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.
In 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.
After 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.
Going 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
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.
Then 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.
Next 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 Bath house
By 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 again.
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.
The 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.
Adjacent 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 abutment.
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 out.
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.
The 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 display.