Roads, Walls and Wheels - North England

Winter 2008 CSANews Issue 69  |  Posted date : Dec 23, 2008.Back to list

I want to take you on a journey along a very unusual road.  No, it's not an American interstate; in fact, it's made of rutted cobblestone set on a bed of roughly hewn wood. I think you will enjoy this journey as we wander back though time into a very different era of history.

We are in North England and this two thousand year old road, now designated "A69" and "B6318," runs across a desolate and barren countryside as it has done since first surveyed in 122 AD. We start at the ancient city of Carlisle near the Irish Sea and run across to Newcastle-on-Tyne in the east.

We are going to travel along the ancient "Stanegate" road which runs adjacent to Vallum Hadriani, or Hadrian's Wall, built by the Roman army to stop the dreaded northern "barbarian" tribes uniting with unruly British tribes in the south. Guarded by turrets every mile, its 10 foot wide and 18 foot high stonework was certainly a formidable barrier.

Being a typical British summer's day, we start out in a cold and wet mist which barely reveals the distant hills to the north – but that's exactly the weather you must wish for if you are going to experience atmospheric history along this ancient way.

The countryside slowly turns from open fields with a few wet, bedraggled sheep, to a rugged and rock-strewn terrain. And then we see it – a thick, grey limestone wall specked with dark green moss, snakes down the hill towards us and end in an enclosure with a crenellated tower.  We have arrived at our first stop, the Roman fort of Birdoswald.

Birdoswald is one of the sixteen Roman fort encampments along the 75 mile (120 km) Wall and provides a breathtaking view in all directions. All forts have the same layout. Shaped like a round-cornered playing card, all the buildings – the principia (main building), barracks, stables, culina (cookhouses), bathhouses and latrines – are always in the same position so visiting soldiers, are familiar with the plan. The outer ramparts remain intact and Birdoswald's East Gate is one of the best preserved on the Wall.

The Romans were no fools. When the barbaric Selgovae tribe in the north wanted to trade with the Brigantes in the south, they had to pass through the single wagon-width gateway and pay a tax. It's still known in many parts of the world by its Latin name, Ad Valorum, or to we Canadians as the Goods (and Services) Tax. 

The weather is miserable and it's started to rain so let's head into the museum and while you look around, I'll have a nice cup of tea in the pleasant and warm cafe!

Oh, a centurion has just come into the cozy culina with a dispatch from the Wall's headquarters at Housesteads. I must meet with Governor Aulus Platorius and my chariot is waiting at the East Gate. It's XII miles to Housesteads so we must make haste. Luckily, my driver is Polinaus.

Wrapping my cloak around my wet Lorica (armour breastplate), I climb aboard and stand to Polinaus' right on the Pulpitum. With a flick of the reins he swings our horses around and sets them cantering through the gate, their unshod hooves thump on the flagstones and echo from the stone arch above.

I always find chariot transport stressful, especially on a day like today. The Via's wet and slippery surface causes the wooden wheels to rapidly slide outwards on fast turns, creating a sensation of terror and lost-control. But Polinaus has driven me before and I know he is a superior charioteer – he dreams of sometime racing at the Circus Maximus. Polinaus was captured from the Gallic Treveri tribe before being sent to Britannica; their cavalry was among the best before Rome defeated them.

I grip the rail with my hand and keep my shield near my shoulder ready to deflect any Celtic enemy arrows. My first duty is to protect my charioteer's life even though he is a slave for, without his skill, we will not arrive safely at journey's end.

At first, the Via is rutted and bumpy, and we are often thrown up off the ground as we lurch forward. Quickly, Polinaus positions the chariot wheels into the groove, and our ride becomes much smoother as we follow the worn chariot track in the cobbled surface.

As we approach the XI milestone, a sudden fog envelopes us. The air is still and in the distance, we hear the rumble of wagon wheels and clinking of armour. The cadence of leather sandals clopping the roadway ahead tells us that a duty Contuberium is marching towards us and soon, eight soldiers emerge from the mist like ghostly beings, dragging their provision cart with leather traces.

"Quid defluis?" Polinaus hails. They answer they're from the IXth Cohort stationed at Vindolanda . . . so we know we are just a mile or so away from our destination.

We trot on and as the fog lifts, enter the avenue of brightly painted tombs lining the Via approaching Housesteads. Soon we smell wood smoke and approach the ramshackle wood and thatched buildings of trades and artisans (and loose women) in the Vicus nestled against the Fort's West Gate. We have arrived with safety, Praise Be to Mithras (and Polinaus, of course).

It's turning darker outside but the rain has stopped. I wander out from the warm café and recover my car from the fort's parking area. Turning left, we head out onto the B6318 to eventually turn south on the A68 towards York.  A sign says that many years ago this was the Roman Road, "Dere Street" - I have a strong sense of déjà vu . . . but that's another story.

Notes about the chariot ride:

  1. Forgive Dave's flight of fantasy while traveling between the forts of Birdoswald and Housesteads. He claims he dozed off over his warm cup of tea and thought he was back in Roman times.

  2. Dave has actually ridden aboard a two-wheel chariot at high speed. Courtesy of the Arabian Nights Dinner Theater in Kissimmee, Florida, Dave took part in one of their chariot races. He says, "it was the most frightening experience in my life!"  

  3. There really was a Polinaus. His gold ring found near Hadrian's Wall, is in the museum at Colbridge. Dave owns and wears this very fine Metropolitan Museum of Art reproduction. [Photo 09 – gold ring]


A Roman Rest-Area

Romans even had rest areas along the way! Every 26 kms or so - a typical day's march – they built a Mansio, or wayside inn. These were complete with tavern, stables,  bathhouses and of course, a latrine. Romans had no self-consciousness about nakedness or using the washroom together. They sat alongside each other, men and women chatting about the day's events while a slave prepared the communal sponge brush by dipping it in vinegar – the Roman equivalent of reusable toilet paper!

In the artist's picture, a slave (A) cleans utensils while another (B) washes a used sponge in the water gutter's flow (C). To the right, an off-duty soldier (D) uses the latrine: water constantly flows beneath the bench flushing matter away.

By the way, Polinaus and I prefer the quiet of roadside bushes!

Pic 1: Dave hunter is the award-winning author of "Along I-75" and "Along Florida's Expressways" – the quintessential guides for those driving to and in Florida. With his researcher wife Kathy, he enjoys travelling with history, gathering unusual and mysterious local stories.

Pic 2: "… a thick, grey limestone wall specked with dark green moss, snakes down the hill towards us …"

Pic 3: Model of a typical roman fort showing the tradesmans' Vicus in the top-left corner.

Pic 4: Kathy checks the walls of the soldiers' barracks.

Pic 5: Roadside tombstone of a cavalry officer drinking a toast to the afterworld.