Housesteads Roman Fort in North East England

Lying midway on Hadrian's Wall atop a steep escarpment of the Great Whin Sill, Housesteads Roman Fort once played a vital role in defending the Roman province of Britannia from attack along the northern border of their empire. One of the best excavated and preserved Roman forts in Britain, the fort is well worth a visit if you’re interested in the history of the Roman army and their way of life. If, by chance, you really couldn't give two hoots about the Roman army and their history, Housesteads is still well worth a visit as it's located in one of the most dramatic spots in Northumberland!  

Hadrian's Wall, also known as the Roman Wall, Picts' Wall, or Vallum Hadriani in Latin, is a former  73-mile (80 Roman miles) long defensive fortification that ran east to west across northern England from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne.  Built by the Romans beginning in about AD 122 under the orders of then-Emperor Hadrian, the wall took at least six years to complete. The original plan was for a wall of stone or turf with a guarded gate every mile that included two observation towers in between. Before work was completed in approximately AD 128, 15 forts were added including Housesteads which was constructed about AD 124 and became part of a total garrison of 10,000 men along the wall's length. 

Housesteads Roman Fort was a large stone fort covering 2.2 hectares (approximately 5.5 acres) surrounded by a stone wall with eight gates. The fort's Roman name has been variously given as Borcovicus, Borcovicium, Velurtion and Vercovicium meaning "the hilly place." The fort gets its current name from a former farm - circa late 1500s - whose lands included the ruins of the fort.

From the late 2nd century AD to the end of the 4th century AD, it's believed that the fort was garrisoned by auxiliaries - infantry and cavalry raised from the conquered peoples of the Roman empire. Housesteads' regiment of 800 infantry soldiers - known as a military cohort - was called the Tungrians as they were originally recruited from German-speaking tribes in the district of Tongres in modern Belgium. 

Housesteads in the 4th century AD, Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicium)
Housesteads in the 4th century AD, Housesteads Roman Fort (Vercovicium). 
Picture Credit: Carole Raddato. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

A fascinating place to visit, Housesteads Roman Fort is located in a beautiful spot, high on a ridge overlooking the River Tyne offering visitors the chance to see for miles across the Northumberland countryside.. Obviously the Romans took the view into consideration when they decided that this was the perfect place to build a line of defense along Hadrian’s Wall as they would be able to see enemies coming from miles away. What visitors need to take into consideration is that the walk to get to the fort is approximately ½-mile up a gradual steep incline. Personally I used the excuse of stopping to take a photo of the beautiful countryside every so often as a chance to rest and catch my breath! 

Looks flat, doesn't it? Don't let it fool you! 

Once you've managed to make your way up the hill and it's leveled out a little bit,  you can take a few moments to congratulate yourself on the climb, take in the view and check out the interpretive sign at the top. I don't know about you but I love interpretive signage as I like to know just what it is I'm looking at! 

Outside of the fort walls, there’s a visitors center with a gift shop where you purchase your tickets to walk around inside the fort walls. There's also a museum which displays artifacts from the fort but I didn't take too many photos in the museum. We had gotten to the fort rather late in the day and wanted to make sure we had time to walk around inside the fort before closing time. 

I did however, take a photo of one the displays that talked about the relationship between Hadrian's Wall and the Ice Wall in George R.R. Martin's series "A Song of Fire and Ice" where the Night's Watch stands guard. If you've ever watched "Game of Thrones" then, trust me, you'll love Hadrian's Wall!  

Even though you won't see Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly or Maester Aemon guarding the fort and wall, you might see some of the local residents guarding the gates ... or mowing the lawn if you will! 

Not sure if these little guys were part of the Welcoming Committee but they were nice enough to stop cavorting and pose for me near the entrance to the fort. Aren't they just the cutest? 

Are you winking at me? I think he's winking at me! 

After entering through a former gatehouse, visitors will find inside the fort's walls the remains of the barracks, a hospital, a bathhouse, a granary, the headquarters building and other buildings. One of the most popular spots with apparently both young and old alike is the former latrine which is located beside the gatehouse entrance. Honestly, the Romans were pretty advanced when it came to hygiene and they had some really impressive latrines and bathhouses. Chances are good, this is the oldest latrine that you may ever lay eyes on - in Britain at least! 

Roman forts were equipped with bathhouses and latrines (lavatrina) for the troops and Housesteads was no exception. The most impressive set of latrines, and the one used by most of the garrison, lay in the southeast corner of the ramparts, right up against the ramparts. The latrine had a constant flow of water from adjacent tanks that flushed away waste matter. The water, rainwater and and draining surface water, also fed a small channel running at the foot of the toilets which was used to wash the sponges that were used instead of toilet paper. 

Based on the surviving joist holds, it was believed that the latrine's toilet seats were wooden and proof of that was confirmed when an intact wooden toilet seat was found at nearby Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort south of Housesteads. This reconstruction drawing of the Roman latrine at Housesteads which can be seen on the interpretive sign, shows that there were no individual cubicles so men sat side by side, probably catching up on their day or making lewd jokes … hard to say! 

According to archaeological research, as many as 40% of excavated Roman military camps have preserved traces of latrines but the stone latrine at Housesteads is considered to be the best-preserved in all of Roman Britain. Considering Housesteads itself is the best preserved Roman fort in all of Roman Britain, I guess that makes sense! 

So, moving on from the latrine, here are some (hopefully!) helpful tips for visiting Housesteads Roman Fort should you have the chance to visit. First and foremost, give yourself plenty of time to explore as there's a lot to look at. I'm pretty sure that we missed a lot as we got there fairly late in the day but as it was tipping down rain the next day, it was good that we went when we did! 

There are guided tours of the fort available, which are a great way to learn more about its history. If possible, it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance or read up some about the fort so you have an idea of what you're looking at. There are, of course, also a whole legion of YouTube videos that you can watch prior to your visit also! 

There is a car park at the fort, but it can get busy in the summer months. It is advisable to arrive early or book your parking in advance. We had no problems with room in the car park but then again, we were there off-season and later in the day. 

The fort is located on Hadrian's Wall, which you can see here stretching out towards the east, so you can combine your visit with a walk along the wall. There are a number of walks that start from the fort, ranging from easy walks to more challenging hikes.

Excavations have revealed major buildings, defenses and the civilian settlement outside its walls. Even if you only have limited time, a quick walk around inside and outside the fort will give you the chance to see a good number of the excavated areas. 

The fort is a great place to take photos, so be sure to bring your camera and wear comfortable shoes as you’ll probably find yourself doing a lot of walking around both inside and outside of the fort.

Speaking of taking photos, these photos show the fort's granaries which were vital to the feeding of the garrison. The impressive system of underfloor heating/ventilation can still be seen.

The fort is located in Northumberland National Park, the northernmost national park in England boasting the cleanest rivers, the darkest skies and and rare wildlife, so there are plenty of other things to see and do in the area. In addition to Housesteads there are numerous other Roman sites worth visiting and the scenery is gorgeous pretty much everywhere you look! 

Housesteads Roman Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site owned by the National Trust, the biggest conservation charity in Europe, and managed by English Heritage, a charitable organization which cares for over 400 historic monuments, buildings and place. Honestly, if you like history then this is a must-visit part of England should you have the time to work it into your itinerary. It's a steep climb but it's definitely worth it! 

I'm going to end this with a YouTube video from the good folks at English Heritage who also maintain and operate many of the other sites along Hadrian's Wall. Sometimes I don't think a person can grasp the enormity of what they're looking at unless you see it from above and this video will give you a great view from above! 


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