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Housesteads Roman Fort was the first of the forts along Hadrian's wall that we decided to visit during a recent visit to Northumberland. It turned out to be the most enjoyable and atmospheric of all the historic sites along the wall; perched high up on crest of the Whin Sill in some of the wildest countryside in Northumberland, it is small and beautifully preserved, offering fantastic views and a wonderfully bleak atmosphere with spectacular views across the countryside.
Housesteads was one of the permanent forts added to the Wall around AD 124. Known to the Romans as Vercovicium, 'the place of effective fighters', Housesteads was home to around one thousand soldiers for over 300 years, and had a symbiotic relationship with the village that lay beneath it down in the valley.
The five acres of land covered by the fort saw some small changes during the 300 years of Roman occupation as the rules governing such things as allowing women past the gates changed, and so the garrison accommodation changed to allow for family groups. The basic layout that can be seen today clearly reflects the life that the soldiers led, with the outlines of gates, defences, granaries, courtyards, houses and barracks, laid out in stone on the barren soil.
Today enough of the buildings have survived the plundering of the local townsfolk who stole the stone to build, and it is still easy to see the hypocausts, waterways and structures which cling to the side of the windswept hill, flanked by the clear outline of Hadrian's wall stretching over the undulating hills to either side.
In a strange partnership, the café, toilets and shop at the bottom of the hill are owned by the National Trust, the Museum and toilets at the top of the hill by English Heritage, and the Car Park by Northumberland National Parks.
Housesteads is situated on the A69, just outside the small hamlet of Twice Brewed. We found a good pub at Twice Brewed, which served a delicious lunch and a nice pint to set us up for our visit.
Surprisingly, this fort was not well signposted and we got lost several times before entering the National Park, where brown signs for every Roman Fort in the area magically appeared. Once in the National Park, it is fairly easy to find your way to the fort, which has its entrance right next to the A69.
The fort is about a 40 minute drive from Newcastle and close to the small village of Haydon Bridge.
We decided to time our visit with one of the two guided tours that operate in the fort, organised by the National Park. These guided tours operate at 11.30 and 2pm every day, and we really benefited from waiting for the Northumberland National Park's guide, who spent the following hour and a quarter making the visit really special for us.
A remarkable amount remains of the fort itself, and with the help of our guide it was easy to picture the commander's villa, the legionnaires quarters, the hospital and the toilets. Well illustrated signs inform the visitor of the construction and use of each building, but we were glad to have our guide with us. The guide brought Roman military to life through his stories and reconstructions, telling us about the village outside the fort and how the soldiers interacted with the villagers; explaining why the bath house was so far from the fort, and explaining in excruciating and graphic detail the hygiene of the communal toilets and how practical they were.
After he had finished, he pointed us to the East Gate, where we could take the opportunity to walk on the specially strengthened section of wall; the only place that anybody is allowed to actually walk on Hadrian's wall these days. Along with the majority of our party, we took off and walked on top of a turfed and fairly long section of wall which bordered a steep drop, making it very clear how easy it would have been to see enemies coming across the hills, and also how easy it was to defend a fort which was perched on such a high ridge. After less than a mile, we reached the remains of a Roman Mile Fort; the smaller towers that the soldiers on patrol used for refreshment and shelter.
We decided to keep on going as we were enjoying the amazing views of the wall, looking north over the moors and picturing the Babarians marching towards us, and looking to the south to the tamer and greener fields which gently sloped down the valley. In the sunshine it was possible to see for miles, and a city person like myself rejoiced in the lack of any form of town or village in sight.
When we visited, the Housesteads Museum was closed for refurbishment. I had previously read that this museum, owned by English Heritage is a small and modest museum, displaying artefacts found on and around the site.
I was not too disappointed to find it closed, as I understand it to be mainly an educational centre for schools and younger children. It is closed all winter and is being refurbished, opening again in Spring 2012.
~~Refreshments, Shop and Toilets~~
Entrance to the fort is via a National Trust shop, which contains a short visual display on the history of the fort as well as the usual National Trust memorabilia which are for sale.
Outside the shop is a small takeaway café, providing drinks and snacks. These can be taken inside the shop to eat on cold or rainy days - and there is a microwave as well as table and chairs inside which I imagine are very welcome during the cold winter months.
Male and female toilets are open when the shop is open. I did not get a chance to experience these, as by the time we finished our walk at 5pm, they were firmly locked.
There is a large car park which seemed to easily accommodate all visitors when we were there. Owned by the National Park, rather than the National Trust, everybody has to pay a standard charge of £3 per day. Tickets can then be used again in any of the other 6 forts along Hadrian's Wall for that day only. Many people did not realise this and just displayed their members National Trust parking stickers - presumably they were later to be given a penalty ticket. Signage could have been more helpful in this regard.
I was slightly put out at the high cost of parking, but I read on the back of my ticket that all money made is used to maintain the National Park, which made me feel a bit better. In addition, entry to the fort was free of charge since the Museum was closed - so it was good value for money as we spent nearly 4 hours there.
Member (National Trust or English Heritage)
Family Ticket N/A
Roman fort on Hadrians Wall.