I’ve been on the Pilgrimage!

5 mins read

Current Archaeology‘s Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Selkirk, tells all about his recent trip to Hadrian’s Wall.

I’ve just been on the Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrimage. You will have read all about it in the preview in CA 353, how the Pilgrimage has been taking place every 10 years since 1849. This was my fifth pilgrimage. I went on my first in 1969 and reported back in CA 15. I then missed out the 1979 pilgrimage, but I went on the 1989 (CA 116), 1999 (CA 164)  and 2009 (CA 240) Pilgrimages. Should I go on my fifth? The trouble is, I’m growing old – I’m now 82, and my legs are giving out and I can’t walk very far. Still, I would be able to walk round the forts and see the Museums — and meet many old friends. So I decided to go.

The highlight of the trip was Vindolanda where we spent a whole day. It was the crossover day: we began the pilgrimage in Newcastle upon Tyne, but then we crossed over to Carlisle.

Vindolanda is flourishing. It is unique because it is run by the Vindolanda Trust, and receives no money from the state – though they are dab hands at getting grants for new buildings. But most of the work is done by volunteers, not only in excavating, but also in writing up. It is very popular – bookings open on November 5 and normally they are full up by the end of the month.

In the excavations, the big surprise comes in the Severan period, around A.D. 200 when the fort and the civilian settlement change place. Andrew Birley, the Director (and son of Robin Birley, and grandson of Eric)  has long been worried by the mysterious round houses that suddenly appear in the middle stratification in the fort, between the early fort and the late, but it seems that the old fort was levelled and replaced by rows of round houses, while the civilian settlement now became the fort.

This only lasted for a very short time until Severus came back from his campaigning in Scotland, when the round houses go and the fort once again becomes the fort, while the civilian settlement once again becomes civilian. It is difficult to interpret, because there are very few finds in the roundhouses – it seems that the people who occupied them didn’t really have the Roman habit of using pottery.

The new fort however was full of finds — the south ditch containing over 470 boots and shoes. The big difference, however, came in the analysis of food grains, when it appears that in the round houses they were using barley for the bread whereas in the Fort they were using wheat – that’s the difference between civilisation and barbarism — the Romans get better food!

The new bath house discovered at Wallsend
The new bath house discovered at Wallsend

Another new display was at Wallsend, where a bathhouse was discovered, described in CA 353. It had been vaguely recognised in the 19th century when it was covered by a new staithe for shipbuilding, but it was then covered by a pub. When the pub was demolished, the WallQuest community project moved in and managed to find the baths, at the bottom of a very deep hole.

How the Romans dined. The triclinium,  or dining room, as reconstructed at South Shields, were the Romans dined reclining on their arms. Most uncomfortable, it seems to me!
How the Romans dined. The triclinium, or dining room, as reconstructed at South Shields, were the Romans dined reclining on their arms. Most uncomfortable, it seems to me!

At the nearby supply depot at South Shields (Arbeia), the reconstructions are looking at their best. I was particularly taken by the reconstruction of the fourth century Commandant’s house, where the magnificent summer dining room is now properly laid out. When the excavations took place, they were able to confirm the positions of the couches on which the diners stretched out to dine – a most uncomfortable way of dining I’ve always thought – but it looks very good and gives a very good example of how the commandant of the Fort lived in luxury.

Steps. David Breeze, the chief pilgrim, demonstrates the position of the turret on the original line of Hadrian's
Steps. David Breeze, the chief pilgrim, demonstrates the position of the turret on the original line of Hadrian’s

We then went on to the central part of the Wall where we discussed the sequence in which the wall was built. When it became clear that it would be too difficult to conquer and keep Scotland and that is a sort of boundary should be put across northern England, the first attempt was the Stanegate, a road that runs across the lowlands behind Hadrian’s wall. They then built forts along the Stanegate, but they then decided to build a wall.  But when the wall was nearly built, it was decided to move the forts from the Stanegate up onto the wall itself. Thus the forts are mostly later than the wall. The best evidence of this is at Housesteads, the bleakest of all the forts, right in the centre of the wall.  When Ian Richmond was excavating here in the 1970s, he found a puzzlement:  it was in fact a turret that had been built into the original wall, but when they came to build the fort they built it projecting forward from the wall and turret was pulled down and abandoned – to confuse the archaeologists. Here David Breeze, the Chief Pilgrim demonstrates the position of the turret.

The weather on the whole was good – one day there was a gale and another day was said to be the hottest day of the year , but on the last day it rained, and rained, and rained. This was the day for the study of camps. Camps are the latest fashion on the Wall. There are hundreds of them. They used to be called marching camps and they are all marked on the rather cumbersome new Archaeological Map of Hadrian’s Wall by Historic England. But it is difficult to say anything about them because they never contain any finds. They are occupied for too short time for the Roman soldiers to accumulate any rubbish to leave behind, but the rough hypothesis is to divide them  into two sizes, big and small. You then assume that the small ones may have been used by the gangs actually building the wall. The big ones however, could have contained a substantial body of troops, some even  up to a legion,  and it is assumed that they were either Agricolan, that is erected by Agricola before the wall was built, or possibly Severan, when Septimus Severus was campaigning in Scotland around 200.  But no one knows.


We went to see a large one near Cawfields and the pilgrims walked round the perimeter in the rain. I was taken by car by Lindsay Alison Jones so I was able to take this photo and get back into the car. In the distance of the photo you can see the Cawfield Crags, perhaps the finest stretch of Hadrian’s Wall. The pilgrims went to walk along it in the rain, but I stayed in the coach in the dry. In a way, I would have loved to have walked along the wall one last time, even in the rain – but as it was, I stayed dry.

The Pilgrimage was wonderful, if frustrating,  but I was glad I did it. I took over 800 photos and I have selected some of them to put into a PowerPoint. So if you would like to see some memories of the 14th Pilgrimage, please click on the download. It was for me a wonderful farewell to Hadrian’s Wall.

Andrew Selkirk


  1. A fascinating article. I live in New Zealand and hope to walk a bit of Hadrian’s Wall in September when I visit the UK. My daughter is studying Classics at St Andrews University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.