and the attentions of two very different women, work out who to trust? BUY HERE
A LIGHT IN THE DARK AGES SERIES
This book series presents an imagined history of life in Britain in the Fifth and early Sixth Centuries – the period after the Roman evacuation around the year 410 AD. This is the Dark Ages, a time of myths and legends that builds to the greatest legend of all – King Arthur. ORDER BOOK SERIES HERE
Abandoned – Book one in the series, starts in Britain in 410 AD – the final year of Roman occupation of their most northerly province. Bishop Guithelin undertakes a perilous journey to a neighbouring country to plead with a noble prince to come and save his ailing country. An epic adventure ensues involving the rivalry of local chiefs and the efforts of a determined group to instil order and resist invaders. The abandonment of Britannia by the Romans was a time of opportunity for some, and great anguish and suffering for others as the island underwent a slow and painful adjustment to self-rule. Now also available here on Apple i-books; Kobo; Nook (Barnes & Noble) and others HERE
Ambrosius: Last of the Romans – Book two in the series, starts with the return to Britannia in 440 AD of Ambrosius Aurelianus, son of murdered King Constantine. He has come to avenge his father’s death at the hands of cruel tyrant, Vortigern, who has seized control of the island and employ Saxons in his mercenary army. But who is the master and who the puppet? Ambrosius finds that the influence of Rome is fast becoming a distant memory as Britannia reverts to its Celtic tribal roots, and rivalries surface as chiefs choose their side in an ensuing civil war. i-book, kobo, nook HERE
Uther’s Destiny – Book three in the series. In the year 467 AD Britannia is in shock at the murder of charismatic High King, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and looks to his brother and successor, Uther, to continue his work in leading the resistance to barbarian invaders. Uther’s destiny as a warrior king seems set until his world is turned on its head when his burning desire to possess the beautiful Ygerne leads to conflict. Could the fate of his kingdom hang in the balance as a consequence? i-book, kobo, nook HERE
Arthur Dux Bellorum is the fourth book in the series and follows on from Uther’s Destiny. A youthful Arthur must flee for his life from his older sister, Morgana, who seizes Uther’s crown for her son, Mordred. Arthur moves north, through a fractured landscape of tribal conflict and invasion, rallying followers to his cause. As he matures into a leader of battles – a dux bellorum – he learns the lessons needed to survive and inspire his followers, until the day he can challenge Mordred for the throne. Also in ibooks, Kobo, Nook and others HERE
Arthur Rex Brittonum is book five in the series. It charts the second half of Arthur’s life. Now a married man with two children, he is crowned King of Britannia by the northern chiefs, but must now convince their southern counterparts to join his army and oppose the creeping colonisation of the Anglo-Saxons. From a stunning victory at Badon Hill, he is taunted by his nephew, Mordred, who draws him into a deadly winner-takes-all battle at Camlann. Also available on ibooks, Kobo, Nook HERE
Devil Gate Dawn – is a near-future dystopian thriller set in 2026, predicting turbulent life in post-Brexit Britain and Trump America. Retired railwayman George is the unlikely hero of this tense thriller in which he forms a vigilante group who try to solve a deadly terrorist cyber plot, and is unwittingly drawn into a daring rescue attempt for kidnapped Head of Government, King Charles III.
Postcards from London – The city of London is the star of this collection of fifteen engaging human dramas. London’s long and complex history almost defies imagination, but the author has conjured citizens from many familiar eras, and some yet to be imagined. Turn over these picture postcards to explore his city through a collage of human dramas told in a range of genres. See the tumult of these imagined lives spotlighted at moments in London’s past, present and, who knows, perhaps its future. Published in September 2017.
Thames Valley Tales– 15 contemporary short stories, set along the River Thames, that draw on the rich history and folklore of the flowing heart of England. Stories set in Oxford; Henley; Marlow; Maidenhead; Windsor; Colnbrook; Runnymede and London. First published in 2015, updated in 2017.
The Adventures of Charly Holmes – Follow the adventures of a curious 12-year-old schoolgirl, as she uncovers an alien dogs’ conspiracy, investigates the legend of the Loch Ness Monster and goes on an eventful trip to London Zoo. For children aged 9+ and parents. Co-written by Tim Walker and his daughter, Cathy.
Charly In Space – Inquisitive schoolgirl, Charly Holmes, goes on a school trip to the European Space Agency in France. Somehow, she manages to stowaway on a rocket to the International Space Station! Follow her adventures in space, and her encounter with alien dogs!
Charly & The Superheroes – Charly’s second adventure sees her going to Hollywood to watch a superhero movie being made. But a real-life disaster strikes and she must use her initiative to assist four superheroes to save the day!
Guardians at the Wall is the new dual timeline historical novel from Tim Walker, published in June 2021. I’m sharing this thoughtful review by multi-genre author Colin Garrow…
At Hadrian’s Wall, a group of archaeology students explore the area close to the ancient ruins, searching for buried artefacts left by the Romans while guarding the barrier separating Roman Britain from the Caledonian tribes. Twenty-year-old Noah is delighted to discover a figurine, and hopes it’ll put him in good stead with the enigmatic Professor Wilde as he researches material for his dissertation. Meanwhile, in the year 180 CE, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, strives to keep his men safe while negotiating more cordial relationships with marauding tribesmen.
The story segues between the modern-day dig and the Roman occupation, charting the progress of the heroes on each side. Surprisingly, the Roman narrative had a more realistic feel to it than the modern-day one, but that’s not to take anything away from the author’s skill in twisting the two stories together.
For me, the most interesting parts were those of the centurion as he deals with his men, his family and the constant threat of battle. However, the way Tim Walker entwines the stories of Noah and Gaius Atticianus is well done and creates an interesting interchange between the historical facts and the archaeologists searching for the truth behind the treasure they unearth.
A fascinating and realistic book that mixes fiction with an evocative picture of Roman life in Britain.
In June 2021, author Tim Walker published his latest novel – a dual timeline historical novel, Guardians at the Wall. The novel consists of two parallel stories, of equal weight, each with a main character or protagonist. They are both men, based at the same location (Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall), but that is all they have in common. Each story is set in different periods, one contemporary, the other almost two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain.
Modern day character profile
Name: Noah Jessop
Age: 20 years (story duration – 9 months)
Height: slightly above average, 5’ 9”
Hair: ash blond collar-length often uncombed.
Face: narrow, unblemished, clean-shaved or 2-3 days blond stubble
Build: Slim, not athletic.
Clothes: Light blue slim fit jeans, an oversized crew neck grey jumper, standard black Adidas trainers.
Personality: he is reserved until familiar with people and surroundings, then quite self-assured. He is thoughtful and studious, enjoying his classical and archaeology studies. His boyish good looks and shy first impression attract women who want to mother him.
Appearance: Has been described as handsome, with Robert Redford-ish looks and a warm and welcoming smile. He knows he’s good looking and has no problem finding girlfriends and is comfortable in the company of women.
Hobbies/interests: Enjoys watching action movies, console war gaming with his mates, pub nights out, maybe the occasional kick about…
Family/issues/development: Middle class family in a northern (Durham) county town His mother died when he was very young and he misses her close attention. He did not easily accept his stepmother when his father remarried. This has caused abandonment issues and may explain his predilection for an older woman. He’s developed a lot since being at Uni. He was previously very sheltered and introverted but has since come out of his shell. The relationship with his ex-girlfriend was positive while it lasted, but they met when they were both young and emotionally immature. Essentially, they were still ‘children’ and during their time at Uni they grew in different directions (hence the fizzling out). He is motivated to get a good degree in archaeology as a means to forging a career as an archaeologist or archivist.
Roman character profile
Name: Gaius Vitellius Atticianus
Age: 41 – 45 (story duration – 4 years)
Height: Short, 5’
Hair: Dark brown, coarse and wavy, cut to collar length.
Face: round and weathered, dry and lined skin, clean shaven
Eyes: Dark brown
Build: Stocky and muscular.
Clothes: Roman military uniform from second century. Allowed woollen leggings in winter and foot enclosed in leather ankle boots. Woollen socks and undershirt, chainmail vest, leather belt and leather skirt strips, shoulder armour, red plumed centurion’s helmet, sword scabbard hung from a cross-shoulder strap. Red woollen cloak clipped to shoulder guards. Forearm and shin metal armour held with leather straps.
Personality: Gaius was raised on a farm in Asturia (Galicia, N.W. Spain) and has simple, family-centric, provincial values. His wife is from a Briton tribe. He is honest and trustworthy, intelligent and literate. He was promoted through the ranks to optio and centurion on merit, is courageous, loyal and respected by his men. He enjoys a drink of ale or wine when off duty, but has no relish for the brothel or gambling. He loves his wife, Aria, is faithful, and looks forward to getting home to her and their young son, Brutus, when off duty.
Issues/worries: Gaius has a young family but he is in his early 40’s, and hopes to live to see his retirement at the age of 45. He is courageous and leads from the front in battle, but becomes wary and more cautious as he nears retirement age. He is not afraid for himself, but dreams of a small farmstead on a retired soldier’s colony where he can settle his wife and son. This is his dream and his motivation.
Guardians at the Wall has now been proof-read, beta-read and copyedited, and will be finalised in early May ahead of a planned 1st June launch. It might be released earlier if ready – I’m looking at Friday 28th May as a possible early release date. I’m in the process of arranging book blog appearances in June. I’ve decided to not go wide and just put it out as an Amazon exclusive in Kindle e-book, paperback and Kindle Unlimited.
Every independent author needs favourable reviews to entice casual browsers to make a purchase decision, so if you are defined interested in reading and reviewing it on Amazon (and/or Goodreads) please email me to request a pdf (for ipad); epub (for Kobo reader) or mobi file (for Kindle) so you can get started.
Guardians at the Wall blurb: A group of archaeology students in northern England scrape at the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes.
Twenty-year-old Noah makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He is living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding ancient riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it.
In the same place, 1,800 years earlier, Commander of the Watch, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen. These are the protagonists whose lives brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one trying to get himself noticed and the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement. How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology dirt rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by his gaming mates and the attentions of two very different women, work out who to trust? Find out in Tim Walker’s thrilling historical dual timeline novel, Guardians at the Wall.
My new book, Guardians at the Wall, is due out on 1st June. It’s a dual timeline historical novel, set at Hadrian’s Wall. The main protagonist is Noah Jessop, a student undergraduate on a dig, who digs up a carved stone goddess. His professor, Maggie Wilde, identifies it as Brigantia, the protector of the local tribe, the Brigantes. This is the first of a few objects that connect the contemporary story to the historical account of Centurion Gaius Atticianus, in second century Britannia, that runs parallel through the novel.
I’ll share some of Professor Maggie Wilde’s research into the goddess Brigantia with you. The name of the tribe, ‘Brigante’ means ‘the high ones’, suggesting they were a dominant tribe over lesser neighbours, and Brigantia fulfils the function of being the high goddess over all others, the great protector of her people. The Romans recognised this and were keen to co-opt her into their belief system, twinning her with various deities including Minerva, Fortuna and Caelestis, the latter a North African moon goddess who was also co-opted by the Romans, from whom we get the word ‘celestial’.
Whilst the archaeologists are looking for meaning in their finds, Gaius is gifted the goddess statuette and presents it to his wife, Aria. Her reaction surprises him, as she is from a southern tribe and regards the Brigantes and their deities as foreign. She reminds her husband that their household is watched over by the water goddess of her people, Sulis, twinned with Minerva, and she won’t countenance having a rival deity in the house. Incidentally, the Roman name for the city of Bath was Aquae Sulis – ‘the waters of Sulis’.
This was too much for Gaius, who stalked off for a warming bath after a hard day in the saddle splitting enemy skulls. Aria picked her moment, one night, to return the offending goddess to her people.
The picture shows a stone altar carving of the goddess Brigantia, here twinned with the Roman goddess, Caelestis, that can be found in the Museum of Scotland. (picture source: pinterest board)
From Corbridge I headed west on the A69 for 11 miles, following the Tyne valley, to Vindolanda Fort and Museum. ‘Vindolanda’ is though to mean ‘white or shining lawn’ or ‘enclosure’ in the local tribal language. The site, managed by the Vindolanda Trust, is nestled in rolling hills, about a mile south of the Wall. The site offers a comprehensive view of a Roman fort and its civilian settlement, including a part-excavated bath house located outside the walls of the fort. There are two reconstructions for visitors to climb on – a stone tower and parapet, and a wooden gatehouse. On the path to the museum there is a reconstructed Roman kiln, and a temple.
A wooden fort was built around 85 and later became a stone walled fort (re-built as many as nine times) in continuous occupation throughout the Roman period. At the centre of the fort is the Headquarters building, partly excavated, as is the Commanding Officer’s house next to it. At its height, Vindolanda fort and surrounding settlement would have supported a population of up to 5,000, of which 1,500 would have been soldiers.
Vindolanda has produced the most important find of the last fifty years – the writing tablets. These documents, some on display in the museum, not only provide valuable information about the details of life on the frontier of empire, but are also very similar in content to documents found on the eastern edge of empire, showing a similarity of experience. There may have been gaps between cohorts of a legion being billeted at Vindolanda, including a long gap from c. 280 to 305 when the site was derelict and needed re-building. All this building activity over the years has completely hidden the ‘white lawn’ and its landscape witnessed by the first Romans to come to Vindolanda. Archaeologists believe the site continued to be occupied after the Romans departed until the ninth century.
The Romans deliberately placed their temples and bath house close to the water supply (streams and wells) so that their gods could watch over this precious asset. From the wells and water tanks a series of aqueducts fed the bath houses, and went down village streets and into the fort. Stone and timber were used for carrying and holding water, but not lead, as used in other Roman sites.
The museum is one of the best Roman museums I have been in – no wonder it has award-winning status. The short films are well-made and add a layer of understanding to life in this most remote of Roman settlements. The writing tablets have their own room and the translations make fascinating reading. A tavern was excavated in the town, thought to be part timber with stone foundations and most likely two storeys, perhaps operating as a brothel as well as a beer-drinking meeting place. The owners buried 270 coins in a pouch under the kitchen floor, no doubt hoping to return one day to claim their savings. They did not return, and excavators uncovered the hoard in 1977 – some of the coins are on display, as is a part of a glass goblet painted with fighting gladiators (see picture).
The Vindolanda writing tablets contain a rich array of personal accounts from Romans based there, most from the early years of occupation up to the 120s. Letters were written by soldiers of all ranks and community members of both genders, giving a glimpse into their daily lives, interests and concerns. One such letter is a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to the Commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina in the year 100. There are also letters between slaves, children’s writing lessons, doodles and demands for beer.
Chesters Roman Fort
From Vindolanda, I headed east on a B-road that followed the contours of rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep for 15 miles to Chesters Roman Fort. This incredibly beautiful site that slopes down to the rippling North Tyne River is managed by English Heritage. It sits on the estate of the Clayton family, who did much from the nineteenth century onwards to excavate and preserve Roman findings. Here can be viewed the remains of a fort laid out at foundations level, a bath house situated beside the river, and the 130-year-old museum built by the Clayton family to display many stone carved tablets and headstones.
Chesters was first occupied by a cavalry unit called ‘Augusta for valour’ according to an inscription, but throughout most of its life was the base of the Second Cavalry Regiment of Asturians (from Northern Spain). The fort was placed astride the Wall, with three of its four gates opening north of the Wall. A replica of the Chesters Bath House can be seen at Wallsend Roman fort and museum.
In September 2020 I finally made the trip I had been dreaming of for many years – the museums and excavated sites along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. I started at the most easterly end in South Shields, where the Roman fort of Arbeia once guarded the mouth of the River Tyne.
The archaeological ruins were first uncovered and laid out in 1875. In more recent times, the local council have adopted the site that occupies an entire block in a residential area. Features include the restored and re-constructed Commanding Officer’s House, with courtyard and shaded portico, and the impressive replica gatehouse (pictured above). It is thought that the visible stone fort was built in the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), replacing an earlier wooden fort that dated from the time of Hadrian (117-138) when major construction of the wall commenced at Wallsend on the north Tyne. Arbeia’s function was expanded to include extensive granaries, and it became the main supply fort for Emperor Septimus Severus’s (193-211) campaign against the Caledonian (Scottish) tribes. The restored Commanding Officer’s house (pictures below) gives an insight into how the commander and his family lived and worked, and the many luxuries they had, including underfloor heating, in the second and third centuries.
Next stop was Wallsend (Segedunum) fort and museum on the north Tyne. In the 1970s the site was recovered from housing that had been built over it, and it is now a museum managed by the council. As the name suggests, Wallsend is literally the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, and my picture shows the excavated outcrop of wall that ran down to the riverside, leaving the marshy estuary beyond as a natural barrier to any incursions from the north. In the corner of the site is a replica of the bath house building whose ruins can be visited at Chesters fort in the middle section of Hadrian’s Wall. I am pictured standing in front of the replica building, that was unfortunately closed at the time of my visit. In the site is a reconstructed herb garden (pictured), and inside the museum is an interesting display of the hospital block with description what injuries and ailments would have been treated by legionary surgeons and healers. There is much information on the life and trials of the soldiers – mainly cavalrymen – who were stationed here. For instance, did you know that there is no mess hall or any evidence of communal eating? This is because each soldier was given a weekly ration of food and they had to bake their own bread (in a communal oven) and cook their meals on braziers, most likely in ‘buddy’ groups with those they bunked with in the barracks. Also pictured is a bronze bust of the Emperor Hadrian on display in the museum.
My next stop was eight miles to the west of Newcastle, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where a lengthy outcrop of the Wall has been partially excavated. The Wall is 3m wide and there were no platforms for soldiers to stand or walk on between strategically-placed observation towers and more substantial mile towers. The forts that could garrison a cohort (480 men with stables for horses) were positioned off the east-west Stanegate road at intervals of roughly 13 miles, as this was the distance a legionary could march in a day with a full backpack weighing approximately 125 pounds or 57 kgs. The forts (often with civilian settlements adjacent) could be on the Wall (as with Chesters) or up to two miles south (as with Vindolanda). The Wall itself (when complete) ran for 73 miles across the narrowest part of the island, from Bowness-on-Solway (east of Carlisle) to Wallsend, and there were most likely seven forts in total – although not all have been excavated.
Driving west for 10 miles along the A69 road, I arrived at the English Heritage-managed site of Corbridge Roman Town (Coria). This is an extensively excavated site of what was once a walled town and barracks that sits on a bluff above the River Tyne valley, where it once guarded a bridge no longer there. I was fortunate to be given an impromptu guided tour by a knowledgeable volunteer, who explained the layout and functions of a town where civilian tradesmen and women rubbed shoulders with a cavalry unit. It was a supply fort for legions marching north, west and east, and stands on an important crossroads where Dere Street (S-N) and Stanegate (E-W) intersect. The town was occupied throughout the Roman period from the 80s to late 390s, and beyond into the Dark Ages by Romano-British nobility. In the centre of the town lay an impressive fountain at a meeting point surrounded by temples to a wide range of gods from across the Empire, including deities from the far east, that have yielded many interesting stone carvings, some of which are on display in the adjacent museum. There is also evidence of some temples’ conversion to Christian churches from the early fourth century. The bustling town, located two miles south of the Wall, may have been home to as many as 3,000 people at the height of its occupancy. Pride of place in the museum is a sandstone carving of a lion standing over a slain goat (pictured) that is thought to have been a tombstone that was later employed as the centrepiece of a fountain.
In my next post, I’ll be describing my visits to Vindolanda and Chesters Roman forts.