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Stories behind Hadrian's Wall pioneers are honoured in new exhibition

Historian William Hutton thought in 1801 he would be the last man to walk the length of the wall

National Portrait Gallery, London Sir Mortimer Wheeler
Sir Mortimer Wheeler

The fact that historian William Hutton has been proved wrong thousands of times does not detract from his plucky mission more than 200 years ago.

In 1801 at the age of 78, he set out from his Birmingham home to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall and back again, covering around 600 miles by the time he returned to his house.

William Hutton, who is held to be the first person in modern times to walk the entire length of Hadrian’s Wall, wrote about his journey in his book The History of the Roman Wall.

He wrote: “I have given a short sketch of my approach to this famous Bulwark; have described it as it appears in the present day.


“Perhaps, I am the first man that ever travelled the whole length of this Wall, and probably the last that will ever attempt it ...”

“Who then will say, he has, like me, travelled it twice!

“Old people are much inclined to accuse youth of their follies; but on this head silence will become me, lest I should be asked, ‘What can exceed the folly of that man, who, at seventy-eight, walked six hundred miles to see a Shattered Wall’”

Of course, thousands of walkers have followed in Hutton’s footsteps along the Hadrian’s Wall national trail.

And it is largely thanks to pioneers like William Hutton, who raised awareness of the Wall and its importance, that the world heritage site monument is there today.

Hutton is among 11 individuals who recorded, protected and revealed the stories behind the Hadrian’s Wall frontier who are honoured for their roles in an exhibition which spans 150 Roman frontier miles .

Wall Face opens tomorrow and continues to November 9.

It features 11 prints and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery in London, each alongside the life story and achievements of the individual at a Wall site associated with their work.

William Hutton is on show at Housesteads fort in Northumberland.

The exhibition has been organised through a partnership of heritage organisations across the Wall - Vindolanda Trust, English Heritage, National Trust, Senhouse Museum Trust, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust and the Hadrian’s Wall Trust.

Nigel Mills, programme manager for the Wall Face project said: “Each of these pioneering archaeologists and antiquarians has a place in the archaeology hall of fame.

National Portrait Gallery, London Robin Collingwood
Robin Collingwood

“If it wasn’t for these people and the work they did, Hadrian’s Wall would not have survived for us to admire and wonder at today and we would not appreciate the fascination of the past. These people were famous in their own time and each is a fascinating character in their own right.

“It helps us appreciate just how large the world heritage site is and how each site within it has a different story to tell and a different experience to offer.

“It is great to have portraits from the national collection on display in the north of England and we are grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for enabling this exhibition. “

The Wall Face project is funded by a £124,000 grant from Arts Council England. It also includes an information leaflet, mobile app, events and a learning programme for school pupils.

The events programme kicks off with talks on August 29 and 30 by Frances McIntosh, English Heritage Roman Collections Curator, at Chesters Roman Fort in Northumberland on John Clayton, lawyer, Newcastle Town Clerk, owner of the Chesters estate, and antiquarian who bought and saved key sections of the Wall.

Bill Griffiths, head of programmes for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums said: “The history of the North is bound up in the fabric of Hadrian’s Wall and its legacy. If it were not for the work of these antiquarians the Hadrian’s Wall we know would not have survived so well and it would not be the international icon that it undoubtedly is.”

William Stukeley, whose image appears at Birdoswald fort, was one of the founders of field archaeology, who pioneered the investigation of Stonehenge.

He had already undertaken extensive antiquarian travels across southern Britain, and in 1725 he visited the north. He felt that Hadrian’s Wall was comparable to the Great Wall of China as an undertaking and remarked on “the amazing scene of Roman grandeur in Britain”.

He was outraged at the use of stone from the Wall to build the Military Road so that, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, troops could be moved quickly.

William Camden, appearing at Vindolanda fort, wrote Britannia, the first county by county description of Britain, published in English in 1610.

Of Northumberland he wrote: “The ground it selfe, for the most part rough and hard to be manured, seemeth to have hardened the inhabitants, whom the Scots their neighbours also made more fierce and hardy, while sometimes they keepe them exercised in warres and otherwhiles in time of peace intermingle their manners among them, so that by these meanes they are a most warlike nation, and excellent good light horsemen. “

He visited the Wall: “Upon a good high hill, there remaineth as yet some of it to bee seene fifteene foot high and nine foote thicke, built on both sides with foure square ashler stone,

“Now where the wall and Tine almost meet together, New-Castle sheweth it selfe gloriously. It is adorned with foure churches, and fortified with most strong walls that have eight gates in them, with many towres.”

John Leland, born in 1503 and featured at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, was probably the first “modern” writer to mention the Wall and describe the line it took.

By about 1538, Leland embarked on a series of journeys through Britain which lasted six years.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s photograph is at Arbeia fort in South Shields, where as a TV archaeologist, he opened the site’s museum in 1953.

He was president of the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society and at his inaugural address at South Shields Town Hall on the Three Great Achievements of Man named them as the discovery of fire-making, food cultivation and the harnessing of atomic energy.

Clergyman, historian and teacher John Hodgson, at Segedunum fort in Wallsend, left an account of seeing the fort baths in 1814 which had been uncovered by workmen building coal staithes on the Tyne. The site is now in the process of being excavated.

In 1817 Hodgson began his major work, the History of Northumberland.

Sir Ian Richmond, at Corbridge Roman town, was an Oxford professor, holding the chair of Archaeology of the Roman Empire.

He worked on Hadrian’s Wall for many years, being the leading authority on the subject during his time at King’s College in Newcastle, where he was Professor in Romano-British History and Archaeology.

The work of Robin Collingwood, at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, led to a new understanding of the Wall and Sir Ernest Budge, at Chesters fort, compiled the catalogue of John Clayton’s Roman finds.

Kay Owen, site and operations manager for the National Trust’s Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads site, said: “Without the hard work and tenacity of the inspiring figures featured in Wall Face, this iconic landmark could have been very different. It’s a wonderful opportunity to highlight the history and what these fascinating people accomplished.”

Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust said: “ It has been wonderful to work in partnership with the other attractions across the Wall corridor and also given us an opportunity to extend the exhibition to include Antony Hedley and Eric Birley both of whom have special significance at Vindolanda.”


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