Hadrian's Wall

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 1958.

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Photo of Mr Edward Short Mr Edward Short , Newcastle upon Tyne Central 12:00 am, 2nd April 1958

Yes, nearly 2,000 years indeed, not 1,000 years. Many miles of it, many mile-castles, many encampments have been preserved. It would not keep the Scots out today—which, on the whole, is perhaps a bad thing—but, as the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) said, those of us who know and love the Wall so well know that it runs over what I believe to be some of the most glorious country in this island, across great, wild, impressive moors in Northumberland and Cumberland, up hill and down dale like the Great Wall of China. It is something which everybody in this country, I believe, ought to see.

There is a great fort called Housesteads, just off the main Newcastle to Carlisle road, at one of the highest points of the Wall. It stands there looking both east and west and thence one can see the Wall stretching for miles up hills and fells, on crags and down again. It is a most impressive and wonderful sight. I believe that after Stonehenge it is probably the most impressive ancient monument that we have in the country.

Apart from the Wall, there are the great camps at Housesteads and Chesters, both of which have been unearthed and preserved. We also have a temple of Mithras. The temple in the City of London was not the first one discovered in this country. We have a very well-preserved one just off the Wall, and it is now uncovered and preserved and accessible to the public.

In the Roman encampment at House-steads one can see the marks made on the roads by the Roman chariot wheels as the Romans entered the four gateways of the camp. One can see the places where the soldiers sharpened their swords. One can see the initials of the soldiers carved on the barrack-room walls. There one feels that one is really in the midst of something which is alive, that the Wall is a living symbol of that old civilisation.

These things should be much more widely known, not only to tourists but to the British people as well. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the debate. So should, for that matter—if I may here digress for a moment—the counties through which the Wall runs. I believe that the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland together represent probably the loveliest part of this country. It is exquisite beauty, and it is also accessible beauty. Any hon. Members who have stood at Housesteads or at Friar's Crag, or at Derwentwater and looked up towards Borrowdale, or have stood at the top of Hartside Pass from Alston and looked down the Eden Valley, will agree that these three counties are indeed a lovely part of Britain. Hadrian's Wall is only one of the many attractions of this part of the country.

I want to say a word about the method of restoring. The method used by the Ministry does not look too bad where the Wall is fairly high, because the lower courses, I believe, are not disturbed. The top loose stones are embedded in concrete, and they are fairly high up and cannot be seen very easily. As the hon. Lady said, most of the villages in the Tyne Valley are obviously built of stones taken from the Roman Wall. The method which is employed looks rather frightful in the very low parts of the Wall where only the lower courses or footings remain. In effect, these parts of the Wall are being rebuilt. These small bits of the Wall—there is one at Heddon-on-the-Wall and one at Chollerford—look just like heaps of stones bedded in cement. That looks frightful. However, the method seems to work all right in the higher parts of the Wall where there are seven, eight or nine courses of stones left.

I appeal to the Minister to spend rather more, if it is possible to do so, on the work of uncovering Roman remains in the north of England. There is one very great camp on the top of Bowes Moor just on the borders of the North Riding and Westmorland. It is obvious from the marks on the ground that it is a very big camp. I believe that if it could be uncovered it would probably prove to be one of the most impressive Roman monuments in this country.

I wish also to refer to the work of the late Mr. F. Simpson, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members who know the Wall will know of his work. In his youth he began to take an interest in the Wall. He gave up his career as an engineer and devoted the whole of his life, and, I believe, the whole of his fortune, to the work of preserving the Wall, purchasing parts of it and making them accessible to the public. He was honoured by the late King and also by Durham University, but I think that there ought to be some monument to him somewhere along the Wall. I would ask the Minister to bear that in mind. Mr. Simpson was a man inspired. Those of us who knew him knew that he was really fired by the civilising influence of Rome and the need for such an influence today.

Those hon. Members who have read the life of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) will remember the effect that his first reading of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" had on him. It was from that moment that the real development of his mind and of his powers of expression began. Looking at the right hon. Gentleman's great wartime speeches we can see the influence of Gibbon in almost every sentence that he uttered. I think that that is the true significance of the Wall. It is not just a decaying monument of a long-dead civilisation, but a living symbol and a present-day contact with a civilisation that runs through many of the basic concepts of our own.

Those who come under the spell of the Wall, as the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth has, and as those of us who know it well have, feel the same sense of exhilaration that the right hon. Member for Woodford felt when he first read Gibbon so many years ago. That is its importance, and that is why this little debate is far more important than it would appear to be.

Let us preserve the Wall with care, but, more important than that, let us see that the people of this country and of other countries, and especially young people, visit it, take an interest in it, and see and feel what it symbolises, for I believe that Hadrian's Wall, and the great monuments along it, will bring people into contact with a civilising influence that the world today needs more than anything else.