Today, the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne dominates north-eastern England. In Roman times it was known as Pons Aelius, – the bridge of Hadrian, for Aelius was Hadrian’s formal name.
It was the site of a Roman fort and presumably a Roman bridge. Nothing is known of the Roman bridge, , but the position of the Fort has been located by archaeologists, even though there is nothing to be seen on the ground.
The first trace of Hadrian’s Wall to the west is found alongside the A 69, the main road that crosses England from Newcastle to Carlisle, the traffic thundering past the excavated remains of the Wall.
The first Roman fort to the west is at Benwell, today a suburb of Newcastle. Here the Roman fort is concealed under a reservoir to the north of the road and a housing estate to the south.
However the southern approach to the fort is preserved. However this is not the entrance to the fort itself, but a fortified gateway over the Vallum. The Vallum is one of the great mysteries of the wall. It is a large flat bottomed ditch with a bank thrown up on either side which runs to the south of the wall, and in places adjacent to the wall and in places up to a mile away. And it is one of the wall’s great mysteries.
What was it for? It was built before the wall and in many places there are crossings. Wall experts sometimes mutter that perhaps it was a customs barrier, but they are not really convinced, and as Humphrey Welfare once remarked, if you are totally confused by the Vallum, then you are on the right track. And anyway,here at Benwell there is actually a fortified gateway over the Vallum and this has been preserved.
The next major site to see is the Brunton Turret, and here we must begin with some wall typology. There are three types of structure on the wall, forts, milecastles and turrets. The wall is 80 miles long and at every mile there is a milecastle numbered from 1 – 80, and between every mile castle there are two turrets labelled A and B. In addition there are 6 forts each holding up to 500 men which provided the fighting force and the gateway through the wall.
Brunton turret is 26B, and here we must do some more wall typology. The wall itself is of three types: the broad wall, the narrow wall and the turf wall. They began by building the wall in fine style 12 Roman feet wide, but when they got to Brunton Turret they decided that 12 feet was rather overdoing it so they decided to make a narrower wall 10 or even less feet wide. Meanwhile the western half of the wall was originally built as a turf wall, but they then decided that this was not strong enough so they replaced it by a stone wall.
But Brunton Turret is terribly important because this is the point where the broad wall is replaced by the narrow wall. It seems that the turrets were built before the wall by specialised teams of turret builders and they built the turrets and left two stubs of wall on either side and these were both broad wall stubs. And the broad walk comes up one side and joins up with the stubs and on the other side the stub joined to the narrower wall. It is details such as this that give wall studies their great fascination.