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 Nigel Nicolson Mr Nigel Nicolson , Bournemouth East and Christchurch 12:00 am, 2nd April 1958

I am glad that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) began his speech by paying tribute to Mrs. Hawkes. Lest anybody imagines that she is an archaeological busybody or an amateur, it was good to have a reminder from the hon. Member that she is one of the most distinguished archxologists of her day.

In addition—the combination is not always automatic—Mrs. Hawkes is also one of the greatest writers of the day. She is a person who not only has profound scholarship in her subject, but is able to marry up scientific fact with a sense of landscape and culture, which is almost unequalled in any archæological writer of today. I also know her personally, and although I have disagreed with her strongly over some of the criticisms she has made of the Ministry's treatment of Hadrian's Wall, I am happy to think that I retain her valuable friendship.

Mrs. Hawkes was by no means the first person who raised the question of the treatment of Hadrian's Wall in the postwar years. In fact, many years before she wrote her article which has led to this controversy coming out in public, the matter was already under consideration by the Ancient Monuments Board for England, of which I have the honour to be the only lay member. The other members of the Board, whose duties are to advise my right hon. Friend upon the treatment of the ancient monuments in England, are all archæologists of the first rank. I do not know why I am there at all; all I can say is that it is the happiest job which Parliament has ever brought me.

The others range from Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who is now generally regarded as the doyen of archæologists, to Professor Richmond, than whom there is no greater authority upon the relics of the Roman occupation of Britain, who was the director of the British School at Rome and who has only recently left his appointment at Newcastle as Professor of Roman Archæology. There are six or seven others, including Professor Grimes, who is the discoverer and excavator of the now famous Mithraie Temple at Wallbrook, all of whom are not only thoroughly versed in archwological matters, but are also well aware of their wider responsibilities to keep the monuments under my right hon. Friend's care in a condition which is not only truthful in the archæological sense, but will also make an appeal to the general public for whose benefit and education they are preserved.

When the Ancient Monuments Board came to consider this matter of Hadrian's Wall, it went into it with the greatest care. It consulted not only with those archaeologists outside the Board who know most about the subject, but also consulted with the National Trust, which owns a section about three and a half miles long in the open moorlands, and with private owners who own here and there smaller sections of the Wall and on whose land it lies.

In each of these cases the Board came to the conclusion that there was no single treatment of the Wall which was suitable for every part of it, because the Wall, running straight across our country, passes through an enormous variety of countryside. It starts in the industrial suburbs of Newcastle, runs through agricultural country until it reaches the point, about 20 or 30 miles from its start, where it leaves the fields and climbs up to the highest point of the fells. This is perhaps the most famous part of the Wall, for it is also not only the most beautiful country but the part where the Wall itself is best preserved. Coming over the fells it then runs through more agricultural country towards Carlisle, and, finally, out into the marshes round the Solway Firth.

When the Board came to consider how the Wall could be dealt with, it noted that a large part of it is a reconstruction dating from the nineteenth century. The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) mentioned that it was a Mr. Clayton from Chesters who undertook a great deal of this valuable work, but the part of the Wall which the public quite naturally and rightly admire most, running westwards from Housesteads is more or less a fake.

It is a fake in the sense that although the original stones were re-used they were pulled apart and replaced in an order which did not necessarily correspond to the order in which they were originally found. The top was flattened, and a matting of turf, along which the public could walk, as they do in summertime, was placed along the top of the Wall. Some of them may imagine that they are treading where the Roman sentries originally trod, but very few of them know that they are walking upon a platform which was erected less a hundred years ago.

The question arose, when new parts of the Wall were uncovered, should the Ministry treat them in exactly the same way as Mr. Clayton did, and which the National Trust followed, or should it evolve a method which would be archeologically less indefensible? There can be no question that to pull the stones apart, to flatten the top and to lay on it an artificial turf walk is archeologically incorrect. It is practising a deceit upon the public, and it is certainly not preserving for future generations the original work as it was found.

The Ministry decided, and in this it had the complete backing of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, to preserve as much as possible of what it found, and to consolidate, render it waterproof, and, as far as possible, render it proof against the ravages of weather, sheep and trippers. To do that, it has had to deal quite boldly with those parts of the Wall which it found in imminent danger of collapse. What would be the use of rendering waterproof an old piece of masonry which would have tumbled part in a few years' time. It is precisely those sections which, in some cases, have had to be dismantled down to foundation level so that they could be carefully rebuilt in a form which would make them immune to the ravages of time.

Wherever the officials of the Ministry found the Wall in a state which was not crumbled and where the original Roman mortar was in a sound condition, they did not touch the original stones, either the square stones of the two faces, or the unshaped stones of the central core. They merely rendered it waterproof by putting a covering of modern mortar chosen particularly to tone in with the original Roman work, and cleared away all the roots, grass and earth, which, up to that time, had concealed the Wall from view.

That is a summary of the method used, and I will leave it to the Parliamentary Secretary to describe what is shown in the photographs which were published in one of Mrs. Hawkes's articles. I am sure that he will be able to give to the House and the country an explanation of these photographs which will remove any doubt that the workmen and supervisors employed by the Ministry of Works have been guilty of archæological sacrilege.

If one has to choose between the National Trust method of preservation and the Ministry of Works method, the Ministry's method is certainly the sounder from the purely archeological point of view. The National Trust has quite deliberately imitated the method first adopted by Mr. Clayton and has found it necessary, in order to provide a level surface upon which to lay a turf walk, to knock off bits of the central core and remove the face stones from one part of the section to another to render it a single uniform rectilinear whole.

The National Trust has produced something, I quite agree, which looks much more like a wall than the Ministry of Works wall, and it is more pleasing in appearance, but it has, in a sense, been guilty of faking in the same way as Mr. Clayton, less than a hundred years ago. It has this further disadvantage. Very naturally, when you find provided for you a turf walk, you walk along it, and hon. Members can imagine the physical effect of hundreds, and perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people tramping annually along the top of a wall which is only 10 ft. wide. They gradually force apart both faces from the centre outwards, so that in the course of years they will tumble to the ground, and we shall have to start all over again.

As a further consequence, I am led to believe, the turf contains certain acids which gradually eat their way into the core, and so will destroy it by a chemical process that may extend over many years. Besides that, and most important of all, the turf walk gives the public a completely false impression of what the Roman wall was like. It suggests that it was a little less than 5 or 6 ft. high, when its true height was really 20 ft., surmounted by a parapet.

Many people, when they come back from Northumberland. are unimpressed by the Roman Wall, because they think that what they saw was, in fact, what the Romans built. There is a famous letter which is preserved among the records of one of the Northumbrian archeological societies from a master of foxhounds who wrote to protest that the farmers in that part of the country were building walls of such fantastic dimensions that it was almost impossible to hunt. They had, in fact, succeeded in hunting and in jumping across Hadrian's Wall.

May I end by making a few suggestions to the Ministry? I would encourage my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to make even profounder researches than he has hitherto done into a new sort of mortar to consolidate the remains. It is true that the mortar now used is of a special type which tones in quite well with the original Roman work, but many people, especially when the work has just been completed, find that it looks nearly new, though in the course of time it will fade. I only wish that in the interval a mortar could be found which will not look quite so garish in its early years.

Secondly, and perhaps more controversial, I think it would be right, particularly in the central section of the Wall, to allow the grass to grow again naturally upon the original work. It might be said that this will start up the trouble all over again, and that the grass roots will gradually penetrate and loosen the mortar, so that the Wall will collapse after a few years. I do not think that that is necessarily so. Going round the country, one can see many houses which have grass growing from their roofs without any damage to them at all, and on Hadrian's Wall the same would apply and it would be a perfectly natural clothing to the repair-work of the Ministry of Works, and one which would go some way towards meeting the criticisms of Mrs. Hawkes about the Mappin Terraces.

Thirdly, I wish he would remove the railings from all sections of the Wall under his care. Mrs. Hawkes was not quite accurate in saying that in the central and finest section there are little lawns and railings. There is none in this section, but there are others in Chester's Camp and places just outside Birdoswald and again in the Brunton section.

In these places there are ugly and quite unnecessary railings. When, in the past, I have said that they were unnecessary, the reply has been that they are a protection against traffic or cattle. I cannot believe that a solid wall, ten feet thick, requires the protection of a little, finicky railing against either of those adversaries. It would be infinitely more effective if the Wall were left alone in its field, without any Ministry hedging around it.

Fourthly, I hope that the Minister will take urgent action, as I know he has promised to do, to take under his care those important sections of the Wall which are in particular danger. I have one in mind, which I shall use as an example. One of the most pleasant and important forts is known as Aesica, or Great Chesters. As I know from my own visit to it a year ago, that fort is a farmyard, and the little angle turrets of the fort were then being used as chicken runs and pigsties. It is inevitable that after treatment of that sort the stones are gradually worn down, if not displaced, and after twenty years of such treatment the archaeological and aesthetic value of the fort will be totally lost. I am pleading for really urgent action to save that fort.

I would include just one more section of the Wall for which I have a particular liking, namely, the section running through the field belonging to Black Carts farm—a section which is overgrown with bushes and quite sturdy trees, the roots of which are eating into the core. Before many years pass the facing stones will be forced apart and that particularly fine section of the Wall will be lost for ever.

One hon. Member has already referred to the proposal of the Ministry to take all surviving remains of the Wall under its care. Some members of the public might regard such a proposal as quite disastrous, but I feel that it is absolutely essential. Hadrian's Wall is a monument unrivalled in any other part of the world, and it happens to be found in Britain. Stonehenge is also unrivalled, dating from a period at least 2,000 years earlier, but Hadrian's Wall is unequalled and we hold it in this country as a legacy in trust for all those countries of Europe to which the Roman Empire spread. It should be a national monument in fact, because it already is in spirit and history.

Having worked for three years with Ministry officials, and having discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend, I have confidence that the good taste and scholarly exactness of those officials are such that to put a monument of this antiquity and importance under their care will result in a benefit to the nation. It will not, as Mrs. Hawkes fears, create the risk that its value will be lost.