Housesteads Things to Do
Life at Housesteads
At its height 800 soldiers would have been based here at Housesteads – or Vercovicium, as they would have known it (the name means “the place of the effective fighters”). Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be traced here today (see photo two). These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort (photo four). The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries (photo three) with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.
There was a workshop and hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia (main photo). This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place, a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor, and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.
As well as these buildings it is possible to see the bases of the various towers and gates that pierced the Walls surrounding the fort, and even a latrine. You can get a good idea of what the fort would originally have looked like on this website: http://www.fmschmitt.com/travels/England/hadriansWall/fortoverview.html.Related to:
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Visiting Housesteads Fort: practical...
When you arrive at Housesteads the first building you’ll come to, right next to the car park, is the visitor centre. Here you can learn a little bit about the fort and surrounding area, buy souvenirs and light snacks (drinks, sandwiches etc.) and of course buy your tickets.
The site is jointly administered by the National Trust (who own much of the land around Hadrian’s Wall) and English Heritage, who look after the fort itself, so membership of either of these bodies will get you in for free. Otherwise prices as of 2015 are £6.60 for adults, £4.00 children 5-15 years, £6.00 for concessions (students and over 60s). There is a family ticket covering two adults and up to three children for ££17.20. UK residents are encouraged to Gift Aid their entrance fee which brings an adult ticket up to £7.30 and allows English Heritage to reclaim tax on the whole amount paid at 25p on every £1. If you’re visiting from abroad and plan to visit several English Heritage properties during your stay you might also consider getting an Overseas Visitor Pass which will gain you free entry to all – these start at £30 for a nine day pass for one adult, £50 for two adults and £55 for a family.
In summer (end of March to end of September) Housesteads is open daily from 10.00-18.00, including Bank Holidays. In October closing time is 17.00 and from November through March it is 16.00, with closures on Bank Holidays over the Christmas and New Year period. According to the website last admissions are 45 minutes before closing but I wouldn’t advise cutting it so fine as that would barely allow you time to walk up to the site and back, with no chance to properly explore.Related to:
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Climb on Hadrian's Wall
The farthest reach of the Roman Empire in the UK. If you are traveling to/from Scotland by car, don't miss this. Really amazing to contemplate. Those Romans sure were industrious weren't they.
- Hiking and Walking
Getting to Housesteads
The easiest way to visit any part of Hadrian’s Wall, including Housesteads, is by car. The B6318 follows the line of the Wall for much of its most interesting stretch, starting in Chollerford and heading west. The faster A69 parallels it to the south but is a less interesting and scenic drive, and won't get you close to the Wall.
The main visitor sites, including Housesteads, have pay and display parking (£4 in August 2015). Your ticket is valid for all car parks on the day of issue so hang on to it if you plan to stop at more than one point on the Wall.
In terms of public transport, the main option is the so-called Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus, the AD122 (the bus number refers to the year in which construction on the Wall is thought to have begun). This operates only in the spring and summer, from early April to late September. You can get more information and download the current timetable on the Visit Hadrian’s Wall website. You can pick up the bus in Hexham (accessible by rail from Newcastle) or Haltwhistle (also on the rail network).Related to:
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Housesteads Warnings and Dangers
All about access
This tip is in the nature of a warning rather than a danger and is directed at anyone who finds walking on rough ground or uphill a challenge. You should hopefully still be able to visit the fort but there are some things to be aware of in advance – things that not everyone tells you!
Housesteads Fort is jointly operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The latter’s website says “A cleared path is provided for the short walk from the visitor centre to the Wall and Fort” and I noted that ticket seller didn’t explain the walk needed until after people had bought their tickets. The English Heritage website is more helpful: “The fort lies uphill from the car park (a fairly strenuous 10 minute walk on steep gradient). A disabled car park is available. Please ask at the visitor centre for directions to this car park.” They also have a full page devoted to access to the fort: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-Wall/access.
The fact is that the fort is about half a mile on a gravel footpath with quite a steep climb at one point. The path crosses the Vallum, the large ditch that was dug by the Romans south of the Wall to reinforce the defences. Incidentally the name comes from the Latin word which was actually the origin of the English word “Wall”; it meant “stake” rather than ditch and reflects the fact that the defensive Walls built by a Roman army on the march were of tree branches planted upright on an earthen barrier.
This path presents no problem for the averagely fit but is a challenge for anyone unsteady on their feet and (I imagine) very hard work indeed for anyone pushing a wheelchair. Someone with significant mobility difficulties would find it very hard-going and would probably not be able to visit the fort using this route without help from a friend or family member. So have a look at the path if you can before committing to buying a ticket, and ask for the advice you need, as from what I observed it may not be offered. And do also ask about that disabled car park as it may make your visit a lot easier.Related to:
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Housesteads Off The Beaten Path
Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg. You can walk here from Housesteads Fort, or drive and park in the pay and display car park using the same ticket bought for Housesteads. You can of course also do the walk in reverse, starting at Steel Rigg. Whichever way you do it, it’s about eight miles (13 kilometres) roundtrip, depending on the route you take, and the parts on or near the Wall are very undulating with a few steep climbs. It is many years since I did this but the rewards for your efforts are great, with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill on Hotbank and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough. The National Trust website has route instructions, based on starting at Housesteads: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355796232976/.
But even if you have no time for the walk, a detour to Steel Rigg is well worthwhile as you can really appreciate the drama of the Wall’s setting and the efforts the Romans made to locate it in the most strategic position. A very short walk on largely even ground will bring you to the point where my photos were taken. You can see the Wall snaking over the rocky ridge of Peel Crags, with Crag Lough beyond. If you’re up to tackling just one climb you can walk over Peel Crags and dip down to the much-photographed Sycamore Gap beyond (so-called because a solitary sycamore tree grows there in a great position for photos) – this spot featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We ran out of time, having spent too long at Housesteads, to do even this short walk, so will have to return.
Directions: Take the northwards turning from the B6318 almost opposite the southwards one for the Northumberland National Park Visitor Centre at Once Brewed (see location of the car park on Google maps)Related to:
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Favorite thing: In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep "intact the empire", but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power. It was an impressive piece of engineering for its time, stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west – from what is now Wallsend (Roman name Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. It is thought that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around, reinforcing the belief of some historians that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power – not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade. You can see the remains of one of these gates near the centre of my second photo, by the way.
The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences, for instance the Whin Sill escarpment in the east. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals (of which Housesteads is one) to garrison the troops who guarded the border, and milecastles at approximately – guess what – every mile. Most of the forts straddle the Wall; Housesteads is unusual in sitting totally to one side (the south) due to the terrain.
After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building – the nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion, and local people still refer to this as the Military Road.
In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall and started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations at Housesteads, among other places. He also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is here at Housesteads. His descendants unfortunately lost his land through gambling but the National Trust have since acquired it and brought the Wall under their protection.
Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall (walking on it is discouraged to avoid further damage). Don’t expect however to see the Wall standing for its full length however, is in many places today it is little more than a rampart. It is partly because the stretch around Housesteads is so relatively well-preserved that it is also one of the busiest parts – so don’t expect to have the place to yourself either, except in the bleakest of weathers!Related to:
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