In some ways I found Birdoswald Roman Fort the most interesting of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Although the remains are less extensive than those of better known sites like Housesteads or Chesters, there are other reasons to visit. Like the fact that it is set in the longest remaining stretch of the Roman wall. Or that it is the only fort on the Wall that has been continuously settled since Roman times. Or for the sweeping views over the Cumbrian countryside…
The Romans at Birdoswald
Birdoswald was one of sixteen forts along Hadrian’s Wall and it is easy to see how it fitted into the overall defensive structure. The Wall still runs on either side of the fort and the Military Way (the road that linked all the wall forts) runs right through the middle of Birdoswald. Although many of the Roman buildings are now gone, a wall runs around the edge of the fort, showing its original outline. And if you walk to the southern boundary you will appreciate the strategic importance of this site. Even on a misty day (as it was when I visited) there are commanding views of the valley below.
Today the most visible remains of the Roman fort are the granary buildings. At one time these would have held provisions (including grain and dried meat) for up to a thousand soldiers. Next to the granaries is the drill and exercise hall. Although we know that all forts would have had drill areas, this is the only one that has been discovered at an auxiliary fort in the Roman empire. And don’t forget to look at the stonework beside the West Gate: this has been described as “the most impressive masonry you’ll find anywhere on Hadrian’s Wall”.
Later History of Birdoswald Roman Fort
But the Roman fort is only one part of Birdoswald’s long history. The Romans actually had an observation turret on the site before they built Hadrian’s Wall; the turret was later destroyed to make way for the fort. After the Romans left many of the soldiers (who would have been recruited locally) stayed behind. Part of the granary was turned into a Great Hall and the site was later occupied by local Anglo-Saxon tribesmen.
After the Norman conquest the land was tenanted and a fortified house was built close to the West Gate. This was later replaced by a fortified farmhouse (defences were necessary because of frequent cattle rustling and continued lawlessness in the border areas). In Victorian times the house was refurbished and a tower was added. This was intended to give it a “medieval look”, as was then fashionable. At the same time part of the granary was converted into a ha-ha to prevent cattle from straying onto the lawn.
Excavation of the Roman remains began in the 19th century. Today the house has become a visitor centre with artefacts from the site and an audiovisual display showing the building of the Wall, life on the Wall, and the subsequent history of the fort. It seems as if Birdoswald has come full circle. No longer an isolated farmhouse but once more an important part of Hadrian’s Wall.
Tagged with: English history • Romans • UNESCO sites