New book draws on history of Hadrian’s Wall

IN THE BEGINNING...how Segedunum at Wallsend looked in the 1870s.
IN THE BEGINNING...how Segedunum at Wallsend looked in the 1870s.

WALKING up our hill sometimes, across what, 2,000 years ago, was the Roman cemetery, I sometimes try to imagine what the landscape looked like when the fort in Shields was at the height of its role as a supply base to Hadrian’s Wall.

More intriguing still, though, is to try to envisage how that landscape changed over subsequent centuries. What did it look like as the fort fell into ruin, the abandoned graves of the Roman dead overgrown?

Did it become a place of fear and superstition? Or just a place of ‘stuff’ – free stone for your garden wall, for instance? Arbeia, I have to say, doesn’t feature in Hadrian’s Wall Through Time but the ethos of the book is along the same lines: that nothing, really, is written in stone and that even as great an edifice as the Wall and its surroundings have changed over the years.

Would you, for instance, recognise the picture here as being of Segedunum, which we know today as an excavated fort, reconstructed Roman bath house and museum illustrating the Wall’s commencement at Wallsend? Yet this was how it looked in the early 1870s, as sketched by James Irwin Coates.

Coates was a Yorkshire teacher, born in 1848, who visited the wall nine times between 1877 and 1896, each time drawing what was still visible and what was being uncovered.

It’s these drawings which represent the fascinating ‘then’ of this book, compared with the ‘now’ of modern photographs of the same locations.

Thus the first Milecastle, as Coates saw it, was a hilly, country scene. Today, it lies under a recreation ground on Fossway.

Similarly, as the Wall headed west out of Newcastle in 1877, it presented a semi-rural scene along Westgate Road, now all traffic and shops.

And so the book proceeds, until it reaches Bowness, where the last fort is buried under more recent buildings. Coates’s view, drawn in 1879, depicts a windmill which was demolished just a few years later.

Altogether an intriguing volume.

n Hadrian’s Wall Through Time, by Alan Michael Whitworth, former Hadrian’s Wall Recording Archaeologist for English heritage, is published in paperback by Amberley, price £14.99.