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From the south shore of the Solway Firth in the west to the banks of the River Tyne in the east, Hadrian's Wall snakes across the high ground of three counties in a 73-mile sweep along the frontier of the Roman Empire. For three hundred years the garrison at Segedunum, strategically positioned on a wide bend in the River Tyne as it swept past the fort at Arbeia and out into the North Sea at the very edge of the Empire, guarded the last outpost of the Wall from the barbarians on the other side. SEGEDUNUM TODAY One thousand six hundred years after the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum now occupies an old canteen building between a sprawling housing estate and Swan Hunter shipyard. Exiting the nearby Metro station, the prominent Job Centre and the idle cranes speak of a more contemporary, though equally devastating, abandonment. The modern visitors' centre, which cost £9 million and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and local businesses, seems strikingly new against the industrial backdrop leading down to the river. A 35-metre high viewing tower rises from the three-storey museum complex, overlooking the excavated remains of the fort below and a reconstructed stretch of the Wall on the other side of a road now traversed by family estate cars and delivery trucks. THE MUSEUM Opened in June 2000, the museum attracted 80,000 visitors in its first year and has since won numerous awards including the Northumbria Family Attraction of the Year. A large, surprisingly well-stocked gift shop occupies the area around the entrance and reception desk, extending to the doorway that leads to the Roman Gallery. By far the largest of the three galleries with over 700 artefacts, the Roman section was obviously designed with younger visitors in mind. Interactive and colourful, the touch screen games, puzzles, video footage and hands-on exhibits allow visitors to try on Roman clothing, fee
l the weight of ringmail armour, design a Roman wall painting, build an arch and experience life on a simulated archaeological dig. None of this was particularly challenging - indeed some have argued that the emphasis on physical and visual involvement has come at the expense of intellectual stimulation – but then I doubt if bored children ever really learn anything from peering silently into glass. That said there are some touches that can surely be appreciated by more sophisticated adult minds and traditionalists alike. The central area, built to resemble the original fort, has a number of interesting exhibits including a collection of rounded stones once used as defensive missiles and the only stone toilet seat from Roman Britain. A scale model stands in the centre of the room offering fully narrated virtual reality tours on another of the touch screen computers that are found on almost every wall. Assorted artefacts such as tiles, cooking utensils and coins-all excavated since the 1970s when the adjacent slum housing was cleared-are accompanied by clear descriptions and information cards. To the right of this central room, the Civilian Life exhibits display jewellery, board games, surgical implements and ornaments from the Commanding Officer's House. A large map details the career of Statius Priscus, who commanded the Cohors Lingonum regiment at Segedunum before rising to the post of Governor of Britain, adding a human dimension to what could easily have been a rather dry exhibit. Directly behind the central display, the Shrine of the Standards exhibits more coins, a small collection of standards and replicas of ornate silver bowls and tableware found in Hildesheim, Germany in the 19th century. To the left, life size models show scenes from the infantry and cavalry barracks accompanied by a variety of sound effects, before a final door leads into a darkened auditorium where a video details life at the fort as seen through the eyes
of one of five characters. A set of stairs to the right of the room leads up to the Industry and Exhibition Galleries. A nine-minute film entitled 'From Segedunum to Wallsend' details the history of the area, cleverly cutting between historical re-enactments and real-life footage. The shots of Hadrian's Wall are stunning, while an emotive section details the history of the nearby colliery including the 19th century disaster in which 103 miners were killed by an underground explosion. By contrast, the small collection of artefacts outside the film theatre are sadly lacking with only a few safety lamps and a large chain, which the pitmen had to grip for over two minutes as they were lowered down the 186-metre shaft, standing out from a lacklustre and cramped display. Swan Hunter fares even worse, meriting only some scale models of ships built at the yard, some photographs and a large map showing the 40 countries to which completed ships were sold. Not much to commemorate a company that once employed more than ten thousand men. Next door, the Exhibition Gallery seems similarly claustrophobic. Currently showcasing archaeological finds from the area including an altar, inscribed stone fragments, text and photos of the Wall between Newcastle and Wallsend, the contrast with the roomy, interactive gallery downstairs was immediate, disappointing and complete. THE TOWER PANORAMA The distinctive glass-fronted helmet perched atop an air traffic control tower was perhaps the most controversial of all of the museum’s innovations. The view from the top of the tower, which is reached by lift, offers an enlightening view of the excavations below, though it's not quite as spectacular as the tourist literature would have you believe. Complemented by detailed computer models, the 180-degree panorama is among the popular of the museum’s attractions, leading to long waits at peak times. THE FORT AND THE BATHS At the foot of the staircase leading to the upper galleries, a door leads out to the excavated remains of the fort and the reconstructed bath-house beyond. The ruins represent one of the most completely excavated forts in the Roman Empire and comprise the Commanding Officer's House, the headquarters building, granaries, workshops, cavalry and infantry barracks, water tanks, a forehall and what is though to have been a hospital. Most of the stone from these buildings was plundered in the long years between abandonment and excavation but the open plan layout and helpful boards, which detail locations and important finds, help to fill in some of the gaps. Gravel paths lead through the mortared blocks and stone that once housed a garrison of 480 infantry and 120 cavalry. The highlight of my visit was undoubtedly the reconstructed bath-house. Based on original remains found elsewhere on the Wall and the only one of its kind in the country, the whitewashed, red-tiled building opens for approximately twenty minutes on the stroke of every hour. On the other side of the large changing room, where Roman bathers would undress, exercise and put on a pair of wooden slippers to protect their feet from the heated floors, four baths of varying temperatures could be enjoyed in any order, though it was customary to soak in the cold bath first in order to wash off any surface dirt. Decorated with frescos and left unheated, bathers would quickly progress from this first room into the double glazed warm room, where they could have a massage, or one of the two hot rooms. The basic hot room was used like a sauna, with the bather staying in the water just long enough to scrape dirt, sweat and oil off his skin with a metal scraper. The Hot Dry room served a very similar purpose, though there was absolutely no water or moisture within. A cutaway model in the corner of the room details the Roman underfloor heating system known as hypocaust. Hot air, heated by boilers, circ
ulated under the floor, rising into the hollow tiles that covered the walls and the arched ceiling. Text in each room describes the function of each of the baths and there are plans to admit visitors to the bath-house in order to enjoy an authentic Roman bathing experience. Fascinating. DETAILS Tel : 0191 295 5757 Admission : £3.50 adults £1.95 children £9 family ticket (two adults and two children) Opening Hours: Daily 10-5 April –October Daily 10-3.30 November-March Segedunum is a minute's walk from Wallsend Metro Station. Free car parking is available adjacent to the museum.
For any of you who are even remotely interested in things historical, archaeological, Roman or Geordie the name Segedunum will probably seem somehow familiar to you. This is hardly surprising given how high profile the development was and the number of TV programmes and magazine articles it has appeared it over the past couple of years! For those of you none the wiser, Segedunum is the site of the most easterly fort of Hadrian's Wall, recently developed into a multi-million pound museum and visitor attraction at the appropriately named Wallsend. After five months of living in Newcastle, I eventually found the time to take a trip out there last weekend. ●So where is it exactly? Well, you have probably figured out by now that Wallsend is part of the urban sprawl of Tyneside, between Newcastle and the coast at North Shields. Not the loveliest of locations I will admit, but a strategically important site to the Romans, who named this "strong fort" as it guarded the supply route of the River Tyne. The site and museum are situated right next to the Swan Hunter shipyard, and conveniently close (about 2 minutes walk) from Wallsend Metro, meaning it is very easy to reach by public transport (just 5 stops from Newcastle city centre, which costs about £2 for a return ticket). I wouldn't like to say what driving it would be like, but for anybody brave enough to do so, there is a large free car park on site. ●How much is it to visit? Current prices are: £2.95 for adults £1.95 for concessions (students & OAPS with ID, children) Free for under 4s For the admission fee, you get access to the fort site, museum, film theatre, exhibition gallery and bathhouse. ●The fort site This was excavated over a number of years by the nice people at Newcastle University and Tyne and Wear Museums, with the foundations laid out on an open plan for visitors to wander amongst. Where parts
of the foundations have been robbed out for use as local building stone, modern yellow stones and gravel have been added to show you what the original plan would have been. It is unfortunate, however, that a bloody big road has been cut through the top part of the fort, leaving some structures laid out on the other side of it, and parts of it lost forever to the forces of progress (grrrr!). Interpretation panels have been added to explain what you are seeing, and markers have been put in place to show where the most important finds were dug up. ●The museum OK, well it isn't really a museum in the strictest sense - perhaps visitor centre is nearer the mark. Some of the finds made on site are displayed here, and there are plenty of interactive exhibits to explain Roman life - try-on togas, videos, computer reconstructions of the fort and wall, that sort of thing. Great for children and people who love playing around with interactive technology, but of little challenge to most adults (what most people would call "dumbed down", but which museum people prefer to think of as "intellectually accessible"). Most of the displays are inevitably about the Roman occupation of Wallsend, but there is a gallery devoted to the industrial heritage of the area (shipbuilding and coal mining) and a film theatre showing a short local history production to demonstrate that there is more to the area than just the wall. One of the most popular (and indeed novel) additions to the museum building is the viewing tower - a nine storey high structure that allows you to get a full view of fort and wall while being presented with a nice little film to explain what you are seeing. As far as I am concerned, you could forget the exhibits downstairs, but this I loved! One of the hardest things to do when visiting an expansive site like this is to understand how it all comes together, and this has to be the best way I have ever seen of doi
ng it - you can see the full fort layout and really appreciate how it fits into the landscape. Everything in the museum building looks new and glossy and only one of the exhibits was out of order when I visited. The building is fully accessible to those with wheelchairs or prams, the toilet facilities were excellent, the café upstairs sold tasty and good value food, and the shop was impressively well stocked. ●The bathhouse This is really the icing on the cake at Segedunum - the only fully reconstructed and operational Roman bathhouse in the UK (the only other one I know about at all is in Turkey). This, to be honest, was what I really came for; something truly original and really well done piece of experimental archaeology... ...only it wasn't operational when I visited! They are currently doing maintenance work and it will not be running again until May, when I will have to make another trip out there to see this up and running. Apparently it is very impressive though. Mind you, it was pretty impressive even not operational, and I would have happily paid the entrance fee for this alone. The museum even rent out the bathhouse for private functions - toga party, anybody? Overall then, a highly enjoyable day out - I reckon the Heritage Lottery Fund have backed a winner here! If you are visiting Segedunum, this is what I would recommend: - Use the Metro rather than driving - Allow 2 to 3 hours for your visit - Remember that this is an open and windy area, so if you are visiting out of summer, wrap up well as it can be very cold - Segedunum can get very busy over the summer holidays, so go to the viewing tower early to avoid crowds as this is extremely popular and has limited space Segedunum can be contacted at: Segedunum Buddle Street Wallsend NE28 6HR (0191) 295 5757 www.hadrians-wall.org