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Stone walling

Nina Morgan considers a Roman legacy

Words by Nina Morgan
30 May 2024
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The Unesco world heritage site of Hadrian's Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall, built to secure the Roman Empire’s north-western border in the province of Britannia, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site

Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh-water system, and public health – what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, along with providing an often-quoted catchphrase from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, the Romans also produced the first geological cross-section across the width of England, in the form of Hadrian’s Wall. 

The construction of the Wall began in AD 122 on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian. It extends for 80 Roman miles (73.5 miles or 118.25 km in modern terms) across England from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Because the Romans relied on locally available materials, the stones used vary along the length of the Wall – the Wall reflects the geology of the surrounding areas and provides a life-size geological cross-section. In addition, the milecastles (MC) and turrets along the Wall make navigation easy for geologists and serve as a handy aid for mapping today. 

The man who saved the Wall

This geological gem was nearly lost over the years because the stones it was made from were often plundered as a handy source of building material. The walls of many buildings along the length of the Wall demonstrate just how often builders took advantage of this free source of ready-dressed building stone. But for the foresight of John Clayton [1792 – 1890] the Wall might have disappeared altogether. 

Clayton, a solicitor, then Under Sheriff and later Town Clerk of Newcastle, jointly inherited the Chesters Estate, near milecastle (MC) 27 of Hadrian’s Wall. As a long-serving, prosperous, and powerful civic leader, Clayton was not always popular during his lifetime. But historians and lovers of the countryside have a lot to thank him for. Clayton had a strong interest in history, particularly the Romans, and carried out excavations for 50 years. He took an active interest in preserving Hadrian’s Wall and the stone it was built of.

Clayton began purchasing land around the Wall in 1834. By the time of his death in 1890 he owned five forts and almost
32 km (20 miles) of the Wall between Acomb (near MC 26) and Cawfields (MC 42) built on the limestone, mudstone, flags, sandstone, seat earth and coal laid down during the Lower Carboniferous Dinantian Epoch. He then went about conserving and rebuilding sections of the Wall using the original Roman stone. By ending quarrying and the reuse of Roman stone in new buildings, he saved large sections of the Wall from destruction. 

Although his maternal grandmother, Bridget Atkinson, was an enthusiastic shell collector, and another relative was a keen naturalist, Clayton himself was apparently not specifically interested in geology. But his work to preserve Hadrian’s Wall certainly demonstrated that you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate the value of conserving Britain’s geological heritage! 

Author

Nina Morgan

Acknowledgements

This vignette was inspired by an essay by Derry Brabbs included in the book Icons of England by Bill Bryson (Ed.) Think Publishing Limited 2008, 176 pp. Thanks to Dr Frances McIntosh, Collections Curator for Hadrian’s Wall and the North East, English Heritage, who provided additional information for this text. 

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