The North Pennines were the setting for the most Northerly frontier to the Roman Empire at its height. Following the initial invasion in AD43, there was significant resitance to advancing forces particularly from the tribes in Northern Britain such as the Brigantes, whose name actually means hill-dwellers. The key battle was at what is now Scotch Corner, where Julius Agricola the Roman Governor defeated the Brigantes forces.
From around AD80 however the Roman forces were becoming well established and remained in the region for over 300 years to around AD410. If you translate that to a modern timeframe, it compares to a continuous rule since 1685 to the present day, which gives an interesting perspective on how long that was.
The region became commercially highly important due to the extensive Silver and Lead ore mines that were developed in the Northern region around Weardale, an industry that continued through to the early C20. The Romans were also know to have hunted extensively in the area, which at that time was heavily wooded, as there were altars at Eastgate and Bollihope to the woodland God, Silvanus who was associated with hunting.
Terrace Cottage in Rookhope is quite centrally located and an excellent base from which to explore the region – and with its wild location, to get a feel for how the land would have looked during the time of Roman occupation.
The Northern Legions
Many of the larger forts were permanent homes to the legions, such as Chesters, which was the Base for Ala II Asturium, the Northern Iberian cavalry regiment. It seems from contemporary accounts such as Tacitus that deployment of units was fairly flexible allowing the army to meet any potential threats quickly.
Of course there was the infamous Legio IX, who reputely disappeared while on a mission from their base in York (Eboracum) Northwards through Brigantes country towards the Antonine Wall. Following the building of the Wall and the quelling of tribal revolts, the significant military presence throughout Britain gave the people the longest period of peace ever enjoyed.
As well as the 80 mile long World Heritage site, Hadrian’s Wall itself, the region also offers a more in-depth glimpse into the military and social life of Romans at the Frontier. The extensive and well investigated sites at Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda are all well worth visits in their own right.
Each of the sixteen forts along the course of the wall housed a force of between 500 and 1000 men. As well as this, each milecastle also had a garrison of up to 60 men; between each of these were two turrets with four soldiers. All in all this was a massive display of military might intent in ensuring that no armed ‘barbarians’ ventured south of the wall into the militarised zone.
Hadrian’s Wall was not, as is popularly told, built to separate the English and Scots – at that time the tribe called the Scots were still in their ancestral home in Ireland. The tribes that became Anglo-Saxons were all still spread across what is now northern Germany. The wall protected the militarised zone of the Empire against armed attacks from the Pictish tribes in the North. Within the empire, the local tribes (Brigantes in this region) were usually as client kingdoms, with their rulers swearing allegiance – and paying taxes – to the Emperor.
The main sites worth visiting along the wall are:
- Birdoswald Fort
- Black Carts Turret
- Brunton Turret
- Carrawburgh Temple of Mithras
- Housesteads Fort
- Willowford Wall, Turrets and Bridge
Hill Forts & Settlements
There are some amazing remnants of Rome’s military buildings across the North. Many have dedicated visitor centres explaining their place in the Roman plan. These are listed below.
Other forts such as that at Binchester near Bishop Auckland and Epiacum near Alston are also still being excavated and understood.
Many of the main arterial roads throughout the North, much as elsewhere in Britain, were originally built by the Roman invaders to ensure swift troop movements. This map of the key routes shows many of the key roads through the region. These were:
- Cade’s Road – from Brough-on-Humber via Chester-le-Street to Newcastle upon Tyne
- Dere Street – from York, North via Catterick, Binchester and Corbridge
- Devil’s Causeway – from Dere Street on Hadrian’s Wall to Berwick-upon-Tweed
- Ermine Street – from London to York
- Maiden Way – from Kirkby Thore, via Whitley Castle (near Alston) to Carvoran
- Military Way – from Wallsend to Bowness on Solway, along the course of Hadrian’s Wall
- Stanegate – from Carlisle to Corbridge
Visiting the Main Roman Sites
Many of the sites are under the protection of English Heritage so it is worthwhile taking out a membership which gives free entry as well as discounted entry to many of the other sites around Britain.
Vinovia or Vinovium was a Roman fort and settlement situated just over 1 mile to the north of the town of Bishop Auckland on the banks of the River Wear. There are impressive remains of a Roman bath house with its amazing 1,700 year-old under floor heating system.
Built almost 2000 years ago to house a Roman army garrison guarding the nearby bridge across the River Tyne, Chesters Roman Fort is one of the most impressive visitor attractions in the North East. Close to Chesters Roman Fort are the remains of a bridge which carried Hadrian’s Wall across the North Tyne. Visible on both river banks, they are most impressive on the eastern side.
The remains of the Town of Coria (or Corstopitum) are well preserved.Visitors to Corbridge can walk along the main street of this Roman garrison town, flanked by the remains of granaries, a fountain house, markets, workshops and temples
A fascinating tourist attraction in North East England, Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain. Set where Hadrian’s Wall climbs to the top of a dramatic escarpment.
Stonework foundations of the key crossing point of the River Tees are now marooned in a field after the river changed course over the past millenium or so. The road North across it once led to Piercebridge Roman Fort and on to Coria.
This privately run site has been the source of some of the most enlightening discoveries in recent years. The amazing Roman writing tablets are still being unearthed and shedding light on all aspects of daily life from inventories of goods being delivered – to a party invitation from a centurions wife. As this blog post shows, its very much worth a visit.
The Council run site of Segedunum at Wallsend in East Newcastle has the most completely excavated fort in Britain, lying at the eastern end of Hadrians Wall. The site features the reconstructed remains of a large bathhouse which is particularly enlightening. It is home to the remakable British Museum exhibition during 2015.
One of the best places of all to see the Wall, dramatically snaking and diving along the crags of the Whin Sill.
Not much remains of the Fort of Epiacum near Alston which now sits close to the route of the Pennine Way. Plans to interpret the site for visitors are still at an early stage and there is currently no information available on site. Do read through the website before making a visit.
Visiting the Region
If you would like to book Terrace Cottage for your own Roman exploration, this Tripadvisor link shows the availability and price for the dates you want – and payment protection for your peace of mind.