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What’s at the end of the wall? The wall’s end? Walls – solid boundaries designed to keep people in – or out. There are famous walls, like the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the fantasy Wall in Game of Thrones or even the one that Shirley Valentine talks to (“Hello, wall.”). In the north of England, ‘the Wall’ means only one thing – the Roman Wall that Emperor Hadrian ordered to be built in the 2nd century AD. It ran 80 Roman miles from the banks of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Coast in the west. Construction started in 122AD near modern day Newcastle upon Tyne (Pons Aelius) and it took about 6 years to complete. In 127AD, it was decided to extend the wall 4 miles or so eastward to what we know as Wallsend, now a town, then a fort which the Romans called Segedunum (strong place) nestling on the northern bank of the Tyne.
I went to see what was at Wall’s end – or Segedunum. It sits between a residential area and a sad river-bank with the busy A187 running through part of it. You will find the extensively excavated ruins of the fort laid out like an ordered, but dismembered, skeleton. There are the foundations of a section of the Wall, a reconstructed stretch of Wall and bath house and an excellent museum with a unique viewing tower. But perhaps the end of the Wall is the start of something else, because it turns out that Wallsend-Segedunum has an absolutely fascinating story to tell.
1900 years ago, this was one of the last outposts of empire. To the north of the Wall, wild Pictish tribesmen inhabited what eventually became Scotland; to the south and east lay a civilisation that stretched thousands of miles to North Africa, the Euphrates and the Black Sea. Segedunum was big – 453 feet (138 metres) by 394 feet (120 metres), had a garrison of 600 men – 120 cavalry and 480 infantry – and was in use for almost 300 years. Outside the fort was a vicus, a civilian settlement, which would have traded with the garrison and provided many of the services it needed. The Wall itself joined the fort and extended into the river. It is possible that a monumental statue, perhaps of Hadrian himself, stood at the very end of the Wall. Within the protection of the Wall and the fort was a busy port. Imagine what it must have been like to arrive here from some other imperial province: the bustle of ships loading and unloading, the lap of water and the flap of sails; the sounds and smells of the small town with its shops and taverns; the towering security of the fort’s walls.
I don’t know exactly what happened at Segedunum when Roman rule declined in the 5th century. Did the troops melt away into the local population, or were they ordered home? Was the fort re-occupied by Romano-Britons, before they were overcome by marauding Anglo-Saxons? In any event, the fort fell into disrepair, many of its stones were no doubt re-used elsewhere and the remains slipped under the earth. The site had been farmland in the Iron Age and, for the next 1300 years or so, to farmland it returned.
Then came coal. In 1778, Wallsend Colliery B Pit was sunk nearby. It yielded high quality coal, but was susceptible to flooding, production declined in the 1830s and the colliery closed in 1847. Meanwhile, a pit village had grown up in the area.
By the 1880s, though, the entire area that had once been Segedunum Roman Fort, its vicus and port, was covered by Swan Hunter Shipyards and terraced brick housing largely occupied by its workers. At one time, 25% of the world’s shipping was built on the Tyne and, for a hundred years, this was a community that contributed to it. Old residents remember playing in the shadow of the ships, the flashes of blue light from welding torches punctuating the night and the yard whistle marking the day. Swan Hunter built about 1600 ships, including liners, warships and tankers, for practically every nation in the world. Among the vessels proudly launched at Wallsend were: RMS Carpathia (1902), the Cunard line passenger ship that rescued survivors from the doomed Titanic; RMS Mauretania (1906), also a Cunard liner, which held the transatlantic speed record (both ways) for twenty years; HMS Edinburgh (1938), sister-ship to HMS Belfast, which was torpedoed and sunk in the Barents Sea in 1941, carrying millions of pounds in gold bullion (the bullion was mostly recovered in the 1980s); World Unicorn and other gigantic oil tankers in the late 1960s/early ‘70s; aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious (1978) and HMS Ark Royal (1981).
But British shipbuilding, once so dominant, has been unable to compete on the world stage. In the 1930s, and again after the Second World War, orders fell away and yards closed. Swan Hunter lurched through public and private ownership in the 1970s and 80s, but in 1993 the Wallsend Shipyard was put in the hands of the receiver. Briefly rescued by Dutch businessman Jaap Kroese, the yard finally closed in 2006 and, the following year, all the heavy equipment, including the cranes, was sold to an Indian shipbuilder. Swan Hunter went on to concentrate on design.
Segedunum lurked under the surface throughout the industrial period. People knew it was there. A commemorative stone was erected in a public garden in 1895; part of the Wall that extended to the river was uncovered when enlarging the shipyard to build the Mauretania in 1903; the east gate of the fort was uncovered when building Simpson’s Hotel – a kind of hostel, long since gone – in 1912; the outline of the fort was marked by coloured cobbles placed in the streets around the terraced housing. But, now, it looks as though the Romans have emerged, victorious once more. The shops and homes that formed the shipyard community were boarded up and demolished in the 1970s, leaving no obvious visible trace that they were ever there. Only the outline of the ancient fort can be seen where kids once played on Leslie Street, Hunter Street, Davis Street and all the rest. The musician, Sting (Gordon Sumner) was born in Wallsend in 1951 and lived in Gordon Street. There’s no plaque because the house no longer exists. Many of the sons and daughters of welders, riveters and all the rest now work in call centres.
The desert-like quality of Segedunum is intriguing enough, and wandering about the outline of the cavalry barracks, headquarters building (principia), and so on, is just peachy. The reconstructed bath house (the original one was under the now demolished Ship in the Hole pub) and Roman garden are both fascinating. But what really got to me was the whole story, brilliantly summarised by a video in the museum which, using CGI, illustrates the site over a 2,000 year period. It’s a powerful reminder that nothing lasts for ever and we just rent the space we occupy for a brief moment.
The museum, incidentally, is housed in former Swan Hunter buildings and really is very good indeed. It includes items discarded by their owners 16-1900 years ago – spear heads, chain mail, pottery, religious artefacts – and so on. Nevertheless, whilst recognising that the Romans were there for far longer than the ship builders, and that space is limited, I would have liked to have seen a little more about the industrial heritage in the museum – perhaps a street map overlaying a plan of the fort.
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