“ Address: Chollerford / Hexham / Northumberland / NE46 4EU „
Warning long review, and imagination will help :)
Imagine the scene you are in roman northern britain, and have been posted to the border country along Hadrian's Wall. The year is 125 Ad and you are part of the cavalry unit "ala Augusta" the unit so named for "their courage"* You will need all of this courage as you are stationed at the new fort of Cilurnum (chester), a recent addition to Hadrian's new wall, which was started a few years ago in 122 Ad. This new fort was a later addition and you don't entirely approve of the fact that parts of Hadrian's wall which had just been built were took down to make space for it. The wall and fort is part of the Emperor Hadrian's plan to defend Roman Britain from the barbarian hordes to the north, it is also a potent reminder of the power of Rome. The wall is an impressive site 15 ft high and stretching 70 miles between Newcastle in the east and Solway to the west. Your new home is a cavalry fort housing over 500 men, and their horses. There is also a bath house down next to the wooden bridge, which spans the river North Tyne, joining the wall across it. The wall is being cleverly built as it makes use of local materials and the natural landscape, although this means that while some parts are as wide as 6 meters and stone built, other parts are only 3 meters wide and made from turf, you are pleased you are on a stone section. This is a cold, damp, dangerous spot of the empire that you have found yourself in, and you miss the sunnier climes of your native home on the continent, this is also one of the most dangerous places in the empire, and you must be constantly vigilant against attack from the north.
Fast Forward to today
I visited Chesters Roman Fort on a somewhat more peaceful sunny day last week. I went with my mum and dad, who are members of English Heritage, and I paid £5.40 to get in. It turns out that I am one of the barbaric hordes, as while I live in England, I'm 32 miles north east of Chesters, although I can't imagine that at 5 ft I'd ever have scared a roman cavalrymen. :) It's a constant bugbear of mine that many presenters erroneously class everything north of Hadrian's wall as Scotland, if they want to make themselves sound clever by flaunting a fact they should at least get it right!
Chesters Roman Fort as it is called today is just outside of the Northumberland village of Chollerford, and on the appropriately called military road or B6318, today as you would probably expect some 1889 years later there is quite a bit less of it (Chesters not the military road, although then again the state of the roads, but lets not go there) then there was then, and we have the 19th century Clayton family to thank for what we have left. There were originally around 14** forts on the wall, today there are 7 plus some surviving mile castles and turrets. Chesters like several others, but not all is managed by English Heritage.
We drove to Chesters across country and it took us about an hour to get there, due to the nature of the twisting country lanes. Chesters has a car park, which is supposed to be pay (£3) and then you claim the money back when you buy a ticket to get in. We couldn't see anywhere to pay, but inside the shop someone was asking and they said as the systems complex and time consuming for them they don't enforce it, although other sites do. To be honest the car park is far enough from the village that I can't really see anyone wanting to park in it unless they were going to the fort.
You enter via a small shop, which sells the usual range of English Heritage souvenirs, as well as books on the romans, and a nice range of chutney and wine, with samples. I helped myself to a nettle wine sample, and realised I had a lucky escape earlier in the year when I'd planned to make it and not got around to picking enough nettles, as I don't like it :) The nice man behind the counter paid me the complement of asking how old I was, and saying I didn't look in my 30's (must have been the sunhat hiding my grey hair :) ). My mum and dad showed their membership cards, and I paid and we went in.
Chesters by it's nature is mostly out in the open, so this is worth bearing in mind if your planning a visit, which isn't during a heat wave, mine was :) It is located in stunning countryside (I may be biased but it is :) ).
When you go in the fort is down a long path to the left and the museum is in front of you, we went to the fort first.
The North gate, barracks and stables
You enter appropriately enough for me at the north gate. This is now just a small series of ruins about 2 ft high, but you can make out where the buildings would have been and the shape. I like to imagine how things would have looked, and the information boards provided throughout the fort are great for this, they also indicate where things were which haven't been excavated, and which parts are later additions.
All the excavated ruins are protected with metal fences, with gates you can go through to see them up close. None of the ruins are wheelchair accessible by their nature, but you can see them and read the information boards as around the ruins is well kept and reasonably flat.
Once through or round the gate section the fort opens up, and you can see the various sections. By the fort's nature this is quite a big area, but the main fort itself is on flat grassed land. We made our way over to the left to the barracks and stables.
Originally there would have been 16 stables and barracks rooms for 32 men and their horses*, but today there is only 13 visible. These are a series of walls from about a foot high, to maybe 3 foot. They are well preserved enough for me to imagine the cramped conditions, especially with horses. It wouldn't have been too bad though as the roman builders had provided a drain running through the middle. I always think in lots of ways the romans were more advanced then later civilizations, especially when it came to sanitation and washing :) These are the clearest example of auxiliary barracks to be seen anywhere in the Roman Empire*.
From the barracks we went past the east gate, down the hill towards the river. This section was outside the original fort and comprises of a wooden platform to see over the river to where the bridge originally was, and where the wall extended towards Newcastle, and to the south is the remains of the bath house.
The River and Bathhouse
The way to these is down quite a steep bank towards the river, and would be hard going back up if you were pushing a wheelchair. You can only reach the baths down a set of stairs.
The wooden platform is over the bank of the west side of the river North Tyne. There is a information board explaining that originally the romans built a wooden bridge, which was swept away by a flood, (that's a surprise round there then :) ), and was later replaced by a stone bridge built to withstand flooding. The remains of the bridge and part of the wall are visible on the other side of the river. It is possible to walk round to these from the village, but we didn't as it's quite along way.
Chesters main section of importance and interest is the baths, these were located next to the river to take advantage of the running water, with the latrines (toilets), and are the most complete set of roman baths in Britain*.
Here I could imagine myself entering through the porch, then going into the changing room before deciding on a hot or cold treatment. In the changing room I could put my clothes in the wall shelving, assuming they didn't have ornaments in :) These are nicely designed little arches in the wall. I would have my choice of a cold treatment with cold bath, (maybe on the day I went, but I wouldn't fancy it in winter :) ), or a choice of a hot dry treatment or a wet hot treatment. I think on most Northumbrian days I would pick the hot water one.
Around one side of the baths you can see where they would have stocked the fires for all that hot water, and underfloor heating. Below the baths closer to the river is the latrines. These are down some more stairs. I would recommend you watch out for the slippy grass on the slope next to them, I didn't and fell over, but it's a nice soft landing :). There isn't much left of the latrines themselves.
We went back up the slope and followed the perimeter around on the south side.
The lookout towers, south gate, and west gate
This is quite a long walk round, and we noticed that a lot of the visitors on the day we went didn't get that far. They are a series of low ruins showing the southern lookout towers, the south gate, and to the west :) are the ruins of the west gate. At the west gate you can also see part of Hadrian's wall and an oven, although on the day we went it was too hot to cook anything, that and there wasn't much of it left :) There are no excavated watch towers on the north side of the fort, but the roman's liked symmetry so they would have been the same as the ones in the south. Most Roman forts and towns are built to the same basic plan.
The Headquarters and Commanding Offices House
This was the last section we visited, and the most significant feature is the underground strong room, although when we went it was closed due to weather damage, it's small and we could still see down the stairs to see inside. It's significance lies in it being a "rare survival of a roofed space from roman Britain"*
In this section it was harder to make out what you were seeing, as the ruins seem to blend together, although as well as the strong room there is still the well (covered). The Commanding offices house was a later edition, but again you can't really make it out. My dad and me did have a discussion about what we though different parts were (my mum had vanished to the toilet), but even the information boards said it was hard to interpretate.
For the preservation of much of this section of Hadrian's wall and the forts we have the Clayton family to thank, the initial excavation work was carried out by John Clayton who owned the park the fort was in. He went on to buy more sections of the wall and other forts.
The museum opened in 1903 and contains much of the finds from John Clayton's excavations, not just at Chesters but from other forts along the wall. The building was originally built by his son, and some of the display cabinets are still the original.
This is an impressive collection of excavated stone engravings, statues and some bronze jewellery and statues to name but a small section of the collection. If I am honest for me I can never really get excited by museums like this, out of context I find it hard to imagine how they would have looked and been used. I did like the little bronze dog though.
There is a ramp into the museum, so this is wheel chair friendly.
The cafe and other facilities
The cafe on site is privately run, we took the chance to buy some drinks and a cake each, and it came to a reasonable £8.50, £2.80 of which was my lovely banana milkshake. We sat outside on picnic tables under a shady tree as it was red hot, but there were seats inside. The lady running it was friendly, helpful and quick. There was a range of hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and cakes. She also sold ice cream, which my mum enjoyed.
There are also toilets on site, not the latrines :), which were ok although the hand dryer wasn't up to much. There's a few benches to sit on up this end of the fort, but only the grass near the fort itself. There's also the shop I've already mentioned with friendly helpful staff.
Our trip lasted about 2 and a half hours including a break.
Like all English Heritage sites, entrance is free for their members, membership costs; Student (under 19 and NUS Members) £37.00
Adult (age 19-59) £48.00
Senior (age 60+) £37.00
Adult and Senior £70.00
Couple (age 19-59) £84.00
Senior Couple (age 60+) £58.00
Children under 19 get into English Heritage properties for free if with a English Heritage member.
Dog's on leads are allowed. I didn't see any bins mind :)
Fees just for Chesters are;
Children under 15 £3.20
You can download a map and a children's activity sheet from their website, and they also have a list of events, where for example you can meet a roman, or even see a battle.
*From English heritage's websites description
** sources vary