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Hadrian's Wall (Birdoswald) - Walks with a Vicar

Explore History

Hadrian’s Wall (Birdoswald) – Walks with a Vicar

Explore Birdoswald on Hadrians Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Rev Peter Barham.

Built to secure the north-western edge of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall marches 73 miles (coast to coast) with dramatic views along the way, museums storing many Roman artifacts that are being discovered even today, and multiple Roman forts to be explored. Hadrian’s Wall is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is looked after today by English Heritage.

Birdoswald Roman Fort

Birdoswald is in the west, in Cumbria at NY616664English Heritage, website. It has a welcoming café, a holiday cottage you can hire (I like the idea of waking up in the middle of a fort), and a nice little museum. They have built the stairs round a full-size Wall, with a very grumpy stone mason at the bottom and soldier at the top. They also have one of the earlier antiquarians and a lovely statue of one of the hooded deities, genii cucullati, one of the local gods. You can tell he/she is local – it is wearing a mac. There are some lovely lamps and a trumpet brooch.

Walking round the fort, there are some excellent history panels. The main building standing is a Victorian house. Henry Norman bought Birdoswald in the 1840s and had this mock medieval tower house erected. His son Oswald allowed the first scientific excavation here in the 1890s. More work was done in the 1920s and 1980s, it was a working farm until 1984.

Before the Victorians, life on the border had never been peaceful. In the C16 this was reiver country, border robbers and bandits.

In 1599 Birdoswald received its first known antiquarian visitor, Reginald Bainbridge, a schoolmaster from Appleby. “Frome Lanercost I followed the Wall all ruinated, til I came to Birdoswald, whiche doth seame to have bene some great towne by the great ruynes thereof. The inhabitants did shew me the plaice where the church stode, the inscriptions ther are either worn out by the tracte of tyme or by the clownishe and rude inhabitants defaced.” The church may well have been the ruins of the drill hall – with its nave and aisles it would have looked church-like.

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The original building on the site a signal tower, built between 100 and 120. Then the Turf Wall was built. During that period of construction, the decision was made to build forts along the wall, and a turf and timber one was erected here about 125. It projected to the north of the wall.

Although the fort stands on the promontory above the River Irthing, the Vallum (ditch) was built, only to be filled in a few years later when, between 130 and 138, a stone fort was built here. The wall was replaced by a stone Wall in 138 and, unusually, it was built north of the turf wall, so the whole fort was south of it.

Special thanks to English Heritage for use of the above video.

Antonius Pius took the garrison north to refortify Scotland in the late 130s, but they returned not too many years later. Granaries were built, store buildings turned into workshops, and barracks, defences and gates were altered and refurbished – we should never think of the Wall and its fortifications as static. The third century was reasonably peaceful, and a civilian centre (Vicus) developed around the fort. Also from the third century “This altar, dedicated to Silvanus by the Venatores Bannienses” is the only inscription which shows the fort’s Roman name, Banna, it literally means “the hunters of Banna”. This sculpture shows Vulcan with his pincers and Jupiter with a hole for his thunderbolt. The illustration of the granary is rather good.

In the fourth century the status and number of frontier troops was reduced and large barrack blocks made into smaller buildings. Renovation work was done and workshops rebuilt.

The north granary collapsed and was quarried for building stone, the south granary was used for a different purpose. It suggests that the troops stationed there stopped being provisioned by a central authority, probably evolving into a small war band, self-sufficient within a smaller area, taking supplies in return for protection, yet the heirs of Rome and probably using their authority. This could be the Hall built on the site.

Hadrian's Wall (Birdoswald) - Walks with a Vicar

The perimeter walls are quite spectacular. I have walked them clockwise on a few occasions. The gates are very solid – the drawing is of the west gate. You also realise how high the fort is above the river.

Walk with a Vicar – Hadrians Wall (Birdoswald Roman Fort) contributed by Rev. Peter Barham, All Rights Reserved – Originally Published on NorthernVicar.co.uk in July 2016.

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Written By

Now retired, Rev Peter Barham is the Northern Vicar, a lover of exploring the UK and it's cultural heritage, we share his exploration diaries.

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