Official Guides to Sites in Northumberland


I have been reviewing the official guides to ancient monuments in state guardianship. A 1954 list showed that the following sites in Northumberland had guidebooks:

Heritage Hospitality: Chesters Roman Fort

Chesters Roman Fort tea room © David Gill
Chesters Roman Fort tea room © David Gill

What enhances the visit to a heritage site? High up on the list will be the tea room. And the experience will be judged by the range of cakes, choice of blend, and (most significantly at the moment) the option to have an extra jug of water. (Am I alone in thinking that most tea outlets only expect you to drink one cup of tea?)

And what else makes the visit memorable? Probably the name of the tea room.

Here is a memorable name for the (former) establishment at Chesters Roman Fort now replaced (so I am reliably informed) by an English Heritage outlet.

A new guide for Corbridge


The new English Heritage Guidebook for Roman Corbridge: Fort, Town and Museum (2015) is now available. The text is by Nick Hodgson who has also written the new guide for Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

This replaces the earlier guides for the site by Eric Birley (1935) — that remained as the Department of Environment ‘blue guide’ — and John Dore (1989), reprinted as recently as 2013. The title has evolved from Corbridge Roman Station (Corstopitum) to Corbridge Roman Station, and now to Roman Corbridge: Fort, Town and Museum. 

There are three main sections to the new guide: Tour of the Site; Corbridge Museum; and History of Corbridge. There are seven special features: The Corbridge Hoard; Roman Water Supply; Roman Legionaries at Corbridge; Oriental Cults at Corbridge; Shorden Brae Mausoleum; Septimius Severus: an African Emperor in Britain; and Hexham Abbey. There are several reconstructions of the site: c. 142 (pp. 4-5); c. 225 (pp. 42-43).

The publication, perhaps unknowingly, marks the centenary of the death at Gallipoli of one of the original excavators, Leonard Cheesman, a former student of the British School at Athens. (The contribution of students of the British School at Athens to the archaeology of Roman Britain is discussed in Sifting the Soil of Greece (2011)). The excavations at Corbridge are illustrated with some early photographs as well as the famous image of (Sir) Leonard Woolley and T.E. Lawrence at Carchemish.

Some of the most imposing structures are the Severan granaries constructed at the end of the second century.

Corbridge granary
Severan granary at Corbridge © David Gill

Visitor attractions in UK

The Duveen Gallery at the British Museum
The Duveen Gallery at the British Museum

The latest figures for the top UK visitor attractions for 2014 have been announced (see ALVA). Top of the list is the British Museum with 6.695 million visits. Other attractions that caught my eye include the Tower of London (no. 8; 3.075 million), Greenwich Old Royal Naval College (no. 13; 1.749 million), Edinburgh Castle (no. 17; 1.480 million), Stonehenge (no. 21; 1.346 million), The Roman Baths in Bath (no. 27; 1.143 million), Fountains Abbey (no. 77; 366,150), and Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall (no. 162; 104,511). One of my favourite spots, Glenfinnan (NTS), came in at no. 212 with 20,491.

The list is demonstrating the importance of the heritage sector to the UK economy.

Walking Hadrian’s Wall

14th edition (2006)

What would be the best guide to Hadrian’s Wall? The 14th edition of J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (by David J. Breeze) would have to be high on the list. It is published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (website). At 512 pages it contains the detail that is needed to make sense of each feature of the complex frontier system.

The volume contains a chapter on the forts along the Cumbrian Coast (chapter 4, pp. 373-414) as well as the Stanegate (chapter 5, pp. 415-470).

Saving Hadrian’s Wall

Cawfields Crag (Milecastle 42) © David Gill

One of my favourite spots on Hadrian’s Wall is Milecastle 42 at Cawfields Crags. You can get a real sense of the way that this frontier clings to the crag.

Yet just to the west of the milecastle a modern quarry has sliced its way across the line of the wall leaving the flooded workings. My 10th edition of J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (1947) noted:

In Hole Gap a short length of ditch is supplied, but from the adjacent summit to Haltwhistle Burn, the Wall has been destroyed by the gradual encroachment of Cawfields Quarry, now happily at an end.

My 13th edition (1978) merely notes, ‘Turret 42a (Caw Burn) has been destroyed by quarrying’. The 14th edition (2006) is a little more specific and links the destruction to ‘the former Cawfields Quarry’.

Saving The Wall

This threat to Hadrian’s Wall, with the new lease to quarry, dated  to July 1929, caused a national outrage. Stephen Leach and Alan Whitworth explain this conservation debate in their Saving the Wall (2011) and Cawfields plays a central role. They explore the damage to this incredible monument from the need to create a military road from Newcastle to Carlisle in the wake of the ’45 uprising. They include discussions of the different attempts to consolidate the wall. Should there be turf on the top? Should earlier attempts at restoration be removed? How can the ‘core’ be sealed to prevent further damage from rain and frost?

The book charts the acquisition of sections of the wall by the National Trust and the Ministry of Works. Appendix VI has a list of the dates of guardianship for each section of the wall from Corbridge Roman site in May 1933 to Hare Hill in October 1972.

Guidebooks for Birdoswald


The Roman fort of Birdoswald lies on Hadrian’s Wall and above the river Irthing in Cumbria. The farm that lies in the fort was still active until the mid-1980s. One of the original guides was by Peter Howard. Its 60 pages contained plans of the fort and its features,  as well as a series of black and white photographs.


This has been replaced by the English Heritage guide by Tony Wilmott (first published in 2005; 2010 is a revised reprint). This contains a tour of the site along with images of some of the finds. There are two walks outlined, including one to Harrow’s Scar Milecastle. One of the sections is on ‘Memories of Birdoswald’ by John Baxter. This recalls the days of the working farm.

Hadrian’s Wall from the Air

HW_air_oldOne of my treasured possessions is Barri Jones’s Hadrian’s Wall from the Air (Archaeological Surveys Ltd. 1976; 65p). The cover shows Cawfields Crag and hints at the damage sustained to the wall by the development of a quarry. There is a short introduction, followed by a series of black and white aerial shots with a short commentary. The first image is of the Roman fort at South Shields, and the last the fort at Burnswark with the Roman siege works.


The booklet has been updated and revised by David Wooliscroft (Tempus Publishing, 2001; The History Press, 2009). Jones had started to revise his work in the 1990s.

Some of the major changes at sites are clear between the two volumes. Take for example the outline of the fort at Segedunum (p. 5), with the rows of housing, with the clearly defined plan (col. pl. 15). Or compare milecastles 37 and 39 in the two volumes (pp. 16-17; col. pls. 24 and 25).

MPBW Guide to Hadrian’s Wall

HW_card_MoWOne of the guides to Hadrian’s Wall is “A short Ministry of Public Buildings and Works guide to the monuments in the care of the State situated in Northumberland and Cumberland”. The price is 1 s 6 d. There is no date but the code ‘5/70’ probably indicates May 1970, and therefore just before decimilisation in 1971.

There are six ‘panels’ on each side. The front (with the cover) includes a map of the wall over three panels; my copy has annotations with the milecastle and turret numbers. There are two panels on the history of Hadrian’s Wall with a reconstruction of Walltown Crags by Alan Sorrell. On the reverse are details of the three main sites: ‘Corbridge Roman Station’, ‘Housesteads Fort, and ‘Chesters Roman Fort’. (For guides to Corbridge.)

A similar guide was published by the DOE for the Antonine Wall.

Heritage Signs: Commandant’s House

Chesters Roman Fort: Commandant’s House © David Gill

Foundations of buildings can be hard to understand and the Ministry of Works labelled individual buildings and features for visitors. This sign is placed on the east side of the ‘Commandant’s House’ at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall (Northumberland).

Professor Eric Birley’s guide (Chesters Roman Fort, Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, 1960; sixth impression 1970) has a section on the ‘Commandant’s House and bath-house’ (p. 21). The building was excavated by John Clayton in 1843. The same terminology is also used on the fort plan.

Nick Hodgson’s guide (Chesters Roman Fort, English Heritage, 2011) has a section on the ‘Commanding officer’s house (Praetorium)’ (no. 4) and ‘Praetorium baths’ (no. 5). Indeed the sign ‘Commandant’s House’ is placed on what Hodgson defines as the ‘Praetorium baths’.

My 13th edition of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (1978) [ed. Charles Daniels] identifies the ‘House and baths of commandant’ (on the plan) but discusses ‘the commanding-officer’s house’ and ‘the commanding-officers’ [sic.] bath-house’ (p. 115). My 14th edition (2006; David J. Breeze) refers to the ‘commanding officer’s house’ (p. 203).

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