Interview: Martin Walker of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage

The region’s history is being unearthed in significant fashion by a forward-looking organisation. Alastair Gilmour meets Martin Walker of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage

Housesteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall
Housesteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall

TWO-THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD working practices continue in 21st Century North East England. Rather than a union leader’s rant, it’s actually the findings of an influential organisation that could teach us a lot about who we are and how we’ve developed.

Martin Walker, director of sustainable development at Hadrian’s Wall Heritage, is convinced that a military posting to the northern border of the Roman Empire was not banishment from a cosier assignment in continental Europe and that business relationships, cultural differences and social integration today are little different from then.

“The challenges were the same,” says Martin. “If you think what was achieved in those days by people who had the vision and the organisation to do things on a massive scale, we can learn a lot of lessons from that sort of ambition – and it’s right on our doorstep.”

The Hadrian’s Wall Heritage headquarters supports 20 staff near Hexham in Northumberland, positioned midway between the fortification’s extremities at Wallsend in the east and Bowness-on-Solway in the west. The main focus at the moment is preparing for huge excavations scheduled for the fort at Vindolanda and at Maryport in Cumbria which should shed yet more light on civilisation much as Segedunum at Wallsend on North Tyneside has influenced our understanding of history.

The organisation was established two years ago by English Heritage and regional development agencies One North East and the North West Development Agency to co-ordinate the activities of a number of agencies such as the National Trail, the tourism partnerships, and the historic sites along the Wall. A coordinated thrust had been long felt to be the best way forward.

“They were doing good work, but it was thought they were not having the desired impact,” says Martin. “We were set up to help develop not just forts and museums but the attractions all along the ‘corridor’ from coast to coast. Economic development work benefits the local communities as well as Hadrian’s Wall itself. There’s no point in attracting visitors if we miss a trick for them to spend money before they go back home again. We help the other organisations take that approach.

“It’s a big challenge. There’s been a great revival of interest (in Hadrian) recently and it’s a great opportunity to bring together what we do with the sites. Vindolanda got £4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund with our support. It was a site really well run for decades but there’s an opportunity to make much more of it in a modern way.

“Things that were relevant 2,000 years ago, such as career paths, international relations and multicultural dynamism still affect people now. In many ways we’re still grappling with the same issues. It’s a fascinating story. We used to think poor so-and-so for being sent to Housesteads or Vindolanda but it was actually a good posting, not the equivalent of being sent to Siberia. Records show they did feel the cold but there were a lot of good things about being posted to Hadrian’s Wall.”

Hadrian’s Wall was begun around AD122 after a visit by Emperor Hadrian and was largely completed within six years, starting in the east and proceeding westwards. Its intention was to improve economic stability and provide peaceful conditions in Britain and to mark the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, but also as a symbol of Roman power. It is now the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England, and was promoted in 1987 to Unesco World Heritage Site. English Heritage describes it as “the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain”.

Martin says: “We’re rediscovering things all the time that are unique to the region and fulfilling the potential to invest in the World Heritage Site. Maryport in particular is about to undergo significant new excavations and we literally don’t know what we’ll find. It was an important Roman settlement and who knows what’s under there, but it all takes time and due to start in 2012.”

Martin joined Hadrian’s Wall Heritage from Chester-le-Street District Council in December 2007 where he was head of regeneration.

“Everything about this job creates a nice balance to use my skills gained over the last ten years in economic development and capital development,” he says. “It’s different, though, it’s not standard regeneration. This is a demanding job and a lovely mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

“We’re not a site operator with a big bureaucratic organisation, but we add value the efforts of others. It’s a strategic organisation that co-ordinates activity, making things work and not doing everything ourselves.”

Inscriptions found along the Wall reveal that the Roman Army was not just made up of fighters, but engineers and builders – and coordinators. Emperor Hadrian would have approved of Martin Walker.

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