Chesters

We then come on to Chesters,  the first of the major forts of the main central section of the wall and the starting point for most of those who wish to walk the wall.

Chesters is perhaps 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 the fertile farmland at the point where the wall crosses the River North Tyne. Just beyond it, the wall climb steeply upwards, and the uplands begin.

Bathhouse at Chesters Roman fort
The Bath house at Chesters Roman Fort. Note the River Tyne in the background.
John Clayton the owner of Chesters Fort

The story of Chesters, and indeed of Hadrian’s Wall in the 19th century is dominated by the figure of John Clayton, lawyer and leading citizen of Newcastle.  He lived at Chesters, where he inherited the house from his father and this sparked his interest in Hadrian’s Wall.  He set about buying up as much of it as he could in order to preserve it.  He ended up by owning a considerable length of the wall in the central sector, and four forts in all.  In many places he excavated the wall and decided to preserve it by rebuilding it 3ft high and these are the best stretches of the wall to walk: you can imagine yourself as a Roman soldier with 2,000 miles of Roman civilisation to the south —and Barbarians to the north.  It is always a wonderful sensation.  He collected many objects from his varying excavations, and on his death it was decided to build a Clayton Memorial museum to house them all. However by the mid 20thcentury the museum was beginning to crumble and there was a big debate as to how to preserve it. 

The John Clayton Memorial Museum has been restored in its original form with the original Edwardian display cases

After a lot of discussion it was decided to restore it in its original form as an Edwardian museum. The result to modern eyes is rather cluttered with inscriptions jostling up against one another. It is in fact a museum of a museum. Considerable research was done to determine the original colour of the walls and the fine Pompeian red has been restored. However modern lighting has been installed to show light at an angle to the inscriptions so they can all be read. Take a good look to see whether you prefer Edwardian or modern museum display.

The Fort is entered by the North gate. This was a double portal gate which means that it had a double entrance. The bases of the two towers are visible, and the entrance could be closed by twin gates. The fort stood astride the Wall, so this north gate would have led out into the barbarian north.

The barrack blocks at Chesters, two blocks facing each other with a drain in between. Note at the far end of the somewhat larger centurions’ quarters

Just to the left of the entrance are 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 the central road with a drain down the centre. There were probably 10 rooms on each side there are only five are on display. At the far end is the larger house for the centurion, who was the Sergeant major in charge of each barrack block. The barracks were excavated by Clayton, or rather his workmen in the 19th century and had been displayed ever since. They are perhaps over tidied-up, having been displayed for over a century and a half, but it does mean that you can get a very good idea of how the Roman soldiers lived.

The Principia or headquarters building.

The most important part of the fort at the centre was the headquarters building, or principia. At the centre was the cross-wall or basilica, a roofed building where the soliders could assemble on parade. At one end was a raised dias known as the tribunal, from which the commanding officer could address his troops.

On the far side of the crosshall were five rooms that formed the administrative part of the fort. At the centre was the shrine where the statue of emperor would be set and the standard would be stored, and the other regimental finery had every unit in every army always maintained.

To one side is the underground strongroom , or Treasury, where the money would be kept, where it would be safe both by the sanctity of the shrine and by heavy locks. The Chesters strongroom still survives with its roof in tact. It is said to be the only roofed building that still survives from Roman Britain.

Chesters Roman fort Praetorium

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.

The latest English heritage plan of Chester’s showing the extensive civilian settlement to the South, as revealed by recent surveys.

The Bathhouse

Down by the river is the bath house which is one of the largest and best preserved bath houses along Hadrian’s Wall.

Plan of the bath house at Chesters. This is a sophisticated bath house of the ring type, rather than the simple row type. Instead of entering at the top and going from cold to hot then back again, in the ring type you enter at the top, go down the left-hand side and then come back down the right-hand side

Enter at the top to the undressing room, or apodyteriun (A) with the latrines (M) conveniently to one side.

Then go through to the vestibule (N) from which you can turn right into the sudatorium (B) or very hot sweating room with its own special outside furnace, (C).

Alternatively go through to E1 the first tepidarium or warm room and then through to E2, the Caldarium, or hot room, with the furnace at the far end and a hot bath in which you could sit (F) to the side.

Then return back to (H), the tepidarium and back to K, the frigidarium or cold room with cold baths to either side. Then back to the dressing room and a bit of exercise aand chatting to your friends before getting dressed and going home.

The first and most splendid room is the undressing room where a series of niches still survives where you could put your clothes.

Adjacent to it is one of the best preserved rooms, the hot room. Note the bottom of the window at the top. One of the few windows to have survived.

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The Bridge abutment

Beyond the bath house was the bridge that carried the Roman Wall across the River Tyne. The river has changed course slightly since Roman times, 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 at Chesters, but unfortunately there is no way across and it can only be seen via a long day tour.

The bridge was built in two stages: at first it was a simple bridge just carrying the wall across, however this was not satisfactory for general purpose and soon the bridge was widened so that there was a road across it on which carts could cross the river. No doubt there was a lot of traffic both military and civilian.

On to Housesteads