Hadrian’s Wallsend

So, Wallsend eh? Growing up, I always thought it was a funny name, up there with the likes of Pity Me and Tantobie, to cite just two brilliantly-named north eastern locations. But I’ve just been for a visit and found out Wallsend’s even sillier Roman name – Segedunum!

Segedunum is the Roman fort at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, that amazing national treasure built across the Northumbrian and Cumbrian countryside to keep out those scary Picts. The settlement is not qute as large as the incredible Vindolanda site further along the wall, but its definitely worth a visit.

Having said that, though – if you ever wonder why historians get excited about discovering a series of small walls, then you might be even more curious about us showing excitement when some of the missing walls have been filled in with even smaller walls of contemporary cobbles. Not even the real archaeological deal, just something indicating the original lie of the land.

But it is interesting – a real eye opener showing the arrangement of life in a Roman fort. The cavalry barracks with their arrangement of rooms for officers and horses – hearth at the front denoting a room for three cavalry men, and the room at the back with a big pit for draining away the urine of the three cavalrymen’s horses. The hospital latrine with it original arrangement of drains and the channel from the water tank showing the hygiene logistics of the camp. The grandeur of the commanding officer’s house built to reflect the rich Roman villas of the Mediterranean – including the shaded courtyard to protect them from the Northumbrian sun!
At the far end of the site is a reconstruction of the bath house, sadly closed to the public due to a large whole in the roof, rendering it unfit and unsound for visitors. Luckily for us, there is a reconstruction of the bathhouse floor plan further along Hadrian’s Cycleway – about 200 metres from the main site. The verge of the Cycleway and parts of the site itself were in full bloom with wild flowers planted courtesy of the remainder of a half million pound grant awarded by ex-chancellor George Osborne – surely one of the very few gestures by a Tory government for the benefit of the north east, even the attendant at the museum, rolled her eyes in confusion at the thought!
It was a grey day when we visited, but the site was in glorious colour thanks to the wild flowers filling the verge of the cycle path – thanks in part to Mr Osborne’s £500,000 grant. The small Roman garden by the now-defunct bathhouse was also quite lovely, with places to picnic if the rain held off.
Segedunum – Seg (rhyming with egg)-u-due-num, if you’re asking (‘Seggy’ for short, according to the attendant) – consists of the restored section between the roadside and the cycleway, the new bathhouse site and an informative purpose-built museum with viewing gallery.
I must admit that Mr Jenkins and I thought the viewing gallery was an airport control tower, but the elevated section of the museum helps you to view the whole site with the help of an animated timeline, taking you from the Roman invasion of Britain, through the abandonment and decay of the camp, it’s return to nature, and then, in the Victorian industrial era, a building flurry of terraced housing, quickly demolished as time flies by to the excavation of the site and renovation of the original Roman fort. The top of the tower, on level 9, is served by a lift, so you don’t have to climb all the stairs. Strangely, levels 8 to 4 don’t exist, so it’s straight down to the cafe on level 3 and the galleries on levels 1 and 2. The staff are friendly and there were a bunch of tame Romans around adding colour to the story of the fort. The Romans, in full regalia, were hanging around the car park and mingling with visitors on level 1, where items excavated from the grounds were displayed with interactive displays, and films explaining the social structure of the Roman and indiginous inhabitants.
It’s an interesting place, not over-packed with info, making it accessible for those tempted in for a quick idea of the place, or children with a shorter attention span. The in-depth details are imparted from an engaging film showing characters from the heyday of the fort, and from their modern-day counterparts with their brightly coloured armour and weapons.
The museum employees pointed us up to the viewing gallery first, but recommended a trip to the main gallery to chat with the Romans before they knock of at 3pm. The tea room would be closing early too, so get yourself up there if you need a cup of tea… Duly instructed we were up in the friendly, if almost empty, tea room by 3.30pm overlooking the site of the fort and the car park, just in time to watch the Romans pack their armour into crates and lug them into the boot of their cars.
Back down to level 2 and a bit more information about the colliery and shipbuilding. Not quite as exhaustive as the Roman exhibits, but interesting none-the-less. However, it is the museum’s Roman credentials that make this place, and the exhibits work hard at emphasising the day-to-day life of the fort and its interaction with the existing community. It made me wonder why I always spurned the offer of a trip to Housesteads when I was younger. Housesteads, that other popular Roman site on Hadrian’s Wall and popular destination for boring Latin teachers….. Perhaps I was just waiting for technology to catch up to make the visit a tad more interesting.
Segedunum is open to public from the 1 April to the 30 September, daily from 10am-5pm. Entrance fees are £5.95 for addults, £3.95 for concessions and children under 16 go free.

Old Bones

I’ve just met the oldest man in Yorkshire! Well, I think he is. He’s definitely the best fossilised bloke to emerge from beneath God’s own soil, and he’s definitely the most notable tree burial in the county.

Meet Gristhorpe Man. He was discovered by William Beswick, a local landowner, who donated his find to the Scarborough Philosophical Society and the Rotunda Museum. The museum curator’s 17-year-old son, William Crawford Williamson, compiled the excavation report and some of the comments and observations made by the young geologist in 1834 proved spot on. In 2005 further investigations at Bradford University shed more light on the incredibly well-preserved remains (thanks to the Philosophical Society boiling them in horse glue!) and now Gristhorpe Man is back in his home town (or at least a short walk from it) residing in Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum, just a few miles from his burial mound.

The Rotunda Museum is a delight in its own right; a lovely sandstone column overlooking the sands of Scarborough’s South Bay. It’s small, but perfectly formed. The bottom floor allows access, toilets and a mini shop. Stairs or lift to the next floor opens up to two wings of prehistoric galleries. One concentrating on dinosaurs and the other exhibiting two of the museums finest archaeological finds – the 4.5-meter-long Speeton Plesiosaur from the Filey coast and Gristhorpe Man himself.

The thing you need to know is that these are the actual remains of Mr Gristhorpe. No casts or replicas here! We have a lovely little nook with the intact skeletal remains on one side, the lid of his hollowed out oak coffin opposite, and at the end you can view a small selection of grave finds. Interestingly, here you can find Williamson’s original notes side-by-side with the later findings of the researchers at Bradford University.

I know the Rotunda is a small museum, but I was surprised that there weren’t more people making the most of it – especially in the foul weather assaulting Scarborough that day! One woman had dragged her family in from the rain and proceeded to instil some enthusiasm into her teenage son, but he was more interested in checking out his reflection in the grave finds display case and altering his fringe accordingly.

They soon left the gallery and I was free to examine more of the story of Mr G on my own, including the digital reconstruction of his 4000-year-old face, animated and telling us something of his life and time. Turns out he was probably about 60 and 6 feet tall when he died, and a seriously important guy while he was alive. Sadly, DNA tests were inconclusive due to the horse glue casserole of 1834.

On the top floor of the Rotunda, in contrast to the modern interactive galleries downstairs, you find yourself in a delightful circular (obviously) gallery full of curiosities collected by and donated to the museum over the previous two centuries. Fossils and archaeological finds from Egypt and Peru lie side by side with an early 18th century cello and vintage photos of Scarborough. The display cases themselves need to be admired too. Dating from 1850, it’s a lovely circular curiosity cabinet, displaying the fossils according to their associated strata. But to be honest, the educational aspect was lost on me, I was too busy working out how to fit one in my own home, including the lovely old original spiral staircase to the upper gallery (sadly not accessible to the general public). The whole gallery is designed to be flooded with light from the skylights in the raised dome, and doing a pretty good job considering the grey conditions beyond. It’s such an amazing space; I didn’t want to leave.  But leave I did – off into the rain to visit the nearby Art Gallery….

… which is included in the price of the Rotunda entry fee of £3. Yes, £3! And it lasts for a year!