Chesters Roman Fort stands above the west bank of the River North Tyne in the grounds of Chesters House, some four miles north of Hexham. It is cared for by English Heritage and attractions on offer include parts of the fort itself, as excavated by the Clayton family between the 1840s and early 1900s, a suite of baths occupying one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain, and an exceptionally fine museum housing statues, inscriptions and other stonework amassed in the second half of the 1800s.
From the car park at Chesters you proceed to the reception and shop, and beyond this you are faced by a choice. Whether you opt to explore the site of the fort itself before or after you visit the Chesters Museum will perhaps depend on whether the weather seems to be improving or deteriorating. There is no particular reason to visit one before the other as each is a superb but distinct attraction.
If we assume you start with the fort itself you follow the obviously signposted path which proceeds the 250m to the excavated north gate, perhaps taking note for reference on the return trip of Lucullus Larder, the nearby sandwich bar. What you find at Chesters today is almost wholly due to the lifelong commitment to preserving the area's Roman remains of John Clayton. His father Nathaniel had purchased Chesters House in 1796, when John was just four years old. John trained as a lawyer, and went on to become the successful and highly influential Town Clerk of Newcastle. He inherited the estate at Chesters on his father's death in 1832.
John Clayton had a passion for the Roman remains that he saw all round him, littering the countryside along and near the line of Hadrian's Wall. From 1843 to just before his death (at the age of 98) in 1890 he undertook a programme of acquiring sites along the line of the central sections of the wall, and excavating and restoring them wherever possible. The excellent state of preservation in which large parts of the central section of the wall survive today is due in large measure to the work of John Clayton. It was also his decision to buy and begin work on excavating Housesteads Roman Fort which helped turn it into the iconic site it is today. During that half century John Clayton also collected as many items of carved Roman stone as possible, and, as noted above, these can now be seen in the museum at Chesters.
What you find at Chesters today is therefore a historical landscape with two very different dimensions. On the one hand it is possible to view a series of excavated areas of the fort. Each is fenced off to protect it from livestock, and each provides a window into an aspect of the life of Chesters as a Roman fort. The second dimension is the insight Chesters gives into the point reached by best practice in archaeology in the latter half of the 1800s.
From a visitor's point of view, the fenced off nature of the individual "windows" makes the presentation of Chesters feel a little episodic. First you look into one part, then you go through the gate in the fence to explore it in more detail, then you move on across open grassland to another part, and repeat the process. From a modern archaeologist's point of view, the techniques adopted here mean that, as the English Heritage handbook notes, there is much about the excavated remains that cannot be understood. At the time the excavations were undertaken there was no understanding of "archaeological stratigraphy", i.e. how layers of development had accumulated over time and how different phases of development related to one another. The aim in John Clayton's time was rather different, and his men simply dug down until they had uncovered structures that were substantial enough to put on show, removing for the collection any particularly interesting items that emerged during the process. Few if any records were kept, so less substantial developments later in the life of the fort and nearer the surface of the ground might have been lost altogether.
The plus side of all of this, in addition to John Clayton being responsible for saving far more than he destroyed thanks his wider activities along Hadrian's Wall, is that he only excavated parts of Chesters Roman Fort, and nothing at all of the large civilian settlement or vicus. As a result the answers to the questions which still puzzle historians are doubtless ready to be unearthed in any future archaeological investigation using modern methods of exploration, excavation and recording.
What we see today at Chesters Fort is a snapshot of a particular moment in the fort's development, without necessarily knowing which moment, or whether all the parts we can see are captured at the same moment. Nonetheless what you see here is absolutely fascinating. Like other forts along the wall, Chesters was constructed some two years after work began on the wall itself. The fort is typically playing card in shape, and about half of it projected out from the north side of the wall. As a result a length of wall and a turret had to be demolished where it ran through the centre of the new fort. This arrangement also meant that three of the fort's four main gates, the north, west and east, were on the north or unfriendly side of the wall: a bizarre arrangement that necessitated the construction of additional but smaller east and west gates on the southern side of the wall.
The north west corner of the fort comprises a series of barrack blocks. Half the length of two of these were excavated and can be viewed today. Chesters was built to accommodate a 500 man ala (the cavalry equivalent of a cohort) of auxiliary cavalry. Exact details are unclear, but it seems likely that from the reoccupation of Hadrian's Wall in the 160s (following the ill fated attempt to secure a more northerly frontier along the Antonine Wall twenty years earlier) the unit in residence at Chesters was the Ala II Asturum: in effect the Second Asturian Cavalry Regiment, who had been recruited in Asturia on the northern coast of Spain. They would remain here until the collapse of the Roman empire in Britain well over two centuries later.
The barrack blocks are each divided into a series of rooms, probably ten, and it would seem that each "room" was occupied by three cavalrymen, who lived in a partitioned rear area and kept their horses in the front area. It is thought that each cavalryman had a slave to act as a groom, and the slaves probably lived in the roof spaces above the rooms. Cavalrymen were considered an elite among Roman auxiliary troops, and although better paid than the infantry, were responsible for paying for the upkeep of their horses. This made the horses of considerable value to the men and perhaps explains why this arrangement was used rather than centralised stables.
Two other significant areas of the fort were excavated by John Clayton. Right in its centre is the headquarters building or principia. This was larger in scale than in most forts on Hadrian's Wall. The most striking feature today is the underground strongroom, thought to have been inserted fairly late in the life of the fort. Also open to view is the Commanding Officer's House, which includes high status hypocausts, or underfloor heating. Immediately to the west of the house is a suite of baths. These have often been interpreted as the commanding officer's private baths, though it is equally possible that they were a late replacement for the much larger baths outside the fort and closer to the river.
The main bath house at Chesters offers a truly spectacular sense of walking in the footsteps (sandal prints?) of the Romans and auxiliaries who lived and worked here. Because it was built on a steep slope, its walls had been preserved underground up to what looks like full height for a single storey building. Meanwhile all the internal elements are present. It is worth coming to Chesters simply to see the baths; though there is of course much more besides.
Come to think of it, you could equally say that it is worth coming to Chesters for the museum alone. The sheer number and quality of carved and sculpted stones (plus other objects) collected by John Clayton is breathtaking. Everyone will have their own favourites, but a highlight has to be the life size headless sculpture of the goddess Juno Regina standing on the back of a (rather less than life size) heifer.