The trip back in time begins as soon as you step out of the Metro. All the signs are in two languages: English and Latin. This is Wallsend, literally the end of Hadrian’s Wall, and home to Segedunum Roman Fort, which guarded the Wall and the entrance to the River Tyne. It was a site of strategic importance to the Romans and today it is part of the Hadrian’s Wall UNESCO World Heritage Site. For us it was the first stop on our 84 mile walk along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. For others, especially families or those with little knowledge of ancient history, it is an excellent introduction to Roman Britain.
The Unique History of Segedunum Roman Fort
Although Segedunum is the most fully excavated of the Hadrian’s Wall forts, don’t expect to see much of the remains. The outline of the fort and its buildings is visible, but only at ground level, and many of the artefacts uncovered have been taken off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum. But the important thing about this site is the way it presents information and brings history to life.
We started by taking the lift to the 35m high viewing tower, which gives the best view of the layout of the excavated fort. Here you can watch a video charting the history of the site, from early times to the present day. Every Roman fort along the Wall was built to the same design. Yet they were all unique in their own way, with differing landscapes and with their own history once the Romans had departed. Segedunum (whose name means “strong fort”) differed from the other Wall forts in that – along with the stronghold of Arbeia in what is now South Shields – it was responsible for defending the river as well as the Wall. Like all of Hadrian’s Wall it later fell into disuse and its stone was taken elsewhere for building material. But, situated in what became an industrial conurbation, its subsequent fate was different. Over the centuries the land was used for ship building and coal mining, activities that led to much of the site being lost forever.
Bringing History to Life
Back at ground level we had a look at the Roman Gallery. The first thing you notice here is that it is laid out like the inside of a Roman villa, with columns, archways and a central courtyard. The illusion is heightened as you turn a corner and hear a voice speaking Latin! The exhibition begins with the pre-Roman landscape and society, before moving on to the lives of the Roman soldiers who lived at Segedunum. Throughout the Gallery there are games and hands-on activities designed to engage the attention of younger visitors.
Outside we walked around the remains of the fort, including the barracks, granary and commanding officer’s house. But for many visitors, the nearby reconstructed bath house is a bigger attraction. Although not in its original location, which would have been some way from the fort, the reconstruction is authentic, based on bath houses at Chesters Fort (also on Hadrian’s Wall) and elsewhere. You can walk between the hot, cold and warm rooms, admire the frescoes on the walls and even see the cubicles where bathers would have left their clothes.
There was one more treat in store. We left the bath house, walked past the medicinal herb garden and crossed the road at the far side of the fort. Here there is a reconstruction of a part of Hadrian’s Wall, which you can climb on and imagine what it would have felt like to be a Roman soldier guarding the Wall. And beside it is a part of the Wall itself. Admittedly, at this point only the foundations remain. But it was our first sight of the Wall whose route we were going to follow over the next few days.