Roman History on our Doorstep
Wallsend is an interesting place which is very readily accessible and has much to commend it. It exudes layers of history, being the eastern reach of Hadrian’s Wall, then a centre of coal-mining, then a centre of ship-building and now effectively a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The layers have overlapped, but now they have been partially separated and excellently displayed in the Segedunum Roman museum on the site.
Wallsend is very easy to reach from the centre ofNewcastle as it is on the Metro system and only ten minutes from Monument which is one metro-stop away from Newcastle Central Station. As soon as you get off the Metro, the spirit of the place is apparent, with a sign in Latin directing you to the buses and Latin signs on the platforms. In Roman times, Wallsend was the site of Segedunum, the fort at the eastern reach of Hadrian’s wall, which is why the place acquired the name Wall’s-end. Segedunum is Latin for "strong fort", and this is what it had to be in its heyday.
The museum has a reconstructed Roman bath-house, but this had to be placed within the walls of the fortification because the original bath-house site has buildings from Wallsend’s shipbuilding era. The original was outside the walls of the fort, and was only added more than a century after the fort was built. That allowed almost two centuries of use as the fort functioned for three hundred years until the Roman Empire collapsed. The bath-house provided some home comforts for the men in a cold, damp climate at the far north-western reach of a vast empire, stretching 2,500 miles. One wonders how it would have felt to be posted a thousand miles from home in or near Italy to such a climate.
Much of the wall is now gone, the section in Wallsend being visible but only at ground level. The museum has made up a section as is believed the wall originally was. This was twelve feet high with battlements and wide enough for three to walk abreast on top. A very effective barrier to the hostile tribes of the North, which with the garrison and the fort system would have made it impenetrable.
So what of Hadrian, the man behind it? He was a protégé of Trajan, a previous Roman Emperor whose statue you will find in the City of London, near the entrance to Tower Hill station, next to London’s Roman Wall. Hadrian was an energetic man who reigned for 21 years. He was keen to promote Roman and Greek culture in an empire which stretched from England to Mesopotamia, taking in the whole circumference of the Mediterranean Sea. It was important to him to put the Roman stamp on the conquered territories and to conduct campaigns to extend the empire or to put down rebellions. His repression of the peoples the Romans had conquered was savage and uncompromising.
He would spend time with working Roman soldiers in their encampments to know what was going on and to take a personal interest in the workings of the Roman army as an instrument both of conquest and of maintaining order.
How difficult it would have been for him to imagine that but 300 years after he built the forts and the wall, Rome would have degenerated to the point at which the empire would fade away and the city of Rome itself would be sacked and destroyed. When that happened, the wall and the empty forts remained as a mark of the civilisation that the Romans had brought with them to this outpost of the empire.
So as we leave Wallsend we pass the Latin transport signs again and wait for the Metro to take us back to Newcastle, we can reflect that as well as the wall, the Romans left us with the useful Latin word “omnibus” - a way we can return to Newcastle if the Metro takes too long to arrive.