Chesters Roman fort
Chesters is the nicest of the Hadrian’s Wall
forts. It lies 20 miles west of Newcastle and forms the beginning of
the dramatic central part of Hadrian’s Wall. Chesters is still
‘civilised’: it lies in fertile farm land at the point where the Wall
crosses the river North Tyne. Just beyond it the Wall climbs steeply
upwards, and the uplands begin.
n the 19th century, the house at Chesters was
owned by John Clayton who was a very successful solicitor in Newcastle
and it was he who was responsible for saving much of the central
portion of the Wall. Having been born and brought up at Chesters, he
excavated much of the fort and he then went on to purchase five other
forts along the Wall, and much of the length of the Wall between them,
so that many of the best preserved stretches of the Wall are “Clayton
Wall”. He brought together many sculptures and inscriptions to adorn
his house at Chesters, and on his death a special museum was built to
house his collection, which can still be visited today.
Plan of Chesters fort. The entrance is from
the north, at the top.
passing through the entrance arrangements and the shop in the
outbuildings of Clayton’s former house, it is a short walk to the fort
where one enters appropriately by the North gate, now well laid out. It
was a double portal gate, which means that the bases of two towers are
visible, with central piers between them, so that the entrance could be
closed by twin gates. The fort lies astride the wall, that is the
course of the wall runs across the middle of the fort, so this North
gate would have led out into the barbarian north.
half left you come to the barrack blocks. These are some of
the finest barrack blocks to be seen on Hadrian’s Wall.
There are two blocks facing each other across a central road,
with a drain down the centre. There were probably ten rooms
on each side though only five are on display, and at the far
end is the larger house for the centurion who was the sergeant
major in charge of each barrack block. There were probably
eight soldiers to a room, and each room may have been divided
into half by a wooden partition. In front of the rooms there
would have been a veranda and some of the half columns that
formed the front of the veranda can be seen leaning up against
the rooms. The
barracks were excavated by Clayton, or rather his workmen
in the 19th century and have been displayed ever since. They
are perhaps over tidied-up, having been displayed for a century
and a half, but it does mean that you can get a very good
idea from here of how the Roman soldiers lived
The Headquarters Building
|The Headquarters building. This
is a panoramic view stitched together from four pictures, and is
inevitably somewhat distorted. The Wall that apparently runs diagonally
across the left hand corner should run along the bottom. But it does
show the basic courtyard with the cross hall running at right angles
From the barrack blocks, go to the centre of the
fort to explore the principia, or headquarters building, which was
always situated at the centre of the fort and was the most important
part of the fort. The headquarters building was in three parts: the
nearest part seen in this photo, which is stitched together from four
separate photos was a courtyard with rooms around each side, and a
circular well just right of centre.
in the centre was the cross hall or basilica, a roofed building where
the soldiers could assemble on parade with the tribunal, a raised dais
at one end from which the commanding officer could address his troops.
||The cross hall, with the dais at
the far end. This would originally have been a roofed building in which
the soldiers would have paraded to be addressed by the commanding
officer at on the dais at the far end.
On the far side of the cross hall were five rooms
that formed the administrative heart of the fort. At the centre was the
shrine where the statue of the emperor would be set, and the standards
would be stored, and the other regimental finery that every unit in
every army always maintains.
|| To one
side is the underground strong room or treasury where the money was
kept, almost always in an underground chamber where it was kept safe,
both by the sanctity of the shrine and no doubt by heavy locks. The
Chesters strong room still survives with its roof intact. It is said to
be the only roofed building that still survives from Roman Britain.
|The strongroom at
door to the principia is the praetorium or commanding officer’s house -
the commanding officer being known as the “praetor”. It must have been
quite a cosy house because there are lots of hypocausts or underfloor
heating. It is somewhat chaotic as there are several different periods
represented here. At the far end is a set of small baths.
the praetor’s house, go out through the East gate which is also a well
preserved double gate way. From the southern tower the wall leads down
to the river where it crossed the Tyne.
The Bath house
the river is the bath house, which is one of the largest and
best preserved bath houses along Hadrian’s Wall. A full
scale replica of the bath house has been constructed at Wallsend
where it can be visited - click
here for details.
It is a somewhat difficult bath house to
understand as it combines the two different types of Roman bath house.
The simplest type of Roman bath house is the row-type, where the rooms
are arranged in a row going from the undressing room to the cold room,
to the warm room and the hot room. After which you have to come back
In the ring-type, which is the most elaborate
type, there is a circular route, where you go from cold to
warm to hot but then come back in a different route. This can best be
seen in some of the grand imperial baths in Rome. Chesters is basically
two row-types side by side, but with several rooms leading off it.
Plan of the
bathhouse at Chesters.
Enter at the
top to the Undressing room, or Apodyterium (A), with the latrines (M)
conveniently to one side.
Then go through
to the Vestibule (V) from which you can turn right into the
Sudatorium(S) or very hot sweating room.
go through to T1, the first Tepidarium or warm room. and then through
to C, the Caldarium, or Hot room, with the furnace at the far end, and
a hot bath, in which you could sit, to the side.
back through T2, the second tepidarium, and back to F, the frigidarium
or cold room, with cold baths of at either side. Then back through the
vestibule to the undressing room, and a bit of exercise before dressing
again and going home.
first and most splendid room is the undressing room where
a series if niches still survives, where you could put your
clothes. It was probably also used as an exercise hall where
you could your exercise before entering the bath.
to it is one of the best preserved rooms – a sudatorium,
or sweating room, where there is hot dry heat, rather like a
modern Turkish bath.
The Bridge Abutment
Beside the bath house was the bridge which carried
the Roman Wall across the river North Tyne. The river has changed
course slightly since Roman times and so there is nothing to be seen on
this side of the river. However, on the other side, the river has
changed course in the opposite direction, leaving the bridge abutment
high and dry. This is one of the most spectacular remains to be seen at
Chesters, but unfortunately there is no way across. To see it, it is a
matter of going out of the fort, getting in your car (if you have come
by car), driving back along the road, cross over the bridge – it’s a
fine 18th century bridge and there is a very posh hotel adjacent to it
– then parking by the roadside and it is a mile or so walk along the
old railway track till eventually you come the bridge
Here the Wall can be seen descending from the east
with a turret adjacent to the actual bridge abutment. The bridge was
built in two stages: at first it was a simple bridge just carrying the
wall across, and if you wanted to cross you had to climb up onto the
Wall. However, this was not very satisfactory for general traffic and
soon the bridge was widened so that there was a road beside it on which
carts could cross the river, and no doubt there was a lot of traffic
both military and civilian. The two stages can be clearly seen in the
exposed remains. The cutwater of the early bridge can be seen as a void
where the stones have been removed, and it is surrounded by the much
more substantial foundations of the later bridge. Note the pairs of
holes in many of the stones in which the lead cramps would have been
set to hold the stones together, though the lead has long been robbed
But before leaving Chesters, you should visit the
museum. It was built in 1903 on John Clayton’s death as the Clayton
Memorial Museum. However, by the 1970s it was in need of repair —
indeed it became something of a scandal . What was to be done about it?
After a lot of discussion and debate it was decided to restore it in
its original form, not using modern display techniques but restoring it
as it originally was — an Edwardian museum.
result to modern eyes is that it is very cluttered and overcrowded,
with inscriptions jostling against one another, so that only
the expert can understand the importance of each inscription
– and almost all of them are important if you are expert
enough to understand the detail. It is in fact a museum of a
museum. Considerable research was done to determine the original
colour of the wall and the fine Pompeian red has been restored.
However, there are some modern techniques – modern lighting
has been installed to throw light at an angle to the inscriptions
so that they can all be read. Take a good look at the photos
and decided whether you prefer — Edwardian or modern museum
web site is very much a work in progress. I hope you enjoy reading
it, and I will be very glad to have feedback from any readers.
9th April 2010
This is Chesters Roman fort, the first site of the
Hadrian's Wall project
Double click on any of the pictures for an enlarged high resolution version,
ready for printing