Hadrian’s Wall – Corbridge, Chesters, Brocolitia, Housesteads

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The permanent conquest of Britain by the Romans began in 43 AD and by about 100 AD there were army units along the stretch of land between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Their forts were linked by a road, now known as the Stanegate, between Corbridge and Carlisle. The Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD and the building of his wall began that year, taking at least six years to complete. The original wall was built of stone or turf, with a guarded gate every mile and two observation towers in between, and was fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman army of Britain. These three legions of regular, trained troops, comprised about 5,000 heavily armed infantrymen, though they were assisted by auxiliary units. The Wall was manned by auxiliaries organised into regiments of 500-strong mixed infantry and cavalry units and each fort on the Wall appears to have been built to hold a single unit.

Hadrian’s death in 138 AD brought emperor Antoninus Pius to power and he abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, moving the frontier to a line further north between the Forth and Clyde valleys, where he built the Antonine Wall out of turf. This had a short life of about 20 years before being abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

The effectiveness of Hadrian’s Wall had been compromised after it was abandoned, towers were removed and crossings thrown across the ditch. These changes were corrected and Hadrian’s Wall appears to have continued in this form into the late 2nd century. A major war took place shortly after AD 180, when the tribes breached the Wall and killed some Roman soldiers.

The forts on Hadrian’s Wall had a life of 300 years. Many modifications took place to the barracks, the headquarters buildings and the commanders’ houses because the Romans were always learning how to improve. All the forts continued to the end of Roman Britain, that is into the early 5th century. The latest coins found on Hadrian’s Wall were minted in AD 403–6.

Not all the sites to see were once fortresses. Corbridge was once a bustling town and supply base where Romans and civilians would pick up food and provisions. It remained a vibrant community, with two short interruptions in 105 AD and 180 AD,  until the end of Roman Britain.

As a visitor I was able to walk along the main market street of the Roman town and then branch out to admire the the granaries, barracks, commander’s house, water tanks, shrines, and even a strongroom. Inside the museum I saw the Roman armour and knick-knacks uncovered in an excavation in 1964, known as the Corbridge Hoard. This collection is an astonishing assortment of personal possessions, weapons, and armour buried by a Roman soldier. It’s the segmented plate armour that gives the hoard international significance. This find helped archaeologists understand for the first time how this armadillo-like armour fitted together. Today you can see the remains of the armour and a reconstruction side-by-side in the museum.

Goddess of the North and the Angel of the North and Blanchland

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The chances are that you will have heard of one of these sculptures but not the other. The Goddess of the North or The Lady of the North or Northumberlandia is a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure, started in 2010 and completed in 2012, near Cramlington in Northumberland. She is made of 1.5 million tonnes of earth from the neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, is 34 metres high and 400 metres long. The sculpture is set in 47 acres of public park and there are a number of trails in and around her contours. Northumberlandia was designed by world-renowned architect and artist Charles Jencks, who took inspiration from the distant Cheviot Hills, which are pulled into the foreground by the curves and shapes of the female form.

The car park is close to the road and you walk through the trees to the site. There is a station for electric cars to use in the car park. I am unsure whether the electricity was generated by coal or wind-power. I say this because from the head of Northumberlandia in one direction you can see around sixteen wind turbines turning gracefully in the icy north-easterly breeze – the long-term future – and in another direction you can’t help but notice the scar of the surface mine – the past and very short-term future – with the lorries seemingly like ants scurrying around performing various carrying roles. If anyone ever complains to me about wind turbines being an eyesore I will tell them to come here and see whether that’s still their opinion after looking at the vast mine and comparing it with the turbines in the sea.  

Whereas Northumberlandia is rather hidden away, the Angel of the North is not. You would have to be concentrating really hard on your driving not to see this amazing piece of work by the architect Antony Gormley soaring above the A1 at Low Eighton, Gateshead. The Angel is 66 feet tall, with the wings measuring 177 feet across. The wings are angled 3.5 degrees forward to create “a sense of embrace” and as with Gormley’s other work, the Angel is based on a cast of his own body.

Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £800,000 with most of the project funding coming from the National Lottery. The Angel was installed on 15 February 1998. Due to its exposed location, the sculpture was built to withstand winds of over 100 mph with the foundations containing 600 tonnes of concrete that anchor the sculpture to rock 70 feet below.

According to Antony Gormley, the significance of using an angel was threefold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age, and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.

To get a closer view of the Angel, follow the signs from the A1 and park in the lay-by around 100 yards from the statue. The statue is brown at the base though this is not rust as the statue is made from COR-TEN weather-resistant steel like the Roman centurion at Segedunum. The body weighs 100 tonnes and the two wings weigh 25 tonnes each.

Blanchland is situated in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a conservation village built of stone from the remains of a former Abbey and lies in the Upper Derwent Valley. This is a dark place at night and the rooms at the Lord Crewe Arms Hotel have telescopes so you can investigate the stars. The village flourished during the 19th century lead mining boom. I visited after seeing all the sights along Hadrian’s Wall. I had wanted to come to this place since reading The Pie At Night: In Search of the North at Play by Stuart Maconie, which mentioned another book I’d read called From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston, which suggested there might be a connection between Blanchland and the Arthurian legends. Weston postulated that Camelot could have been situated around modern-day Carlisle and the Holy Grail might have been associated with a chapel in Blanchland. The church in the village is the Blanchland Abbey Church. The original abbey was built in 1165. The buildings and houses all look strong and sturdy as though designed to withstand the cold winters that must surely come their way.     

Newcastle – Segudunum and The Metro.

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Newcastle Metro is a wonderful system that connects most of Newcastle to the airport and the coastal towns of Whitley Bay, Tynemouth, North Shields, and South Shields – collectively known as The Coast – plus Sunderland, Hebburn, and Jarrow. It’s also rather cheap – an all day pass for the entire network costs £5.10, although most of the credit card readers didn’t work when I tried them. The famous sporting stadia of St James’ Park, Kingston Park, Gateshead Stadium, and The Stadium of Light all have Metro stops nearby. I stayed in Jesmond which was 8 stops from the airport and three stops from the city centre. The trains run underground in central Newcastle but elsewhere they are on the surface like suburban trains.

I caught the Metro to Wallsend where I hoped to find Segedunum, the Roman fort built at the place where Hadrian’s Wall went down to the banks of the River Tyne, hence the name of the town. The Romans felt that the barbarian hordes wouldn’t be able to bridge the Tyne between Wallsend and the North Sea and gain access to The Roman Empire.

If you’re coming on the Metro from central Newcastle as you approach Wallsend you’ll see a white tower on the right-hand side. That’s what you should aim for as it’s part of the visitor centre. Before you enter, make sure not to miss Sentius Tectonicus, an eight-and-a-half-feet high sculpture of a Roman centurion soldier marking the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. Artist John O’Rourke was commissioned by North Tyneside Council to create the Centurion which is constructed from weathering steel. The sculpture contains 575 components and more than three tonnes of Corten steel – the same material used to construct the Angel of the North and links the site’s Roman heritage with the more recent industrial shipbuilding past in Wallsend.

The centurion’s name comes from an inscription recovered close to Segedunum which reveals that a centurion named Sentius supervised the building of a section of Hadrian’s Wall in the vicinity. Tectonicus refers to the sculpture’s design as an architectural man, with the centurion’s torso emerging from a Roman four-storey building.

The information inside the museum is fascinating and I didn’t expect to learn so much about the fate of various large passenger ships, built locally in Wallsend, when visiting a Roman fort. The connection is that all of the ships had the names of ancient Roman provinces. Many met a brutal end. First I will describe one ship that didn’t.

RMS Mauretania launched on the afternoon of 20 September 1906. She was the world’s largest ship until the completion of RMS Olympic in 1911, as well as the fastest until Bremen’s maiden voyage in 1929. After capturing the Eastbound Blue Riband on her maiden return voyage in December 1907 in 4 days, 22 hours and 29 minutes (New York to Cobh), she claimed the Westbound Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing during her 1909 season. Mauretania held both speed records for twenty years, but was eventually scrapped in 1935. The ship’s name was taken from Mauretania, an ancient Roman province on the northwest African coast, not the modern Mauritania which is now to the south.

Newcastle. Quayside + Baltic Flour Mills + Sage Gateshead + Lit and Phil

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

There’s a lovely view of the Tyne Bridge and the Swing Bridge from The High Level Bridge with the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance. The Queen Elizabeth II Metro Bridge is behind you. Two other bridges are further upstream – The King Edward VII bridge and the Redheugh Bridge. Facing downstream, The Sage Centre is on the right-hand side in Gateshead with the Baltic Flour Mill in the distance on the same side of the Tyne. The Quayside to the left-hand side is on the northern side of the Tyne in Newcastle and the opposite side of the river is Gateshead. The High Level bridge carries both rail and road traffic.

Tyne Bridge is the main symbol of Newcastle, a through arch bridge started in August 1925 and completed in February 1928, home to around 700 pairs of kittiwakes, at least one of which will appear in all your photos. The bridge is 85 feet above the Tyne and the single arch span is 531 feet, though the whole length of the entire bridge is 1,276 feet. The bridge was officially opened by King George V and he and his queen, Mary of Teck, were the first people to be driven across it in their carriage. 20,000 children were given the day off school to witness this spectacle. Today the bridge carries the A167 across the Tyne.

The Sage Centre in Gateshead, or Sage Gateshead, designed by Norman Foster and Partners, formed the heart of an ambitious regeneration project of Gateshead’s river frontage and lies alongside the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Tyne Bridge, whose arch is echoed in the Sage’s roof. In different lights, it can look like a chrysalis, a billowing steel cloud, or a grounded, deflating airship. It was completed in 2004 and is home to The Northern Sinfonia and a base for Folkworks, which promotes folk, jazz and blues performances. There are three auditoria and accommodation for the Regional Music School. The largest of the main performance spaces is an acoustically state-of-the-art concert hall seating up to 1,650 people. The second hall can be arranged to suit folk, jazz and chamber performances and seats up to 400. Sage Gateshead is constructed from steel, aluminium, and glass and the surface reflections of the sky endlessly change as you walk by on your way to the Baltic Centre. But first make sure you have a good look at the sweeping majesty of The Millennium Bridge.

This bridge was lifted into place as a complete structure by one of the world’s largest floating cranes on 20 November 2000. It was opened to the public on 17 September 2001 and dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II on 7 May 2002. The bridge cost £22m to build. Six 18-inch  diameter hydraulic rams (three on each side) rotate the bridge back on bearings to allow ships and boats up to 82 feet in height to pass underneath. The bridge takes as little as 4.5 minutes to rotate through the full 40° from closed to open depending on the speed of the prevaling wind. The bridge’s appearance during this manoeuvre has led to it being nicknamed the “Winking Eye Bridge” or “Blinking Eye Bridge”. The design is so energy efficient it costs only around £4 each time it opens. The soaring arch and supporting guy ropes almost make it look like a distorted, white harp from certain angles.

The Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Discovery Museum is just to the west of the Central train station and concentrates on the maritime history of Newcastle and Tyneside. This is a free museum with a tank outside the entrance, although this latter fact might only be whilst some maintenance is taking place.

In the Science Maze section, I was impressed by the story of Joseph Swan and his invention of the incandescent light bulb. In 1850, Swan began working on a light bulb using carbonised paper filaments. By 1860, he was able to demonstrate a working device, and obtained a British patent covering a partial vacuum, carbon filament incandescent lamp. However, the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate electric source resulted in an inefficient light bulb with a short lifetime. Fifteen years later, Swan returned to consider the problem of the light bulb with the aid of a better vacuum and a carbonised thread as a filament rather than carbonised paper. The most significant feature of Swan’s improved lamp was that there was little residual oxygen in the vacuum tube to ignite the filament, so the filament glowed almost white-hot without catching fire.

On 3 February 1879, he publicly demonstrated a working lamp to an audience of over seven hundred people in the lecture theatre of the Literary and Philosophical (Lit & Phil) Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. Swan turned his attention to producing a better carbon filament, and the means of attaching its ends. He devised a method of treating cotton to produce ‘parchmentised thread’, and obtained a patent in late 1880.

From that time he began installing light bulbs in homes and landmarks in England. His own house in Gateshead and the house of his friend and supporter William Armstrong were the first to be lit by light bulbs. At that time, each bulb was individually made by hand and cost 35 shillings, the equivalent of over £130 at today’s prices. The library at the Lit & Phil Library in Newcastle was the first public room lit by electric light during a lecture by Swan on 20 October 1880. In 1881, Joseph Swan founded his own company, The Swan Electric Light Company and started commercial production. The Savoy, a state-of-the-art theatre in London specialising in Gilbert & Sullivan productions, was the first public building in the world lit entirely by electricity. This is quite an inspiring story because you have to admire Joseph Swan’s persistence over a period of 30 years.

In the rest of the Science Maze, you can test how quick your reactions are depending on which lights display on the car in front of you and find out how message tubes work. Visitors can admire signal levers, models of steam engines, a skeleton clock and compare and contrast the merits of a Sinclair C5 as it hangs above the chassis of an Austin 7. I applaud inventors and their inventions, but it’s hard to believe anyone could think that a Sinclair C5 would be a safe vehicle to drive on a British road as it was so low down to the ground and utterly flimsy – even a well built hedgehog could have caused the C5 problems.

Ouseburn – Newcastle-upon-Tyne

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

At first I wondered whether I was going the correct way. I had started heading over the Byker viaduct but realised I should be heading down into the valley so I could make a visit to the Victoria Tunnel. It didn’t look too promising as I headed down a street lined with brick walls topped with barbed wire. There was plenty of graffiti and some broken glass.

But then I spotted what looked like a large sheep painted on a wall and smelled a faint whiff of what seemed like horses – in this suburban setting, surely not? I was wrong, because close by were Stepney Bank stables. The sheep was painted on the wall of The Ship Inn near to Ouseburn Farm and the Cluny live music venue. On the opposite side of the street from where I was standing was the recently opened Arch 2 Brewpub & Kitchen. A large lime kiln that had been half knocked down during World War II to stop it being used a signpost for German bombers stood near the Seven Stories centre for Children’s Books, which was opposite the office for the Victoria Tunnel guided tours. All of a sudden there was a lot to see and do.

In the way of the coincidental world a few nights later I saw the opening credits of a TV Series called Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and recognised the view of the lime kiln, the first time I’d ever known where that was.

The Stepney Bank stables are open 7 days a week to provide high quality riding lessons to both children and adults. They also operate as a charity providing opportunities for children and young people growing up in challenging situations to increase their confidence, develop their resilience and gain qualifications and experience that will enrich their lives. This applies to riders and the volunteers who work at the stables. Stepney Bank Stables is approved by the British Horse Society and the Association of British Riding Schools and are also a Pony Club Centre. This means they’ve passed rigorous checks to ensure that their horses, facilities and equipment are fit for purpose and that the staff are appropriately qualified and skilled.

There’s been a city farm in the Ouseburn Valley since 1976. Byker City Farm was set up by local people, who wanted children living in the city to have the chance of working with farm animals. Over the years, the farm grew from a caravan on the site of a derelict paint factory into a vibrant and popular green space. The farm was forced to close in 2002 when it was discovered the soil contained high levels of lead from the former paintworks.​ The land was cleaned up, the new visitors centre was built and the farm was renamed Ouseburn Farm. With the help of Tyne Housing Association and Newcastle City Council, the farm animals returned in September 2009, and here they are today. This is urban reclamation and regeneration at its finest and the educational possibilities are tremendous for the local children.